April 28, 2003
The discreet vulgarity of the bohemian bourgeoisiePosted in · 1 comment ·
Walk into any well-heeled person’s Dublin home these days and the kitchen resembles an aircraft hanger. Walls have been knocked down, skylights put in and patios extended up to the top-of-the-range French doors.
When I was a kid, rich people had bars in their houses usually attached to a lounge, resplendent with shagpile carpet and a massive exposed rock fireplace. I was always amazed at the idea of having a bar in the house and spent my fourteenth year wishing the McWilliams’ had a fully kitted out boozer in the sitting room. No such luck.
Today no respectable Irish person would dream of building something so vulgar as a bar in his sitting room, let alone a snooker room (another gem of the1980s). In 2002, although few would pay €20,000 for a bar grafted onto the sitting room, many wouldn’t blink at paying a similar amount for a new kitchen with granite worktops.
Tastes have obviously changed, but although fashions come and go, something much more structural appears to be going on than just a change in fashion. There seems to be a seismic change in the way people are spending. In fact, a new group of educated, professional consumers has emerged, equipped with a type of “financial correctness” to match their “political correctness”.
Financial correctness means that to spend huge amounts of money on an outdoor jacuzzi is vulgar, but spending the same amount on a slate bathroom is de rigueur. Discrimination based on consumption is nothing new. Old money looking down on the spending extravaganzas of new money is the stuff of Dickens. But today it appears the social pecking order defined by financial correctness is subtler.
For example, for the financially correct, it is vulgar to spend on luxuries, but right on to spend on necessities. So it is fair game to throw half the industrial wage on a new kitchen. And a new lexicon has emerged where the imaginary axis of the sink, the fridge and the oven is known as a “work triangle”. The dream kitchen — think about it “dream kitchen” — is equipped with state of the art appliances costing a small fortune. What is the difference between a cooker that costs €300 and one that costs €3,000? (I can’t figure it out.) And what about the new walk in freezers that could preserve food for the entire Soviet army, let alone a vegetarian family of four in Foxrock? But the kitchen is regarded as a necessity, so no expense need to be spared.
Another rule of financial correctness seems to be that it is fine to spend a fortune on anything of “professional” quality. We have shops in Dublin such as Patagonia selling socks and boots designed to withstand Arctic winters, not Sunday afternoons on the Sugarloaf. Spending €200 on hiking gear is all right, as long as it is the type of professional gear that Shackleton could have done with.
Financial correctness also dictates that it is entirely kosher to spend enormous amounts of lolly on small objects such as espresso machines, but forking out on large ventures such as a neo Tudor mansion is not on. How else can we explain the proliferation of African-inspired salad forks at €200 a pop or Alessi loo brushes at €99. Recently, I’ve noticed people being very keen on rustic. In the 1980s, yuppies wanted severe lines, modernity and clean finishes. Today, no smart house is complete without its tattered Tibetan rug or weathered slates. Indeed, wedding lists are a marvellous place to start looking for financial correctness. These are usually stuffed with useless, expensive gadgets that have “discerning” written all over them.
An equally perplexing phenomenon is that people will pay huge amounts of money for things that used to be cheap, like bottles of water or cups of coffee.
The question is whether these bizarre spending habits are telling us anything more than changes in fashion? An American writer, David Brooks, in his fascinating book Bobos in Paradise has identified a new cultured upper class that emerged in the US of the late 1990s. He refers to them as the bohemian bourgeoisie or “bobos”.
Bobos run most of the world’s large corporations, are prominent in government circles and ironically are at the top of the so-called anti-establishment movements such as the anti-globalisation movement.
The bobos are both bohemian and bourgeois at the same time. They are the 1960s radicals who haven’t quite settled down into middle age nor come to terms with the fact that they run their own companies or operate the Latin American arm of a large multinational. They spent so much of their youth fighting the old order that they are loath to admit they are themselves the establishment. As a consequence, they are performing a balancing act between political correctness on the one hand and absolute privilege on the other. The bobo asks himself how to reconcile actions with his original rebellious ideals. The classic example of this is Tony Blair, supporting state schooling in Britain, but sending his kids to private schools.
You see the constant battle going on in business and business schools. Management gurus are paid a fortune to tell corporate men to be creative, unstructured and chaotic. This satisfied the corporate bobos’ desire to be both mainstream and counterculture at the same time.
In politics, bobos have taken centre stage in many countries. New Labour in Britain is full of them, as are the French, German and Italian socialist and social democratic parties. The EU is stuffed with bobos, as a cursory glance at the interior design boom in Brussels evidences. The problem with the bobos is that they are out of touch. The right-on hipness they espouse on a variety of issues such as law and order, immigration, taxation and Europe is out of place with the rest of society. Possibly because many emerged from the left, it is difficult for them to understand that they are the new establishment and not in any way close to the working man. However, due to the innately political nature of their youth, they can’t believe that they have not got their fingers on the political pulse.
This week, the bobos of the French left were defeated by Le Pen in France. Their distance from the ground prevented them from rolling up their sleeves, while the constant need to reconcile their ideals with their lifestyle, ensured that they stood for nothing ideologically.
All around Europe, the same pattern is likely to emerge. As far as elections go, an unholy alliance of the young and the old will gang up on the trendy middle-aged. Of course, eventually the bobos will go the same way as all establishments and ditch their ideals for the sake of longevity, continuity and permanence.