Friday, 14 December 2012

Part XVIII - Conspicuous Consumption in the Lower Classes

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

Veblen says that the 'canons of pecuniary decency' of the leisure classes don't just impinge upon that class; they influence the thinking and the expectations of all the classes below.

In the last post we saw that, in spite of her husband having to go out to work, the role of the middle-class housewife is to perform vicarious leisure and consumption for the honour and repute of their household.

This requirement for vicarious 'conspicuous' consumption by the wife continues pretty much to the bottom of the social scale.  He finds it ironic that the wife who was at first the 'drudge and chattel', the producer of goods for the master of consume, has now become the ceremonial consumer of the goods he produces.  However, Veblen still regards her as an 'unfree servant' in this habitual rendering of vicarious leisure.

Obviously, the practise of leisure in the middle and lower class is not the same as that of the leisure class.  However, the lifestyle and standards of worth of the leisure class lead the way in point of reputability and thereby set the standard for the reputability of the community as a whole  This makes it incumbent upon all classes to observe these standards in some degree.  Though the lines of demarcation between the classes are vague and changeable, Veblen believes there is a coercive influence that extends down to the lowest strata, causing everyone to bend their energies to live up to the ideal, or at least to imitate it.

"The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests in pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods."

In the lower strata, this role is delegated to the wife and children, even where no pretence of leisure can be maintained.  Interestingly, he claims that in the margin of the slums that the man and children virtually cease to consume and this job is left to the wife.

My own experience, though not in the slums and of course not in Veblen's day, is different to this.  I saw my Mom stop buying for herself so that my Dad and I had what we needed, and a measure of what we wanted.  She put herself last.  I've also read that in mining communities when money and food were short, the food went first to the man, to give him strength to keep earning.  Mothers often fed their children next and did without, so I don't find this part of Veblen holds true.

"No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption.  The last items of this category of consumption are not given up except under stress of the direst necessity.  Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away."

When I first read this, I was picturing something like Grandfather's watch or Great-Aunty's pearl ring not going to the pawnshop until absolutely necessary, probably because my head was still in the Victorian era.  Reading it now, I wonder if it refers to the latest iPad or a particular piece of stylish clothing, whatever signals success to ones peer group.  What do you think?

Next week we'll talk about gossip!


Unknown said...

I don't think the consuming is all about social signals at this point. I'm sure some of it, but definitely not all of it.

Shelley said...

I agree. I think our motives are far more complex these days. However, whenever my really skinflint side comes out I'm aware of being restrained in what I'll do (or to what I'll admit doing) because of this sense of 'decency'. Some practises just aren't socially acceptable. I'm also aware of this vague insecurity when I invite new people to my house. I love most of what I own, in spite of its imperfections, but what will they think?