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Exculpation of the Leisure Class

By Solomon Wakeling
Created 05/10/2006 - 14:47

Solomon tries his hand at economics, via Thorsten Veblen.

by Solomon Wakeling

It occurred to me when I prepared to dislodge my copy of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class from the bottom of a very large pile, that my library is a form of conspicuous consumption. Marking off authors from Proust to Nabokov, Turgenev to Austen, it is a menagerie of classical authors, the bulk of which I have never read. It exists not primarily as a utility but for the purposes of being seen – not, as you might suppose, by anyone in particular but simply to satisfy myself that it exists, and, that I have achieved something, like a general presiding over the carcasses of a battlefield, or, if you will, a curator of an Art museum. The works I admire the most sit loftily at the top, whilst my bible and my copy of Atlas Shrugged lie inconspicuously on the floor. I only purchase books that are of a certain level of beauty – never will I buy any that contain a front cover derived from a film. It is not that I don’t read, it is simply that an excess of supply grossly out-strips my demand – and, of course, on the demands placed on my time by my studies.

It is unforgivably middle-class to view books as decorative, but, even where there is some benefit derived from the purchase, the benefit still exists in the realm of histrionics, where the knowledge contained within the product is appropriated by the consumer, for his or her own cerebral schtick. Through literature one can indulge in an inveigling display of intellectual masturbation. The more esoteric, erudite or purposeless the purchase, the more wealth and value there is in it. Veblen argues in Chapter VI that the defining characteristic of taste is that the object of the proprietary interest be as useless and/or as expensive as possible. The work is full of easily reducible statements like this and becomes enervating with repetition. It would have worked just as effectively as a series of Eastern religious motherhood statements, like the I Ching or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Unlike modern economic writing, the book does not flesh out its argument through empirical research, history or statistics but relies on the impudent persuasiveness of dogma backed up by the occasional anecdote.

The true value of the work is not in its perambulations and excursions but in the lexicon that it gives us. The terms "Conspicuous consumption" and "Conspicuous leisure" did not exist before Veblen and they explicate with precision a form of behaviour that is omnipresent and stupefying. Fashion, high fashion, is the pure, immaculate form of conspicuous consumption and in its brazen honesty it makes an overture to morality. Veblen hated the purposelessness, the vanity and the waste involved in bourgeois indulgences such as these but a society like our own does not and cannot. Modern, western capitalism is built on manufactured needs. A great bulk of our purchasing power is devoted to non-essential luxury items. This fact separates us from developing nations. We even go so far as to try and purchase intangibles, like glamour, style, the cadences of allurement. If it is a wrong, it is a wrong we exhibit because of our very nature. The purpose of global, political action should be, I assume, to bring developing nations in to a like state of persistent consumerist exigencies, not to strip us all bare of our acquired needs. The leisure class now embraces all of the western world – one day, maybe, it will embrace us all.

It is time we behaved like civilised people and not Marxist barbarians. It is inelegant to disdain "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure" and a sure sign of threadbare reactionary tendencies. Consumption, accumulation, wealth, taste and even fashion are not profane concepts, except to dreary misandrists and moralists. Status achieved through individual effort – and not, as in the past, through hereditary wealth – should be the subject of overt displays. Like any other animal, humans need to strut their stuff. The recent film The Devil wears Prada contained token moralising about the fashion industry, whilst simultaneously defending it against its critics. Had it taken a scorched earth policy to the wowsers and puritans it might have been brilliant. Instead it was an entertaining but mediocre production, giving us a little spice and easing our petty consciences.

The pleasures evinced by superfluous gestures are the sweetest of all. The apogee of human bliss may lie in the choices we make at the shopping centre. The natural world is one of sunsets, oceans and stunning, purposeless beauty. The lavishness of God’s touch is all the more exquisite because it does not serve any goal but beauty for its own sake. To coin a phrase, we live in a world of conspicuous creation and purposeless splendour. Perhaps we should take our cue from the extravagance of our creator.

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