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 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
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:
Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites. . .regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. . .Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trend. . .They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing—not because they want to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defence of it appears so deeply irrational.
Material abundance of the kind that Ortega eschewed has thinly disguised the development of a ‘two-class’ society, in which an embattled middle and working class—Middle America as a cultural as well as geographical expression—are increasingly subject to a transnational elite. Global in its perspective, cosmopolitan in taste, this new ruling caste is not bound by tiresome traditional obligations such as concern for less privileged fellow-citizens: