[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Weary of the leisure class

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Weary of the leisure class

What would Thorstein Veblen, who took no prisoners in his 'Theory of the
Leisure Class,' make of today's consumer culture?

    By Matthew Price  |  December 12, 2004

    NEW YORK -- Last Friday, a group of liberal academics and writers
    gathered amidst Manhattan's holiday shopping frenzy to ponder an
    urgent question: Would Thorstein Veblen have shopped at Wal-Mart?

    Actually, the group assembled at the New School for Social Research --
    which included Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, political journalist
    Michael Lind, and sundry Veblen scholars -- convened to debate a more
    sober matter: whether the insights of the maverick economist, best
    known for giving the world the enduring phrase "conspicuous
    consumption," could help revive the Progressive tradition in the age
    of NASDAQ, branding, and bling-bling. There was much talk about
    community organizing, the ills of suburbia, and the rise of red-state
    America, along with a good deal of earnest hand-wringing and general
    gloom about our crassly material ways.

    Veblen would have been right at home with the griping. Perhaps best
    known for "The Theory of the Leisure Class," his withering 1899
    classic of social criticism, Veblen was an arch and savage critic of
    modern capitalism who influenced such thinkers as Lewis Mumford (who
    said of Veblen's books that they "reflect the personality of a stick
    of dynamite wrapped up to look like a stick of candy") and John
    Kenneth Galbraith, whose seminal 1958 work, "The Affluent Society,"
    bears the imprint of Veblen's notions about wealth and status.

    Veblen minted the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the
    profligacy of the turn-of-the-century rich, who used ornament and
    glitz to signal their class and wealth to others. To the wealthy,
    uselessness was all. As Veblen summed up their glitter, "In order to
    be reputable it must be wasteful."

    Today's pundits and scolds use "conspicuous consumption" more
    generally to describe the spending habits of a country awash in easy
    credit, mass-marketed luxury goods, and gas-guzzling SUVs. But
    Veblen's ideas went far beyond that one phrase. His collected works
    survey the "imbecile institutions" of American capitalism, including
    the academy itself (which he skewered in "The Higher Learning in
    America," published in 1918, a canny prophecy of today's
    McUniversity). If the conference panelists displayed scant interest in
    the full range of Veblen's thought, his brooding estrangement from
    (and condescension toward) mainstream American life echoed in their

    Born to Norwegian immigrants on a Wisconsin farm in 1857, Veblen was a
    precocious boy. After graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota,
    he went on to Johns Hopkins and then Yale, where he took a doctorate
    in philosophy and political economy in 1884, and eventually to the
    faculty of the University of Chicago in 1892.

    In his bohemian habits, Veblen was something of a nutty professor. His
    own consumption was conspicuously inconspicuous: He refused to have a
    telephone and made his furniture out of burlap sacks and wood boxes.
    He mumbled his way through lectures, and once posted his office hours
    as "Mondays 10 to 10:05." His libertine carousing also raised
    eyebrows. After seducing the wife of a colleague in 1906, Veblen was
    promptly fired. He moved on to Stanford, where he also fell afoul of
    administrators for his philandering ways. (Legend has it that after
    Chicago's chancellor worried for the "moral health" of faculty wives,
    Veblen responded, "I've tried them all. They are no good.")

    Veblen was equally unorthodox in his thinking, arguing that neither
    Marxism nor neoclassical economics adequately explained the workings
    of modern capitalism. "The Marxian system is not only not tenable, but
    it is not even intelligible," Veblen wrote in 1906 (though he would
    later write approvingly of the Bolshevik Revolution). But he reserved
    his most fiery scorn for the haute bourgeoisie and the modern
    businessman. If laissez-faire economists lauded them as forward
    looking harbingers of progress and civilization, Veblen argued their
    showy displays of wealth and status owed more to marauding,
    booty-seeking barbarian hordes and primitive tribes than to the
    cultivations of the Enlightenment.

    Where the economists of his day deployed charts and graphs, Veblen
    turned to anthropology and the study of Icelandic clans and Polynesian
    islanders to expose the atavistic, irrational essence of capitalism --
    a system, Veblen concluded, driven by the extravagant wastefulness of
    the rich and the rapacious habits of "pecuniary experts."

    Though he formulated his ideas at a time of great populist ferment,
    Veblen was deeply skeptical that capitalism could ever be reformed.
    His infamously knotty, convoluted style (try getting your head around
    "the taxonomy of a monocotyledonous wage-system") is studded with gems
    of satirical wit, but he offers little in the way of constructive
    policy. H.L. Mencken dismissed Veblen's theories as nonsense, and
    thought him afflicted by "a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes,
    a leprosy of the horse sense." According to John Dos Passos (whose
    "USA" trilogy was in part inspired by Veblen's work), Veblen was a
    compulsive debunker who "could never get his mouth round [sic] the
    essential yes."

    In the 1920s, Veblen turned his venomous pen on the money-mad Calvin
    Coolidge era, where smiling, glad-handing capitalists plundered the
    assets of common people and got away with it. Long before Thomas
    Frank, Veblen zeroed in on what was the matter with Kansas, writing
    with bitter sarcasm of the "captains of solvency": "The larger the
    proportion of the community's wealth and income which he has taken
    over, the larger the deference and imputation of merit imputed to him.
    . .."

    What little faith he had Veblen put in scientists and engineers, the
    true creators of wealth. The strange man who owned no telephone and
    proposed making clothes out of paper extolled the clarifying
    "discipline of the machine," which would rid the mind of superstition
    and ground it in "opaque, impersonal cause and effect."

    At the New School, Veblen's gloom suited the panelists' own views of
    American consumerism. As Lewis Lapham, himself a scourge of
    upper-class foibles, put it, "Once you get into him, things become
    wonderfully clear."

    Whereas Veblen wrote about the affluent habits of a single class,
    Lapham noted, today conspicuous consumption is practically the
    American way of life. Donald Trump -- a "savage and a cheat" -- is a
    pop star while the lavishly funded Democratic Party itself is "a form
    of conspicuous consumption." (Earlier, Michael Lind pointed out that
    John and Teresa Heinz Kerry, with their six mansions, are far more
    conspicuous in their consumption than Lind's fellow Texan George W.
    Bush.) Lapham decried the effects of our "leisure state," denouncing
    the Vietnam and Iraq wars as geopolitical examples of the wasteful
    dissipation Veblen attributed to the wealthy classes. "You have to be
    a rich nation," said Lapham, "to think you can afford that stupidity."

    Vassar political scientist Sidney Plotkin went so far as to call
    Veblen "the first theorist of red-state America." Indeed, the specter
    of Veblen's elitist suspicion of the average American hung over the
    proceedings, and at times seemed to confirm the paradoxical situation
    of an academic left that wants to speak for ordinary people but seems
    baffled by -- and disdainful of -- their habits.

    Veblen, Michael Lind reminded his fellow panelists, "may have had
    sympathy for common people, but he portrayed them as dupes." And yet
    this elitist who hated elites might have been more a man of the people
    than his latter-day admirers. After all, Lind noted, "In Veblen's
    world, Wal-Mart is a rational distribution of goods."

    Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.

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