Friday, 28 December 2012

Part XX – Conspicuous Waste vs. Workmanship

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

In the last post we talked about rural vs city pressures for conspicuous consumption as a means of maintaining reputability.  Because of greater mobility of populations, conspicuous consumption is beginning to outweigh conspicuous leisure as the preferred method of displaying wealth.

Veblen says the element common to both conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption is that of waste:  of time, of effort or of goods.  He maintains that the pressure to display wealth through conspicuous consumption could not only lead to dissipation.  It could lead to utter poverty, a complete waste of resources, in most cases (and in many it has) were it not checked by another aspect of human nature, that of workmanship.

He finally acknowledges that there are other standards of repute, other canons of conduct besides wealth and its manifestations.  He describes workmanship as
“...another force, alien, and in some degree antagonistic, to the usage of conspicuous waste… Other circumstances permitting, that instinct disposes men to look with favor upon productive efficiency and on whatever is of human use. It disposes them to deprecate waste of substance or effort. The instinct of workmanship is present in all men, and asserts itself even under very adverse circumstances… In so far as it comes into conflict with the law of conspicuous waste, the instinct of workmanship expresses itself not so much in insistence on substantial usefulness as in an abiding sense of the odiousness and aesthetic impossibility of what is obviously futile.”
Veblen notes the passage of society into yet another stage, something else that enhances the merits of workmanship.  
“…when the quasi-peaceable stage (with slavery and status) passes into the peaceable stage of industry (with waged labour and cash payment) the instinct comes more effectively into play. [Workmanship] then begins aggressively to shape men’s views of what is meritorious, and asserts itself at least as an auxiliary canon of self-complacency.”

Most people have an inclination to accomplish an end, to shape some object, fact or relation for human use.  Because of the still strong pull of reputable leisure, workmanship sometimes is, as Veblen puts it, ‘in make believe only’.  He puts forward social ‘duties’; quasi -artistic or -scholarly accomplishments; care and decoration of the house; sewing circle activities; proficiency at dress, cards; yachting, golf, and other various sports; etc. as examples of pretend workmanship. 

In the quasi-peaceable stage, the pressure to be purposeful might be relieved by ‘forcible aggression or repression directed against hostile groups' (would that be going to war?) or against the subject classes within the group’ (class warfare?) or by hunting.  With the growing peaceable and industrial society, the ignominy attached to useful effort becomes less acute and workmanship asserts itself with more persistence.

So, there have been changes in the form by which the leisure class practices conspicuous leisure. 
“Many and intricate polite observances and social duties of a ceremonial nature are developed; many organizations are founded, with some specious object of amelioration embodied in their official style and title; there is much coming and going, and a deal of talk, to the end that the talkers may not have occasion to reflect on what is the effectual economic value of their traffic. And along with the make-believe of purposeful employment…there is…a more or less appreciable element of purposeful effort directed to some serious end.” 

This reminds me a lot of what when on at my last workplace, all this talk!  And I have never really understood why it is considered productive for one or other of the royal family here to show up when a new hospital , library or shopping centre opens.  I realise they are ‘being seen to be’ busy, but it all seems a bit silly to me.  But then I’m a foreigner.

As well as with conspicuous leisure, a similar change has occurred with respect to vicarious leisure. 

“Instead of simply passing her time in visible idleness, as in the best days of the patriarchal regime, the housewife of the advanced peaceable stage applies herself assiduously to household cares”.

So, workmanship sounds like it is just about wanting to achieve something and hopefully that something might even be useful.   Wealth and leisure might be wonderful things to enjoy, but without a sense of being useful or purposeful, I'm thinking it could be quite boring as well.  What do you think?


D A Wolf said...

This time of year, the subject of conspicuous consumption is rife with references! Now that we're on the other side of the onslaught of emails, online ads, television ads for purchasing more (useless?) stuff for Christmas, we're on the post-holiday "sale" side and equally bombarded.

As if all the stuff would somehow allow us to feel more like the leisure class ourselves... and instead, we're caretakers for things rather than experiencing our lives...

But off my soapbox to answer your specific question about workmanship. Perhaps one of the reasons I value what is older, not only for its history, is due to the workmanship. Objects (not to mention artwork / architecture) were more than purposeful; they were purposeful and created with pride in the work.

Beauty and craftsmanship were not sacrificed to purpose (or expediency); at least, so I consider it, as a general rule.

We have lost so much appreciation for that sort of meticulous care and pride in what we do. It feels like a loss that pervades far too much of society.

Susan Partlan said...

I see workmanship as involving an appreciation for things like craft, aesthetics, and tradition. If the item is useful, all the better, although not necessarily. My jewelry is not useful but the workmanship is excellent, meaning it should last for generations.

Shelley said...

LBW - I totally agree about the rampant consumerism this time of year. Standing aside for a moment, it looks like a form of insanity. However, I must confess that since I don't indulge in 'stuff' much other than at my birthday and Christmas, I do enjoy some of it.

Susan - Like you and LBW, I've always defined 'workmanship' as being to do with craft or precision, or doing a careful 'workman-like' job. This is why I struggled a bit with Veblen's use of the word, which is less to do with making things or being careful and more about being useful or having a purpose.