A century ago, urban reformer and muckraking journalist Jacob A. Riis warned that democracy was being undermined by the emergence of two Americas, separate and unequal, and that the key to fostering class harmony, civic responsibility, and a robust democracy was the strengthening of the primary group bonds of family, school, church, club, and neighborhood. Distinguished historian Christopher Lasch echoes these sentiments in this rather disappointingly disjointed collection of scholarly reviews and essays, published posthumously (supposedly Lasch completed the manuscript only weeks before he died of cancer). Versions of many of the chapters contained in The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy were previously published in such journals of opinion as Salmagundi, Tikkun, and New Oxford Review. In summation, the book is long on intellectual speculation and woefully short on original research. Nevertheless, Lasch’s ideas are provocative, and his writing style is more readable than it has been in any of his recent books.
What most differentiates Lasch from humanitarian progressives such as Riis is the chillingly pessimistic tone of his social criticism, leveled against a new generation of irresponsible plutocrats. These vaguely defined “Elites,” unlike the old aristocracy or the best of the robber barons, display little sense of noblesse oblige. According to Lasch, a political and spiritual crisis has been created by the civic behavior of this fluid jet- setting generation of corporate technocrats and information managers, who regard themselves as citizens of the world and look down on middle America as hopelessly ignorant and intolerant. Thus, just when world events seem to have signaled democracy’s ascendancy, The Revolt of the Elites appears as a caustic critique of liberal capitalism in both its free-market apotheosis and its welfare-state apparition. Radical in his attack on economic privilege but conservative in his defense of fixed moral standards, the nuclear family, and such bourgeois values as hard work and ethical integrity, Lasch has written a virtual jeremiad against what he refers to as the contemporary therapeutic state, which exalts self-esteem but debases competence. Labeling himself a populist (part of a tradition that includes, in Lasch’s opinion, both agrarian radicals and Southern Christian Leadership Conference freedom fighters), he argues that democracy must rest on individual responsibility rather than the veneer of misplaced compassion and victimization politics.
After an introductory essay titled “The Democratic Malaise,” The Revolt of the Elites divides into three sections, “The Intensification of Social Divisions,” “Democratic Discourse in Decline,” and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Having produced no statistical data to buttress his central thesis—to wit, that America’s privileged classes have become insular, global, migratory, and, in essence, unpatriotic—Lasch reprises arguments previously made in his The Culture of Narcissism (1978) and The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991). Following in the pragmatic intellectual tradition of educator John Dewey and political scientist Herbert Croly (and writing disparagingly of elitist journalist Walter Lippmann), he is interested in the historical roots of ideas such as communitarianism and social mobility (which, in his opinion, has been bastardized into a bogus substitute for true opportunity). Lasch is less adept at articulating solutions than at pointing out America’s shortcomings —and who could disagree with his outrage over the obscene economic disparities between the elite and the nonelite, the youthful nihilism of the urban underclass, the irrelevance of public education to student needs, and the widening chasm between the races and generations? His polemic on the declension of democracy is in the tradition of seventeenth century divine Cotton Mather and Gilded Age critic Henry Adams and, complete with quotations from eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards, is intended to spark a moral revival, at least among its targeted audience, the intelligentsia.
The title The Revolt of the Elites is an ironic inversion of José Ortega y Gasset’s classic La rebelión de las masas (1929; The Revolt of the Masses, 1932). Lasch is less interested in the industrial and financial professionals analyzed by Ortega y Gasset than in the informational elite who claim to speak for the United States yet, ironically, live isolated in cocoonlike, security-guarded enclaves atop the social hierarchy. Nostalgic for an imagined age when different classes came together as citizens outside the home and workplace, a time when folks reveled in freewheeling public debate on issues that actually had impact on their lives and were not alienated from or apathetic toward their political institutions,...
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