WHAT’S a “luxury belief”, then? Cruella De Braverman dropped the concept into her keynote speech at Conservative Party conference this week, part of the general shitstorm of fear and loathing she so excels at unleashing.

But this one has a particularly glistening quality, in its attempt to demonise liberal opinion.

Braverman spoke of those loud, affluent, “politically correct critics” who assumed “the luxury of promoting seductive but irresponsible ideas, safe in the knowledge that their privilege will insulate them from any collateral damage.

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“The luxury beliefs brigade sit in their ivory towers telling ordinary people that they are morally deficient,” she continued, “because they dare to get upset about the impact of illegal migration, net zero or habitual criminals”.

She likes her lurid name-calling – remember her on the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”? – but this populist jibe at least has an interesting source.

For the past few years, a young Asian-American academic named Rob Henderson has been a regular darling of the op-ed pages and the right-wing blogosphere in the States.

Henderson’s shtick is dramatic and resonant. He was abandoned by his dad (and addict mom), bounced around between equally broken foster families, then escaped his own ruination by signing up for a term in the US Army. By means of the GI Bill, Henderson got on to a social science course at Yale. He’s ended up in the groves of Cambridge University, currently completing a PhD there.

He coined the phrase “luxury beliefs” from his experiences and his study. The repeated story is Henderson’s encounter with privileged students at Yale, who would use cutting-edge jargon (like “heteronormative” or “cisgender”) to critique institutions like marriage and the family.

Yet they themselves anticipate marrying – indeed, Henderson’s social research showed that middle-class rates of family cohesion were much greater than those lower down the socio-economic scale. His own splintered history made him feel “robustly conservative” about the worth of stable families.

But what accounted for, on the face of it, the rank hypocrisy among his classmates? Henderson went to the classic turn-of-the-century US sociologist Thorstein Veblen, and his theory of the “leisure class”. The 20th-century bourgeoisie distinguished itself by “conspicuous consumption” – showing off their wealth by obsessing over cars, clothes and consumer goods, or “luxury objects”.

The 21st-century bourgeoisie does it differently, according to Henderson: “Because material goods have become a noisier signal of one’s social position and economic resources, the affluent have decoupled social status from goods, and re-attached it to beliefs.”

So luxury beliefs, concisely stated by Henderson, are “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class”.

An example. A 2020 YouGov survey found that those Americans in the highest income category were most likely to support defunding the police. “They can afford to hold this position, because they already live in safe, often gated communities. And they can afford to hire private security,” noted Henderson.

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“In short, luxury beliefs are the new status symbols,” concluded Henderson. “They are honest indicators of one’s social position, one’s level of wealth, where one was educated and how much time they have to adopt these fashionable beliefs.”

The social-science-minded will recognise (as does Henderson) a rough old French socialist lurking around these ideas. That would be Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote masterfully about “cultural capital” – the way that class differences were maintained by the acquisition of “taste” and “distinction”, these intangible assets reinforced by education.

But the point about capital, of whatever kind, is that it can always be better distributed. Bourdieu was militantly for the improvement of educational and cultural access for working-class communities.

However, Henderson isn’t interested in screening Bergman in the bothy. He wants to open up another front in the culture wars, rooted in his own inarguable hardship.

Henderson reports getting some crucial advice from a high-school teacher (reinforced by the writings of Jordan Peterson) – that only his individual commitment and hard work will change his fortunes. Then he quotes a study which points to those in the highest wealth bracket believing that luck, and connections, are the greatest factor in personal success.

Sounds ostentatiously progressive, says Henderson. But such advice would have been disempowering to him, sapping his willpower at the wrong moment.

I’ll admit to finding Henderson’s routine, and his hot take of “luxury beliefs”, more than a little sad. I regard one of the glories of my life as gaining the ability to appreciate abstract concepts, and the jargon of methods and disciplines, in order to empower myself and those around me.

My background was comfortable, aspirational working-class – though not-bourgeois enough to be excited by new, deeply explanatory ideas.

As a public writer, I’ve always tried to be an “organic intellectual”, as all those Scottish translators of the Italian philosopher (and prisoner under fascism) Antonio Gramsci would put it. That is, explaining concepts that can be used by communities to strengthen themselves and their grip on the world.

I could even reach back to the long-standing Scottish tradition of the “democratic intellect”, as researched by George Davie. This tradition is manifest in major features of our current education – from free tuition fees at Scottish universities, to the multi-disciplinary ambitions of our national Curriculum for Excellence.

I have to admit, it’s quite a feat of trickery. That is, to typify progressive views – on the attainment of net zero, plural attitudes to sexual identity, or the historical inevitability of mass migration – as the “luxury beliefs” of the middle-class “wokerati”.

Fear and defensiveness are the dominant tone here. But there are other popular traditions – often practised through international charities, or in global labour networks – where the great troubles of the world, and those peoples at their frontline, were both embraced and mined for knowledge and wisdom.

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In our most planetary hour – where the fate of humanity under climate and technology has never been more shared, or urgent – we need to revive an everyday worldliness among ourselves, a vernacular cosmopolitanism. Braverman’s relentless campaigning, scaring us with her many-headed “Project Fear”, has the virtue of clarifying our opponent, at least.

One last point on the appearance of “luxury beliefs” in our political discourse. It shows how fast the transmission belt of ideas is whirring, between the American hard right and the coming Conservative Party.

If we get a progressive majority (of whatever composition) at Westminster, we will undoubtedly see the Tories mutate into a grievance-and-resentment machine like no other, with Braverman likely at its head. A Republican victory will only intensify the hurricane of sourness.

For the indy movement, we’ll need to keep its arguments in people’s minds, waiting to take advantage of the cracks in various edifices. That’s the intellectual “luxury” we should indulge in.