Law in Contemporary Society
Did you ever think capitalism might end because it was too… successful? Veblen offers this possibility.

Specifically, Veblen seems to define capitalism as the creation of conspicuous consumption. The higher classes accumulate profit to devote themselves to conspicuous consumption. Everyone emulates everyone who is higher than them in the social hierarchy. The lower classes emulate the higher classes by consuming as conspicuously as they possibly can. As capitalism progresses and the manifestations of conspicuous consumption grow in number, Veblen seems to say the lower classes may begin to feel like they are getting poorer and poorer comparatively. This feeling might be so strong that capitalism itself is overthrown.

I was wondering what everyone thinks about this (or if anyone disagrees with my layout of Veblen). First of all, I think it’s CRAZY that Veblen defines capitalism in the way he does. He equates capitalism with barbarism, saying it produces only worthless conspicuous consumption. Personally, I’m not prepared to say everything created by capitalism is necessary worthless. Second, I think Veblen puts an interesting psychological spin on the way we conceptualize quality of life. The rich are not getting richer and the poor are not getting poorer, in fact, but they nonetheless might feel like they are, and that’s the measure with which we should be concerned. Giving people extra money to ease their dissatisfaction won’t work either, because they will simply want more and more...

It’s a lot like when you give a mouse a cookie.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 06 Apr 2010

This reminds me of the equality of outcome/equality of opportunity debate in wealth distribution. John Rawls posits that people will not want more even if they see others have more, but if you accept the proposition that even minor relative inequalities exist, his assumption underestimates the actual impact these inequalities in wealth may produce. Take for example a city in suburban United States which builds schools and shopping malls that are only accessible by car because most citizens can afford personal transportation. If an individual resides outside a reasonable walking distance from resources such as food, education, and house maintenance devices, which many people in larger states do, having a car and gasoline becomes obvious basic necessities for some, though a car is considered a luxury in many parts of the world and beyond financial means for many families. You should look at Anne Phillips's essay 'Defending Equality of Outcome' if you're interested in problems of perceived relative inequality.

-- NovikaIshar - 06 Apr 2010

Ah, somehow I deleted my comment - here goes the second try:

Kalliope I didn't read any class conflict in Veblen's text, I think that was pretty well covered by Marx 40 years prior. Veblen, as far as I can see, is more concerned with a sociological (economic?) break-down of how the class gap got so broad. His tone and perspective are detached, like some kind of ethnographer. Isn't there something so refreshing about being told that all these things we want, and all the status these things bring, is just a bizarre cultural vestige?

I never understood why the men and women who run Fortune 500 companies seem to spend a lot of time on the golf course, or the tennis or the squash court. This offers a pretty good explanation why.

-- AerinMiller - 06 Apr 2010

Because they have the money to access the course/courts, the leisure time to play, and they enjoy it? Do only poor people truly enjoy athletics?

-- SamHershey - 06 Apr 2010

Actually, for Veblen it's almost the opposite. The rich love sports because they show how financially strong you are - you can mock war without worrying about being productive. Of course, the poor "delinquents", another group that retains the overly predatory "bellicose frame of mind" also enjoy sports. It's important to remember the different time period in looking to his claims and diction. In 1899, "sports" wasn't exactly sports as we see it today. I think a similar thing holds for his description of "barbarians" and "savages".

-- StephenSevero - 06 Apr 2010

Aerin, my goal in this post was to talk about Veblen without invoking Marx, but thanks for the opportunity haha. I see 3 significant differences between Veblen and Marx regarding capitalist critique and class conflict that are worth exploring:

(1) Veblen's conception of society (and therefore of class conflict) is interestingly different from Marx insofar as Veblen maintains that the objective situation of the poor as a class is not in fact growing worse over time. For Marx, the proletariat is led to overthrow capitalism because their objective situation worsens such that they finally realize what's really going on. Veblen's poor class will only just "feel" like things are getting worse as time goes on.

(2) Even Marx is willing to admit that some commodities have use value. Veblen's stance is far more extreme in this respect.

(3) Even though Marx critiques capitalism, he saw it as part of man's evolutionary history. Veblen says capitalism is just another form of the same shit that's been going on for centuries. He sprinkles the term "evolution" throughout the book jokingly, I think.

Do you agree with this? Hope this makes sense...

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 06 Apr 2010

I don't think that Veblen's invocation of evolution is at all a joke. He devotes much of the middle chapters to a Darwinian (more Lamarckian) analysis of social and pecuniary pressure and how that selects for certain mindsets. Not just in the individual (if a man feels the exigencies, he is more apt to change) but also inheritance of natural predispositions and acquired traits as well.

-- StephenSevero - 06 Apr 2010

Stephen, I see your point. I guess I see him as being sarcastic when he calls the development of these mindsets "evolution," especially in light of him equating capitalism with old tribal relations. Evolution for Darwin necessarily means changing for the better, right?

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 06 Apr 2010

I think it's a mistake to apply that kind of normative outlook to evolution - there is no such thing as devolution. Are we "better" now than we were as apes? Evolution is entirely about adaptation to circumstance, not approaching an objective standard. That said, I agree with what your essential point is - Veblen views the leisure class as not adding anything of value. Beyond a sort of spiritual value, the class doesn't produce any tangible goods, and when they do it's at a cost to efficiency.

-- StephenSevero - 06 Apr 2010

You're right, sorry. After class it became clear to me that I've been mistaken in thinking of evolution as some kind of normative progress. (I was conflating evolution with advancement in technology and the sciences.) In everyday life, though, isn't evolution normatively portrayed? Isn't this image meant to invoke a feeling of "look how far we've come"? Anyway, this is more a random aside...

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 06 Apr 2010

Reading Veblen reminded me of Eben's quick point about the importance of knowing if you have "enough." If you don't know where that line is, as long as other people who you consider to be your peers have more, you will never be happy. Or to put it in other words, the mouse will definitely ask for a glass of milk if his friends already have one.

-- JohnAlbanese - 07 Apr 2010



Webs Webs

r12 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:48:46 - NonaFarahnik
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM