Why Christopher Lasch is one of the most important and prophetic writers for our polarised time
This week I read a book published in 1996, which seemed so relevant to this historical moment I ended up with over 30 pages of notes.
The book is The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by American historian Christopher Lasch. I’m not alone in seeing its prescience — both Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Ed West of Unherd highlighted it as a key text to understand the era of Trump and Brexit.
Lasch died in 1994, and the book was published posthumously thanks to the work of his daughter, historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn. In it, they warned of the growing chasm between the liberal elite of university-educated knowledge-workers, and the more traditional working class.
These two groups are increasingly unable to talk to or understand each other, and this plays out in a chauvinist populism on one side, and on the other a pseudo-radical but actually elitist liberalism obsessed with anti-racism and personal growth.
What is disappearing, say the Laschs, is the idea of a common democracy with shared values, ideals, and places to come together.
Christopher Lasch began his career as a neo-Marxist, but by the 1970s he’d become disenchanted with left-wing politics.
His surprise hit was his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. It captured the post-Sixties hangover when radicals gave up their dreams of revolution and turned instead to yoga and encounter sessions.
Lasch criticized the replacement of religion by therapy, and American culture’s intense focus on personal wellness and self-actualization. This emerged, he said, from political despair, from the loss of collective aspirations, traditions and civic spaces, and their replacement by the endless search for the Real Me.
As collective civic spaces (the church, the pub, the barbershop, the library, political parties, sports leagues) declined, they were replaced by transient New Age pseudo-communities, like the encounter group. These fostered new rituals of transparency and personal confession, which are actually narcissistic. True civic sociability does not depend on endlessly sharing your personal trauma and mental health issues. It depends on a certain discretion and self-abnegation in the service of the collective.
It’s a perceptive critique, anticipating the hyper-narcissism of selfie culture and the Narcissist-in-Chief, Donald Trump, whose advisors have taken to putting his name into briefing documents to try and hold his attention (really).
His critique of New Age / therapy culture stings me, of course, as an individualist who has struggled to put down roots, while all the time spilling my guts out on the internet.
One could counter that Lasch’s critique of the New Age counter-culture ignores the communitarian aspects of the movement — the back-to-the land movement and the attempt to forge new forms of collective living.
However, these new communes were not civic democratic spaces where neighbours of different classes jostled together. On the contrary, they were gatherings of middle-class seekers, who attempted to achieve an infantile union of total sameness — ‘we are one organism, one family, one mind’. They could sometimes show an intolerance of difference and a disregard for the non-enlightened — see, for example, the homicidal contempt the middle-class sannyasins of Osho’s commune in Oregon showed for the local working-class population (in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country). That was a taster of what Lasch calls the ‘revolt of the elites’.
The Revolt of the Elites
Lasch’ last book warned that democracy was in decline, and he laid the blame for this largely on the new elite of knowledge-worker graduates, who have become detached from the rest of society, like Jonathan Swift’s flying island of Laputan scientists.
He looks back in nostalgia to America in the early 19th century, which he suggests was a culture of self-reliance, neighbourliness, and robust political participation. Visitors from Europe noted that every American felt just as entitled to give their opinion as any other, regardless of class or wealth differences. This era represents to Lasch a golden age of civic republicanism, when personal character was considered more important than status or wealth.
[It still led to a bloody civil war, though, didn’t it?]
This democratic culture became fatally eroded in the 20th century by meritocracy, and the idea that you are only as good as your achievements. A fair meritocratic society means a society of social mobility, where a smart child from the working class can make it into the cognitive elite. He writes that the most important choice a democratic society has to make is
whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion — ‘virtue,’ as it was called in an older political tradition — or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites
The new elite is an aristocracy of intellect, a knowledge class of graduates, a cadre of ‘symbolic analysts’, desk-jockeys comfortable in the world of words and ideas, and completely divorced from manual labour.
He writes, in words that anticipate Adam Curtis’ documentary Hyper-normalisation:
They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality — ‘hyperreality,’ as it has been called — as distinguished from the palpable, immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women…Control has become their obsession. In their drive to insulate themselves against risk and contingency — against the unpredictable hazards that afflict human life — the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.
This, by the by, was absolutely the concern of Aldous Huxley, who conceived of the human potential movement, and particularly psychedelics, as a way for intellectuals to go beyond words and symbols to experience ‘non-verbal reality’. And yet the spiritual culture he helped create only detached the liberal elite even further from collective national traditions.
The new elite is cosmopolitan, globe-trotting, wary of long-term commitments and suspicious of localism and the nation-state. And it’s filled with contempt for those beneath them, the Great Unread:
The new elites are in revolt against ‘Middle America,’ as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their 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. The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.
I thought of this passage when Facebook showed me an advert for Graydon Carter’s new newsletter ‘Airmail’, for the ‘cosmopolitan jet-set’ — complete with adverts for Ralph Lauren and articles about how to swap country to find better COVID conditions. It feels weirdly out-of-date.
It also reminds me of a line from Michael Sandel’s new book on meritocracy, that ‘disdain for the less educated is the last acceptable prejudice’.
Lasch adds that, to the globalist elite, ‘Middle America’ is
at once absurd and vaguely menacing — not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.
He predicts a populist revolt against globalist meritocratic elitism, and sees signs of this in Europe. This was written around 1993:
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
As the globalist progressive elite and the local traditionalist working class become separated by widening inequality of income and opportunity, they withdraw into separate realities and lose the capacity to understand each other. Speaking only to themselves, they view the other side as monstrous. This was written before the internet:
Civic life requires settings in which people meet as equals, without regard to race, class, or national origins. Thanks to the decay of civic institutions ranging from political parties to public parks and informal meeting places, conversation has become almost as specialized as the production of knowledge…
Both left- and right-wing ideologies, in any case, are now so rigid that new ideas make little impression on their adherents. The faithful, having sealed themselves off from arguments and events that might call their own convictions into question, no longer attempt to engage their adversaries in debate. Their reading consists for the most part of works written from a point of view identical with their own. Instead of engaging unfamiliar arguments, they are content to classify them as either orthodox or heretical. The exposure of ideological deviation, on both sides, absorbs energies that might better be invested in self-criticism, the waning capacity for which is the surest sign of a moribund intellectual tradition
The two tribes are haunted by spectres of totalitarianism — for the populist right, the spectre of communism (which they see in ‘Wokeism’); for the liberal elitist left, the spectre of fascism. Neither of these is actually a realistic threat in the 21st century, says Lasch, but the demonic projection makes cross-tribal debate impossible.
Anti-racism and the human potential movement
The liberal elite is obsessed with anti-racism and sees the other side as racist / fascist. Here, both Lasch and his daughter Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn have ideas which are clearly heretical.
Lasch applauds the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s for being a universalist movement of character and Stoic virtue, whose leaders refused to claim a higher moral ground simply for being the victim. The movement was optimistic, it tried to change the actual conditions of society (where one could sit, eat, go to school, who one could marry etc).
Then, in 60s, because of the failure (or was it the success?) of that movement, there was a shift from changing society, to changing one’s mind. Again, the human potential movement was to blame. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, in her 2002 book Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, pin-points the shift in a series of inter-racial encounter sessions run at Esalen in 1967, by white educationalist George Leonard and black psychiatrist Price M. Cobbs.
These encounter sessions were very heavy, according to Leonard, and there was a certain amount of ‘black rage’ (the title of a book by Cobbs) and white denial. But eventually the white participants moved to tearful confessions of their privilege, ‘the Negroes wept for the whites’, and the room came together ‘in a mass, moist-eyed embrace’. Cobbs rang Leonard that night and enthused — ‘we’ve got to take this to the world!’
The movement soon spread right across corporate America, in the form of diversity training, anti-racism training, implicit bias training and so on. A whole new industry and caste of anti-racism experts arose, advising middle-class America how to shift their consciousness, how to ‘do the work’. Usually this ‘inner work’ takes place in encounter sessions, in which people are supposedly facilitated to discover their authentic selves, but really they discover the correct ritualized responses — the burning indignation of black rage, and the self-flagellating confession of privilege and white guilt.
The shift from the civil rights movement to the new therapy of anti-racism was disastrous, according to the Lasches. It created a new form of progressive elitism — a focus not on changing societal conditions but on words, symbols, micro-aggressions, and inner states like self-esteem or latent bias. Christopher Lasch wrote: ‘In our preoccupation with words, we have lost sight of the tough realities that cannot be softened simply by flattering people’s self-image. What does it profit the residents of the South Bronx to enforce speech codes at elite universities?’
The movement does not bring us together, it actually makes us more wary of inter-ethnic conviviality, so that people withdraw into mono-ethnic spaces with the sigh ‘I’m just so tired’. And the foregrounding of ‘race experts’ who supposedly speak for entire ethnic groups leads to the gross simplification of the diversity of human experience, as seen in the recent Smithsonian Museum’s notorious graph on ‘white culture versus black culture’.
In place of an ideal of genuine democratic conviviality and participation, we have tolerance.
Tolerance [writes Christopher Lasch] is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition… We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative lifestyles and communities.’ This is a tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed characters, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance
[I wonder, in passing, if this is not an expression of meritocracy?]
We thus come to the conclusion that the intense focus on anti-racism and on consciousness shifting and symbolic gestures actually serves the elite extremely well — it fits into their culture of ‘inner work’, it creates a whole new corporate industry, it creates a highly specialized language (‘intersectionality’ etc) which becomes another ingroup marker for the graduate elite, it creates a new rationale to look down on the hopeless working-class, and it distracts from any awkward questions about income inequality and inequality of life standards.
You end up with the strange spectacle of Prince Harry and the Duchess Meghan lecturing us from their mansion in Beverley Hills on the need to end ‘systemic racism’. Of course, like the war on drugs, the war on systemic racism has a nebulous goal, advance towards which can never be measured — and that is precisely the point. Lasch senior writes: ‘Needless to say, the elites that set the tone of American politics, even when they disagree about everything else, have a common stake in suppressing a politics of class.’
What is the solution to this crisis of democracy? Lasch senior strikes me as more of a grouchy critic than a community builder. He is himself part of the disease he diagnoses — a symbolic worker, a wordsmith, soaked in the language of therapy. Likewise Michael Sandel — if he’s so opposed to the meritocracy, why does he teach at Harvard?
Anyway, one solution is the rebirth of neighbourhoods, a new championing of the local community over the global network. Reading his work made me feel I should join a church, not because I believe in Jesus the Son of God but just as the easiest way to engage locally across ethnic and class lines. Of course, the pandemic has prompted this refocus on local community and the rebirth of self-help and mutual aid initiatives — but it’s not always straightforward, as mutual aid groups tend to be run by middle-class do-gooders, who sometimes use the groups to police their own politically correct views.
Another solution would be a shift beyond the right’s defence of the market and the left’s defence of the welfare state, towards a new communitarian politics of self-help, mutual aid and civic virtue, which pushes back against the marketisation and bureacratisation of everyday life and tries to cultivate local community (it’s not clear what stance this politics would take on immigration).
A third implication I took from the Laschs’ work is to be wary of any diagnosis of the ills of western democracy which focuses on one bad actor — it is merely the elites’ fault, or populists’ fault, or Donald Trump’s fault, or white people’s fault, and so on. It is all our fault. Democracy is a family in which different groups and classes need to get along even when its awkward. We have failed to do that, and resorted to finger-pointing and name-calling. It’s been shocking how quickly western democracy has seemed to unravel these last four years. But, judging by Lasch’ warnings, it’s been a long time coming.
Finally, a last word on the Laschs’ critique of therapeutic culture. I found the critique troubling, as someone who has spent the last decade or so promoting therapy and well-being education. I agree that western culture has become somewhat over-obsessed with well-being and happiness, and with endless confessions of trauma and mental illness. This can actually make us more vulnerable and even narcissistic. Disclosing your problems is not the same as dealing with your problems.
At the same time, looking back at ancient Greek philosophies like Stoicism and Aristotelianism, it is possible to connect the idea of inner work and therapy to a politics of character and virtue. Stoics and Aristotelians did not retreat from political life to focus entirely on inner states of consciousness. They recognized a connection between inner work and civic participation.
It’s heartening, in this respect, that Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s new book, Ars Vitae, looks at the revival of ancient Greek philosophies in modern life, in which she sees the prospect of a more civic therapeutic paradigm.
(And she bigs up my book Philosophy for Life! Sorry, the narcissist in me couldn’t resist….)