Veblen on noticeably not working on Labour Day

A day of vicarious leisure has in some communities been set apart as Labor Day. This observance is designed to augment the prestige of the fact of labour, by the archaic, predatory method of a compulsory abstention from useful effort. To this datum of labour-in-genera is imputed the good repute attributable to the pecuniary strength put in evidence by abstaining from labour.

Meaning: in order to assert the dignity of labour the workers have to do occasionally what the barbaric upper classes that live by other people’s work do all the time – namely be visibly idle. No better way of doing that than grab some flags and placards and make some noise in the streets.

More on Veblen’s theory of recognition here 

money and recognition (an assessment of now – from 70 years ago)

This passage from Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1944 Dialektik der Aufklärung sounds very much as if written as a comment on the views of the of the world’s financial centre’s mayor.

‚Hierzulande gibt es keinen Unterschied zwischen dem wirtschaftlichen Schicksal und den Menschen selbst. Keiner ist etwas anderes als sein Vermögen, sein Einkommen, seine Stellung, seine Chancen. Die wirtschaftliche Charaktermaske und das, was darunter ist, decken sich im Bewußtsein der Menschen, den Betroffenen eingeschlossen, bis aufs kleinste Fältchen. Jeder ist so viel wert wie er verdient, jeder verdient so viel er wert ist. Was er ist, erfährt er durch die Wechselfälle seiner wirtschaftlichen Existenz. Er kennt sich nicht als ein anderes. Hatte die materialistische Kritik der Gesellschaft dem Idealismus einst entgegengehalten, daß nicht das Bewußtsein das Sein, sondern das Sein das Bewußtsein bestimme, daß die Wahrheit über die Gesellschaft nicht in ihren idealistischen Vorstellungen von sich selbst, sondern in ihrer Writschaft zu finden sei, so hat das zeitgemäße Selbstbewußtsein solchen Idealismus mittlerweile abgeworfen.‘ (Horkheimer/Adorno1969: 220)

‘In this country there is no difference between their economic fate and the human beings themselves. Nobody is anything but their wealth, their income, their position, their opportunities. In people’s minds, including that of the wearers themselves, the economic character mask and the face behind it are identical down to the last little wrinkle. Each is worth exactly what they earn, each earns exactly what they are worth. What they are, they learn through the vagaries of their economic existence. They don’t know themselves as anything different. While materialist social critique used to confront idealism with the claim that it was not consciousness that determined being, but being that determined consciousness and that the truth about society was not to be found in its idealist self image, but in the economy;  contemporary consciousness has discarded such idealism.’ (my translation)

It is also, as I argue here, the psychological effect on the basis of which Marx’s labour theory of value regains plausibility as a moral anthropology of capitalist exchange. In effect the capitalist market here performs the exact same role that it does, in Weber’s ideal-typical conception, for the Calvinist believer in predestination. It is the field of probation where divine signs (in the form of financial success) reveal one’s predetermined state of grace. But while the ‘invisible hand’, as which Adam Smith visualised the agency of the market awarding those signs, still seems to be doing its job, it no longer does so as the hand of God. The worthiness acknowledged by market recognition is completely secularised, but still has a religious feel to it. This is why ‘ability’, ‘talent’, ‘IQ’ etc. are reified and deified into equivalents of divine grace that cannot but attract financial recognition.

The problem – the reason why Boris Johnson’s revelations caused a minor scandal – is that without the theological underpinnings, the acceptability of this world view rests very much on the perceived plausibility of the distributive outcomes. Social psychologist Michael Lerner has shown that the fact that we want to live in a just world normally finds its expression in us committing to a belief in a just world, supporting counterfactual assumptions like that yes, in most cases people who earn more do so because they are cleverer and because the work harder (even if we should know from experience that this is not that often the case). But you can overstretch – and in the current crisis, we may well have reached a breaking point. At least Randall Collins seems to think so when he starts his speculations about an impending revolution with the observation that the first reward for proven intelligence constituted by a college degree is… a huge pile of debt.

Horkheimer, Max/Adorno, Theodor W. (1969) [1944]: Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption and Recognition

Now published in European Journal of Social Theory‘Waste, Industry and Romantic Leisure: Veblen’s Theory of Recognition’ (Vol.9, no.1, pp.103-117)


Veblen’s work contains a neglected, since for the most part implicit, theory of recognition centred on his concepts of waste and workmanship. This article tries to develop this theory in order to shed new light on the theorem of conspicuous leisure and consumption. The legitimacy of violence at the ‘predatory stage’ of culture has been partly superseded by a legitimacy of industrial efficiency, so that the leisure classes need to disguise their conspicuous waste as socially useful productive endeavours. At the same time waste remains a powerful symbol of legitimate status, so that even the industrial classes turn to it in order to assert their social worth and demand social recognition. Waste – which is far more central in Veblen’s theory than is emulation – becomes an ambiguous symbol which can stand for both unproductive privilege and industrial efficiency. The utilitarian urge for efficiency and the meaninglessness of a struggle for recognition through conspicuous waste produce a desire for a romantic escape, also acknowledged by Veblen, but often overlooked in his sharp criticism of consumerism.

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