Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

It is all part of the process the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called "cultural pseudo-speciation," the tendency of human groups to divide themselves into distinct social units almost like species and to create barriers against other groups. This process is of course "immeasurably faster" than the evolution of biological species. It's also more commonplace. Lorenz wrote that "its slight beginnings, the development of mannerisms in a group and discrimination against outsiders not initiated to them, may be seen in any group of children."

But he suggested that it takes at least a few generations "to give stability and the character of inviolability to the social norms and rites of a group." When Lorenz was writing in the 1960s, many indigenous tribes seemed to have that stability. The rich, more than most groups, still do. Lorenz, who came from a privileged background, in fact stated his experience of pseudo-speciation in terms of upper-class behavior: "When I meet a man who speaks in the rather snobbish nasal accent of the old Schotten-Gymnasium in Vienna, I cannot help being rather attracted to him; also I am curiously inclined to trust him. . . ."

Behaving like one another, by speaking in the same accents or otherwise, is of course a way for the rich to signal their identity to one another and disarm suspicion: This is one of us, not them. It's also a way to make subtle distinctions more important. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, the University of Chicago economist Thorstein Veblen described the behavior of the rich largely in terms of conspicuous consumption.

Yet in many ways inconspicuous consumption is more intriguing. Almost all peacocks, for instance, have extravagantly conspicuous tail feathers, which they hold erect and rattle to win the amorous attention of females. The females are hardly indifferent to questions of size and stamina; these qualities, like wealth for the rich, are the price of admission. But beyond that, the females are keenly attentive to inconspicuous details, like glossiness and symmetry in the feathers. If a male loses just 5 of the 150 or so feathers in his tail, picky females tend to avoid his dancing arena.

Among the rich, likewise, inconspicuous signals are a sort of highly nuanced private language for the subspecies. A woman who is a member of the club might for instance wear what appears to be a plain brown sweater. Only her peers would recognize it as Yves St. Laurent silk couture, costing more than, say, her Chanel raincoat. Likewise, at his home in Italy, Sirio Maccioni, owner of the fashionable New York restaurant Le Cirque, drives an unprepossessing Lancia. But a member of the club would know from the throaty burble that it is in fact a Ferrari under the hood. The Agnelli family, whose company manufactures both Lancia and Ferrari, began producing this stealth Ferrari in the 1980s, when leftist politics made it imprudent to display wealth too explicitly.

These signals are often too subtle for outsiders to appreciate, which is at least partly the point: "If you go to a house of someone who's new to Aspen and you see a Cy Twombly, you know they have money, especially when it's a house that's not used very much. It's really saying to those who know, 'I'm really rich.' And people who don't know, you don't care what they think anyway."

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