Consumption and survival

Lately I’ve been reading Thorsten Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. This has been as part of my general reading list. My general reading list consists of everything from about Aristotle to Confucius up to about Philip K. Dick. I have a big list of books to read, and that doesn’t include new books or journals, and I have said to myself jokingly but half seriously that it will probably take most of my life to read them. Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure class’ (henceforth: Leisure) is one of them.

Veblen’s Leisure was introduced to me in first year sociology. I then found that it was referenced by a few people who talk about subcultures, consumption and even a few economists. Veblen’s Leisure is said to be one of the first serious works of Sociology, when the academic discipline was at its burgeoning stage. Veblen’s initial part of Leisure consists in a pseudo-anthropological thesis, about how human communities have moved from a base stage of co-operation in order to survive, this involves a division of labour oriented towards fulfilling necessary tasks towards human survival, the later parts of the book, which I shall touch on in this post concern how when the human community is affluent enough, reaches a stage where items are produced and goods are procured that are less about survival, but status.

I think it must have been Veblen who conceptualised the term Conspicuous Consumption. The notion that we spend our money and use certain goods just for the sake of using and obtaining them. There is no need about certain items in the way that we may need sustenance or shelter or warmth, but we use things for a sense of pleasure. Society had reached a point by Veblen’s period where a greater number of people engaged in this conspicuous consumption.

So what is an example of conspicuous consumption? Veblen gives some very interesting and odd instances. Women are conspicuous consumption objects. By that, I take him to mean, the furnishing of women’s wants (by men, and the women themselves), in terms of makeup, fancy outfits and so forth.The status of having affluence can be indicated by a male partner looking very ornate. I think there’s an interesting dimension of objectification here, women in this courtly sense are portrayed as arm candy accessories and confer status. The more one Victorian can spend on his wife, the greater sense of upper class sensibility can be accorded to him. Women are treated instrumentally in this sense of conspicuous consumption.

Another aspect of conspicuous consumption offered by Veblen is horse racing. The pursuit of going to see horse races, betting on them, to be seen at the races and even the cultivation and sponsoring of race horses. These are eccentric 19thC examples, but I can see how it still resounds today. Consider for instance how people pride themselves in an ever so bourgeois way on their book shelf. As a way not of showing their intellectual prowess (although it is under the pretense of doing so), but indicating fundamentally how useless their sense of interests are in the wider scheme of human survival. To have a bookshelf seems to suggest that you are not hungry or destitute in life. That said, half of my book collection is in a shed at the moment because I life in a small place, I fear my Aristotle will suffer a fate worse than the burning of Alexandria’s library: winter damp.

The pursuit of social activities such as going to the pub, drinking alcohol for pleasure (instead of sustenance), theatre, gaming, gigging or even shopping when one has enough clothes, all show our obsession with consuming beyond need. I think that the frame of conspicuous consumption is a good analytical tool, I understand it has been used as such in economic research. There is apparently a legacy that Veblen has for economics beyond sociology, which is interesting for a sociologist to have such a legacy.

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is something that has come to my mind lately, because it is essentially the pursuit of status, and expressing to social others that one lives towards a financial and material means that they produce enough for survival that they can spend their time and money on leisure. Anyone who lives in a country with poor economic growth right now can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Resources are spent on both leisure and survival, even when we don’t have enough to fully cope with the latter. Economic conditions are making life difficult for many families, business and individuals, but the culture of leisure pursuits and conspicuous consumption is not changing in accord, if anything, it’s exploding even more.

Leisure seems to be the outlet, the lightning rod of the frustrations from struggling to make ends meet. Industrialisation has shown that its possible to live in a way that sustains survival, but the post-industrial reverses this trend due to wider economic factors, but leaves the economic system of conspicuous consumption in tact. We still have ‘industries’ that work towards consumption and away from need, it may be the case that for many people, the presence of these industries provide jobs and a means of survival. There isn’t quite the equilibrium in today’s climate that Veblen saw that there was in his description. But maybe it wasn’t the case either that humanity had reached a point where its survival was guaranteed for all either, but rather conspicuous consumption highlighted an upper and middle class. One thing that is certainly true today, is that conspicuous consumption is encouraged for all economic groupings. To the point, I would say, of undermining other issues of importance.

I’ve come to think about consumption in other ways lately. Thanks to Transition Town Tooting hosting earlier in the summer a series of discussion groups called ‘Carbon Conversations’. I came to think about consumption in relation to sustainability and environmental impact. One of the themes addressed in the talks by many people was the concern about the way their decisions as consumers have an impact upon the kind of world they want to have. Consumption therefore has a much deeper dimension in relation to survival. It is not an opposition between conspicuous consumption and survival, but a relation on how our mass decisions as consumers (for instance, consuming beef products which has a high carbon footprint, or driving a car) impacts on wider global issues.

Michael

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