Bobos reduced intellectual discrimination to market choice. What a bad idea they were!

I wrote this essay earlier this year, when I finally got a hold on what had changed in the last twenty-five years or so to make me regret the way intellectual critique has been blunted by market absorption. For what I mean see below. I’m not exactly taking a political stand here, but my position is broadly social democratic. I feel sorry when I have to lead my life as a consumer rather than as a citizen of the world. I’m not talking about any infringement of my liberty. But why should the market pre-shape my experience of the social realm, so that I end up being offered as something to buy good ideas, say, like ‘community’ and ‘wilderness’. If I want friendship I’ll go out and find it. Ditto wilderness. I don’t need anyone to source it for me and put a label and a price on it.

Something I read this weekend, about public libraries being almost the last place where one can function, in Britain at least, as a citizen and not a consumer, confirmed my age-old preference for keeping intellectual and cultural enjoyment apart from shopping. A couple of years ago I became a friend of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I couldn’t take the barrage of ‘we want to sell you this’ from a totally over-marketed institution. No thanks, I’d rather slip in and do things my own way. More or less wherever I am now, I look for concerts and plays given by schools and charities, rather than high-class professionals. I visit small private galleries that barely advertise. I buy and see and visit work by friends. Of course I miss a lot, but I just have to get away from the money that changes hands with the hype, and the enforced purchase of a consumer image. I do my best to upstage the algorithms that say that because I bought this I’m likely to buy that because I’m that kind of person. I’m not any of your kinds of person. Keep out of my head.

When I read that remark about libraries as a last refuge for the citizen, I was delighted too because it made sense of a habit I formed a while ago, when travelling. Whenever I found myself in an unfamiliar town with a few hours spare, one port of call would be the public library. Recently I loved the city library in Bremen, and its terrific library is one reason I return over and over to the Catalan town of Blanes. Libraries are civilized places for the traveller. Rather like monasteries in the middle ages, they can be relied upon to offer simple shelter and hospitality, not food, but food for thought, and information about the community, and even something of the feel of that community.

I’m not a Bobo. For the invention of that market-driven lifestyle, which really should have lost its appeal during the recession, here’s what I have to say about a book that came out celebrating Bobos in the year 2000.

About fifteen years ago a US journalist, David Brooks, started piecing together his portrait of the Clinton-era elite that became Bobos in Paradise. You and I know that drinking good coffee doesn’t make you a good person, nor buying the right brand of trainers say anything about you except that you’ve got the money. But somehow Bobos thought they were on the right track to base a new way of living on thoughts like this. The story Brooks told wasn’t as trivial as that but the people were.

Bobos were a new social class. Bohemian Bourgeois. They looked like rebellious bohemians but they had money and loved spending it. The were educated intellectuals, but they were also consumers who lived in the mainstream. Brooks was one of them.  As the term intellectual expanded to take in businessmen, entrepreneurs and pretty much anyone engaged in a ‘creative industry’ in the 1980s and 1990s, the class of Bobos became ever larger and its discriminations less exact. The gap cthat had once gaped wide between ‘real’ intellectuals – the high-minded writers and critics of the 1950s like Hannah Arendt and Lionel Trilling – closed, as Bobo intellectuals translated ideas into ‘product’.  So a new high-spending, high-value economic class was born, considering itself intellectual but a boon to high-end markets.

In taking up their positions in this new class journalists, actors and thoughtful retailers like Body Shop were now not alien from jet-setting super-professors. Fashion models began to judge literary prizes. Nothing problematic in that? Of course there was. Lower standards to sell ‘culture’ to a broader audience, if you must. But if you want still to teach the difference between imagination and fantasy, because you think levels of intellectual subtlety and social vision matter, you will need to retain a sense of what only the professors understand.  And that’s just an example from the world of writing, which matters to me.

The new Bobo class prided itself on social inclusiveness, at least of a kind. It was a kind of market apology for socialism, although it would never have recognized itself as such in the mirror. Oh oh oh. As Marx said, first time round things are tragic, next time they appear as farce.Dear Bobos, they comforted themselves that they were being inclusive; doing stuff that everyone does; and expanding markets hugely just by the way.

Bobos were, by definition, as consumers, materialists. They were just what none of my university generation wanted to be. They liked shopping. They liked the cheerful vulgarity of America. They were America. Those serious minds who wrote like Arendt and Trilling for Partisan Review would have recoiled in horror at the intellectual class that followed.

Unlike previous intellectual generations Bobos were also not technophobic.  I’ll have to concede that this change they introduced, because it happened with and because of computers, and mobiles and the internet, is here to stay. Even I’m a Bobo, if inviting a technology into your life is the criterion. Actually it’s pretty hard to avoid. It’s also a great set of tools.

But again the Bobo problem was confusing technology with intellectual discrimination. Between 1997-2008 this confusion took over at the highest levels of British government. Tony Blair prioritized getting ever more computers into homes and schools, thinking that would do the trick for the woes of British education, while Gordon Brown aimed to provide a business mentor for every secondary school pupil. Ho, ho, tell us why no one saw the collapse of the banking sector coming, please sir, and why we can’t write English.

The Bobos were children of the first great Information Age and they used their refined cognitive powers to say commerce was ok. Indeed, business was now to be at the heart of culture, and education.

Some of this of course happened by chance. A whole generation of successful university graduates just happened to get rich overnight, through working for massive corporations and financial institutions, or starting up successful dot com companies. They had to square this accidental wealth with the liberal conscience that also came of education. So, roughly, the idea of socially responsible, politically aware shopping came of age.

But look, the result was ghastly.

Boboism indulges the not-too-independent-minded consumer at the expense of the true social reformer. It says that we can’t help wanting to spend money, but at least we can buy Fairtrade products, and lobby high street retailers not to use sweatshop labour in Thailand. It’s true there are real issues here of stamping out exploitation, but really is making the right purchase really so serious? A machine could do it with the right programme. Boboism is morality-lite.

Benneton in Italy was a pioneer of ‘watch where your goods come from’. The Gap, and the Body Shop had that pioneering image in Britain. Ever since, conscience-stoking marketing at all levels has done its best to add ‘intellectual’ and/or ‘communal’meaning to shopping. Supermarkets name the man who has grown my carrots.  Upmarket clothes shops picture charming old women with wrinkly skins weaving my scarf. It’s a toe-curling waste of reading and a complete parody of what matters.

For America there was a deep meaning behind Boboism, as Brooks explained. It meant that a terrible social wound had healed. The sixties was been a battle ground. After it many progressives became traditionalists. The militancy that wanted to destroy the old order of education and society was too much for them. So their idealism was buried. Then the eighties liberated money. Money, they remembered, was vulgar. But then in the 1990s there came to pass a triumphant ‘triangulation’ of these two warring forces in American society: social conscience and wealth. They got married. This, wrote Brooks, was what the Clinton era stood for.

The Bobos were egalitarian and inclusive, but above all they were ideologically flexible, which is probably where I dislike them most. For them Heidegger was an eco-warrior and neo-Buddhist and nothing stopped Nietzsche being a socialist. Brooks celebrated these Bobos, complete with their follies, because they were so much out to include, and to please, and who could resist such goodwill? Yet even he admitted they were intellectually flabby.

Taste-makers for a new century, the Bobos were at their most harmless when they functioned like (the comparison is mine) disciples of William Morris, tackling tackiness in the consumer sector, but not at all averse to replacing the bad, synthetics-favouring taste of the common folk with impossibly expensive equivalents. We’ve all inherited their aesthetic now, because that’s what the market offers us and what the press tells us is the right kind of choice. It’s thanks to the Bobos that more than one class on more than one continent now covets slate floors in the wet room, broad old wood floorboards in whatever they call their public rooms in town, along with second homes with their own distinctly distressed aesthetics, SUVs to drive there in, and outward bound kit to tackle every weekend walk as if it were the conquest of Everest fill in the high-end vision of leisure of the last twenty years. As of the year 2000, high performance jackets and boots were Bobo haute couture, and, apparently, Bobos didn’t mind spending vast amounts of money on any of these things because they were Heideggerian tools for living authentically. Well, if not authentically, at least well. What Bobos didn’t like was flashiness, conspicuous and above all unthinking consumption. The meaning of life could be lite, but it couldn’t be ugly.

Ok, but didn’t this put the Bobos hand in glove with high-end property developers? Didn’t it forge new values and a new elite few of us could afford to keep up with? Of course it did, and because the intellectuals were on board they just stood by.

Brooks ended his book with the hope that these good enough people would, riding on a new wave of patriotism and public spiritedness, cement America’s place as the world’s greatest nation in the twenty-first century. (The trickle-over effect of this was what Blairism was about, socially, in Britain. Not third-way socialism, but Boboism, was his new deal. Oh, oh.).

Brooks conceded at the time that the Bobo mindset conspicuously lacked intellectual and moral rigour. Bobos were ‘religious’ when it suited them. They were super-tolerant, without thinking of the consequences for social cohesion. They were entrepreneurs who protected everything that was old, so long as it suited them. They were experience-snobs, who thought they could buy authenticity; build it; remodel it; create it as a second home. They created Latte towns and thought everyone must see the benefits of new coffee shops and wild food outlets decking out once quiet high streets. They provoked retailers into offering a dizzying array of choices available to new cognoscenti. Bobos couldn’t see, because they’d thrown open their critical gates too wide, that the sincere advertising they loved, with quotations from Gandhi and Mark Twain to sell grains and shirts, was brainless, and ultimately as divisive, probably more so, than anything that went before.

The Bobos sold out, admitted Brooks. But at least they weren’t racist and elitist, like the intellectuals of the 1950s. Fair enough. The downside was they pushed a culture where money was everything. They accommodated intellectual and academic lives to business, marketized the universities, destroyed the book review pages in the newspapers, and  purveyed culture as choice.

Bobos were essentially cultural middle-brows, generators of the dumbing-down. Brooks said it, not me.

Bobos were particularly naïve about what their grandfathers would have called spiritual things. Because they evened everything out they had no sense of  artistic pitch. They honestly didn’t know why it was not quite right for adults to be enthusing for children’s books like Harry Potter. Because they had only at best skimmed their Nietzsche and Heidegger or whoever else, they never thought of the combination of money and technology as generating a power outside and beyond themselves, depriving them of the very experiences they were still in a very sixtiesish way chasing after. They never worried about ‘reproducibility’ with Walter Benjamin, nor understood, with Heidegger, why one had to clear the spiritual decks now and again not to be an ‘anyone-person’. With their passion for easy reconciliations of uncomfortable opposites, they were facile ‘triangulators’ everywhere.

The Bobos really did think that the tools of communication, and the act of communication, could substitute for the deep reflection that used to be the calling-card of real, critical intellectuals ready to face up to unbridgeable differences.

Unfortunately for you they may be your mum and dad, and your teachers. But then you’ll get out there and replace them, won’t you?

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  1. Pingback: Adorno, the Frankfurt School and the Soul of Europe | Lesley Chamberlain

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