chris liepold

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett


Currid-Halkett tackles the problem of organic kale. She demonstrates that a new pattern has arisen in western societies where a particular sort of consumer spends a considerable amount of their income on features, products, or services which are largely hidden from public view. Contrast this with Vleben’s ‘conspicuous consumption’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the use of one’s wealth and income towards functionally unnecessary goods and services demonstrated the fact that they had the means to support such activities. Currid-Halkett demonstrates that those in higher income brackets (the top quintile or decile) actually now spend less of their income on conspicuous consumption than those in lower income brackets. Instead that income goes to ‘inconspicuous consumption’, or expenses which are both not due to the bare necessities of life, but are also not meant to be seen by others. These could be the purchase of organic produce rather than conventional or the attendance of yoga classes rather than individual practice.

Currid-Halkett posits that this new form of consumption is characteristic of the ‘Aspirational Class’, which marks a departure from previous classes divisions in that it is marked by the use of one’s time to be ‘in the know’ about cultural movements and the present fads in other’s inconspicuous consumption. In general one’s time is scarce, and especially so for those with less income, possibly working multiple jobs, possibly with long commutes, possibly with time-intensive familial obligations. For those with more disposable income, it’s very possible to buy back time by spending on services which outsource time-intensive tasks to others or spending to place themselves within closer proximity to their workplace or to their places of leisure.

However, Currid-Halkett shows that this increase in potential free time is not coupled to an increase in those individuals’ leisure time or leisure spending. In fact, as the Aspirational Class’s spare time grows, that time is instead spent on activities which do not outwardly look like leisure but instead vaguely look like more work. This time becomes devoted to reading the right newspapers, the right magazines, the right books, or reading the right summaries to make it appear as if one has fully read the material. This time is spent on activities which are branded as basics of daily living – yoga, meditation, or exercise classes, or it is spent on more time-intensive variations on otherwise essential tasks – attending farmers’ markets instead of the supermarket or breast-feeding instead of formula-feeding.

A crucial turn occurs in Currid-Halkett’s note that these more time-intensive variations are then branded as more virtuous than their common alternatives. While some of these habits are in fact more beneficial than their alternatives (i.e., farmers’ markets keep more money in the local economy), this virtuousity-labelling is largely independent of outside verdicts about the benefits or costs. Attending a yoga class is probably not a vital piece of one’s construction as a person and would likely lead to similar results as practicing individually or practicing some other exercise. However, in the intra-class branding of those activities as vital and more valuable than their alternative, it becomes a virtuous act to devote yourself to such activities. Accordingly, sacrificing one’s free time to do such activities is then an act which makes one more virtuous than those who do not, even if they do not have the means. In essence, this cultural turn allows for the conversion from cash to virtue.

Finally, Currid-Halkett describes a turn from Marx’s alienation of labor to a new hyperconnectedness with labor which arises through creator-driven services such as Etsy. By connecting the producer to consumer, the consumer can feel that they have not imposed any alienation in their purchase. However, functionally all that has changed is that the consumer must spend a small amount more and now has to remember the story of the producer. In essence, for a small premium, consumers in this new economy can wash their hands of the evils of capitalism by choosing an apparently superior form of the same system.

This book was really surprising to me in that it laid out a pretty convincing framework for how in the current economy our decisions about what to buy and where to buy it feel like the natural result of dwelling on greater ideological pillars, but in fact are heavily influenced by the consumption habits of everyone else. It was also quite surprising to me that many of these behaviors are self-organising. We want to do the ‘best’ things, so we look into the ‘best’ way that other folks do those things. In turn, all of those behaviors are set by those around them. Really, unless we’re working from first principles, we’re still going to be in that cycle. Most of the time this isn’t such a bad thing, since there’s no reasonable way for a single person to figure out the ideal features of every aspect of their lives without any outside input. The issue is if these optimizations become independent of factual or objective basis, or if the value of those optimizations lose touch with that basis.