There’s no such thing as a cultural élite

You’re not “elite”: you are in denial.

Fondazione Prada, Milan

When my daughter finished first grade, the class parents organized a year-end dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Since I had never set foot in an all-you-can-eat buffet before, at first I thought it was an excellent idea. But as soon as I got to the restaurant, I felt out of place: everything seemed terribly sad and tacky. We ate bad sushi and each adult had to pay thirty euros for that — more or less the same amount of money I spend to eat, well, decently. In the old days, when we took our kid out with a classmate of hers, we used to get a gourmet burger (in the area where we live there are three fancy burger places: two are in pedestrian zones, where the children can play free) or a Sunday brunch at some nice place near the park, an equally cheap option, far less alienating than the all-you-can-eat.

The thing is, that we have moved to a new school, a lot further away from the center of Milan. The change wasn’t just geographical: it was, in a way, anthropological.

In the nursery school we used to attend, in a highly gentrified neighborhood, young mothers dressed in Muji and Petit Bateau, the nannies dispensed organic rice cakes and fresh fruit. Children were being picked up after class by well-groomed grandmas riding bicycles.

In the new school, the babysitter rate has dropped sharply, sugar-loaded packaged snacks abound and the most fashion conscious moms carry mainstream designer handbags. It’s a different socio-economic context, and yet it is not just an issue of income: sure, families living in the city center tend to be more affluent, but this is not always the case. Apartments, to begin with, can be inherited or purchased before a neighborhood becomes gentrified. In fact, among the parents of the old school, there were also another couple of struggling writer, a college lecturer, and two high school teachers. Moreover, there are quite a few SUVs parked in front of the new school.

The contrast is not so much about the money, as about what the money is spent on.

Kreuzberg, Berlin

Roughly in the same period, I happened to read a book that was widely praised in the American press (the over-reliance on the foreign press is not an unusual affectation among educated, urbanite Italians, as Francesco Guglieri pointed out in a beautiful essay for Pagina99). In The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, sociologist and urbanist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett theorizes the advent of a new social class, unified more from an ethical and aesthetic sensibility that economic parameters: a new cultural elite that revolves around global cities and reveals its position “through cultural signifiers that convey their acquisition of a knowledge and value system.”

The members of the “aspirational class”, as Currid-Halkett defines it, are distinguished by language, by cultural consumption (the subscription to the New Yorker is one of the distinctive flags), by their developed sense of taste, and by their prizing of authenticity and transparency — whether it is gourmet cheesecake or handmade beer, biodegradable scrubs or T-shirts made in Western Europe, every product they purchase must “possess a distinct story”. Another recurring feature is a focus on personal care — yoga classes, pilates and crossfit — paired, at least for women, with a rediscovered vocation to traditional parenting: extended breastfeeding, homemade baby-food, and so forth. This category overlaps only partially with Richard Florida’s “creative class”, and even less so with the so-called “knowledge workers”, or highly skilled professionals: belonging to Currid-Halkett’s “aspirational class” implies knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of knowledge that will get you a good job.

Currid-Halkett’s theory can be summarized in two points. First, if compared to those that preceded it, the members of this new cultural elite tend to devote much more resources to intangible assets (or “inconspicuous consumption”, in Currid-Halkett’s words) than to material goods: education, leisure, travelling and subscriptions to Netflix have precedence over carpets and appliances; but when they are devoted to material goods, they do so with an almost manic detail. They are two faces of the same coin: we live in the age of abundance, where everyone can accumulate goods, so those who want to stand out from the crowd must consume less and consume better (one of the most interesting chapters is dedicated to “voluntary simplicity”, the low-consumption modus vivendi that, unlike anti-consumerism, is not a rejection of materialism, bur rather a statement of appreciation of the right stuff: the word “organic” is repeated forty times throughout the book, “artisanal” fourteen and “authentic” twelve). It’s a testament to Thorstein Veblen’s theory of of the leisure class. A century ago, Veblen argued that the main function of upper class’s conspicuous consumption was to mark their different from the masses. But today, when luxury has gone mass market, elitism takes refuge in inconspicuous consumption.

The second point in Currid-Halkett’s theory is that, unlike the nineteenth century’s leisure class, today’s aspirational includes people in different income brackets. “There are wealthy aspirational class members — perhaps a partner in a law firm — who are amply spending on nannies, Ivy League tuition and organic strawberries. Others, within this group, such as unemployed screenwriter or Rhode Island School of Design trained artist, are barely able to economically participate in this world but use their insubstantial means to signify membership”.

While promoting her book, Currid-Halkett has devised a five-point test. You belong to the aspirational class if, one, “you buy things that make you feel like a better human”, and, two, “inconspicuous consumption accounts for a significant share of your spending”; If, three, making “parenting and its accouterments are the new status symbol” and if, four, “you talk about ideas, not stuff”. Finally, you’re a member of the club if “you have the luxury and flexibility of time”. Based on this inventory, I should be fully part of the crowd.

And yet — yet — deep inside me I know there’s something wrong with seeing myself as a member of the elite.

It’s not false modesty, nor am I bowing to the populist Zeitgeist. Plain and simple, my tax return documents remind me, every year, that nothing separates me from the masses. To be fair, in the financially wretched world of writers, I am in an almost privileged position: I have a stable editorial job at an Italian magazine, which I supplement with my writing in English. I am not a “high-end deadbeat”, as the novelist Michele Masneri once described, half-jokingly, the army of Italian freelancers who get paid 30 euro per story. I am the insipid lower middle class that, incidentally, shares the sensitivity and the education of the elite (I doubt that I am an isolated case). We’ve long romanticized the financially struggling intellectual. But what about the petit bourgeois intellectual? That one triggers a cognitive dissonance that is hard to swallow.

The least convincing thesis in The Sum of Small Things consists in its conflating of the cultural elite and economic elite: “We see the unemployed hipsters at the same coffee shop as the successful Hollywood screenwriter” writes the author, as if a cappuccino could obliterate income inequalities.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City

Does it make any sense at all to identify a social class, as Currid-Halkett does, ignoring income divisions? And could her theory of the aspirational class be applied to a different country, such as Italy, where the distinction between education and income level is more pronounced than in the US?

Trying to answers to these questions, I contacted Massimo Zanetti, a sociologist studying social classes and teaching at the Aosta Valley University. First of all, Zanetti says, we need to distinguish between “class” and “social status” (he used the Italian word “censo”, which has broader implications): class, particularly as Max Weber intended it, depends on an individual’s position in relation to the labor market, while status is a form of social distinction related to lifestyle and cultural consumption. In recent times, Zanetti pointed out, “the imbalance between the income and status is occurring more frequently.” This is particularly true in Italy, “where class differences mainly run on generational lines”: the older we are, the better our position in relation to the labor market. In Italy “the real class conflict is a generational conflict”, as the the economic journalist Marco Alfieri once pointed out, and this translates into an even smaller overlap between the cultural elite and the financial elite.

Here Zanetti introduces an interesting angle: “Consumption has always a symbolic component. If I want to set myself apart from the masses, but have few means to do so, then a good strategy is to accentuate this symbolic component. I create new distinctive signifiers, in some cases making a virtue out of necessity: just think how riding a bicycle has gone from being a sign of lower social status to being perceived as a sign of distinction.”

Could this be the whole point of inconspicuous consumption? A shortcut to setting us apart from the masses, at low cost?

Could this be the whole point of inconspicuous consumption? A shortcut to setting us apart from the masses, at low cost?

Of course, buying connoisseur food costs more than buying standard food from the supermarket — but not that much more. Dressing in American Apparel costs more than buying clothes at Zara, but it’s an affordable difference. The same is true for a subscription to the New Yorker or for attending a cool yoga center: these are things that allow us to exorcise our anxiety about being part the mass, even if we don’t have much resources.

A few years ago, N + 1’s founder Mark Greif came up with a theory: sophisticated tastes, he argued in his New York Times essay “The Hipster in the Mirror” could be a coping mechanism, a strategy that highly educated, lower-middle class urbanites adopt to compensate for their lack of resources: “They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be ‘superior’: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.”

Raffaele Ventura, an Italian editor and writer living in Paris, has repeatedly made a similar point, first with an essay on the magazine IL, and more recently in his book Teoria della Classe Disagiata (A theory of the struggling class): “The truth is that status symbols are far more precious than other goods: hang onto them in order to stay ‘in the club’, in an attempt of resistance against social downgrade and its consequences”.

Paradoxically enough, the impulses hiding behind today’s “inconspicuous consumption” are the same hiding behind the “conspicuous consumption” of the nineteenth century: I have to set myself apart from the mass. But since the income difference between the masses and the squeezed, highly educated middle class is tapering (assuming it still exists), I must come up with new ways to signifiers of distinction and I feel a greater need to mark this different.

Maybe it’s not just compensation, though. Another Freudian mechanism could be in place as well.

This, I suppose, is denial.

In his 2011 besteller, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, English journalist Owen Jones wondered why it has become so unusual to self-identify as working class. He wrote about a surreal dialogue with a friend with a low-income job that refused to identify with the working class because he was well educated. This, I suppose, is denial. My impression is that something similar is happening with the so-called elites that are “elite” in their cultural consumption only: few people like to think they’re poor, but even fewer people like to think of themselves as petit bourgeois –we’re in denial.

I raised my doubts to Currid-Halkett, the author of The Sum of Small Things. She answered in an email: “I think that the concept of an ‘aspirational class’ that is tied through cultural currency rather than economic is more fascinating to observe in a place where cultural capital does not instantly confer to economic stability and where there is less of a blurring of economics and culture. While in the States we have our share of unemployed Ivy-league educated poets and screenwriters, it is much easier for the elite to hop into top jobs by virtue of their educational background. So the stark contradictions you present in the Italian case are very interesting and allow one to see the full expression of this new cultural elite for exactly what they are — people who are prioritizing particular cultural signifiers regardless of price point and at times make cultural choices that are not aligned with their economic position. While these people exist in the States, as you point out, they are far more pronounced and present in Italy and so the emergence of a cultural elite is more salient and observable.”

Currid-Halkett’s answer felt reassuring, and yet not entirely convincing. I can’t help but think that her analysis underestimates the mechanism of compensation and denial that can hide behind lifestyle choices.

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris. Peckham, London.

Earlier this summer, I was at a dinner party on the terrace of a small Milanese apartment full of books and interesting people — one of those summer parties attended by journalists, editors and writers, where you often hear several languages spoken at once ​​and can occasionally meet some literary household name. I happened to sit next to a Nigerian author of discreet international fame. We talked about what we were expected to talk about in that occasion: I told her that I had read a few of her editorials on the New York Times and that I liked them, she inquired where I came from, where I did my studies and what I did for a living. When I told her I went to Penn, she nodded knowingly: “I thought I sensed some Ivy League in you.”

She meant as a compliment, but it felt like a punch in the gut.

The first thought that came to my mind was that there’s no way I could afford to pay an Ivy League tuition for my daughter. Currid-Halkett nailed the issue, in her book: “The New York Times costs $2.50 for the daily paper, $5 for the Sunday edition, but comprehension of all those SAT words and cultural allusions (Camus, Foucault, Freud) implies a whole host of expensively attained knowledge.” I wonder what I will be able to pass down to my children, if what I am today — the books I read, the words I choose, the music I listen to — is the product of the fact that my parents were able to afford an expensive education abroad.

Perhaps there is such thing as a cultural elite that can be defined through education, and not money. It’s just doomed to become extinct in the course of a generation.

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This article was originally published, in Italian, on the magazine Studio. It is posted here, in translation, with the permission.

The images are screengrabs from Google Street View (collected by Laudomia Liberali)