The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

(Christopher Lasch, 276 pages. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995)

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

KEY TERMS: the intellectual/corporate elite -- the quest for certainty -- ideology -- socialization -- the idea of progress -- immediate gratification -- planned obsolescence -- John Dewey -- Hannah Arendt -- common-sense reasoning -- postmodernism -- pragmatism -- secularism

This is a book which deserves wide readership for at least two reasons. It is the last public message from a concerned and knowledgeable social critic, and it is directed at the world of thinking people out there beyond the hot-house of academia. Christopher Lasch has come a long way from the single-minded Marxism of his youth but, clearly, the passion for justice inspiring that earlier ideological commitment has never left him. In this final book he has traced the roots of America's present social/political malaise to two main sources: (1) the growing alienation of an increasingly powerful liberal/conservative intellectual elite from the concerns and interests of ordinary people; and (2) the stubborn persistence within the culture of what John Dewey described as "the quest for certainty". Lasch sees little substantive difference between left and right within the establishment today, in that an insistence on certainty and a desire for personal power are the ultimate guiding premises of both. And he views the propensity to equate knowledge and morality with esoteric and absolute truths (accessible chiefly by experts) as the most crippling tendency of modern times.

Lasch is alarmed by the way in which the privileged classes -- notably members of the intellectual elite in their increasingly melded corporate, governmental and academic roles -- have managed to isolate themselves from the urban decay and crumbling social structure all around them. He notes how, in becoming "citizens of the world" they have, in fact, given up altogether on the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in their own country. Their vaunted cosmopolitanism, he says, is merely a masked and self-serving new form of parochialism.

Although he faults equally the elites of the conservative right and those of the so-called radical left, it is for the latter that Lasch reveals the deepest scorn. He accuses them of indulging in a charade of "subversion" which, in fact, does not threaten any vested interest -- and especially not their own publicly funded sinecures. He lashes out at what he considers the phoney academia-inspired politics of race and gender, and the esoteric jargon in which the game is conducted; all of which, he maintains, serves only to obscure the real social problems caused by an ever-growing class-based inequality.

He accuses the members of the intellectual elite of betraying the sacred trust placed in them by society. He blames most of the shortcomings of the nation's educational system on the influence of these people. They have infected the general population with an "inability to believe ... either in a stable core of personal identity or in a politics that rises above the level of platitudes and propaganda", Lasch says. And he concludes that, in equating evidentially and logically warrantable knowledge with mere ideology, these opinion leaders have undermined standards of excellence in all fields of endeavor, and have fatally obstructed the civilized discourse and reasoned argument so essential to democracy.

Lasch's warnings have been rendered particularly poignant by the disastrous bombing in Oklahoma City. He notes the acceleration of segregation (on the basis of age, geography and sex as well as race) that has occurred in America since the sixties. He claims that this anti-democratic trend -- along with a wholesale assault on common standards of excellence and decency -- has been encouraged by well-meant social programs shaped and sold to the public by an impractical academic and media elite. It is to Lasch's credit as a social critic that he was able to identify early on -- in the perception, by ordinary people, of unfair treatment at the hands of a government which appears to operate solely in the service of a privileged intellectual/corporate establishment -- the source of that rage now erupting in the heartland of North America.

Like John Dewey, Lasch is seeking a revolutionary transformation of social relations: a democratization in the deepest cultural sense. And, as did Dewey before him, he recognizes that formal schooling can accomplish only a small part of this task. Although he does not use the term, he is concerned with the socialization occurring within the broader culture: that total process of social interaction and vicarious experience to which children are exposed and which shapes their characters. If democracy is to survive, he says, children must acquire the habits of thought and behavior essential to its maintenance -- especially the capacity for creative imagination, deferred gratification, reasoned argument and sound judgment. This is why Lasch recommends a form of populism. He has come to believe that bureaucratization, with its attendant evils of mindless rule following and short-term horizons, is a necessary corollary of all large-scale organization -- whether it occurs in the corporate or governmental sphere. And that a propensity toward large-scale organization is an integral aspect of the liberalism infecting modern elites whatever their espoused political perspective. He claims that this "progressive" liberal ideology inherited from Enlightenment thought has outlived its usefulness. He is particularly critical of two of its central features: (1) a belief in the necessity and inevitability of progress (i.e. growth necessarily equals betterment) and (2) a belief that the welfare state, with its guiding ideology of compassion, can substitute for civic virtue and mutual respect at the individual, community and family level. In Lasch's opinion, the form of capitalism encouraged by the modern industrialized liberal state -- with its overriding emphasis on immediate gratification and planned obsolescence -- necessarily destroys the moral foundations of family and community life. Whereas, in former times, the family served as a counterbalance to the market, now the market, through the intrusive medium of television, invades the family -- taking over and corrupting its critical role of early-childhood socialization.

It is no coincidence that the two social theorists to whom Lasch refers with unqualified admiration are John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. Dewey was the founder of the philosophy of pragmatism, and Arendt was (although perhaps unknowingly) a practitioner of that approach. Both believed that democracy cannot survive in the absence of an involved, responsible and participating citizenry; and both acknowledged the need for a common core of values and ideals to bind the social fabric of any society. Both wrote of "common-sense reasoning" as one end of a continuum of knowing, the other end of which is the most reliable of scientific knowledge. They were attempting to do away with what Lasch calls "the misleading distinction between knowledge and opinion" that functions to restrict reasoned and informed debate to the professionals, while cutting off the ordinary citizen from the public discourse so essential to democracy. Lasch demonstrates how this same distinction removes the so-called thinking classes from any connection with the real world of productive labor. In fact, he concludes, "Their belief in the 'social construction of reality' -- the central dogma of postmodernist thought -- reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment."

Lasch notes that "the revival of pragmatism as an object of historical and philosophical study -- one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal picture -- holds out some hope of a way out of the academic impasse." It is unfortunate that he chose not to pursue this, and in the process to study Dewey's philosophy and psychology in greater depth. He might have discovered that the very problem which he was only now recognizing was defined by that great philosopher a full century ago -- and a more effective and comprehensive solution indicated than Lasch himself has offered.

For example, Lasch seems confused about the role of science in cultural evolution, and ambiguous about the intellectual grounding of the very standards for knowing which he fears are being undermined by "postmodern deconstructivism". Dewey explained how the "method of intelligence" underlying scientific inquiry evolved out of ordinary common-sense reasoning and the public testing of trial solutions to problems in the real world of practical experience. And he showed how that same approach is basic to democracy as well as to knowledge building -- whether at the level of mutual communication of everyday learning from the consequences of trial and error, or within the most rigorous and formalized procedures of modern science.

Also, Lasch's recommendation of a vaguely defined religious faith cleansed of all dogma and desire for certainty might have been considerably clarified by some of the ideas in Dewey's A Common Faith. For if there is a weakness in Christopher Lasch's last book it is in the sketchiness and even superficiality of his analysis of the problem, the symptoms of which he has so tellingly described -- and in the rather confused and unwarranted attack on secularism with which he closes. A closer reading of both Dewey and Arendt would have indicated that the problem is not with secularism as such. The problem is, rather, with a peculiarly modern type of amoral social libertarianism often accompanying secularism, although not confined to it: a libertarianism which denies the significance of culture in the shaping of beliefs and values.