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BOOK REVIEW / Chivalry and meritocratic fig-leaves

THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES Christopher Lasch Norton £16.95
Lasch by name, and lash by nature. The author, an American professor of history, has already given his country's political culture several good thrashings, in works such as The Culture of Narcissisim and The True and Only Heaven. Now, in a book completed just before his death last year, he has taken up the rod once more. The diagnosis is the same: the word "malaise" appears often. Political debate is a wreck, the old certainties are dying, the masses are ignorant, spiritual values have sunk, and so on. But Lasch has fingered the villains: the self- serving professional and managerial classes who make up the lite. These are, more or less, his readers, so if nothing else his book gives a nice spin to the term "target audience".

It is large, this lite. Lasch lists the guilty parties: brokers, bankers, property developers, engineers, consultants, systems analysts, scientists, doctors, publicists, publishers, editors, advertising executives, art directors, movie makers, entertainers, journalists, television producers, artists, writers and (what the hell) university professors. These people, he suggests, are united only by an individualistic desire to feather their own nests at the expense of the community that supports them.

Lasch draws energy from each wing of political thought, rejecting both as he goes. His book is a good, bold plea for a revitalised political morality to address the decline of those shared middle-American values that have been betrayed by a pseudo-liberal lite that refuses to accept any limits on its own aspirations. It is half Tony Benn and half Margaret Thatcher and full of enthusiastic contradictions. When pouring scorn on the notion of state intervention (this being merely the self-aggrandisement of politicians) he defines democracy as sturdy self-reliance. But when he lambasts individualism, he calls it a proud collective endeavour.

It is refreshing enough to see someone blaming the lites for society's ills. Only an age that has thought of blaming single mothers or black underachievers for economic decline could be surprised by the idea that those with the power should carry the can. Lasch's thesis is that professional lites are insular, cut off and irresponsible, and his book is a hearty attack on selfish careerism. As such, it is bound to give most readers an uncomfortable moment or two. Social mobility is a sham, he asserts, a crafty way of nullifying the opposition by draining the working class of its best and brightest and thus depriving it of talented leadership. Meritocracy is a figleaf, an egalitarian cover for a self-perpetuating privileged caste that has bought the top slice of the education system for its own private use. Feminism is bogus as well, just a humane-sounding route to a pleasant modern luxury: the two-career family. Lasch does not consider that the two-career family, for many women, might be an improvement on the old one-career family. He is too busy regretting the decline of lost manly virtues: industry, chivalry, valour and courtly love.

Sometimes his impatience with the existing order, or disorder, dissolves into mere posy gestures. "Maybe the time has come," he writes, "to start all over again." This is the rhetoric of someone who thinks it fun to put society in the stocks and throw fruit at it. And it's a pity, since much of what he says is provoking, that he screeches towards noisy airport philosophy. He writes like someone whose main wish is to be disagreed with: this would confirm him in his lite role as lonely, unsung truth- teller. One chapter is called "The Lost Art of Argument". It describes how the media have inspired a culture based on information rather than opinion. Instead of intelligent debate, Lasch argues, we get fractious, sour dogma and name-calling. "If we insist on argument as the essence of education," he writes, "we will cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of expression, and sound judgement."

No doubt his formulae will please people who think the world is going to the dogs and that we clever-clogs readers are the last sane people on earth. But after a while you think: when was the art of argument ever lost? There are, after all, plenty of proper and fierce arguments on the loose, even in the docile West: prolonged exchanges about states, races, societies, individuals, the media, morality, sexuality, families, crime, punishment, market economics, technology and animal rights, not to mention poverty, war, famine, the environment and so on. They crop up in pubs as well as at posh dinner tables; they occasionally surface, heaven protect us, in newspapers and television programmes; they have even been spotted in political circles. Many of them are featured in this book. The lost art? Sometimes the welter of clashing arguments makes our heads spin. It is tempting to think that it was not the decline of argument that annoyed Lasch, so much as its dizzy rise. "The whole world," he says at the end, "is going through a dark night of the soul." The whole world? I wonder.

Robert Winder