04 December 2021

Lasch—Of Valor, Chivalry, and Brains

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
The upper middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial elites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population. Even its feminism—that is, its commitment to the two-career family—is a matter more of practical necessity than of political conviction. Efforts to define a "new class" composed of public administrators and policy makers, relentlessly pushing a program of liberal reforms, ignore the range of political opinions among the professional and managerial elites. These groups constitute a new class only in the sense that 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 strict sense of the term—that once made up the bulk of the population.

Since they embrace a wide variety of occupations...and since they lack a common political outlook, it is also inappropriate to characterize managerial and professional elites as a new ruling class. Alvin Gouldner...found the unifying element in their "culture of critical discourse," but even though this formulation captures an essential feature..., it exaggerates the intellectual component in the culture of the new elites and their interest in the rationalization of life, just as it minimizes their continuing fascination with the capitalist market and their frenzied search for profits.

A more salient fact is that the market in which the new elites operate is now international in scope. Their fortunes are tied to enterprises that operate across national boundaries. They are more concerned with the smooth functioning of the system as a whole than with any of its parts. Their loyalties—if the term is not itself anachronistic in this context—are international rather than regional, national, or local. 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.

Robert Reich's category of "symbolic analysts" serves, apart from its syntactical incoherence, as a useful, empirical, and rather unpretentious description of the new class. These are people, as Reich describes them, who live in a world of abstract concepts and symbols, ranging from stock market quotations to the visual images produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and who specialize in the interpretation and deployment of symbolic information.

(pp. 33-35)

So, here is precisely the thing (or one of them) which Lasch misses in his earlier attack on postmodern art in The Minimal Self: much postmodernism (and modernism, and several other scattered radicalisms and avant-gardisms here and there) is in fact a no-holds-barred Counterelite Revolt against precisely this regime of
interpretation and deployment of symbolic information
Certainly this alone does not gain these artists any extra moral capital, but it does show, I think, a sort of dialectical antithesis arising out of the knowledge economy itself. Unfortunately Lasch, like many others, is so attached to the
dimension of art, and takes such joy in
it, that monochrome paintings and static music are simply beyond the pale. That seems to me like a pretty severe misjudgment, not necessarily of taste, but certainly of motive and utility.

Incidentally, the beleaguered, embattled, fallen-from-grace sense of
bequeathed to us by Sontag's famous essay

and also her likening of interpreters to "leeches"

and also the overtones of militarism and conquest inherent in
all of these are, I think, very good hints as to some of the reasons artists have staged such a Revolt. And the defense of this Revolt is laid out beautifully by Lasch himself in this final work of his.

A more serious objection than imprecision is Reich's extravagantly flattering portrait of the "symbolic analysts." In his eyes, they represent the best and brightest in American life. Educated at "elite private schools" and "high-quality suburban schools...", they enjoy every advantage their doting parents can provide. ... These privileged young people acquire advanced degrees at the "best [universities] in the world," the superiority of which is proved by their ability to attract foreign students in great numbers. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere they overcome the provincial folkways that impede creative thought... Unlike those who engage in mind-numbing routines, they love their work...

Unlike old-fashioned intellectuals, who tend to work by themselves and to be jealous and possessive about their ideas, the new brain workers...operate best in teams. Their "capacity to collaborate" promotes "system thinking"—the ability to see problems in their totality, to absorb the fruits of collective experimentation, and to "discern larger causes, consequences, and relationships. Since their work depends so heavily on "networking," they settle in "specialized geographical pockets" populated by people like them. ...

(pp. 35-37)

But here the Pomos are very much Collabos too, and this is both symptom and cause of the desperation (often enough material and spiritual desperation alike) with which so many of us now confront the flaming ruins of industrialism. It is in this co-optation of collaboration, its conscious weaponization against the time-honored ways of old-fashioned intellectuals, where I would anchor any broad polemic against various "postmodern" developments in art. By insisting on the symbolic orientation instead, Lasch's "survivalist" dragnet (in The Minimal Self) snares too many artists who properly belong, in fact, to the very craft morality he seeks to recover.

Universal admission to the class of "creative" people would best meet Reich's ideal of a democratic society, but since this goal is clearly unattainable, the next best thing, presumably, is a society composed of "symbolic analysts" and their hangers-on. The latter are themselves consumed with dreams of stardom but are content, in the meantime, to live in the shadow of the stars waiting to be discovered and are symbiotically united with their betters in a continuous search for marketable talent that can be compared, as Reich's imagery makes clear, only with the rites of courtship. One might add the more jaundiced observation that the circles of power—finance, government, art, entertainment—overlap and become increasingly interchangeable. It is significant that Reich turns to Hollywood for a particularly compelling example of the "wondrously resilient" communities that spring up wherever there is a concentration of "creative" people. ...

Only in a world in which words and images bear less and less resemblance to the things they appear to describe would it be possible for a man like Reich to refer to himself, without irony, as secretary of labor or to write so glowingly of a society governed by the best and brightest. The last time the "best and brightest" got control of the country, they dragged it into a protracted, demoralizing war in Southeast Asia, from which the country still has not fully recovered. ...

This arrogance should not be confused with the pride characteristic of aristocratic classes, which rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor. Neither valor and chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are associated, has any place in the worldview of the best and brightest. A meritocracy has no more use for chivalry and valor than a hereditary aristocracy has for brains.

(pp. 37-39)

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