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What defines the essence of populism? What is it for, and what is it against? T. S. Eliot had some insights into this question nearly one hundred years ago. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot drew a fruitful distinction between the upper class and the elite. Class is inherited from one’s ancestors and is thus tied to family and to a place. Membership in the elite, in contrast, is acquired through the mastery of certain subjects and techniques, typically in selective cosmopolitan universities. As Eliot argues, class is inherently conservative and provides a rich soil for literary and artistic creativity, while a society dominated by elites loses the continuity of inherited tradition and suffers from a sterile obsession with artistic novelty.

Corresponding to Eliot’s distinction of class and elite is a distinction between “levelers” and populists. Levelers seek to destroy the stratification of class, and with it the integral life of the nuclear family and local community. Populism, in contrast, can be a reasonable and wholesome reaction to the dominance of elites. It is often a natural ally of conservatism.

Levelers object to any kind of hierarchy, however ancient and venerable: parents over children, priests over parishes, the gentry over the lower classes. Populists focus instead on liberating natural communities from those who rule in the name of reason, science, expertise, or competence—managers, bureaucrats, and academics—as well as from large-scale organizations (government agencies, universities, multinational corporations) that embody the same spirit of abstract knowledge and procedure.

Unlike Marx, Eliot does not define class in terms of economic or political function. For him, classes are defined in terms of a shared way of life, acquired primarily through family and secondarily through education, clubs, forms of recreation, and other small-scale, face-to-face association. Entry into and out of class requires at least one generation, often several.

The word “echelon” nicely captures Marx’s functionalist, politico-­economic conception of class. Echelons are defined in terms of political economy, that is, the degree of control over resources and organizations, including one’s own time and labor, through wealth, profession, or occupational position.

This gives us two kinds of hierarchy: class hierarchy and eche­lon hierarchy. The first rests on relations of honor, respect, influence, solicitude, and responsibility between social classes. The second depends on the ability to understand and manage people and the environment. In both cases, there is a tendency for the ­hierarchy to correspond to a linear ordering, from highest to lowest. The gentry form the highest class, the elite the highest echelon.

Levelers, including today’s liberals and cultural Marxists, attack the legitimacy of the class hierarchy on the grounds that one does not deserve one’s place in the class hierarchy. One’s class status could be just, levelers assert, only if each person somehow “chose” his own ancestors (as Bertrand Russell once quipped). Membership in the upper class cannot be considered a just reward, since none of us are responsible for the circumstances of our birth. Thus, levelers of the liberal persuasion insist that the only just society is a meritocratic one, in which individuals are sorted into echelons based on their individual characteristics—talent, character, individual achievement, and so on.

This leveling and meritocratic liberalism is an unstable halfway house between strict egalitarianism (like that of John Rawls) and Eliot’s ­unapologetic defense of social classes. After all, we don’t choose our own genetic endowments any more than we choose our ancestry. And there seems to be something incoherent about supposing that we choose our own moral character, since to choose a good character over a bad one is to demonstrate that one already has (to some extent) good character.

Moreover, Eliot points out, levelers rely on an atomistic anthropology that ignores that human beings are formed by and within a social class. Class is essential to the individual, not merely adventitious and extrinsic to him.

Leveling could be defended, however, on strictly consequentialist grounds. Levelers argue that institutions that reward individual achievement, native talent, and moral character ensure long-term prosperity for all, while those that reward merely extrinsic characteristics, such as membership in a social class, do not. In response, Eliot simply rejects the ideal of strict meritocracy and repeats the argument that a class hierarchy is indispensable for the creation and preservation of true culture.

To grasp Eliot’s point, we must first understand precisely what he means by “culture.” Professional anthropologists typically define culture in such a way that every group of human beings has a culture, in the sense of a pattern of interrelated activities. Eliot defined culture more narrowly: A culture is a deeper way of life, the incarnation of a shared religion, coming in more or less conscious forms. The culture of a people is always a particular incarnation, in a particular place and time, of a universal (or nearly universal) religion. It is quite possible for two regions at particular points in time to incarnate the same religion equally well but in different ways: Compare the culture of English recusants with Irish peasants or Italian Benedictines, or Eliot’s own poetry with that of Dante or Alexander Pope. Even the diversions and entertainment of a community can be expressions of its religious life, from explicitly religious festivals to betting on horses or reading newspapers in coffeehouses.

Eliot’s definition of culture as incarnate religion creates the possibility of anti-culture. A purely secular, nonreligious society would lack a culture in Eliot’s sense. So, too, would a society that had successfully privatized religion, so that its religion, insofar as it could be incarnate at all, was incarnate only at the level of individual lives. Finally, a society whose dominant religion is gnostic would also be anti-cultural. By “gnostic religion” I mean a religion or quasi-religion that rejects the very possibility of its being incarnate in this world and in this age. A philosophy such as Marxism or modern liberalism, which rejects existing social institutions and advocates their total replacement, is likewise anti-cultural, in Eliot’s sense (at least, until the eschaton is successfully immanentized).

True culture at the highest level is the product of an artistic and critical elite, but an elite that is grounded in, nurtured by, and responsible to the upper class. Great artists don’t get ahead through their own talent and ethic alone. They are trained in and sponsored by upper-class institutions.

A society with a healthy culture, supported by a class hierarchy, realizes that culture at two levels, one relatively unconscious (folk culture) and the other relatively conscious and reflective (high culture). A leveling, elite-dominated society produces something quite different: the relatively unconscious level of pop culture, and the more conscious level of elite anti-culture.

Pop entertainment is a purely commercial enterprise, an imitation and perversion of folk culture. It is addictive but transitory, appealing to an appetite for novelty and distraction. Pop entertainment is truly the opiate of the masses in a leveling society: numbing, anesthetic, escapist. Folk culture, in contrast, is enduring, ­noncommercial, and anonymous, and it is perpetuated by families, schools, and clubs. It unifies the members of a local community, living, dead, and not yet born, a source of collective memory.

High culture is the rearticulation of folk culture at a more conscious and reflective level. High culture is more changeable than folk culture, and yet its best products are at least as enduring as folk culture. Elite anti-culture needs culture to do just that, to level, and so it favors ironic, ideological, and adversarial art (­created and supported by a leveling elite). Elite anti-culture ignores folk culture altogether, instead offering a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of pop entertainment and advertisement, as with Andy Warhol’s painting of Campbell’s Soup cans. It glories in profanation of the sacred, for instance, combining sacred symbols with excrement or urine, or superimposing deviant and transgressive sexuality upon ordinary life, including the life of children and the home. Anti-culture looks upon high culture with a knowing, supercilious disdain, reflecting its own nihilism and rejecting what it sees as the naive worship of beauty, order, or meaning. Instead of building on the past, anti-culture must destroy it, judging past artists (including Eliot himself) by contemporary standards of ­egalitarianism.

Eliot assumes, correctly in my opinion, that a classless society would be one “dominated exclusively by elites.” Marx’s dream of perfect social equality is a groundless fantasy. In the absence of an upper class, managers and scientific experts will exercise outsize influence over the direction of society in all respects, including religion, education, and culture.

This classless elite will necessarily be an anti-cultural elite. Since they will not belong to a single class, they will have no culture or manners in common, but will be united only by conscious, verbal, and rational beliefs and commitments. Eliot writes, “The elites, in consequence, will consist solely of individuals whose only bonds will be their professional interest: with no social cohesion, with no social continuity. They will be united only by a part, and that the most conscious part, of their personalities; they will meet like committees.”

Colleges, even the Ivy League, were once largely local and regional affairs, catering to the members of a relatively close-knit community. Today, with the creation (through standardized tests) of a single, multinational, and highly competitive admissions pool and with professors sought primarily on the basis of their research reputation rather than their fidelity to a tradition of learning and scholarship, academic communities have become precisely the kind of sterile committees Eliot describes, united only by technical competence and ideological disputes. In the humanities, we have lost the traditional role of critic, exemplified by Samuel Johnson, Donald Davidson, and Eliot. Critics have been replaced by academic experts lacking in wisdom but strong in a certain theoretical facility.

This elite anti-culturalism has political and economic roots. Wealth that is based on the inheritance of land or small business corresponds to the economic dominance of class, which supports both constitutional conservation and local variation. The dominance of a rootless managerial class, however, envisioned more than seventy years ago by James Burnham in his The Managerial Revolution, is an elitist version of capitalism that threatens most of what conservatives stand for, a point grasped by G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Wilhelm Röpke, and Robert Nisbet.

At the time of the American founding, the Federalists sought to combat leveling through institutions that favored the upper class. In the last two centuries, though, our economy has undergone the managerial revolution, the population has swollen, higher education has become nationalized and globalized, and power has concentrated in Washington, substituting the rule of a culturally progressive elite for that of a conservative, aristocratic class. In the modern context, then, populists must seek to curtail the power of some of the very institutions that conservative Federalists erected, ­including the U.S. Senate and the federal judiciary.

The leaders and thinkers who prosecute the populist reform need not be drawn exclusively from the upper class, but they must themselves draw their outlook from and be supported by that upper class. Otherwise, they cannot participate faithfully in the pre-conscious, tacit, and practical knowledge that is conveyed by families and other close-knit social networks.

Populist conservatives should, therefore, combat the growing power of the technical and managerial elite and defend the privileges of the upper class. We should advocate changes in tax and contract law that favor small businesses and large, privately held firms over corporations, nation-based businesses over multinationals, equity over debt, and regional banks and credit unions over Wall Street. We should fight for the abolition of inheritance and gift taxes, and for the exemption of family farms and businesses from capital gains taxes.

We should also fight against the tendency for the elite to isolate themselves educationally. Hyper-selective private colleges should be forced to relax their admissions standards and focus on serving their local region. Above all, teachers, scholars, critics, intellectuals, priests and pastors, artists, and parents should assume once again their duty to pass along the tradition of high culture to the young, recognizing that the ­products of anti-culture and pop culture are no basis for a healthy, intelligent ­society. 

Robert C. Koons is professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.