Bourgeois Culture is Dead, So Let’s Stop Talking About It
The internet is bad and boujee, and it’s only accelerating the pace of change
Dear Professor Amy Wax,
I remember when you burst onto the scene as a free speech victim late last year with your op-ed, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture”. Let’s first put aside the irony of an article featuring a photo of John Wayne — a notorious womanizer who was divorced twice and had at least as many affairs — proceeding to talk about how people used to get married and stay married and that was good for society or something. The op-ed itself has been dissected and re-dissected ad nauseum by now.
It’s great to have you back this week with your Saturday Essay, enumerating the ways in which you’ve been oppressed since the op-ed was published. It’s another piece ripe for being ripped apart, but I’ll leave that to others (for the record, your basic point — that we must be able to engage in logical reasoning and civil discourse if we’re to survive is a society — is indisputable). The bigger point to be made is that none of this debate over “bourgeois culture” matters one bit. Technology, namely the internet, has fundamentally changed our society, and longing for 1950s values (or any form of “Make America Great Again-ism”) isn’t going to change that. To your credit, you (and Trump, for that matter) identify the core issue facing our country, perhaps accidentally, then proceed to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion.
Power to the people
To quote from the last paragraph of your original op-ed:
Would the re-embrace of bourgeois norms by the ordinary Americans who have abandoned them significantly reduce society’s pathologies? There is every reason to believe so. Among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low.
The larger point is that no one is rushing to re-embrace bourgeois norms: we’re too busy eating avocado toast and playing HQ Trivia, remember? The days of 72% of U.S. households (its Nielsen rating was 71.7) tuning into an I Love Lucy broadcast or 83% of houses watching Elvis’ gyrating hips on Ed Sullivan (how’s that for bourgeois?) are over. For reference, this year’s Super Bowl — the one event that can conceivably draw audiences from a cross-section of the country — received a Nielsen rating of 47.4. And with various forms of media available on demand anywhere and everywhere (that’s “Netflix and chill”, Professor Wax), Nielsen ratings will only continue their downward trend. Entertainment, news and opinions come from millions of disperse nodes across the internet, and no single arbiter is in a place to censor this tidal wave of information, much as Wax might like one to do so. We toggle from Facebook to Twitter to Netflix to the latest viral podcast without so much as a thought.
You continue on to suggest that gatekeepers (or “arbiters”) should take the lead in restoring 50s culture:
But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.
Now, your misunderstanding of the modern world becomes strikingly evident. The entire point of the internet is that we’ve shifted from a world of scarcity to one of abundance. No longer do these “arbiters” decide and dictate culture; anyone can be a creator. HBO and Netflix have usurped power from the box office by distributing quality content directly to consumers. On YouTube, one billion hours of content are produced every single day; there is a total lack of “arbiter” power (additionally, HBO and especially Netflix are known for granting unprecedented control to directors, willingly relinquishing the arbiter function they could serve). Anyone can post anything (see Logan Paul); no longer do Hollywood gatekeepers like Harvey Weinstein decide who becomes a star. As these two examples (Paul and Weinstein) illustrate, eradicating gatekeepers is both bad and good. Sure, they served as a filter, screening out content many may have deemed inappropriate, but they often wielded this power absolutely, to the detriment of others.
This dynamic holds across society. On Facebook, Twitter, Medium, or any number of other platforms, anyone can share their opinion (they don’t have to be a law professor!). A simple blog post by a former Uber employee helped launch a movement. This has created an existential crisis for newspapers as they struggle to define their value in a world of abundance. On a news feed, all media sources — the New York Times, the fake Denver Guardian, and your aunt Mimi — are placed on the same footing, and the chances that any particular message or story stands out is dictated by how many people like, share, or repost it. Consumers (demand), not suppliers, dictate what stands out (more accurately, the algorithm is the arbiter, and those that game it best win. But, anyone — from a Russian troll to the New York Times — can play this game).
Meanwhile, in politics, the power of the party has completely collapsed. Trump won while eschewing, if not completely affronting, the GOP which he supposedly represented. Clay Shirky has articulated this as well as anyone in this Tweet thread, but I’ll quote the most relevant part:
Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’ — the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation…. The public is hungry for more than politicians are willing to discuss…. These limits were enforced by party discipline, and mass media whose economics meant political centrism was the best way to make money. This was BC: Before Cable. One or two newspapers per town, three TV stations; all centrist, white, pro-business, respectful of authority. (…)
Cable added a new stream of media access. The web added a torrent. (…)
Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it. Now dozens can. This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues. Each party has an unmentionable Issue X that divide its voters. (…)
We will know by March 15th whether a major party’s apparatus can be hijacked by mere voters.
This analysis highlights a few points illustrating why the desire for a return to “bourgeois values” in untenable:
Information is no longer controlled by arbiters like newspapers, radio or TV stations. This started being the case with the rise of cable, but the internet completely destroyed this dynamic.
The internet allows anyone to connect directly with voters and find potential supporters, no matter how geographically disparate.
This grants power to voters, who provide feedback to candidates (in the form of likes, retweets, etc.) about what is working and what is not. No longer can a mere gatekeeper like the media or a political party censor issues and steer conversation toward what’s “acceptable” (or, in your words, “bourgeois”).
Shirky wrote this before Trump had even won the GOP nomination; not only did he end up hijacking a political party, he hijacked an entire general election.
It’s all connected
The shift of power in the political sphere begins to illustrate the most important insight: the power of all these old-world gatekeepers is intertwined. For example political parties had relationships with media and donors across the country, providing the only viable means for a candidate to reach millions of voters across the country and win an election. And once these candidates raised money, where did they place their advertisements? The most effective, broad-reaching medium, of course, TV.
But social networks changed that. A million users isn’t cool; you know what’s cool? A billion users. Candidates can reach voters and fundraise directly, eliminating the party-as-gatekeeper function.
Like political candidates, consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies, car makers, and retailers all funneled money into TV ads. And who wouldn’t? Building scale to dominate distribution was the name of the game, and the best way to build scale was to find the broadest audience base possible and convince them to buy your widget. The advertising dollars that didn’t go to TV went to newspapers or radio, which owned distribution in their respective industries.
Meanwhile, men came back from the WWII and went to school on the GI bill before heading off into the workforce, oftentimes at one of the well-known corporations: GM, J&J, P&G, etc. The coastal elites collected MBAs or JDs, heading to Wall Street or white-shoe law firms. To this day, the hiring model for many of these old-line corporations and firms holds: recruit from top-caliber schools, letting the Ivy League and select other “New Ivies” serve as gatekeepers. Want to be a brand manager at P&G? Show me your Kellogg MBA (and where did these brand managers spend ad dollars? You guessed it.). Goldman Sachs? That’ll be Wharton for $200,000.
Additionally, because of wage controls put in place during the WWII years, these employers handed out Cadillac-type health plans (goes nice with real Cadillac) to their employees, doing whatever they could to entice workers in a booming economy. A few generations later and these health plans really do drive like a Cadillac: unwieldy, unreliable, and accountable for 20% of our country’s GDP. Hence the excitement when an outsider like Amazon announces they’re coming in to potentially disrupt an industry stuck in a bourgeois past.
The “bourgeois culture” of post-WWII America was inextricably intertwined withevery aspect of life. As the internet disrupts each of these industries, it untangles the very fabric of this society. And there’s no going back.
One by one, the internet has changed the fundamental nature of these industries, seizing power from the gatekeepers and arbiters, upsetting the very order of this “bourgeois culture”.
No longer are individuals funneled through undergraduate or MBA programs to “signal” their worth to the job market. The founders of four of the largest U.S. companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook) took non-traditional paths to the top. Steve Jobs dropped acid, dropped out of college, then dropped in on some calligraphy class. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard when genius struck. And Jeff Bezos was on an traditional journey from Princeton to Wall Street to weekends at the country club when he left to start some internet thing in Seattle.
Of course, one shouldn’t make career decisions based on the paths of these luminaries, but the fact remains they’ve demonstrated that traditional education isn’t necessary for professional success. It’s inspired others to do the same: if you have a good idea, pursue it, bourgeois culture be damned (and don’t even get Peter Thiel started on college). Learn what you need to on YouTube, Stack Overflow or Khan Academy, and let creativity take care of the rest. If you’ve got a software idea, set up an Amazon Web Services account and you’re off and running. If you’ve got ideas to communicate, build a WordPress site and you can Tweet out your first piece by the end of the day. If you want to sell something, set up a webpage with a few Stripe integrations, and you’ve got a store front. The internet has made distribution the trivial component of any number of businesses, destroying gatekeepers of all types in the process.
And the new businesses being launched on the internet’s wings aren’t sending their advertising dollars to TV. With the hyper-targeted marketing offered by Google and Facebook, anyone can launch an effective advertising campaign with a few hundred dollars and a laptop. They started small, but these companies are now selling glasses, shoes, and everyone’s favorite ecommerce item, mattresses. Even Tesla has upended the old car sales model by going direct to consumer, cutting out the independent dealership. These upstarts steal market share from the CPG companies, car makers and retailers of post-WWII bourgeois America, forcing them to spend less on discretionary budget items like advertising, thus causing old media companies to bleed advertising revenue. Meanwhile Netflix, Hulu and other cord-cutting services are selling directly to consumers, causing TV companies to bleed subscriber revenue, only worsening the tailspin.
Every thread of the old bourgeois world: television, advertising, Hollywood, newspapers, large corporations and conglomerates, political parties, our education and health care systems, are inextricably linked. One by one, the internet is upending these industries, giving power to the consumer, the user, the patient, the voter, the citizen.
We can regret this change or revel in it, but we cannot stop it. Technology and the internet stops for no one; in fact, their impact only grows exponentially. The best, most productive course of action is to acknowledge this force and plan for the future it predicts, instead of longing for a simpler past.
How’s that for logical reasoning, Professor Law?