On top of its book sales, film adaptation and third life as an opera, The Bonfire of the Vanities achieved a rare feat. It turned its author into a 56-year-old enfant terrible. Thirty years have passed since Tom Wolfe's first novel imagined New York City as an opulent failed state, where millionaires are one wrong turn from barbarian mobs and race card-players on the make.

Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis riding the bus in a scene from the film 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', 1990
Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis riding the bus in a scene from the film 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', 1990
Image: Getty

Critics recognised the virtuosity of the prose but also, in the stereotypes and the gleeful trampling on taboos, an illiberal malice. America's cognoscenti has since treated Wolfe as somehow below stairs: a shock jock with a poet's command of the language.

Read now, however, the book has more to say about 2017 than anything written of late. There are the obvious thematic echoes - the besieged rich, racial panics - but also one that Wolfe might never have intended. Bonfire can be read as a book about two different kinds of elite. You might characterise them as the moneyed and the cultured. Or as private enterprise and public life.

The story centres on a successful bond trader called Sherman McCoy and a jaded reporter, Peter Fallow, who needs a career-saver of a scoop. A car incident, with a black victim, entwines them. By the end, the Wall Street man is ruined and the journalist has both a Pulitzer Prize and an heiress wife. In the Wolfean style, both characters are crude cartoons of their tribe. But they represent a real split among urbanites, who are too often grouped together. It is one that has been lost in the negative obsession with the elite in recent years. Think of it as the difference between the two LSEs - the London Stock Exchange and the London School of Economics - or the stereotypical FT reader and the stereotypical FT writer.

When populists attack elites, they conflate people who work in the media, the arts, politics, academia and some areas of the law with entrepreneurs, investment bankers and internationally mobile corporate professionals. The Brexit campaign defined itself against high finance but also against human rights QCs and know-it-all actors - as if these fields were one.

I commit this elision in my own columns and I should know better. By dint of my job, I meet people in each world (plus a few supple characters who bestride both) and they are different. The public elite tend to the liberal left. The private elite are apolitical swing voters. Each side has little idea what the other lot does all day. They have different tastes, different idioms and they dominate different parts of their cities.

Even in London, a New York-Los Angeles-Washington hybrid in its centralisation of the public and the private, the two clans rub against each other (at the opera, at Arsenal's stadium) without blending into one. Until Brexit put them on the same side, the cultural elite often viewed the moneyed as the enemy - mauling the skyline, pricing them out of Hampstead. Above all, each group has its own insecurity. The public elite nurse constant material worries. Despite their membership of the economic 1 per cent (something they will deny even as you show them the graphs) they fear for their foothold in expensive cities.

The private elite worry that they are not very interesting. I have seen tycoons cringe in the presence of niche-interest authors. Some attempt late-career entries into public life, often through the publication of a political treatise or some involvement in the arts. Executives follow "thought leaders" who are less intelligent than they are. Politicians know the type: the loaded donor who fears to leave a campaign meeting in case a couple of young advisers, who do not earn a six-figure salary between them, mock his unoriginal contribution.

Other differences are surprising. The public elite talk a wonderful game about diversity and work in fields that have a better balance of women and men. But the private elite tend to work among more races and nationalities: some trading floors look like 1980s Benetton commercials. The same seems true of social background. I would advise a young graduate without relatives in high places to chose corporate life over the media.

None of this is to absolve or humanise either side; an average citizen will look at both and see spoilt, complacent overlords. But the idea of a coherent elite with a unanimous sense of its strategic interest is delusional. Like most conspiracy theories, it overrates the people it vilifies. Anyone who believes that Bain partners and BBC commissioning editors stitch up national life over seven-course dinners has had no exposure to either group. They would not be able to agree on a restaurant, for a start.

Which leaves us to wonder which is the true elite. Although populists believe that Mammon rules the big city, social status works in mysterious ways there. Creativity is more precious than wealth. There is a reason why the most fashionable members' clubs admit freelance graphic designers, who live hand-to-mouth, and black ball superstar bankers. In a sense, Fallow's total victory over McCoy is classic Wolfe: it lacks the nuance of great art, but it gets at a truth.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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