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.