Coffee House

Are hipsters the new aristocracy?

5 February 2016

4:36 PM

5 February 2016

4:36 PM

I love Twitter. Just like the historian Dan Snow, I find the social media site to be an overwhelmingly positive experience, and a great place to make friends and acquaintances and share ideas.

Sure, most of the friends I’ve made are as politically insane as I am, but that’s the inevitable result of any service that allows for social sorting. However, one point with which I would disagree with Mr Snow is the idea that the site is a force for the ‘revolutionary democratisation of discourse’. In fact one of the great attractions of Twitter is how hierarchical it is, with each individual being measured by the size of his or her following, plus of course whether they have elite blue tick status.

Inevitably, also, the politics of Twitter is status-based, with the centre-left and centrists being the cool kids from the school playground, and the various other tribes of Corbynites, Communists, social conservatives, English nationalists, rad feminists, jihadis, counter-jihadis and Alt-Right people being the equivalent of metallers, goths or the angry loners planning a school massacre. Social justice warriors are more like a gang composed of middle-class kids with trouble at home: whatever one privately thinks of them as individuals, there are enough of them to cause problems, and they have a habit of doing so.


In the absence of more obvious class indicators, political views now project status more than ever before. This is the subject of an interesting new paper by Ryan Murphy for the Adam Smith Institute, which suggests that hipsters are a sort of new aristocracy. It looks at hipster fashion for ‘authenticity’ and opposition to mass production, and suggests it is part of a new elitism:

The desire to accumulate cultural capital and to pass it on to your children is not only about the imagined existence of an authentic self; it is a reflection of a rational desire to share the practices, habits, and attitudes of the cultural elite. It also neatly relates to the modern understanding of the psychology behind costly signaling and blatant benevolence of both charity and certain pseudo-charitable consumer decisions. It is not so much about “authenticity” – though that is certainly in the marketing and vocabulary of new status signaling – as it is purely about the bohemian-bourgeoisie undertaking costly actions to demonstrate they are not complicit in the globalized, liberalized, capitalist order of the 21st century, even though they are the very elite of that order.

Thus a paradox of the new status signaling. The group that is the cultural elite of the so-called neoliberal order expends a great deal of resources signaling their disapproval of the neoliberal order so as to elevate themselves higher in the pecking order of that very same group. This means that despite some self-awareness about it found in Stuff White People Like and Portlandia, new status signaling will continue in some form (if not all its trappings) until the bohemian-bourgeoisie is supplanted from the elite, just as the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy were before them. Unlike Marx, however, I offer no dialectic explaining how such a sea change would occur or even whether it will occur at all.

Fashions, and that includes cultural and political fashions, are by their very nature not egalitarian because the driver of change and innovation is a wish to stand out from the herd. Therefore those with quite ruthless aristocratic (in the literal sense of ‘best’, aristos) pretences will lead the way. Competition tends to drive fashion towards absurdities, such as the pointy boots and adornments of 15th century aristocrats, ruffs in the Tudor period, or east London beards todays (the same goes for political fashion, too; see social justice warriors, above).

The modern contradiction is that political ‘egalitarianism’ is fashionable, and professing to believe in equality is a way of standing out from the crowd, from all those losers with their England flags and their parochial attachments (we’ll see a lot of this attitude during the Brexit referendum). This is at least partly why even the most competitive northern Californian companies love to pay lip service to social justice causes.

It’s a bit of cliché that a lot of hippies turned out to be ruthless, successful businessmen, but it’s based on a fair amount of truth; men who were at the top of the cultural hierarchy in the late 1960s and early 70s tended to also have the same qualities that drove them towards domination in Silicon Valley in the 80s. Equally, the ‘liberation’ of the 1960s freed the new ruling class more than it did any other section of society. It helped reduce a sense of noblesse oblige, and contributed to the idea that by supporting the right cultural causes and having the right politics, they were also a moral elite.

Today’s cultural elites are also hugely aided by the egalitarian blank slate theory of human nature, which gives them the false idea that they deserve their high status, when in fact intelligence is just another privilege they inherited from mum and dad. Like the hippies of a generation ago, hipsters do in fact represent a new aristocratic cultural elite, just one sadly lacking in self-awareness. Still, some of the craft beer is damn good.

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Show comments
  • sputnik

    hip adj. In the know; culturally up-to-date.

    “What is hip?— Tell me, tell me, if you think you know. …
    What is hip today may become passé…

    If you’re really hip, the passing years will show.

    Tower of Power

    Still hip, many years later:

    Thus, being the hippest would involve knowing about life that which is the least susceptible to fashion, the least temporal. For example, intelligence is NOT a matter of genetics, existing independently of a body in the first place. The evidence is abundant, ubiquitous, and profound. I mean, really!— get hip! 🙂

    And every third or fourth person has an odd story they’re unlikely to spontaneously offer up. Do a little probing.

    Hipsters ain’t all there quite yet — the -ster part being a belittlement by definition — but they’re workin’ on it. Good for them.

    aristocracy n. rule by the best

    “The best?”— The best are generally invisible to and unrecognized by the great majority, including most hipsters. It’s in the nature of awareness. Those closest to changeless truths who, acting accordingly, do the most good in the world are typically recognized only by those power-structure people whose roles they render superfluous, supplant, and replace. Thus are the best and brightest frequently attacked by the status quo. This fact will help you to distinguish them, provided you know how to recognize the real status quo so as to be able to distinguish between the two, given that beneficial activism frequently involves some degree of open attack upon the status quo in the process of raising awareness.

    Hard truth: by definition, the best is always a minority. So much for democracy. Now you’re hip to that. At that rate, our prized political systems ain’t gonna save us.

    And da hippes’ ain’t got no interest in rulin’, anyhows.

  • edithgrove

    If the image above is anything to go by they are the new nerds. And “the historian Dan Snow” is the new nepotism.

  • Tamerlane

    Hipsters aren’t hippies and they aren’t at the top of the cultural food chain (they’re way down at the bottom somewhere), Hippies were always very obviously on the way to somewhere they just didn’t know where, Hipsters have reached their destination – largely being a bunch of sanctimonious bores.

    • Todd Unctious

      Well observed. Tammy you are a hipster. Beard, manbag, penny farthing and a sanctimonious bore.

      • Tamerlane

        Christ! That’s exactly what your wife said to me the other morning, mind you she was at least smiling when she said it. Nudge. Nudge.

  • RavenRandom

    “Are hipsters the new aristocracy?” For headlines like this the answer is always NO.

    • bootsyjam

      I’m not sure you read to the end. To paraphrase, hipsters believe that by supporting the right cultural causes and having the right politics, they are also a moral elite. That seems pretty fair to me.

      • RavenRandom

        “I’m not sure you read to the end.” You mean I disagree with you and that unaccountably irks you.

        • bootsyjam

          Ummm, no. I disagreed with you, and thought you hadn’t read to the end, because I felt that the last couple of sentences seemed to simplify his thoughts on the matter in a clear way which seemed to go some way to proving his point. It appears we agree to disagree. Have a lovely day.

  • AdrianM

    I suggest that applying the ‘Gunning Fog Index’ to this article would be a very good metaphor for describing the so-called new pseudo aristocracy. Also, anyone with a knowledge of recent social history will find ‘Hipsters’ strangely similar to the short-lived ‘Beatnik’ generation.

  • rtj1211

    I have to say, Mr West, that in a world of arseholes, the biggest arseholes get the most followers.

    If you screw a thousand bimbos, are you superior to someone who loves one truly, forsaking all others etc etc?

    All that having a lot of followers means is that you relate to the masses. It doesn’t mean you are a revolutionary leader, an innovator or the like.

    Do you think Jesus Christ had only 12 followers on Twitter?! What a loser, eh!

  • ohforheavensake

    The answer to the question in the headline is no.

    More broadly, this is one of a run of articles that try to account for the fact that nobody really seems to like neoliberalism that much. All the articles conclude by proving- apparently- that the reason for this is that people are deluded, or that they don’t know where their best interests lie. Ed, I’d suggest the answer to your question’s a bit simpler. Neoliberalism doesn’t work; and it’s failing people.

    • Curnonsky

      And the people it’s “failing” seem to be the best-off, most privileged? Explain.

  • Peter Simple

    Whenever I see one of these bearded buffoons in tight trousers I am reminded of Mr. Pooter.

  • MikePage

    On a recent trip to NYC and the Caribbean I enjoyed nearly a fortnight without hipsters. Bliss.

    Fashion is just wrapping, a disguise for inner insecurities. Hipsters, with their desire to become walking antiques, are no different. Authenticity my A. It’s the deceit that irks.

  • Jack Rocks

    Haha, I enjoyed your categorisation of the various personalities on Twitter.

  • sfin

    I am enjoying these “ruminating” articles of your Ed (and of course they are click bait) but, if I was your agent, and recognising your talent, I would get you to nail your colours to the mast more…

    Rod Liddle’s “Everything’s a bit sh*t isn’t it?” chimes better with your recent output of “Whaddya think? – I’m not too sure…”

    I’ve no problem with a writer who wants to ‘put it out there’ and see what comes back – I just think that a writer of your talent could shape the debate more than you are doing of late.

    Just saying (as a fan).

  • Roger Sutherland

    Hah, it’s refreshing to see the term “alt-right” being used in a mainstream publication instead of the old “far-right” label.

    I still don’t know what a hipster is. The definition seems to change depending on who is writing/talking about them.

    • post_x_it

      It’s not a term of endearment. Nobody admits to being one.
      It’s quite similar to calling people “middle class”. In the UK I mean. I don’t think other cultures perceive it as an insult.

      • Frank

        Hipster = petit bourgeois with too small a jacket, too tight trousers and bizarre shoes = cultural elite in Hoxton! Almost certainly the product of inadequate schooling, with mildly deranged parents.
        Have to say that anything Dan Snow likes is almost certainly bound to be bogus (eg Borough Market, etc) and very low culture.

    • Chamber Pot

      Well if you’re not ‘right on’ how can you expect to ?

  • Michael990

    Surely those beards that I gather they affect mean that they’re just wannabe muslim peasant savages?

  • jim

    Yaawwwnnnn…..!.Sorry..? Did you say something?..I wasn’t listening.