In an article for The Economist’s 1843 magazine, the sociologist Ashley Mears lets readers discover the economic and psychological reality of a hyperreal world reserved for the winners in the global economy. She unveils how the super-wealthy spend their super-wealth at “VIP parties” that take place at a new breed of nightclubs designed to cater to its clientele’s innovative lifestyle.
According to Mears, “a new elite has emerged, partly as a result of deregulation of the financial sector in the West and partly because of the spread of global capitalism across the world.” She explores in depth a key feature of these VIP parties: the presence of a troop of attractive, stylish women who put on a show of partying with the male elite. It isn’t about sex. It’s about hyperreality.
Mears is less interested in the elite themselves than the economic reality and the psychology of the women recruited to play a crucial role in the industry she describes. These women are defined uniquely by their rigorously controlled looks and style. Unlike the courtesans and prostitutes who, in times past, offered physical intimacy to the elite, the job of these women consists of putting “customers in the right kind of mood to spend money.” Receiving neither a salary nor a fixed fee, they have found a curious niche in the gig economy.
When History in the US Finally Becomes Something to Think About
The “new elite” that Mears describes exists on a grand scale. In its wake, “an industry has sprung up to feed it.” Quench their thirst, however, might be a more appropriate metaphor than “feed.” With a bottle of champagne selling for $1,700, it’s more about drinking than eating. What it really concerns, though, is spending.
Mears explains that the ladies earn their way thanks to a cut on the club’s markup for the drinks. “Customers paid so they didn’t have to bring the women themselves or engage a broker to procure them,” she writes. “They paid for the illusion of spontaneity.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Before the consumer’s society’s digital age, a type of human behavior that expressed a person’s ability to improvise or react directly to unplanned events and profit from serendipity. In the digital age, the appearance of improvisation thanks to carefully planned and programmed staging of informal events.
Mears insists on this crucial point: “What most people don’t realise is that the apparently spontaneous abandon of those extravagant nights is, in fact, painstakingly planned.” The combined effect of the financialization of the economy and globalization appears to have done more damage than the easily identifiable social problems pundits have routinely blathered about ever since the last financial crisis. Those issues include wealth inequality, the aggravated precarity of the lives of the less than wealthy and the young and increasing suicide rates accompanied by a declining life expectancy. And, of course, the unintended and unexpected effects people’s globalized habits have had on spreading diseases.
Mears describes something whose implications may appear equally sinister. The new economic culture has turned those who profit excessively from it not, as some might hope, into enlightened leaders with a vision of humanity’s future, but into mechanical robots with no sense of responsibility beyond self-maintenance. As a class, these are the people who now call the shots and control the politicians.
After earning their astronomical fortunes on the backs of everyday consumers, the super-wealthy have no choice but to act out their own scripted roles as super-consumers. It allows them to express their loyalty to the system that has rewarded them and their indifference to everything else. They dedicate their lives to validating the idea that consumption — and consumption alone — is the aim of the economy and the purpose of society.
Mears’ description of this “new elite” of “oligarchs, New York hedge-fund managers and Silicon Valley investors” differentiates it from the traditional industrial elite: the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the past or the Zuckerbergs and Musks of the present. The old-style elite still exists and plays its own special role. It focuses on public display and prominently includes philanthropy because the lives of its personalities have remained visible to the public. It strives, though sometimes with difficulty, to maintain a minimum level of public dignity.
The new cosmopolitan elite of bankers, traders and hustlers is both legion and invisible. There are too many to count, too many for the media to keep track of. And they have no inspiring message for the rest of the world. They singularly lack the skill to invent one, even if their honor depended on it. Their work and careers contribute nothing to society or its culture. They exist only to celebrate wealth and consumption. Some, like Jeffrey Epstein, end up in the spotlight, not by choice but because of the nature and degree of their excesses. But most remain blissfully anonymous, content with the “illusion of spontaneity.”
The history of changing tastes reveals some telling facts about history itself. Ashley Mears makes an important distinction concerning the role of women in the consumer society. In the late 20th century, Playboy and Hooters promoted a culture that advertised women serving male customers as sexual objects. Mears sees an evolution. “Unlike the waitresses, who tended to be more voluptuous, the job of the women the promoters brought in was not primarily to appeal to men’s sexual fantasies but to represent the most aspirational version of femininity,” she writes.
What does this tell us about how the elite have assimilated the lessons of the feminist movement? There are now two distinct categories of women — sexual and aspirational — sharing the same space. The new elite appears to be exclusively male. Everything turns around one basic idea: “Women in this world were living props in a carefully scripted theatre that created real financial value for men.” Neither wives nor girlfriends inhabit this landscape. And though female traders, Silicon Valley CEOs and bankers exist in real life, they don’t appear to be attracted to the nightclubs. The feminine population consists entirely of buxom waitresses and the troop of elegant, “aspirational” models. Female power brokers have no place in this society.
Mears makes an important point: “The spending sprees which the promoters’ women stimulated were not necessarily motivated by a desire to impress them. I came to realise that such gestures were often directed at other rich male customers.” Whereas the traditional elite in the past and present has always sought to impress society as a whole, the rich male class is obsessed with impressing other males. And it isn’t even a contest to possess the most attractive females. Rather, it’s a reflection of their deep sense of insecurity as alpha males defined by their wealth.
In other words, today’s moneyed elite has created a culture in which women fall into four categories, all of which appear irrelevant to a group of men obsessed by their own competition. At the top of the heap, they acknowledge the existence of powerful female executives who, as a tiny minority, may be accepted as outliers and asexual rivals. They think of these women as ambitious individuals who have succeeded in playing a role normally reserved for males. They can thus live their lives in their spheres of influence as pseudo-men.
The waitresses that Mears mentions are representative of two categories. They maintain the image of women as purely sexual objects, whose attributes merit an occasional glance in their direction. These women also belong to the class of useful workers who provide the anonymous labor that keeps the elite economy going.
Finally, there are the aspirational women Mears describes. These ladies of elegant, svelte beauty formerly existed only in Hollywood movies, an unattainable world of fiction. Now, they are within physical reach, even though their role as props places them in a hyperreality that excludes significant interaction. These are the females whose role is simply to show up at the nightclub to admire the wealthy.
The feminist revolution has accomplished something important. Resourceful and enterprising women can make their way into the elite of the real economy. But the new male elite live in a hyperreal world of their own, one that also happens to reject any spontaneity that hasn’t been planned, staged and orchestrated in advance.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.