It’s about time that a candidate for president declared warfare on the super-rich. Bernie Sanders is doing it with delicious fervor, and like FDR, he has welcomed the hatred of oligarch billionaires and their apologists. The terms of that war are much the same as they were when Thorstein Veblen laid them out in his 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class.
Unsung in his time, Veblen, an economist and sociologist who survived on a professor’s meager salary, bequeathed to us concepts now famous in social science that explain, among other things, why the poor in America have yet to rise up. The problem comes down to what he called pecuniary emulation, defined as consumption that is not necessary to physical subsistence but which instead satisfies a psychological need to feel valued and respected.
According to Veblen, in an economically stratified society where property is the determinant of social value—such is capitalist society—the rich, dripping with property, set the standard for the rest of us. Seeing paraded before us the life of leisure and opulence, the reaction is one not of rebellion but of envy and desire. Pecuniary emulation takes a grotesquely irrational form called conspicuous consumption, the act of consuming in wasteful, extravagant ways that serve no purpose other than to impress others and instill envy (the process of envying others’ consumption is known as invidious comparison, the third of Veblen’s essential concepts.)
Conspicuous consumption is evident today in all classes, from the super-rich (with their yachts, Learjets, “priceless” art pieces, haute couture, jewelry, antiques, lavish meals at high-end branded restaurants, etc.) to the middle and lower classes (who, to take one example, go into debt purchasing expensive automobiles that they can ill afford but which serve to display economic prowess). The more expensive a branded item, regardless of its actual utility and production cost, the more it is stupidly sought after for conspicuous display. We have a name for this type of outrageously priced consumer item: it’s called a Veblen good.
The billionaires sit atop the emulation pyramid, looked to for pecuniary guidance by the millionaires, beneath which sit the hundred-thousandaires, and so on. Pecuniary emulation is a kind of arms race of accumulation, writes Veblen:
[I]t is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others. But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth…
If…the incentive to accumulation were the want of subsistence or of physical comfort, then the aggregate economic wants of a community might conceivably be satisfied at some point [but] since the struggle is substantially a race for reputability on the basis of an invidious comparison, no approach to a definitive attainment is possible.
Which is to say: there’s no end to this type of consumption. It can only grow. Veblen described pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption as psychological “derangements.”
Just as deranged, he found, was the fact that in a developed consumer capitalist economy such as the United States, we deem rich people in sectors like finance and sports, who are “useless,” in his words, to be “honorable.” Therefore they are highly paid and showered with praise – while the mundane, workaday, useful man is dishonored.
When he spoke of usefulness, Veblen meant people productively engaged in labor that creates social value. In our upside-down society, the sanitation worker and the teacher and the farmer get the shaft; the hedge fund manager, the baseball player, the actor – all useless (life would go on without them just fine) – rake in the cash.
In the U.S., it is clear that those who produce nothing of real value are the winners: the finance-insurance-real estate sector; the advertising, promotional, public relations, entertainment and fashion complexes; the celebrity complexes, whose members are almost always employed uselessly in film, sports, entertainment, and on and on.
What happens if all the sanitation workers disappear? Things would be an unholy mess, our cities unlivable. Why is the baseball player, who chases balls for a living, paid so highly while the sanitation worker is not? There is a reason that sports leagues have suspended operations in response to the coronavirus, while garbage collection continues. Andrew Carnegie once said, “The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich.” Indeed.
Veblen’s conclusion was that a society trapped in cycles of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption and display and waste was not a society worth living in. It was to him a madhouse: primitive, “barbaric,” uncivilized.
John Dos Passos wrote in his biography of Veblen, The Bitter Drink, that Veblen paid the price for his anger and contempt, his “constitutional inability to say yes.” Veblen laid out, wrote Dos Passos, “the logical inescapable rope of matter-of-fact for a society to hang itself by.” Whereas Socrates drank the bitter drink in one night, Veblen, a disheveled college professor repeatedly demoted and fired, a man without social status or wealth, “drank it in little sips through a long life in the stuffiness of classrooms, the dust of libraries, the staleness of cheap flats such as a poor instructor can afford.”
Veblen’s line of argument is of ever-greater significance as we approach the tipping points that lead to climate apocalypse. Witness how the newly rich global South seeks to emulate the profligate carbon-intensive lifestyles and consumption habits of the wealthy North.
If we are trapped as ever in the irrational cycles of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation, then we are bound inexorably to flush our planet down the toilet. A global civilization that increasingly values wasteful and silly display over real work, that iconicizes the stupid and useless over the intelligent and useful, will never restructure, reform, and downsize to something sustainable.