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Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class Updated

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In his 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen wrote, “The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength… are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods.” In Crass Struggle, McGill University economics professor R.T. Naylor makes an admirable effort to update Veblen’s argument about status-driven consumption to today’s period of “überclass excess.”

What, according to Naylor, has changed since 1899? Whereas early-20th-century tycoons like Andrew Carnegie earned their wealth in the world of material production, “today’s parasitocracy” amass their fortunes in the dastardly world of international finance. Philanthropy is no longer driven by the desire to give back to one’s community, but is rather reduced to an opportunity for tax breaks, a means of perpetuating a “bacchanalian spending spree.” And this runaway consumption is now widely accepted in society: once fierce class struggle has morphed into “crass struggle,” the “minor disagreement between have-lots and wanna-have-mores.”

Naylor makes it clear at the outset that his intention is only to examine the luxury spending spree, not to detail the problematic ways in which today’s fortunes were accumulated. Each of the 12 chapters in the book looks at a specific market for luxury consumption, with products ranging from diamonds to art to wine to exotic pets. Against mainstream economics, which is narrowly focused on the movement of quantitative “market prices,” Naylor aims to reveal the underside of these luxury markets, the very spotty history of producing and trading luxury items. For example, a broad chapter on seafood features stories of imperialism, poaching, smuggling, false labelling, toothless regulations, ecological mismanagement and habitat destruction. It begins with Europe’s conquest of saltwater fisheries and the technological developments that gradually allowed Western fishers to devour more and more sea life, and concludes by detailing the lengths to which crooked profiteers will go to capture the astronomical premiums paid for beluga and sturgeon roe, the two most prized types of caviar. Along the way, Naylor repeatedly ridicules luxury tastes, pointing out, for instance, that fatty bluefin tuna is now a delicacy but was not considered good enough for cat food before World War II.

Crass Struggle is impressive for its comprehensiveness, a testament to the two-plus decades Naylor has spent researching and writing about international black markets. Since it is being released at a moment when, despite persistent revenue shortages, powerful forces in Canada and the US appear poised to block any efforts to raise taxes on millionaires, Crass Struggle’s depiction of the true nature of luxury consumption is also timely. It fits well with the current social-democratic discourse calling for ceilings on CEO pay in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. At the same time, however, the book aptly demonstrates the limits of this discourse.

Naylor’s declared aim is to jolt sleepwalkers “out of their self-assuring reveries” with a “splash of ice-cold reality.” Crass Struggle definitely provides a splash, a warning particularly to those enmeshed in a “pathetic emulation of upper crust ostentation.” But the dull story of lower-end commodities — the relentless drive to reduce the costs of mass-consumed items — should not be lost behind Naylor’s exceptional story of fraud and forgery.

This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Inuit Focus and Occupy Movement ).

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