The very excellent Misty Harris (follow her on Twitter, she’s great) has a piece today about a new trendwatching report that purports to be a look at the changing nature of status markers. Apparently status-seekers are moving away from the standard forms of conspicuous consumption (car, house, jewelry, clothes, electronics, etc.), into a new “statusphere” that “includes everything from a person’s eco- credentials to their number of Facebook friends and knowledge of local restaurants. Think of it as the democratization of snobbery.”
Well I don’t know about that. If there’s one idea that can be refuted from your armchair, it’s the idea that status can become democratic. But what is true is that there has been a shift, though it isn’t entirely new. In fact, it is just the shift chronicled in chapter 4 of the Authenticity Hoax, where people now seek status through various forms of conspicuous authenticity.
The best quote in Misty’s piece is from professor June Cotte, who says: “There’s some indication that the wealthy feel guilty about having so much, and that in the face of massive unemployment, they shouldn’t be showing off the biggest diamonds or newest Mercedes.”
That’s true. But it hardly means that the the wealthy have stopped exploiting their privilege. At least everyone”s money is the same colour, even if some have a lot more of it than others. But when status becomes less about what you have, more about who you know, that’s when it becomes truly pernicious. As marginalized groups have known for centuries, the first thing the elites do to preserve their status is cut off the mechanism for being able to simply buy your way in. That’s what has always motivated race-based bans for private clubs, or racial or religious quotas at universities.
And so the trendwatchers Misty is quoting get it exactly wrong. If anything, the turn away from conspicuous consumption has made status-seeking less democratic, not more.