Inequality? Mind the culture gap

The income and wealth inequality gap between the top 1 per cent and the remaining 99 per cent has featured a good deal recently. It’s getting wider. But it matters very little. What matters is an emerging cultural gap.

The cultural gap between David Beckham, or, for that matter, a Master of the Universe, or a Mr Abramovich, and a dole scrounger is much smaller than the gap between your average foodie, journalist, or therapist, on the one hand, and the less-educated, less precious, supermarket manager or even hairdresser who is their near-neighbour.

The culture gap may be far more important to modern society than the income gap. It is a subset of the cognitive gap. There is the quantitative cognitive gap: some people have more education and work in areas which make money out of intelligence. Almost all the new rich come out of this pool But then there is a qualitative cognitive gap, and it’s a cultural one. There is a wide, not necessarily at all rich, class of people now who are mostly well educated (up to a point), who mostly work with their brains, but who add a pseudo-bohemian, semi-hippy, Luddite, dissident dimension to everything they do.

One might call this the liberal elite, and it is a commonplace amongst the right that it has betrayed society. But I think it is worth developing an analysis which suggests that this wing of the cognitive elite is interesting because it contains some very rich people, lots of middling people and some quite poor people.  It is the cultural cognitive elite who really constitute an increasingly separate class, or world, or world-view. They characteristically disdain the industrial, the global, the humdrum, the commercial and  they are separating themselves from the rest of us.

One effect of the separation is that there is a class of people – the cultural wing of the cognitive elite –  now busy disparaging the society, economy and politics within which the majority of their fellows live. Doubtless, they think they are doing reformist or even revolutionary good, but actually they increase dissatisfaction without offering useful remedy, beyond endless complaint.

(I should say that the idea of the cognitive elite comes to me from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. In particular, the idea of cultural cognitive elite comes to me from a chapter in Mr Murray’s boo. It’s “The bright side of new upper classes”, and in particular a passage on page 120 which contains the telling observation: “Places like Marin County are not fodder for cultural caricature becuse they are so wealthy”. Mr Murray is making the point that it may be unwise to assume that merely clobbering the new upper class in their wallets will really be an improvement. It’s not their cash – or certainly not their cash alone – which separates them.

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Publication date

16 February 2013