CORPORATE FOCUS: The New Upper Class

Real changes are taking place in the U.S. ruling class, and conservative David Brooks is one of the first to grapple with the transformation in his new book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and Schuster).

It is by now cliche to note that the jeans and no-tie look of new money Silicon Valley represents a visible shift from the more formal attire of old money manufacturing and finance circles.

But in his provocative and humorous book, Brooks suggest something more far-reaching is afoot. The information age elite, he says, "are highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success. The members of the new information age elite are bourgeois bohemians. Or, to take the first two letters of each word, they are Bobos." They mingle "1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement," making it "impossible to tell an espresso-sipping artist from a cappuccino-gulping banker."

Brooks categorizes his method as "comic sociology," and he pokes fun as he describes the ethic of the Bobos (among whom he counts himself).

The old elite announced marriages on the pages of the New York Times, listing "pedigree and connections" -- the groom's social clubs, the bride's debutante history, the couple's illustrious ancestry. Today's elite uses the same forum, but with a new focus on resume and achievement. "An amazing number of them seem to have first met while recovering from marathons or searching for the remnants of Pleistocene man while on archeological digs in Eritrea."

Returning to his upper crust hometown of Wayne, Pennsylvania, Brooks reports the takeover of the Preppy Establishment with "a new culture [that] has swept into town and overlaid itself onto the Paisley Shop, the Neighborhood League Shop, and the other traditional Main Line establishments." Noting the proliferation of gourmet coffee shops, he writes, "there probably still aren't a lot of artists and intellectuals in Wayne, but suddenly there are a lot of people who want to drink coffee like one."

A new set of values pervades the new elite, Brooks writes. In the Code of Financial Correctness, Rule 1 is "Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities." In practice, that means "you can spend as much as you want on anything that can be classified as a tool, such as a $65,000 Range Rover with plenty of storage space, but it would be vulgar to spend money on things that cannot be seen as tools, such as a $60,000 vintage Corvette."

And, he argues, countercultural values have infused the business world -- the one sphere of life in the United States where people still talk about fomenting "revolution" and are taken seriously.

Although he sometimes overstates and exaggerates, and though some of his jibes cut deep, Brooks is mostly an enthusiast for the Bobo ascendency. Bobos believe in tolerance, moderation, community, meritocracy, decentralization, what Brooks calls the bonds of intimate authority (family and community control, not power to centralized bureaucracies). They stand against confrontation and extremism. They have made homes less formal and more comfortable, and communities tighter knit. Brooks offers some cautionary notes -- about disengagement from politics, an undemanding spiritual life, a loss of the blue blood notion of service -- but he is by and large optimistic about the Bobo-led future.

The primary limit in Brooks' enjoyable book is what he does not discuss. The Bobos represent a reconciling of different cultural strands, brought together by the growing power of a new class fragment or fragments.

But this reconciliation does not eradicate real class conflict. The majority of the U.S. population that remains working class (estimated at 62 percent of the population in another interesting new book, Michael Zweig's The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret (Ithaca: ILR Press)) are missing from Brooks' story.

It is not really fair to criticize Brooks for this -- after all, he is self-consciously describing changes in the ruling class.

But it is fair to note that there is a dangerous tendency toward universalization among Bobos -- a sense that "We are the World" -- even though most people in the United States (let alone the world) in fact do not share their expanding wealth and may have markedly different view on important issues, including concepts of "deservedness," fairness, government regulation and equitable distribution of wealth.

For this majority of the population, more confrontation, not less, could be just what is in order.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

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