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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.

[Alt-Text]


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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