Friday, 16 November 2012

Part XIV – Unproductive Consumption

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  His fourth chapter is Conspicuous Consumption. 

In my last post I talked about Veblen’s notions of vicarious leisure.  This term applies to the upper class of servants (including wives) whose main job is to be at the ready to provide personal service to the master.  Another part of their duties is the vicarious consumption of goods:  wearing livery, consumption of food, clothing, dwelling and furniture “by the lady and the rest of the domestic establishment.”

One of the earliest rules about conspicuous consumption was about who could do it.  Initially this privilege was assigned simply on the basis of gender:  able-bodied men vs. labouring women.  Men consumed what women produced.  Women’s consumption was to enable their continued labour, not for comfort or pleasure.  Unproductive consumption was a mark of prowess and was required for human dignity; this consumption became honourable in itself, particularly in respect to more choice articles of food or adornment. 

Consumption of these special items were tabu for women, children or servile men.  When the quasi-peaceable stage is reached, the base class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence.   This sounds harsh, but consider the standard of living of the poor throughout most of history.  There were even laws in Elizabethan times limiting how sumptuously the working class might dress, thus ensuring that stolen clothes were useless. 

Luxuries in the way of food, drink and drugs belong to the leisure class.  The best example of this ceremonial differentiation is in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics.  If they were costly they were felt to be honorific and therefore the base classes, particularly the women, practiced ‘an enforced continence with respect to these stimulants’, except where they were inexpensive.  From archaic times through all the patriarchal regime it has the women’s job to prepare and present these luxuries, and the men’s job men to consume them. 

I remember hearing that among the Anazazi Indians of the southwestern US, the women were the financial managers, but the men were spiritual leaders whose duties involved retiring to a special lodging with other men to take narcotics and commune with the spirits.  On Tish Jett’s blog, she reports that in France, the man pours the wine and it is his decision when or whether a woman’s wine glass is re-filled; it is not appropriate for her to help herself.  Luxuries aside, I remember it was my mother's role to prepare food and my father's to consume it.  I never once saw him wash dishes or prepare a meal for her consumption.  I didn't think a thing of it at the time, except that I didn't want to learn to cook.
Intoxication is considered honorific, the mark of status for those able to afford the indulgence and infirmities resulting from over-indulgence considered manly attributes.  Veblen claims that even certain diseases in the early part of this stage of culture were synonymous with being ‘noble’ or ‘gentle’, though he gives no examples.  The reputability attached to expensive vices outweighs disapproval of over-indulgence by the wealthy.  Whether or not that remains true, it is within recent memory that the same indulgence amongst minors, women or the poor would be heartily disapproved.  Veblen observes that women still (in 1899) practiced traditional continence in respect of stimulants and that this convention was strongest where the patriarchal tradition continued.  The consumption of luxuries is for the pleasure of the consumer and is a mark of the master.  Any such consumption by others can take place only on the basis of sufferance. 

In the next post, we'll talk about the purpose of parties.


Beryl said...

Well I always heard that only the upper class got gout.

Carolyn said...

Hmmm. I think I would have preferred a women's role even in those times; I do prefer to "produce" rather than "consume". It sounds a very boring, unrewarding, shallow and pointless existence to never have the responsibility nor expectation to create anything. I almost feel sorry for those upper class men.... *almost*

Anonymous said...

I'll bet gout is one of those diseases of the rich. I continue to believe that the foods provided to the poor are actually better for our health. Or, perhaps that is evidence of how much I've bought into Veblen's line of thinking...and I don't dare indulge myself.

Shelley said...

Beryl & Terri - If you read about gout, it sounds mainly genetic. My (step) son in law is prone to gout and he tends to avoid alcohol. It's about the body's ability to process certain chemicals. My thinking is that we only ever knew about the rich in the past. Who ever used to care if the common man had gout?

Carolyn - I could feel sorry (sort of) for the entire class of people who spent their lives trying to climb the social ladder or keep up with their neighbours. How useless is that? The idea that women produced so men could consume, I don't feel sorry for those men at all. They enjoyed having dog to kick and I've known too many of those dogs.

Susan Partlan said...

Martin has gout. To avoid attacks, he has to stick to a vegan diet and avoid alcohol.

Thank God things have gotten better for women, at least in the developed West.