Note: today we have a guest post, courtesy of Monsieur le Baron. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome back. I’m happy to be here with another guest post.
Last time, we discussed the strange creature known as the Bobo. But not all SWPLs are rich. Many are, in fact, quite poor. What of these… SWProles? Today, we’ll be covering the Theory of the Aspirational Class, walking through some musings, and making some conclusions.
First, to explain terms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s analysis. They have a tendency to lump both Bobo and SWProle together into one homogeneous SWPL group, which they call “elite” or the Aspirational Class. I don’t think this is necessarily a valid leap – while it does capture some essential cultural similarities, the defining aspect of the SWProle WITH RELATION TO their more affluent brethren is their total lack of power or money – their lack of eliteness. Nor is “Aspirational Class” really totally valid for the whole class. I am the most aspirational of my cohort, but this is not held up as a virtue – I’m a dirty “striver” (although I must fall upon a phrase oft shared with my Russian friends: “A shark swims or it suffocates.”). And even this striving is not nearly at the scale of the SWProles. I want for very little, mostly some more money so I can sustain a lifestyle of truly excessive and vulgar spending, and obviously power and a spot in the upper class. I dream of one day exclusively shopping at Whole Foods while beginning every morning with avocado toast.
From the Theory of the Aspirational Class:
“Today’s aspirational class lacks such self-consciousness, and many members lack bobos’ financial means. The aspirational class is motivated by self-confident values and is actively choosing its way of life through an extensive process of information gathering and forming opinions and values, some of which involve money but many of which rest on cultural capital instead.”
Yes, money! A lot of goddamn money. A friend of mine trawls Dave Ramsay and other finance story places, and one couple, who made only about $150,000 a year, managed to get half a million dollars in debt financing their dissolute Whole Foods eating crunchy lifestyle. Unbelievable. An asparagus water here, a sushi roll there, and now you’re talking about real money. We live in a society obsessed with luxury and flash.
Which brings me to my second disagreement. The good doctor divides spending into conspicuous, inconspicuous, and other. But what she calls “inconspicuous” spending is not meant to be inconspicuous at all, but is merely a new form of status signaling. Instead, they could be called “Traditional” and “Modern”, or, even more aptly, “Tasteless” and “Stuff White People Like”.
But I still find it admirable for an academic to gather so much data. Most analyses are equally flawed and rely wholly on anecdote. This one has data. Lots of data. And the gathering of data is an inherently worthy goal. Without further ado, let’s begin.
To my chagrin, I often encounter the belief that rich people love to buy what one might call “expensive bullshit”. I call this a sort of “reality TV” or “Wolf of Wall Street” syndrome. It’s like Instagram reality, but for money. Many people spread this bullshit while few have an interest in debunking it. It allows buyers of dumb branded clothing to think they’re impressing others with a genuine status symbol. Makers of said dumb branded clothing obviously benefit. And the real upper castes benefit by obfuscating true class markers. But still, people should be able to figure this out. And especially those who keep abreast of these things.
Here’s a chart.
The short answer to the question of traditional (aka garish) status signaling and elites is “no”. The long answer is “nooooooooo”.
The more educated you are, the more you buy SWPL things. Also, the more you have to status signal in general. This is significant and we’ll return to it later.
The bigger the metro, the showier people get. People are least showy in that old stronghold of status, the Northeast. This means something too.
The older people get, the less they signal.
We’re getting there.
Let’s draw a graph.
In one corner, you have your classic prole. They have no culture and they have no elite competence or power. You know them! You love them! They’re classic proles. On the other end, we have people with lots of sociocultural status and power. They’re Bobos. They’re the reigning heavyweights of USG and the FEDGOV empire. They’ve got the aristocratic traditions, the power, the money, the institutions, the everything that matters.
But wait, this leaves two empty sectors. Ah, exactly. This is the explanation for Schrodinger’s SWPL, the fine fellow on stuffwhitepeoplelike which flips between self-confident, affluent elite, and nervous, anxious faker who only pretends to like classical music and can only speak English by the entry. Viewed solely through culture, as stuffwhitepeoplelike does and as Theory of the Aspirational Class does, one cannot properly distinguish the two. That’s because the difference between a mere aspirant and a true blue aristocrat is actual power.
So what is the SWProle doing then? The act of performing elite class culture is an act of self-affirmation, of belonging. By performing elite culture, they are making a symbolic claim to being elite. Of course, this claim is frequently challenged by a hostile society – I call this challenge of reality. In reality, they are not elite in any real sense of the word, and, indeed, can barely afford coffee without spiraling into debt. Only through constant and continuous signaling can they distinguish themselves from the proles they basically are. And how does one signal? Luxuries. Lots and lots of luxuries. Why do millennials spend so much of their income on luxury goods? Because so many millennials are educated, education is participation in a literal surviving organ of the Ancien Regime, and therefore it invites the young graduate to buy lots of luxuries to assert their new elite status (and, as seen in a previous chart, many take this invitation).
What happens when something threatens to pop this comfortable delusion bubble?
Who rages the most against the proles?
“Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen. And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people. I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.”
Familiarity breeds contempt. This is why I have so much of it against my fellow aristocrats.
The lot of the SWProle is a cold and miserable one.
And, I think, a fundamental error in approach.
Let’s discuss the right way to become elite, then. Let’s discuss our final sector.
I divide the upper middle class into a few different kinds. You have the noblesse de robe, the noblesse d’epee, the haute bourgeois, socialites, and the clergy. Let’s narrow our focus to a peacetime society midway through its development. This means our primary drivers of elite formation will be the haute bourgeois and the noblesse de robe.
Some neoreactionaries identify the aristocracy with top tier businessmen, and while I don’t think that’s totally true, I think there are grains of truth to it. They sense, rightly, there is something reactionary about the corporate structure. Similarly, I usually identify the aristocracy nigh totally with the noblesse de robe, which is a distortion on my part. To state things more accurately, I would say that different institutions inherited different segments of the aristocratic idea after the shattering of the Ancien Regime. The customs and practices of the royal court were carried away and eventually planted in fertile soil, and this little seed grew up into the idea of Big Business. And the universities and academies of the Ancien Regime which trained so many generations of bluebloods dissociated from the idea of aristocracy, at least explicitly, and so became today’s Ivory Towers.
What SWProles are essentially trying to do is to get into the elite via socialization. But this is flawed. First of all, it’s flawed because their act is too perfect. I discuss this in my post about sartorial correctness , but it’s basically like the differences between an educated foreigner and a native speaker. The latter makes certain classes of mistakes that make the language more fluid and natural. Second of all, it’s flawed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of upper caste socialization. Proles like to imagine upper caste socialization as extremely smooth and elegant. And it is, in a sense. But it’s only elegant because the upper castes define what “elegant” is. It’s not true grace in the normie sense, it’s self-assuredness. An aristocrat is a creature that thinks hugging their kids is weird, but keeping a ferret in your breasts to eat lamb shanks is perfectly normal. They’re weird. Wealthier people have a higher incidence of autistic children.
It’s not normie social interaction but smoother. What are aristocrats actually doing? Who are the residents of our missing quadrant?
They’re doing nerdtalk and powertalk.
The chart is complete.
SWProles are almost certainly doomed to failure because they’re trying to socialize normally with people who are doing nerdtalk and powertalk. They just don’t get it. Even if they memorize all the quirks, their failure is the failure to grok the category of conversation.
By contrast, the main difference between nerds/boors and true Bobos is self-assuredness or the lack thereof.
What is powertalk? Powertalk is a concept taken from Ribbonfarm’s Gervais Principle, and it’s basically the naked discussion of gains and losses. Go read it if you haven’t, though I disagree with his characterization of the inner life of psychopaths. In powertalk, you’re always talking real shit. Successful businessmen do this really well. But, unfortunately, the normal world frowns on them. People from normal backgrounds who try to do well in business and FIRE are pulled down by their peers. People resent the wealthy. People resent early retirees. They’re surrounded by crabs in a bucket. The only choice is to hide. But when you hide, you become less self-assured. And the subject varies somewhat. Money remains a concern, but powertalk past a certain level of social status must also focus on the original burrito: Power. So they must learn a new subject matter.
Similarly, what do nerds do? Nerds talk and argue about the minutia of nerd cultural works like sci-fi and comics, and they discuss the fine technical details of various technologies. What do aristocrats do? They talk about and argue the minutia of art and music, and they discuss the fine details of various Important Ideas and Historical Events and Other Humanities. Don’t these look similar? In fact, they’re the same thing. Art criticism is just nerds geeking out about comic trivia except over something socially acceptable, and it’s socially acceptable because aristocrats decided it was. Again, the difference is not in category, but merely in subject matter. And the mildly autistic often wish socialization was more explicit and rule-based.
Good news! Aristocrats already had a highly rule-based way of socialization. They called it good manners and it involved signaling what the purpose of your conversation would be by folding a specific corner of a greeting card and many other arcane, bizarre rules. In Ancien Regime France, it was impolite to be the last to thank someone. Unfortunately, this rule has to be broken by someone. Needless to say, there were a lot of dangerously polite people, including one fellow who jumped out of a window to pounce upon someone and properly bid them farewell and thanks. It’s not that they’re not following a weird set of social rules, unlike normies who do things by instinct, it’s that nerds have the wrong rules.
“Eccentricity was central to the aristocracy’s mystique. It was inventive, often disconcerting and entirely natural to a self-confident caste which knew that it was different. Aristocrats were free to indulge their whims.”
“…anyone who lived by his wits could call himself a gentleman and have their presumption endorsed by a herald… The aristocracy have always been an open elite.”
This quadrant of the chart is the quadrant of eliteogenesis. Every so often, a mutant is born in Appalachia or some other backwater province. These mutants don’t fit in. Their environments abuse them and they lose their self-assuredness, being marked as abnormal. But through a creaming mechanism of the day, ambition, and their own thirst to find like-minded people, they are drawn inexorably towards the capital. And if they are able to find a mate and produce offspring, they will make people just as weird as them.
The difference is that their children will be self-assured, totally convinced that their weird little world is normal.
A noble house is born.
So if eliteogenesis is a knowable process, surely we can measure it? Yes, yes, we can. And someone did.
Enter our final idea: Secular Cycles.
Turchin has many interesting ideas, but we’re going to focus on the idea of elite overproduction.
You have two forces, creation and extinction.
If we take the measured peacetime extinction rate of noble houses and do some math, we arrive at EXACTLY the same imputed mobility rates as given by Professor Clark’s equations in The Son Also Rises. And these mathematical rates match up with historical data about the lifespans of noble families across the world. About half of the modern corporate workers in Japan are samurai descendants. 42% of European high nobility descendants have PhDs. The median lifespan of a Chinese gentry family is about 250 years. In short, everything maths out extremely nicely and cleanly. Convenient, eh?
The other half of elite numbers is production. We have the mechanism of parvenus, by which nerds and boors become founders of new noble houses. But what happens if there’s not enough room? Society can only absorb so many people in the professions. A potential elite instead goes into a pool of prospective elites. A nerd is not hired by a major tech firm, but instead sits at home and makes a nuisance of himself writing exploits.
In the early stages of the secular cycle, there is an abundance of room and resources to grow. The peasants (primary producers) flood in to exploit these resources, resulting in widespread commoner prosperity. The elites begin a secular cycle impoverished and therefore do real work. Many advances are made across all sorts of indices. However, all the excess value created by the peasants results in spectacular potential surpluses for the elites, which begin to increase in number. This causes a shift into the stagflation phase. How do elites sustain themselves? In the long run, elite professions push the societal production frontier. Engineers produce new technologies that result in long-run efficiency gains, doctors increase societal lifespan resulting in more working years, priests produce new cultural memes which structure life, scientists deepen our understanding of the universe, and bankers allocate capital more efficiently to push growth. In short run, elites must feed themselves by transferring value into their own mouths. So the commoners produce all this value, but an increasing amount of elites consumes it all, resulting in stagnant incomes for the common man. The stagflation phases of this secular cycle and the last one both saw massive flowerings of Western science and technology, as the vast number of elites accomplish all sorts of brain work. The decades since 1970 have seen all sorts of transformations in our way of life. The Information Age really is a revolution.
But all their value transference takes a toll on the average worker. Inequality begins to rapidly increase, as elite incomes surge far past commoner incomes. These decades since 1970 have also seen massive gains in the income of the 1%. This greatly increases the incentive to become elite, so more and more people aspire to it. However, more people aspiring to be elite combined with a saturation of the societally allowable professionals drives all sorts of further dynamics. Since there’s so much competition, elites become more nervous and anxious. That causes them to trust their fellow elites (now competition instead of collaborators) less, reducing societal cohesion. Leftism, the extension of a society’s principles towards their inevitable (but disastrously idealistic) conclusions, reaches a fever pitch, as elites try to shore up their social position. And their need to shore up their financial position means they demand even higher and higher incomes and hoard even more cash, further driving up inequality. Their fear, hatred, and resentment of elite aspirants drives a new class war on the middle class. Their anxieties lead them to pass all sorts of bizarre and increasingly paranoid policy. The frustrated aspirants and rejected parvenus form new counterelites ready to launch revolutions. The weight of all these excess elite aspirants and the negative dynamics associated with them eventually prove to be too much, and society begins to decline. The oversupply of potential elite labor crushes the income of service elites, which has the additional nasty side effect of making rentierism the only game in town. That means elites now have to get their value transference through pure rent-seeking and exploitation of state mechanisms, which means that political jockeying overtakes brainwork. Social cohesion collapses. Society descends into civil war as counterelites battle elites for state spoils. Revolution shakes the core of the state. Elites are culled left and right. But those elites, as corrupt as they are in the late stage, still fill a valuable role. Society sees a rapid increase in complexity in the integrative half of the secular cycle, but as we all know from our Incerto, complexity implies fragility. And this fragility becomes a dire foe in the disintegrative part of the secular cycle. If you kill half the doctors in a hospital arbitrarily, does it run half as well or less than half as well? Globalization is abruptly deglobalized and complex systems of trade and knowledge collapse. Infrastructure is lost. Land is abandoned. Factories go silent. Occasionally there is peace, but until the elite oversupply is resolved, the state remains unstable and cannot permanently reform.
Finally, the elite numbers have been pruned. Adversity brings out the hidden strength in the remaining elites. Without extra elites to pick up the slack, and with all the wealth of the nation destroyed, the elites return to doing useful work. All the fallow land and abandoned infrastructure provides plenty of room for peasant expansion. A new secular cycle begins.
Below is the Secular Cycle chart. Our current situation matches the Stagflation phase pretty well, and we may be headed into the Crisis phase soon (or now).
I would like to thank EvolutionistX for this opportunity.
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