No roots at the top

by Terence MacNamee

I have just been rereading The Revolt of the Elites by the late American writer Christopher Lasch. The book was written in the 1990s, but it is still relevant, as indeed are all Lasch’s books.

His point is that the modern democratic state is not so much endangered by mass movements, as it was in the 20th century, but by elites, who are now so far removed from the mass of society that they have in fact seceded. They live in their own suburbs and gentrified neighbourhoods, work in the information economy, and are internationally mobile. They are the exact opposite to the ordinary Joe who is rooted in his own location and country. Yet the elites, Lasch says, are now running the USA, and they are running it in their own interests, letting the rest of society go to pot.

This was written in the 1990s, but since then I for one can see only an expansion of the knowledge elites. Lasch was talking about his own country, America. Could this not be true of the rest of the world too? If you look at the elites (government, business, academia, the professions) in many countries, it is not hard to see this gulf between them and the rest of their societies. It seems to happen in countries where there was a lot of “power distance” – acceptance of marked distinctions of wealth and status – in the culture to begin with.

You see it in Britain, where since the Thatcher years, London as the financial centre has detached itself, becoming something like a city-state, while the rest of the country goes to pot. The recent Scottish independence vote has been interpreted by many observers as a protest of the periphery against London.

In France they talk about the “bobos”, the new class of well-paid bourgeois bohemians, urbanised contributors to the information economy, who ignore “la France profonde”.

In the European Union, Lasch already saw “a deep and widening gap between the political classes and the more humble members of society”, and a likelihood that Europe, “governed from Brussels”, would “be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity and allegiance” and would “be less and less amenable to popular control. The international language of money will speak more loudly than local dialects.” Could not the very same words be used today?

Enough of Europe. I feel tempted to ask how Asia will deal with this problem. In huge countries like China and India, there is always a danger that elites, even visionary and dynamic elites, may pursue opportunities without bringing their huge masses of population with them. Such opportunities will not be – to use a fashionable word – sustainable in the long run. National greatness requires whole nations, not just cosmopolitan elites.