Inequality and Culture

I’ve recently been reading Rachel Sherman’s book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels. It’s a fascinating sociological portrait of the intersection of the most and least privileged lives. Sherman describes the nuts and bolts of “anticipation and legitimation of needs” in such settings. As one Beverly Hills manager related, “Waiting for customers to tell you what they need is like driving your car by looking in the rearview window” (32).

Having been ignored by the staffs at several non-luxury hotels, I can see the value of such service. But at what point does customer service slide into servility? Consider Richistan author Robert Frank’s description of a booming butler school:

By the end of Butler Boot Camp, . . . aspiring butlers will be masters at pampering the privileged. The rich, they learn, like their shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes always filled to the top. If their employers have four homes, chances are they’ll want their dresser drawers and bath-room cabinets arranged exactly the same in every house, so they don’t have to search for their socks or pills. . . . They are taught that sable stoles should never be stored in a cedar closet (it dries them out), and that Bentleys should never, ever be run through the car wash.

Frank observes that the butlers’ clientele had formed a “society within society:”

[The richest 1% of Americans had] built a self-contained world unto themselves, complete with their own healthcare system (concierge doctors), travel network (NetJets, destination clubs), separate economy (double-digit income gains and double-digit inflation), and language (“Who’s your household manager?”). They didn’t just hire gardening crews, they hired “personal arborists”.

The rich weren’t just getting richer, they were becoming financial foreigners, creating their own country within a country, their own society within a society, and their economy within an economy. They were creating Richistan.

How does such inequality affect culture–particularly that of those outside the gates of Richistan? Andrew Sullivan (following Aristotle) has observed that “we know that overly-polarized societies tend to have trouble remaining healthy liberal democracies.” How about other aspects of life? In a provocative reflection in Harper’s Magazine, Mark Slouka suggests that a “boss culture” may be the natural concomitant of increasing economic inequality:

Equality, Tocqueville pointed out, “insinuates deep into the heart and mind of every man some vague notion and some instinctive inclination toward political freedom.” And inequality? Might it not, by precisely the same calculus, insinuate “some instinctive inclination” toward political tyranny? Of course it might. Once the idea of inequality is allowed to take root, a veritable forest of ritualized gestures and phrases springs up to reinforce it. The notion that some bow and others are bowed to comes to seem natural; the cool touch of the floor against our forehead begins to feel right.

The boundaries between service and servility, authentic kindness and panicked people-pleasing, “love and fear” are some of the most delicate and difficult to maintain in contemporary society. Workers who are afraid of losing everything at the next economic downturn may be more “productive,” but at what cost?

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