Selling Mrs. Conspicuous Consumption

Selling Mrs. Conspicuous Consumption

In Selling Mrs. Consumer, Christine Frederick shilled for progressive obsolescence, which had been advocated the previous year in an article by her husband, J. George Frederick. Or at least that is the way it seemed to her biographer, Janice Rutherford, who wrote, “she now took up and elaborated upon his theme, even using the same words…” 

Even using the same words?! It is possible that Mrs. Frederick copied passages from her husband’s article. It is also possible that her husband, editor, and publisher, Mr. Frederick, wrote the chapter on progressive obsolescence for Mrs. Frederick’s book. It’s possible he wrote other chapters and made strategic additions here and there throughout the book. I mean, seriously?

There is another odd moment in Selling Mrs. Consumer that could possibly be from the pen of J. George Frederick. In chapter 13, the author makes the odd observation that “[c]ooking in general is thus no longer a means of “conspicuous consumption,” to use Veblen’s excellent phrase [emphasis added].” Rutherford described the peculiar comment as “misunderstanding his [Veblen’s] indictment of the middle class’s emulation of the wealthy.” The book went on, however, to explain:

Emulation is a natural and a persisting human quality in all of us. The display of expensive goods or unusual possessions testifies to the economic distinction and pride of the owner or person making the display. Thus, the old time housewife making a display of her cooking skill, her elaborate menu, her rich dishes, did so as a means of expressing the “conspicuous consumption” of her particular family and herself as contrasted with the persons or family or woman to whom she was making the display. We have “conspicuous consumption” today, but its objects have changed, thus we have or make displays in the kind and elaborateness of the clothes we wear, in the furniture or jewels or furs we possess, and above all, in the car we drive and the home we occupy, or our way of life and living.

There is no “misunderstanding” here. Frederick — whether Mr. or Mrs. — simply omitted the implicit stigma of Veblen’s “indictment.” It’s natural and persistent, so why should it be treated like a crime? Given Veblen’s deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery, who is to say that his description was unequivocally an “indictment”? 

Why do I suspect George may have contributed the remarks on conspicuous consumption? In 1933, Frederick edited the volume, For and Against Technocracy: A Symposium. The Technocracy movement of the 1930s was steeped in the influence of Veblen. Frederick also edited volumes on The New Deal and on planning. He was reportedly interested in Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction, which he likened to his own views on progressive obsolescence. 

An apologetic interpretation of The Theory of the Leisure Class is conceivable, albeit eccentric. While pondering this matter, it came to my attention that Veblen used the word “obsolescence” nine times in The Theory of The Leisure Class. He used the word “obsolete” eight times, and “obsolescent” 16 times. 

Prior to 1900, most journal articles that use all three of those terms are either dealing with animal species or with features of language. Even the term “obsolescence,” by itself, mostly refers to biological or medical phenomena. Of 95 instances of “obsolescence” prior to 1905 in JSTOR, 3 or 4 of them referred to other than biological, medical, or lexical matters. 

Veblen’s contemporaries and influences — Herbert Spencer, Henry George, William Graham Sumner, John Bates Clark, for example — did not use the term. Veblen used “obsolescence” in The Theory of the Leisure ClassThe Engineers and the Price SystemThe Theory of Business EnterpriseThe Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, and An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace. It would be fair to conclude that Veblen popularized obsolescence as a sociological or economic concept.

In fact, Veblen’s theory of institutional evolution is grounded in the inherent obsolescence of contemporary social institutions:

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. 

Incidentally, Theodor Adorno cited the above passage in his 1941 essay, “Veblen’s Attack on Culture.” It would be fascinating to assess Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man from the perspective of Adorno’s critique of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (Adorno’s essay is anthologized in Prisms). Presumably, Adorno was unaware of Fredericks’s cynical appropriation of progressive obsolescence and conspicuous consumption but he did acknowledge the assimilation of Veblen’s theories, including the adoption by journalists of his “striking terminology”:

One sees here the objective tendency to disarm a tiresome opponent by giving him a warm reception. Veblen’s thought. however, is not completely out of harmony with such a reception: he is less an outsider than he seems at first sight.

What Adorno criticized as Veblen’s one-sided (might one say “one-dimensional”?) debunking of culture thus lent itself to precisely the sort of cynical appropriation it received. One might say the same for Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” and today’s hyped-up cult of the victims of cancel culture. I will address the latter issue in a future post, expanding on the arguments I presented three years ago in “Unreading Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance” and a few other related posts from that time.