From Secession to Revolt
Reprinting an Old Favorite
Below is an excellent essay written by Geoffrey Shullenberger revisiting Christopher Lasch’s REVOLT OF THE ELITES, first published in August 2020 at my old Patreon writing site. Will be re-posting some of that content to live on this site. Rewards re-reading.
Around the beginning of September, a group of protesters smashed storefronts, graffitied walls, and set trash cans on fire in Manhattan. It was the sort of occurrence that has become routine since the first wave of protests triggered by George Floyd’s death back in May. Amidst the riots that have unfolded nationally, it was a relatively minor disturbance. However, what attracted considerable attention were the identities of those arrested during the incident: a group of young white rioters from mostly wealthy backgrounds. One in particular, the 20-year old daughter of an Upper East Side family with a second home in Connecticut, became a poster child for the apparent radicalization of the 1%.
This development has plenty of precedents. Half a century ago, for instance, the Weather Underground counted the sons and daughters of CEOs among its militants. And lately, as much in the late 1960s, many affluent and educated urbanites have embraced the belief that full-scale revolt against the US government and its law enforcement agencies is a justified response to structural racism and the oppression manifest in police violence. This summer’s riots found plenty of positive coverage in press organs ideologically dominated by liberal millennials. The imperative to support the unrest, or at least not to condemn it overtly, led to the firings and resignations of dissenters in the media industry.
One study found that 78% of June Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City were white and 13% were black, whereas the city as a whole is 46% white and 24% black; similar numbers prevailed across the country. Given the high average rates of education and income of urban whites, it’s reasonable to infer that a considerable proportion of marchers and rioters alike would meet many standard definitions of “elites.” Appropriately enough, the author of the much-discussed new manifesto In Defense of Looting, which makes the “case for rioting and looting as weapons that bludgeon the status quo while uplifting the poor and marginalized,” is a Cornell graduate and with an MIT professor for a father.
In the “The Real Class War,” an American Affairs essay from last year, Julius Krein argued that the 99% vs 1% framing popularized by the Occupy movement was missing the real story of contemporary politics: “elite radicalization.” Krein asserts that the working class “has scarcely any political agency in the current system and no apparent means for acquiring any.” Much of what presents itself as working-class revolt, he claims, is driven by “disaffected segments of the elite,” whose “‘discovery’ of working-class immiseration” is “a media phenomenon arguably provoked by renewed elite anxieties.” The “real class war,” in Krein’s account, is “between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on professional labor.” The latter sector has faced declining prospects in recent years, and has responded by embracing a militant sensibility.
Krein does not cite the work of the historian Peter Turchin, but the latter’s studies of “elite overproduction” arrive at a related conclusion. The real force behind political upheaval across history, he concludes, is not the deprived masses, but elite sectors in which new aspirants outnumber available positions. Factions of frustrated elites respond by enlisting elements of the broader populace against the status quo. When successful, the result may be a revolution or civil war. Turchin identifies this pattern in various historical cases of societal breakdown. He has been predicting for some years that the US was entering a phase of extreme instability driven by the swelling ranks of surplus elites.
An older book that some have heralded as a prophetic anticipation of the current wave of elite-endorsed unrest is Christopher Lasch’s 1994 essay collection, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Ed West wrote recently that “what Lasch saw in 1994, but which has only now reached its apogee in 2020, was how social revolution would be pushed forward by the radical rich and resisted by the rest.” West describes this year’s uprising as an “anti-revolution in which immigrant shops were ransacked and working-class neighborhoods forced to defend themselves from violent college-educated protesters and their allies. . . backed by almost all billion-dollar businesses and public institutions bar the US presidency.” Lasch, he argues, was one of the first to observe the hostility of metropolitan elites towards average people and their growing support for radical social transformation. He concludes, “we’re all living in Lasch’s world now.”
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However, Lasch’s book differs crucially from accounts like Krein’s and Turchin’s, which emphasize declining elite prospects. Lasch was writing about a class that looked quite secure in its ascendancy in the 1990s. In this sense, Revolt of the Elites is a mordant companion piece to a genre of books that theorized the emergent privileged caste of the period. One of the first of these was Robert Reich’s 1991 The Work of Nations, which charted the fortunes of what he called “symbolic analysts.” Perhaps the last, which bookended the 9/11 rupture with 90s optimism, were David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2000) and Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). With “bobos” and “creative class,” Brooks and Florida coined popular designations for a class whose characteristics we all recognize: urban, educated, progressive, employed in fields that value creativity and innovation, living in two-income households. Reich’s, Brooks’s, and Florida’s accounts of this sector were largely celebratory, making Lasch a lonely dissenter.
Lasch adapts his title from José Ortega y Gassett’s 1930 The Revolt of the Masses, which targeted the conformist middle class of early 20th-century urban consumer societies. Ortega accurately predicted that a large portion of the masses was on the verge of abandoning democracy and turning to fascism. Lasch, for his part, argues that the threat to democracy now comes not from the “masses,” but from “the favored few [who] monopolize the advantages of money, education, and power.” He foreshadows Krein’s argument from 25 years later that the “collapse of civic life,” voluntary organizations, and labor unions had left the working class without any meaningful outlets for participation in the democratic system. Elite politics were now the only game in town, as Lasch saw it, and the class increasingly running things was superciliously contemptuous of the majority of their countrymen and detached from any meaningful concern for the common good.
Lasch’s title might mislead those seeking premonitions of recent riots. What he tries to account for is not a “revolt” of the violent sort Turchin has been warning us about. Rather, Lasch’s synonym for “revolt” is “secession.” He borrows this language from Robert Reich, who referred in the early 90s to the “secession of the successful.” Likewise, Lasch focuses not on the prospect of insurrection but on a “revolt . . . against the constraints of time and place” manifest in elites’ withdrawal from local and national loyalties and from civic life.
Lasch tracks the effects of this secession in various social phenomena. For instance, he highlights assortative mating, which he glosses as “the tendency of men to marry women who can be relied on to bring in income more or less equivalent to their own.” This sort of income- and education-based endogamy reinforces social stratification by reducing the intermingling of different social classes. It also enables the capture of a larger share of income at the top, since if high earners marry other high earners, then low earners will marry low earners, compounding inequality. Lasch was not an orthodox Marxist, but his work generally sought to trace ideology to its material base. His association of “feminism’s appeal to the professional and managerial class” with the rise of the two-income household is no exception: “[f]emale careerism,” he writes, “provides the indispensable basis of [the elites’] prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life.”
Moving beyond the domestic sphere, elite secession takes the form of detachment from the nation and its institutions. “Many of them,” he writes of the elites of the early 1990s, “have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense.” Their cosmopolitanism, like their feminism, has a material rationale: “[t]heir fortunes are tied to enterprises that operate across national boundaries.” Due to their professional and economic integration into the circuits of globalized capital, [t]heir loyalties . . . are international rather than regional, national, or local.” As a result, “[t]heirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world.” This is, he says, “not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy” since it implies indifference to the fate of the nation.
Another political consequence is a callousness about the plight of those left behind by the globalizing economy, whose jobs have been automated and offshored away. The latter are blamed for failing to acquire the skills now in demand; loyalty to the local is decried on the right as a stubborn refusal to “go where the jobs are” and on the left as evidence of backward parochialism and bigotry. Elite defection from the local and national also naturally encourages a disinvestment in the public sector and civic institutions. “Instead of supporting public services,” Lasch writes, “the new elites put their money into the improvement of their own self-enclosed enclaves . . . they have managed to relieve themselves, to a remarkable extent, of the obligation to contribute to the national treasury.” The bipartisan record of deregulation, privatizing reforms, and tax cuts that stretches from the 1990s to the present is the fruit of the worldview Lasch describes.
So while we might expect “revolt” to refer to a political movement, Lasch is actually pointing to an abandonment of politics, at least in the sense of a democratic enterprise based on broad participation. In this sense, the elites’ revolt resembles what Albert O. Hirschman called an “exit”: a unilateral departure from the nation into a sort of internal exile. But this is a paradoxical exile, because the class undertaking it is the one that largely controls electoral politics. However, any contradiction here is illusory, because the real point is a familiar one: politics has been reduced to a self-referential media spectacle estranged from the people it is supposed to serve. As Lasch writes, “Washington becomes a parody of Tinseltown; executives take to the airwaves, creating overnight the semblance of political movements; movie stars become political pundits, even presidents; reality and the simulation of reality become more and more difficult to distinguish.” It’s a supreme irony that Donald Trump, whose career is the culmination of the trajectory Lasch describes, managed to sell himself as the tribune of the forgotten masses.
In this regard, Lasch’s book is a critique of a “postmodern politics” in which contestation becomes limited to the field of representations, images, and spectacles. This tendency proceeds from the fact that “the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.” Again rooting their ideological predilections in their material circumstances, he writes that they “live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality . . . Their belief in the ‘social construction of reality’—the central dogma of postmodernist thought—reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control.” In Lasch’s account, what many think of as “postmodern” ideas are the inevitable worldview of people who “live in a world of abstractions and images.” The “thinking class” inhabited that world first in the computerized white-collar workspaces of the 1980s and 1990s; now, everyone does to some extent. The final triumph of postmodern politics around 2016 is a predictable consequence of this development.
When Lasch was writing, it was possible to view the “symbolic analysts” as assured in their dominant status. This was also the view of Robert Reich, who also served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration. The only other employment sector that Reich believed had any future in the United States was that of “in-person servers” who catered to the white-collar overclass, and whose service jobs could not be easily offshored. Reich, a progressive figure within the Clinton White House, saw no solutions to the gaping inequality between these classes other than expanding protections for the service sector workers and ensuring that the best and the brightest, regardless of background, had the chance to rise up, through meritocratic competition, into the ranks of the symbolic analysts.
The Democratic Party’s investment in education reform, from the Clinton era through the Obama era, followed from views like Reich’s: one of its main agenda items has been to give talented children from poor and minority backgrounds a chance to ascend into the educated elite. By some measures, this succeeded: more students graduate from high school and more attend college than was the case in the 1990s. However, as a result of the larger number of graduates, high school diplomas have lost much of the labor market advantage they once enjoyed, a trend already cited by Lasch in 1994.
This fact returns us to the phenomenon that concerns Turchin: elite overproduction. The effect of graduating more students from high school and sending more students to college was to increase competition for a comparatively static number of elite positions. Similar phenomena are occurring at higher levels of education. As Turchin noted back in 2013, there are 3 times as many lawyers now as in the 1970s, far outpacing population growth. Add to that the automation of some areas of legal work, and you have a situation where “twice as many law graduates pass the bar exam as there are job openings for them,” meaning that “every year U.S. law schools churn out about 25,000 ‘surplus’ lawyers, many of whom are in debt.”
The logic of elite secession, as described by Reich and Lasch, was that a comfortably ensconced professional class was pulling away from the rest of the population. The reality today is that the educated elite is internally fractured and contains a large subset of precarious malcontents. The values of this radicalized sector of surplus elites are mostly consistent with what Lasch observed among their better-positioned predecessors thirty years ago. They have little loyalty to the nation, and indeed tend to see national identity and its symbols as oppressive, as their participation in the recent dismantling of statues nationwide demonstrates. One might also view this attack on the material manifestations of an earlier era as an expression of technologically derived social constructivism. It is not just a revolt against particular symbols, but against the sheer solidity of the physical world as opposed to the malleability of the digital: a photoshopping of public space.
That the main non-symbolic target of the current revolt is the police presents ironies and ambiguities when viewed from a Laschian perspective. If American police are more prone to excessive force than their counterparts in other developed nations and if the racial disparities of this exercise of force reflect our racialized socio-economic caste system, this is partly because throughout the era of elite secession, law enforcement has been tasked with containing the fallout of the retraction of public services amidst plummeting prospects for the working class. Perhaps as compensation for their outsized role in enforcing neoliberal austerity, the police have managed to hold on to parts of the Fordist social contract that has been dissolved elsewhere: strong unions, benefits and pensions, and high levels of social mobility with minimal educational requirements attached.
It’s therefore unsurprising that police, who often seem to enjoy one of the few secure and relatively lucrative career paths outside of the meritocratic rat race, would become a target of resentment for participants in that race who are frustrated by its false promises. Some of the strangest but most revealing recent videos of protests have featured young radicals lecturing police about their lack of education. They may want to overthrow the system, but they share the credentialist biases of their “symbolic analyst” class.
In the early 1990s, progressive politics was becoming increasingly identified with the technocratic rule of experts, a tendency Lasch deplored. In this sense, the massive protests of recent months might seem to contrast with the withdrawal from mass politics he saw unfolding then. But the destruction wrought on cities during the recent unrest, much of it allegedly initiated by white non-locals in minority neighborhoods, seems symptomatic of the alienation from civic spaces that Lasch associated with the elites’ “remov[al of] themselves from the common life.” To what extent the current revolt is merely an intensification of the one Lasch already characterized in 1994, as opposed to a shift towards an entirely new political dispensation, remains an open question.
Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at