Revolt of the Elites

Yesterday I read Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch, published in 1994 after his death.  Lasch argues that the US has developed a bifurcated society wherein the distance between the elites and the “masses” has grown.   However, this isn’t a typical kind of elite led society where the masses are simply exploited; rather, the elites have disengaged themselves from society in a quest for comfort and security.

This includes big business and the professional class, as well as government and intellectuals.   This has been fostered by two different forces.   First, the myth that in market capitalism you are responsible for whatever you accomplish in life gives those who “lose,” who are not part of the elite class, no opening to complain or mount a rebellion.  They lost because they couldn’t compete or lacked the merit to end up in the best schools or jobs.   Instead, they need therapy — self hope books to promote self esteem, and today I’d add the ‘financial advice’ books that show the masses how to live on a small budget and nonetheless save for the future.   They hold on to the hope that someday they or their children will make it, but despite the growing gap in incomes, the masses are subdued.

Second, the masses have their own culture.  It is defined by more traditional aspects of American society — church, community, patriotism, perhaps guns and hunting.   This creates a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as providing social cohesion.

The elites, on the other hand, go the opposite direction.  First, the are increasingly prosperous, as the gap between rich and poor grows in the US.   Lasch gives statistics, and in the fifteen years since the book has been published the gap has grown further.  He also notes that a single income does not cover what it used to, so women have entered the work force at an increasing rate.  However, this often increases the material gap.   While the men in the elite may have earned $60,000 compared to $20,000 by someone in the lower-middle class, women usually earn about what their spouse earns.  Thus an elite couple may have an income of $120,000 compared to $40,000 to the middle/lower class.

This literally amounts to different lifestyles and capacities between the two groups.   Wealthier elites can disconnect themselves completely from the public sector.  They can send their kids to private schools, fund their own retirement accounts, and lack any interest in the community good.   With capitalism espousing an ideology of self-interest, they are content to believe that pursuing their comfort and prosperity is enough.    However, just as the lower/middle class has been duped into not questioning the material distribution of wealth, the elite classes are obsessed with not losing theirs.   They seek total security, be it seat belt laws, no smoking zones, and regulations that attempt to eliminate risk and guarantee comfort.   They disconnect themselves from reality, living off the work of the lower/middle classes but wanting no contact with the risks and dirtiness of the real world.

Culturally, the elite are better educated, and thus more likely to reject religion, tradition, and patriotism.   All of these things are, at base, irrational.   You cannot make a strong cogent argument to believe any particular religious creed without moving outside logic.  The enlightenment fought against religion, and with globalization and diversity, patriotism is seen as quaint provincialism, something an educated person rises above.  Yet, this enlightenment rationality is also a trap.  People have religion, tradition and patriotism for a reason.  Life is empty without a sense of meaning, tradition creates social cohesion, and patriotism reflects a sense of common identity, values, and concern for the good of society.  You lose these and there is no reason to care for the community, no core sense of values and identity to bind one to others.   No wonder there is such a yearning for material security, that’s all the elites have — and ultimately, that’s cold and vacuous.

Lest one thinks that Lasch is a social conservative, he is just as hard on the right and their reactions.   Society is never going to go back to the days when religion dominated, traditions lost to modernism are gone, and patriotism has a very ugly side as well — look at where nationalism took Nazi Germany and other states.   The answer is not for the elites to join the masses and embrace their values, though Lasch is harsh in his criticism of how elites often show utter disdain and disregard for the way the “masses” think.

The sense I get is that Lasch essentially decries a lack of virtue.   To get that we need to recognize our interdependence, and recognizese that it takes shared values to create community.   Virtue requires that one not try to ‘flea dependence.’  The desire for complete security by the elites is disconnected from the experiences of others.   It is individualist, a desire to protect what I have and own, and the style of life I want to pursue.   Individualism, however, is  a fatal illusion.   We are all dependent, we all need each other, and disconnected lives lead nowhere.  The capitalist myth of individual self-interest leading magically to better outcomes — that somehow non-virtuous people, selfishly pursuing their own interests will yield a result that is best for everyone — is on its face irrational.   Yet that myth, along with the post-modern belief that there is no inherent truth and reality is whatever we make it to be, reinforces this desire to flea dependence and seek total security.

Lasch also spends time disagreeing with Walter Lippmann, who I wrote about awhile back.   In that, I see the crux of the problem for modern society.   Lippmann saw early on — correctly I believe — that the rise of mass media means that people make choices based less on rational reflection than emotional reactions to images.  This makes public debate and democracy virtually impossible since mass opinion can be easily manipulated by those who control the media (either governments or those with wealth/power).   Lasch objects to Lippmann’s early 20th century solution: to have public institutions use logic to try to separate opinion from truth, and govern based on scientific truth rather than bias or stereotype.

That solution is untenable.  Enlightenment logic turns on itself and destroys any truth claim.   Everything can be interpreted and recast.  This inevitably brings back skepticism (which has existed since the earliest days of philosophy) in its current form, post-modernism.   The post-modern embraces the lack of certainty to claim there is no truth, or that truth in the world depends on power.   Yet such claims ignore reality.   There must be production to produce goods, people live real lives, people have real aspirations, and people believe what they do because their beliefs are useful to yield outcomes people want.   There may not be certainty, but there is reality.   You may be able to twist any truth claim, but there is a world upon which that claim rests.

That is the conundrum of modern “elite” thought.   It can’t be solved by embracing religion, patriotism or tradition, even though at least those reconnect people with a sense of the real, and with values that go beyond mere self-interest.  But in mass culture now, even those things are being commodified and manipulated.    The elites have material prosperity and security with no meaning, the masses have meaning but lack prosperity and security.  The abyss between them grows, threatening social cohesion and the capacity of democracy to function.   The elite have public radio, the masses have talk radio.

To be sure, Lasch vastly over-simplifies by creating essentially two amorphous groups.  Yet I think he captures something about the modern dilemma.    Not only does it create material and spiritual imbalances, but virtue gets lost by both groups, and society lacks a core sense of identity and cohesion.   Lasch criticizes all sides, but one senses that elite get most of the criticism because, having more material wealth, they are better in a position to change the direction of society.   Trapped within their own myths and disdain for the values of the “masses,” they instead disengage and look after themselves.   Ultimately, that is unsustainable.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on March 25, 2010 - 03:36

    Lasch also wrote “The Culture of Narcissism” if I remember correctly. It sounds like he is hitting on the same themes in this book: Cultural decay. It certainly is a very interesting topic, and I have this inkling feeling that he is right…

    • #2 by Scott Erb on March 25, 2010 - 14:30

      Yes, I think the “Culture of Narcissism” was back in 1979. He definitely comes at things in an interesting way!

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