I’m currently reading Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman. It’s a fascinating investigation of how wealthy New Yorkers (with household incomes greater than $250,000, placing them in the top 5% of the city) experience their own privilege. Sherman’s focus is on parents in their thirties and forties engaged in home renovation, exploring how this undertaking leaves them making sense of their financial means and its appropriate use to shape the conditions in which they conduct their lives. It counteracts a tendency to evacuate the everyday life of contemporary elites, analysing their agency in terms of structural reproduction to the exclusion of other considerations. As she writes on pg 11:
Although images of the wealthy proliferate in the media, we know very little about what it is like to be wealthy in the current historical moment. Contemporary scholarly accounts of elite experience are in short supply, due largely to the difficulty of gaining access to wealthy people. The few studies of elite consumption that do exist focus on its explicitly or implicitly competitive dimensions, whether they embody Veblenian conspicuous consumption or other forms of social distinction. Other research on elite lifestyles looks at how privileged people maintain and reproduce their privilege through social closure in elite clubs and elsewhere.
This consideration of what it is like to be wealthy at the current moment strikes me as enormously important. The Life in the Alpha Territories project had a similar concern, albeit with a more methodological and urban geographic focus and a slightly narrower remit about how elites were classified. In many ways, Sherman’s sampling strategy assumes the spatialisation of class which Burrows et al sought to investigate and the two studies can be read side-by-side in a productive way. Beyond a vague impulse to better understand a few people I’ve known in my life who’ve fallen into this category, my interest in these studies is quite specific. I’m preoccupied by the political activities of defensive elites, as well as how these might intensify with time.
Platform capitalism is producing new categories of elites, as well as accelerating the occupational polarisation which predates it. How will elites orientate themselves to the political conjuncture we see emerging? How will emerging technologies like genetic editing be used as a consumer product accessible to elites? How will elites respond to the political turmoil which will ensue from mass unemployment produced by automation, at least if present day political culture extends into the future? Understanding the everyday life of platform capitalism’s elites has an important role to play in grounding our speculation about these coming issues.