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Social life as a tale told by an idiot

I continue my investigation of current ideals of life, with Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks and Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. (The former author is the NYT columnist, the latter a couple of youngish socialist Canadian philosophy professors.)

In reading them I’m struck once again by the hopelessness of purely innerworldly schemes of social criticism. Deny the transcendent, make everything just a matter of human desires and relationships, and it all comes down to a struggle over power and status, with supposedly Bohemian or rebellious values just another move in the game.

What, after all, can rebellious values stand for other than personal assertion? And if it’s just personal assertion, what exactly is being asserted? That you’re as good or better than someone else? Means nothing, when “good” and “better” have been abolished, because (after all) they’re just moves in the game. Heath and Porter explicitly treat “beauty” as simply an assertion and marker of high status: hence their socialism. In the absence of objective goods within human life the most sensible thing is to keep people well-fed and amused, like animals kept in stalls with piped-in music, and then put them down when they get old and troublesome.

The Brooks book has some interesting features as well. It’s an account of “bobos,” bourgeois bohemians, the hip yuppies who Brooks says constitute our new ruling class. There’s a cynical but I suppose mostly accurate account of how to be an intellectual giant that emphasizes the degree to which what passes for intellectual life has been commercialized, industrialized, and integrated with the system of bobo domination. Intellectuals, financiers, businessmen, government officials—they’re all the same sort of people with the same background and concerns and the same PC views on things, all at bottom engaged in the same business of promoting this spin on things or that.

The book also emphasizes how bobos avoid some of the more destructive consequences of the administered abolition of traditional community that makes their rule absolute by turning everything—even S&M—into an occasion for the same earnest politically-correct striving that made them bobos in the first place. (The lower classes, of course, are not so protected. But who cares about them?)

Another comment: reading these books drives home how blinkered and boring accounts of pop culture are when they are written by people whose main interest isn’t something better than pop culture.