Our Prophet: Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, Part 1Greg Johnson
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
The Revolt of the Elites & the Betrayal of Democracy
New York: W. W. Norton, 1995
Christopher Lasch (1932–1994) was an American historian who taught for many years at the University of Rochester, authored a number of important books, and spoke beyond academia to the broad, educated public.
Lasch has been described as a social critic and a moralist. This is true. But to me, he reads like a prophet: a prophet of National Populism, offering us a powerful critique of the current system and a wealth of surprisingly radical alternatives drawn from American history, all delivered in urgent, eloquent prose.
Along with Samuel Francis, Lasch is the person I most wish could have lived to see the age of Brexit and Trump. Lasch would surely have disliked many things about the new populism. But, unlike most critics of populism, at least he would have understood what he was dealing with. Beyond that, his criticisms would have been intelligent and helpful.
Throughout his career, Lasch was a critic of America’s professional-managerial elite and its liberal cosmopolitan ideology, albeit from two very different points of view. Lasch began his intellectual career as a Freudian and a neo-Marxist. But in the 1970s, Lasch’s explorations of vast but little-known tracts of nineteenth-century American intellectual history led him to reject progressivism in all its forms, both Left and Right. In place of progressivism, Lasch embraced both cultural conservatism (including a bold critique of feminism) and political populism (with its defense of a broad, productive middle class and its critique of cosmopolitan intellectual and financial elites).
Lasch’s best-known book is The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), which sounds a lot better than it is, largely because its cultural criticism is blurred rather than sharpened by constant references to Freud and his school.
National Populists should begin with The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, a collection of highly accessible essays published after Lasch’s untimely death of cancer at the age of 61. If you wish to explore the themes of The Revolt of the Elites in more depth, I recommend The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), Lasch’s monumental critique of American progressivism from the point of view of nineteenth-century American populism. You will be astonished to discover that America once had a long, rich, and radical tradition of anti-liberal thought that National Populists can build upon today.
The Revolt of the Elites begins with an Introduction on “The Democratic Malaise,” and then falls into three parts. The first, “The Intensification of Social Divisions,” deals with the secession of the American elite from the American nation. The second, “Democratic Discourse in Decline,” deals with the conflict between experts armed with theories and common men armed with common sense. The third, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” distinguishes between religion and therapy.
Lasch begins by raising the question of whether American democracy can survive such social trends as “The decline of manufacturing; the shrinkage of the middle class; the growing numbers of the poor; the rising crime rate; the flourishing traffic in drugs; the decay of the cities . . .” (p. 3). Basically, these trends amount to the collapse of the middle class and the virtues prized by them: self-control, productiveness, and ordered liberty.
These fears immediately mark Lasch as a populist, which is to say: a modern descendant of classical republican thinkers like Aristotle, who held that popular government cannot survive without a strong middle class and a modicum of public virtue. These views were endorsed by Americans as eminent as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, but they are scorned by advocates of “liberal” ideology, including present-day “liberal democrats.”
The “middle class” does not just mean “middle income.” It refers to a large number of self-employed small farmers, businessmen, and tradesmen. As Lasch notes, “Before the Civil War it was generally agreed, across a broad spectrum of political opinion, that democracy had no future in a nation of hirelings” (p. 81). Wage-earners, no matter what their income level, have less independence of mind than the self-employed. Being self-employed also develops such politically healthy virtues as self-discipline, personal agency, personal accountability, long-term planning, thinking in terms of production rather than merely consumption, and investment in the long-term health of the polity.
Wise men from Aristotle to the American founders knew that the rich tend to be arrogant and greedy, and their rule tends to be predatory and tyrannical. They also knew that the poor tend toward slavishness and resentment, and when in power, they are as predatory as the rich, but their regimes tend toward anarchy rather than tyranny, largely because of short time-horizons. The middle class, however, prefers liberty over the tyranny of the rich and order over the anarchy of the poor. In short, they prefer ordered liberty. To secure ordered liberty from both extremes, the middle class must cultivate an ethos of civic participation. Freedom is not just minding one’s own business or doing what one pleases. It requires active participation in politics, including the willingness to take up arms for the defense of society.
If popular government depends on a broad middle class of self-employed producers, then the economy should be set up to promote and preserve such businesses rather than to undermine them. Thus small businesses should be protected from large corporations, even if large corporations produce goods more cheaply. Domestic industries should be protected from foreign ones, even if foreign imports are cheaper. Small farmers must be protected from large ones. Since small businesses often fail because they must mortgage themselves to get capital, money and credit policies should favor small businesses. Beyond that, even wage earners should be able to enjoy middle-class standards of living, which means protection from cheap labor, whether in the form of immigrants or cheap foreign goods.
These policies are collectivist, in that they constrain individual choice to secure freedom understood as popular self-government. These policies are nationalist, because they put the nation first, rather than the individual or the global economy. These policies are also “producerist” because they favor producers over consumers and financiers.
Liberalism, however, defines freedom as individual choice and decries any attempt to limit it as creeping tyranny. Consumers will always prefer cheaper goods. But these goods aren’t so cheap when you price in all the consequences. If small businessmen, tradesmen, and farmers go under because of price competition from big businesses and cheap foreign labor — or if middle-class producers are replaced by wage-earners who think only in terms of consumption — popular government will be destroyed by the tyranny of the rich and the anarchy of the poor.
As a consumer, you might benefit from cheap foreign goods. But you have to earn your disposable income somehow, and in the long run, none of us are immune to the logic of the global marketplace. How much money will you have for cheap consumer goods if you too are competing for your living with big businesses, cheap imported goods, and newly-arrived immigrants? And if you want to do something about it, you will find that as the economic power of the middle class diminishes, your political voice will diminish as well.
The problems that Lasch complained about in the nineties were already visible in the early seventies and have only intensified over the last 50 years. They have been allowed to fester, because America’s elites — the people who are most able to fix them — don’t think they are problems, or their preferred solutions don’t actually work. In fact, all these problems are the inevitable consequences of the elites’ philosophy, self-image, and policy preferences.
According to Lasch, our ruling elite encompasses more than just the political class, the bureaucracy, and the rich, but also “corporate managers” and “all those professions that produce and manipulate information” (p. 5), i.e., the professional-managerial class (PMCs for short). Politicians and businessmen can be quite rooted, nationalistic, and patriotic. But PMCs are “far more cosmopolitan, or at least more restless and migratory, than their predecessors” (p. 5).
In The True and Only Heaven, Lasch argues that PMC cosmopolitanism is ultimately rooted in the Enlightenment idea that all of society can be modeled on modern natural science, which knows no borders and aims to relentlessly replace diverse myths and opinions with universal knowledge. This would imply that the consciousness and ethos of the professional-managerial class ultimately derive from academia, specifically the modern “research university.” This would explain why the cosmopolitanism and rationalism associated with the PMCs came to set the tone for the ruling elite as a whole: They all went to the same colleges.
The cosmopolitan self-image leads to a disdain for nationalism and an embrace of multiculturalism and economic globalization, which really amount to the same thing: the world remade as a shopping mall. Lasch observes that
Patriotism . . . does not rank very high in [the PMC] hierarchy of virtues. “Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required. . . . Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world . . . (p. 6)
But global capitalism leads inexorably to deindustrialization and the decline of the middle class, which first hits the lower middle class and well-paid members of the working class. Those vibrant new immigrants also need to live somewhere, usually somewhere cheap, which means lower-middle-class urban areas.
But shopping amidst diversity is not the same as living with it. As lower-middle-class neighborhoods become more diverse, public spaces become alienating and degraded. The value of housing, the single biggest investment for most lower-middle-class Americans, begins to decline, and white flight begins.
Typical scribes, PMCs also prefer clean jobs over dirty ones. All those unemployed steelworkers and coal miners can simply get jobs in the “information economy.” If they don’t, that’s their problem. (Unless, of course, you are non-white, then your failures are the fault of white people, including those white losers the elites wash their hands of.)
But what about our ruling elite’s commitment to equality and democracy? How do they square that with policies that will inevitably pauperize the vast majority of their fellow citizens? It doesn’t bother them, because as cosmopolitans, they don’t have any particular attachment to their “fellow citizens.” Besides, globalization is egalitarian: the global market means a global price, which means rising standards of living for most of the globe. American workers lose out only because they are overpriced, but open borders and global trade will rob them of their unfair advantages. Globalization allows our elites to gut the American middle class for cheap labor and goods, while feeling terribly virtuous at the same time.
Even though our current elites have condemned the vast majority of their fellow citizens to downward mobility, they also preen about their openness to “the selective promotion of non-elites into the professional-managerial class” (p. 5). PMC upward mobility comes in Right-wing and Left-wing versions. The Right-wing version is meritocratic, meaning that promotion is based on objective, job-related criteria. The Left-wing version is more sentimental, stressing upward mobility for previously marginalized groups, which they presume all aspire to live like contemporary PMCs.
But, as Lasch points out, “Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit” (p. 41). Selective upward mobility allows PMCs to legitimize a system that condemns most of their fellow citizens to Third-World poverty and powerlessness. It lets them tell globalization’s losers that if they fail to prosper in the new economy, they have only themselves to blame.
There is a deep smugness, snobbery, and sense of entitlement among PMCs. For instance, it never occurs to them that globalization might lead to downward mobility for their class. They are convinced they represent the end point of history and the true aspiration of all mankind, which may explain their hysteria over reversals like Trump and Brexit. They are “the best and the brightest.” The arc of history doesn’t just bend toward their supremacy, it bows down before them. How dare the vulgar masses reject their leadership?
The humanitarian pretenses of a class that condemns the vast majority of its fellow citizens to penury and oppression are obviously quite thin, and Lasch is merciless in exposing them. He argues that “The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare” (p. 21). He also notes that when PMC reformers face resistance,
they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. . . . They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant . . . Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regards the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. (p. 28)
Can we really expect good government from people who hate us?
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 Another important posthumous collection of essays is Christopher Lasch, Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
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