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The New Elite’s Silly Virtue-Signaling Consumption

Eating kimchi and quoting TED Talks won't separate you from 'the rabble.'

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. 

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.



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