I, Me, Mine

By Benjamin Schwarz

9 July 2000 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

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In his briskly written, clever “Bobos in Paradise,” David Brooks astutely describes a new-ish American elite, a dominant class that combines values he asserts are antithetical–those of the bohemian counterculture and those of enterprising capitalism. (He dubs this elite “bourgeois bohemians,” “Bobos” for short.) That Brooks is on to something should be clear to any viewer of the countless commercials that deploy images of the Beats and the “rebel” music of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or of, say, a Banana Republic ad, which hawks clothes modeled by androgynous, vaguely transgressive young men that a dot-com CEO might wear to his casually hip office. But Brooks’ reportorial powers are far sharper than his analytic ones, for he fails to discern that the ethos of the “counterculture” and of capitalism are far more congenial than he allows. The two, in fact, are vitally related.

This elite, which Brooks, a senior editor for The Weekly Standard, variously labels “Bobos,” “the cosmopolitan class,” the “educated elite” and the “countercultural plutocracy,” is, essentially, the meritocratic upper middle class (or more precisely, the lower upper class). Its dominance is based on fancy education and career achievement rather than on aristocratic privilege; its slogan, Brooks notes, could be “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his abilities.”

The emergence of this elite has been discerned, or foreseen, by a host of social critics for the last 25 years (Brooks should have discussed, or at least acknowledged, William Rusher’s 1975 National Review article on the “verbalist elite,” Alvin Gouldner’s “The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class,” Mark E. Kann’s “Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica,” Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism,” Robert Reich’s assessment of the rise of the “symbolic analysts” in “The Work of Nations” and Michael Lind’s excoriation of the “overclass” in “The Next American Nation”). But this group has bulged over the last decade: The number of households earning more than $100,000 a year has jumped from 2 million in 1982 to 10 million today.

At least as important as the amount of money being made is the way it’s earned. A Bobo didn’t attend Cal State Fullerton and didn’t make his fortune in the dry-cleaning chemical supply business.

The list of glamorous professions has expanded: to the lawyers at the white-shoe firms (that now strive to hire the best and brightest, including, say, Latina JDs from Stanford) and the consultants at McKinsey and Co. are now added the Ivy League-educated journalists who today inhabit not only the New York Times newsroom but that of the Daily News; and the bankers and brokers at the elite financial institutions are now joined by the high-tech deal makers and entrepreneurs, whose numbers have swelled with the expanding economy. And it seems as if nearly every Harvard grad aspires to write for television, an endeavor that 30 years ago carried neither the remuneration nor the cachet it does today. (The training grounds for this elite have similarly proliferated. The old top-tier business schools, for example, are just as prestigious, but such schools as NYU, Northwestern and Duke have joined their ranks.) In the Bobo world, the circles of power and prestige–finance, philanthropy, academe, government, the arts, business, entertainment–overlap and become increasingly interchangeable.

Brooks divides his portrait of the Bobos into chapters on their intellectual pursuits, marriage patterns and spiritual lives, the last of which is probably his best and certainly his most biting. He’s at his most entertaining in describing the consumer taste of this “educated elite,” whose sumptuary codes are as complex and subtle as those of the 16th century Florentines. Even when they settle in the suburbs (and, please, the leafy gracious ones–never the ticky-tacky ones), they embrace the urban and the hip.

Their central belief, Brooks approvingly notes, is “self-actualization,” which, appropriately enough for an “educated elite,” makes their entire lives resemble their college years: They are constantly learning and experimenting. They embrace “freedom,” “creativity” and, above all, “personal choice.”

Accordingly, they prize “tolerance” and (probably the favorite word in their lexicon) “diversity” and shrink from the “judgmental.” Although Brooks sees the risible features of Bobo life, he describes himself as “a defender of Bobo culture” for, in the characteristically smug manner of the Bobo, he concludes that “wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse [that word again] and edifying.”

In practice, this seems to mean that in their wake, coffeehouses open, restaurants improve and grocery stores stock a greater variety of lettuces.

Bobos certainly do love themselves, and they’ve erected a convenient straw man to define themselves and to serve as a vehicle for their hip self-congratulation: the images of sterile suburbia that repeatedly appear in movies (“Pleasantville,” “American Beauty”) and in advertising as a symbol of arch backwardness.

This is the joyless land of deference to authority, rigid conformity and formality. It is, to use a favorite Bobo put-down, so “white.” This term allows Bobos to display their progressive social attitudes, distracts them from uncomfortable thinking about class, rather than racial, oppression and, of course, plays to all the stereotypes of earthy, soulful and deviant “ethnics” and “people of color.” Bobos, in contrast to those square, unfashionable “whites,” like to see themselves as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying nonconformists.

It’s Bobos’ ability at once to repudiate “convention” and embrace striving careerism that Brooks finds to be their defining triumph; with it, “a new reconciliation has been forged” and “the bohemian and the bourgeois [have] co-opted each other.” He thus celebrates Bobos as engines of economic growth and as agents of a “progressive” outlook.

But were the values of the ’60s counterculture and the go-getter ’80s really as opposed as Brooks avers? The free market, after all, perforce elevates individual choice as the highest good, and the radical individualism it engenders uproots and destroys traditional values and social relations.

Marx and Engels wrote of the effect of this most corrosive social force: “Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. . . . All that is solid melts into air. All that is holy is profaned.” After all, 1960s “radicalism” progressed naturally into consumer narcissism as, for instance, Jerry Rubin turned from Yippie antics to assuring his followers that “it’s OK to enjoy the rewards of life that money brings.” This sounds like both an American Express commercial and the mantra of Brooks’ Bobos and is certainly a message welcomed by many a BMW-driving radical on Los Angeles’ Westside. Rather than being perceived as the truly counterculture stand that it is, self-denial is dismissed by Bobos as “puritanical” and therefore reactionary.

With the benefit of hindsight, the SDS’ “Port Huron Statement” reads less like a serious political manifesto than like a New Age management manual, with its encomiums to “self-cultivation,” “self-direction” and “self-understanding,” and its emphasis on “meaningful” careers for the “serious . . . once-serious and never-serious poet” rather than decent wages and better working conditions for the laboring class.

The values of capitalism and the “counterculture” are complementary; both conceive of the good life in terms of endless novelty, change and excitement. “Make it new” is the message not just of modern art but also of consumerism. The hunger for self-fulfillment and abhorrence for the confines of tradition that characterize bohemianism today permit vast latitude in consuming practices and “lifestyle” experimentation, as people repeatedly redefine themselves and reestablish their identification with particular groups by acquiring accessories.

The vision of the gaseous Bobo philosopher par excellence Richard Rorty, whom Brooks quotes approvingly, of a society in which “individual life will become unthinkably diverse [that word!] and social life unthinkably free” is enough to warm the coldest marketer’s heart.

But if capitalism can be reconciled with bohemianism, the bourgeoisie can’t. In this way, Brooks’ argument is flawed, at least in its terminology. Traditional bourgeois economic values, which are in fact pre-capitalist–industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline and avoidance of debt–were fine for the 19th century grocer and clerk, but they were hardly a recipe for success for the capitalist entrepreneur, nor are they for today’s Yuppie strivers. Bobos, with their embrace of opportunity, advancement and adventure, and their conviction that life’s chief object is personal happiness (“when push comes to shove, they always choose personal choice over other commitments–they abandon traditions and rules they find tiresome”), are the very opposite of solid burghers.

Although Brooks insists that in its grand reconciliation of bo- and bo-, the educated elite embraces the old values, his argument is extraordinarily weak. For instance, to counter Daniel Bell’s assertion that capitalism, by encouraging self-indulgence, is at war with itself, Brooks points out that in fact Bobos are extremely hard-working careerists who “regard work as an expression of their entire being.” But Brooks fails to discern that Bobos’ pursuit of personal ambition is itself narcissistic.

By putting the pursuit of social status and the self-expression of career before family and community obligations (or, in the typically Bobo assertion that individual ambition can, at least with the right nanny, be reconciled with those obligations), the “educated elite” is in fact undermining the social stability necessary for capitalism’s ultimate survival, just as Bell argued.

In the same vein, Brooks holds up Bobos’ devotion to exercise and healthy diet as proof that, in fact, “the countercultural plutocracy” isn’t self-indulgent. Obviously, Brooks is unaware that those two great left-wing social conservatives Lasch and George Orwell each reserved a special corner in hell for exercise devotees. Bobos’ fanatical devotion to their own care and feeding is evidence of their self-absorption, not their self-denial. In fact, perhaps nothing is more damaging to upper-middle class family life than the hours that careers and workouts take away from the home.

Finally, Brooks argues that Bobos don’t “go in for the lavish display and hedonistic lifestyle that Bell predicted. They have created an ethos of environmentalism, healthism and egalitarianism that makes it bad form to live in the ostentatious style that characterized the old moneyed elite.” Here it’s difficult to tell whether Brooks is a blind celebrant or is simply taken in by Bobos’ image of themselves.

The SUV, which, as Brooks repeatedly points out, is the Bobo vehicle of choice, represents lavish and conspicuous consumption, a disregard for both the environment and egalitarianism (or, to use a favorite Bobo term, “social justice”), considering that the high-priced four-by-fours endanger the lives of the drivers of lesser-priced economy cars.

And “ostentatious style” and “lavish display” are matters of taste. To Brooks and to his fellow Bobos, the “cottages” at Newport, R.I., might qualify. To me, the $15,000 slate shower stall, which Brooks discusses as a typical Bobo home improvement, qualifies as well.

With typical Bobo smugness, Brooks asserts, “we’re not so bad–our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites, which were based on blood or wealth.” In fact, Brooks’ Bobos have the same vices, such as arrogance and narrow-mindedness, as those old elites, but few of their virtues. Because, as Brooks argues, “the cosmopolitan class” is a meritocracy, owing its privileges to its own talent, the Bobos have no sense of ancestral gratitude, no obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. This self-satisfied present-mindedness reinforces Bobos’ antisocial tendency to live for themselves. And Brooks should be extremely wary of holding a meritocracy up as a sort of benign ruling class. Today’s society is both highly stratified–with a concentration of power and privilege in a ruling elite–and highly mobile. Indeed, the “circulation of elites,” as the social theorist and economist Vilfredo Pareto called it, strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimizing their ascendancy as a function of talent rather than birth.

Brooks is an enormously accomplished and perceptive reporter, but before we join him in his paean to those hip, tolerant Bobos, we should remember that meritocracy is in fact profoundly undemocratic. As R.H. Tawney wrote, “opportunities to rise are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization” and of the “dignity and culture” needed by all “whether they rise or not.” The promise of American life will be fulfilled not, as Brooks concludes, with broader recruitment into the Bobo elite, but with only the broadest distribution of economic, moral and political responsibility.

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