Law in Contemporary Society
Veblen argues, referring to man's affection for a tidy and well kept house, that "the effects are pleasing to us chiefly because we have been taught to find them pleasing." (p.51)

I think this statement is part of the bigger question of where our wants and desires come from. Personally, I find this question particularly daunting. After growing up in a working-class family, I am now surrounded by wealth and financial opportunity in a way that I couldn't fathom growing up. The longer I am here, the more I find myself wanting things I had, literally, never heard of six months ago (bespoke dress shirts, for example). This tendency, combined with the great difficulties most have scaling back their lifestyle (Eben described it as "downshifting"), seems to be one way that corporate firms trap you into what then becomes something like indentured servitude.

So, how can we authenticate (reveal the source of) our desires? Is it important to do so? Can we pull our heads into our collars, like turtles, and pretend that we never read Veblen or Leff?

-- AdamCarlis - 12 Mar 2008

What do you mean by "authenticate our desires"?

-- ChristopherWlach - 12 Mar 2008

To answer what I consider to be your question, Veblen systematically understands our desires on a biological and evolutionary level. As man develops more complicated social structures, society evolves to adapt to these cultural developments. We move therefore from a "peaceable" to a "quasi-peaceable" to a "predatory" social system in the age of primitivism. In all these stages, class division exists but to the teleological end of collective improvement. What motivates man is precisely that 'desire' of group enhancement.

The desire, however, diminishes significantly in the beginning and particularly the end of barbarism. Then, groups invert in the most literal sense external competition. While competition more generally seems to operate on a biological level across all human societies, this inversion of competition only infects 'higher' societies. At that stage, inverted competition within the group encourages emulation, more precisely 'invidious' emulation. I size up my neighbor against myself, and, if my neighbor belongs to a higher leisure class, I emulate him; if the same class like vicarious leisure, I compete to outdo him; if a lower class like the industrial class, I must avoid whatever activity he does entirely. In this sense, my demand or 'desire' for something is dictated by the superior class, and not the masses, since the superior class also must avoid whatever activity the inferior class does.

  • Jesse, my question was not with the history of conspicuous consumption, but rather what we, as modern consumers, should do with the knowledge of that history. I guess I am making the assumption that such consumption, when driven by social pressures, is a bad thing in so far as it doesn't represent our true desires (whatever true desires means). -- AdamCarlis - 12 Mar 2008

My question is to what extent the "domestic servant" with whom a reputable household must not socialize could be said to represent an allegory of the "firm" or "corporation"? Shareholders (the master), to whom service employees (the domestic servant) work, are always absent and thus do not socialize with the employees since "personal contact with the hired persons whose aid is called in to fulfil the routine of decency is commonly distasteful to the occupants of the house, but their presence is endured and paid for, in order to delegate to them a share in this onerous consumption of household goods"? (41 until the end of chapter 3).

-- JesseCreed - 12 Mar 2008

Responding to Adam’s question point about authenticating desires:

Veblen describes and rejects the traditional idea that the “end of acquisition and accumulation” is “the consumption of the goods accumulated” in order to “serve the consumer’s physical wants.” If you want to find a basis for what might be called “real desires” or “real wants,” I think you need to start by looking at what actual physical needs you have. We all need shirts or shirt like objects to keep warm or avoid sun burn. Nevertheless, we only “need” collared shirts with French cuffs to show status or fit in with others of a certain status in social situations.

The question then becomes what social situations do you “need” to fit into? What status do you “want” to achieve? How you answer these questions will determine what you end up subjectively needing and conspicuously consuming.

-- StephenClarke - 12 Mar 2008

Veblen directly addresses the basic test for what is and is not conspicuous consumption in chapter 4 when he discusses waste. Veblen writes, “The test to which all expenditure must be brought” is “whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the whole” or “whether it furthers the life process taken impersonally.” He clarifies the meaning of this test later when he writes that the test not whether a given expenditure promotes peace of mind, but whether it results in a “net gain in comfort or fullness of life.” Every expenditure is waste if it is the result of a custom “traceable to the habit of making an invidious pecuniary comparison.”

-- StephenClarke - 13 Mar 2008

Steve, I think you are right, I am just worried about that definition.

For whatever reason I have long tried to live a life free of what I saw as needless consumption (perhaps it was a defense - rejecting what was being kept from me to maintain sense of self in a society that looks down on those withought cash to blow). I have always defined this type of consumption as something that provides you with no benefit beyond simply doing it and being seen doing it (wearing a 80 dollar T-Shirt because it says Armani, having a manicured lawn, or driving a Hummer). The definition you attribute (I think rightly) to Veblen goes further and would also include going out for an expensive, but not overpriced, dinner (think blue hill instead of tavern on the green) or wearing well-made cloths that cost a bit more as a result.

I want to maintain a belief that conspicuous consumption is something that one should be aware of and avoid, without giving up some of the individualistic pursuits that, even when done with no one looking, make me a bit happier. Am I being hypocritical and selfish or is the key to the whole thing motivation and prioritization (think the king who burns to death istead of adjusting his seat)?

-- AdamCarlis - 13 Mar 2008



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r10 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:47:34 - IanSullivan
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