Christopher Lasch, the Meritocratic Elite, and Social Mobility
Keying off Samuel Goldman’s excellent post last week on the meritocratic elite, I thought of the late Christopher Lasch’s mid-’90s classic The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of American Democracy — in particular, Lasch’s essay on social mobility.
Lasch’s argument was that “the concept of social mobility embodies a fairly recent and sadly impoverished understanding of the the ‘American Dream,’ and that its ascendancy, in our own time, measures the recession of the dream and not its fulfillment.” The term “social mobility,” Lasch noted, emerged after the Depression as a sort of best-case-scenario gloss on an ugly reality: “a rigorous separation of manual and mental labor and a hierarchy of social status in which those who worked with their hands ranked at the bottom…” The essay is full of great insights on the social literature of mobility, Lincoln’s seminal defense of wage labor, and much more. (Find some of it here.)
For now I’ll excerpt its powerful finishing kick:
The truth is that our society is at once “highly stratified and highly mobile,” in the words of Wendell Berry. There is little evidence that rates of vertical mobility have declined. On the contrary, a vast body of social research points fairly consistently to the conclusion that rates of mobility have remained more or less constant ever since the Civil War. During that same period of time, however, the concentration of corporate power, the decline of small-scale production, the separation of production from consumption, the growth of the welfare state, the professionalization of knowledge, and the erosion of competence, responsibility, and citizenship have made the United States into a society in which class divisions run far more deeply than they did in the past.
Roughly 20 years later, Lasch’s gloom is even more justifiable.