Georg Simmel called it “a faint sense of tension and vague longing” connected with the modern preponderance of means over ends. What Simmel calls estrangement
[We] feel as if the whole meaning of our existence were so remote that we are unable to locate it and are constantly in danger of moving away from rather than closer to it. Furthermore, it is as if the meaning of life clearly confronted us, as if we would be able to grasp it were it not for the fact that we lack some modest amount of courage, strength and inner security.
I would add that this perceived remoteness of spirituality and contemplation is compounded by ambivalence toward the material wonders that the preponderance of means delivers. Here I am — blithely typing into my computer to instantly send my thoughts out to potentially who knows how many readers, yet:
People’s ecstasy concerning the triumphs of the telegraph and telephone often makes them overlook the fact that what really matters is the value of what one has to say, and that, compared with this, the speed or slowness of the means of communication is often a concern that could attain its present status only by usurpation.
This, at best, “faint sense of tension and vague longing,” or, at worst, “deep feeling that something is wrong,” is what underlies the otherwise inexplicable appeal of demagogues and scapegoating cults, which promise the “courage, strength and inner security” that people feel they lack. The magical thing about cults is that their failure to resolve the tension and longing merely heightens the loyalty of recruits. The more they fail, the stronger is their grip.
At the turn of the twentieth century, both Simmel and Thorstein Veblen were, I believe, seeking to address that “faint sense of tension and vague longing” — the infamous fin de siècle spirit of “ennui, cynicism, pessimism, and ‘a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence’.” (wikipedia) Both offered compelling analyses. It seems that Veblen’s critique became the ‘common sense’ of American social criticism and as such was eventually assimilated into what I would characterize as a mainstream current of resigned radicalism — the sense that things are not quite right but that there is no realistic chance of fundamental change.
Veblen’s social criticism may be summed up as asserting that social progress is perpetually impeded by archaic — ‘obsolescent‘ — habits of mind, such that we are always trying to address today’s problems with yesterday’s institutions. “…this process of selective adaptation can never catch up with the progressively changing situation in which the community finds itself at any given time”:
Institutions must change with changing circumstances, since they are of the nature of an habitual method of responding to the stimuli which these changing circumstances afford. The development of these institutions is the development of society. The institutions are, in substance, prevalent habits of thought with respect to particular relations and particular functions of the individual and of the community; and the scheme of life, which is made up of the aggregate of institutions in force at a given time or at a given point in the development of any society, may, on the psychological side, be broadly characterized as a prevalent spiritual attitude or a prevalent theory of life. As regards its generic features, this spiritual attitude or theory of life is in the last analysis reducible to terms of a prevalent type of character.
The situation of today shapes the institutions of tomorrow through a selective, coercive process, by acting upon men’s habitual view of things, and so altering or fortifying a point of view or a mental attitude handed down from the past. The institutions — that is to say the habits of thought — under the guidance of which men live are in this way received from an earlier time; more or less remotely earlier, but in any event they have been elaborated in and received from the past. Institutions are products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present. In the nature of the case, this process of selective adaptation can never catch up with the progressively changing situation in which the community finds itself at any given time; for the environment, the situation, the exigencies of life which enforce the adaptation and exercise the selection, change from day to day; and each successive situation of the community in its turn tends to obsolescence as soon as it has been established [emphasis added]. When a step in the development has been taken, this step itself constitutes a change of situation which requires a new adaptation; it becomes the point of departure for a new step in the adjustment, and so on interminably.
It is to be noted then, although it may be a tedious truism, that the institutions of today — the present accepted scheme of life — do not entirely fit the situation of today. At the same time, men’s present habits of thought tend to persist indefinitely, except as circumstances enforce a change. These institutions which have thus been handed down, these habits of thought, points of view, mental attitudes and aptitudes, or what not, are therefore themselves a conservative factor. This is the factor of social inertia, psychological inertia, conservatism. Social structure changes, develops, adapts itself to an altered situation, only through a change in the habits of thought of the several classes of the community, or in the last analysis, through a change in the habits of thought of the individuals which make up the community. The evolution of society is substantially a process of mental adaptation on the part of individuals under the stress of circumstances which will no longer tolerate habits of thought formed under and conforming to a different set of circumstances in the past. For the immediate purpose it need not be a question of serious importance whether this adaptive process is a process of selection and survival of persistent ethnic types or a process of individual adaptation and an inheritance of acquired traits.
For Simmel, it is not the ‘obsolescence’ of these institutions and habits of minds that is at the root of the problem. Rather it is the sheer proliferation of “objective” facts that overwhelm the individual’s capability of assimilating them:
If one compares our culture with that of a hundred years ago, then one may surely say — subject to many individual exceptions — that the things that determine and surround our lives, such as tools, means of transport, the products of science, technology and art, are extremely refined. Yet individual culture, at least in the higher strata, has not progressed at all to the same extent; indeed, it has even frequently declined. … The fact that machinery has become so much more sophisticated than the worker is part of this same process. How many workers are there today, even within large-scale industry, who are able to understand the machine with which they work, that is the mental effort invested in it? … In the purely intellectual sphere, even the best informed and most thoughtful persons work with a growing number of ideas, concepts and statements, the exact meaning and content of which they are not fully aware. The tremendous expansion of objective, available material of knowledge allows or even enforces the use of expressions that pass from hand to hand like sealed containers without the condensed content of thought actually enclosed within them being unfolded for the individual user. Just as our everyday life is surrounded more and more by objects of which we cannot conceive how much intellectual effort is expended in their production, so our mental and social communication is filled with symbolic terms, in which a comprehensive intellectuality is accumulated, but of which the individual mind need make only minimal use. … Every day and from all sides, the wealth of objective culture increases, but the individual mind can enrich the forms and contents of its own development only by distancing itself still further from that culture and developing its own at a much slower pace. How can we explain this phenomenon? If all the culture of things is, as we saw, nothing but a culture of people, so that we develop ourselves only by developing things, then what does that development, elaboration and intellectualization of objects mean, which seems to evolve out of these objects’ own powers and norms without correspondingly developing the individual mind? This implies an accentuation of the enigmatic relationship which prevails between the social life and its products on the one hand and the fragmentary life-contents of individuals on the other. The labour of countless generations is embedded in language and custom, political constitutions and religious doctrines, literature and technology as objectified spirit from which everyone can take as much of it as they wish to or are able to, but no single individual is able to exhaust it all. Between the amount of this treasure and what is taken from it, there exists the most diverse and fortuitous relationships. The insignificance or irrationality of the individual’s share leaves the substance and dignity of mankind’s ownership unaffected, just as any physical entity is independent of its being individually perceived. Just as the content and significance of a book remains indifferent to a large or small, understanding or unresponsive, group of readers, so any cultural product confronts its cultural audience, ready to be absorbed by anyone but in fact taken up only sporadically. This concentrated mental labour of a cultural community is related to the degree to which it comes alive in individuals just as the abundance of possibilities is related to the limitations of reality.
If only these two contemporaries could have been brought together in an exchange of views! I have long admired Veblen’s thought and his influence on subsequent writers, including Kenneth Burke, Stephen Leacock, and Arthur Dahlberg. But re-evaluating it in the light of “planned obsolescence” and “progressive obsolescence” I can now see its potential for misappropriation. We “can never catch up with the progressively changing situation” — therefore we must race ever faster on the treadmill of technological progress!
William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings wrote several underconsumptionist texts in the 1920s that Steven Kates has argued were a formative — but unacknowledged — influence on Keynes’s General Theory. For our purposes, though, what is of interest is their comments on Veblen in two of their early books, Money (1924) and Profits (1925). In the former book, Foster and Catchings took issue with Veblen’s objection to the “conspicuous waste” of non-productive consumers:
But, however objectionable it may be to have any members of society appropriate for their personal use far more than they contribute to society, we cannot for that reason hold them directly responsible” for fluctuations in the world’s work. Their “joy-riding” cannot budge business as long as the amount they spend in consumption bears a constant relation to the other factors that determine the annual production-consumption equation.
In Profits, Foster and Catchings chided Veblen and others for hypocritically assuming that other people’s consumption is waste but their own is sensible:
No one who cries out against wasteful and harmful products proposes to have his own freedom of choice restrained. He assumes that in an ideal economic order, where nobody wasted the labors of men in the pursuit of profit, he would still be able to buy about all that he now enjoys; for, naturally, his own expenditures seem to him sensible. He does not expect to give up his favorite cigar or cheese, or anything else except, perhaps, certain newspapers or vaudeville shows that are beginning to bore him. It is always some other man’s way of spending money that he wishes to curtail for the common good. So when Thorstein Veblen lashes, with all the thongs of his far-flung vocabulary, the conspicuous waste of the leisure class, and when Hartley Withers condemns it for ‘consuming things that it does not really want,’ we should bear in mind, however tempted we may be to join in the flaying, that every consumer is the sole judge of what he really wants.
There are only a couple of steps from every consumer being the sole judge of what he wants to the economic imperative of advertising and fashion compelling people to want things they otherwise don’t want. The first step is from Foster and Catchings to Paul Mazur’s American Prosperity: It’s Causes and Consequences (1928). Catchings was a senior partner at Goldman Sachs; Mazur was a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The two men “played equally important roles in directing investment bankers toward the consumer industry.” (“Brokers and the New Corporate Industrial Order” — William Leach). They worked together promoting mergers in the merchandise sector. Mazur didn’t cite Foster and Catchings in his book and he didn’t mention Veblen.
Obsolescence, however, appears 43 times in Mazur’s book. Veblen used the term in 1897 and used it pointedly in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The term began to appear relatively frequently with reference to the depreciation of capital goods around 1903-1904. Before then it usually referred to medical, biological, or linguistic matters. Obsolete was used by several economists, including Veblen, in the 1890s with reference to machinery. I could find no reference prior to the twentieth century of obsolescent or obsolete consumer goods.
Mazur’s friend in the advertising industry, J. George Frederick, undoubtedly got his inspiration from Mazur’s book for his article, “Is Progressive Obsolescence the Path Toward Increased Consumption.” American Prosperity was published in January 1928. Frederick’s article was published the following September. Frederick didn’t mention Mazur. He did, however, take a dig at Foster and Catchings:
Messrs. Foster and Catchings have been talking and writing theoretically about this question for four or five years and getting much attention. They say “get more money into the consumer’s hands with which to buy,” which is most admirable doctrine, but their only concrete recipe for doing this little piece of bootstrap-lifting is for the Government to employ men on Federal building projects. I think that it is self-evident that this is a mere minor stop-gap.
Having now obtained Frederick’s “Progressive Obsolescence” article, I’m confident he wrote the progressive obsolescence chapter of his wife’s book and likely added the ironic praise of “Veblen’s excellent phrase.”
Herbert Marcuse’s 1941 essay “Some social implications of Modern Technology” was published in the same issue of Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, as Theodor Adorno’s “Veblen’s Attack on Culture: Remarks Occasioned by the Theory of the Leisure Class.” Marcuse’s references to Veblen there were mainly to the “Instinct of Workmanship” essay and to observations by Veblen about technology that was similar to Marx’s views on the relationship between workers and machinery. Adorno was more perceptive in criticizing Veblen’s one-sided debunking of culture as being “not completely out of harmony” with the “disarming” reception he received. Presumably, though, Veblen — and even Adorno — would have been horrified by the facility with which Foster and Catchings repelled lashes from “the thongs of his far-flung vocabulary,” Mazur perverted his “striking terminology,” and the Fredericks mocked his “excellent phrase,” conspicuous consumption.
Simmel’s analysis didn’t lend itself so readily to snappy sloganeering and perhaps that spared it from assimilation and vulgarization. I recently read a 54-page essay that mostly focuses on a 24-page section of Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money. My advice would be to read the section on culture in Simmel’s chapter on the “Style of Life” twice — or maybe three times. This is not meant as a slight on the 54-page essay. Simmel’s writing is so rich and deep that one can read it over and over profitably.
Simmel didn’t offer a solution to the problems of modernity that he describes. To be fair, Veblen didn’t offer a solution either, at least not in The Theory of the Leisure Class (later on he hallucinated about ‘the engineers’ as agents of social change). Simmel’s refusal of a solution was consistent with his critique of the preponderance of means over ends. Solutions to problems, after all, are means, not ends. The end is not resignation but wisdom.