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21st Century Victorians (jacobinmag.com)
58 points by bryanrasmussen 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments





>>> Of course, exercising, eating organic food, and pushing children to use their spare time usefully are not inherently bad things. However, they become markers of bourgeois values when they are marshaled to assert one class’s moral superiority over another and to justify social inequality.<<<

Is this really happening? I mean: "marshaled to assert one class’s moral superiority" is this really going on?

I do know middle-class Americans from, let's call it bluntly, both the "red" and the "blue" side of the country and I don't observe this behaviour there at all.

Sure, people can be proud, but trumpeting "moral superiority" because of class?

Can't remember having ever seen that.


Yes, it is really happening, but unless you are on the receiving end, the "morally inferior" end, you probably won't recognise it.

In my workplace (in the UK, so the dynamic might be a bit different) there is a strong middle class/working class divide. The middle class people love to go on about their cycling, organic food, etc., and berate others for being "unhealthy" to feel better about their own life choices. Even though many of us from working class backgrounds eat healthily, play 5-a-side football, etc., it's not dressed up in the same way, and not used to assert superiority over the people who (regardless of class) don't exercise and eat well.


That's wonderfully articulated. I've subconsciously seen that behaviour in workplaces for a long time, but never really noticed it as a class division thing - having read this though I can look back and see very clearly that the people constantly going on about their food/exercise/holidaying choices are very much on the middle class side of the divide.

I think "berate" is somewhat too strong of a word but the air of moral superiority is definitely there in certain contexts.

> Is this really happening? I mean: "marshaled to assert one class’s moral superiority" is this really going on?

Yeah, I've seen it, in some pockets of the US.


That's sad. What was the basis for asserting this moral superiority? (I mean the "argument", what was the thought process here?)

example: "we eat organic, we are choosing the best for our kids, we pity the poor people who can't".

it sits right on the edge of stated and unstated.


>> Is this really happening?

No, of course not.

Jacobin is a hard-line socialist publication. They want readers to view every aspect of life, no matter how minuscule, through the dim lens of class, gender, and race struggles.


> dim lens of class, gender, and race struggles

To call something as broad and all-pervading as "class, gender, and race struggles" a "dim lens", as if it's looking at life from the specific interest of a very small group, is laughably myopic.


It is also myopic to have "class, gender, and race struggles" as the only lens you can view life through. I suspect that's judah's criticism of Jacobin.

That's a fair argument. I do think it's absolutely an appropriate lens for this issue but can see why someone like judah might find it grating.

It's a dim lens because it's a poor way of looking at the world; most things in life are not class/gender/race struggles. :-)

Jacobin says parents telling their children to use their time wisely is actually a class/gender/race struggle. They are seeing darkness where there is none. What a sad worldview.


Entertaining in much the same way as Veblen's commentary, though without as much hilariously and intentionally poorly-concealed contempt. Perhaps if the author wishes to continue to pursue this particular sort of Bildung, he will expand this piece into a much longer form for us. Just think how well that would display the amount of free time he has! And how much more room would be available to flesh out what must be a very well-developed political argument! I am giddy with anticipation.

> These clothes were sending a message: "Make no mistake, we are not walking or riding bikes for transportation. This is exercise."

I often use a bicycle for transportation, and I've noticed that spandex cyclists won't give me the time of day. This happens even on otherwise deserted streets, where I and the other cyclist are the only two people for a mile. No bell or "on your left" from an overtaking cyclist, no wave of the hand from somebody going the other way, not even an ambiguous nod of the head. It's the strangest thing.

edit: I don't mean to imply that spandex cyclists would actually put bells on their bicycles.


As a kid I always thought spandex or whatever bike riders were huge dorks who got scammed into wasting their money. If you’re driving around your home area a few times a month (or even week) I doubt that you’re anywhere near good enough that your clothing matters this much.

Similar with people who suck at guitar but own a $3000 Gibson or whatever. I feel like good equipment while you’re bad just makes you look like a joke. Perhaps this is a blue collar ethic though


> If you’re driving around your home area a few times a month (or even week) I doubt that you’re anywhere near good enough that your clothing matters this much.

From the social signaling angle, being clipped in and wearing spandex also says "this ride cannot possibly be for transportation," because it's quite impractical to go anywhere but back to your house dressed like that.


The performative act of being seen while doing an activity is more important than the activity itself for these folks.

I see it all the time while out hiking. The group of 20/30 somethings who just went to REI, spent $300 on an outfit to go hike 3-4 miles while downing a couple beers. No trail etiquette, only there for the appearance. It's truly wild.


By the same token, you cannot avoid making a statement. Just by being at a place and doing a thing, you're expressing some kind of value judgement. Like when I'm wearing office clothes on my bike, I'm saying, "this is a perfectly valid mode of transportation for a commuter."

Likewise, the guy who wears ordinary casual clothing on a hike is saying, "let's enjoy the nice place we've walked to," instead of "I'm on an adventure, just look at my gear!"


It is a pity that English doesn't have the distinction between people riding bicycles and people riding in lycra, the Dutch Fietser vs Wielrenner

That's a good distinction -- perhaps I'll start calling them wheel-runners. It might catch on.

And to be fair to wheel-runners, it could be that what I'm reading as haughty disregard is actually the same kind of abstraction one sees in foot runners, a kind of meditative absorbtion in the experience of exercise. This might also explain why they appear unable to see stop signs.


As someone who would willingly describe themselves as a socialist, this reads like satire, or, if taken seriously, like a poorly thought out high school history paper.

The author does quite a good job lampooning the modern practices of the (often liberal) elite, but fails abysmally to prove that any of these practices are done "to assert one class's moral superiority over another and to justify social inequality." Without that crucial piece of support for the author's thesis, this article fails to provide any meaningful social or moral commentary about the practices of the modern elite.

In fact, one could argue that the lampooning of the modern liberal elite and their practices, such as the author does in this article, is itself done as way of asserting a different class's moral superiority over another - in this case a socialist intelligentsia's superiority over the mainstream liberal elite.


I mostly agree with your take on the article (though I admit I skimmed some paragraphs), but I think this bit was probably intentional:

> the lampooning of the modern liberal elite and their practices, such as the author does in this article, is itself done as way of asserting a different class's moral superiority over another

Unfortunately, I think the most effective way to counter a status move is not through reasoned argument, but with a status move of one's own. If you can turn the status symbol into something ridiculous or embarassing, you've successfully undermined it. This is (usually) most easily done via public mockery.


Yes and no. You've undermined the public expression of the status move. But pride is all over the place, from things that look like pride, to "I'm not proud like those people, I'm down to earth" - and proud of it, to (another turn of the screw) "I don't do false humility like those people".

It's the human condition to find someone to look down on to feel better about yourself. You can perhaps make people stop expressing it publicly, but you aren't likely to change hearts very much. (And when you do, you'll most likely make someone realize that having pride in that is stupid, so they'll change to having pride in something else.)


To be honest (given the lack of thoughtfulness that went into writing this article), I do think it was done intentionally, but I also think the author did not consider how doing so undermined his argument entirely. The author's primary argument is that all of these practices of the liberal elite are done to "prop up class dominance", and that this need to "prop up class dominance" is one thing that makes mainstream values inferior to (presumably the author's) "socialist values". This is of course undermined when the author chooses to engage in exactly the same act of "asserting [...] moral superiority" that he is basing his critique on.

Sadly this isn’t satire, which is the problem.


I deeply disagree with the author's politics however I think the following paragraph deserves quoting:

>Whether or not there's an obvious connection with money or status, if these cultural clashes happen across class lines, then class dynamics are at work. Of course there are also working-class vegetarians, Buddhists and so on, and when they get culture-shock reactions from other working-class people, it's not a class issue. But whenever there's a big difference in income, assets, education and/or status, then cultural differences become laden with class dynamics.


Thanks for sharing this. Very interesting so far. "Inessential weirdness" is something I've been thinking about for a while but didn't have a name for.

The problem is, what seemed reasonable and essentially weird then, and what seems that way in retrospect, are very, very different. This is a problem for both sides of the coin. What is essential is in the eye of the observer, through the lens of their culture and time. Calling someone's drive 'inessential' is just cast8ng judgement by another name.

Although I deeply disagree with Jacobin Magazine's politics I find this article really right on point:

> Today, spin classes, artisanal food, and the college application process ...make no mistake, they serve the same purpose: transforming class privilege into individual virtue, thereby shoring up social dominance.


You see, wearing running shoes outside of an athletic context is just a mechanism for the upper class to assert that the poor don't deserve higher wages. /adjusts glasses

It's a contrived packaging of their politics.

There are some good reflections in the second half about child rearing, but otherwise... no, self improvement and exercise are not exclusive upper class values. And by my observation, the people who insist on removing gluten from their diet, or biking casually in full race gear, are more often judged negatively and then mocked when out of earshot, instead of being considered virtuous and high class.


I know many people who exhibit similar behaviors and my impression is that these are signals of identification with a specific group. Social classes are not linearly stratified anymore, and the same behavior induces admiration by some groups and derision from others.

I agree that the central point of the article is on target.

The notion that this is somehow a "Victorian" thing, though - that the Victorians have some special responsibility in history for inventing this strategy of social dominance - that's an error.

Humans have been doing this for much longer than that.


I don't disagree but it's a really keen comparison. The Victorian Era has been romanticized pretty heavily but it's close enough in memory for there to be general knowledge about it while being far enough away to seem foreign and allow us to examine it with a more critical eye.

The Romans and the Greeks wrote endlessly on this topic. Everything Confucius said, too.

Perhaps the only significances of the Victorians was the rise of a middle class and "more" upward mobility. Before it had been "act your class/caste", the one you had been born in, but for the Victorians is was the class you wanted your _children_ to be born in.

But for sure, was an interesting comparison, until the vomit forced into the last line.


> But for sure, was an interesting comparison, until the vomit forced into the last line.

I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who found that to be offputting. What a way to ruin an otherwise excellent article.


I also feel I've seen this mentality in play in politics - the core of of bourgeois politics seems to consist of virtue-signaling or name-dropping challenging philosophers.

Generally, practices that garner popularity in the middle and upper class have life improving properties, whether physical, social, or mental. That doesn't mean they don't create a class barrier, but that's a consequence of financial means more than anything imo.

True, those absurd excesses of conspicuous consumption that do not simulate at least a soupcon of some plausibly life-improving property are seldom flaunted where the other classes may observe, but privacy is itself now one of the essential privileges of the moneyed elite, protected by the same class barriers that lucre's natural owners erect to satisfy their disproportionate need for the life-improving mental feelings of safety and security (from those on the opposite side of the barriers). Any 21st century moralist who does not accept that they are wealthy only in proportion to the number of things that they can do without is a phony.

Also see:

* “I don’t even own a tv”

* preferred pronouns in Twitter bio

* keto

* wellness/mindfulness

* no straws

* city bikes

In general there is no small amount of pearl clutching to be had to improve your social standing.


most of these can be conspicuous or can be practical interventions for something a person needs or wants. See being a vegan because you think eating meat is wrong versus being a vocal vegan because you want everyone to know how much better you are than them. That distinction can apply to everything you've listed.

Yeah, I eat keto, but I don't push it on people or think it makes me better than anyone. I'm a T2 diabetic, and it's simply the best way for me to eat to prevent losing my feet or winding up on dialysis someday.

It's not the cheapest way to eat (meat and fresh vegetables are expensive compared to processed carb products (or heck, even nonprocessed carby staples like rice and beans)), so I would never look down on someone that couldn't afford to eat this way. I wouldn't even push it on another diabetic, beyond mentioning that I use it to control my blood sugar and it works well for me.

I think my eating keto is a personal "essential weirdness" to quote an article someone posted elsewhere in this discussion. [1]

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18403103




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