Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Richard Florida has a message for the eponymous heroes of his book The Rise of the Creative Class: Software engineers and graphic designers, writers and architects, nerds and poets, unite! You have nothing to lose but—well, you have nothing to lose, period.

You are the employees every company wants, the customers every marketer covets, the residents every urban planner hopes to attract. There are 38.3 million of you, comprising 30 percent of the workforce, and, according to Florida, you are the engine of wealth in the 21st century.

We met the creative class in David Brooks’ 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. In it, Brooks delightfully skewers zillionaires who claim indifference to money, restaurant-quality home kitchens where no meals are prepared, and the thousand rationalizations by which educated boomers reconcile their bohemian values with their bourgeois bank accounts.

Florida, by contrast, isn’t laughing. He insists that the rock ‘n’ roll CEO and his ilk are not hypocrites but synthesizers, “neither Baudelaire nor Babbit” but a conflict-free amalgam of both. The creative class, he says, has overcome the inner conflict that has bedeviled capitalism’s soul for 200 years: the struggle between the Protestant ethic and bohemian values, between the sanctity of hard work and discipline and the intoxication of self-realization, self-expression and esthetic pleasure. In Florida’s view, capitalism didn’t just pretend to champion its countercultural adversary, as critics like Tom Frank insist, but did so in earnest. The result has been an explosion in what the author calls “creative capital.” And wherever there is creative capital to invest, prosperity follows.

Which is why Florida, the H. John Heinz III professor of regional development at Carnegie Mellon, keeps busy consulting with civic leaders. His advice is to forget giving tax incentives to industries or erecting sports stadiums with public money. Instead, take the “counter” out of “counterculture,” as the creative class has done, and you are left with “culture.”

That’s exactly what a creative-class center must have in spades. Not just museums, symphony orchestras and a world-class university or two, but lots of street-level action, too: performance spaces, galleries, cafés, precious little tchotchke shops and high-end specialty boutiques, preferably homegrown and housed in renovated relics of an earlier industrial era. A vital music scene and the nightlife it generates is a huge plus. And there should be lots of parks and trails nearby to provide instant stress relief for the hard-driving thinker who makes his own hours.

Other must-haves are high-tech firms (technology being the handmaiden of innovation) and an ethnically and professionally diverse population in which blues musicians rub shoulders with computer nerds, energy traders hang with playwrights, VCs clink glasses with art dealers, and gays mingle with everybody.

In essence, Florida’s advice is what any savvy consultant might tell a brand trying to boost market share: Attract lots of young people, project an image of authenticity, and generate buzz. It works for TV networks, soft drinks and cars. Why not cities?

Like Bobos in Paradise, Florida’s book ends with a sober plea to the creative class to move beyond their obsession with self-realization, as emotionally and economically fruitful as it is, and engage the world around them. To realize their potential, he insists, members of the creative class have to come to consciousness.

I’m not so sure. Consciousness seems like the one thing this group has more than enough of. If anyone could use some, it would be the service class. They are the ones without whom the creative class could not enjoy all those life-enriching experiences, and they are the ones, Florida repeatedly points out, who are being left behind by the creative economy.

Moreover, when members of the creative class say they like diversity, they are more likely to be talking about gay graphic designers and open-source code writers from Bangalore than about African American fast-food clerks or churchgoing auto mechanics. The latter are merely the roadkill left behind by the bulldozer of creative-class gentrification. The rise of the creative class, Florida says, not only leaves the endemic injustices of American life untouched, it probably makes them worse.

For the foreseeable future, however, class consciousness isn’t in the cards if it includes an awareness that classes can be in conflict. Conflict is the one nonstarter in this great age of synthesis, when the bourgeoisie lies down with bohemia, art and commerce blur and the cream of many nations sit bar stool to bar stool in the great bazaar of the global lifestyle.