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Harry Potter and the bourgeois-bohemian dream

Looking back at the dreams and resentments of an ascendant class

Recently I found myself trying to describe the appeal of the Harry Potter books to a friend who’d never read them, and I came to realise that, at over a quarter of a century since The Philosopher’s Stone was published, the series can now be used to illuminate the dreams, obsessions and resentments of the class of people who took over the reins of first culture and then politics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Britain and the Western world more widely. The fact of the rise of this class to prominence is a commonplace and there are many terms in circulation for them that capture various overlapping elements: liberal elite, new elite, graduate class, meritocrats, champagne socialists, or even for the specific British generation that J. K. Rowling belongs to, Britpoppers

This class rose with the postwar economic expansion and the meritocracy that accompanied it, and combined 1960s counter-cultural values with conventional worldly success. They saw themselves as defined against the fallen old world and being oppositional and anti establishment was core to their self image. For a descriptive term therefore I like American journalist David Brooks’s coinage of Bobo (bourgeois bohemian) from his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. As Scott Alexander said in his partial review of Bobos, the neologism was cute but never caught on”, but nonetheless I will use it going forward. Harry Potter is often associated with the millennial generation who were its first and largest target market, but while the millennials grew up in the world the bobos created and largely imbibed their philosophy (which is one reason why they liked Harry Potter so much), they were not, of course, its originators.

For the ascendant bobo class of the late 20th century, there were two broad groups of villains in society who blocked them from achieving their social goals. The first and numerically larger was the socially conservative middle and working classes who continued to vote for the Tories and support the monarchy, crassly seek wealth, and venture bigoted opinions at family occasions. The Dursleys are a caricature of this class: Brexiteers avant la lettre, represented by the Daily Mail, Jeremy Clarkson, consumerism, Surrey, materialism and acquisitiveness, anti-intellectualism, concern for respectability and what the neighbours think above all, and the dullness of a career spent doing something as prosaic as manufacturing drills. Like Harry, many bobos grew up in this environment themselves and had to endure its frustrations as children and teenagers. As for Rowling herself, born in 1965, she grew up in small towns in Gloucestershire in the 70s and 80s with a non university educated engineer father, with whom she had a difficult relationship and later became estranged from.

For the intelligent, sensitive, incipiently left-wing bobos growing up in this environment, going away to university represented their escape to the more rarefied world they dreamed of. Once there however, if they were attending one of the more prestigious ones, they would be confronted by their second antagonist class: the remnants of the old conservative aristocracy bolstered by those members of the nouveau riche who aped them. This group, though diminished in influence since their heyday, were still loudly visible in certain environments, like the Tory party, the City, and especially the undergraduate student bodies of Russell Group universities. For the bobos, their presence jarringly represented the bad old aspects of the pre-60s world like class privilege and boorish hedonism. In fact this class loomed even larger in the bobo imagination than it did in reality because it provided the necessary foil to a group who saw themselves as eternal rebels against the system. For Rowling, her path after school (we’re in the mid 80s by now) took her to Exeter university, which even today has a reputation as posh even among the Russell Group, of which she says “I was expecting to be among lots of similar people — thinking radical thoughts. But it wasn’t like that. However, once I’d made friends with some like-minded people, I began to enjoy myself.”

Despite their professed egalitarianism and hostility to the old aristocratic world, the bobos displayed an appreciation for its accoutrements and symbols of exclusivity

Harry’s transition to Hogwarts really represents going away to university more than it does going to a new school. Being plucked from dull suburbia as a child and being sent away from home to a boarding school where all your dreams come true is not a particularly common experience. It is much more common in the transition to university (although precocious readers may have wished for it to happen much earlier in their lives, as it did for Harry). Once at Hogwarts, Malfoy and the Slytherins are the old aristocracy: sneeringly superior, hailing from old wealthy families and proud of their position at the top of a rigid class hierarchy. Most importantly for the late 20th century morality play they are part of, they are also obsessed with purity of blood, occasionally employ racial epithets (mudblood) and have sometimes open, sometimes disguised sympathies for the Hitler analogue Voldemort. Ranged against the Slytherins are Harry, his friends and the Gryffindors: meritocratic, open minded and egalitarian. Like the bobos, they are often more egalitarian in rhetoric than in reality, given that while some like Hermione were from undistinguished muggle families, others like Harry benefited from their wealthy and famous backgrounds, while those like Ron alternatively benefited and suffered from a background that was distinguished but not rich. Once in the rarefied atmosphere of Hogwarts though and amidst the shared battle with the Slytherins, these distinctions became unimportant: like the bobos, their worldview was capacious enough to accommodate a variety of social backgrounds, and was all the stronger for it.

Despite their professed egalitarianism and hostility to the old aristocratic world, the bobos displayed an appreciation for its accoutrements and symbols of exclusivity. In terms of consumption and lifestyle they defined themselves against the mass market consumerism embraced by the Dursley class. This is very much reflected in the wizarding world, where Diagon Alley is a bobo’s shopping paradise of idiosyncratic independent shops where every product tells a story. At Hogwarts the architecture, the house system, the blithe acceptance of danger and risk, the eccentricity, the traditions, and the insiders’ language is reminiscent of a mix between a public school and an Oxbridge college. Ben Judah went so far as to say that Harry is a Tory. I don’t think that this is quite correct but he certainly appreciates the trappings. As in the bobo world, the educational institution of Hogwarts and its values is central to the wizarding one (Hogwarts being one of the few places Voldemort was afraid to enter). University may have been a finishing school for the old aristocracy, but they did not depend on it for their identities and positions to the extent that the bobos did.

The rise of the bobos was of course not limited to Britain (bobo after all is an American phrase), and neither was the global phenomenon of Harry Potter. America as in all things is of the greatest importance here, and for a millennial American child reading The Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone, their own dull Nowheresville suburb could be substituted for the Dursleys’ Surrey home, Fox News for the Daily Mail, a small minded Republican voting father for the Brexity Vernon, and for the dullness of a life revolving around a corporate job and consumerism no substitution was needed. For the dreaming spires of Hogwarts you can substitute the Ivy League and for Malfoy and aristocrats of Slytherin, substitute the old preppy WASP elite.

Appropriately enough the years of publication of the Harry Potter series precisely spanned Blair’s ones as PM

1997, the year The Philosopher’s Stone was published, was also of course the year of the political triumph of the British bobos in the form of New Labour. This political victory came decades after their cultural triumph and was all the more longed for for that reason: it was felt to be highly belated by many who had suffered (spiritually more than materially) under the Thatcher regime. They soon struck the final blow against the already faded political power of the aristocracy by ejecting most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords in 1999. When the Tories did return to power in the 2010 election they achieved it only as heirs to Blair shorn of anything truly Conservative beyond somewhat cutting public spending. In this they followed the progress of Draco Malfoy who by the end of the Harry Potter series had seen his movement crushed and his beliefs discredited, yet after a last minute conversion to the righteous cause managed to survive and even thrive under the new regime. Rowling herself was emblematic of New Labour’s Britain and was explicitly associated with the party, most notably donating a million pounds to them in 2008. Appropriately enough the years of publication of the Harry Potter series precisely spanned Blair’s ones as PM.

In 2024 the bobos still sit at commanding positions in the worlds of culture and politics, but they are assailed by the younger left for being overly liberal and insufficiently radical, as J.K Rowling has been over the trans issue, and from the populist right who hate the world they have created. At the same time their stable world of ostensibly centrist bohemian liberalism is slipping away. As with Hogwarts, it depends on conservative foundations to provide both social continuity and stability and for its decorous aesthetic and cultural backdrop. However its own ideological tenets are corrosive to these foundations and prevent anything genuine being done to preserve them. The social dynamics of the university have moved on from the days where the primary social conflict was an intra white British one between rising meritocrats and privileged aristocrats. Similarly to the world depicted in the 2023 film Saltburn, as per a recent review: “its depictions of intra-English social relations feel increasingly dated in what is now a racially and religiously fractious Britain, in which accusations of privilege primarily cut across colour rather than class lines … the neuroses of incoming ‘out of place’ freshers are now far more likely to be racial than social.” Hogwarts has 20th century diversity, a few non-white students who assimilate to a mainstream culture which is still confident in its historic foundations. If we were to imagine the Hogwarts of 2024, it would be busily constructing the new Sheikh Aziz school of modern magic to solve its funding crisis while simultaneously tearing itself apart over whether muggle studies should be a graduation requirement. The dominant dynamic exemplified by Harry and Draco’s conflicts would have been replaced by new ones: as it happens, once their Gen Z sons attend Hogwarts in the late 2010s in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they find that they have more in common than their fathers did.

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