So You Think You’ve Got Class?

Climbing the class ladder in economic irons

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The best reason to pretend to be rich is to get rich. That’s common sense, and canon. In myths, class drag is regularly adopted for purposes of personal improvement. The pauper shows up to a tournament dressed as a prince, competes among his betters, and wins the wealth attached to a woman. Cinderella receives a stagecoach, a dress, the right shoes, and she passes as worthy of royalty. A soldier endures seven years of a repulsive appearance in order to be handsomely rewarded; he is compensated for debasing himself. Not even the rich themselves are left out of this mischief, though they voluntarily dress down for diversion and self-gratification rather than direct remuneration. A god poses as a beggar and a prince as a beast. Steve Jobs was wed to Levi’s; Mark Zuckerberg, a hoodie.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Princeton University Press, 2017. 272 pages.

Members of the upper class are socially buoyant, perpetually elevated by their money no matter what casual self-presentation or nasty habits they indulge. If you’re rich, you can dress and smell badly without it having an impact on your quality of life. You can use the wrong fork at the fancy restaurant; you can get sloppy drunk and make a mess, too. People who know about your wealth will treat you accordingly, and if someone doesn’t know, there are ways of telling them beyond your immediate appearance. For instance: act as if you belong anywhere you go. Be unflappable. I once wandered into a furniture store and asked the cost of a set of velvety armchairs. “$80,000,” the woman working there said, not unfriendly. “Each.” I nodded distractedly, as if that were the correct amount. She asked if I was a designer, presumably because people purchasing at that price point can’t be bothered with making the selection themselves.  
“Social class is not produced through consumption but rather it is attained through the adoption of values and aesthetics and the ability to decipher symbols and signs beyond materialism,” writes Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, published in May of this year by Princeton University Press. That’s true, and not news; mannerisms count. In the United States, new money has long been shunned by old, in part because new money sometimes found its way into the hands of non-whites and non-Protestants, and in part because people heady with fresh fortune tend to flaunt tacky taste. (They insist every room be gold, choose Orlando as the site for the country’s largest home, and flip tables when they’re angry.) But there’s class and then there’s class. Money doesn’t buy everything, but it buys everything that matters. There’s no myth in which Cinderella blends in momentarily and then returns to her life of poverty. Her economic class conversion is essential. Behavior alone doesn’t purchase that ticket, though it might get you close to someone who will marry you so you can attend as their plus one.

Currid-Halkett, a professor of public policy at USC, is preoccupied with the habits of urban citizens who eat organic, breast-feed their babies, and consume prestige media; this is the “class” identified in her book’s subtitle, a label she intends to function much like Thorsten Veblen’s (in)famous “leisure class,” so-named in 1899. But since she insists income is not a defining factor for the aspirational—whereas Veblen’s leisure-ites necessarily had scads of money—this is a social designation alone, a marker akin to the labels of a Hollywood-imagined school lunchroom: the jocks; the goths; the stoners. Stylistic elements are of dubious import when economic class determines every salient aspect of a person’s life, but Currid-Halkett is convinced these tastes are shaping society so much that they’ve made economic standing almost irrelevant. In the world she depicts, anyone can My Fair Lady-themselves into high society as long as they know the right social cues. If only it were so easy to elide the tyranny of wealth. Even Eliza Doolitte, after all, had the support of a rich investor.

Today’s “dominant cultural elite”—those Currid-Halkett has labeled “the aspirational class”— “reveal their class position through cultural signifiers” instead of material possessions, as was the custom during the golden age of conspicuous consumption. Ownership of relatively luxurious products (large electronics, SUVs) is now so widely accessible that the new elites eschew material things not because they’re reluctant to publicly display their affluence but because material goods no longer offer enough distinction. The hottest commodity for this group, whose members range from “partner[s] in a law firm” to “unemployed screenwriter[s],” is participation in a value system with the imprimatur of moral excellence: the conviction that they are living in the best (most responsible, most mindful, most objectively right) ways. These consumers are united by “shared cultural capital” as opposed to similar financial standing. “This new elite,” she contends, “is not defined by economics.”  

Currid-Halkett suggests that members of the aspirational class consolidate social power through their personal conduct, which follows a set of rules that are inscrutable to outsiders and therefore difficult to mimic. Subtle nail color is cited as an example of one type of inconspicuous consumption favored by the aspirational class, as is eco- or socially-conscious clothing like TOMS shoes. The price point is not necessarily a hurdle in these scenarios, but rather recognition of the item’s social value. Why choose a blush-colored polish over neon orange? Because the blush caters to the non-ostentatious tastes of fellow aspirational class members. TOMS, meanwhile, are practically dowdy; no one would choose them based on looks alone. “Inconspicuous consumption [...] is perhaps the most pernicious divide between the elites and the rest,” Currid-Halkett claims, because it “offer[s] a freedom and mobility that conspicuous consumption can’t buy.”

But that’s only one type of inconspicuous consumption, and it’s the less consequential one compared to spending that consolidates economic power. Real advantage lies in the purchase of life-prolonging premium health care, private education from pre-school onward, the use of others’ intimate labor (primarily childcare and housework) to free one’s own time and energy for making more money—and, of course, political favor and direct influence. An unemployed screenwriter can do all the aspirational consuming their budget allows, but it will never have the same effect as spending on the cost-prohibitive items, which is why Currid-Halkett’s insistence on linking the two feels misguided and even inadvertently cruel.

We’re never told what makes the imaginary screenwriter as powerful as the imaginary law partner—what, if not monetary leverage, marks them as “elite”?—but Currid-Halkett seems to believe the screenwriter might one day have the budget to go along with their aspirational tastes, because those same tastes position them to amass wealth in our exciting new meritocracy. If only the bond over Chemex coffee was so profound that it could bridge any economic divide.

“The aspirational class is a big and powerful cultural formation,” she writes, and it’s a group that may be “even more pernicious than the superrich who are vilified in the media.” In alleged contrast to the superrich, the aspirational class is a threat because they “shore up their and their children's distinct sociocultural (and often economic) position of privilege, leaving everyone else out.” (What could a broke screenwriter be leaving “everyone else out” of? She never says.) Even worse, “the seeming deservedness of their social position allows them to ignore the growing inequality.” This line is truly bizarre. Of course rich conservatives and neoliberals feel entitled to their success, and poor neoliberals and conservatives will feel entitled to theirs, too, if they ever achieve it. In the meantime, how would it matter to the rest of us if a broke RISD grad privately feels superior about their veganism? Snobbery only gains weight when wielded by those making meaningful decisions—like, say, who to hire. Only some Americans have the economic, and therefore political, power to make sure inequality is systematically reproduced and deepened.

Many of these odd claims can be explained by indications that Currid-Halkett believes “knowledge is what drives the world economy,” an attitude that informs her (refutable) convictions that a solid education automatically yields a high-paying job, and that most of today’s wealthy are “self-made” through the creation of objectively valuable products or services, as opposed to having inherited family wealth. She’s hardly alone in this stance; the “Forbes’ 400,” a list of the richest living Americans, now regularly includes a special section on who is “self-made.” In 2014, 69% of the list qualified; Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg—all white men from upper to middle class backgrounds—made the cut. The entire nation still clings to the bootstrap fantasy, and The Sum of Small Things, sadly, perpetuates the same by treating class as a matter of personality and tribalism instead of economic reality.

While reading The Sum of Small Things I often thought of my stylish, urban acquaintances who live hand-to-mouth. They regularly buy fair trade coffee, seek out skin products that are ostensibly “natural,” and run errands with a beat-up New Yorker tote bag. They have plenty of what can be called privilege: they’re able-bodied or cis or white or went to graduate school or all of the above. But they’re struggling to patch together a livable wage in the gig economy, surviving without health insurance or pensions, and saddled with increasingly steep student debt. Indentured city-dwellers drinking fair trade coffee and listening to Serial aren’t wielding real power by virtue of their tastes, even if they too would like to believe that they are.
Class markers have undeniable influence. They inform standardized testing results, skew employers or landlords for or against applicants, and determine one’s general acceptance into social milieus. But no one’s going to offer you a job just because they see you breastfeeding your baby instead of feeding it formula, or because you only shop at farmer’s markets instead of Safeway. Trying to scale the cliff of income inequality armed only with a few class markers is like trying to climb a tree using only your teeth.
Rich people are notorious for being out of touch, but they’re not always completely stupid; flaunting wealth during a time of expanding economic inequality doesn’t just make you reviled, it may make you a target. (Have you noticed how regularly guillotines appear in twitter “jokes” nowadays?) Silicon Valley has long embraced the everyman vibe, taking California’s notoriously “laid back” style in the direction of outright badness with Salesforce backpacks and fleece vests counting as corporate wear. It’s surely, in part, an issue of sheer convenience and comfort, but it’s also a ploy to downplay wealth and power. In NYC, “Recession chic” arrived immediately after the market crash of 2008, replacing the “boho chic” that had preceded it, only to be followed by Western world-wide “homeless chic,” which arrived in 2009, just as home foreclosures peaked. Vivienne Westwood, charmingly, sent her 2010 male models out on the Milan runway pushing shopping carts and carrying bedrolls, a move presaged by 2001’s Zoolander.

The writers of Zoolander weren’t uncannily prescient; couture fashion, and high society in general, has long indulged a fascination with the lower classes’ tastes and look. Slum tourism has been around since the late 1880s: it was a pastime pioneered by Veblen’s leisure class. Currid-Halkett writes about aspirational affectations as if their superficial unpretentiousness (the logo-free t-shirt, local artisan’s jewelry, etc.) evidence a new development among elites, but Veblen noticed a similar phenomenon in his moneyed subjects, what he described as a sort of “studious exhibition of expensiveness coupled with a make-believe of simplicity and crude serviceability.”

All of this raises a pressing question: What behaviors will we allow the upper class to claim as their own? What practical acts will we sacrifice to the label of bougie just because they are adopted by the rich: supporting indie bookstores, listening to public radio, composting, drinking tap water? There’s something achingly perverse in labeling demonstrably useful responses to our most pressing resource-related inequalities (urban farming, say, or turning to yoga for pain management when formal health care is unaffordable) as the domain of the pretentious and frivolous, a choice grounded in narcissistic self-actualization instead of sustainable survival.

If someone like Sheryl Sandburg or Ivanka Trump were to cook a meal for guests, it could be read as a loaded social gesture; she eschews the labor she could easily purchase in favor of doing it herself to demonstrate how “homey” she is and how deeply she’s invested in the experience of her guests. If a poor single mother cooks at home because she can’t afford regular takeout, the act means something entirely different. The Sum of Small Things ignores the basic fact of context. It’s a scary oversight because it allows the rich to contaminate practical measures that, for everyone else, are less voluntary and more necessary.

It’s also deeply insulting to pretend environmentally- and worker-conscious choices come primarily, or exclusively, from the top-down. The world depicted in The Sum of Small Things is one free of collective demonstration, unions, or even community. The choices of these “new elites” are thus chalked up to their own “values,” not to the tireless efforts of activists who’ve spent their lives agitating for justice and educating the public on what that looks like, despite the state’s best efforts at suppression.

Coding commitment to non-exploitative labor and locally sourced sustenance as a “luxury” is foul. The real luxury, of course, is not needing to give a shit about a stable physical environment, affordable access to real food, and improved working conditions because you yourself are financially insulated. But however willfully confused Currid-Halkett might be about the murderous wages of life under capitalism, her book suggests at least some aspirational class members realize the current system is sadistic and untenable, even if—for the moment—they’re equipped to weather its challenges. Maybe the type of shared ideology she’s pointing to isn’t about devising snobby consumption patterns at all, but rather is evidence of increasingly empathetic ways of thinking that may coalesce into a proper political movement. Much more than blush nail polish, that could change everything.