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A kick up the meritocrats

THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch, Norton £16.95
THE soul sinks at the sight of yet another American book proclaiming the virtues of that most slippery of concepts, "the community". Don't the publishers realise that Britain is not America? That Britain's difficulties, class structure, myths and culture are not and cannot be the same as America's? But once inside Christopher Lasch's angry and untidy attack on the separation of the new rich from society, written while the best-selling polemicist was in the last stages of leukaemia, the sense of being patronised fades.

Most "communitarian" works, whatever the political affiliations of their authors, slip with suspicious ease from talking about the problems of society as a whole to lamenting the awfulness of the poor. In Britain, the middle-class feminist left condemns poor, young men for causing crime and failing to mature into useful citizens (the unmarriageable brutes), while the middle-class right condemns poor, young women for having babies and living on benefit (the promiscuous scroungers).

Lasch targets this symmetry between lite attitudes of left and right. Managerial and professional lites are not so much a new ruling class, he writes, because that would imply that they led society, however badly, and participated in its institutions. Rather their aim is to separate themselves from the community: "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."

In the process, they have dev-eloped a contempt for any obligations to the rest of society, and an idealistic belief that their wealth will continue to grow regardless of what happens to the rest of their country.

The unreality of high bourgeois life is summed up for Lasch by the cult of working out, which he hates with a passion. "While young professionals subject themselves to an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay - to maintain themselves in a state of permanent youthfulness, eternally attractive and remarriageable - ordinary people accept the body's decay."

Rich liberals are just as cut off from the society around them. Frightened of talking about class, they concentrate on policies of "positive discrimination" for women and blacks and censoring their opponents rather than arguing with them.

We are so used to giving unthinking support to meritocracyx and careers open to talents, that his attack is shocking and original. He does not merely repeat the old socialist line that the vast majority of people born poor can never become millionaires (and vice versa), but adds that the very notion of meritocracy has devalued respect for physical labour and craftsmanship. No one who wants to get on becomes a good carpenter. There's no money or status in it. The economic consequences of this misplaced contempt can be all too clearly seen in America and, indeed, Britain.

Often, however, his analysis is all over the place and there's precious little in the way of facts and figures to back his arguments up. There is a long and ponderous chapter on American state schools which criticises them for not teaching politics and religion and for cutting children off from the adult world. He suggests they should be abolished. But to be replaced by what? He doesn't say.

He condemns secular liberals for despising religion as the source of intolerance, when, he argues, faith challenges complacency and promotes responsibility. This misses the point. Most atheists are atheists not because they hate religious dogmatists, but because ever since Darwin it has been impossible to believe in the truth of any holy book you care to mention.

The Revolt of the Elites falls away the further into the book you get - perhaps the author's illness is to blame. It is worth reading nevertheless. Lasch will leave no disciples; there will be no school of Laschian thinkers. But the next time I hear a Conservative frontbencher explaining how the free market will promote prosperity or a Labour frontbencher explaining how imposing well-heeled women candidates from London on provincial constituency parties will promote equality, I will also hear Christopher Lasch's snorts of derision in the background and think fondly of him.