Shouldn't it be enough of a task in life to find meaningful work and love, those north and south poles of happiness? No: The human animal, like so many of its two- and four- and many-legged kin, also has an enduring need to establish social hierarchies. And that job--figuring out your rank and edging it upward--requires acute attention in American culture, which is constantly reshuffling the terms of success. Tocqueville was one of the first to warn that Americans are ever-anxious about the social precipice, the real possibility of plummeting from upper- or middle-class respectability.
No wonder two of our literature's great themes are failures and climbers. Lily Bart, Jay Gatsby, Flannery O'Connor's self-congratulatory white folks, Arthur Miller's salesman, and everyone Tom Wolfe has ever written about are all twisting in a very American angst about social status and self-respect.
And it's no wonder that sociologists and other observers are perpetually taking stock of society's current status behaviors. Manners and morals are two sides of one coin. If you investigate closely the lifestyles of the elite and/or avant-garde, you glimpse social values that are subtly shaping the characters and life courses of the rest. The Sunday New York Times Magazine pays homage each week to Trollope's idea that "the way we live now"--"we," of course, meaning the elite--is a way of looking at such questions as ethics, economics, and even, on occasion, injustice.
So what, today, are our freedoms and restrictions, our totems and taboos? David Brooks of The Weekly Standard and Ann Powers of The New York Times (formerly of The Village Voice and SF Weekly) agree: Today's social rules have been set by "bohemians," that near-mythical group putatively more driven by meaning than materialism, more interested in experience than acquisition. Though Brooks and Powers view our social world from opposing sides of the political tracks (or, if you prefer, tracts), both note that bohemians have infiltrated the mainstream--in fact, that the line between bohemian and bourgeois has dissolved. Or, to cut to the bad news: You and I are what David Brooks calls bobos. We're the bohemian bourgeoisie, bobos, the new elite.
Get used to the neologism, because Brooks has your number. Worse, he's here to tell you that you are the new ruling class. In his view, our world has long since said goodbye to the white-shoed, Whartonized, Episcopalian establishmentarians with protruding jaws, and has enthroned instead mountaineering-booted overachievers with excellent orthodontia and impressive GRE scores. In Brooks's analysis, the bohemian impulse--the ways of those who for the past 200 years have hymnified experience, whether as Left Bank expatriates, beatniks, intellectuals, hippies, or (Ann Powers would add) alt-rockers--triumphed once Ivy League deans dropped their affirmative action policy for bluebloods and stopped favoring "legacy" applicants, letting GPAs and SAT scores rule instead. That simplistic argument ignores (as conservatives will) the way the economy shapes personal and social behavior. Rob-ert Reich, among others, would tell us that rule by the verbally or visually creative, by the musically or mathematically endowed, resulted from the shift from industrial to symbolic production, from a thing-making to an idea-making economy.
But Brooks is entertainingly correct about the result: "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 find a way to be an artist and still qualify for stock options." And like any elite, they have created a social code by which they can remain true to themselves--and recognize each other. For instance, bobos "are supposed to forgo earnings opportunities in order to lead richer lives. If you have not forgone any earnings, you just can't expect your status to be very high." The new code of work-as-lifelong-hobby, with money respected only if it's an aftereffect, helps to explain the media-wide infatuation with those few geekily creative kids who get rewarded with Cinderella-like wealth. These kids get status markers on all sides, since they have both creative occupations and mountainside houses with a view of the Pacific.
Of course, you must mock your status for it to count. "To be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to ... show how little your worldly success means to you. You always want to dress one notch lower than those around you." Now it makes sense: All those law and banking firms shedding their suits for the higher-status (if more complex) dress code called "casual"; all those software engineers whose status you can read in their jeans (hole-free = entry-level coder; underwear-revealing holes = chief poobah with 17 patents).
This new code has been coming for a while. Some will find Brooks's descriptions to be an extension of David Riesman's idea that taste, not acquisition, is what's at stake in today's status wars. Others who suffered through Paul Fussell's vicious 1983 book Class will recognize the ascension of his "X" class, those who achieve "personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable." To expose how the new elite navigate today's status wars, Brooks offers a "new set of rules and sumptuary codes." In sum, luxury is vulgar; utility is admirable. Think GORE-TEX, Range Rovers, and e-businesses carefully exposing the steel and brick in factory lofts. The utility principle, Brooks says, explains why a jacuzzi is crude but stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerators and $25,000 ovens are ooh-worthy: "A capacious kitchen with durable appliances is a sign that you do your own chores, sharing the gritty reality of everyday life, just as Gandhi and Karl Marx would have wanted you to."
Brooks is dead-on as well with his diagnosis of "Status-Income Disequilibrium." Those afflicted with SID have artistic or intellectual jobs--making, perhaps, $80,000 a year as a Nobeltrack developmental biologist or an oft-quoted Justice Department civil rights lawyer. But these highly successful folks may lose perspective and feel downright deprived when those with whom they socialize--their fellows from college, say, or donors to their causes--make obscene amounts of money doing something crudely remunerative, like financial management or Frito-Lay marketing. One could easily diagnose writer James Atlas with SID, for instance, based on his whiny articles in The New Yorker several years ago. He complained that, although he had kids in a top New York private school, he was too poor for a palatial beach house.
But beyond these opening chapters and the advice chapter for the aspiring intellectual, Brooks's portraits and pronouncements are hit or miss. In his chapter on work life, for instance, he misses the cell phone manacles on the corporate class. And he fails to notice that those who came of age under Reagan/Bush were thereby trained to see business, not politics, as today's most admirable route of performing public service.
More dismaying, however, are his ongoing self-congratulations. Brooks is fond of his fellow bobos, happy to comfort the comfortable and ignore the afflicted. You'll find no Barbara Ehrenreich or James Fallows here to remind you that the "meritocratic" ascension isn't, that the group under discussion is small and has great power to harm the rest of the world (can you say "SUV = greenhouse effect"?). Occasionally he spouts nonsense about how the 1960s and 1970s ruined morality, child-rearing, and so forth. He explicitly aims to reassure fellow conservatives that the bohemians have been tamed by success and money and are now a well-mannered, ambitious, reliable power class, thank you very much.
Which is what's keeping Ann Powers awake at night. Like Brooks, she believes that our styles of work and life do matter. Her stated goal is to show how her "alternative" communities--communities that, I think, she wanted both to celebrate and elegize--are changing our world. Unfortunately, her book is muddied by an underlying desperation to prove her bohemian credentials. Sometimes she's trying to assure her hipper readers that she hasn't "sold out" by becoming a writer for the Times. For instance, she writes, "Indie rock's ... acolytes fondly recall the feeling of superiority that came with knowing your favorite band was better than the stuff on the charts." At other times, she's trying to justify her in-group's relevance to the less-than-hip: "The average person may not see herself in the pierced and tattooed visage and black leather pants of the stereotypical freak, but she may be surprised to discover that this wild creature's reinventions of kinship, the work ethic, consumerism, and even desire ... intersect with her own quandaries and solutions." But a poisonous condescension oozes steadily through such sentences. She doesn't grasp that the ideas she's putting forward are old hat and long ago spread far beyond her demimonde.
One wishes some editor had told Powers to write just one of the books crashed together here like a highway pileup: a jagged memoir of a life in the San Francisco-1980s-rock underground, which might have been interesting if done with less bloviating; often-absorbing interviews with friends or friends-of-friends about their life courses and personal philosophies; and a botched and badly written attempt to theorize about how "alternative culture" can transform us all. For instance, she writes about living in an extended group house that wasn't as uncool as a boomer commune (God, no) even if it had the same predictable personality upheavals. From this she concludes that "kinship beyond blood can be just as cruel as the biological kind." This is news? And she glorifies her former hunts through used-clothes bins every few days for unique combos, since "even in bohemian circles [women's] status still depended largely on our appearance." Doesn't she realize what an incredibly wealthy society it takes to offer up such scavenger loot? And how is proving female status any different if said female must spend scads of time--rather than scads of money--putting together a look?
Powers doesn't know that she's chronicling not bohemians but desperately unhappy young people--and doesn't see that they are unhappy for a reason that goes beyond dissatisfac-tion with their bio-families. No one's explained to these outsiders the rules of our brave new postmodern world, a world in which we're encouraged to translate our creativity and passions into earning a living and making a life--if we can.
Ours is a relentlessly demanding economy. We expect each middle-class young person to create his or her path alone--a task that requires an enormous amount of social, intellectual, physical, and motivational maneuvering and perspicacity. As a result, many of us floundered in the unsettled, unsettling netherworld of underpaid jobs and unfound talents that Powers describes. Many had an agonizing transition between hating high school and finding a workable adulthood. Far too many fall through the cracks. Finding a remunerative way to channel your talents is scarcely "selling out," as Powers fears; it's another phase in the lifelong balancing act between culture and character, society and self.
Brooks doesn't recognize this either, of course. He writes with awed pride about the "résumé gods," those healthy and many-lettered ones (PBK, Ph.D., J.D., M.B.A., CBS) whose quirky passions ("hot-air ballooning above the Napa valley") and creative weddings are chronicled in the Sunday Times. But the résumé gods, he notes, are usually second-generation bobos, whose parents encouraged them in their cello lessons or stand-up comedy attempts or Costa Rican archaeological expeditions. Powers's weirdos are more likely to come from working-middle or disrupted or noncoastal families, families that haven't been clued into the new work-is-play ethic, families lacking the cultural capital to help their children navigate this society's uncharted eddies and shoals.
In her chapter on the degradations of minimum wage work at a record store, Powers writes, "Is there such a thing as a good job? ... [W]e self-styled music whores knew the answer: not in this world." Petty theft and fuck-you attitude were their apolitical solutions, until each found his or her own way out, into a "good job" that was not an oxymoron. And yet Powers doesn't seem to care--any more than does Brooks--about those who have little or no chance of vaulting out of the service sector. Her interest is in those for whom "employment is optimal when it comes as punctuation--just enough to pay for rent and groceries and to refresh the social skills a bit, and then it's back to whatever real business occupies you ... [and thus] satisfies the primary bohemian concern of being a whole person, all the time." This is breathtakingly offensive. Does she really not know that making life meaningful is a primary human concern?
Powers ends by explaining how one day, out of the blue, The New York Times called and plucked her from her safe SF Weekly haven as chronicler of her alt-rock communities. This Cinderella story (and now Simon & Schuster's publication of her book) is evidence for Brooks's contention that bobos and bourgies have merged. Powers soon quit her job at The New York Times to take one at The Village Voice and then, when neither proved fulfilling, quit again to freelance for the Times. Surely hers was a sincere struggle to stay true to herself, her love of music, her vision of community. But as Brooks writes, "It is the ultimate sign of privilege to be able to hit the road in search of new meaning whenever that little moth of tedium flies in the door." Unfortunately, neither Brooks with his restoration wit nor Powers with her blurry romanticism sees beyond his or her subcultural navel to ask, how can that privilege be spread? That question should haunt the rest of us. ¤