A review/analysis sparked by two books: The Revolt of the Public (And the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium) by Martin Gurri, and the The Revolt of the Elites (And the Betrayal of Democracy) by Christopher Lasch.
Gurri is a first-time author whereas Lasch has mined the hard rock of social criticism for years. The first book of his that I read was The Culture of Narcissism; it was written in the late 70s and I believe I first read it in the early 90s. I re-read it a year or so ago and was struck by how you could follow the arc he traced to our current circumstances. The Revolt of the Elites was Lasch’s last book, and was published posthumously. Gurri’s book was published in 2014 (the version I read has an addenda written after the 2016 Presidential election); although Gurri did not anticipate Trump specifically, you can certainly see Trump as an outcome of the conflict central to his analysis. The addenda addresses Trump’s election and Brexit. I was tipped to Gurri and his book by a Matt Taibbi interview.
Both books begin with a nod to José Ortega y Gasset and his work, The Revolt of the Masses. Gurri then spends time focusing on why he chose the public in lieu of the masses, and he gives considerable thought to Walter Lippman’s ideas on the public. Since Lasch was a man of the left (though pretty thoroughly disillusioned with what was left of leftist thought in the latter half of his life) he naturally gravitates to the political significance of the elite. Whereas Gurri will build on Lippman, Lasch will respectfully reject him in favor of Dewey’s contemporaneous counter-argument (particularly around how the public can/should be informed in order to retain legitimacy in consent of the governed). Despite the rhetorical ablutions of progressives with regard to democracy, their commitment to rule of experts puts them into a quandary on the legitimacy of democratic governance. What’s interesting is that despite the titular differences, these two are working the same field – the disconnect between the elite and the public. Gurri will use the Center as his term for the institutions (not limited to government) that operate as the legitimate sources of authority in society, and these are the home of the elite. Having discarded the masses in favor of the public, Gurri will identify the home of these folks as the Border. A very simple example illustrates: in media terms, CNN is a component of the Center and this website is of the Border. Gurri will talk about the expansion of communications that allows the Border to have “vital communities of interest” where the virtual results in live, real-world manifestations – generally at odds with the machinations of authority in the Center. Lasch doesn’t adopt the bifurcated focus, and keeps his eye on the elite with the result that he tends to see effects in the public mostly as result of mimicking elite behavior (positive or negative).
Gurri’s analysis is heavily focused on the problems of now – since it represents a crisis point in his thinking. He also is looking globally, not just domestically for incidents and trends. Lasch complements this nicely by tracing where we (in this country) are now (or at least in 1995 when the book was published) from points and trends reaching back decades if not a century or more. I particularly like this as it places the why of how we degenerated in a more organic (purely American) flow than those who tend to rely on the Gramscian narrative. In the case of education, Lasch identifies part of the problem starting from the work of Horace Mann with the specialization of education as an institution, and later the conflict in the mission of education (identifying and educating an elite versus making an elite education accessible to a greater portion of the populace [this is better explored in his Culture of Narcissism]) – without a word about any long march through the institutions.
Gurri sets up the conflict of Center and Border as resulting most prominently from the growth of modern communications, specifically the internet – such that the Center no longer enjoys the control of information it previously had. Though the Border is informed by a multitude of sources, and can organize protests – that isn’t a way to construct an alternative institution to what exists in the Center, nor do vital communities build up around that kind of idea. They very easily coalesce around the negation of some failure of the Center, but cannot coherently articulate what should happen instead. The classic examples here are the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street – both of which expressed outrage with behavior and externalities emanating from the Center, but neither of which could summon a solution to those problems.
With Lasch’s penchant for history he gives a valuable discourse on equality, and what it meant as a social concept in the early years of the republic vice what it has come to mean now (particularly in light of how the social justice movement has warped the civil rights movement). All of the recent fuss about economic equality misses the point about the equality that had meaning early on; that was a socio-political equality without much regard for economic status. It is a sad result of materialist thinking, not limited to the Marxian school, that has reduced us to what we talk about today (both in terms of income inequality and with regard to social mobility and opportunity). All of our talk now is decidedly impoverished: intellectually, spiritually and socially.
An interesting thought, at least to me, is that Lasch would have no knowledge of September 11th, or the Obama Administration, and though Gurri does, it doesn’t change how well their thoughts tie together. This is illustrated by the emergence of Trump. Both of these books were written before Donald Trump launched his 2016 campaign for the Presidency. Lasch anticipates in 1995, what would happen in 2016:
At this point in our history the best qualification for high office may well be a refusal to cooperate with the media’s program of self-aggrandizement. A candidate with the courage to abstain from “debates” organized by the media would automatically distinguish himself from the others and command a good deal of public respect. … A refusal to play by the media’s rules would make people aware of the vast, illegitimate influence the mass media have come to exercise in American politics. It would also provide the one index of character that voters could recognize and applaud.
Now of course Trump didn’t abstain, but he bent the rules – overtly and contemptuously – and reaped both the nomination and the Presidency. In Gurri’s terms – this was the Border, politicking against the Center via negation. It really should be little wonder that Trump struck a chord with as many voters as he did – they’re fed up with the status quo. It isn’t that Trump had to really see them for who they are, he merely needed to be perceived as one who wouldn’t see them as the elites routinely did – so perfectly summarized with the “basket of deplorables”.
Gurri eerily outlines the vitriolic response of the Center to the Trumpian intrusion (and again, he was published in 2014, so writing for a year or two prior to that). When you read him now, you have to remind yourself that he isn’t writing from the perspective of 2019 or later, not even in his addenda.
The upshot of all of this – we’re in uncharted waters, and the winds aren’t favorable. The loss of confidence in government might be tolerable if our other institutions had survived more or less intact. But authority in the Center is collapsing under both it’s own hypocrisy and the fact that it can’t hide when it is incompetent, and unable to take accountability for that incompetence; this is true of every institution that exercises any kind of authority – government, church, education, even social organizations. Whereas Gurri finds some hope in the vital communities (mostly virtual) in the Border, Lasch is more pessimistic about the decay of the actual neighborhoods we live in. Gurri is most concerned that the natural end-point of our skepticism and disenchantment is nihilism.
Lasch – The Soul of Man under Secularism
The final chapter of Elites is a cheekily titled allusion to Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. Now Wilde was proposing his own iconoclastic view of socialism, not anything remotely resembling Marx (the sensibilities of Marxists being tweaked with his own title). Lasch argues that Wilde actually has the last laugh, as his thesis is better represented in modern society than anything from the dogmatic left. This concludes a fair amount of contemplation on the state of spirituality in our age in the preceding chapters (collectively The Dark Night of the Soul). The tireless advocates of the free market need to, but generally do not, assess what the relentless tide of creative destruction has wrought – for that carries far beyond the merely economic. Our individual pursuit of our own interests comes at the cost of the time and energy we could invest in our families and communities. Those are the places we need to invest ourselves in, and not in grand political programs that cannot possibly ameliorate the damage in those places. For conservatives (at least the traditional variety) this isn’t stunning news. For conservatives that are tempted to ape progressive thoughts and tactics (turned to conservative ends) – this is a most cogent warning. Following progressives down the path of all-consuming government is doomed. It has failed them and will fail anyone else in the attempt.
Gurri – Choices and System
This is the penultimate chapter in Public (not counting the addenda Reconsiderations), and in it Gurri seeks for a way forward. He eschews prophesy and prediction, which are fundamentally incompatible with his analytic stance but realizes he can’t leave his reader (or himself) in a state of despair or denial (which is where you might well be at this point in the book). How to avoid the trap of nihilism and with it the death of democratic governance?
I am persuaded by Paul Ormerod’s argument: even the colossal machinery of modern government has been unable to ordain the future. The crisis of democracy arose from the denial of this fact. We want to build Brasilia over and over again, to leap ahead 50 years into a future that is always more rational than the present. At a minimum, we demand that our politicians talk as if the power of government to perfect the human condition, when we have known, since 1991, that they have no notion of how to do so.
Drill down into the networks that have enabled the public to confound authority, and you soon arrive at what I would call the personal sphere. This is the circle of everyday life, experienced directly, in all its local specificity. Here the choices meaningful to an individual get generated: spouse, children, friends, career, faith. Government and high politics fill in the background. To image they can ordain or legislate happiness at this level is a modern illusion.
Somewhat surprisingly, we find Gurri on similar ground to Lasch – speaking to regeneration of local connections. He has argued that technology, the internet specifically, has been a key element in the divergence between Center and Border, and yet finds that real human connection cannot be discounted.
Ultimately, these are both excellent books about where our society has broken and our institutions failed us. I can’t say that I’ve done full justice to either in this space. Reading either will give you insights not just into other people’s behavior, but your own. Reading both is my strongest recommendation.