The Middling Sort

Alan Ryan

  • The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch
    Norton, 276 pp, £16.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 393 03699 5

Christopher Lasch, who died last year, has been rather undernoticed in Britain. His attention was admittedly focused on American politics and political thinking, but his fears and anxieties translate readily enough to a Britain showing many of the same symptoms of social and political disaffection, while his politics and his polemical style were those of an urbanised Cobbett – radical, popular, egalitarian and quite unplaceable on a left-right spectrum.

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1932, appropriately enough for a curmudgeonly populist. But his family was highly educated, his father a journalist and his mother a social worker and teacher of philosophy. He went to Harvard, where he shared rooms with John Updike and married the daughter of the Harvard historian Henry Steele Commager. He never taught at smart places, however: he taught history at the University of Iowa, then at Northwestern University, and for the last two decades of his life at the University of Rochester. His only practical intervention in American politics was a disaster: Jimmy Carter greatly admired Lasch’s bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism, and in 1979 delivered a speech on ‘the American malaise’ that may have been composed, and was certainly inspired, by Lasch, and whose chief effect was to deliver large numbers of voters to the upbeat Reagan. In the last fifteen years of his life, he seemed to take a curious pleasure in being out of the mainstream; it is impossible to guess what he would have thought of the enormous attention that The Revolt of the Elites has received.

It was a surprise to find that Lasch was only 61 at the time of his death. In the Sixties, he was one of the distinctive voices of the early New York Review of Books. His wonderful second book, The Agony of the American Left, contained some justly famous essays on the decline of populism, on the isolation of the American intelligentsia and the closely connected failures of American socialism, and on the vicissitudes of the Congress for Cultural Freedom – an enterprise that began honourably before the war as a committee of socialist intellectuals opposed to Stalinism, and ended squalidly during the Cold War as a conduit for the covert CIA funding of Encounter and other reliably anti-Soviet journals and organisations.

Even before that, the essays in The New Radicalism in America had revealed the distaste for the secular, scientific and commercial world that also underlies this last, posthumous book. The New Radicalism looked at a variety of liberal and progressive thinkers from the decades between 1880 and the First World War, ranging from Jane Addams to Mabel Dodge Luhan, by way of such major intellectual figures as Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Besides restoring to life some neglected but important names in American intellectual history, Lasch emphasised what many on the left have thought to be the guilty secret of American liberalism: its affection for corporate organisation, and a thoroughly manipulative view of the relationship between the new social sciences and the populace whose lives the liberals wanted to improve.

This is a complaint often heard from the Marxist Left. But Lasch was a populist rather than a Marxist, wholly disinclined to think that the travails of the 20th century would lead to a workers’ paradise. He was, from the outset, deeply suspicious of what the modern age had wrought. More clearly in retrospect, he seems always to have been fighting a rearguard action. Like other anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment writers, he feared the corrosive effects of all science, both natural and social. Confronting modern American liberalism, Lasch was alarmed by Dewey’s insistence that ‘the scientific attitude’ was the only hope for the modern world. The road, it seemed, ran all too smoothly from Newton to Brave New World.

Lasch’s criticism of American radicalism was not fair, and it was laid on with too broad a brush. He thought Dewey had set out to train children for their future role as docile, well-adjusted workers in a corporate industrial America. Levelled against a man who for seventy years was unswervingly hostile to capitalism, and especially to industrial corporations wanting to turn the public education system into a scheme of ‘industrial training’, the accusation was more than slightly dotty. Dewey’s talk of ‘adjustment’ led many others astray, and there was some justification for Lasch’s complaint that if Dewey had been misunderstood it was his own fault for writing so unclearly; still, it didn’t take much investigation to reveal that Dewey was a guild socialist, not a fan of corporate capitalism. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch makes amends. In a world where overconfident bigotry on the left faces over-confident bigotry on the right, a Deweyan emphasis on the need to live intelligently, but without certainty, is, says Lasch, one of the few hopes for a revival of rational public debate.

Other liberals were more plausible targets of Lasch’s anxieties: especially E.A. Ross, the promoter of the ‘social control’ movement, and Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic. Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1908), a runaway bestseller in its day, was not only the book that galvanised Theodore Roosevelt into the reformism of his later years, it was also a tract on the need to ‘nationalise’ American politics, to bring to the ordering of the whole socio-economic system the standards of managerial efficiency that business corporations had begun to take for granted, and to inculcate in everyone a sense that it was their duty to themselves and the public to serve loyally in whatever role fostered the national welfare. To an English eye, it was a curious mixture of Comte and the Fabian Society. It wasn’t, on the other hand, a notably democratic piece of work. Lasch had a keen nose for any attempt at the manipulation of the less accomplished by their intellectual superiors, and New Republic liberalism certainly strayed in that direction.

Lasch’s sympathies were always less clear than his antipathies. Above all, he was a consistent anti-liberal. Often, when one describes a writer as anti-liberal, it is important to qualify the claim by distinguishing between British and American forms of liberalism. In Lasch’s case, this is hardly necessary. ‘Corporate liberalism’ bulks larger in the American than the British landscape; but the most important objects of his dislike were common to all liberalisms: moral individualism, a belief in (at least the possibility of) progress, an acceptance of social and geographical mobility, a view of government that allows a good deal of room for intervention in the economy and the provision of welfare and almost none for intervention in the citizenry’s private lives. The Revolt of the Elites is hostile to the lot.

In the Eighties Lasch took on what he called, in the book of that title, The Culture of Narcissism. It was easy to sympathise with his view that ‘me-ism’ had got out of hand; it has become even easier as American bookstores devote vast acreages of shelf space to ‘Healing, New Age and Self-Help’. Lasch was not the first person to notice that crossing the Founding Fathers’ belief in the right to the pursuit of happiness with a loosely psychoanalytic view of the self had turned American life into one long therapy session, but he was admirably savage in his criticism.

It is one thing to be eloquent in denunciation of the tacky, sloppy, touchy-feely insincerity of everyday life in America, but quite another to suggest improvements, and how we might make them. And eloquence, too, has its dangers. There are worse things in life than the fake friendliness and wholescale insincerity of everyday life in the United States: Lasch was one of innumerable writers who have become so angry about the shallowness of a prosperous liberal society that they seem not to care about the price at which depth of conviction might be bought.

The True and Only Heaven, his penultimate book, came out in 1991 and quieted none of these doubts. It was a root-and-branch attack on liberal optimism, written with all the old panache, but less fastidious in its scholarship than was quite proper in a professor of intellectual history. Condemning the mindless optimism of liberalism, Lasch did not pause to wonder whether most liberals have been optimistic at all, mindlessly or otherwise. Mill, for instance, held that deterioration ‘is the law of life’, and urged his readers to join the ‘party of progress’ on the grounds that unless we push forward we shall certainly slide backwards. Nor can we save Lasch’s credibility by suggesting that 20th-century American liberals have shed Mill’s anxieties. One of the most distinguished liberal writers of recent years, Judith Shklar, defended what she called ‘a liberalism of fear’, which recognises just how badly human beings can behave and tries to erect barriers against it. The gloomy realism with which Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society encouraged its readers to keep struggling for a just society, while acknowledging that imperfect human nature would doom the struggle to partial failure at best, is as familiar a note in American social thinking as is boosterism.

Stephen Holmes made a shrewd, unkind, point about the characteristic argumentative style of The True and Only Heaven. Lasch depicts liberalism as a creed that fails to satisfy the moral passions of its opponents, and says that if it has failed to satisfy many of those opponents, so much the worse for liberalism. Thus Lasch wheeled on Georges Sorel, as if ideas that don’t eventuate in a revolutionary general strike and an anarcho-syndicalist utopia can’t have much to them: then, moments later, he wheels on de Maistre, as though ideas that fail to bring back absolute monarchy are equally disastrous. The proper response is to say that this is a blow not against liberalism but in its favour. Nobody would think it impugns a man’s sanity to observe that he strikes depressives as absurdly cheerful and the hyperactive as absurdly quiet. It is no complaint against life in the modern world that it would appeal neither to Sorel nor to de Maistre.

Oddly enough, The Revolt of the Elites is a much more satisfactory book, even though it is essentially a somewhat scrappy collection of essays and review. Lasch refers in his Preface to the revisions having been done under ‘trying circumstances’, which is an understatement: he was dying of leukaemia. No more than in his earlier books is he particularly lyrical about what sort of society he wishes he had lived in and wishes for other people. But among the negations and complaints, the answer to that old question appears, one calculated to give more comfort to British readers than American, since many of the follies that so enrage him are unimaginable outside the context of the American political and legal system.

In its title The Revolt of the Elites pays a backhanded homage to Ortega y Gasset and The Revolt of the Masses, a book that brooded anxiously over the threat to liberal values posed by the rise of mass democracy. This is an old theme, broached by Mill and Tocqueville, spelled out at vitriolic length by Sir Henry Maine’s Popular Government, and a standby of post-1945 American political science. Lasch runs the argument in the other direction: the revolt of the élites is set to destroy democracy. The élites have the vices that Ortega deplored in the masses – fecklessness, rootlessness, short-termism and so on – which are the ruin of contemporary culture. This is not a tale of counter-revolution – of the revolt of old money, blue blood, Junkertum or whatever. Indeed, it is not even an account of a revolt, and there is some room to quibble about the description of its villains as an ‘élite’. To the British eye, they appear nouveau riche and thoroughly middle class. But Lasch has an American view of what constitutes the middle classes – roughly, an income from fifteen to fifty thousand dollars a year and a powerful work ethic. They are the middling sort that Tony Blair cultivates. Above them is a financial, educational and cultural élite; below, not a proletariat, but the canaille. The Revolt of the Elites is a lament for the middling sort and an assault on those who threaten them.

Lasch’s case will be familiar to anyone who has kept up with some lugubrious recent works in popular social science. Robert Reich, President Clinton’s Secretary of Labour, earned the post with his 1991 bestseller The Work of Nations. Reich anatomised the familiar fact of increasing income inequality in the United States – falling real wages at the bottom of the income hierarchy and the rise of a very highly-paid stratum of what he baptised ‘symbolic analysts’ at the top. Lasch tartly observes that Reich’s label is a syntactic disaster but sociologically indispensable. It is this class of ‘symbolic analysts’ that Lasch fears. His fears, however, are distinctive, even disquieting. What is wrong with the new élite is that it consists of rootless cosmopolitans. They are by inclination and occupation internationalists, feeling, according to Lasch, more affinity with their fellows across the globe than with their employees and neighbours at home.

The other phenomenon he seizes on has also been widely noticed: the process of internal migration – in the literal, geographical sense – by the better-off. A process of suburbanisation has hollowed out the centre of American cities and left the unemployed and unemployable inhabitants of the inner cities trapped in increasingly hideous conditions; the well-to-do have begun to decamp to something very like walled cities. They have every reason to do so. Public services in the United States are largely paid for from property taxes; poor cities have many needs and small tax bases, so they usually have high taxes and poor services, the sort of bad bargain that drives out those who can leave. Middle-class, law-abiding ‘empty nesters’ have no children and need little policing; if they set up a little local government of their own by ‘incorporating’, they get good services for lower taxes and need neither see nor hear anything of the disagreeable poor in the cities.

This process inspired Mickey Kaus’s tract on The End of Equality, a curious book inasmuch as it lamented the desertion of the public arena by the well-off, but devoted most of its attention to punitive proposals for re-moralising the (mostly black) lower orders. But what emerges from Kaus and Reich, and even from last autumn’s shocker of the season, The Bell Curve, is that whatever the élite is up to, it isn’t engaged in a revolt. It engages in ‘assortative mating’, which is to say that doctors marry doctors and brokers marry brokers, with the result that lower earners also have to marry one another. Economic inequality is increased when two $100,000-a-year professionals marry each other and two $20,000-a-year assistants marry each other; and social mobility is thereby diminished. In the process, the élite may inadvertently create a caste society, and destroy the ‘rubbing shoulders in the post office’ form of social – but not economic – egalitarianism that gives the United States its distinctive, un-European character. This has little to do with political democracy in the usual sense, and hardly amounts to a revolt against it.

Nor, more surprisingly, does élite desertion undermine a society based on merit. A feature of this kind of caste society is that the better-off can sustain their position by merit. By conventional measures, their children really are cleverer, more disciplined, more far-sighted, prudent and ambitious. The Bell Curve has rightly been savaged for its bad science and nasty politics, but its picture of the emerging class structure of the United States is alarming, no matter what its explanation. The causal processes involved do not matter as much as the fact that by the time they are graded and assessed and selected for their careers, the children of the better-off will win a fairly conducted meritocratic race.

What goes down the drain if such fears are realised is any sense of living in one society rather than an assortment of mutually suspicious tribal reservations; it is community, fraternity, solidarity, neighbourliness that get lost. Although Lasch subtitled The Revolt of the Elites ‘the betrayal of democracy’, he had a particular kind of democracy in mind. It was not liberal democracy as ordinarily construed: liberalism remained his enemy. Nor was it democracy as understood by enthusiasts for the welfare state: Lasch observes here that when the state moves in to look after matters that were once left to the family and to the informal networks of help (and discipline) that healthy neighbourhoods have relied on since antiquity, we do not get healthier neighbourhoods, only bureaucratically managed decay. ‘Democracy works best when men and women do things for themselves, with the help of their friends and neighbours, instead of relying on the state. Not that democracy should be equated with rugged individualism. Self-reliance does not mean self-sufficiency. Self-governing communities, not individuals, are the basic units of democratic society.’

This may sound familiar to British readers, and rather like the recent ‘communitarian’ critique of the decayed state of American public life, family life, urban life and moral sensibility. Sociologists like Robert Bellah and Amitai Etzioni have over the past decade or so lamented the decay of communal values: on the one hand, the unofficial disciplinary processes that once checked teenage hooliganism, promiscuity and sheer idleness have lost their efficacy; on the other, individuals have lost their moral bearings. If they do not live in communities that provide clear moral standards and make them stick, they fall back on touchy-feely values such as ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-fulfilment’ that are notoriously unsustaining.

Lasch endorses some of this, but his own instincts are fiercer and more radical. Etzioni, for instance, sees more of a role for the welfare state than Lasch does, and is willing to swallow the jargon that treats tenuous associations such as Internet user-groups as forms of ‘community’ – ‘virtual communities’ perhaps. Nor is Etzioni eager to lose his allies among such liberals as President Clinton and his White House advisers. Lasch could not care less for them. Lasch wrote about a ‘betrayal of democracy’ because his instincts were populist, not communitarian. By the same token, he was not in the least eager to hold out olive branches to liberal academics.

On Lasch’s view of things, upper-class liberalism has got matters upside down. It proposes an ideal of diversity that does nothing to improve the living conditions of African-Americans and Latinos, but a lot to upset ethnic communities. It manifests itself in an academic obsession with multiculturalism, while ignoring the fact that élite public colleges such as the University of California system cater for the same upper-income students as the private schools, and the less well-heeled receive a narrowly utilitarian training in community colleges. It resists any sort of sexual restraint, while supporting an all-out campaign against smoking and the other unhealthy pleasures of the poor. Lastly, it has an easy contempt for the religious sense of the limitedness of human existence, and an over-confidence in our mastery of the world.

That indictment reveals Lasch’s positive allegiances as plainly as anything does. He saw no virtue in social mobility: what yields self-respect is not mobility but the independence that comes with earning a decent living by doing solid work. He saw no virtue in intellectual work as opposed to manual labour: drudgery destroyed the human spirit, but hard work, especially skilled hard work, did not. He saw no virtue in geographical mobility: people are happier when they have a place to call home. Shopping malls and so-called ‘edge cities’ are not a human habitat: we need pubs, corner shops, cafés and urban villages if we are to flourish. He was not a socialist, but he wanted a considerable measure of economic equality because money corrupts politics and extreme inequality is intrinsically corrupt. He regretted the erosion of trade unions because solidarity built around work was not only essential to a decent politics but a moral good in its own right. Lasch often looked as though he was simply nostalgic for an older, lost America, but he denied it when challenged. He knew as well as anyone that the Fricks, Carnegies, Mellons and Rockefellers of a century ago formed a far from benevolent ruling class, that the cities of the Twenties and Thirties housed hideous squalor as well as working-class solidarity.

A few months before Lasch died he gave a commencement address in which he expressed the cautious hope that the tide had turned and that the current generation of twentysomethings was about to rediscover equality, fraternity, hard work and family values. One can – I would – pick holes in the plausibility of much of this as a prescription for late 20th-century America, but Lasch’s tough, unevasive insistence on the virtues of the ordinary citizenry – patriotic, churchgoing, hard-working, commonsensical men and women of no great educational attainment, but of great moral decency – is a terrific antidote to the blather of the communitarians and the lies of the laissez-faire Right.