A very subtle snobbery
Currid-Halkett explains why flash cars and luxury handbags no longer signify high social status.
The novelist Nancy Mitford used to refer to lower orders as ‘milk in firsts’. And she wasn’t alone. Putting the milk into a cup before adding the tea was seen by many in 19th- and early 20th-century Britain as a marker of social status. As the butler in Upstairs, Downstairs, a 1970s TV period drama set at the turn of the 20th century, put it: ‘Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.’ But why was this the case? How did such a seemingly innocuous act acquire such a powerful social meaning? Because, as Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor in public planning at USC Price, explains in The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, many people at the time could only afford cheap china cups, which would crack if they came into contact with hot water. So, to avoid this, they would put the milk in first. Those at the upper end of the social scale, however, could afford better quality china that wouldn’t fissure at the merest hint of hot water. And so, to put the milk in the cup first became a sign of one’s social status, a cultural expression of one’s economic standing.
Such is the nature of what the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, writing at the turn of the 20th century, called ‘conspicuous consumption’ – the way our manner of consumption discloses and affirms our social status. But Currid-Halkett has noticed a shift in the realm of consumption. The wealthy elites of today are no longer expressing and affirming their status through the possession of luxury or rare goods; rather, they are doing it through the possession of cultural and educational goods. Veblen’s aristocratic leisure class, she argues, has been superseded by the hard-working, meritocratic aspirational class: ‘They speak the same language, acquire similar bodies of knowledge, and share the same values, all of which embody their collective consciousness.’
To find out more about the aspirational class, and their anti-ostentatious mode of inconspicuous consumption, we grabbed Currid-Halkett for a chat.
spiked review: Have people always tended to use consumption to signal social status in relatively developed societies?
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Yes, I think they have. One of the things you observe if you look at not just capitalist society, but pre-capitalist society, too, is the human desire to differentiate. And material goods become a very good conduit for doing precisely this because they’re socially visible, so they allow you to show differentiation. And as Veblen pointed out, your ability to display more material goods, or rarer goods, puts you high up the pecking order.
review: So how during the 20th century did people use the realm of consumption to mark out their social distinction? Presumably it’s not just a case of more of the same – buying expensive items to show one’s economic position.
Currid-Halkett: I think the realm of consumption has become much more complicated. Historically, material goods were a very good proxy for socio-economic position. They were something to strive for. So during the 20th century, the middle class in America would have the house in the suburbs and the station wagon, and eventually the air-conditioning unit and the dishwasher. These were signals of arriving. And at some point, during the 1980s, you could add to that litany of expensive consumables, the flash watches, handbags and cars, all of which became signals of social position.
Today, all those things are now accessible for a much larger segment of the population. And even if you can’t or shouldn’t buy them, you can fake it, through credit and leasing arrangements. So material goods are very commonplace. And in some ways that’s a good thing. It shows we have a better standard of living for many people. But we’ve also reached a saturation point whereby these goods have become less special. So, if you’ve very wealthy, there are less clear ways to signal or demonstrate that.
(I should add that by and large this is all done subconsciously. Conspicuous consumption isn’t fully articulated in people’s heads. It’s more a case that we tend to buy things that then reveal our social position.)
The other thing that happens when you look at the aspirational class is that there’s a huge environmental and social consciousness that fits today’s elite consumer. It’s a part of their cultural capital. So much of today’s consumption is loaded with whether or not it carries cultural capital: whether we buy organic food; whether we spend our money on exercise classes; whether we buy the Tesla or the Prius; whether we buy ‘Made in the USA’, not out of patriotism but because we know it’s sweatshop-free. These are all forms of elite consumerism and it’s expensive, but it’s very different from the flashy material consumption of the 1980s.
When we’re talking about the new elite consumerism, we’re not talking about billionaires. They do their own thing. They can go to farmers’ markets, and own a Bentley at the same time. But your average middle-class couple or family has actually refocused their income to attain certain consumer experiences that are elite. They’re not going for material goods, not least because of the real social, environmental and human cost to a lot of material goods, which we’re very aware of thanks to various exposés.
The inconspicuous consumption which propels a lot of income groups is really expensive now, whether it’s school, college, health or retirement, or having a nanny or a gardener. But in the case of the gardener or the nanny, they buy back something too few of us have, namely, time.
review: What’s the relationship between today’s aspirational class and, say, David Brooks’ ‘Bobos’, and even before that, the broader countercultural movement of the 1960s? I ask because I wonder to what extent that countercultural aversion to excessive materialism, and that broader discomfort with capitalism, has fed into the aspirational class’s move away from the older-fashioned form of conspicuous consumption.
Currid-Halkett: What’s interesting is that before the Bobos, there were the Bohemians. And they didn’t care about material goods at all. Bobos are the Bohemians who grew up, and had six-figure salaries, and struggled to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between their avowed values and their lives. I don’t think members of the aspirational class have a lot of cognitive dissonance. If anything, one of the problems is that, paradoxically, because they make really quite reasonable consumer decisions – they’ve saving for their kids’ education, they’re buying organic food, and free-range eggs – they think they’re doing their part, which they are. But that also makes them quite oblivious to how these consumer actions reproduce their own privilege, and inhibit finding solutions to present-day inequality.
review: You mention inequality, but one of the striking things about your category of the aspirational class is that its members are not necessarily wealthy.
Currid-Halkett: I would argue that most of them are. In a global sense, they constitute the top one-to-five per cent. (It’s very hard to quantify a group that’s defined by cultural capital.)
But the thing that was harder for me to reconcile was that in Whole Foods, they’ll be some wealthy professional – a lawyer, a banker, a doctor – buying their free-range chicken and their organic tomatoes next to a screenwriter, who doesn’t have the same income by any means but feels that these are the right kinds of goods to buy. What really unifies them is this sense of cultural capital. I would hypothesise that if you spoke to the screenwriter, he or she probably went to Yale, his or her parents are highly educated, and they probably also come from the professional classes. So you very much have people who are unified around their cultural capital, even if it doesn’t always translate into a high-paying job.
review: So the aspirational class is partially an economic elite, but mainly a cultural elite?
Currid-Halkett: Yes, that’s exactly right. What we’re observing with the 21st-century elite is a group that is defined by their cultural capital and the material goods that are essentially the physical embodiment of it.
review: You mention that they share cultural capital, that they share norms and values – could you sketch out what those norms and values are?
Currid-Halkett: I think the environment is a big one; certain kinds of awareness around global events; where you get your news from – The Economist, Wall Street Journal or the New York Times; the idea of important books to read; exercising and eating well… so there’s a tremendous prioritising of wellbeing, of aspiring to be a ‘better human’.
One of my favourite examples of this is breastfeeding. In certain bubbles, and I think this is probably true in the UK, too, you have pockets of women who all seem to breastfeed their kids. And yet if you look at national statistics, say in the US, that is nowhere near the reality. Something like half of infants are breastfeeding at six months, and less than a third are breastfeeding at 12 months. Those are national figures, too, and are therefore heavily weighted by California, New York and Vermont. If you’re in Mississippi, you’re not doing that.
So I wondered, why is it not more common? After all, it’s free, doctors encourage it and there’s little controversy about how important it is. And what I realised is that it’s about time, information and knowledge. And the single leading predictor as to whether a woman breastfeeds her child is education level, and then income level. So you see this story in which well-informed women, who have been steeped in all sorts of medical literature and peer-group pressure, are engaged in this practise that is essentially free, but in reality is not free. Why? Because it’s expensive in terms of time, logistics and information. And so it becomes this classic example of how cultural capital manifests itself today.
review: You often say that inconspicuous consumption in this way allows people to feel like ‘better humans’ – is it something like ethical snobbery, a way of marking yourself out as a more moral person than others?
Currid-Halkett: That’s the thing that’s very complicated. All this behaviour is generally well-intentioned, and it’s not meant to differentiate in a negative way. But there is without question some sort of judgement involved. One of my favourite examples comes from a sociologist, who was then doing her PhD at Harvard. She looked at how high-income and low-income families spend money on food for their children. There is this sense that you should be feeding your kids vegetables and salmon, and there’s a pride in doing this and an implicit sneering towards the parents who might take their kids to McDonald’s instead.
But the sociologist made this very important point, which is that it costs money to feed your kids brussel sprouts, for example. It’s not just the money for the sprouts. It’s the fact you probably have to try to feed your kids sprouts eight times before they’ll actually eat them. And if you buy food that they won’t eat, then you might not have money left over to buy the food that they will eat. So when mothers don’t buy their kids a load of vegetables, it may well be because they have a limited amount of money, and they just need their kids to eat.
And it’s the same reasoning with breastfeeding. The implicit assumption among those that do breastfeed is ‘why wouldn’t you breastfeed your kid – it’s so much better for the child’. But it’s more complicated than that. You need the time to try and try and try again; you probably need some money for a lactation consultant; you have to be in a group in which other mothers are doing it, so that when you go to a coffee shop or the playground you don’t feel self-conscious; and so on. And all of this just to reduce the likelihood of your child getting an ear infection by just 10 per cent. No wonder so many don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t know how we can judge a person for making the decision not to breastfeed – it’s extremely practical.
With a lot of these cultural-capital positions, while they’re laudable, it is a luxury to think about your consumption in this way, to think about whether it’s better for the environment; better for others; and generally better for the world.
review: This is one of the things that puzzles me about the aspirational class and cultural capital. The assumption of the breastfeeding mother, the thing that lends her actions their moral force, is that she believes this is something all mothers ought to do. Yet, as Pierre Bourdieu’s famously argues in Distinction, socio-economic groups use, say, cultural taste, as a way to mark their distinction from, not to mention their superiority to, other socio-economic groups. The idea that everyone should be, for example, able to talk about and listen to the music of Mahler, would therefore devalue the significance and distinction conferred upon the individuals who are talking about and listening to Mahler. And this goes for the aspirational class and their norms and values, their ethical taste, if you like. They think that everyone should share their norms and values, expressed through consumption, yet if everyone shared their tastes, these would cease to be a mark of distinction. They would stop providing a means of differentiation.
Currid-Halkett: Yes, it’s full of contradictions. Another example which illustrates what you’re saying is the organic food craze. It was initially pioneered by versions of the aspirational class, wealthy people who were willing to spend twice as much on organic raspberries as opposed to conventional ones. But then this gets out – it’s better for farmers, it’s healthier (actually, it’s since emerged that this isn’t true) – and then Costco starts selling organic raspberries, and then Whole Foods actually got into trouble because people weren’t shopping there as much they used to. Why? Because you had Costco, that is, totally mainstream America, selling the same thing. And to compete with this, you had these highly specialised, upper-end, curated butchers and farmers’ markets, and little boutique shops that were extremely expensive. And all of a sudden Whole Foods fell between two stools. It wasn’t that these elite groups were going to stop eating fruit and vegetables; it was that they needed to find a way to do so that was more unique and rarified than mainstream America.
So you’re right that the aspirational class starts off consuming in such a way because they feel it’s the right way to do things, and then others imitate, because that’s the nature of consumer fashion. But if they imitate, then these elite groups have to find a new way to interpret their consumption practices. This is Georg Simmel’s observation in his essay on fashion from the 1920s. You have this elite group of people who have a particular type of fashion, and then others imitate them so they have to find a new mode. Forever 21 or H&M imitate what they see on the catwalks, and the catwalks find a new way to do things. So it’s a contradiction in itself, but even Bourdieu would argue that one socio-economic group always runs the risk of others imitating them.
review: Could you say why these forms of consumption behaviour, this inconspicuous consumption, is consolidating certain forms of social privilege?
Currid-Halkett: I’ve noticed that the elite’s consumption habits tend to be directed towards things that improve their future quality of life, and the future quality of life of their children. If the luxury handbag was a symbol of being a member of the elite in the 1980s; sending your kid to Yale is the ticket now. That ticket today is not just more expensive – say, $50,000 a year on education – but that kid comes out with an Ivy League degree and has an enormous number of options. Whereas a handbag is just a handbag. And that I think is the real change. These top income groups are spending their money on something that perpetuates their future high status, and that of their children. And, in doing so, they are further isolating themselves.
I don’t judge the aspirational class. I have to admit that I’m a member of this group. I think that saving for children’s education is more important than buying a handbag. That seems to me to be a sensible decision. But I’m still ultimately part of the problem, because by the time my kids are going to college, that really will put them in a different position to a middle-class family today who aren’t able to put the money away and aren’t able to send their kids somewhere like that.
review: Veblen was far more antagonistic towards the leisure class than you are towards the aspirational class. So you’re not waging any sort of class war?
Currid-Halkett: I wrote this book hoping we would think a little more deeply about how we spend and its implications for society. I eat organic food, exercise and care about my kids’ future (as does every one of course), so I am part and parcel of this world I write about. I also think that we’re all trying to get on with our lives, and make decisions that are the best decisions that we can. The problem that I see, and I haven’t figured out how to get around it, is that in terms of buying good food, recycling, exercising and caring about healthcare and education, we – the aspirational class – are in a bubble. And that bubble leaves out lots and lots of other people. It’s like when the liberal elite woke up the day after Trump’s election victory, and were simply stunned at the result. What did they think the rest of America was doing? Not all of America lives in Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco. They are not a part of this global, professionalised group – what Naomi Klein would call the Davos class. They were not a part of that, and they didn’t want the person who represented that group as president. They wanted someone who at least ostensibly represented them. We’re all sort of oblivious to each other. There’s no real understanding.
Charles Murray, in Coming Apart, makes this point that in the mid-1950s, whether you were middle class, or rich or working class, you watched the same television shows, you ate the same kind of food, you drank the same kind of beer – you had a shared culture, an understanding of what it was like to live in America. That is simply not true anymore. Here you are in Los Angeles, drinking your almond latte after your Pilates class, flicking through your Ivy League brochures. Someone in Ohio is not doing any of that. I don’t think one lifestyle is better or worse, but I just think it’s important to notice that we are totally disconnected, and we need to find some way to reconnect.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in urban and regional planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her new book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class is published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)