by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Most of us no longer engage in conspicuous consumption to signal what class we are in. But we do engage in inconspicuous consumption, and conspicuous production, and conspicuous leisure, to achieve the same ends. To briefly define each of these: inconspicuous consumption is spending more on health care, insurance, kids’ educations, and in-home help. Conspicuous production is emphasis on where and how things are produced. Conspicuous leisure might be breastfeeding and attachment parenting.
It’s different from the days when someone used silver cutlery or drove a flashy car to signal how upper-class they were. Now, an NPR tote bag does the same thing, according to the author. It doesn’t signal that we are rich, because anyone on a barista or artist salary can and does afford such a thing; it signals us as members of a particular class, which she dubs the “aspirational class.”
I had a hard time keeping my head wrapped around how “aspirational class” is different from “liberal.” Also, a lot of this book was a big “ouch” for me. But I LIKE buying overpriced organic vegetables, and supporting local businesses wherever possible! I genuinely like it! I’m not just “signaling” something. I like it because… why? I feel somehow it improves the world, right? Do I really have to start shopping at Wal-mart and buying supermarket brands of everything in order to be “genuine”? Won’t that just be signaling a different thing?
Sayeth the author: “Does being different from others, being better than others at acquiring possessions or the perfect heirloom tomatoes, or making the decision and investment to breast-feed or feed your family organic produce really advance society at all?” When we remember that none of these thing are options for huge segments of society who lack the means, we ought to be honest and recognize that to really make the world a better place, we would do better to work towards flattening out the economic inequality around us.
So, ouch, and touche, and point taken. But it still doesn’t mean people sport their farmer’s market produce in public in order to engage in signaling that they are of the ‘aspirational class’. If they (fine, WE!) are signaling anything, it’s that we are on Team Liberal. It does make me uncomfortable. Food for thought.