- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

The New Elite’s Silly Virtue-Signaling Consumption

Today’s ascendant class, which emerged in the late 1970s and burgeoned in the 1990s, has been called the “educated elite,” the “cosmopolitan class,” the “new establishment,” the “creative class,” the “meritocratic elite,” the “exam-passing class,” the “metropolitan class,” the “new face of wealth,” the “labor market elite,” the “new upper class,” the “bourgeois bohemians,” the “anywheres.” This no-longer-so-new economic, cultural, and social formation has been lauded, denounced, and dispassionately scrutinized. And these conflicting endeavors have, surprisingly, yielded a definitional consensus. 

Owing to transformations in both information technology and the international economic system, the national and global economy has rewarded people blessed with high cognitive abilities and glamorous academic achievements. The winners include, most conspicuously, those who control and manage the international flow of capital and of information in its various forms—a group that includes, say, show runners at HBO, program officers at the Gates Foundation, journalists in the national news media, and faculty and administrators at prestigious universities, as much as it does the entrepreneurs, bioengineers, coders, and designers in the technology sector and the consultants at McKinsey, bankers at Goldman Sachs, and lawyers at Wachtell, Lipton. 

[1]

This elite has been inculcated with a set of attitudes, shibboleths, and aesthetic preferences that, strikingly, both its detractors and celebrants trace (albeit vaguely and convolutedly) to what they define (albeit vaguely and convolutedly) as the culture and mindset of the 1960s. (The great sociologist Daniel Bell might more precisely have characterized this as the progressive individualism created by late capitalism). These commentators have consistently identified “diversity” and “tolerance” as the qualities to which the new elite most reverently genuflects; “environmentalism” and “healthism” as its ethos; and—echoing the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society—what they variously characterize as “self-cultivation,” “self-fulfillment,” and “self-expression” as its animating pursuit.  

A social and political outlook based on self-fulfillment easily lapses into self-indulgence. Capitalism itself elevates individual choice as the highest good, and a complex capitalist society presents an array of subtle choices. The population that has the means to pursue those choices fully and that has abjured religion, mass political movements, and other transcendent pursuits naturally progresses into consumer narcissism when its worldview so relentlessly focuses on the self. (Recall Jerry Rubin’s effortless transformation from performing Yippie antics to assuring his followers that “it’s OK to enjoy the rewards of life that money brings.”)

This consumption comes in two forms. One is tangible (the right greens purchased at the right market, the right street food purchased from the right food truck, the right handbag purchased at the right boutique, the right house purchased in the right neighborhood). The intangible form includes the right indie music, day school, college, and grad program. Either way, consumption becomes the dominant means of self-definition. So it’s not as surprising as it first appears that studies scholarly and satirical—such as Sharon Zukin’s Point of Purchase, Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like, Lisa Birnbach’s True Prep, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart—have largely defined this educated elite by probing what it buys and what those purchases signify. 

In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, has refined this exercise by synthesizing up-to-date information on elite spending in a handful of cities—including New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—which she defines as “the geographical lens through which we can observe the consumption habits of the new elites.” Subjecting those spending preferences to fine-grained analysis, she has, partially unintentionally, presented a dark picture of this elite (which she calls the “aspirational class”).

What emerges perhaps most plainly from Currid-Halkett’s study—in chapters of breezy academic analysis that confirm the precisely observed anecdotal essays of Lander’s Stuff White People Like—is the dogged devotion that members of the educated elite apply to their own care and feeding. Spending time, money and labor in pursuit of health has become a virtue, telegraphed by particular accessories (think yoga pants) and even the achievement of a particular muscular structure. The rampant “food culture” invented by the educated elite—involving the Stakhanovite quest and conspicuous consumption of usually expensive comestibles reckoned healthy, organic, “sustainable,” “ethnic,” and esoteric—is inexhaustibly and rapturously scrutinized by the New York Times, a paper that emerged in the 1990s as the national chronicler and sounding board of that class.

From 1998 to 2008, restaurant employment in Manhattan—a borough, of course, already brimming with restaurants—grew by more than 50 percent, a phenomenon that coincides with the elite’s ever-growing sway in that city. This, by the way, is reflected in the 73 percent growth in New York’s college-educated population and the 15 percent diminution of its non-college-educated population. The educated elite’s strenuous preoccupation with food differs not only in degree but in kind from the traditional and contemporary non-elite economic activities of grocery shopping and eating out. As Charles Murray has painstakingly shown, in the 1960s the now hopelessly passé dinners of the middle class—beef or chicken and potato—mirrored those of the rich, who in their tastes and buying preferences, were different, as Hemingway would have it, only because they had more money.

Currid-Halkett convincingly argues that the consumer preferences of today’s elite—be it the approved podcast, TED Talk, or magazine; goat tacos from the farmers market, a five-dollar cup of Intelligentsia Coffee, ceviche at the Oaxacan restaurant in the approved urban enclave, or tuition for the anointed school—are now the primary means by which members of the educated elite establish, reinforce, and signify their identities. In a detailed analysis of the experience of shopping at a Whole Foods supermarket, for instance, she explores the rather stark hypothesis that “for the aspirational class, we are what we eat, drink, and consume more generally.” By creating “an identity and story to which people wish to subscribe,” the store allows members of that class to “consume [their] way to a particular type of persona.” The upshot is that elite consumption—the pursuit of personal gratification—somewhat paradoxically entwines with the pursuit and buttressing of what amounts to a tribal identity.

This process depends on the great extent to which the elite’s consumption is at once devoted to and relies on “cultural capital”—that is, the adoption of values, tastes, and norms through social inculcation and formal education. That cup of Intelligentsia coffee may “only” cost five dollars, but learning about it in the first place depends on prizing the judgment of certain cultural tastemakers (again, say, the New York Times and those right-thinking podcasts), and on possessing a worldview that attaches a particular value and virtue to a particular container of hot liquid. Acquiring that cultural capital is, itself, a rarefied and usually expensive endeavor, because it involves a lengthy and complex process of what the sociologists call cultural and social formation: The peculiar cachet that the educated class attaches to that cup of coffee is far more likely to elude the daughter of an insurance adjuster brought up in Lansing, Kansas (a middle-class suburb of Kansas City), who attended the local high school and Kansas State, than it is the daughter of a screenwriter raised in uber-achieving north-of-Montana-Avenue Santa Monica, who attended the Harvard-Westlake School and Yale. Thus, buying that cup of coffee—or that organic cotton t-shirt, or that subscription to Harper’s—signifies a class identity that the purchase, in turn, reinforces.

Currid-Halkett’s analysis of the means of forming that identity reveals its superficiality. For example, as The Sum of Small Things establishes, many of the elite’s purchases are made in the name of protecting the environment. But the notion that self-denial—rather than buying things to gratify oneself—might better serve that end seems absent from the elite worldview. Currid-Halkett details the myriad pleasant-tasting, difficult to obtain, and generally pricey environmentally aware foodstuffs the elite consumes. But apparently missing from that menu are the vegetarian or vegan options, notwithstanding the compelling case for adopting a non-meat diet—pleasure and convenience aside—in order to arrest global warming. (Currid-Halkett herself is taken in by corporate public relations or the elite’s myopia when she describes Shake Shack—the small chain of hip, upscale, casual urban restaurants that specialize in hamburgers—as an example of a purveyor of “environmentally conscious food”).

The same goes for the educated elite’s exercise regimens. Back when David Brooks full-throatedly cheered for that class’s values and lifestyle in Bobos in Paradise, he lauded its dedication to exercise and healthy diet as proof that it wasn’t self-indulgent. Obviously, he didn’t think the idea through as far as did those two great left-wing social conservatives George Orwell and Christopher Lasch, who reserved a circle in hell for exercise devotees. They recognized that optimizing one’s own well-being is evidence not of self-denial but of self-absorption, and is thus antithetical to what they saw as the approach to life required to safeguard family life and properly raise children.

Given that this class’s identity depends on a form of consumption that revolves around the display of cultural capital, it’s unsurprising that so much of the elite’s intellectual and political life is merely gestural—a point nicely supported by Currid-Halkett’s assessment of Paul Krugman’s importance to that group’s identity:

Krugman’s actual insights are less important than recognizing that reading Krugman is important. Reading the New York Times is a part of the aspirational class shared language, and citing Krugman (and knowing he’s a Nobel Prize winner) at a dinner party is a significant part of fitting in with this group. The awareness of Krugman and the New York Times, not Krugman’s thoughts in and of themselves (with all due respect), demonstrates cultural capital.

The cultural “products” that Currid-Halkett highlights as holding particular prestige for the educated elite—HBO dramas, TED Talks, podcasts, documentary films—are consistent with the gestural (one might say lazy) nature of elite intellectual activity. Consuming these products (or even reading Paul Krugman’s column) is entirely different from, say, wrestling with a thorny passage in the Book of Job or Das Kapital. Listening to a podcast or watching a TED Talk certainly exhibits and enhances cultural capital, but those are merely acts of passive consumption, rather than of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. Thus, for instance, Christian Lander has recognized the complacent and intellectually and politically stultifying character of so many undertakings that members of the elite tout as broadening: They “like feeling smart without doing work—two hours in a [movie] theater is easier than ten hours with a book.”

Slack and risible as are the attitudes that impel and are engendered by elite consumption, the consequence of that consumption is, as Currid-Halkett baldly asserts, “pernicious.” Sophisticated marketing, consumer solipsism, and a sense of meritocratic entitlement combine to instill the consumption preferences and habits of the metropolitan elite with what Currid-Halkett characterizes as “a sense of morality and deservedness.” This unlovely and unearned self-regard produces a baleful attitude. Currid-Halkett’s deconstruction of the painstaking measures Whole Foods deploys to inculcate its customers with the belief that “you are a better global citizen and healthier person” prompts the inevitable question: Better and healthier than whom? The educated elite’s spending decisions—decisions that, as Currid-Halkett lays bare, imbue the purchase of a $2 organic heirloom tomato with a peculiar virtue—beget and fortify that class’s conviction that its members are more conscientious, better informed, and more virtuous than those outside its charmed circle.

Thus by means of what is, at bottom, a self-gratifying act, spending money—rather than by means of compassion, piety, courage, or self-sacrifice—a lucky elite has set itself above ordinary people by virtue of its aesthetic tastes and preferences, which it has elevated to a self-defined enlightenment. The result, Currid-Halkett writes, is “a deep cultural divide that has never existed with such distinction as it does today.” Echoing Charles Murray’s analysis in Coming Apart of this elite’s cultural and physical self-segregation, she demonstrates that geography is underscoring and accelerating the malignancy of that divide: The great cities of the United States and throughout the Western world are solidifying into clusters of the extremely talented and ferociously competitive.

Using somewhat circular logic, Currid-Halkett asserts that these meritocratic capitals are alluring because they are where “most aspirational class members live and consume and thus transmit values and status to one another.” (Illuminating the citified character of the educated elite, Lisa Birnbach’s True Prep unintentionally reveals that “Ivy League” style, taste, and mores, which were traditionally tweedy, threadbare, town-and-country, and insular, are now urban, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan.) Describing the process of  “assortative mating” and elite bunching that Murray previously elucidated, Currid-Halkett explains that “smart people want to be around other smart people…over time that results in highly stratified hyper-educated affluent places.”

Reflecting and exacerbating the cultural divide, these cities have increasingly become culturally homogenous echo-chambers. The consumption patterns and cultural and political attitudes of, say, London, central Paris, the westside of Los Angeles, the northside of Chicago, Manhattan, Seattle, Northwest D.C., Toronto, and San Francisco resemble each other more than they do their outlying districts and suburbs.

As befits these engines of global capitalism, these cities and their inhabitants are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures. Untethered from their localities, they are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands. Currid-Halkett is surely right that this process represents a divide between (to somewhat simplify matters) the cosmopolitans and the provincials, but it is hardly an equal struggle. The wealth, dynamism, and consequent self-belief are all on one side; the unorganized, self-defeating resentment is all on the other. The cosmopolitan elite will shape the world as that elite wishes, even if the results ultimately prove disastrous to all.

Benjamin Schwarz is national editor of The American Conservative.

This article was made possible with support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

85 Comments (Open | Close)

85 Comments To "The New Elite’s Silly Virtue-Signaling Consumption"

#1 Comment By owen On September 16, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

Oh my. Undies meet bundle. What exactly is Mr. Schwartz in such a snit about? The world changes. What people care about changes. Wh gives a rats ass if someone would rather eat food that actually has a taste rather than drive a 7,000 pound hunk of steel designed to become obsolete in a few years. Does Mr. S actually think status seeking is a new thing with this generation? And really, conflating education with elitism? You worship a guy who has gold toilets and is the poster child for vulgarity.
This is the pathetic cry of a man worried about find enough food that won’t be difficult to chew. Good grief.

#2 Comment By Ben On September 17, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

Attention: Kimchee is available via commercial production. It has been on the shelves in elitist So. Cal Albertson for a minimum of 20 years. I feel your pain, but perhaps, just perhaps, you do not deserve commercially produced Kimchee? Just as the elite New England abolitionist sent copies of the Declaration and other elite twaddle to the barefoot unlearned south of the Mason Dixon, we Western snobs should send Kimchee to those unfortunate and unstylish few who do not live next to a body of water.

#3 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On September 17, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

A good critical article on an interesting topic.
A new, rich, dynamic class is not bad in itself. It’s bad when resentment and mutual hatred appear. Every person, every culture is looking for what they need more.
Life and death are competing on the planet for more than one billion years, but one thing is clear that the more complex the organism or culture, the more vulnerable they are to damage. It seems to me that if someone is looking for light, not darkness, then conservative values, are more reliable for such searches. Vanity on the one hand as well as envy on the other hand will only be a hindrance.
Someone may envy the “inhabitants of global capitalism cities, which are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures”.
The oldest cities of the planet Damascus and Varanasi are about 5000 years old. But who can firmly state that Washington, Moscow, Beijing or Istanbul will be able to live up to this age, and not turn into a Cambodian Anchor in half a century?

#4 Comment By Hal Fiore On September 17, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

Like most partisan hack jobs, this one makes a few valid points, but paints with an absurdly broad brush and misses much. Caricatures are a lazy man’s excuse for analysis. I hope the referenced literature is better.

From where I sit at the Farmers Market, I have no quibble with “educated,” because that’s often what it takes to realize the bigger picture that makes one appreciate the value of things, nor with “elite,” because, heck, if they want to think of themselves that way, it’s OK with me, though I find that’s more often a pejorative thrown by a lazy writer than anything else. As long as they are willing to pay a fair price for produce grown without poisoning the biosphere or wasting finite resources, they can call themselves anything they want.

And it doesn’t hurt that the virtue signaled by some of these activities are, in fact, well, virtuous. There, I said it. Being healthy rather than disease-ridden like much of the population in these parts, and thereby being less of a burden on society is a good thing, you know. Objectively.

Realizing that, at some point, we are going to have to come up with models that allow a farmer to sustainably produce food for everyone else, and being willing to shoulder some of the cost of the few nascent efforts being made in that area is also what I would call virtuous. What would you call it?

Yeah, I get as annoyed at the foodie culture as anyone, and any form of conspicuous consumption is sinful at its core, but what slice of the population is without that sin? Pride has been around for a while now.

This author just wants to pick on a particular subset of the culture on which he projects social/political enmity. If anything is silly, I assure you, that is. People that are willing to plop down real money for my tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, peas, peppers and squash are just as likely to be Trump voters as Hillary voters.

#5 Comment By Age of Nero On September 17, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

The current situation reminds me a bit of how the late 70s turned into the early 80s. The beautiful healthy white people playing tennis and riding 10-speeds during the day (largely in California), listening to vaguely leftist acoustic singer-songwriters, and hobnobbing to the sounds of vacuous overproduced dance music with the increasingly trendy gay/ black/ Hispanic population at night (usually in New York City). A Democratic president tried to redeem the country from the wartime fatigue of his Republican predecessor, but surprisingly lost to a right-wing celebrity despite the fact that nobody seemed able to take him seriously. Out of this mess rose the Yuppie – affluent, trendy, egregiously narcissistic consumers and investors with a decided technology fetish. Oh, and everybody couldn’t wait for the next Star Wars and Superman movie.

#6 Comment By lorenzo On September 17, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

This is a point that has been made over and over in the last 10-15 years by academics reinventing Bourdieu everytime.

#7 Comment By chucho On September 17, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

Today’s elite is woefully ignorant vs. a generation or two ago. How many residents of Park Slope could answer all of the following questions?

– Which came first: Mannerism or the Baroque style?

– What’s the difference between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian?

– Which came first: the Seven Years’ War or the Thirty Years’ War?

– What’s the difference between a rondo and theme & variations?

– Who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress?

My point is not to show off pedantic knowledge; it is rather that the elite class today is utterly ignorant when it comes to history, literature, religion and the arts (to say nothing of geography, law, economics and political theory). They pride themselves on knowledge, but their knowledge is a confused mixture of pop culture, fashion, culinary ingredients and liberal cant. They demand to be listened to, and erupt in fury when not obeyed (e.g. Trump, Brexit). But why should anyone listen to them? They know nothing about anything worth knowing.

#8 Comment By Ashley Squishy On September 17, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

“Currid-Halkett’s deconstruction of the painstaking measures Whole Foods deploys to inculcate its customers with the belief that “you are a better global citizen and healthier person” prompts the inevitable question: Better and healthier than whom?”

I don’t think the question is “better and healthier than whom?” but is a matter of being better and healthier than one was before one became, as current jargon would characterize, “woke”.

The larger premise of this piece, and the book it reviews, however, have been dissected to death over the last forty years. Starting with compendium “The New Class” edited by B. Bruce-Briggs (1976), David Lebedoff’s “The New Elite” (1980), Lisa Birnbach’s “The Yuppie Handbook” (1983) and on and on. What bothers me about the subjects of these analyses is not so much their politics (which is not always leftwing, as some have noted), but their sense of entitlement and utter lack of humility and gratitude to God for the talents with which they were endowed and the opportunities they got to achieve what they did.

This sort of thing will go on for probably another 10-15 years, but the future of the New Class is questionable as automation has already affected the growth of jobs in what Robert Reich used to call “symbolic analysis”. Some economists have even claimed that such job growth already peaked as far back as 2000. I’m glad I’m retired.

#9 Comment By Ukoy On September 17, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

Those beatnick whipper snappers need to know their place. Cars with fishtails on them, oh my!

Now there is this new fangled music called Rock and or Roll. This Elvis fellow is shaking his hips, that is so perverse. Next you might let a colored fellow run a company.

#10 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 18, 2017 @ 12:20 am

Curious Reader,

Is agency really reduced now compared to any other time in modern (or pre-modern) history? We have more freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness than ever before, at least in my estimation. That most people will take it back to Locke and the pursuit of property as a means of happiness shouldn’t be too surprising. I do believe there are more people today taking advantage of their freedom to take control of their lives and move to better themselves and their communities. I’m not saying the majority isn’t just mindlessly using their freedom to consume whatever confers highest status in their tribe, but even that is a step up from slavery, serfdom, or working in a sweatshop. I wasn’t alive the mythical 50s everybody seems so enamoured with these days, but nobody who was has ever given me the impression that there was greater agency then or that it was less consumed by consumerism. Perhaps consumerism was less culturally promoted then though.

#11 Comment By Whitehall On September 18, 2017 @ 6:22 am

My problem with Whole Foods came over a muffin.

I would stop on my way to my office in the morning to buy one of their very good muffins. They cost $2.00 each but were worth it.

Whole Foods then announced that they would purchase all of their electricity from wind and solar.

They promptly raised the price of my morning muffin to $2.25.

Coincidence?

With that 12.5% increase due to virtue signaling, I changed my breakfast purchase habits and just passed by Whole Foods in the morning.

#12 Comment By Quetin On September 18, 2017 @ 7:46 am

Bret Easton Ellis said it all nearly thirty years ago in American Psycho—more subtly and entertainingly. By the way, what is actually the difference between an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian?

#13 Comment By funemployed On September 18, 2017 @ 9:31 am

Krugman isn’t a Nobel Prize Winner. There is no Nobel Prize in Economics. It’s a con. The Nobel family and foundation are vehemently opposed.

#14 Comment By Bob Krantz On September 18, 2017 @ 10:11 am

To summarize: most people are fools; some have more money.

#15 Comment By mrscracker On September 18, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

Ben,
Does living near a body of water make one more sophisticated?
Pretty much every state below the Mason Dixon qualifies. With a couple exceptions. Maybe you can count the Mississippi as a body of water, too.
Our section of the country actually has two coasts, plus the Mississippi. That’s a lot of waterfront.
🙂

#16 Comment By Marshall MacDougall On September 18, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian with a trust fund.

A Presbyterian is a Methodist with a college education.

And a Methodist is a Baptist with shoes.

More seriously (intra-WASP divisions having markedly declined), Presbyterians are/were Calvinist, predominantly Scottish in origin, and organized under groups of elders (presbyterosin Greek). Episcopelians in turn derive from the Church of England, are High Church (‘Protestant, yet Catholic’), and have bishops (epískopos in Greek, meaning ‘Overseer’).

And now you know, and knowing is half the battle. 😉

#17 Comment By Curious Reader On September 18, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

Thomas Hobbes,
I don’t think human agency was greater in the 1950s; I’m not one of those who see “pre-1968” as a golden age. I think the rise of industrialism gave rise to the confusion of wants and needs; and hence the progressive attenuation of agency in certain areas. And earlier than this, enlightenment ideologies of what a human was or was not were busy working towards related ends.

Personally, I take as a given certain spiritual realities–I’m a Christian of a traditional sort; but I see many of the same realities in Judaism and in the more mystical strains of Islam. Agency is moral and metaphysical; ultimately we are meant to use our agency to embrace who we are as human beings, in relationship to the divine.

I’m not naive enough to believe that, say, the middle ages were some golden age of happy peasants, benign lords, temporal and spiritual (I don’t believe there is a golden age within history); but at least premodern people in some cases used their agency in its proper field: knowing what a human was; and then acting appropriately. The most clever minds of generations were not aimed at getting people to obsess over HBO’s latest offerings, for example.

I suspect your view is much more modern than mine, however.

#18 Comment By Will Harrington On September 18, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

Chris C. says:
September 14, 2017 at 6:53 pm
All the more reason for #Bluexit.

OK, Go away now. Just make sure you pay us well for the food you don’t grow.

#19 Comment By mhjhnsn On September 18, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

Amazing how most of the comments seem to miss the point, which is not that being educated is bad (tho, being indoctrinated and believing it is), or that an appetite for finer foods, etc., is bad, which it isn’t.

The problem is that a huge number of people have an incredibly inflated and undeserved opinion of themselves, their knowledge, their morality, and their superiority, and seek to impose their prejudices on the entire country, if not the world. And, they have the resources to pursue that inclination and they thereby cause tremendous pain and disruption.

Most of them hate Trump, but the things this review discusses are why we got Trump–and if last night’s Emmys are an indication, why he will be re-elected if he runs in 2020. People might think on that, if they can be a bit self-reflective.

#20 Comment By Ukoy On September 18, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

mhjhnsn,

Your comment perfectly describes the Republican party and the three tiers of their Evangelical wing, their Libertarian wing, and the Pro-War Neo Con wing.

“The problem is that a huge number of people have an incredibly inflated and undeserved opinion of themselves, their knowledge, their morality, and their superiority, and seek to impose their prejudices on the entire country, if not the world. And, they have the resources to pursue that inclination and they thereby cause tremendous pain and disruption.”

#21 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 19, 2017 @ 1:52 am

Curious Reader,
I’ve rarely been accused of having a modern view point, but if wanting to run from the middle ages as fast as possible makes me modern, I suppose I’m guilty. In any event, I doubt the percentage of the world populace dedicated to understanding our nature as creatures made in the image of God and aligning their lives to fully embrace the divine plan is any smaller than it was in the middle ages. Today we just have a majority pursuing other stuff that isn’t illiterate peasants.

Most people in the middle ages were interested only surviving, we don’t hear much of their story because they were illiterate. Today most people in Western nations spend their lives pursuing happiness through consumerism. Those who had to focus primarily on survival were probably happier on average, but the freedom to pursue other things means that some more people will indeed pursue the divine.

It is sad to see the greatest minds of the generation pursuing banking and tech jobs for their pay with little cultural message to suggest that more money for more stuff isn’t the highest ideal. Most of them would have died before adulthood in the middle ages though. Often, since they are so smart, they realize the emptiness of consumerism with age and try to dedicate their lives to something greater (though not usually God).

#22 Comment By CMPT On September 19, 2017 @ 4:08 am

mhjhnsn: “The problem is that a huge number of people have an incredibly inflated and undeserved opinion of themselves, their knowledge, their morality, and their superiority . . .”

But there’s no evidence that a meaningful number of people actually have this inflated view of themselves. Schwartz apparently believes consumption patterns, in and of themselves, are sufficient evidence of an inflated self opinion.

If these consumers do, in fact, have inflated opinions of themselves, surely there should be manifestations of this other than the innocuous purchase of nice tomatoes. I mean, since humble people also like good tomatoes, how do we tell which heirloom tomato consumers are virtue-signallers and which are discerning tomato eaters with above-average incomes?

Can Schwartz really judge a person’s character by assessing the provenance of the produce that person consumes? That would be truly amazing.

#23 Comment By Luc On September 19, 2017 @ 6:52 am

Always a pleasure to read Mr Schwarz.

#24 Comment By David B On September 19, 2017 @ 10:19 am

This article must have been linked in some left-leaning aggregator out there, judging by the disproportionate number of lefty hipsters coming in here to give hostile comments.

#25 Comment By AB On September 19, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

The outlying districts and suburbs of Chicago, Seattle, New York, Washington, and their homogeneous sprawl all resemble not only each other, but every other outlying district of any population center of 10,000 or more, from Port Huron, MI to Akron OH to Harrisonburg, VA to Springfield, MO to Boulder CO. And each and every one has Starbucks.

#26 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 20, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

“AB” said (1:42 p.m.): “The outlying districts and suburbs of Chicago, Seattle, New York, Washington, and their homogeneous sprawl all resemble not only each other, but every other outlying district of any population center of 10,000 or more, from Port Huron, MI to Akron OH to Harrisonburg, VA to Springfield, MO to Boulder CO. And each and every one has Starbucks.”

U.S. map showing “Starbucks footprint in the United States”:

[2]

#27 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 20, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

David B,
The American Conservative has a surprising number of lefty hipster readers/commenters actually. Probably a combination of paleocons sharing more with crunchy leftists than most other branches of conservatism and a well moderated comment section.

Kurt Gayle,
That map does indeed look a lot like the 2016 electoral map with the exception of the rust belt and the part of the country where they like chicory in their coffee. It looks even more like a population density map of course. Not that there is much difference between a population density map and an election map these days. Not sure why nobody seems to be able to accept that the best policy for cities isn’t necessarily the best policy for sprawling suburbs or rural areas and vice versa.

#28 Comment By Curious Reader On September 20, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

Thomas Hobbes,
I’m curious where you get your idea that medieval peasants were barely staying alive, or barely surviving.

Any evidence for this sense of what medieval life was like in, say, England or France, before the black death?

I’m curious.

#29 Comment By mrscracker On September 21, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

Curious Reader,
I remember reading that medieval peasants actually had numerous days off work due to feast days being more strictly observed back then. I guess when they did labor it may have been pretty strenuous but it seems like the industrial revolution increased the length and number of work days.

#30 Comment By Elise Smith On September 21, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

“The population that has the means to pursue those choices fully and that has abjured religion, mass political movements, and other transcendent pursuits naturally progresses into consumer narcissism when its worldview so relentlessly focuses on the self.”

We have left behind religion and mass political movements? Really? I don’t think so. I wish my fellow “new elitists” would tone it down on the mass political movements myself and extreme spirituality is now the hottest thing since sliced bread. But leaving that aside, a leftist criticism of capitalism is that it creates an imbalance of power between corporations and people. That could not be further from the truth. In a free market, capitalist society, people have the power. We have the ability to vote with our dollars. It merely shows growth and development that this generation is beginning to understand this, along with its implications and responsibilities.

“They recognized that optimizing one’s own well-being is evidence not of self-denial but of self-absorption”

Taken to its extreme, yes. But daily exercise and eating well would save this country billions in healthcare costs. That would, in turn, save the state and federal government billions or save the exerciser and his or her family thousands of dollars and increase their productivity, definitely helping to, “safeguard family life and properly raise children.”

The behaviors you are witnessing are nothing more than a desired natural progression as people navigate their responsibilities and place in a later stage capitalist society. I think its wonderful to see and we may be moving in the right direction. By the way, Whole Foods is so basic avocado, I’ll grow my own organic tomatoes, thank you very much!

#31 Comment By Styopa On September 21, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

My goodness, the anger in some of the replies.

A touch, a touch, I do suspect.

It was hard to read this without thinking constantly about the widespread research into public behavior and entitlement mentalities spawned by the most trivial of eco-friendly acts like driving a hybrid (how did it take so long for people to start calling it the Toyota Pius?).

#32 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 21, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

Curious Reader says:
Thomas Hobbes,
I’m curious where you get your idea that medieval peasants were barely staying alive, or barely surviving.

Any evidence for this sense of what medieval life was like in, say, England or France, before the black death?

I’m curious.

I didn’t mean on the verge of death (archeological evidence suggests very poor health though), I just meant that securing their livelihood was arduous enough to fully occupy their minds and prevent any further exercise in agency in the vast majority of the peasants.

My view of the time period comes primarily from the history classes of my youth and more recent readings on the 100 Years’ War (still better than the 30 Years’ War). At the time I was in high school and college there didn’t appear to be any controversy to this view, but I was much more interested in ancient history and didn’t pursue medieval history beyond the doings of the political and religious aristocracy.

A quick google search seems to indicate the popular view I was taught hasn’t changed much. If you know of some historical studies that indicate otherwise, I’d love to read them.

#33 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 21, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

Cursed lack of an edit function!

mrscracker is absolutely correct. They religious holidays were big and enforced by law (as was the 10% tithe, labor for the Church, and many other things the Church wanted). Moving to the city for the industrial revolution was also undoubtedly bad for the health of most of the factory workers, but staying out of the city would have been even worse for their livelihoods since the times were a changing (thanks largely to the agricultural revolution that preceded the industrial one), as they seem to be now yet again.

#34 Comment By David Harrell On September 28, 2017 @ 2:04 am

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes aesthetic preference is just aesthetic preference. Sometimes health consciousness is just health consciousness.

Reading cultural criticism that belaboredly overintellectualizes consumer choices feels to me like when I read non-musician music critics who focus entirely on music as political or ideological “text” rather than as music — melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc., whose primary effects are visceral and emotional, not necessarily intellectual.

Actually I’d argue that most of the time, more affluent / educated people’s choices are due to aesthetics (flavor, etc.) or actual desire not to eat poisoned food that harms the environment (i.e., organic). “Signaling” probably enters into these choices much less than the chroniclers and analysts of this culture seem to assume.

But that’s me; I have taken for granted the desirability of diverse choices, and of promoting your own health and the planet’s, for a long time. It’s never occurred to me that these are “elitist” values.

#35 Comment By Steve On October 29, 2017 @ 10:28 am

Worried about the vacuity of late capitalism consumer culture bourgeoisie? Welcome to the modern socialist left TAC:

[3]