Glimpses of a New Order
By Arnold Kling
- 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.
- —Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,1 p. 5-6.
Lasch saw the emergence of a new class of elites.
- Their livelihoods rest not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie… and from the old proprietary class—the middle class in the strictest sense of the term—that once made up the bulk of the population. p. 34
This class sees itself as meritocratic.
- Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. p. 39
As a result, the new class becomes disconnected from the rest of American society.
- 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…. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world—not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy. p. 6
Previously, wealthy Americans had been rooted in communities. They saw that their well-being depended on having robust local economies and cultural institutions. Lasch sees the new class as characterized by much more global mobility, lacking ties to local geography.
Lasch wrote during a period when “political correctness,” an early version of what is now called “Woke,” was ascendant.
- “Diversity”—a slogan that looks attractive on the face of it—has come to mean the opposite of what it appears to mean. In practice, diversity turns out to legitimate a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion…. How much longer can the spirit of free inquiry and open debate survive under these conditions? p. 17-19
Lasch wrote that the new class
- … mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a “smoke-free environment,” to censor everything from pornography to “hate speech,” and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines. p. 28
Perhaps he would not have been surprised that in the 2020s Americans were subjected to mask guidelines and vaccine mandates at the same time that many states were legalizing marijuana and the latest youth fad was to proclaim oneself as sexually fluid.
If Lasch was able to spot the pathologies that have become so prominent today, perhaps it is because as a historian he saw the long-term trends that had led to them. One of these trends was the decline of small-scale production and the consequent loss of individual independence. In the late nineteenth century,
- Populists regarded self-reliance (which, of course, does not preclude cooperation in civic and economic life) as the essence of democracy, a virtue that never went out of demand. Their quarrel with large-scale production and political centralization was that they weakened the spirit of self-reliance and discouraged people from taking responsibility for their actions. That these misgivings are more cogent than ever is suggested by the cult of the victim and its prominence in recent campaigns for social reform. p. 83
For more on these topics, see
- Martin Gurri on the Revolt of the Public. EconTalk.
- Richard Reinsch on the Enlightenment, Tradition, and Populism. EconTalk.
- “When the Elite Become the Elect,” by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty, Dec. 6, 2021.
Lasch died shortly before the World Wide Web burst onto the scene. The early prophets of the Internet proclaimed that it would empower individuals and disrupt the mass-market economic structure that had grown since the late nineteenth century. Instead, new corporate behemoths have emerged, even more powerful than the older manufacturing firms. The new class of knowledge workers has become even wealthier and more detached from the rest of the population.
Today, many more cultural critics than when Lasch was writing understand the distinctiveness of the elite outlook.2 Observers share Lasch’s pessimism about what this portends for democracy and social cohesion.
- Stephanie Slade and Tanner Greer, 10/24/2023. YouTube.
Among politicians, it is popular to raise hopes that a revival of manufacturing in America could rebuild the middle class. But I am afraid that the status inequality that is reflected in the new class is not going away. We are not returning to a mid-twentieth century middle-class America any more than we are returning to a Jeffersonian era of the yeoman farmer. We will have to find another way of overcoming the revolt of the elites. I wish I knew what that remedy might look like.
 Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Published posthumously, 1996.
 I could cite Joel Kotkin (The Coming of Neo-Feudalism), David Goodhart (The Road to Somewhere), Martin Gurri (The Revolt of the Public), Rob Henderson (“luxury beliefs are status symbols”), or N.S. Lyons (“The China Convergence”), among many others.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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