The Revolt of the Elites (And The Betrayal of Democracy) (Christopher Lasch)

The Revolt of the Elites and The Betrayal of Democracy
by Christopher Lasch
W.W. Norton & Company – 1995 (1996)

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“AN ARISTOCRACY OF talent – superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege – turns out to be a contradiction in terms: The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues.

Once it was the “revolt of the masses” that was held to threaten social order and the civilizing traditions of Western culture.  In our time, however, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.  This remarkable turn of events confounds our expectations about the course of history and calls long-established assumptions into question.

When Jose Ortega y Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses, first translated into English in 1932, he could not have foreseen a time when it would be more appropriate to speak of a revolt of elites.  Writing in the era of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of fascism, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war that had torn Europe apart, Ortega attributed the crisis of Western culture to the “political domination of the masses.”  Today it is the elites, however – those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate – that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.

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From Ortega’s point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the value of cultural elites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the exacting standards without which civilization is impossible.  They lived in the service of demanding ideals.  “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us – by obligations, not by rights.”  The mass man, on the other hand, had no use for obligations and no understanding of what they implied, “no feeling for [the] great historical duties.”  **********  It was, above all, however, the “deadly hatred of all that is not itself that characterized the mass mind, as Ortega described it.  Incapable of wonder or respect, the mass man was the “spoiled child of human history.”

All these habits of mind, I submit, are now more characteristic of the upper levels of society than of the lower or middle levels.  It can hardly be said that ordinary people today look forward to a world of “limitless possibility.”  Any sense that the masses are riding the wave of history has long since departed.

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THE GENERAL COURSE of recent history no longer favors the leveling of social distinctions but runs more and more in the direction of a two-class society in which the favored few monopolize the advantages of money, education, and power.  It is undeniable, of course, that the comforts of modern life are still distributed far more widely than they were before the Industrial Revolution.  It was this democratization of comfort that Ortega had in mind when he spoke of the “rise of the historical level.”  Like many others, Ortega was struck by the unheard-of abundance generated by the modern division of labor, by the transformation of luxuries into necessities, and by the popularization of standards of comfort and convenience formerly confined to the rich.  These facts – the material fruits of modernization – are not in question.  In our time, however, the democratization of abundance – the expectation that each generation would enjoy a standard of living beyond the reach of its predecessors – has given way to a reversal in which age-old inequalities are beginning to reestablish themselves, sometimes at a frightening rate, sometimes so gradually as to escape notice.

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A middle class, as Walter Russell Mead reminds us in his study of the declining American empire “Mortal Splendor”, “does not appear out of thin air.”  Its power and numbers “depend on the overall wealth of the domestic economy,” and in countries, accordingly, where “wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny oligarchy and the rest of the population is desperately poor, the middle class can grow to only a limited extent.  … [It] never escapes its primary role as a servant class to the oligarchy.”  Unfortunately this description now applies to a growing list of nations that have prematurely reached the limits of economic development, countries in which a rising “share of their own national product goes to foreign investors or creditors.”  Such a fate may well await unlucky nations, including the United States, even in the industrial world.

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THE CHANGING CLASS structure of the United States presents us, sometimes in exaggerated form, with changes that are taking place all over the industrial world. 

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This arrogance should not be confused with the pride characteristic of aristocratic classes, which rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor.  Neither valor and chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are closely associated, has any place in the world view of the best and brightest.  A meritocracy has no more use for chivalry and valor than a hereditary aristocracy has for brains.  Although hereditary advantages play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status, the new class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone.  Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.  It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.  Even the concept of a republic of letters, which might be expected to appeal to elites with such a large stake in higher education, is almost entirely absent from their frame of reference.  Meritocratic elites find it difficult to imagine a community, even a community of the intellect, that reaches into both the past and the future and is constituted by an awareness of intergenerational obligation.  The “zones” and “networks” admired by Reich bear little resemblance to communities in any traditional sense of the term.  Populated by transients, they lack the continuity that derives from a sense of place and from standards of conduct self-consciously cultivated and handed down from generation to generation.  The “community” of the best and brightest is a community of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.

ORTEGA AND OTHER critics described mass culture as a combination of “radical ingratitude” with an unquestioned belief in limitless possibility.  The mass man, according to Ortega, took for granted the benefits conferred by civilization and demanded them “peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.”  Heir of all the ages, he was blissfully unconscious of his debt to the past.  Though he enjoyed advantages brought about by the general “rise in the historic level,” he felt no obligation either to his progenitors or to his progeny.  He recognized no authority outside himself, conducting himself as if he were “lord of his own existence.”  His “incredible ignorance of history” made it possible for him to think of the present moment as far superior to the civilizations of the past and to forget, moreover, that contemporary civilization was itself the product of centuries of historical development, not the unique achievement of an age that had discovered the secret of progress by turning its back on the past.

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Meritocracy is a parody of democracy.  It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, to anyone with the talent to seize them, but “opportunities to rise,” as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, “are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization,” of the “dignity and culture” that are needed by all “whether they rise or not.”  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. 

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The inner logic of meritocracy has seldom been more rigorously exposed than in Michael Young’s dystopic vision in his The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033, a work written in the tradition of Tawney, G.D.H. Cole, George Orwell, E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams.  Young’s narrator, a historian writing in the fourth decade of the twenty-first century, approvingly chronicles the “fundamental change” of the century and a half beginning around 1870: the redistribution of intelligence “between the classes.”  “By imperceptible degrees an aristocracy of birth has turned into an aristocracy of talent.”  Thanks to industry’s adoption of intelligence testing, the abandonment of the principle of seniority, and the growing influence of the school at the expense of the family, “the talented have been given the opportunity to rise to the level which accords with their capacities, and the lower classes consequently reserved for those who are also lower in ability.”  These changes coincided with a growing recognition that economic expansion was the “overriding purpose” of social organization and that people ought to be judged by the single test of how much they increase production.  Meritocracy, in Young’s description, rests on a mobilized economy driven by the compulsion to produce.

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Young’s imaginative projection of postwar trends in Great Britain sheds a great deal of light on similar trends in the United States, where a seemingly democratic system of elite recruitment leads to results that are far from democratic: segregation of social classes; contempt for manual labor; collapse of the common schools; loss of a common culture.  As Young describes it, meritocracy has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges (which can now be seen as the appropriate reward of diligence and brainpower) while nullifying working-class opposition.  “The best way to defeat opposition,” Young’s historian observes, “is [by] appropriating and educating the best children of the lower classes while they are still young.”  The educational reforms of the twentieth century “enabled the clever child to leave the lower class … and to enter into a higher class into which he was fitted to climb.”  Those who were left behind, knowing that “they have had every chance,” cannot legitimately complain about their lot.  “For the first time in human history the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.”

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AN ARISTOCRACY OF talent – superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege – turns out to be a contradiction in terms: The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. 

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The same tendencies are at work all over the world.  In Europe referenda on unification have revealed a deep and widening gap between the political classes and the more humble members of society, who fear that the European Economic Community will be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity or allegiance.  A Europe governed from Brussels, in their view, will be less and less amenable to popular control.  The international language of money will speak more loudly than local dialects.  Such fears underlie the reassertion of ethnic particularism in Europe, while the decline of the nation-state weakens the only authority capable of holding ethnic rivalries in check.  The revival of tribalism, in turn, reinforces a reactive cosmopolitanism among elites.

Curiously enough, it is Robert Reich, notwithstanding his admiration for the new class of “symbolic analysts,” who provides one of the most penetrating accounts of the “darker side of cosmopolitanism.”  Without national attachments, he reminds us, people have little inclination to make sacrifices or to accept responsibility for their actions.  “We learn to feel responsible for others because we share with them a common history, … a common culture, … a common fate.”  The denationalization of business enterprise tends to produce a class of cosmopolitans who see themselves as “world citizens, but without accepting … any of the obligations that citizenship in a polity normally implies.”  But the cosmopolitanism of the favored few, because it is uninformed by the practice of citizenship, turns out to be a higher form of parochialism. 

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It is the weakening of the nation-state that underlies both these developments – the movement toward unification and the seemingly contradictory movement toward fragmentation.  The state can no longer contain ethnic conflicts, nor, on the other hand, can it contain the forces leading to globalization.  Ideologically nationalism comes under attack from both sides: from advocates of ethnic and racial particularism but also from those who argue that the only hope of peace lies in the internationalization of everything from weights and measures to the artistic imagination.

The decline of nations is closely linked, in turn, to the global decline of the middle class.  Ever since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fortunes of the nation-state have been bound up with those of the trading and manufacturing classes.  The founders of modern nations, whether they were exponents of royal privilege like Louis XIV or republicans like Washington and Lafayette, turned to this class for support in their struggle against the feudal nobility.  A large part of the appeal of nationalism lay in the state’s ability to establish a common market within its boundaries, to enforce a uniform system of justice, and to extend citizenship both to petty proprietors and to rich merchants, alike excluded from power under the old regime.  The middle class understandably became the most patriotic, not to say jingoistic and militaristic, element in society.  But the unattractive features of middle-class nationalism should not obscure its positive contributions in the form of a highly developed sense of place and a respect for historical continuity – hallmarks of the middle-class sensibility that can be appreciated more fully now that middle-class culture is everywhere in retreat.  Whatever its faults, middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the Founding Fathers of America understood so well – a war of all against all.