Whatever happened to high society?

Whatever happened to high society? And how do you get to the top of the ladder? Apparently here, it’s not who you know; it’s what you own. Socialites are like Sisyphus, the cruel king of Corinth who was condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again just before it reached the top, forever toiling up a particular peak only to discover on reaching the top that its value has diminished and they must start their ascent all over again somewhere else.

In any ascent to the top, you will need to have some, if not all, of the following trappings: a villa here in Bali that you actually own; holidays in Switzerland (for the skiing) and the summer holidays at your home in Europe; a collection of art in which works by Yeats and Knuttel are hung alongside each other; the latest edition of a very expensive car or golf-type buggy (“it’s the new XJ7,” you will then casually mention ­ choose a selection of letters and numerals and run them together; no one’s going to know any better); costly membership of various clubs (golf or private clubs for husbands, fitness and women’s for wives); a wardrobe of clothes and accessories on all of which the logo of the manufacturer (or designer, as you prefer to say) is prominently displayed. Whether owned by yourself or your friends, you will cherish the aforementioned possessions not for their inherent merits, but for what they are believed to represent. Without a hierarchy to indicate social success, material goods define status in Bali.

Ownership of anything from a villa to a new cellphone to the latest line in trainers will help to assign you a position in the pecking order. The island has become like an American goldrush town where whoever held the biggest lump of shiny metal suddenly found himself the most popular man in the bar; the fact that his language was crude, his education minimal and his face dirty counted for nothing.

Here, instead of Mozart arias, the kind of music most likely to be appreciated is Shirley Bassey belting out Hey Big Spender. The bigger your buck, the better your social rating. But, it must be reiterated, there is no point in keeping that plump wallet discreetly tucked away. The contents have to be seen ­ and spent ­ if improved status is to be acquired. Hence the very public disbursement of money over the past few years by the newly affluent on goods which are universally known to be expensive. Often wastefully so. Got a few spare million and want the rest of the world to know it? Then how about frittering away the money on a share in developing a piece of land on the Bukit (or even buy the entire lot if you’re feeling especially extravagant), a hotel in the Phuket or Koi Samui, golf course in Jakarta, horses from Australia, or a vineyard in New Zealand? Except as a means of letting everyone else recognize how much you are worth, there can be no reason for buying any of these but a costly means of proclaiming that, financially speaking, you have arrived. A consistent feature of the nouveau riche has been their feverish need to cluster together. Even friendship here has come to be seen primarily in terms of material advantage. Thus, knowing a concert promoter is all very well, but only worth boasting about if it physically translates into backstage passes for your children at the next Christina Aguilera concert.

So climbers need cash, and they need to be prepared to spend it; conspicuous consumption has clearly become that your social success was dependent on ownership of the right car/holiday home/handbag.

The social climber here is one who moves by their astute Machiavellian capacities from social clique to social clique, hoisting themselves to an ever higher social status. As odd and seventeenth-century court this may seem, it happens a lot and all the time.

Many people here are social climbers without wanting to – even the least ambitious types and the least motivated, may well be trying to move to a higher circle. Watching a social climber can be both intensely interesting as well as deeply hurtful. I say intensely interesting because its like watching a ritual … a social climber may butt-kiss, give extra compliments to and make a great deal of effort to hang around with/be seen with the new clique of his/her choice. A clique may be considered of a higher social status for diverse reasons – maybe because the members are generally more bohemian, because maybe they are in a band, or maybe richer, may know all the right people, or perhaps simply more elitist and exclusive. The social climber will cleverly try to infiltrate this group of his liking, by dating a member of lesser status and lower expectations within the posse, or inviting them over to his/her house, or making sure they drop hints that they like the same obscure music/trendy authors/sense of humor as other members of the clique.

A good social climber will be able to become a set member of the clique in a short while, but the typical social climber will in no way stop at this point – they will oftentimes use this new clique as a mere rung in the ladder of prestige, and move on to higher, more dizzying heights through new contacts made.

To watch a social climber may be hurtful, if that social climber is one’s friend. This occurs because many times if the clique of choice is around when you are there, the climber will inevitably ignore you and entertain the people he/she considers own higher status. The friend may alter mood, humor and their attitude towards you, also. What is most frustrating is that once the elite leave the scene, the climber may assume the same relationship with you as previously, which is a bitch indeed.

Social climbers are prevalent even in literature. One particular dude that springs to mind is the artful Steerpike from the Gormenghast trilogy, who uses his amusing yet deadly craftiness to climb from a very base status to a very high one within a somewhat gothic, messed-up castle society.

As one favorite quote from screen acting legend Cary Grant goes “Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one’s own past failings.”

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