When George Bush registered astonishment at seeing a supermarket checkout scanning device for the first time, it told of a great deal more than the former American president's personal ignorance of commonplace electronic wizardry. It was emblematic, according to Christopher Lasch, of an isolation of America's elite from ordinary life to a degree that has never been as profound as it is today. More disturbing, this isolation indicates, says Lasch, that the original principles of democracy on which the United States was founded - principles long since transmogrified through the ideological whims of each successive age - no longer underpin America, nor indeed perhaps any contemporary country that likes to call itself a democracy.
American historian Christopher Lasch has always been a fearless, cogent critic of his society, a true beacon among his fellow academic observers who are all too often overly influenced by the fashionable intellectual trends of the day. Standing firm against the flow is particularly hard in the kind of cultural milieu Lasch described over a decade ago in his startlingly clear-sighted book, The Culture of Narcissism. There, he dissected the deeply neurotic mind of America, from bottom to top, with needle-like accuracy. His powers of perception have now shifted from the micro to the macrocosmic. The book's bold title, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, promises a lot.
And Lasch does not disappoint. This highly original and stimulating work is concerned with one key question: does democracy have a future? His unflinching answer is: no.
Lasch bases his prognosis on a subtle analysis of whether democracy even deserves to survive. Drawing upon his iconoclastic grasp of American intellectual and social history, Lasch shows how, for example, the notion of "social mobility" has gradually crept into the lexicon and psyche, a notion that is now generally seen as part and parcel of a "healthy" society, when in fact it is, in practice, totally antithetical to a truly democratic culture. Social mobility in America today (and one can easily see British society mirrored in this discussion) serves to maintain an elitist pool of individuals far too bound up with international corporate affiliation and naked self-interest to have anything left for their country or local community. In a world dominated by multinational conglomerates, the values of Middle America (or Little England) are sniffed at as parochial, provincial, to be disdained. Where once America took seriously the ambition to establish at least some semblance of equality for all, today those who can manage to do so simply climb as high as possible, then kick away the ladder. Equally, the overriding purpose of education has become to separate oneself as far as possible from the masses. The original democratic ambition of raising the level of society as a whole to make its citizens more capable of intelligent self-government, just is not on the cards anymore.
But at least we can take heart from the analogous and thoroughly admirable notion of meritocracy. Surely this is alive and well in America?
Forget it. Meritocracy is a parody of democracy, asserts Lasch, citing the insights of R. H. Tawney as even more applicable today. The elite who rise by "merit", according to Lasch's analysis, retain the vices of an aristocratic elite, without any of its virtues: meritocratic high-flyers are even more smug and secure in their privileged position than aristocrats because they see it as their just reward for hard work and possessing better brains than those less well off. They may have concern for the poor, but by achieving a safe distance from them through dint of their own superior endowments and habits, they have little intellectual inclination and certainly no inbred noblesse oblige. So the class chasm is perpetuated, while other democracy-destroying myths propagate more and more ultimately pernicious ideological fantasies, which translate into misguided attempts at social engineering.
Lasch's picture becomes even grimmer as he castigates the highly uninformative "information revolution" ushered in by a media that deludes the public into believing it is in the know, thus militating against the acquisition of real knowledge; universities that collude with big business; and intellectuals who promote a self-deceptively narrow faith in science and its concomitant secular values, which dangerously contributes to a nihilistic, ultimately anti-democratic social order.
Lasch hurried to complete this book. He finished it only weeks before his death last year. He clearly believed what he had to say was important enough to be worth the effort. He was right.
Linda Joffee is a freelance writer specialising in American affairs.
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy
Author - Christopher Lasch
ISBN - 0 393 03699 5
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £16.95
Pages - 6