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The New Upper Class

This is an excellent article.  I truly agree with what Mr. Brooks has to say here.  His views of mainstream American Culture seem dead-on accurate to me.  It also gives me hope that things might not be so bad after all.  Read on and see for yourself.

The New Upper Class

by David Brooks

May 8, 2000/Volume 5, Number 32

If you’d like to be tortured with dignity and humiliated with respect, you really ought to check out the Internet newsletter of the Arizona Power Exchange, an S&M group headquartered in Phoenix. The organization offers a full array of services to what is now genteelly known as the leather community. For example, on August 3, according to last summer’s newsletter, there was a discussion and humiliation session. On August 6, at 7 p.m., there was a workshop on caning. The next night, the Bondage Sadomasochism Personal Growth and Support Group met with Master Lawrence, while on August 10, Carla helped lead a discussion on high-heel and foot worship. All of these meetings were to be conducted with the maturity embodied in the organization’s mission statement: “Treating the S&M, B&D and D&S experience with acceptance, caring, dignity and respect.” Dignity and respect are important when you’re tied up on the ground worshipping someone’s boot.

The organization, which goes by the acronym APEX, has a seven-member board of directors, a long list of officers and administrators, and a web page staff to design the Internet site, which is more demure than you’d expect from your average Rotary Club. APEX sponsors charity drives. There’s a special support group for submissives who are too shy to vocalize the sort of submission they like. There’s a seminar on S&M and the law. There are 12-step meetings for sadists and masochists recovering from substance abuse. Finally, there are outreach efforts to build coalitions with other bondage and domination groups nationwide.

When you read through the descriptions of the APEX workshops, you are struck by how much attention is devoted to the catering of these affairs. Topics like nude gagging are supposed to evoke images of debauched de Sades, but in this crowd paddling and punishment are made to sound more akin to wine tasting or bird watching. You imagine a group of off-duty high-school guidance counselors and other responsible flossers standing around in nothing but a leather girdle and their orthotics, discussing the merits and demerits of foreign versus domestic penile clamps.  It’s all so temperate and responsible. It’s so bourgeois.

Sex, especially adventurous sex, used to be the great transgressive act. Dissolute aristocrats would gather their whips and manacles and repair to the palace attic to flout middle-class morality. Bohemians would throw off the fetters of respectability and explore the joys of Free Love. Radical sex was a direct assault on the supposedly puritanical strictures of mainstream society.

But today, that is obsolete. And it’s not only organizations like APEX that try to gentrify norm-challenging Eros and make it responsible and edifying. There is now a thriving industry that caters to people who want to practice bizarre but respectable sex. Henry Miller was once an affront to decency, but now there are shelves and shelves of Barnes & Noble erotica that owe more to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop than to any Left Bank underground cell. There are high-minded sex journals that advertise in the back of tasteful magazines like Harper’s. There are so many academic theoreticians writing about sexual transgressions that orgies must sometimes resemble Apache dances at tourist season, performed less for the joy of the thing than to please the squads of Culture Studies professors who have flown in to quote Derrida.

In short, over the past few years, Americans of the educated class have domesticated lust by enshrouding it in high-mindedness. They have taken perverted sex, which for centuries has been thought to be arousing or sinful or possibly dangerous, and they have attempted to make it socially constructive.

These upscale Americans turn out to be the Scout leaders of the pubic region. Nearly gone are all traces of 1960s Dionysian wantonness. Instead, “Play Safe” and “Play Responsibly” are the slogans repeated again and again in the sophisticated sex literature. The practitioners talk so much about how healthy sex is you’d think they were doing jumping jacks. To keep everything responsible and under control, weird activities are girded round with rules and etiquette.  Judging by the sexual encounter groups that describe their activities in newsletters, the codes governing group-sex community meetings prescribing when it is necessary to sign a legal waiver, when it is okay to smoke are strictly adhered to. This may not be the etiquette that ruled behavior in 19th-century parlors, but in its relentless demand for self-control and responsibility, it’s propriety nonetheless.

Today’s Marquis de Sades don’t hate society. They’re not trying to subvert normality. They’re trying to join it.  They want to win mainstream acceptance and so gain a respectable place in the middle-class world. “We affirm that loving more than one can be a natural expression of health, express joy and intimacy. This is a lovestyle we call responsible non-monogamy,” reads the mission statement of Loving More magazine, the journal of polyamoury. These days, every “affirmation group” seeks its niche in the land of the up and up: the necrophiliacs, the lovers of orthodontia, the piercists, the crush lovers (people who enjoy watching women smash things), and the macrophiliacs (people who fantasize about women who destroy buildings with their breasts). Everyone wants to be seen as normal.

This is how the culture war ends. The institutions that once challenged the moral order don’t disappear. In fact, they grow more popular. But their meanings change. They get digested by the mainstream bourgeois order, and all the cultural weapons that once were used to undermine middle-class morality, however disgusting, are drained of their subversive content. The formerly transgressive groups develop styles of conduct that mimic bourgeois stability. They adopt their own forms of respectability and responsibility. This happened to the Free Love movement of the 1960s. It’s happened to the rock festivals. Once, Woodstock pretended to be the dawning of a new antinomian age, but now rock concerts are places lawyers take their kids. It’s even happened to street demonstrations, as anyone who watched the recent anti-IMF protests in Washington can attest. All that was once menacing turns dull and ritualistic. Society absorbs the countercultural assault and finds a new equilibrium. And the only thing to do is to tote up who got the better of the exchange. Is the new social order more like the old one, or is it more like the new world the counterculturalists were hoping to create?

To answer that question, remember what the recently concluded culture war was all about. It really began in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. There, a group of artists and intellectuals looked at the merchant middle classes that had displaced the aristocracy as the leading force in society and decided they were revolting. Flaubert observed the “stupid grocers and their ilk” and found them “plodding and avaricious.” Stendhal declared hatred of the bourgeoisie to be “the beginning of all virtue.” The shopkeepers made him want to “weep and vomit at the same time.” The poet and playwright Alfred de Musset hurled himself against the sacred institutions of the middle class: “Damned Be the Family and Society. Cursed Be the Home and Cursed Be the City. Damnation upon the Motherland.”

The bourgeoisie loved stability and order, custom and ritual. So the rebel intellectuals went in for anarchic protests that were designed to shock the bourgeoisie.  Épater les bourgeois! Bohemian men grew their hair long and wore beards. They adopted flamboyant modes of dress, worshipped “primitive” people supposedly untouched by boring commercial civilization. They went in for the macabre. They loved campy pranks. The poet Gérard de Nerval took a lobster on a leash through the Tuileries gardens. “It does not bark,” he remarked, “and it knows the secrets of the deep.” The more you read about the Parisian rebels, the more you realize they thought of everything. For the next 150 years, radicals, intellectuals, and hippies could do little but repeat their stunts and rebellions.

During that century and a half, the issue at the center of the conflict remained essentially the same: merchant-class morality. The bourgeois stood for a set of virtues the bohemian thought were tepid and soul-destroying: self-discipline, frugality, order, moderation, industry, temperance, fidelity, and faith.  The bourgeois celebrated the entrepreneur, the family, organized religion. The bourgeois distrusted radical change and preferred comfort to passionate intensity.

The bohemian, on the other hand, championed a different set of virtues: creativity, hedonism, spontaneity, imagination, altered states of consciousness, uninhibited self-expression. The bourgeois floated on a swell of affluence, so the bohemian rejected materialism. The bourgeois admired politeness, so the counterculturalist was raw. The bourgeois was neat, so the bohemian was haphazard.  The bourgeois was career-oriented, so the bohemian was experience-oriented. The bourgeois practiced conspicuous consumption, so the bohemian practiced conspicuous non-consumption. The bourgeois pretended to be chaste, so the bohemian pretended to be promiscuous. The realm of the bourgeoisie was the marketplace. The quintessential bohemian activity was art.

This culture war simmered throughout the industrial era. One hundred years ago, if you read Horatio Alger stories you were bourgeois. If you hung around Greenwich Village talking revolution, you were bohemian. In the 1950s, if you liked Ike, you were probably bourgeois. If you read the Beats you were probably bohemian. But then in the 1960s, bohemia exploded into a mass movement, and the cultural conflict turned into a society-wide war. Theodore Roszak, the chronicler of the 1960s revolt, summarized the hippie critique of the middle classes in The Making of the Counter Culture: “The bourgeoisie is obsessed by greed; its sex life is insipid and prudish; its family patterns are debased; its slavish conformities of dress and grooming are degrading; its mercenary routinization of life is intolerable.”

Through most of the prolonged conflict, the bourgeoisie ignored the countercultural attacks and followed the advice on its throw pillows: Living well is the best revenge. But in the 1960s, the countercultural assault could not be ignored. A group of conservative intellectuals and religious conservatives rose up to defend bourgeois morality. It may not be grand and inspiring, as religious or aristocratic morality can be, these conservatives conceded, but the bourgeois code provides an effective moral context for modern life.  With its emphasis on self-discipline, thrift, neighborliness, and industry, it provides a check on the selfishness endemic to capitalism. With its reverence for institutions such as the family, the church, good manners, it makes life pleasant and decent. Moreover, the conservatives added, let’s not underestimate the importance of material progress. The bourgeoisie’s talent for wealth-creation has opened up opportunities for billions and spread the bounty more broadly than ever before.

Bohemians may aspire to grand spiritual transcendence, the conservatives continued, but they often end in self-indulgent nihilism. Their rebellion against authority leads not to blissful liberation, but to self-destructive behavior. The romantic searchers seek only to throw off conventional morality, but succeed in subverting all morality, all civil restraint. Pretty soon, fathers are abandoning their families and the sanctity of the two-parent family is gone. Children raised without clear moral guideposts slip into drug abuse and criminality. Popular culture becomes more vulgar and social pathologies skyrocket.

And so from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, the culture war raged, and it was pretty easy to tell which side a person was on, sometimes just by the way he dressed or talked. Did he like guns or granola, feminism or Falwell, buzzcuts or beads? Conservative defenders of bourgeois values loved the Reagan eighties and loathed the New Left sixties. The left-wing counterculturalists loathed the Decade of Greed and loved the Age of Aquarius.

Interestingly, through most of the culture war, conservatives felt they were losing. “Bohemian values have come to prevail over bourgeois virtue in sexual morals and family roles, arts and letters, bureaucracies and universities, popular culture and public life,” George Gilder argued in 1995. “As a result culture and family life are widely in chaos, cities seethe with venereal plagues, schools and colleges fall to obscurantism and propaganda, the courts are a carnival of pettifoggery.” The following year, Robert Bork extended that argument in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, which shot up the bestseller lists.

But look around America today, and it is far from clear that they were right. If bohemian nihilism were really on the march, could America sustain an economy as productive as this one?

The first thing to notice is that the atmosphere of culture war has largely abated. Sure, there are still disputes about fundamental issues like abortion, guns, and affirmative action. Politics will never end. But as far as cultural politics is concerned, a relative calm has settled over the landscape. Most of the country recoils from any sort of cultural conflict. The public drew back from the Clinton impeachment because it didn't want to get involved in another passionate confrontation over morals (the stock market was doing too well). This year, two presidential candidates avoid the culture war rhetoric that was a staple of earlier campaigns. Al Gore mixes some social conservatism with his social liberalism, and George W. Bush is a nonideological sort who basically abstained from the fight over the Clinton scandals. The majority of Americans don’t seem to want to make harsh moral judgments, either in defense of traditional values or against them.

Moreover, these days it is suddenly very difficult to tell the bohemian from the bourgeois. The old categories no longer make sense. Hip bankers are wearing those teeny tiny steel-framed glasses because now it is apparently more prestigious in corporate America to look like Franz Kafka than Johnny Carson. Upscale WASP suburbs are suddenly dotted with arty coffee houses where people drink European coffees, read alternative weeklies, and listen to old protest rock.

Meanwhile, former bohemian neighborhoods are now dotted with multimillion-dollar lofts and upscale gardening stores where you can buy a faux-authentic trowel for $35.99. Former countercultural enclaves like Berkeley, California, and Burlington, Vermont, have become fantastic business centers, and the airwaves are filled with commercials for huge corporations that cite bohemian icons like Jack Kerouac and Ghandi. The people who grew up arguing that consumerism is a sham now renovate kitchens so big they look like aircraft hangars with plumbing, complete with 48-inch-wide, six-burner, dual-fuel, 20,000 BTU Viking ranges that send up heat like a space-shuttle rocket turned upside down.

Further, if you investigate people’s attitudes toward sex, morality, leisure time, and work, it’s harder and harder to separate the bourgeois company man from the bohemian rebel. Most people, at least among the college-educated set, hold rebel attitudes and bourgeois success-oriented attitudes all scrambled together. Marx taught that classes always conflict, but sometimes they just blur. Defying expectations and maybe logic, people seem to have merged the two culture-war rivals the bohemian sixties and the bourgeois eighties into one social ethos.

In fact, this phenomenon is a consequence of the information age. In this era, ideas and knowledge are at least as vital to economic success as capital. So the people who thrive are the ones who can turn ideas and emotions into products. These are university-oriented folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and art and the other foot in the bourgeois realm of the marketplace. The members of the information age elite are bourgeois bohemians, or bobos. And when you look at them in their university towns, in their upscale suburbs, in their Rocky Mountain retreats, you can’t help asking yourself:

When the bourgeois merged with the bohemian, who sold out to whom?

You can drive yourself crazy trying to get to the bottom of that one, because the bobo synthesis draws heavily on both the bourgeois value system and the bohemian value system. But ultimately, it was the bohemians who made the crucial concession. There is a loser: The bohemians lost the culture war, and the bourgeoisie won. Because at its root, the culture war was about commercial civilization. The bourgeoisie were merchants. The core of the bohemian complaint was that commercial culture is inherently corrupting.  But now the bohemians have decided that commercial culture is wonderful, so long as they can wear jeans and black T-shirts to work.

The counterculturalists have invaded the business world and brought their countercultural frameworks with them. More precisely, they have brought those aspects of the counterculture that enhance profits and discarded those that don’t. In fact, the one place where the lingo of the Age of Aquarius is still bellowed out full force is the corporate boardroom. “Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules,” Burger King advertises. “Born to be Wild,” is Lucent Technology’s motto. “Think revolution, not evolution,” advises a senior vice president at Home Depot. “Destruction is Cool!” raves leading management consultant Tom Peters.  Nowadays the lords of corporate America talk like stoned teenagers. Next year’s cost projections?  They’re insanely great! The product pipeline? Way cool! How’d the IPO go? It cratered! And this is not just rhetoric. In the 1960s, the radicals complained about technocracy and bureaucratic stultification. They wanted personal, face-to-face relationships. And today’s corporations have reengineered themselves exactly along these lines. To understand the values that guide the prevailing management philosophy, read Roszak. And as the strength of the economy proves, these formerly radical ideas, rightly applied, have produced wonderful results. Companies are more creative. Workers who consider themselves artists instead of drones work evenings and weekends.

So the radicals have transformed even corporate America. But they themselves have also been transformed. They have embraced worldly ambition.  They accept and even lionize the judgments of the marketplace. They celebrate work, profit, and capital gains. There has never been a time in American history when business people had such prestige, when so few Americans saw themselves as mortal enemies of capitalism. Magazines like Wired, Fast Company, and Red Herring may have countercultural trappings, but ultimately they are business magazines. They celebrate the business person’s virtues, and these virtues now set the tone for American life.

The bourgeoisie was always competitive at work, but sentimental and stability-loving at home. So radicals and proto-radicals have always argued that bourgeois America is too orderly, complacent, conformist. “We hope for non-conformists among you, for your sake, for the sake of the nation, for the sake of humanity,” the theologian Paul Tillich preached to a college audience in 1957.

But now, even intellectuals no longer call for liberating disorder. Instead, social critics these days tend to want more stability, more civil society, more social cohesion. The movements that now win the enthusiastic endorsement of polite opinion almost all have something to do with the reassertion of community authority. Universities are reinventing in loco parentis reimposing curfews, rules on cohabitation, drinking, unsupervised parties, fraternity hazing, and sexual conduct. In legislatures across the country, there have been efforts to control Internet smut, guns, tobacco, violent television, campaign spending, video games. America has seen a historic wave of welfare reform in which state and federal agencies have imposed more rules and restrictions on welfare recipients. Cities across the nation have reimposed controls on panhandling, vagrancy, public drinking, even littering.

Back in the 1960s a man named A.S. Neill ran a school in Britain called Summerhill, which had virtually no rules except those set by the students themselves.  Neill’s book on his Summerhill method sold well over 2 million copies in the United States, part of a broad movement to give children maximum freedom to explore, create, and otherwise develop “naturally.” No idea could be as out of fashion as that one is today.  Now children are monitored, supervised, and enveloped in rules. The concern with children’s safety is unprecedented. After the shootings at Columbine, one response drew unanimous agreement: Parents need to exercise more authority over their kids. The days of Rousseauian liberation are over.

Equally striking are the efforts, especially in upscale towns, to gain control over “sprawl.” In every affluent neighborhood, a powerful group of citizens is promoting stricter and stricter zoning requirements, opposing new development, and fighting “improvements.” Rather than being progressive and forward-looking, upscale neighborhoods are likely to look back, seeking to preserve the orderly past.  Upscalers spend more time restoring lost treasures, renovating old buildings, browsing for creaky Moroccan crafts, or reading about Tuscan peasants than they do creating futuristic ways of living. Every third automobile in the former bohemian enclaves seems to have a bumper sticker that implores, “Save the ______,” in aid of an old theater or an old boat or an old bay.

Politically, today’s Americans show little desire to launch massive enterprises. They are generally disenchanted with those zealous for radical change, whether it be Hillary Clinton with her ambitious health care plan or Newt Gingrich with his ambitious effort to scale back government. Many thought that when the baby boomer university grads reached the top of the power pyramid, they would bring their youthful ideological style with them, but just the opposite has come to pass. Ideologies of right and left are out of favor, and utopianism is practically extinct. Americans are more likely to see politics as a series of humble improvisations enacted with cautious hopes and some anxiety. That is to say, America is today a conservative place. Conservative in the old-fashioned sense, meaning distrustful of rapid change, modest about what we can know and how effectively we can plan. That’s the way the bourgeoisie likes it. And sometimes it is the former radicals in clogs and ponytails who fight futuristic change most fiercely (just try building a big new project in Burlington or Berkeley).

If you’d been one of those radical bohemians (whether from the 1830s or the 1960s) sitting in your garret dreaming of revolution, you would loathe America at the start of the 21st century. On the other hand, if you’d been a Babbitt, one of the shopkeepers the radicals used to ridicule, you’d be pretty comfortable, all things considered. You’d like living in a country where business is celebrated, but where civic life is moderate and cautious. It might take a while to get used to all the executives who dress like aging rock stars, and you’d be shocked by what passes for popular culture, but you’d grow to appreciate a world that offered such a wonderful selection of whole-grain pastas, a spinoff of all those organic grocery stores that emerged from the Bay Area after the 1960s.

Since the Babbitts mostly won the culture war, you’d think conservatives would be riding high. After all, conservatives were staunch defenders of middle-class morality and middle America. But over the past three or four years it has become increasingly clear that conservatism is not the political wing of the bourgeoisie. Conservatives were allied with the bourgeoisie as long as they had a common foe in the counterculture. But with that common foe now defunct, there are more and more ruptures between conservatives and middle America.

Conservatives were outraged by Bill Clinton. Middle America, by and large, didn't want to rock the boat while the economy was doing so well. Conservatives were excited by Newt Gingrich’s efforts to radically scale back government. Middle Americans were put off by his vehemence. Conservatives passionately oppose abortion. Middle America is ambivalent.  Conservatives oppose normalizing homosexuality.  Middle America doesn't want to talk about it. The basic difference is that conservatives are motivated by ideals. Libertarians dream of a land of perfect freedom.  Religious conservatives are motivated by their conception of the divine moral order. Some patriotically oriented conservatives are driven by their love of the democratic promise of America. But the bourgeoisie never goes in for grand and lofty politics.  All it wants is a stable, moderate world in which to go about its commercial and domestic business.

And so the people on the right are beginning to launch the same sorts of attacks on the merchant middle class that countercultural lefties used to employ: The middle class is too deeply sunk in contentment. It is complacent. During the impeachment crisis, William Bennett wrote a book called The Death of Outrage.  That’s the problem with the bourgeoisie. It almost never gets outraged. It is not aroused by transcendent wrongs. It just sticks to its mundane affairs.

Ironically, it is the Democratic party that has best adapted to the post-culture war world. Once Democrats learned to submerge their countercultural impulses (after three consecutive presidential defeats), they adopted a political style that was, at least on the surface, anti-ideological, the way the good burghers or, as we now call them, Soccer Moms like it. The Clinton State of the Union addresses were a hodgepodge of modest reforms, each one designed to offer a concrete benefit to a discrete constituency; they didn't pretend to offer much in the way of ideological vision. To organize their thinking, the Clintonites chose three key words“Opportunity, Responsibility, and Community”as their perpetual campaign themes, rarely pausing over any tensions between those values.  They embraced school uniforms and other conservative-sounding gestures, and also condoms in schools and other liberal-sounding gestures. Clinton triangulated above the culture warriors of left and right and concocted a mushy Third Way, which blends some impulses of the old bohemian counterculture and some impulses of the silent majority into a non-threatening pudding. It is a perpetual balancing act. But it is the political model that prevails across the industrialized world.

This mushy centrism drives many on the right who long for a more heroic political style batty. The centrist establishment stifles radical ideas and remains somehow immune to attack. There seems to be no there there. The new elite presents no coherent front.  Instead, it coopts and embraces. Its leaders adopt your rhetoric and your suggestions while sucking out of them all of the radicalism and much of the substance.  Third Way leaders never rise up for a fight. They just go along their merry way, blurring, reconciling, merging, and being happy.

After years of conflict and turmoil, a new order has solidified, with its own status rules, manners and mores, and ethical principles. A new Bobo Establishment has finally replaced the old Protestant Establishment that was killed off by the counterculture.  Like it or not, the bobos have arrived, and they'll be setting the tone for our national life for some time to come.


Bobos in Paradise : The New Upper Class and How They Got There
by David Brooks =aps_sr_b_1_1/104-3326611-1394027


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