Posted: March 24, 2001
Books discussed in this essay:
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks
The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence by Dinesh D'Souza
hanks to David Brooks, America's new ruling class has a name—the Bourgeois Bohemians, or Bobos. They are too politically apathetic to hold actual political offices, but they set the tone. The Bobo is now the model American. The model American town is now his or her kind of town, what Brooks calls the Latte Town—Burlington, Vermont, for example. Most towns are still not much like Burlington, but most towns now have latte sections, which are touted as the most advanced or livable parts of town.
The Bobos exist somewhere between the merely middle-class Americans that Alan Wolfe describes in One Nation, After All, and the path breaking technological entrepreneurs Dinesh D'Souza portrays in The Virtue of Prosperity. It would appear, at first, that our rulers are D'Souza's entrepreneurs. But men like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, D'Souza observes, are too narrowly obsessed with their work and too inarticulate to be American models. Such genuinely extraordinary human beings often believe and even say that life would be meaningless without their work, and the rest of their lives are, usually, messes.
If the Bobos exist just below the technological entrepreneurs in terms of raw brilliance, power, and wealth, they are at least more articulate and admirable. They live more balanced lives—they work hard, too, but not at the expense of family, communal involvement, and spiritual life. They give voice to the aspirations of our time.
The bourgeois virtues Bobos possess include personal responsibility, productivity, the willingness to sacrifice for comfortable self-preservation, and aversion to conflict and war. Their bohemian, or anti-establishment, virtues include subordination of money to human fulfillment, their refusal to put on airs or lord it over others, and concern with spirituality and human wholeness. The Bobos identify taste with simplicity, and so they use their money for beautiful but subdued bathrooms and vacations to the rain forest, not for pink Cadillacs and power boats. But they do not confuse simple with tacky or cheap; they have made plain but pricey Shaker furniture trendy. The bourgeois cared about money, the bohemians fulfillment, but the Bobos know that one is not possible without the other.
It seems sometimes that Bobos are Aristotelians. To act virtuously Aristotle says, we need the equipment, and money is an evil only if we regard it as an end, not a means. Money is for the practice of virtue, to show your class or excellence, and the Bobos certainly do spend to show their class. But the beginning of virtue, for Aristotle, is courage, and the Bobos do not seem either to have or to desire the opportunity to act courageously. The members of the WASP ruling class that preceded them, such as George Bush the elder, willingly fought in their nation's wars. The bohemians, such as young Bill Clinton, claimed to have found a certain nobility in evading unjust service. But the Bobos are neither called to military service, nor do they think about serving. War and even hunting are not for thinking men and women today.
Aristotle also says that human beings fulfill themselves through political activity, but the Bobos disagree. They do not think of themselves much as citizens, and they only rarely have an interest in entering public service. They have little sense of civic duty, and even less noblesse oblige. Because their privileges are based on merit, on brains and hard work, they do not believe they owe others much of anything.
As members of the ruling class, Bobos are, for practical purposes, conservative. They are even theoretically conservative; they are not plagued by utopian political fantasies. They are less narcissist than individualists in Tocqueville's sense— apolitical beings confined to a narrow circle of family, friends, and professional associates.
Sometimes the Bobos seem to be Christians. They reject the militant atheism characteristic of much of the 20th century. And they crave the comfort and meaning provided by religious ritual and community. It is hard to raise children without the help of something like a church, and it is harder still to live in solitary denial of the spiritual side of being human.
The Bobos have returned to church and synagogue. But they want to combine the advantages of communal limits with those of personal liberation. They reject Christian doctrine concerning, say, sexual morality because it makes them feel uncomfortably restricted and unnecessarily guilty, and in general they expect their religious community to make only minimal personal demands on them. They don't think about personal salvation, sin, and divine judgment, or about whether the personal God of the Bible really exists. They don't even think about the differences between Christian and Buddhist belief. Bobos privilege comfort over truth, and they call true whatever makes them comfortable. To take a stand for or against God is just too hard. Their lack of concern for the truth, more than anything else, is what impoverishes their spiritual life.
Because the Bobos do not concern themselves with the personal God, they cannot practice Christian virtue. Distinctively Christian virtue, of course, is not sexual morality but charity. The Bobo is not cruel or hateful toward others, but perhaps that is because his or her heart is not easily moved in any direction. Bobos do nothing out of love of God.
Libertarian Bobs believe, without flaunting it, that they deserve what they have, and that what they owe to the unfortunate is nothing more than not to contribute to their degradation. The Clinton or Boboized Democratic party ended its special commitment to the poor, and Bobo spirituality is quite distant from the formerly fashionable theology of liberation, with its activist preferential option for the poor. Evangelical and especially Pentecostal churches today reach out to the poor, but the Bobos prefer the New Age-y serenity that comes with inner fulfillment.
At history's end, Marx predicted, the division of labor will disappear, economic scarcity will be overcome, and human needs will be met easily. Humans will be free to do what they please without being determined or limited by any particular activity. One can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and philosophize in the evening, without becoming a hunter, fisher, or philosopher. Marx seems, at first, to mean that we will choose our activity according to some human purpose. But in the absence of economic necessity, the materialist Marx cannot identify any such purpose. So all he can say is that we can do whatever we want whenever we want. All human activities assume the status of hobbies. To call them more than that brings to mind the necessities of scarcity, and they have been overcome. I must philosophize without becoming a philosopher (or obsessed with the truth) to show that I am really unalienated.
The Bobos believe, in their own peculiar way, that they live at the end of history. But they are bourgeois, not revolutionary, Marxists, because they believe what Marx hoped for from revolution has been achieved without it. It's possible to live as if all life is a hobby, but they don't think that a hobby is a passing the time to no purpose. Work must be meaningful in this Information Age. Lots of money can be made without doing anything we wouldn't have chosen to do anyway, and we can be rich without exploiting others. No necessity compels us to work, but work we do because it fulfills us, and so the distinction between job and hobby is obsolete.
Every moment of the Bobo's life must be educational, lucrative, purposeful, enjoyable, and beautiful. And that just doesn't happen spontaneously. As Brooks observes, the Bobo never stops thinking. He calculates about everything. His children are always busy, his vacations must be educational and edifying, and he never loses his mind in food, drink or sex. He wants to leave as little as possible to chance. Yet he must always be having fun. The bourgeois view of the hobby is really a moral imperative: It is not that all of life is a hobby without any effort, but all of life should be one.
And yet neither the Bobo nor his children ever have a moment to sit under a tree, completely immersed in the present, enjoying the sweet sentiment of existence. Bobo life, in this respect, seems tougher than life has ever been before, and the unprecedented dimensions of the choice of calculation over immediate enjoyment can rightly be called a very demanding form of bourgeois virtue. Compelled as we are by this virtue, we are also allowed the passing, Christian thought that the Bobos have mistaken hell for paradise.
Bobo life brings to light the most obvious problem with Marxian theory. Its view is that scarcity is material scarcity. So if human beings have plenty of stuff with little work, they will be unalienated or satisfied. But we now know that the overcoming of material deprivation does not free us from necessity. We still grow old and die. In fact, we might die at any moment. As long as we are conscious beings, we will be determined to some extent or another by the necessity of death. And the more comfort and security we have—the more we have to lose—the more that necessity haunts us.
One way we divert ourselves from harsh truth is mistakenly to view death as an avoidable accident. We need not die if we live reasonable or safely. That attitude, as Thomas Hobbes explains, is in some measure reasonable. We will, with any luck, live longer if we make thinking about safety our first priority. Marx was wrong that his end of history would be easygoing, because the number one human problem would actually seem more of a problem than ever before.
The Bobos claim not to be obsessed with death. They display a casual attitude toward work and time, and they have some spiritual solace. And they appear not to think or talk much about their finitude or possible immortality. But not talking about death is not enough. A real pragmatist works hard against it. The Bobo's regimen or exercise is his one activity that he does not even pretend is always fun. Health is no hobby; it's a necessity, and so it must be cultivated in the most scientific and disciplined way.
The Bobos are nonjudgmentalists on almost everything. When it comes to the soul they are laissez faire. But when it comes to health and safety, they are toughly intolerant moralists. They are pro-choice when it comes to abortion. But when it comes to seat belts and smoking there ought to be law. And safe sex ought to be taught in the schools. It is unrealistic, they say, for our young people to practice chastity. But when it comes to drunkenness and obesity, they can and should just say no. Getting fat will kill you, but safe sex, had with anyone and in any way, won't. Brooks reports that Bobos see no reason not to engage in extramarital sadomasochism, as long as it is in a safe, structured, and consensual environment.
Bobos show that life can and should be both safe and spicy. They prefer both designer sex and designer food. They don't stuff their faces like animals. And their safe and productivity-inducing beverage of choice, coffee, gets better and more exotic every day under their watchful eye. But the idea of safe S&M displays in neon letters the absurdity of all safe sex. What do we do to eros when we calculate so much about it? Conservatives thought that the sexual liberation of the '60s would destroy civilization. We now know that its real enemy is eros. Safe S&M is the price to be paid for the moral imperative that all of life be a hobby.
Another way to appreciate the unprecedented premium the Bobos place on health and safety is to compare them with the WASP establishment of the '50s and '60s. Those men were public spirited, willingly fought in wars, drank martinis at both lunch and dinner, rarely exercised unless they enjoyed it, and were hardly ever without a cigarette. And when they fooled around, they really were living rather dangerously. Compared to the Bobos, they spent their lives laughing in the face of death. Because they took their souls or duties more seriously, they were less obsessed with their bodies. They were more aristocratic and less bourgeois than our Bobos.
There is real virtue in being fit and healthy. But when morality or virtue is reduced to safety, we do have to worry about the remaining capacity for love and friendship.
Bobo Virtue In A Bio-Tech Age
The Bobos show us that the counterculture of the '60s was a mirage. Even at its height, it mixed incoherently the spirit of the commune with the moral injunction of Do Your Own Thing. And that incoherence remains at the heart of Bobo life. The real counterculture in America is revealed religion. The establishment has almost always been some form of progressive secularism, and it has always been opposed by some form of Christian, creationist communalism. Many American Christians, of course, have been almost as bourgeois as our bohemians, but the more "orthodox" of today's Christians, Jews, and so forth, have been co-opted far less than our bohemians. There always is a need for a genuine counterculture, because the present establishment is never without flaws, and human beings, as the Christians say, may be most deeply aliens in this world.
The Bobos' lack of concern for the more admirable virtues, such as courage and charity, comes at the expense of the spirit of resistance to cultural fashion and technocratic expertise. That would not be that worrisome if the present level of technology would continue indefinitely, because the Bobos, despite their best efforts, show the greatness and misery of human liberty. But the problem is that Bobos do not possess the spirit to resist the fast approaching biotechnological threat to the very existence of human liberty.
For the Bobos, choosing against biotechnological breakthroughs tomorrow will be like choosing against health today. Who wouldn't choose the best available body and brain for his or her child? The brain as much as the body is a mechanism for comfortable self-preservation. Can the law really allow perverse choices against what is best for any of our children? Dinesh D'Souza, generally a supporter of biotechnological innovation, draws the line at designing our children, calling it tyranny. We can choose for ourselves an indefinitely long and safe life, but apparently not for them. But surely we have the right and duty to choose health for our children if we can, and every biotechnological innovation can be seen as, at least in part, for health and safety. We cannot in some perverse fashion will that our children be unnecessarily malformed. From that perspective the very choice against biotechnology is tyranny.
Bobos are not well positioned to consider what human beings lose as a result of the scientific overcoming of what used to be regarded as the limits of their natures. The choice against, for example, indefinite longevity would have to be against self-preservation and for virtue, love, birth, and death. And I don't see them having the perspective or the guts to make that hard, courageous, and charitable choice. Whatever virtues the Bobos may possess, then, they must be displaced, for their own good and ours, as America's ruling class.