Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL

Note: Today we have a guest post, contributed by Monsieur le Baron. Please be polite and welcoming. 

Dearest fr-

Wait. Wrong blog.

Time for Anthropology! I’m your guest host, some asshole. But you can call me Lord Asshole.

Today, we’re going to talk about SWPLs. A decent amount of America only sees the rich from the outside, either on fakey fake reality TV, fakey fake fake Instagram, or real but incomplete glances at the coastal elite bumming around the coasts (the common sense sayings of proles are usually rooted in truth). This segment of society is understudied by academics because academics generally come from the SWPL class and fish don’t know what water is.

See: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/

Now, time has passed and many of those things have become less fashionable because proles do them now. More importantly, these posts don’t necessarily reach at the underlying principles governing SWPL behavior. I have some books here, which I will quote liberally to disguise my own lack of insight, as well as anecdotes to share, because I firmly believe the plural of anecdote is data.

Well, let’s begin.

First, proles frequently believe that the upper classes are afflicted by all sorts of weird problems, from degeneracy, to drowning in student loans for stupid degrees, to being unemployed. Short version: That’s projection. Long version: Read Murray. Or, if you’re libera-ahahahahahahaha!

Yeah, okay. If you’re liberal, read Putnam, which is like Murray, but every five minutes he stops to reassure the reader that the proles are not inherently bad because there’s nurture ‘n stuff.

Go read one of those books if you haven’t, then come back to me. Or, more probably, go read the Wikipedia synopsis and call it good enough. Ready? Good.

Governing this analysis and little walkthrough will be three main concepts. The first is something I paraphrase as “The Baron’s Race”, which is basically the distinction-making taste process of Bourdieu and the cultural lifecycle. The second is the idea of the Otium, or the intellectual leisure of the aristocracy. The third is a surprise.

Enter the Bobo.

From Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks:

[…]if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity – your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church.

You need some of the crap I see on Facebook advertisements. You need a modular desk – what the fuck’s a modular desk? Great question! It’s a desk you can reconfigure to your needs as you desire… aka blocks of wood. You need a beer jacket, which is a jacket full of beer, which is sort of like a beer hat but infinitely more pretentious and infinitely less practical and also marketed as a natural weight jacket for the autistic, because what the world needs is drunk autistic SWPLs. You need an activated charcoal toothbrush, and, uhhh, what the fuck is activated charcoal? You need a machine that turns tap water into bleach because… really, why would anyone want this? But some SWProles have them and they’re drinking it, with predictable results. And, of course, you need a Harvard MBA.

You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

Brooks then spends several pages sucking off the UMC and bashing the WASPs. Retch. The key point is that the upper stratas (UMC, UC) define themselves by their taste. Because there are no longer formal markers of class, one must turn to signals to gatekeep class. Note the conflation of intellect and taste. That’s important. Remember that.

Today’s establishment is structured differently. It is not a small conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

It is a large conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

The members of this class are divided against themselves, and one is struck by how much of their time is spent earnestly wrestling with the conflict between their reality and their ideals.

Well put, David. Let’s see some of these earnest wrestlings now.

From Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman:

Nadine said, ‘I don’t shop, you know? I wear the same stuff pretty much every day. I wear the same pair of shoes every day.’ Several women mentioned buying clothing at inexpensive stores such as Target, Kohl’s, and Costco or at discount outlets.

Most of my clothing is from Walmart or Costco, but if you’re very rich, high end tailors will give you a custom fit specifically designed to look like you got it at Walmart while being the apex of luxury. That’s class.

Other respondents gleefully recounted bargains they had picked up. Wendy, a corporate lawyer, had snagged a used $1,000 stroller for $100, which she ‘felt good’ about; Beatrice, a nonprofit executive, had gotten a $20,000 dining table for $6,000.

My Elizabethan table was *only* $6,000. We’re trying to stay frugal, you know. #saving #broke

David, an interior designer whose clients were of the same class as my respondents, told me, ‘Always, for every job, I always throw in Ikea and Crate and Barrel pieces. They love that. It makes them feel better.’

Life is eternal grad school, which is why you must always have grad school IKEA furniture.

Nicole said, ‘We don’t take fancy vacations. We’re pretty frugal about, kind of, everything. You know? We don’t buy stuff.’ Paul described his wife as ‘the woman who will price check, and this is not an exaggeration, Target versus Costco. It’s what she does. And so while she comes from money and likes nice things, she’s very prudent[…]’

And what sort of nice things?

high-end stoves, ovens, and refrigerators[…] necessary for resale value, even when they had no plans to sell the property.

Of course.

[Miranda] explained that they had put [the elevator] in partly so older family could visit them (a “basic” need) and so they could locate the guest room where they wanted it instead of on a lower floor. She also mentioned that the elevator was ‘not that expensive’ because they were renovating anyways. Sensing that she might feel embarrassed about it, I asked, ‘Are people like, ‘Oh my God, you have an elevator’?’ She responded, ‘Yeah, it seems a little-yeah. That’s why I have that little line, ‘You know what? If you’re doing that much work, an elevator isn’t that expensive.’

I walk up and down my house the same as everyone else, two feet at a time, via my private elevator.

’If I buy something, if I buy, like, clothes in the store, I take the tag off. I mean, we’re not talking about – I take the tag off of my Levi’s jeans. I mean, it’s not like it’s a mink coat or something. I take the label off our six-dollar bread…. I think again, for me, it’s a choices thing-the choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.’

Whenever I see a SWProle with their avocado toast and their VOSS water, I foam at the mouth a little. It is disgusting how luxuriously live when I had to save the latter for a very, very special occasion. I am, I admit, jealous, even if it is an irrational jealousy, since I know these things are paid for by debt.

My boss wears clothing with holes in it to help pay for the sentimental childhood vacation home his wife loves and for his childrens’ tuition, my mother won’t stop wailing at me that she’s broke, and the parents of one of my friends curse this blasted economy that won’t allow for a secure retirement, even though they have a middle seven figure net worth. I am often shocked by the money attitudes of the proles, who I am now geographically adjacent to.

It’s very different.

And this isn’t just idle posturing. Many of the surveyed families had domestic strife and some behavior that might be called abuse over beauty expenditures on things like haircuts and dye. It was viewed as unnecessary extravagance that might break the bank and then they’d be broke and woe upon them! So the wives learn how to Brazilian wax themselves. Besides, the wives agreed too. Beauty expenditure is vanity and hard to fit into that tight budget, while doing it yourself was artisan and necessitated learning a new skill, both good things. People admire their Calvinism.

For reference, one family earned $2 million a year, before accounting for their passive income.

David, the interior designer, confirmed that this practice was common. During renovations, he said, ‘Things come in with big price tags on them. They all have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and [staff] don’t see them.’

If you ever want to deflate your view of the elite, imagine a Master of the Universe furiously Sharpieing a price tag off his IKEA furniture to ease his guilty conscience.

From Bobos in Paradise:

Specifically, the members of the educated-class elite feel free to invest huge amounts of capital in things that are categorized as needs, but it is not acceptable to spend on mere wants. For example, it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Similarly, it is acceptable to spend hundreds of dollars on top-of-the-line hiking boots, but it would be vulgar to buy top-of-the-line patent leather shoes to go with formal wear. It is acceptable to spend $4,400 on a Merlin XLM road bike because people must exercise, but it would be a sign of superficial nature to buy a big, showy powerboat. Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch.

You can spend as much as you want on anything that can be classified as a tool, such as a $65,000 Range Rover with plenty of storage space, but it would be vulgar to spend money on things that cannot be seen as tools, such as a $60,000 vintage Corvette. (I once thought of writing a screenplay called Rebel Without a Camry, about the social traumas a history professor suffered when he bought a Porsche.)”

This is SWPL frugality, the art of saving money by not buying things that you wouldn’t have bought anyways, and then status signaling about it. Would David Brooks have ever bought a powerboat? Probably not. The expenditures that provoked worry were ones that were hard or impossible to justify as practical luxury. The UMC+ cannot signal using things, because resources are abundant, unlike the situation of the prole. Instead, they must signal by taste. Buying things which are pure luxury is signaling by expending resources, not by showing taste, which is inescapably prole and vulgar.

In short…

Bobos don’t want gaudy possessions that make extravagant statements. That would make it look like they are trying to impress. They want rare gadgets that have not yet been discovered by the masses but are cleverly designed to make life more convenient or unusual […] it’s charming to start a conversation about the host’s African-inspired salad serving forks.

 

Rule 5. The elites are expected to practice one-downmanship. Cultured people are repelled by the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. Nothing is more disreputable than competing with your neighbors by trying to more effectively mimic the style of the social class just above you.

How fortunate for our Bobos that they have no one above them to disreputably imitate.

They do drugs too. Brooks says this is done in the most boring way possible. For instance, I have been offered cocaine.

As a study drug.

Nootropics r gud 4 u.

Speaking of which, one of my tenants, all of his high school friends have overdosed. I don’t know anyone who has. Funny, that.

Instead, as members of the educated class, you reject status symbols in order to raise your status with your equally cultivated peers. Everything about you must be slightly more casual than your neighbor. Your funishings must be slightly more peasanty. Your lives should have a greater patina of simplicity.

Which means what matters is to examine taste.

But now it is the formidable French places that have had to adjust. The restaurant La Fourchette has changed its name to the less pretentious Fourchette 110.

Less pretentious?

The Great Harvest Bread Company has opened up a franchise in town, one of those gourmet bread stores where they sell apricot almond or spinach feta loaf for $4.75 a pop. This particular store is owned by Ed and Lori Kerpius. Ed got his MBA in 1987 and moved to Chicago, where he was a currency trader. Then, as if driven by the inelectuable winds of the Zeitgeist, he gave up on the Decade of Greed stuff so he could spend more time with his family and community. So he and his wife opened this shop.

They greet you warmly as you walk in the door and hand you a sample slice (I chose Savannah dill) about the size of a coffee table book. A short lecture commences on the naturalness of the ingredients and the authenticity of the baking process, which, in fact, is being carried out right there in front of you.

Rich people love their obscene bread. It’s not only obscenely expensive, but obscenely delicious. And smart! That’s important.

To the west of town, there is a Zany Brainy, one of those toy stores that pretends to be an educational institution. It sells lifelike figurines of endangered animals, and it’s driven the old Wayne Toytown, which carried toys that didn’t improve developmental skills, out of business.

Everything is education. Everything is of the intellect.

The ABC Carpet & Home store on 19th Street and Broadway in New York endorses Keats’s dictum ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.’ I don’t know what that means, but it sounds elevated. …

The enlightened Williams-Sonoma catalogue doesn’t try to flog us morally neutral sausages. The sausage links it advertises derive, the catalogue informs us, from the secrets of curing that Native Americans taught the first European settlers in Virginia (the mention of Native Americans gives the product six moral points right off the bat). The ‘sausages are made from pure pork and natural spices, using family recipes passed down through the generations.’ …

We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence: turn-of-the-century carpentry tools, whaling equipment, butter churns, typesetting trays, gas lamps, and hand-operated coffee grinders. Lightship baskets made from rattan with oak bottoms now sell for between $1,000 and $118,000. We can appreciate the innate wisdom of the unlettered seaman and the objects he created.

If only they could appreciate the deplorable seaman himself.

To calculate a person’s status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes.

What’s the unifying theme of upper caste luxury? Taste. And not just taste, but taste intertwined with intellect. Why?

What is good taste? Good taste is the art of puzzling out depth. That which is prolish is that which is shallow, something which is good on its face and which has no nuances beyond that. For something to be fitting for the Otium (to be covered more in part 2), it must occupy the MIND. The more complex something is, the longer the mind is occupied. Having good taste is thus a g-signal. Example?

From Privilege by Shamus Khan

“Grace, who used to drop by my office to talk about violin (she and I both played), stopped by to ask about something quite different. ‘Mr. Khan, um, have you ever heard of DMX?’

‘You mean, ‘It’s dark and hell is hot’ DMX?’

‘Um…’ Grace had no idea what I was talking about, when referring to an old album.

‘The rapper?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Sure. But not in a while. I don’t really listen to rap.’ After I said this, Grace looked at me, slightly disappointed. Though I was a young faculty member, I felt, at that moment, old.

‘I just got Grand Champ!’

Grand Champ?’ I wondered out loud.

‘His new album!’

‘I guess I’m out of it.’

Taking an opportunity to bring me more up-to-date, Grace told me, ‘You should check it out.’ I was surprised by our conversation. For Grace, a girl from suburban Boston, this seemed an unlikely-and sudden-transformation.

It did not stick. Within a couple of months Grace and I were back to talking about violin repertoire and technique. Yet Grace had tried hard-core rap, with great enthusiasm. Months later I asked her why she had bought that album.

‘I don’t know. I mean, I guess, you know, I went to the first dance here and I didn’t really know any of the songs. In middle school I totally did. And it was fun. So I guess I felt left out. And Amber-in my dorm-she listened to DMX all the time. And so I guess I just wanted to learn it. I don’t really listen to it that much anymore. It’s weird. I mean, I still kinda like it. I don’t know.’

Months after this conversation I chapered a dance and there was Grace, singing along to DMX, jumping up and down, her hands bouncing from her shoulders to knees-mimicking the movements of the latest hip-hop video.

[…]

All three learned from older students how to transform themselves into a more appropriate ‘Paulie’.

[…]

Though Michael, Ken, and Grace each were elites before they entered St. Paul’s, they still had to learn from the ground up-their homegrown ease did not suffice.”

DMX? Ah yes, DMX. My favorite is X Gon’ Give It To Ya, a postmodern deconstruction of the anxieties of the late capitalist gig-economy and the psychic tolls it exacts on its deliverymen, who are forced to shuttle anonymized packages-merely it-for many years at a time, in lieu of a stable career, a man alienated from his own labor, who, regardless, refuses to give up.

So today a ‘Days of Rage’ T-shirt can be worn by health-conscious aerobicizers.

But wait, doesn’t stuffwhitepeoplelike.com say these shirts are for badwhites? Very perceptive!

As seen at St. Paul’s, the taste of the elites is culturally promiscuous. And this has long been documented by Bourdieu, who noted, in his distinction, that the highest strata individuals liked every presented picture. How does this play into taste as g?

The ability to make a competent argument for ANYTHING as meaningful is an exercise in verbal IQ. It’s g-weighted. The highest example of this is enjoying modern art, which is inherently meaningless without the smart person to give it a strong argument as meaningful. The more transparently meaningless something is, the more honorable it is to make a solid argument that it is meaningful. A person who does this successfully, like Brooks’ arguments about how great Montana is, gains much favor among his peers. A fashion then spreads, as Bobos use it to augment their status. But as it spreads, more and more MC aspirants notice it. For early adopters, using the cultural signal may work to secure status, but the MC won’t understand why it works, and as more and more MC flock in to imitate this success, the fad is abandoned as uncool. It is no longer signaling g, but an attempt to signal status, misunderstanding it was a g signal that brought status. It becomes middlebrow, something adopted by the MC to signal their own sophistication, which is a misunderstanding of the original fashion.

Behold the Baron’s Race, the life cycle of cultural trends.

The speed at which the Baron’s Race occurs depends on the inherent g-weighting of the underlying activity. Wearing clothing takes no g at all, so it is easily adopted once noticed, so fashion must fashion extremely quickly, so quickly that it may be a meaningless signal for most articles of clothing (except big brand names, which are always prole). Whereas multilingualism and classical music have remained fashionable for CENTURIES because of how difficult they are to properly appreciate. That’s why the stuffwhitepeoplelike actions are only trying to learn a second language and trying to like classical music. The original SWPL described is a hybrid creature – sometimes he is self-confidently affluent, and sometimes he is a middle-class pretender anxious about his own good taste.

And what is one’s reward for mastering these complex signals?

For the most striking thing about Latte Towns is that, though they are havens for everything that now goes by the name ‘alternative’-alternative music, alternative media, alternative lifestyles-they are also fantastic business centers. […] Ben & Jerry’s, the most famous company in town, is not even among the 20 largest employers. People with Burlington mores now apparently feel comfortable working at IBM[…], General Dynamics, GE, Bank of Vermont, and Blodgett Holdings. And business is chic in Burlington. There are four local business publications that heavily cover the town, and sometimes you can read two or three sentences in a row in each of them before some executive says something about the need for businesses to practice socially responsible investing. […] Today’s Latte Town mogul remembers that business is not about making money; it’s about doing something you love. Life should be an extended hobby. …

This is Bobo capitalism in a nutshell. College, learning, growth, travel, climbing, self-discovery. […] Don’t care call it a sweatshop. It’s a sandbox! This isn’t business. This is play!

How do these firms hire? Per Pedigree (by Lauren Rivera), “interviewers were hoping to find ‘buddies’”, people they could spend late nights with. This sounds really interesting, with booze and delivery sushi, but I have been with SWPLs for long nights and we talked about the French Revolution for several hours. So it’s really only interesting if you’re the kind of person who finds that interesting.

And uhh… play. Right. Well, it’s not play, but as my coworker said, “If they never invented computers, we’d have to do real work.”

Now, you may object that this is only the highest class SWPLs. But the highest class SWPLs set the agenda. To see what the SWProle will do, take Bobo-SWPL behavior that’s out of date a few years and add unironic poverty.

Oh, bah. Fine. Next time, we shall cover The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, and the subjects of nerds, SWProles, and the Otium.

Please buy these books if you’re interested. Wizard Academic needs fancy bread badly!

 

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL

  1. Little typo. This part isn’t a quote.

    >This is SWPL frugality, the art of saving money by not buying things that you wouldn’t have bought anyways, and then status signaling about it. Would David Brooks have everbought a powerboat? Probably not. The expenditures that provoked worry were ones that were hard or impossible to justify as practical luxury. The UMC+ cannot signal using things, because resources are abundant, unlike the situation of the prole. Instead, they must signal by taste. Buying things which are pure luxury is signaling by expending resources, not by showing taste, which is inescapably prole and vulgar.

    Like

  2. The Chinese Ruling Class is infinitely superior to ours. They are building their country up. Our Ruling Class has produced a country riven by race and class, a working class (the proles) who are steadily losing income, drowning in drugs and dying early. The proles are dying so early, they are dragging down the AVERAGE life expectancy in the US. We have a failing economy, ongoing deindustrialization and increasing immiseration.. And we have God only knows how many wars underway, and the Ruling Class is angling for more against Russia, Iran, China, literally anyone and for no reason and no possible benefit.

    The most important author in the world today is Peter Turchin, the economic historian at UConn. He notes that political discord today, especially among our Ruling Class denizens, is higher than at any time since the 1850’s. Perhaps you recognize the dates. Turchin is predicting widespread, intense political violence in our near future. The 2020 election will be a mini Civil War.

    Liked by 1 person

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