How are the "leisure class" and ownership related, according to Veblen? What are the roots of conventional ownership and of marriage? Consider our contemporary phrase "trophy wife." Veblen sees "emulation" as a key feature of social life in "predatory societies." How do the patterns of emulation change as predatory societies change?
What fundamental criticism does Veblen make of standard economics? What feature of the possession of wealth does he point that differs from the use of wealth for subsistence or comfort? How does wealth become an "honor (or status) fetish"? ["Wealth is now itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor" (323)]. How does this sort of fetishism compare with Marxs notion of the fetishism of the commodity? Does Veblens theory suggest that Marxs analysis of the commodity was incomplete? Should we think of commodities as having "status value" as well as use-value and exchange-value? (Or is status value a species of use value?) Watch for Baudrillard on this point.
What does Veblen mean by "invidious distinction"? How did individual ownership of "booty" tend to break up early communities? Is there any evidence to think that "Property is still of the nature of trophy" (322)?
As the opportunities for predatory aggression and exploit--as opposed to commercial and industrial predation--diminish, do we find vicarious predation and exploit stepping in to satisfy ancient appetites? Is this the way to look at modern sports?
What are the consequences of the following observation by Veblen for thinking about poverty and the idea of a "Cycle of poverty": "Those members of the community who fall short of this, somewhat indefinite, normal degree of prowess or of property suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they suffer also in their own esteem, since the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by ones neighbors" (324). Consider the stereotype of "Okie" from The Grapes of Wrath.
How does Veblens notion of a status treadmill (keeping up with the Joneses) reveal a new sort of boundlessness and futility to the social process of the acquisition of wealth? How is the "status treadmill" the perfect answer to the "value treadmill" (i.e., Marxs point that an increase in productivity, while it increases the amount of wealth produced in an hour, does not increase the amount of value produced in an hour; see p. 264)? Is the "status treadmill" the perfect tonic for the boundlessness of capitalist accumulation?
What are the consequences for our everyday notions of success of the following: "Purposeful effort comes to mean, primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth" (325). Do we see the abstractness of the goal of a capitalist enterprise--to make money--shining through here in our everyday notions of success? Compare this notion of success with Aristotles or Aquinass conception of the good human life. Is there any connection here to the now much talked about decline of virtue? (See Alasdair MacIntyres book After Virtue).
What does Veblen mean by "conspicuous consumption," "conspicuous leisure," "vicarious conspicuous consumption," and "vicarious conspicuous leisure"? How does Veblen size up the role of the middle class wife and middle class domesticity? What is ironic about the role of the wife as "ceremonial consumer of goods"? Why, according to Veblen, do middle and leisure class men not want their wives to work? Is Veblens thinking here hopelessly outmoded?
What are the consequences of the spread of social equality (with the decline in formal class structure) for the capacity of the leisure class to "afford the norm of reputability for the community"? How is this role actually played out? (Consider television shows like "The Lives of the Rich and Famous" or "Dallas," which spun off its own line of furniture.) Does this passage bring to mind a scene from The Grapes of Wrath: "No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, foregoes all customary conspicuous consumption ...Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket of the last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away" (329).
What is Veblens notion of "the instinct of workmanship" and how does it relate to his conception of "waste"? How does Veblens conception of waste relate to that of Locke?
Notice that Veblen does not divide goods into the wasteful and the useful. Rather, he writes: It would be hazardous to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or of any service, however obviously its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product that the element of waste is in now way concerned in its value, immediately or remotely" (331). Do any exceptions to these rules come to mind?
Why does Veblen feel compelled to clarify and make disclaimers concerning his use of the terms "invidious" (325) and "waste" (329)? Is his language revealing of underlying intentions? Could it be that his very disclaimers reveal a troubling and hostile tendency in his thinking ? Are there elements of resentment or envy in Veblen's comments? Are his positions in any way related to the austere, Puritan morality and work ethic of British and American capitalism? (compare this to the issues in Max Weber, Daniel Bell, and Baudrillard). If so, is Veblen reacting against the mutation of traditional capitalism into less severe social forms?
How is the competition among consumers for ever higher levels of consumption related to the imperatives of capitalist production and accumulation? Is there a conflict between the demands of conspicuous consumption and those of capitalist accumulation (i.e. accumulation of money)? (compare this to Baudrillard's ideas). Does it matter what form the accumulated material takes (property or cash)? At what point in history does conspicuous consumption become an important motive in capitalist society? What conditions are necessary for its appearance and continuation? (Do you see any indications in the Grapes of Wrath of the coming of consumer society, even in the depths of the Depression?) Does the appearance of conspicuous consumption signal an important change in the nature of a capitalist society? Does such consumption have any beneficial side effects in some way counteracting the harshness of the production and money-hoarding aspects of capitalism? How do Veblen's arguments relate to those made by Hume in reference to the role and effects of luxury in commercial societies? How about Aristotle and his notions of living well versus merely living? Is conspicuous consumption a self-correction or adaptation of capitalism in some way compensating for some of its problems?
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