Elite Virtue-Signaling

In TAC, Benjamin Schwarz reviews The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (“The New Elite’s Silly Virtue-Signaling Consumption”):

Currid-Halkett convincingly argues that the consumer preferences of today’s elite—be it the approved podcast, TED Talk, or magazine; goat tacos from the farmers market, a five-dollar cup of Intelligentsia Coffee, ceviche at the Oaxacan restaurant in the approved urban enclave, or tuition for the anointed school—are now the primary means by which members of the educated elite establish, reinforce, and signify their identities. In a detailed analysis of the experience of shopping at a Whole Foods supermarket, for instance, she explores the rather stark hypothesis that “for the aspirational class, we are what we eat, drink, and consume more generally.” By creating “an identity and story to which people wish to subscribe,” the store allows members of that class to “consume [their] way to a particular type of persona.” The upshot is that elite consumption—the pursuit of personal gratification—somewhat paradoxically entwines with the pursuit and buttressing of what amounts to a tribal identity.

Of the process of cultural capital formation amongst the elite:

Slack and risible as are the attitudes that impel and are engendered by elite consumption, the consequence of that consumption is, as Currid-Halkett baldly asserts, “pernicious.” Sophisticated marketing, consumer solipsism, and a sense of meritocratic entitlement combine to instill the consumption preferences and habits of the metropolitan elite with what Currid-Halkett characterizes as “a sense of morality and deservedness.” This unlovely and unearned self-regard produces a baleful attitude. Currid-Halkett’s deconstruction of the painstaking measures Whole Foods deploys to inculcate its customers with the belief that “you are a better global citizen and healthier person” prompts the inevitable question: Better and healthier than whom? The educated elite’s spending decisions—decisions that, as Currid-Halkett lays bare, imbue the purchase of a $2 organic heirloom tomato with a peculiar virtue—beget and fortify that class’s conviction that its members are more conscientious, better informed, and more virtuous than those outside its charmed circle…

The result, Currid-Halkett writes, is “a deep cultural divide that has never existed with such distinction as it does today.” Echoing Charles Murray’s analysis in Coming Apart of this elite’s cultural and physical self-segregation, she demonstrates that geography is underscoring and accelerating the malignancy of that divide…

By the way, have I ever mentioned how much I hate hipsters?

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