The walls are white, maybe some tint of white with a name: Tibetan Jasmine or Chantilly Lace. On one wall hangs a painting of some kind—not a painting of something, mind you, it hardly ever is—not a landscape or a portrait, nothing real, or an abstract imitation of something that is… The painting is of paint itself, a few brushstrokes in a few different colors headed in one direction or another. Maybe you would think it pretty, maybe not. The aesthetic qualities are beside the point. Perhaps someone said it meant something profound and the right people believed them, but either way it “ties the room together,” so it is there. On the hardwood floor lies an angular couch, a coffee table with a few magazines neatly spread out—The Atlantic, The New Yorker, a few other reputable publications—a bizarre, permanently reclined chair with spidery legs bent back, a single houseplant in the corner. In an adjacent room, much of the same, but with a neatly made bed and a lamp, perhaps a television perched atop a dresser—white everywhere.
The apartment described belongs to a 27-year-old man working, somewhat ironically, as a “Creative Director” for a company in Brooklyn, but it looks like it could belong to anyone, which is perhaps the point.1This is technically a description of photos taken by the owner and posted on Twitter, which I have decided not to link to out of respect for the individual’s privacy. One could argue that, in essence, this apartment looks like a hotel suite because it functionally is one. After all, the urban professional-managerial class is a cosmopolitan one. The nomads of modernity exist in a state of intermittent migration, following the great hordes of progress, scouting for the next great hunt on Linkedin. Of course, the poor and working-class move often too, increasingly so in the age of declining homeownership, yet they do not seem to have adopted the same aesthetic.
I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon or the type of people who seem to have adopted it. As Jack, host of the art and cultural commentary podcast The Perfume Nationalist and a poignant observer of this phenomenon once put it to me: “2010s neoliberal apartments consist of nothing but an iPhone charger and a television since they’ve purged all their physical media and possessions in service of dreary minimalism.”2The host goes by a mononym, his name was not accidentally omitted. Speaking of podcast hosts who also utilize mononyms, you can listen to Sam and Gian’s interview with Jack on the Twink Revolution podcast here. Obviously, this is true, even if no conscious commitment to the aesthetic is present. The immense popularity of Japanese organization guru Marie Kondo should speak to that point well enough. Kondo’s book and spinoff Netflix television series of the same name, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up combines sensible organization techniques (how to fold and store socks properly, for example) with little meditation rituals designed to determine which items “spark joy” and which others should be silently and solemnly thanked for their service before being tossed away. America’s monied classes have fetishized this invocation of diluted Eastern spirituality since at least the 1960s, but the question remains: What accounts for all this dreariness?
Much like the traditional petite bourgeoisie, members of the urban professional-managerial class are elite imitators. The austere Manhattan apartment is not a late-capitalist tipi, it is an urban McMansion. Of course, the former would eschew any relation to the latter. The denizens of the apartment do not imitate old money, or even “new money,” as traditionally conceived; rather, they imitate the money of a post-internet age, and of a particular faction of the capitalist class. Social media, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, has allowed us to see inside the homes of the rich and famous today—particularly those in the tech and entertainment industries—these are the subjects of imitation. Those who would imitate old money—whether members of the capitalist class or merely its well-paid functionaries— are subjected to scorn. Who can forget the snide social-media hammering of the McCloskey’s? Popularly known as “The Gun Couple,” because they waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters walking through their gated St. Louis community, the pair was mocked on Twitter for their grandiose palazzo. One publication quipped that: “One could easily see the guns, the threats against people of color, and the obsession with old European grandeur and suggested this might be evidence of the couple’s white supremacist leanings. Historically, examples of classical art and design have been adopted by nationalists who see them as symbols of purity—both Hitler and Mussolini were big fans.” This is an interesting way to avoid the discussion of class entirely, but much less surprising when you learn that the McCloskey’s illustrious mansion cost less than this simple two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Therefore, the distaste for this aesthetic is not rooted in a divide between two different classes but rather a division within the ruling class itself. The liberal elites hate the McCloskey’s mansion not because they can’t afford it but because its opulence makes the material stakes so obvious, especially when contrasted with the impoverished black residents of St. Louis at whom the guns were pointed.
Of course, they don’t always notice, as not all symbolism is as glaringly obvious as the McClosky’s Epcot Center rendering of the Vatican. But one who should have come closer was anti-Trump “Resistance” hero Chrissy Tiegan’s, whose recent Twitter post included a photo of the model in her home—which looks like a slightly more upscale version of the apartment described above, yet just as empty—sitting in a robe, eyes shut, with a latte on the end table, attended to by a private nurse dressed up as a medieval plague doctor. If Maria Abramovich had staged such a photograph, the media would have lauded it as a searing indictment of modern inequality in the age of Covid. Instead, they merely said, “Chrissy Teigen’s Nurse Had An Actually Terrifying Halloween Costume.”
The attire of the rich themselves couldn’t be more boring. Consider biotech fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, whose black turtlenecks were ubiquitous and an explicit callback to her idol, Steve Jobs, or the monocolored hoodies of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—the streamlined, simple, repetitive, lifeless, sterile, and consistent aesthetic of the liberal elite is reflected in their fashion. This look is then reproduced for the professional-managerial class through “conscious” clothing retailers like Everlane, where the wonkish introspection of the PMC is commodified through the company’s “radical transparency policy,” which allows its customers to know exactly which Asian sweatshop their Zuckerberg-imitation grey hoodie was sewn in, all for the reasonable price of just $98 (possibly even less with a Pod Save America discount code). Notably, Everlane is not “radically transparent,” enough to disclose how much their workers are paid.
The defining feature of liberalism is sterility, as I have written before, and its co-optation of radical politics is not new. I should never be shocked to find further examples of this hypothesis, which has been a central theme throughout much of my writing, and yet I still am. A recent New York Post article describes a tech company that took advantage of tumbling real estate prices in Medellin, Colombia to create a series of “co-working spaces,” for its cam models which are sterilized after each use to protect against the Coronavirus pandemic. Everything about the story is fascinating: the physical atomization, the sterility set against the backdrop of sex, the absence of actual sex, the fact that the labor is outsourced to a poor country, the co-working space, the contractor status of the employees, and the backdrop of a culture which insists that all of this is in fact empowering. If such a story had been written at the turn of the century, one could have only assumed that it was a short piece of dystopian speculative fiction, profound and incisive social satire à la George Saunders’s Bounty. One could not imagine a more poignant coda to this most unproductive and alienating stage of Capitalism than the sight of gig worker jerking off into a laptop inside of a rented bubble as millions die in a pandemic intensified by a globalized economy designed to maximize profits for billionaires who wear sweatshirts to the office.
Again, displays of wealth that heighten the disparate conditions between rich and poor too much are regarded as gauche and tacky. If the example of the McCloskey’s was not evidence enough, consider the liberal elite’s hatred of Donald Trump’s open flaunting of wealth—“The Design Taste of a Dictator” as one Politico writer opined. The liberal elite will permit or even praise such displays of opulence when they come from traditional members of the underclass, such as African-Americans who, to paraphrase Cornel West, are told to live vicariously through the elite of their own race—public-facing sports stars and musicians especially—rather than advocate for their own material security and wellbeing. Otherwise, it serves the profit margins of the media, who can continue fighting long-decided and increasingly frivolous culture wars: Meghan Thee Stallion and Cardi-B singing “Wet Ass Pussy” while gyrating through a CGI mansion is “so important” and “feminist,” “regardless of what Ben Shapiro says,” in case anyone was wondering.
The decadence of the liberal elite and their imitators and enablers in the professional class reproduces the politics of liberalism which sustains them: Sterile, monotonous, and atomized, it serves to paper over the differences, the bloodshed, the exploitation, and the horror of what has been created. In its attempt to seem normal, it ventures into an uncanny valley. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the old elite: “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” As thousands of Americans die of coronavirus, and millions more face eviction and foreclosure, and the candidate seemingly handpicked by Silicon Valley prepares to enter the White House, it seems this new elite sees fit to do the same.
|↑1||This is technically a description of photos taken by the owner and posted on Twitter, which I have decided not to link to out of respect for the individual’s privacy.|
|↑2||The host goes by a mononym, his name was not accidentally omitted. Speaking of podcast hosts who also utilize mononyms, you can listen to Sam and Gian’s interview with Jack on the Twink Revolution podcast here.|