Celebrating Our New Rulers

Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. “They are very different from you and me.” Ernest Hemingway famously replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

America’s newest batch of rich are the subject of David Brooks’ shrewd, hilarious, and often aggravating book, aptly subtitled “The New Upper Class and How They Got There.” If Hemingway and Fitzgerald debated whether wealth makes people fundamentally different from those without it, then Brooks suggests that the new upper class is making the rest of the nation over in its image, leaving its indelible mark on our economy, culture, and politics.

Brooks’ main argument is that an up-and-coming class of well-educated professionals, many linked to the “new economy”–including computer programmers, financial consultants, on-line entrepreneurs, academics, systems analysts, and the like–has reconciled the previously antagonistic worlds of bourgeois materialism and bohemian self-expression. They have “one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.” Hence the term Bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians.

“Bobo” is a brilliant term for its ability to draw together a huge range of familiar mannerisms and cultural trends into a coherent whole. Do you eat whole-grain pastas with chunks of vegetables in them that your parents have never heard of? Are the people you supervise called “associates,” not “employees?” Does your kitchen look like “an aircraft hangar with plumbing?” Do you seek authenticity and enlightenment on your vacations, not merely good weather and a tan? This book could be about you.

At the heart of Bobo identity lies “a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirited rebel.” Previous generations of the bourgeoisie emphasized the stolid virtues of self-control, frugality, punctuality, reservedness, and deference. They drove cars and owned homes that tastefully reflected the affluence won by their hard work. They taught their children “good posture, genteel manners, extreme personal hygiene, pointless discipline, and the ability to sit still for long periods of time.” This elite was not the most vicious or exclusive that the world had ever seen, but even into the 1950s it actively kept African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews, even wealthy ones, from fully joining its ranks. Women had access to this club through marriage or birth, but were hardly welcome as independent or unattached individuals.

This elite has changed drastically in a single generation, according to Brooks. Like so much of contemporary America, the genesis of Bobo culture can be found in the social rebellion of the 1960s. The cultural radicals of this period assaulted the old WASP establishment, ridiculing its exclusiveness, its fetishizing of respectability, its insistence on wealth as a measure of success. The establishment, in Brooks’ account, has never recovered, and today its snobbery and staidness have been supplanted by the Bobo aesthetic.

But the old order has certainly left its mark on the new. The Bobos are the fusion of the counterculture and bourgeoisie, not the conquest of the latter by the former. While the ethic of the ’60s rebels was strongly anti-materialist, their penchant for bohemian self-expression ultimately lent itself to reconciliation with entrepreneurial capitalism. And so Jane Fonda married Ted Turner. Ben and Jerry sold lots of ice cream. Graying New Left activists got university professorships, then endowed chairs.

The Bobos now run the country, Brooks would have us believe, deeply shaping virtually all aspects of life. Most of the book is a hilarious romp through the cultural world of Bobo consumerism. Brooks offers a “code of financial correctness” to guide readers through the consumption habits of the new overclass. His recommendations: emphasize your kitchen, buy clothing and furniture with lots of distinctive textures (smooth being the preference of the out-moded elite), decorate with the colorful textiles and artifacts of colonized people. Where Karl Marx once observed that the bourgeoisie take all that is sacred and make it profane, the Bobos take all that is profane and make it sacred.

Elite business culture now also bears the mark of Bobo-dom. Traditional executives were a harsh bunch. They insisted on loyalty and demanded social conformity from their peers and those below them on the corporate ladder. But now businesses have embraced the old countercultural mantras of constant change, freedom, experimentation, enthusiasm, and an obsession with newness. They use this to market themselves: “Sometimes you gotta break the rules,” Burger King tells us; we’re a “Symbol of Freedom,” proclaims Southwest Airlines; Jack Kerouac and Mahatma Gandhi appear in ads designed to entice us to buy retro-looking computers and acid-washed blue jeans.

Work was a duty and a source of wealth for the old elite. But now entrepreneurs and new-economy executives speak openly, even obsessively, of finding spiritual fulfillment in their work, downplaying the remarkable coincidence that many of them happen to be getting fantastically wealthy. If they don’t find spiritual enrichment at one company, then they’ll leave–or just start their own. Here Brooks is at his most enthusiastic, praising Bobos for making American businesses “creative and efficient at the same time.” The bourgeoisie, he concludes, has actually “revived itself by absorbing the energy of bohemianism.”

Brooks locates a similar phenomenon in politics. If the bohemians and bourgeoisie were at war since the ’60s, then the new political establishment, epitomized by the Clinton-Gore Administration, has pacified and synthesized both sides of the culture war. It melds such conservative-sounding measures as a balanced budget, a reinvigoration of values and family life, and welfare reform, together with left-sounding calls for diversity and tolerance, maintenance of abortion rights, and environmentalism. Above all, this political consensus is “epistemologically modest,” shunning both utopian visions and a naive faith in technocratic decision-making. “Many Bobos would fight like hell against being labeled conservatives,” Brooks concludes, “but often the ones in the hemp clogs and the ponytails are the most temperamentally conservative of all.”

Brooks is an astute observer of contemporary cultural and political trends. And yet this book is as short-sighted as it is enlightening. It’s never clear exactly who is a Bobo, or whether all Bobos are part of the new establishment. Most people think of “bourgeois” as a fancy word for “middle class,” but Brooks clearly means for it to denote a more elite bunch than, say, a college-educated homeowner. Late in the book, he comes close to offering a definition, referring to the approximately nine million households with incomes over $100,000, which is more than twice the national average. Realistically, Brooks is talking about a smaller group yet. Two married professionals, each clearing fifty to sixty thousand dollars a year while paying for a house and two cars and saving for their kids’ education, are unlikely to tell their bosses to shove it or to start their own company if they find themselves feeling unfulfilled at the end of the day. If most Americans can afford to buy some Bobo products, then very few have the security to underwrite the free-wheelingness that Brooks celebrates.

A more serious flaw is that Brooks lets himself be seduced by his own arguments, and ends up exaggerating the power of Bobo culture. The old establishment that it supposedly overthrew is faring much better than Brooks makes it out to be. The overwhelming majority of corporate executives are still white, Protestant, and male, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The flagship institutions of the old economy–banks, energy companies, and heavy industry–are alive and well, much of their internal culture unchanged. And the “new economy” companies behave suspiciously like the old when their backs are to the wall. Amazon.com’s employees may be called “associates,” but that doesn’t save 15 percent of them from being canned when quarterly earnings are not up to Wall Street’s expectations. Bill Gates wears chinos and has a dorky haircut, but he acts like a grand old robber baron when he crushes potential competition and starts buying politicians.

On balance, today’s consumer culture owes more to yesterday’s bourgeoisie than to tomorrow’s Bobos. Hip coffee bars are flourishing, but so too are the sales of such distinctly un-Bobo commodities as luxury automobiles, ugly suburban mansions, breast jobs, fine cigars, personal jets, yachts, and monstrously big SUVs. Brooks’ cursory survey of the political landscape (in which Bobo equals balance) inevitably oversimplifies things. The Bobo political sensibility, in any case, has done more to blunt the economic populism of the Democrats than to check the blatant greed and cultural warfare of the Republicans. Our President and Vice-President are both former oil-company executives, and neither is what you would call touchy-feely or sensitive. At the apex of economic and political power, the familiar bourgeoisie, unadulterated by bohemianism, lives on.

Bobos, to be sure, do exist, and do exercise a great deal of influence. But here Brooks’ celebratory tone is unfounded. By the book’s end, he’s singing the praises of our supposed new elite: “It’s good to live in a Bobo world.” His only real worry is that the Bobos won’t recognize their power as an incipient ruling elite, and might thereby miss the chance “to go down in history as the class that led America into another golden age.”

What is it, exactly, that the Bobos do to deserve such confidence? It’s nice that they’re not as homophobic or racist as the old WASP establishment. It’s nice that they find their jobs enriching, go on interesting vacations, and buy what they consider spiritually stimulating products. But much of the establishment does not live that way, and is downright suspicious of those who do. And what of the Bobo impact on the other ninety-odd percent of the nation? The plain truth is that most people don’t get to enjoy the carefree lifestyle of the Bobos. For most Americans, a job simply means enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter a family. More and more of these jobs involve the humdrum labor of the service industry, not the creative and glamorous high-tech positions that so enchant commentators like Brooks. For a slice of reality, forget Seattle and think of Las Vegas: perhaps the fastest growing economy in America, and one built almost entirely on low-wage service jobs.

In the end it’s a small world that the Bobos inhabit. Which is not to say that it is un-American to celebrate their moment in the limelight. Ruling classes have always understood their dominance to be the natural order of things, be it ordained by Zeus, Jesus Christ, or their superior genetic material. If the Bobos do become the new national elite, Brooks’ sycophantic account will provide them with the basis for justifying their own privileged position. But in the end, most people simply can’t afford to live like Bobos. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: The very rich are not like you and me.

Benjamin Heber Johnson is writing a book on race relations in early twentieth century Texas.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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