Our Revolting Elites

The ‘revolt of the elites’ has reversed the source of social disorder from the masses to the elites.

Prescient social critic Christopher Lasch’s 1996 book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, laid out a blueprint of social decay that continues to inform our descent into social disorder. Lasch excoriated our revolting elites for abandoning the foundations of social stability, upward mobility, the middle class and democracy in their race to enrich and insulate themselves in protected enclaves–neighborhoods, corporate suites, foundations and institutions–of fellow elites.

In Lasch’s analysis, America’s elites are revolting against the obligations imposed on traditional elites to nurture the foundational values that support democracy, national purpose, civic pride and a moral order that restrains narcissism and greed as a means of protecting opportunities for advancement from the pillage of the wealthy.

Lasch identified the ways in which globalization fosters elite pathologies. In his view, America’s technocratic elites are a new class of symbolic analysts whose financial means “rest not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise.”

Serving trans-national corporations, foundations and agencies, they have “more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communications.”

America’s elite defines itself as the hard-working winners of a Darwinian global meritocracy, an atomized world ruled by The Triumph of the Individual: “the new class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or 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.”

From this lofty perch, America’s elite is disconnected from those still mired in the real-world economy they’ve left behind: in Lasch’s words, the elite “betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence… Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.”

In Lasch’s view, this revolt of the elites has reversed the source of social disorder from the masses to the elite: “Once it was the ‘revolt of masses’ that was held to threaten social order and the civilizing traditions of Western culture…Today it is the elites–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” that underpin a fair and vibrant social and economic order.

Lasch’s critique aligns with historian Peter Turchin’s analysis on the structural sources of social disorder which he has updated in his latest work, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration.

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