A Review of David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.
EVERY POSTWAR American decade has produced its quintessential work of social criticism. The 50's had William Whyte's The Organization Man, the 60's Marshall MacLuhan's Understanding Media, the 70's Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, the 80's Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and the 90's Camille Paglia's Sex, Art & American Culture. The book for the current decade is here: David Brooks' Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There. He calls his book comic sociology to disguise how profound it is and pads it with upbeat conclusions the rest of it does not license. This is probably good for his future social life, as in fact his book is a merciless intellectual truck-bombing of the culture of the current American elite.
Bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, are, to put it bluntly, the new establishment. Bill Clinton is a bobo. So is anyone else who has the income and power that only fat old men in oil paintings used to have, but who also has the mores, personal tastes, and culture of a 60's radical college student. This is easy to laugh at, but it is not a superficial phenomenon. Brooks has put his finger on the central weirdness of our current ruling class: they have blithely combined the power and wealth of the old establishment with the cultural and intellectual trappings of its supposed mortal enemy, the counterculture. The two camps that have seemed to be warring for America's soul since the 60's have not just reached a detente, they have merged. This is, of course, exactly what you get when you send your best and brightest to universities where bohemian ideals are taught and then release them into a world where the realities of material life inexorably impel them into moneyed positions. As the author puts it,
"This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out. They are by instinct anti-establishmentarian yet somehow sense they have become a new establishment."
Brooks describes in great detail the bobo lifestyle, which one can visualize most easily by thinking of its characteristic locales: Greenwich Village, NY; Berkeley, CA; Boulder, CO; Cambridge, MA; Georgetown, DC; Austin, TX; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Santa Fe, NM; Ann Arbor, MI; Madison, WI; Athens, GA; Wilmington, NC; Missoula, MT; Burlington, VT; Princeton, NJ, South Beach, FL. This is the world of cappuccino and Volvos, Sierra Club memberships and private schools. Bobos love to live in places that have artiness as their mythical identity but seven-figure real estate prices as their reality. Brooks calls these latte towns or neighborhoods.
The essence of the bobo lifestyle is being rich while pretending you're not. Bobos love luxury as much as anyone else with five senses, but because they have been educated in a leftist critique of it, they would suffer damage to their self-image if they openly and honestly imbibed it. Therefore their lives are a peculiar dance, whose subtle application of abstract rules to everyday life would boggle the mind of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, in which they seek to indulge luxury in ways that somehow, according to the bobo code, don't count.
They employ a number of strategies to this end. For example, the cult of the Absurdly Expensive Ordinary Object, in which the bobo pays $75 for a gardening trowel or $3.50 for a cup of coffee. The first item escapes the stigma of yuppie materialism, which bobos despise, because gardening is a) environmentalist and b) manual labor, and the second because it is only a cup of coffee, after all, and therefore cannot possibly constitute a luxury. Another strategy can be called the Magical Power of Progressive Association: anything, however luxurious, that is somehow associated with progressive politics is thereby purified of the despised taint of consumerism. Thus the fattiest ice-cream on the market, Ben & Jerry's, survives this usual bobo no-no (they are usually health nuts who eat whole-grain bread) by donating a portion of its profits to approved leftist causes. There is also the Magical Power of Primitive Cultures and other magical powers associated with sports, art, wilderness, tools, and other things. Tools are especially valuable because they enable bobos to play at manual labor and thereby deny their class status. None of this comes cheap. As the author says, "A person who follows these precepts can dispose of up to $4-$5 million annually in a manner that demonstrates how little he or she cares about material things."
Bobos extend this pseudo-modesty to their social relationships. They talk about the nannies and servants they frequently have as if they are close personal friends and it is merely an odd quirk that these servants have to commute two hours each way from the slums of L.A. to the bobo's house near the beach. Because they love to appropriate peasant clothing like clogs and the Latin American poncho, they are the first ruling class in history to aspire to dress like its servants. But of course bobos would never dream of dressing like the real American working class, in polyester pantsuits, designer jeans, and big hair, because then they would run the risk of resembling a lower social class that they could actually be mistaken for. They only posture at belonging to proletariats that are sufficiently foreign or archaic that no one could make this error. Similarly, they love to decorate with old farm implements and industrial artifacts, but would never dream of doing their office to look like a real contemporary working-class environment like the inside of a McDonalds.
Anyone who has noticed the way American leftism runs on sentimental fantasies about the poor will find this pattern familiar. The bobo style can be described as the concepts of liberalism, aestheticized into pretty visual images.
When bobos run corporations, as they increasingly do, they do so in an "anti-hierarchical" manner with respect to everything but the actual salaries. Salaries are not supposed to be the point of work anyway, since we are all creative visionaries now, not wage slaves. This is of course the perfect way to stop employees from asking difficult questions about whether all this anti-hierarchy translates into their paychecks. Bobo corporate boardrooms look like garages and nobody wears a tie or has a fixed desk. Commercials for the company's products have alternative-rock soundtracks. Prosaic items like shampoo are sold as tools for achieving new-age spirituality. And, as Brooks notes of that quintessential bobo company Ben & Jerry's, "Ice cream companies now possess their own foreign-policy doctrines."
Note that what bobos really despise is not consumerism as an actual way of life, the way people who genuinely renounce it like nuns, the Amish or the U.S. Marines do, but consumerism in the abstract, which offends their exquisitely refined ideological sensibilities. Bobos have ideological sensibilities as subtle as wine-tasters. They have been educated in an elaborate leftist critique of how money makes you its possession, not the other way round, and commodifies you, et cetera et cetera, and have responded by mastering the art of faking one way culturally to feel good about themselves while living the other way in the real world. If a $500 sweater is made in Tibet, a place that represents purity and anti-consumerism, then this anti-consumerism in the ideological significance of the thing neatly cancels out the materialism of buying it, and the bobo is home free. One almost imagines an enterprising shaman could make a living running around in a 4-wheel drive vehicle (the bobo standard in flat suburban areas) blessing their household establishments like a Shinto priest in Japan blessing a new automobile assembly line. The problem, of course, is that this would make the whole thing explicit, and this rank cultural con game could never survive the light of day.
In fact, one wonders if bobos will survive the publication of this book. One genuinely feels sorry for them on some level, for they are clearly enjoying their party and it is obviously going to end. How many preppies were there ten years after The Preppy Handbook came out in 1980? They were laughed out of existence. This is not the kind of social phenomenon that can survive exposure. At a thousand cocktail parties and backyard barbecues, this book will give people the ammunition to destroy the cultural credibility of the new liberal elite. This is an enormous irony, given that they of course got into power by making the old establishment look "square" and therefore ridiculous and unbelievable as the arbiters of our national life. Never underestimate the social and political consequences of cultural delegitimation. They didn't, though they are probably about to be hoisted by their own petard. But, for the moment, bobos hold this crucial power.
Some good red-blooded American folk who have never had to deal with these characters may doubt their existence or at least their numbers, but the fact is that 95% of what they see on TV, in movies, in magazines, or in books was put there by bobos. So was 95% of what their children are taught in college. And bobos have all sorts of intermediate and related forms of great influence: idly open the American Institute of Architects Guide to Washington and you will find the Capitol Hill neighborhood described as "the haunt of that unique Washington creature, the bohemian bureaucrat." Who knew? Bobos are exceptionally influential on consumer society because of their large discretionary income. Entire mail-order houses like J. Crew, and chain stores, like Restoration Hardware, have been floated on bobo dollars. Things also filter down to the rest of us, like Starbucks Coffee, that are bobo in origin. With middle-American stores like Target now carrying products by avant-garde European designers, this influence is clearly still on the rise.
One thing this book will convince anyone of is that the old saw of anthropologists is right: all societies have rigid social codes of totem and taboo, and if a certain society appears otherwise, you just haven't figured out the code yet. Bobos like, above all things, to think of themselves as tolerant and yet,
"For one reason or another the following people and institutions fall outside the ranks of Bobo respectability: Donald Trump, Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan, Bob Guccione, Wayne Newton, Nancy Reagan, Adnan Khashoggi, Jesse Helms, Jerry Springer, Mike Tyson, Rush Limbaugh, Phillip Morris, developers, loggers, Hallmark greeting cards, the National Rifle Association, Hooters."
So where did bobos come from? Brooks makes an historical point that conservatives would do well to grasp about the causes of the student revolt of the 60's, from which they of course did come and which conservatives frequently treat as an inexplicable social explosion. He shows that between about 1955 and 1965, the elite universities of this country went from admitting students on the basis of membership in the old genteel social elite to admitting them on the basis of brains and SAT scores. Naturally, these new students looked at the existing establishment and saw that it wasn't a meritocracy, so they bitterly turned on it. The fact that it was this very establishment that had set up the new meritocracy did not engender gratitude, or even mild skepticism about whether it could really be as evil as they thought. Other things that went out the window: self-control, moderation, civility, etc, were attacked because they were part of the old elite's way of doing things.
Brooks points out that now that the new elite is secure, many of these things, like civility, are making a comeback. And why not? Civility is conservative because it limits how vigorously one can attack the status quo, and the bobos would very much like to conserve what they now have. If this implies that they are now the fuddy-duddies, then so what? Logical consistency is not a bohemian virtue. A cruel point Brooks makes in the course of giving historical depth to his analysis is that just about everything that bohemians think they invented in a flash of genius in the 60's is in fact very old. He writes of the 1830's,
"The more you read about the Parisian bohemians, the more you realize that they thought of everything. For the next 150 years rebels, intellectuals, and hippies could do little more than repeat their original rebellions."
Free love, artiness, strange clothes, hatred of authority, drugs, love of primitive cultures, hatred of the middle class? It was all there years ago among the artistes. So not only are bobos hypocrites, they are unoriginal. They are a set of recycled cliches, a regularly recurring social type. Naturally, this will not go down well with bobos, who love to believe they invented themselves and their cultur at some point in the glorious 1960's, of course, in contrast to us poor square masses.
Bobo ideals have failed in another way, too. Bobos are a large part of what David Frum has called the new mass upper class. Some people will be sufficiently stuck in out-of-date stereotypes to suppose that this must make them Republicans. Not so. Brooks neatly comments that Republicans got 75% of the rich vote in 1980, but only 56% in 1996, a clear sign of the bohemianization of the bourgeoisie. Voting, of course, is an activity that feels significant but has no consequences at the individual level, and is therefore the perfect opportunity for the classic bobo move of faking left while earning right. This should serve as a warning to those Republican strategists who dream of creating a base for the party by creating a class of individual investors through the privatization of Social Security. The richer bobos and those under their cultural influence get, the more need they have to compensate their guilt by voting left.
Bobos love the idea of racial equality (though of course not too many blacks in their own kids' private schools) because it enables them to endorse a recognizable kind of equality while not making any economic concessions. A few rich black faces in the boardroom legitimate the wealth of everyone else there. The key bobo style of rule is co-optation. Boboism is thus the perfect cultural costume for the emerging ideological compromise of the global elite: veer wildly to the left on all non-economic issues so that you can veer wildly to the right on economic ones. Pay off the leftist opposition in areas you don't care about in order to clean up at the till. Since official figures show economic inequality increasing in this country during the years that bobos have been rising to power, one must compliment them on the success of their strategy. And the rampant xenomania of bobo culture is of course the ideal way to make globalism seem not just normal, but downright tasteful.
What if the bobos fell on their faces one day? The ultimate beauty of their anti-establishment credentials is that they enable them to claim that society's problems aren't really their fault, because they're not in charge. Some guy in a suit is, of course. Or "the free market," truly the most sublime device ever invented for absolving elites of responsibility. In a peaceful and prosperous country, this may not matter, but we will find out what these people are made of in the next real crisis. It is not enough for us to examine our culture from the point of view of how it functions under easy conditions.
Evading the charge of having real power takes work. Brooks observes that "today in the bobo establishment, the best kind of money to have is incidental money. It's the kind of money you just happen to earn while you are pursuing your creative vision." That is to say, it's nicest to have money without trying too hard to earn it, and if you can't manage that, pretend. This is an odd reversion to the anti-commercial ethos of the old world that took British industry, for example, to its pre-Thatcher grave. The perverse thing is that those dear old literal-minded Brits actually took this seriously and paid the price for it. Our crowd, one hopes for the sake of our economy, will remain utter hypocrites about it. We'll be in real trouble if they ever make the classic mistake of cynical elites and start believing their own propaganda.
But for now, they are safely and profitably dishonest. Naturally, this means that bobos, who loudly prize gritty authenticity over insincere polish, are the biggest phonies in American history. The old bourgeois elite never denied for a second, by its behavior or its self-characterization, that it was the elite. J.P. Morgan never would have dreamed of pretending to be in essence a bohemian creative visionary in a black turtleneck who just lucked into a fortune. (There certainly were bohemians around in his day, like Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau.) J.P. Morgan told the truth about who and what he was the minute he put on his top hat every morning. Unlike bobo disciples of the counterculture, he was authentic. I suspect this is a possibility Jean-Paul Sartre, or even Holden Caulfield, never dreamed of in a million years: that the bourgeois might turn out to be the authentic one, and the bohemian rebels the phonies.