Change indeed in the commonwealth! What shall become of me? The Brooklyn Notebook Part I

Dearest Friends,

Imagine a whale, free and fair, swimming the ocean blue. Then kill it. Kill it dead. Let its corpse drift askew, down, down, down into the abyssal depths. The fat and gristle and bone and blood to be carrion for the worms.

A good day for the worms.

Speaking of, let’s talk about Brooklyn. There is a class of people there. They are the scenesters, the tastemakers, the take merchants. They are the hip people. They call themselves an elite, if not *the elite*. I call them, in line with Fussell, the “middle class”. Others call them “upper middle class”. Sometimes they are called the “creative class” or the “bohemians”. But what are they? What sort of labelling is most apt? Can this question even be answered in a short essay or series of essays? Probably not, but let’s take a crack at it. We can at least trim down on the effort by not going too deeply into describing the characteristics of this class, as a full book would. If you do not know what the “Brooklyn scene” or the urban cool look like, count yourself blessed.

Are they middle class? That’s how I usually lump them, but is that really true? Fussell describes the NPR listening urban New Yorker readers as middle class, being below the upper middle class. In his Three Ladders post, Church has a middle ladder of the “Gentry” where the traditional middle class is G2 and there exist a higher form of professionals and creatives at G3 and G4. This ladder is defined in opposition and against what I would call the uppers, the elite ladder, which comprises the upper middle class and upper class. But is this a good lumping? Are teachers and nurses and accountants really the same creature as the Brooklyn Twitterati? To propose one gentry ladder or middleness is to suppose that these people are the same as regular minor white collar workers, or, more generously, that they are an evolved form of the latter, that given enough money, a teacher will move to Brooklyn and start a podcast. And while I continually scoff at their pretensions to being elite, in some sense, they are elite – they are part of the power apparatus. This class is the minor government functionary class and the media class. They are the people on Twitter angling for government sinecures or trying to start a podcast or sucking to newspaper blue checks. They do the bidding of the regime and in some sense control it, since they write all the “policy” “white papers” and the thousand ant farmer plans always ready to enslave the American people. They may only be the Outer Party, but the Outer Party is still in the Party. Is the archetypal middle class American a Party member? As for money – they seem to have a lot of it. They’ll drop as much in one night as one of my paychecks. And someone’s paying that expensive New York rent – and their jobs can’t seem to cover it.

Are they upper middle class? That would seem to be the natural conclusion from the above. But that doesn’t seem quite satisfactory either. First of all, they’re… not rich. Their financial situation seems almost contradictory – at the same time that they’ll drop massive sums at thrift stores, they will also scrimp and save and struggle to make rent or pay for drinks or a thousand other things. And they’re always complaining about their debts, especially their student debts. They can’t buy houses either and also seem to have no savings. What kind of a capital class has no capital? Seriously. They are constantly hit by the slings and arrows of financial fate, and this is because they lack capital. When you have capital, passive income from capital levels out income and expense variance, and when times are tough, you can draw down on the principal as a last resort. Still, one might object that these people are young and haven’t had time to accumulate capital yet. But there are other discrepancies. When one is part of a culture or group, invariably this shapes their identity. What do I mean by this? I define myself as a member of a cultural group, the upper middle class, which has certain traditions and assumed norms. Like Curtis Yarvin, the milieu of the Left was so dominant as to go more or less unsaid. My current identity is defined in opposition and in contrast to the assumptions of left-liberalism – I am a right-illiberal. But that identity comes about through a dialectic between me and the assumptions of my environment. The shape of my rebellion is determined by what I take for granted. It is rebellion for me to be a redneck, but conformity for the son of a small town. The shape of the rebellion of a child of the upper middle class looks like a reaction against center-left neoliberalism. I will elaborate more on what that means later, but needless to say, this is not the specter that haunts the dreams of the dirtbags. Instead, they define themselves in relation and against the “boat dealer” or “jet ski dealer”. This is my concept of the imagined other – we discover what things are by seeing how they define who they are not. Is it possible that they define themselves in opposition to “boat dealers” because they are wealthy globe emojis looking down on the plebian boat dealers? I find this unlikely because one of the key characteristics of the boat dealer is their wealth. The reflection of the boat dealer is tinged with a sense of *superiority*, class and cultural superiority, but mixed with a resentment of the boat dealer’s wealth. For someone like me to condescend to a boat dealer would be condescension full stop, but here is mixed in resentment – there is envy in this hatred.

There’s a parallax effect going on here. To the Brooklyn crowd, I am a far-left boat dealer kulak (inaccurate). To my own people, I am far-right for a landed aristocrat, a real eccentric who flirts with HODLER. The exposure of my views to those in my circles who are not my friends would lead to an extreme loss of face for me – I’d be painted as a Nazi.

So we return to the conclusion of various books of the last decade about the Creative Class or Creatives or Bohemians and term it its own thing. And yet many persons will lump this group either upwards with the traditional upper middle class or downwards with the traditional middle class, myself included. Sometimes the lumping goes both ways and all of it is grouped together as one broad elite. Many people have done lumpings, myself included, despite the discrepancies. Why? Is it because we’re all insane? No. There are genuine traces of the lumped classes present in this Creative Class. When these people describe themselves as upper middle class, it’s often not unfounded. Many of these people really are the children of doctors and lawyers. When they’re described as Midwestern strivers or the children of teachers or accountants trying to make it in the Big City and move up in the world, that’s also true. And when they’re described as first generation college students scammed into crippling debt for shitty, worthless degrees, that’s true too. How can this be possible? Because the socioeconomic backgrounds of this class are heterogenous.

Let’s break them down.

First is the otherwise downwardly mobile son of the traditional upper middle class (or very rarely, the upper class proper). These are people who come from the traditional elite, the WASP Establishment so to speak, but have to resort to affirming the values and status of their new Creative Class/Bureaucratic class milieu in order to not descend into penury. These people must know, unless they are particularly stupid or unobservant, that the stories told about who and what the traditional elite are are bullshit, but a man will readily believe what they have to believe if it’s what separates him from starvation. Nevertheless, there is something insidious and soul-rotting about repeatedly affirming that which you know is true.

Second is the child of the nouveau riche. What does the Creative Class imagine the elite to be? Often, a blond cornfed Midwestern with a square jaw and winning smile. When they say WASP, they usually mean some white guy, probably a Chad, rather than a Norman-American Boston Brahmin – more Biff Tannen than Gore Vidal. This “WASP” elite goes to a Midwestern state school with good football and then goes home to run his dad’s boat dealership or construction company. Some of them aren’t so crude, being doctors or lawyers, but they’re fundamentally conservative people who believe in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps – because they did! That’s the Creative Class prototype of what an elite is, or sometimes what a “WASP Elite” is, a right-leaning person who became incredibly prosperous after going to college in the middle of the 20th century. And the reason why is because, predominately, the members of the “upper middle class” within the Creative Class are not traditional WASP elites, but the children of these very same boat dealers. The prosperity of midcentury created a whole generation of nouveau riche who came into being *unmoored and unattached* to the traditional elite establishment. While some of these people were eventually assimilated into the old elite, the rest existed blissfully unaware of a parallel elite, and their children grew up thinking of themselves as the top of the top. These types attempt to form the upper echelons of the NGO-bureaucratic complex, with varying levels of success, but one avenue with particular draw is the chance to become a media or artistic figure, using parental wealth to bankroll a foray into culture, which exists as a path in opposition to their (at least perceived as) unsophisticated New Money parents. I will discuss this set more in part II of this series, the Whalefall.

Third, we have what we might call the traditional middle class striver. Here we have a person who is not what we might call elite, but who may consider themselves elite for standing above the working class CHUDs. These people come from the middle class milieu – broadly, people who work ordinary white collar jobs that aren’t considered prestige professions, things like accountants and insurance adjusters. They consider themselves college people, but unlike the upper middle class, their world is not related to going to a prestigious college, but rather, they take status merely from going to college (as opposed to non-college people). They are drawn into the world of Brooklyn in pursuit of “the good job”. As corporate offices centralize into a few major metros, so too follow the middle class strivers seeking the same jobs their parents had – or better. Increasingly, to find a middling white collar job means working in HR or administration for a corporation or for the government (the NGO-bureaucratic complex). This draws them into the scene. And for some of them, it’s not just about doing as well as their parents (though even this is rarely accomplished), but the possibility of moving up in class and becoming the elite they believe themselves to be. As before, the middle class so rarely encounters people above it that it considers itself to be the top of the world – they see themselves as the upper middle class and sometimes even the upper class, the elite, the privileged.

Part of the frustration of the scene is the mismatch between expectations and reality. For both downwardly mobile nouveau riche and middle class strivers, the world has not been as kind as they expected. This status pain creates a desire to rebel, but the rebellion is not about destroying the system but getting a place in it – getting a seat at the table. For both the middle class and nouveau riche, a college degree was often the ticket to great worldly success: a “comfortable” life for the middle, and a few million dollars for the nouveau riche.

Finally, we have working class people who are entering the college world and faltering. These are people whose parents saw the great windfall of mid-century or who saw their parents suffering while others they knew prospered, and received the lesson that a college degree is the way to get ahead. And it was. Emphasis on was. The college boom of midcentury came in response to the Whalefall. Those working class kids were now fighting to join institutions they had no folkways to navigate, resulting them getting lost and confused. Because they were marginal to begin with, they often ended up at the most marginal institutions with less than prestigious credentials, and because they lacked the cultural information to navigate how to pay for college, they frequently are saddled with debt, debt they cannot pay off with a credential that got them a one way ticket to the same working class jobs (or worse, if their parents are skilled labor) their parents do, but with extra resentment on top. Both the middle and working class students end up with student debt. To compound the insult, the working class kids that stayed behind and built skills outpace them economically, if for no other reason than lacking any debt. This creates a characteristic poisonous mixture of resentment and superiority, where the targets of their resentment are simultaneously demeaned as stupid hicks, but envied for their relative prosperity compared to the failed striver.

All these classes come together to form the “Creative Class”. But all too often, what the Creative Class does for a living is not create, as that doesn’t pay anything, but work for government or media. More properly, we can call this the Bureaucratic Class. These would-be creatives, in their day jobs, either work or aspire to work at a media outlet or at a quasi-public bureaucracy, one of the numerous policy NGOs that dot the landscape. Sometimes they find themselves in the formal public service, if they are particularly successful, but this is a harder task because the real public employees guard their pensions jealously. NGO-work is the Uber/Doordash/Rover gig economy of the government sector – same jobs, shittier pay and benefits. Why is Twitter fake? Why is Twitter real? Because the media discourse is actually manufactured on Twitter every day. This is where new government policy is written, drawn from the minds of resentful goblins poasting about the frogs that live rent-free in their heads.

Chapo Trap House are high priests of the “Cathedral”.

Because this class comes from heterogenous socioeconomic backgrounds, they don’t have a shared discourse by nature. As I’ve said before, one of the huge costs of diversity is the loss of unspoken assumptions. When we are around people like us, we communicate a lot without having to verbalize it or even grasp it consciously. Because we grew up the same way and have similar experiences, there is a huge amount of shared context that can be drawn from unthinkingly. When you don’t have that shared context, everything must be explained in painstaking, explicit detail. You can’t subtly allude to things because the others won’t get your subtle allusions. Furthermore, the subvocal communications people make end up misinterpreted. Flexes are seen as signs of weakness, offers of help become insults, etc. Diversity adds huge transaction costs to everything, as everything has to be constantly translated back and forth to make sense, even if everyone speaks English. They speak the same language, but they don’t speak the same experiences. When I say upper middle class, I mean a WASP gentleman of New England. When a middle class person says upper middle class, they mean a standard white collar worker who lives “comfortably” in a suburban home who watches MSNBC and has proper opinions and behavior. To reach understanding, we have to drop out of shorthand and explicitly explain what concrete realities we are referring to, and even then, there may be an outside context problem. I may not be able to understand the Mall of America, for instance, because I’ve never been there (I have, but I am unusual among my class). It really is quite impressive, but try explaining that to a white shoe lawyer type.

A mall? A fucking mall? People go on vacation… to a mall? Absurd.

When a new group forms, therefore, it cannot exist in this state of diversity. Groups want to homogenize in order to reduce the cost of transaction and communication. They therefore form a creole culture in their new environs. To deal with the diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, the Brooklyn set develops its own norms. Because they are heterogenous economically, the currency of interest can’t be monetary, but cultural. A new scene is formed, and advancement, status, in it is governed by knowing certain cultural touchstones or having clout on Twitter. Furthermore, because they are used to doing things through culture, it naturally lends itself to forming many circles. When dealing with classes as large as the traditional middle class, these middling strata in general, they are too big to have one ladder or cursus honorum as the upper middle class or traditional aristocracy does. Therefore, they form multiple ladders that exist laterally to each other. With the old middle class, you weren’t necessarily a big deal in the US, but you could be a big deal at your local bowling alley or Elks or other parts of civil society. With this new PMC/Bureaucratic class, you can create several distinct subcultures to advance in, like craft beer or hipster literature or extreme kite flying. You can’t be capital E Elite, but at least you can be an Elite of Punk Rock Trivia. The problem is that a status mismatch still exists. Even if you’re an amazing craft brewer, society as a whole doesn’t give a shit, unlike the old traditional Middle Class, which got some degree of respect for being upstanding citizens and doing charity work through the Elks. This is a problem, especially for nouveau riche or traditional middle class kids, who are used to seeing themselves as the Elite, above the deplorable masses of Middle America.

They must go to war.

Change indeed in the Commonwealth. What shall become of me?

But what led us to this war in the first place? Where did all these people come from anyways?

To be continued in The Whalefall, or the Anatomy of a Gifted Kid Burnout: The Brooklyn Notebook Part II.

O’er better waves speeds my rapid course,
Monsieur le Baron

One thought on “Change indeed in the commonwealth! What shall become of me? The Brooklyn Notebook Part I

  1. Being 3rd generation Washingtonian, I’ve traveled amongst all of these groups and your description is spot on.

    I also have the distinction of being from a family that settled in America in 1638 and am a member of many “Societies.”

    I have been a part of “Pomposity Wars.”

    Fortunately, I lost interest in it all about 15 years ago and walked away because it’s bullshit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *