In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen wrote: “The basis on which good repute in any highly organized industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods (60)”.
According to Veblen, we engage in conspicuous consumption to express status. This ability to display wealth, in Veblen’s eyes, is employed not only to express superiority, but to also compete for status among those in similar socio-economic standing.
I often wonder if we have begun to re-examine and redefined how we signal status in a world of excess. The typical American household contains approximately 3,000 things. While products will always play a part in how we define ourselves to others, what happens when access to such products isn’t so limited? Furthermore, the amount of access and awareness we have for other people’s lifestyle makes it hard to hide behind just one Prada bag. We must continue to consume.
We make such a point to document our experiences for others, that I have begun to question whether the documentation of an experience is a more modern construct of conspicuous consumption. Sure, we still take pictures of products on Instagram, but I would argue that we have shifted from a culture that uses products and services to signal status, to one that has begun to display experiences, and access to culture as a status signal.
To that end:
If it were simply about the experience, wouldn’t only one “click” suffice?
Veblen wrote that conspicuous consumption is a product of conspicuous waste. The idea that we consume more than we need is used to express to others that we have no need to work. Waste indicates a lifestyle of leisure.
Conspicuous consumption is both aspirational, as it is employed to transcend class, and to separate one from those in direct social competition. Veblen wrote: “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 in their own self-esteem, since he usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbors (24)”.
A New Standard?
Veblen believed that society would always search for new ways to express wealth and status. As certain markers of wealth diffuse to the masses, those of higher-class would ultimately find new ways to signal status. “The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbors (p.24)”.
With photo sharing apps and visual posts dominating how we share our lives with others, is it any wonder that we try and fit as many social cues into them as possible? No longer do photos just capture the “now”, but must capture a perfect representation of the now. Perhaps this is a symptom of our constant connectivity? It is to this point that William Deresiewicz explored in The End of Solitude: “We [now] live exclusively in relations to others”. In this always-connected and evolving relationship to others, is it easier, and more powerful of an expression, to signal our experiences as form of capital than what we buy?