Rise of the Luxury Belief Class
An extended essay on the new ruling class
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This is an extended essay for paid subscribers based on a piece for the Mail on Sunday
At the eleventh hour, with Britain’s next general election perhaps less than a year away, some in the Tory leadership seem to have regained their fighting spirit.
At the party conference last week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman embodied this new approach when she took aim at what she called ‘the progressive elite’.
Through its dominance of the institutions and the public realm, she warned, this new elite has been able to impose its values, tastes, and priorities on everybody else.
Its passionate support for mass immigration. Its resistance to strengthening Britain’s borders. Its enthusiasm for soft penalties for criminals. Its belief in radical gender identity and critical race theories. Its tendency to look to the EU for solutions. And its unequivocal support for net zero environmental policies.
Already a hate figure among many on the Left for her outspoken attacks on doctrinaire multiculturalism and uncontrolled immigration, and for refusing to allow her minority status to dictate her politics, Braverman used her speech to denounce the members of this new elite who —cocooned in the big cities and university towns by their financial affluence and privileged upbringing— are personally protected from the negative effects of the policies their advocate.
Rather than driven by any real desire to improve society for everybody, she argued members of the new elite are chiefly motivated by an eagerness to display their ‘moral superiority’ over the ‘bigoted’ mass of working people.
“The luxury beliefs brigade”, she went on, “sit in their ivory towers telling ordinary people that they are morally deficient because they dare to get upset about the impact of illegal migration, net zero, or habitual criminals”.
While Braverman was widely criticised, for me the impact of the speech was all the greater because I’ve written extensively —on this Substack— about the enormous gulf between mainstream public opinion, with its emphasis on traditional, patriotic common sense, and the narrow liberal progressive orthodoxy of the new elite.
It’s a gulf I analysed in my latest book, Values Voice and Virtue, which interested Braverman and her team so much they asked to meet me. And one of the concepts I cover in the book is this idea of ‘luxury beliefs’ — defined as ideas or values that confer status on the wealthy, but are not fully embraced or practised by them.
I am certainly not the first to point to this. The influence of ‘luxury beliefs’ as a means of winning social status, esteem and honour in society has been charted by several academics, notably Rob Henderson, formerly of Cambridge University.
His research shows how, in the past, members of the old elite mainly derived their sense of social status from physical manifestations of wealth, such as fine clothes, jewellery, foreign travel, servants, private carriages and large properties.
But today, with prosperity spread far more widely across society, such ostentatious displays of riches have much less significance. So, today, instead, as the new elite look for new ways of acquiring social status and distinguishing themselves from the supposedly ‘low-status’ masses surrounding them, they focus far more on projecting their ‘cultural capital’ rather than their ‘economic capital’.
As Henderson writes:
“In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accoutrements. But today, because material goods have become a noisier signal of one’s social position and economic resources, the affluent have decoupled social status from goods, and re-attached it to beliefs. The upper class craves distinction. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”
Today, for the sophisticated, financially secure, urban-dwelling, university-educated new elite that’s overwhelmingly in the ascendancy across media, the civil service, the BBC, senior levels of the public sector, the universities, think-tanks, quangos, the creative and publishing industries, and the cultural and voluntary sector, a certain set of fashionable beliefs has become the new signifier of social status.
In this new world, adherence to the values of the liberal progressive orthodoxy, and criticising those who do not adhere to these values, has become the surest way to win acceptance into the new elite and win applause from other members of the elite.
The tell-tale signs of the morally righteous luxury belief class include …
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