Conspicuous consumption, a century on
The owner of a new tweed jacket revisits Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.
Recently I inherited a little pile of money. Not enough to gain me entrance into what Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen once called ‘the leisure class’, although in his day it might have sufficed.
When I inherited the money, the first thing I felt like doing was burying it. It was my insurance against fate, and I had to make sure that nobody would take it away. In a country like America, where each citizen struggles along these days without a safety net – and where everyone is burdened by credit-card debts, college loans, health insurance costs – maybe there is nothing more sensible than to bury one’s nest-egg. If this money won’t buy me happiness, at least it can give me some peace of mind.
But other feelings soon entered. Temptation. Desire. The lust for power. I felt like showing my money off, spending it on things that would prove to others how rich and strong I am. I wanted to acquire, to exercise the ‘predatoriness’ that Veblen asserts is the main characteristic of the leisure class.
One of the things I decided to buy was a tweed jacket. Now I have a favorite tweed jacket that I’ve been wearing for years, part of the uniform of Veblen’s ‘scholarly/servant’ class of which I’m undoubtedly a part. My old jacket isn’t even real tweed but only a passable imitation. Now that I had the money, I wanted a real Harris tweed jacket, and not just any Harris tweed jacket but a thick one, with more tweed in it than other tweed jackets. I wanted an ostentatiously tweed jacket that would demonstrate by its utter tweediness that it was better (ie, more expensive) than any other – and maybe suggest by its elegance that I’d ascended out of my class into a better one.
In his first and most famous book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen skewers this thinking with deadly accuracy. He talks about the need of the leisure class to spend money in a way that ‘serves the purpose of a favorable invidious comparison with other consumers’ – that is, to spend money in a way that makes other people feel poor. For one thing, this may mean buying items that are ‘hand-wrought’ rather than ‘machine-made’. Why? Because the consumer is revolted by the ‘common’, the ‘machine-made’- even though the machine-made is often better made than the handmade, and indeed the ‘superiority of hand-wrought goods…is a certain margin of crudeness’. The machine-made is cheap, the hand-made expensive, and ‘without reflection or analysis, we feel that what is inexpensive is unworthy’. And not only that: according to the rule of ‘conspicuous consumption’, Veblen’s most enduring concept, all of us, even if we’re not members of the leisure class, emulate our superiors and spend more than we need to spend, just to flex our muscles.
As I shopped for the perfect Harris tweed jacket (Veblen might say that my interest in Harris tweed as opposed to other fabrics was a manifestation of ‘fashion,’ yet another way to compete with others), I found that prices varied wildly, with custom-made jackets costing up to 15 times that of machine-made ones. At one point, I considered flying to Scotland, the home of Harris tweed, and getting a jacket made at a lower price than what it would cost in New York City. But my wish to acquire was in conflict with my instinct to protect my money, and I finally settled for a machine-made jacket. But I was ashamed! I’d been a coward, afraid to spend the money that would have made me a Master of the Universe. So after I left the store with my ‘cheap’ jacket, I turned around, went back in and bought a second tweed jacket. And promised myself that if I ever got near Scotland, I’d have a jacket made.
Apparently one doesn’t join the leisure class overnight, not even in one’s head.
The Theory of the Leisure Class could only have been written in a young culture, where academic pressures weren’t as constricting as in the great Academies of Europe. If one compares it to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, published a year later, differences in the assumptions behind the works become obvious. While Freud spends the first 100 pages of his book combing over every piece of writing on dream psychology and argues his points with the uptight exactitude of a graduate student before a jury of his professors, Veblen’s book hasn’t a single footnote, a reference to any other book, or even a bibliography – and the examples he uses are few and far between. Though he was well read (he was reputed to speak 26 languages, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration by an adoring student) he conceals this fact in sweeping generalisations, and prefers to present himself as a brilliant amateur rather than a man with academic credentials.
And yet the book really is groundbreaking. One can even find there the roots of semiotics. As his fellow ‘Chicago School’ economists were examining the specifics of city life, Veblen was taking wicked glee in looking at supposedly trivial things like lawns and walking sticks, fashion and household pets, and out of them spinning theories about social behavior. (It’s no coincidence that he was one of the founders of the New School for Social Research in New York, later the teaching venue of German Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.) Here, for example, is Veblen’s take on ‘the dog’:
‘He is the filthiest of the domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits. For this he makes up in a servile, fawning attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else. The dog, then, commends himself to our favour by affording play to our propensity for mastery, and as he is also an item of expense, and commonly serves no industrial purpose, he holds a well-assured place in men’s regard as a thing of good repute. The dog is at the same time associated in our imaginations with the chase – a meritorious employment and an expression of the honourable predatory impulse.’
Cranky but hilarious, overstated yet containing a nasty little cinder of truth, the passage couldn’t have been written by anyone but Veblen.
Briefly, Veblen’s theory of the leisure class goes like this. In a distant ‘anthropological’ past – at least as distant as the various prehistories that Freud posited in his later books – existed an idyllic world of ‘primitive savagery’, marked on the one hand by laziness and inefficiency, but on the other by ‘truthfulness, peaceableness, good-will, and a non-emulative, non-invidious interest in men and things’, a world of Rousseau-esque Noble Savages sitting around eating coconuts and making babies. This world, however, was doomed. Due to more aggressive groups, specifically the ‘dolichocephalic blond’ (read Aryan) types that Veblen saw as originating in Europe, competition and acquisition – ’predatoriness’ – began to enter the scene:
‘When the community passes from peaceable savagery to a predatory phase of life… [t]angible evidence of prowess – trophies – finds a place as an essential feature of the paraphernalia of life. Booty, trophies of the chase or of the raid, come to be prized as evidence of preeminent force. Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty serves as “prima facie” evidence of successful aggression.’
A new power structure emerged, with a class at the top that eschewed physical labour (because it wasn’t aggressive enough) and spent its time mainly in the pursuit of war, hunting, sports and ‘devotional observances’ – ie, the priesthood. Ownership began with the possession by men of women, who along with slaves did the day-to-day drudgery of the society, but soon the wish to own extended to things as well as persons. Because ownership originated in the wish to prove oneself more powerful than others rather than out of need, it was based less on what is useful than on what would impress one’s rivals up and down the social food-chain. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ and ‘conspicuous leisure’ – the excessive, wasteful acquisition of things or time itself – began to become central values in the society.
As society advanced industrial activity began, and the predatory urges became more subtle and hidden, though no less present. Society’s ideal now became the accumulation of wealth, which is ‘itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor’. Because everyone is afflicted by the predatory drive, they are chronically dissatisfied: ‘the desire for wealth can scarcely be satiated in an individual instance, and evidently a satiation of the average and general desire for wealth is out of the question.’
Veblen spends most of his book analysing various aspects of this ‘high barbarian’ culture of wealth and competition. His approach is freewheeling, pseudo-anthropological, impressionistic rather than scientific, but in the course of things he comes up with prescient observations on the changing role of women (from chattel to objects of adornment to individuals with more desire to be ‘useful’ than their male counterparts) and the eventual decline of ‘captains of industry’ in favor of ‘soulless’ joint-stock corporations.
The only counterbalance he offers to a society that he thinks of as wasteful and often cruel is the human instinct for ‘workmanship’ – the wish and need to make things. To Veblen the machine, and the engineer who designs it, suggest a more efficient, less wasteful way of life, and the society that best supports their existence values cooperation over competition. One can see why, in Veblen’s later years, he found a ray of hope for the future in the Soviet Union, although he distrusted Stalin and favored Darwinism over dialectical materialism.
After The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen wrote a number of other books, held a series of university teaching jobs, and, in the freethinking 1920s, enjoyed a brief vogue where clubs and discussion groups analysed his ideas. Popular or not, he always thought of himself as an outsider, and since his thinking was unsystematic (Leisure Class was his only book even to have an index) and his personality eccentric, he never devised a system or become part of a school of thought. Maybe his most impressive insight was a negative one: of all radical thinkers, he alone recognised that the acquisitive instinct wasn’t going away. Unlike Marx, who saw capitalism as a passing stage of history, Veblen identified it as a dark, intractable side of human nature.
Have things changed since Veblen? Not much. Probably the main change is the departure to the East of the industrial society that he regarded as the sole hope for a measure of rationality and social sobriety. Without industry, implies Veblen, the predatory impulses have free rein. And that’s pretty much what happened.
The exceptional, even for America, greediness of the 1990s, where people invested not in concrete things but in abstractions; the obsession with celebrity as a further way to distinguish some people from others; the unprecedented debt that Americans have built up in their effort to acquire more and more goods – all these couldn’t fit more neatly into the Veblenian model. The fact that everything in America from sports to schools to art to medicine has become corporatised is another development that Veblen predicted. Though global capitalism has promised to raise the living standard in poor countries, what we have seen just as often is the rise of ‘robber barons’ no less greedy than the ones who inspired Veblen’s critique.
Maybe the most interesting change – in America at least – is the drift toward the ‘common’ middle, even by the leisure class itself. Schools, for instance, are much less exclusive than they were in Veblen’s time; however expensive universities have become, middle-class families are willing to build up tremendous debt to send their kids to Harvard. The class of fine craftsmen, and the servant class, have to a great extent vanished, so that nowadays the lifestyles of the rich and not-as-rich aren’t as divergent as they once were. One can indulge in pastimes – tennis, sailing, flying one’s own plane – once reserved for the rich and famous.
Over half the country seems to share the ideals of a political party whose leaders proudly represent the ‘leisure class’, while the leisure class itself no longer has time for leisure. No group of people in America works harder. Max Weber might have attributed this to the Protestant ethic, but I suspect that Veblen is more on the mark: in a time when all the old upper-class pleasures have become democratised to the point of ‘commonness’, is there any pleasure greater than the exercise of power – the ‘masterful aggression, and the correlative massiveness, together with a ruthlessly consistent sense of status’?
Yet none of this seems to make us happy. Rather than enjoying our weird, aggressive, last-days-of-Rome democracy, we’ve also grown more isolated from each other, to the point where the ‘absence of self-seeking’ that Veblen saw as a possibility in the industrial state now seems like a distant dream. I speak from personal experience. It took me days to figure out that I could do something else with my inheritance: I could give some of it away.
George Blecher is a political and cultural journalist based in New York. This article is a translation of a piece that appeared in Wespennest (Vienna).
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