Nothing’s Lower Than Walking: The Leisure Class in America

Is there any activity is more clearly useful than walking? I can think of some nominees, like giving birth, or farming. But it’s a small group altogether, none of which could be imagined without the others. Walking is even lower than public transportation. After all, anyone can do it. If memory serves, a member of Faulkner’s Snopes family, released from prison but met by no one, was left to walk home, dimly aware that the distance was nearly the length of the state. After surviving trials and tribulations, he decided—I’m aping rather than repeating Faulkner, because right now my books are in boxes—“A man can git through anythin’ if he kin jes’ keep on walkin’.”

This, according to Thorstein Veblen, is precisely why these activities are not valued by society. As I understand his most famous work, his theory of the leisure class says that the more useful an activity, the lower its status. Thus, bond trading is more lucrative and higher status than growing soybeans. And of course ritzy suburbs have no sidewalks. If you’re walking, you’re in the wrong neighborhood.

It seems to me that this is the clearest explanation of society’s ills so far. There aren’t, after all, a lot of folks claiming to have this level of big-picture explanation. Marx, for example, analyzed the problems of industrial society with great skill, but his predictions seem to have been based on the concept that what he saw around him would continue for the forseeable future. This didn’t happen. As Bertrand Russell says, “I do not forget the horrors of early industrialism, but these, after all, were mitigated within the system.” Not solved; the rich are not about to capitulate. But mitigated, and through our own efforts to modify the system. Lesson: the system can be modified.

With software, one must understand the system, or at least the relevant part of it, if one expects to modify the system effectively. Russell apparently believed that there are laws governing human behavior that will eventually allow us to predict it, at least in theory. My guess is that understanding society is basically beyond our reach, because I think it’s a group, in the sense of abstract algrebra, rather than a system. But it’s certainly worthwhile to attempt to understand it.

This is why I think Veblen is so important. By understanding how our society is constituted, we can get past the false claims made by those who don’t want us to understand. Surprise, this is Veblen’s leisure class.

You undoubtedly know some of Veblen’s concepts even if you’ve never read him. As far as I can tell, he invented the term “conspicuous consumption”—this is the process by which members of the leisure class let others know of their membership. Correlative ideas were “conspicuous leisure”—you sit on the porch doing nothing, so other people can see that you do nothing; “vicarious consumption”—your family, and eventually your slaves, are fat (he leaves out the “dumb and happy”); and “vicarious leisure”—your family and slaves sit on the porch doing nothing. At this point, of course, you’ve made your point—you contribute nothing to society: you, and your dependents, merely take. Wasn’t the original Greek definition of “idiot” a person who could contribute to society but chooses not to?

Veblen goes back to prehistoric times to explain human behavior. His theory is that at an early stage of human development, we all hunted or gathered food and brought it back to the common area; afterwards we all ate, dividing what we’d found. Then some people realized that if they hit hard enough, they didn’t have to hunt or gather; they could wait until others brought food, then take it from them—the beginnings of the leisure class. Soon they realized that this left them with a lot of free time, which they could spend raiding other local groups, who were out hunting and gathering. This naturally led to a sort of feudal society, with the strong stealing the food the weak produce, and using their freedom from want to make war.

This is, according to Veblen, how useful stuff became low status, and useless stuff became high status. Counterexamples?

[ This second version adds the Simpsons and Faulkner references. ]

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