By Daniel Smith
Elites are firmly on the agenda for British sociology. With a special issue of Discover Society dedicated to the super-wealthy and another special issue of BJS dedicated to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, dramatic inequality fuelled by staggering wealth is the central issue and social problem of the day. Yet this ‘elite’ are problematic, difficult to name, internally fractured and culturally heterogeneous.
Piketty’s challenge to sociology, as Mike Savage (2014a/b) has clearly spelled out, is that a reworking of our sociological understanding of ‘elites’ is necessary. We cannot think of social elites as explicitly tied to political power (though they are in many respects), and neither are they a small culturally homogenous social circle. Savage (2014b) suggests we refer to these new elites as ‘wealth elites’, not to emphasise their statistical significance as a ‘1 per cent’, but to emphasise Piketty’s (2014) central focus on the principle of accumulation as the mechanism which distinguishes and maintains inequalities over the ‘long durée’. Evocatively Savage (2014:593) suggests that given Piketty’s central claim in Capital is that returns on capital far outstrip returns on income, the sociological prognosis should be a focus on “a sociology of inheritance, or perhaps a sociology of ‘haunting’.” This haunting is both literal and literary as capital accumulated in the past ‘returns’ in the form of interest in the present while also reminding us of one of Marx’s famous metaphors for interest-bearing capital as of ‘vampirism’.
But this haunting comes with other consequences of sociological interest. What happens to the spectres of elites past? It appears to be clear that the social and economic elites of the present day are no longer a gentry class combining a shared heritage of class, culture and capital. The rates of inequality may be reminiscent of Jane Austen’s England, but the elites today are not Mr’s Darcy, Knightley, Bingley and the culture of elites is not that of provincial England, not the cities of Bath or Bristol, nor the counties of Surrey or Berkshire. In short, a gentry elite are not the hegemonic group for Britain in 2015. This chimes in nicely with a recent article by author of The Sloane Ranger Handbook, Peter York, in Prospect Magazine and The Sunday Times which spoke of the decline of the Sloane Ranger, York’s term for a gentry figure which encapsulates white, upper-middle class Englishness. York’s article refers to the ‘threat’ of the super-rich elites which are appearing in British society, notably around London (Burrows, 2013), and the downward social mobility which figure in the dislocation of ‘Sloanes’ from both cultural and economic elite stature.
What are the gentry group to do in Piketty’s world?
In contributing to the article for Prospect, I suggested to York that while ‘Sloane’s’ are certainly losing out in this world of the super-wealthy, what they do is provide a crucial and essential function for elite group solidarity and sociality – they brand it. Or to use sociological nomenclature, they become what Pierre Bourdieu (1986) called ‘cultural intermediaries’: in a culture of wealth, they define the rules, forms, expressions and signifiers of wealth and its ‘appropriateness’. They map it out (see my post on BBC’s recent Inside Tatler). I suggested to York that ‘Sloane’s’ are making use of, (not should as he suggests in the article itself), the culture of brands, celebrities, marketing and PR to forge a new cultural landscape which speaks to wealth, distinction and prestige despite the fact they are not, in the language of Piketty (2014:252-255), members of the same ‘centile’ of wealth.
In this respect ‘Sloane’s’ are not an elite in a clear and simple sense –what they are and were was a social group whose solidarity was predicated upon a shared social and cultural heritage, of ancestry, schooling, restricted codes of conduct and monopolised ideal and material goods which forged an elaborate cultural language and mode of representation to ‘talk’ about and ‘name’ social pedigree. Sloane’s, or what I call a ‘gentry’ group, are effectively a status group which draw upon racialized and classed criteria for membership (as I have suggested elsewhere (Smith, 2015)). York suggests this when he refers to Sloane’s as “a secret garden, neither the grandest toffs, nor the aspirant commercial middle-middles, but something else in between.” This ‘something else in between’ is what I call ‘gentry’, a form of white upper-middle class Englishness which provides a cultural language and heritage which is able to be ‘cashed in’ (to use Bourdieu’s phraseology); this cultural capital is used to help define the culture of wealth in British society. Sloane’s/Gentry groups are turning towards ‘emerging forms of cultural capital’ (Savage, 2014b) – social media, brands and marketing, celebrity culture and publicity – to guide, hone and direct forms of wealth elites in British society and culture in the 21st century. Indeed when Savage (2014a:603) asks of the new wealth elite, “what kind of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups?” The answer is that the ghosts of gentry past answer this question. I have explored how the Jack Wills brand, by way of not just aesthetics but corporate activities which rely upon ‘emergent’ cultural capital of social media networking, friendships and common symbols of membership, create actual and dense alliances with the 6% of Britain ‘elite’ class (Smith, 2014).
What I suggest is how not just accumulated capital ‘haunts’ present British society, but how the ‘ghosts’ of gentry past remain active in the cultural language of wealth, giving it a racialized form of symbolic capital which is necessary to ‘cash in’ for group membership, alliance and elite formation to be productive and effectual. For instance, Nigerian billionaires have to learn to play polo or Russian oligarchs look to England to school and ‘breed’ their children for wealth as seen in Inside Tatler, or American grand capitalists have to adopt pastel, Boden stripped shirts, or old Etonians have to turn to wealth into a TV show such as Made In Chelsea. Crucial to economic distinction, as Veblen, Weber, or C. Wright Mills knew, was that wealth has to be turned into a cultural language of distinction and alliance. In this respect, there is life in the old Sloane yet.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1986), Distinction, (London: Routledge)
Burrows, Roger (2013), ‘The New Gilded Ghettos: the geodemographics of the super-rich’, in Discover Society, Issue 3, Dec 2013: http://www.discoversociety.org/2013/12/03/the-new-gilded-ghettos-the-geodemographics-of-the-super-rich/
Piketty, Thomas (2014), Captial in the 21st Century, (Cambridge: Harvard)
Savage, Mike (2014a), ‘Piketty’s challenge for sociology’, British Journal of Sociology, 65(4): 591-606.
Savage, Mike (2014b), ‘Social change in the 21st century: the new sociology of ‘wealth elites’’, in Discover Society, Issue 15, Dec 2014: http://www.discoversociety.org/2014/12/01/focus-social-change-in-the-21st-century-the-new-sociology-of-wealth-elites/
Smith, Daniel R. (2015), The Gent-rification of English masculinities: class, race and nation in contemporary consumption, Social Identities.
Smith, Daniel (2014), ‘The elite of fiduciarity: the heraldry of the Jack Wills brand’, Ephemera: theory and politics in organisation, 14(1):27-55.