So I’ve been looking some at cultural tastes as markers of class. In my original taxonomy, I had lumped tastes and values together, but that may be inaccurate: tastes are linked to products, and so have an economic component, while I think values are less so. Wealth and income seem to me to be more material than tastes, and tastes more material than values. But I’m engaging in Cartesian dualism when I think this way, the same sort of dualism Wolff and Resnick pick up on when they point out that “In neoclassical theory, the achievement of a correspondence between producers’ selfish maximization of their own profits and consumers’ selfish maximization of their own preferences is also the achievement of a perfect harmony between physical and human nature, between scarcity and choice” (95).
On the material side, wages are the reward for or return on labor, and profits are the reward for or return on capital. But it seems odd to me how this inanimate entity of capital — whether in the shape of a factory or a check from a VC angel — can “produce” something. According to Wolff and Resnick, for the neoclassicals, “Wages and profits represent a balance between ‘scarcity’ . . . and ‘tastes’ . . . each individual gets back from society a quantum of wealth exactly proportionate to what each has contributed to society” (80). As I’ve noted before, I think this theory clearly doesn’t reflect reality, although it’s a wonderful way for the rich to feel good about themselves. In the free and open space of markets, the “sites of social interaction between existing owners and prospective buyers of wealth” (89) where “Individuals may offer and demand as much as they please of what they privately own and desire whether it be labor, capital, or commodities” (88), cash is instant karma.
There’s also the issue that while we historically valorize those individuals who hold the power of distinction, who have unique and individual taste and commodify their dissent because they know they’re different and they want us to know it too (such is the message of the foolish pedagogy enacted by Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society). But classes, by definition, are groups of people, and tastes have no meaning as markers of distinction except within a social network. Consider what Resnick and Wolff have to say in their description of what some critics of neoclassical economic theory say: “since neoclassical theory assumes that individuals are integral parts of society, the preferences of each must be affected by the complex economic and noneconomic actions of all the others. In a sense, that is precisely the basis on which such critics define the term ‘social’: to be a social being is to negate the possibility of having one’s choices ‘autonomously’ formed in society” (97).