Christopher Lasch, cultural historian and scourge of the politically correct, died last year and so his final book is published posthumously.footnote1 Like his earlier works, its range of subject matter is immense. Small-town populists and urban reformers, feminists and misogynists, gay militants and redneck militiamen, H. Ross Perot and Carl Gustav Jung, Spike Lee and Amitai Etzioni all make guest appearances in this chaotic journey through an unhinged Western civilisation. The very term ‘Western Civilisation’ is now controversial, not only because so many of its underlying certainties—such as economic growth, progress and even certainty itself—have been discredited, but because, taken as the title of a university course, it enrages minority groups. The spectacle of Reverend Jesse Jackson leading his student acolytes in a chorus of ‘Hey, hey! Ho, ho, Western Civilisation’s got to go!’ will be cherished and repetitively analysed by Lasch’s successors in the next millennium.

Lasch’s politics will baffle future social scientists too, because they elude any simple late twentieth-century classification. Is he, the reader asks, a democrat or an elitist? Or both? Is he a revolutionary or a reactionary, or does he, like the late Dennis Potter, not know whether he is left-wing or right-wing from day to day? Does he believe in equal opportunities at all, or does he hanker after a semi-mythical golden age before ‘Businesswoman of the Year’ awards and ‘I Can’t Even March Straight’ T-shirts? Lasch alternates between a Midwesterner’s affection for the rough-and-ready grassroots democracy of William Jennings Bryan and an intellectual’s affinity for Oscar Wilde, with his ironic contempt for the commonplace. The masses, according to Wilde, are so ‘extraordinarily stupid’ that they are ‘not really conscious’ of their own suffering and ‘have to be told of it by other people’, in particular by ‘an absolutely necessary class’ of agitators without whom ‘there would be no advance towards political civilisation’.

These, and many other, excerpts from The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) are cited by Lasch with obvious relish. Four years later, Wilde would discover that extraordinary stupidity was by no means confined to the unlettered masses. To mention this is not entirely a digression, for Wilde’s persecutors unintentionally laid the foundations for a cultural movement about which Lasch has grave doubts. At other times, Lasch eulogises the prairie-based People’s Party of the 1890s, whose supporters in Kansas and Nebraska were as far removed from Wilde as Camille Paglia is from Mother Teresa today. Yet it is this very inconsistency that enriches his writing. He is portraying a society in disarray, where there are far more questions than answers or even clues. It is useful to recall that such divided emotional loyalties underlie most of the definitive political texts of the modern era. Rousseau, arguably the true father of modern neurosis, spent much of his career attempting to reconcile romantic individualism with the demands of civil society. He does not always do so convincingly, but few doubt the worth of The Social Contract as a work of literature and cultural criticism. Lasch, like Rousseau, is an isolated thinker reacting against a fashion-conscious, superficially enlightened intelligentsia. Unlike so many of his colleagues, he refuses to produce the Pavlovian reactions of the liberal-left. Instead, he dares to challenge some of the great shibboleths of our time: globalization, meritocracy, multiculturalism and the democratization of culture.

The Revolt of the Elites derives its title from The Revolt of the Masses, a polemical work by José Ortega y Gasset published in 1929. Ortega’s thesis is that the calamities of ‘Western Civilisation’ in the twentieth century can be attributed to the rise of mass culture and mass political participation. The Revolt of the Masses was written in reaction to a monstrous and irrational war and the breakdown of traditional attitudes to politics and power that followed. Ortega, like most conservative intellectuals of middle-class lineage, romanticises the ancien regime and looks back longingly to times when a paternalistic oligarchy held sway. ‘Nobility,’ he claims, ‘is defined by the demands it makes on us, not by rights.’ For Ortega, the demise of hereditary elites and the emergence of mass politics results inevitably in irrationalism, levelling-down and a vacuous consumer culture. Democracy has engendered mass man: self-centred, semi-educated, conscious of his rights and ‘incapable of submitting to direction of any kind’. Mass culture is secular and ahistorical, enshrines material possessions rather than human values and, worst of all, it generates a false ‘assurance that tomorrow the world will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase.’ In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega manages to express with great force all the prejudices of the interwar intelligentsia. He is traditionalist, whilst obsessively preoccupied with modernity, arrogantly consigning the poor and the newly-rich to oblivion whilst falling prostrate before a degenerate aristocracy. He also flirts with fascism, surely the most destructive expression of insecure mass man. Despite all this, progressive readers would be wrong to regard Ortega’s work as an extended Sunday Telegraph editorial. With its blend of insight, snobbery and keen observation of contemporary malaise, The Revolt of the Masses reads instead like a political companion to The Waste Land. In his attacks on consumerism, Ortega anticipates the concerns of the environmental movement half a century later. Yet the fundamental weakness of his thesis, which Lasch surprisingly does not address, is that it was the ruling cliques and not the masses of Europe who caused the First World War.

Faced with the Clintons’ America, Lasch has turned Ortega’s argument on its head. In the heartland of democracy and conspicuous consumption, it is not the masses—better defined as ordinary men and women—who are threatening civilised values, but a ‘professional elite’ who are increasingly segregating themselves from mainstream society: