The Theory of the One Per Cent

November 25, 2012 § 4 Comments


The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen, Thorstein)

At one of the more interesting points in his The Red Queen (reviewed here), Matt Ridley tries to explain why the peacock evolved its bright and gaudy plumage, when anything as conspicuous is an obvious disadvantage in a jungle full of predators. Studies have found that the jazzier the peacock’s tail-feathers, the more attractive the creature is to potential mates. This is counter-intuitive at first glance from an evolutionary point of view: wouldn’t a peahen with more than a pea-sized brain figure out that the dude’s iridescent tail is a big neon billboard flashing, “Cheap Dinner – Come One Come All”? Most survival strategies involve blending in with the surroundings – pretending to be a twig or dead, or both, for instance – in convincing predators of one’s non-existence or one’s utter unsuitability for comestible purposes. Here was someone bolting in the opposite direction.

Several discarded hypotheses later, Ridley introduces us to Amotz Zahavi, whose theory probably comes closest to a convincing explanation for the phenomenon. Zahavi has conjectured that the flashier the peacock’s tail, the stronger the signal is that he sends to the female that she is looking at a born survivor. She could be assured of this on the extremely visible evidence in front of her, that he has survived despite being desperately handicapped by those tail-feathers. He must therefore be fitter than the rest of the lads. Ergo, a good mate.

I wonder how much Ridley and Zahavi are aware of the debt they owe Thorstein Veblen. Before evolutionary biology was a glint in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s eye, apparently, evolutionary economics was already here, thanks to this 1899 book, written by a slightly ferocious-looking, bug-eyed, bushy-bearded, and beetling-browed Minnesotan son of immigrants from Norway.

How the other 1% lives (photo lifted from vogue.com, off an article titled ‘what to wear on Black Friday’). (Not black, presumably).

Veblen trains his sights not on peafowl but on people. His theory identifies social esteem as the universal motivation for human beings, everywhere and at all times. When we lived in small villages and everyone knew everyone else, esteem came from being the best hunter, the greenest-fingered farmer, the most skilled artisan. With the advent of money, the more skilled – and respected – people accumulated more money, until gradually, the possession of superior wealth became synonymous with the possession of superior skills; “He must be wealthy” became shorthand for, “he is worthy of respect”. “Wealth is now itself intrinsically honourable and confers honour on its possessor,” as Veblen puts it.

And so, Veblen says, in order to gain honour in society, you had to advertise your wealth. To tattoo a bank balance on your forehead would reek of desperation – precisely what you want to avoid when aiming for respect. So you do the next best thing – you send signals while pretending you aren’t, and the best signals that you are rich are those that only rich people can afford to send. Much like the peacock’s I’m-so-fast-I-can-afford-to-be-showy signal, you send out a I’m-so-rich-I-can-waste-money signal. Thus, Veblen’s ‘leisure class’ spends money and time on utterly and ostensibly unproductive activities and artefacts, and those who aspire to leisure class membership, emulate them dutifully. This behaviour has become so ingrained over time, that we are no longer conscious of the motivation for it; it comes naturally to the manor born, and we look upon it as marks of the well-heeled and elegant, without seeking a reason for it.

Veblen gives us a few examples. Take a well-cropped lawn, for instance. I’m so rich I can afford to have land and not till it. I can afford not to graze cows or sheep on it. I think I’ll just…leave it there. I have some domestic animals around the house. No, not cows or sheep, and not hens either. Cats and dogs, I think, the more useless the better. And horses, please – and not the kind that draws carts, either. What can I wear to work? Something spotless, well-pressed and clearly unsuitable to be doing manual labour in, please, I couldn’t be caught dead looking like I needed to. Let’s wear only what’s fashionable, even if that changes every year: because I can afford to get a new wardrobe every year! Junior has finished high school and is getting bored – let’s pack him off to study philosophy, or history, or law or business administration – that’s way cooler than technology or accounting. It took until the turn of the 19th century for candlelight dinners to become romantic and chic, Veblen tells us. Candles had been the cheapest indoor lighting option available earlier, but really took off as mood lighting only after they became more expensive and less practical than electricity.

Once Veblen started me thinking, of course, it became a nifty parlour game idea to play, called Spot the Wasteful Consumption. High heels, of course – most women’s clothes and shoes, in fact. Suits and ties. Almost any trade you can think of has a Leisure Class parody of it, performing the same tasks but without a useful purpose attached. Leisure-class anglers fish for fun. English toffs hunt foxes (shudder) for a pastime. People have personal trainers to help them train for marathons they don’t need to run. People buy branded goods, a large part of whose charm comes from their being expensive and branded. They ride monstrous, gas-guzzling, utterly wasteful cars. They have a dozen gadgets that are not strictly necessary. They play paintball and laser-tag, expensively playing soldiers, but without the actual, you know, soldiering.  They diet, and go to the gym compulsively, as they are not worried where their next calorie is coming from. And lest you think I am holier-than-thou: they read useless books and blog about them as if their lives depended on it. Every serious hobby, I am now convinced, is a Leisure Class activity.

You can play the game historically, too. For instance, take the horrible medieval Hindu institution of Sati – widows burnt alive in the funeral pyres of their husbands. Months after I read Veblen, I came across this paragraph on Sati in Susan Bayly’s book on Caste and Indian society, and spotted a Veblenism.

…this logic decrees that to allow divorce, or to accept widows as brides, must be the hallmark of people who are without the means to police their blood-lines scrupulously and who cannot afford to ‘waste’ the labour and child-bearing potential of available women kin in the interests of propriety and seemliness…

In all fairness, Veblen is not out to prove that rich people are evil: he is trying to show how social mannerisms evolved, from the initial stage of showing off through subsequent phases of ‘pecuniary emulation’ of the original show-offs, until the behavior became widespread and its origins receded from public memory.

But there’s more to Veblen than parlour games. He studies his subject very carefully, going beyond their spending habits and identifying their worldview, their aspirations and beliefs, their politics. Veblen’s Leisure Class is out-and-out, died-in-the-wool Conservative. And he insists, rather shrilly in my opinion, that he doesn’t mean that in a bad way. It’s not their fault. The Upper Class (his terminology) is just the same in temperament as the Lower Class, only far richer. Their function is to lower industrial efficiency and retard the adaptation of the society to prevalent conditions. (Apparently he doesn’t mean this in a bad way, either). Social institutions are created in response to a set of external circumstances; these circumstances can change over time, and when this happens, society needs to change in order to accommodate the changes. At the helm of affairs in society is the Leisure Class. They are rich (I think we’ve already established that) and so are not at the forefront of the challenges posed by the changed circumstances. When they get laid off, for instance, they take a break and go on a world cruise. There is, therefore, a lag during which representatives of the most affected classes attempt to press home the need for urgent social change, while the Leisure Class have this to say to them: Nonsense, my dear fellow. Things are perfectly fine as they are. You are over-reacting as usual. Eat some cake and lie down.

Like I said, they are not bad people, exactly.

Oh, and Veblen also says the Leisure Class are usually very devout and heavily into competitive sport. In this, Veblen says, they are much like the lowest of the lower classes, the criminal delinquents. The middle-class, on the other hand, work hard, is less superstitious or religious, and is less maniacal about sport. On this last point at least there is no ambiguity in Veblen’s position. He detests “the addiction to sports” and thinks it marks “an arrested development of the man’s moral nature. This peculiar boyishness of temperament…immediately becomes apparent” from “the large element of make-believe that is present in all sporting activity.” Not to put too fine a point on it, “Football is…a return to barbarism… a rehabilitation and accentuation of those ferine traits that make for damage and desolation, without a corresponding development of the traits which would serve the individual’s self-preservation and fullness of life in a ferine environment.”

As his over-the-top opinions on sport show, Veblen is patchy. His attitude on women’s issues is futuristic for his age. His characterization of universities and centers for higher learning as inherently conservative in their opinions and inflexible on the subject of received wisdom, doesn’t ring true to someone of my generation, but I am willing to allow that things may have changed. Many of his observations are shrewd and on the money. His depiction of the rich, as a bunch of socially conservative show-offs who spend their time in unproductive pursuits and who are the exact opposite of the industrious working class, is straight out of the Occupy Wall Street handbook – there is truth in it, but enough to argue against as well. His grasp of history is intuitive and broad, but full of holes. I thought de Tocqueville, writing half a century before Veblen, was the better social commentator, but part of the reason for this is Veblen’s torturous and unreadable prose. Take this paragraph, in which Veblen makes observations on the circuitous language used by the Leisure Class. Take it, I say, and try it on for irony.

 It is contended, in substance, that a punctilious use of ancient and accredited locutions will serve to convey thought more adequately and more precisely than would the straightforward use of the latest form of spoken English; whereas it is notorious that the ideas of today are effectively expressed in the slang of today. Classic speech has the honorific virtue of dignity; it commands attention and respect as being the accredited method of communication under the leisure class scheme of life, because it carries a pointed suggestion of the industrial exemption of the speaker.

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§ 4 Responses to The Theory of the One Per Cent

  • tskraghu says:

    Interesting for all those like me – I’ll not get to reading the book. Does he say what is the future for them? Today power seems to be a bigger flaunt in our society. Are we different from the west in this regard?

  • psriblog says:

    Actually, Veblen doesn’t say anything about the future – but I suspect he doesnt think it will be very different.
    I don’t think we are different from the West, we are very much a conspicuous consumer society, and have been so even before 1991, when our governments were socialist. Then, foreign exchange was in short supply, and all the conspicuous and unnecessary consumption was in terms of labour. We have servants for everything, including someone to wash the car, someone to drive the car and someone else to salute when it passed the main gate. Our ladies wore lots of jewellery and didn’t go to work, as it was deemed vulgar for them to do anything other than kitty partying and shopping. Today, some things may have changed but look at the malls. Look at the jewellery shops. Look even at the ultra-swanky building societies for the rich and famous. Many of them are called things like ‘Elite’, ‘Royal’, ‘Enclave’, ‘Resort’, ‘Club’, ‘Mansion’,
    or ‘Palace’. Why? Our children wear Nike shoes to school. We take them on foreign vacations every summer. It is all conspicuous consumption, I think…

  • Rick Searle says:

    Your writing here was excellent.

    I wonder what Veblen’s take on David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise” would be. I haven’t read it, so I may be off on the argument, but his point I think was that a lot of the boomers are quite odd in their consumption. They are ashamed of anything that is too “flashy”, but spend thousands of unnecessary dollars on something as long as it has a “utilitarian” purpose. Something distinct from the nouveau rich of the developing and Guilded Age Westerners.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks Rick. Brooks’ theory does sound interesting and pertinent to context. Veblen obviously predates the boomers – his generation was the Guilded Age. But am sure one can analyze boomer spend in a Veblen-esque (Veblenist? Veblenian?) model and it could be very interesting indeed. After all, his basic theory is based on jostling for social status….

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