The cultural sociology of defensive elites

Why do expressions of wealth through social media attract such attention? How does something like rich kids of instagram provoke such morbid fascination in so many? In Uneasy Street: Anxieties of Affluence Rachel Sherman offers a penetrating account of the moral universe which wealthy New Yorkers have constructed for themselves, unpicking the ambivalence they feel concerning their own privilege. While materially embracing their privilege, they nonetheless feel a profound need to subjectively distance themselves from it, particularly in relation to their children.

Doing this involves distinguishing themselves from the unthinking, unappreciative, uncaring embrace of wealth and instilling the related dispositions in their children. As she writes on pg 232, “They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class”. This relies on distancing themselves from “images of ‘bad’ rich people”. These images thus serve to legitimate inequalities by helping construct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to be affluent, something which was particularly pronounced among those in Sherman’s sample who had inherited their wealth. As she notes on pg 230, positive representations circulate of figures who are praised for how they acquired their wealth and how they subsequently relate to wider society:

In November 2016, James B. Stewart wrote a New York Times column in which he tried to pin down the net worth of British writer J. K. Rowling, author of the fantastically successful Harry Potter series. 1 In the piece he attributes his interest in her assets to the fact that she is “that all-too-rare commodity in the ranks of the ultrawealthy—a role model.” He continues, “Not only has she made her fortune largely through her own wits and imagination, but she also pays taxes and gives generously to charity. At a time of bitter disputes over rising income inequality, no one seems to resent Ms. Rowling’s runaway success.” What struck me about this piece, first, is that Stewart invokes two of the characteristics of the good wealthy person that I have described: Rowling is hard-working, as indicated by her upward mobility, and she gives back liberally. 2 He doesn’t mention her lifestyle, but a 2006 Daily Mail article describes her relatively moderate consumption as “a valuable and uplifting counterpoint to the circus of pointless and continuous spending” of other celebrities, and it seems unlikely that Stewart would think she was such a role model if she were perceived as an ostentatious consumer. 3

There was an excellent Vox piece recently which explored the myth of the frugal bllionaire. As Gaby De Valle summarises these representations, drawing on an interview with Sherman:

You may have heard that Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway whose net worth is somewhere around $87 billion, lives in a modest house he bought in 1958 for just $31,500. Or that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drives a stick-shift Volkswagen GTI. Maybe you’ve seen those articles floating around about how Bill Gates, who was once the wealthiest man in the world, wears a $10 watch. Or how Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who is currently the wealthiest man in the world, drove a Honda Accord for years after becoming a billionaire.

Most recently, the UK Sun reported that Michael O’Leary, the embattled CEO of budget airline Ryanair (which has been forced to cancel scores of flights amid strikes by pilots who say they’re underpaid and overworked), is as frugal in his everyday life as he is with his airline. Matt Cooper, the author of a forthcoming autobiography of O’Leary, told the paper that the airline CEO is “utterly ruthless and pathological about how much he hates spending money.”

https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/27/17907312/warren-buffett-mark-zuckerberg-mark-cuban-frugal-billionaires

These representations of admirable extremes co-exist with a broader tendency towards the normalisation of wealth. As Sherman describes it on pg 232, “lifestyles that would actually be quite expensive (including spacious homes, domestic employees, family vacations, and fashionable clothing) appear in ostensibly “middle-class” settings on television and in the movies”. I found myself reflecting on this recently in relation to the sitcom Modern Family. The family is portrayed as typical yet the grandfather is a multi-millionaire business owner while the families of his two children live a comfortable lifestyle for extended periods of time in LA on a single income.

It seems each of their houses would be worth well over a million, with the grandfather’s house being worth eight million. In the most recent season, they hire a yacht for a family vacation. These are not typical lifestyles yet they are represented in a way imbued with middleness even if they may be out of reach of most. Sherman’s crucial observation is how middle-classness in this sense is moral, defined by earned consumption within reasonable boundaries by people who are hard working. This matters for many reasons but not least of all because the defensiveness of the affluent goes hand-in-hand with this moralisation of lifestyle. Sherman writes on pg 235:

As we have seen, the people I talked with sometimes responded quite negatively to these critiques, interpreting them as personal judgments, as when high earners reacted defensively after President Obama advocated repealing high-wage tax cuts. But this tendency to feel personally affronted by public criticism of inequality also has to do with exactly the same process of attaching entitlement to individual merit. That is to say, to believe that J. K. Rowling should not have a billion dollars when other people have nothing is not to suggest she is a bad person for having the billion dollars. The distribution of the assets is the problem, not the individual behavior, disposition, or feelings—or any other characteristic—of the person holding the assets.

This feeling of being affronted fascinates me. I’m convinced it’s a subtle factor which a political sociology of elites must take seriously, though it’s difficult to pin down without using the lens of cultural sociology. I’ve been most interested in its expression by billionaires but Sherman’s superb book has led me to see that these extreme cases reflect a broader cultural sociology of defensive elites, driven by a social celebration of wealth accumulation coupled with an ambivalence about the wealthy.

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