In a New York Times article about the American electorate’s allergy to elitism, we find the following quotation:
In a nation without a titled aristocracy, an elite education may well be the most important membership card. “American elites have a problem that the Europeans don’t, which is how to assure that their children and their children’s children retain their elevated social position,” said Jason Kaufman, a Harvard sociologist who has written on elites and American culture. “Americans do this through cultural institutions and exclusion — art museums, classical music and tremendously elitist universities.”
Shouldn’t read too much into a stray quotation, but, unlike Kaufman, I don’t think there’s much difference in the way American and European elites reproduce their status.
European countries have abolished privileges attaching to hereditary titles. Your name may have a "von" or a "de" in it, but that doesn’t get you any formal, explicit privileges, except in the very highest reaches of the nobility. Most of the titled Europeans I know work in ordinary jobs, and have the same concerns as the rest of us. Of course, noble families do tend to be richer than others, which always helps. And, as an acquaintance of mine who’s a baroness recently told me, the title helps in everyday transactions with government bureaucrats and suspicious landlords. But if you get poor grades or have no talent, even the most august title isn’t going to help you rocket to the top of any hierarchy. At most, it’ll prevent you from dropping out of sight.
In one way, young members of the European nobility have it worse than wealthy Americans: Europe’s state-dominated education system has no real counterpart to America’s sprawling network of non-selective private colleges of the dumb rich, who will happily accept giant tuition checks to make sure junior gets some college degree, and will even arrange discreet rehab-clinic stays if necessary. In Europe, a wealthy 19-year old with a glittering title will have to compete against the hoi polloi to get into a state university, because those are the only institutions that confer real prestige. Most of them do get in, of course, since the less…er, diligent young viscounts will get help from tutors and boarding schools. But if even that doesn’t get them into university, there’s no real fall-back option available to them in Europe — which is why they are often to be found at American colleges of the dumb rich.
Aside from the universities, then, the things Kaufman identifies as markers of cultural cachet for Americans — museums and classical music — are used exactly the same way in Europe. Bourdieu’s Distinction says it all here; in fact, one of the main themes of Distinction is that the importance of refined tastes as a sign of social status steadily increased in Europe at the same time as, and because, traditional hereditary privilege was being dismantled. Especially in Germany, drawing excess attention to your title or wealth is taboo, so in order to establish status distinction, you’ll have to sit through a few boring classical concerts, get that precious doctorate (g), and read some books about art and philosophy now and then, just like all your non-titled friends. (There are also a lot of people who genuinely love art and classical music, bless their souls, but here, I’m talking about the multitudes who use these things mainly as status markers.)