Last weekend, through a series of fortuitous coincidences, I was catapulted to an environment that will certainly sound familiar to many past and present Yalies. Invited to a gala event organized by a luxury watchmaker on a lavish Alpine resort a few miles from my hometown, I was entertained by reminiscences of numerous nights spent at Yale in the past four years: impeccable cocktail attire, distinguished signs of courtesy, sweeping judgements of people’s significance emerging from a cloud of arbitrary criteria, but also simple pleasures such as a late-night conversation slowly dissipating the Escherian illusion of the party’s perpetual crescendo.
Initially, everyone appeared to be gliding through the evening as if anesthetized by the belief that the enjoyment of foie gras, cigars and discussions about “brand identification” was an innate quality. Bodies and minds had not yet been freed by the liberating power of dance. Quite the contrary, the rhythmic ambiance was rather inducing the coterie of guests into a lethargic trance. But suddenly the music wafting up from downstairs seemed to dwindle, as did the effervescence in our flutes. An American TV celebrity sitting next to me got struck by a bolt of lucidity: “Bacon-wrapped shrimp. We’re eating bacon-wrapped shrimp in a privatized apres-ski bar at 10,000 feet on top of the Swiss Alps!” “Really, a cliche of the 1 percent,” her neighbor consented. Was there a spark of disdain in that confession of privilege? “What if I could help people from a completely different background make the right choices to one day reach the equivalent of THIS?” the actor concluded, brandishing the fancy crustacean by the tail, making it oddly appear to us as one of the two commas in a million.
For now I’ll have to pass on the bitter taste of the patronizing rhetoric and meritocratic prejudice to let the more inspiring notes unfold. Because something in that moment certainly felt uplifting. Such discourses about equality of opportunity do not have to remain short-lived, vain or sarcastic. In VIP lounges as on Ivy League campuses, there is a temptation to content ourselves with privilege-checking. But pauses of this kind may have the potential to pave the way for the crucial next steps, to complement hard-fought political battles and to foster cross-sectional support for welfare. Perhaps these glimmers of gratitude could initiate an awakening for many so-called liberals who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the democratic epithet with which they like to identify. What if the locus of distributive justice was in the interlude between two champagne bubbles?
At least for a brief moment that night, everyone seemed to agree that bacon-wrapped shrimp tastes even better when shared. Actually, I bet you thought to yourself already, it is not even that sophisticated of a food item anyway. In the end, many things that today’s bourgeois bohemian class deems precious were really meant for a much wider audience. Indeed, inequality is nowadays often taking the form of unjust accreditation, both as asymmetric credit allocation to its recipients and discretionary appreciation of its objects. Eyes opening amidst the opulence of the Swiss Alps or Sterling Memorial Library is only half the battle won. You then have to reverse the trend that keeps spreading the divide. A pertinent approach could be to cultivate what Belgian philosopher Michel Feher dubbed “investee activism,” a form of political resistance that adapts to the economic and anthropological shift of financialization underpinning that phenomenon. Just as workers had to unite to shift the balance of bargaining power, Feher argues, rated majorities should organize to respond to their rating minorities. You can call it democratic worthiness assessment.
So let us not leave it to the select few to decide not only where the wealth goes, but also what demands and rewards longing, effort, and merit. At the dawn of the 20th century, Georg Simmel observed that money provided a form of sociological grounding to the cacophony of subjective valuations. Two centuries later, we are still looking for logical and democratic foundations to the financial paradigm. This tragedy — or should I say this farce? — has morphed workwear into fashionwear and Mason jars into drinking utensils. It sniggers at us with its ludicrous effects on one-room apartments in post-industrial neighborhoods, Volkswagen vans, kale and other “forgotten vegetables.” But the tables could turn at the curious examination of a risible slice of pork fat on an atrophied shellfish.
Thomas Gmur graduated from Yale College in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.