Friday, 4 January 2013

Part XXI - Aping the Upper Class

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  Chapter Five is titled The Pecuniary Standard of Living.  

After obtaining what is needed for basic comforts, Veblen admits that most people don’t consciously spend money on the luxuries in order to make others envious.  He thinks this habit is more a desire to live up to the conventional standard of ‘decency’ in the amount and quality of goods consumed.   Of course, this is not a rigid standard, but rather an ‘indefinitely extensible’ one.  He goes on to point out that it is only a matter of time before an increase in means is followed by an increase in expenditure; also that it is much harder to ‘recede from a scale of expenditure once adopted than it is to extend the accustomed scale in response to an accession of wealth.’  In fact, he thinks that these wasteful expenditures that ‘confer spiritual well-being’ become more necessary than those that meet the lower wants of sustenance or physical well-being.   A failure to increase consumption with increased capacity may result in being accused of ‘miserliness’.  (The British call it being mean.)

The generally expected standard for spending seems to be not the average, ordinary level already achieved, but an ideal which is just out of reach or requires some strain (I’d call it debt).   This, he says, is motivated by a wish to outdo others in our social circle. 
“… each class envies and emulates the class next above it in the social scale, while it rarely compares itself with those below or with those who are considerably in advance. That is to say, in other words, our standard of decency in expenditure, as in other ends of emulation, is set by the usage of those next above us in reputability; until, in this way, especially in any community where class distinctions are somewhat vague, all canons of reputability and decency, and all standards of consumption, are traced back by insensible gradations to the usages and habits of thought of the highest social and pecuniary class — the wealthy leisure class.”

While it is for the wealthy upper class to generally set the ideal, ‘governing form and method of reputability’, they can’t do a sudden about face with respect to popular habits; change must take time, if only to let the new habits percolate down through the lower classes.  On the other side of it, once the lesser classes have the means to emulate the wealthy, the latter must find a new, more exclusive means of establishing their superiority.  The lesser the pecuniary distance between the classes, the faster change is required. 

This change is driven by the canon of conspicuous waste, tempered by the instinct of workmanship (to do something useful, not futile).  In addition, it is driven by ‘the predatory animus’, but we haven’t got to that bit yet.  Veblen also accepts that in the ‘trickle down’ of ideal lifestyles the circumstances, traditions and ‘degree of spiritual maturity’ of the class 'being regulated' must be taken into account.  (I wonder what he’d think about the level of maturity exemplified on today’s reality TV). 

He goes on at length about habits of spending, once formed, are extra-ordinarily difficult to break and that the control exerted by the accepted standard of living is always aimed at preventing a recession from conspicuous expenditure.    

Anyone disagree with any of this?


Suburban Princess said...

I had a very interesting conversation with a poverty expert a few weeks ago. He said for the upper class, importance goes to networking. For the middle class...aspirations. For the poor...relationships.

Shelley said...

SP - I would love to better understand these ideas. I guess it is naive of me to think that 'networking' is anything to do with 'relationships', though I suppose it is a matter of degree. What I read about the upper classes of Britain is that they only want to know 'their kind' so this would sort of make sense. If you are upper class in the US, is this networking a way of maintaining one's wealth? Apparently that is almost the definition of being middle class, to be aspiring (social climbing). If the poor feel that relationships are the most important, one can't help but think they are the wisest... I'm probably not understanding this correctly.

Beryl said...

My Grandmother was very interested in this particular aspect of class reaction. And, of course, it was in the area of food that she was most interested. She noted long before anyone else, that the rich don't eat as much nonseasonal produce as poorer people. The poorer people thinking they are emulating the upper classes, but the upper classes knowing that out of season produce is just not as good and they can wait for it.

Shelley said...

Beryl - I haven't thought much about what the wealthy eat, to be honest, only that they can 'afford to be thin'. Or perhaps there is more social pressure on them to maintain an elegant appearance. Bill goes into town and buys our fruit and veg these days (he can travel on the Metro for free). It's out of my hands what he chooses to buy; he says he just buys what they have and doesn't want my list of what's in season. Bananas and grapes seem to always show up somehow.

Carolyn said...

Going on with Beryl's comment: I have noticed too that richer people seem to eat far more healthily, and with a view to seasonal produce. Nowadays, I think modern day "lower classes" don't so much emulate the "rich" as they do the "celebrity". Which is like a whole new class of its own!!
Happy New Year Shelley, and thank you so much for your thoughtful and considered comments on my blog :)

Unknown said...

The ideas are so complicated it's hard to know where to start. I agree with you and others that the middle class does seem to be defined by aspirations. As for upper class networking, I did experience that living (briefly) in an affluent neighborhood in New York in mid 1970s. It was all about who you knew and getting invited to the right parties.