Cultural Capital Is No Substitute for Cold, Hard Cash

The rich used to eat, dress, and even speak entirely differently from the masses. Today they wear T-shirts and sneakers just like the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean we’re all equal. It only lays bare the real source of inequality: actual money.

The rich don’t eat, dress, or speak as though they belong to an entirely different culture anymore. (Getty Images)

Anthony Minghella’s sumptuous drama The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 psychological thriller by Patricia Highsmith, scans almost as a manual for faking your way into the upper echelons of the American elite. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a lowly Manhattan piano tuner, dons a borrowed Princeton jacket at a black-tie fundraiser and convinces an industrial mogul to hire him to fetch his only son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from a life of leisure on the Italian Riviera. Before his cross-Atlantic journey, Tom studies Dickie’s likes and habits, learning to recognize jazz artists by sound alone. Despite lacking a proper suit jacket and skiing skills, Tom establishes himself in an opulent expat community anchored by Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), as Mr Greenleaf foots the bill.

Revisiting Ripley nearly twenty-five years after its release, and almost seventy-five years from Highsmith’s novel, it occurs to me just how well-suited a pre-Bourne Damon, then twenty-nine, was for the role: handsome in a corn-fed, sheepish sort of way, mole-speckled and big-toothed, the same height as Law but less delicate around the jaw and brow bone. Damon plays Tom perfectly in that he plays him hungry (and not just because Damon wasn’t jacked yet). Hungry to assimilate, to ascend, to crack the uncrackable code of class.

“Who are you — some imposter, some third-class mooch?” Dickie demands of Tom during one combustible scene, ultimately their last together. “Who are you to tell me anything?” Part of the movie’s brilliance is that, by the end, we’re still rooting for Tom, even after he’s done the unthinkable. It feels plausible that someone as creatively shrewd as Tom could scam his way into the libertine upper class. What’s more, we want him to, because Tom’s upward trajectory via cultural and social capital reflects the tempting idea that one can rise through the ranks if only one learns the rules and emulates the manners of those at the top. Since anyone might prove cunning and charming, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, Tom’s class assimilation — at least at first — sustains the fantasy of meritocracy.

These days, it’s easier than ever to affect a high-status look. With elites jettisoning exclusive markers of “good taste” for a more liberal, pluralistic conception of beauty and authenticity — not to mention a spate of speedy manufacturers gamely mimicking everything from Balenciaga handbags to Supreme hoodies at affordable prices — the task of affecting privilege has lost some of the difficulty that made Highsmith’s drama so compelling.

As W. David Marx argues in his book Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, the rise of digital culture and the democratization of taste have diluted the potency of traditional class signals: physical mannerisms, refined elocution, knowledge of rarefied music and art, and proper manners. But the absence of overt snobbery and exclusive know-how hasn’t disappeared status rankings altogether. Instead, it’s made them more contingent on actual money.

David Marx is, like Karl Marx, a keen observer of class relations, but the resemblance stops there. The author of Status and Culture is an American menswear guru who lives in Tokyo and curates a hit pop culture newsletter. His book is an elevated, sociology-inflected user’s guide to class aesthetics and their gradual dilution in the digital age. For those familiar with Pierre Bourdieu, much in the opening chapters can feel well-worn. Nevertheless, Status and Culture is an insightful read, at its best when Marx probes the minutiae of cultural history, from zoot suit mandates to luxury brands’ co-optation of punk.

For Marx, status signaling is a double-edged sword, both shoring up class hierarchies and catalyzing ingenuity. The haut monde pilfers from the artistic avant-garde as an implicit flex of privilege. The creative class is at turns rewarded and punished for trading up, leading to swift and sudden switchbacks. Meanwhile, the bottom-most economic rungs have little to lose in taking bold, often cleverly subversive sartorial risks.

Whatever the pros and cons of rigid cultural signifiers, Status and Culture makes one thing clear: good taste is on its way out. The rich don’t eat, dress, or speak as though they belong to an entirely different culture anymore. “As a result,” Marx observes, “raw wealth becomes a more obvious criterion for status distinction.” What remains to be seen is whether this trend is a net positive or net negative for those of us who oppose underlying class distinctions.

W. David Marx’s observations on trends in the culture are undeniably correct. What’s less easy to cosign is his latent optimism around the connection between cultural capital and status equality. He argues that “omnivore taste” — where everyone consumes everything, and where elites in particular enjoy “not just high culture, but pop and indie, niche and mass, new and old, domestic and foreign, primitive and sophisticated” — is mostly a good thing, knocking down at least one pillar of class rule.

Quoting French theorist Gilles Lipovetsky, Marx contends that the equalization of taste has the potential to “dismantle the status structures that prevent the equitable distribution of respect.” But if it’s even possible for “respect” to be more broadly distributed, what exactly does that mean for a person lacking economic security? Democratizing symbols is a far cry from democratizing society itself.

In a time when class inequality is higher in the United States than in any other developed country — where, in 2021, the top 10 percent of Americans held nearly 70 percent of its wealth (up from 61 percent in 1989) — it seems unlikely that more populist taste palates are leveling the playing field, leading to greater equality where it counts the most: access to quality shelter, education, and health care. As the slogan popularized by unionized workers in the culture industry goes, “You can’t eat prestige.”

If anything, when we appear more equal because we consume the same types of brands, media, and experiences, it distracts us from the startling reality that we are living drastically unequal economic lives.

The Map and the Territory

Like many academics from lower economic class backgrounds, I’ve learned from experience not to confuse prestige for class. My social and professional worlds are awash with cultural, social, and institutional capital, giving me ready access to high-class signifiers. My cultural status might suggest that I’ve reached the top of the class hierarchy. But my 401k says otherwise.

If they attended college at all, the people I knew growing up obtained practical degrees that allowed them to work as teachers, nurses, accountants, and pharmacists. My three sisters and I were rare in that we pursued our passions, in my case writing poetry. For me, assimilating into elite art and literary circles seems to have yielded hazy economic advantages at best. Far more lucrative have been discrete financial decisions and institutional policies — like buying a house during the Great Recession and renting rooms to grad students and bohemian types to pay the mortgage, or the unionization of my university’s adjunct lecturers, which boosted my salary as a non-adjunct full-time lecturer by a full thirteen thousand dollars.

Over the decades, I’ve had plenty of time and several occasions to ask whether the nonmonetary clout I’ve accrued is really on par with cold, hard cash or a handsome trust fund. In terms of feeling equal in status and opportunities, I’ve found that it doesn’t even come close.

In the predominantly white, lower-middle and working-class community I was raised in during the 1980s and 1990s, “high” culture was hardly in high supply. Most adults in my St Louis neighborhood did not have college degrees, much less passports. My parents were an exception, but their credentials did not translate to disposable income distributed among their four daughters. If my sisters and I desired something, we had to figure out a way to earn the money to pay for it ourselves.

My first paid labor was delivering plastic-bagged Avon catalogs in third grade for $3 to $4 a batch. My second paid job was in fourth grade as an umpire for pre-K girls’ softball teams — five dollars a game, half of which I spent at the concession stand. By the time I was fourteen, I qualified for a worker’s permit, and worked full-time at Six Flags as a face painter for two sweltering Midwestern summers.

Over the next nine years, when I wasn’t in school full time (and occasionally when I was) I moved up in the food service world, graduating from waiting tables at Steak ’n Shake and IHOP to serving at a tony French restaurant that prided itself on Provençal cuisine. At my holiday job at Barnes and Noble café, I learned how to make scones — after learning what a scone was to begin with. Through my exposure to the upper classes I was serving, I intuited that certain types of knowledge made me more impressive to others than other types, and so pursued them in kind.

I kept at it, accumulating Cibo Matto B-sides in high school, learning Japanese in college, and moving to Berlin in my twenties. Could my own pursuit of cultural capital ever be separated from my desire to distinguish myself from my peers and, along the way, pave the way for upward mobility — that is, to parlay status symbols into status itself? Reflecting on my past, it’s impossible to discern which cultural knowledge I desired due to genuine interest and which I desired due to a vague intuition that this type of knowledge could benefit me later by grouping me in with the right crowd.

By contrast, my partner, who grew up in affluence and attended an elite LA private high school, could accumulate cultural capital in an arguably purer way, unfettered by concerns for financial survival and exclusively motivated by his own real interests (however they might have been influenced by the fads of the time). His cultural tastes increasingly attested to his rare sensibility and justified the wealth and access he already had, rather than open up pathways for achieving both. We’re both culture vultures, but we circle the carrion for different reasons: his passion, mine hunger.

If I could do it over again, I don’t think I would have made wildly different choices. Cultural capital can be more than just a fig leaf covering the vulgarity of wealth (especially for those, like me, who have no wealth to begin with). Had I not overestimated the extent to which cultural knowledge — from listening to John Cage, reading early John Ashbery, or spotting a vintage Cacharel on eBay — might be swapped for economic gain, I’m not sure I would have dared to challenge the anti-intellectual attitude of my immediate environment, to develop tastes and skillsets that lacked any obvious practical function.

When my late grandmother, a nurse before she married and had nine children, came across something even remotely novel, she’d mutter, “That’s different,” with a quiet air of amused dismissal. My ambition to be different may have stemmed, in part, from mere self-interest, but it also demanded a level of chutzpah (and later hustle) uncommon for young women who grew up as I did.

Still, cash continued to rule everything around me. When it came to college admissions, I rejected the big-name universities that accepted me. Instead, I went to the one that gave me the biggest merit scholarship, which applied to study abroad. When I received my MFA, I didn’t work part-time to prioritize my writing; I became what I called a “promiscuous adjunct” (if asked to teach a class, I would always say yes). I forfeited my creative aspirations to establish financial solvency. Without it, I sensed, I would live in fear.

Cold, Hard Cash

Status and Culture effectively demonstrates, often in fascinating detail, how status signifiers emerge and evolve, and how the drive for status undergirds our gravitation to new styles and cultural trends. Its account of the disappearance of the old regime of class symbols is sharp and copiously cited, as evidenced by nearly three hundred footnotes and a twenty-page bibliography.

But Marx stops short of providing any real sense of how a more egalitarian set of cultural semiotics contributes anything approaching greater equality. In his penultimate chapter, the most he can offer is the abstract idea that “culture matters for status equality.” In place of actual evidence for how culture matters, he gestures loosely to how “history has shown us that altering [status] criteria opens up social mobility for disadvantaged groups.”

Marx’s primary example ironically undercuts his point. “Hip-hop started on the streets of the South Bronx and is now a multibillion-dollar global industry,” he writes. Yes, precisely. It’s true that the consumption of black music and culture has become a status symbol for the elite — think of Kendall Roy blasting hip-hop in the pilot of Succession. But if Marx were right that the “appreciation of minority culture . . . has arguably better distributed money and status to disadvantaged communities,” the black poverty rate would be steadily declining right around 1999, when hip-hop became the best-selling music genre in the United States. Instead, black poverty rose between 2000 and 2011, and while it has declined in the last decade, so has poverty among all non-white racial groups. Gains in money and status are much more likely due to policy advances and economic security programs.

“If we seek to promote equality over hierarchy and encourage cultural creativity and experimentation,” he writes, “we must learn the full implications of how status and culture work together.” I agree. But these implications are incomplete if they ignore economic reality. Cultural critics must pay close attention to currents that signal a shift in the waters, but they also must understand the topography of the ocean floor.

“Culture sets what is permissible and what is possible,” Marx writes. But it’s more accurate to say that culture sets what can be imagined as permissible or possible. One can only be permitted to do or be something if it is legal; it is only possible to do or be something if one has the economic means to carry it out. No amount of cosmopolitanism or cultural savvy can boost mobility if one doesn’t first have a way to pay their bills. Equal distribution of “status” in abstract terms won’t fix that.

Marx’s overestimation of how culture and status inform economic class reminds me of what I called the “pop culture progress myth” in 2016, after Donald Trump was elected president. At the time, many liberals and leftists overestimated the extent to which a more diverse, progressive-leaning popular culture reflected the ethos of the country in general, and they were shocked by the election outcome. By focusing on cultural symbols, we distanced ourselves from more stubborn economic realities. Most of us haven’t learned our lesson.

“Only when we become experts in status can we work to achieve the society and culture we desire,” Marx argues. Really? As much as a nuanced grasp of status signals might help us understand the desires of one group or individual versus another — along with our own — it’s far less mandatory than implementing structural policies that prioritize access to basic social goods like housing, health care, and good jobs. It seems obvious that the less distracted marginalized people are by the pursuit of these, the more “cultural creativity and experimentation” will thrive.

A good friend of mine — also xennial, also raised lower-middle class in the Midwest — has poems published in the New Yorker, a PhD, and four books published by eminent presses. She speaks French fluently and is the epitome of cultural and social capital. She is also on Medicaid and living paycheck to paycheck after divorcing an abusive husband. The main difference between her trajectory and mine is access to actual money and stable employment. No amount of Ripley’s talent for class imitation will ever suffice.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to the Baffler, Current Affairs, Hyperallergic, and the Hopkins Review, among other publications. She is a 2023 winner of the Rabkin Foundation Prize in arts journalism and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

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