War, Waste, and the Myth of Progress

War, Waste, and the Myth of Progress

In the introduction to One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse listed four authors — Vance Packard, C. Wright Mills, William H. White, and Fred J. Cooks — whose works were of “vital importance” to his analysis. In the text, he mentioned “the affluent society” several times, which, of course, was the title of a famous book by John Kenneth Galbraith. 

Galbraith, Mills, and White all cited Thorstein Veblen in their books. Packard cited the influence of Stuart Chase’s The Tragedy of Waste on his thinking. Chase’s book cited Veblen no fewer than 20 times. It is not an overstatement to say that the specter of Thorstein Veblen haunts One-Dimensional Man. 

I will leave debates about the compatibility or incompatibility of Marx and Veblen to the literature in the archives. What I am interested in here is the adequacy of Veblen’s critique of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste to Marcuse’s critique of late capitalist social identity. 

As I mentioned earlier, Marcuse never specifically analyzed planned obsolescence. He simply included it in lists of symptoms of the one-dimensional society. Throughout nearly a dozen publications, Marcuse typically listed planned obsolescence along with advertising (18 times), waste (10-13 times),  militarism (9 times), and a dozen or so miscellaneous items, several of which could be interpreted as examples of either waste or advertising.

War, waste, and advertising are central themes in The Tragedy of Waste but Chase’s use of World War I as a benchmark of rational planning is odd, to say the least:

War control lifted the economic system of the country, stupefied by decades of profit seeking, and hammered it and pounded it into an intelligent mechanism for delivering goods and services according to the needs of the army and of the working population.

It would be more accurate to say that the wholesale waste of war and war production made the retail waste of peacetime profit-seeking superfluous. As Stephen Leacock had stipulated four years earlier, “The economics of war, therefore, has thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace.” It did so by amplifying the waste, not by eliminating it:

War is destruction—the annihilation of human life, the destruction of things made with generations of labor, the misdirection of productive power from making what is useful to making what is useless. In the great war just over, some seven million lives were sacrificed; eight million tons of shipping were sunk beneath the sea; some fifty million adult males were drawn from productive labor to the lines of battle; behind them uncounted millions labored day and night at making the weapons of destruction.

Leacock was another of Veblen’s followers, as was Kenneth Burke, who in 1929 wrote the prescient essay, “Waste — the future of prosperity.” Arthur Dahlberg was a follower of Leacock as Vance Packard was a follower of Stuart Chase. All roads lead to Veblen.

Here’s the catch: Veblen’s evolutionary explanation is based on myth. This is not to say his social criticism is invalid. The problem is that the social criticism is wrapped in a myth of progress that neutralizes its effectiveness, at the same time, however, of possibly affording the criticism a wider audience than it would have received in the raw. Here is how Veblen articulated the myth:

The early differentiation out of which the distinction between a leisure and a working class arises is a division maintained between men’s and women’s work in the lower stages of barbarism. Likewise the earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community. The facts may be expressed in more general terms. and truer to the import of the barbarian theory of life, by saying that it is an ownership of the woman by the man.

The “lower stages of barbarism” is evidently something that modern society has evolved out of — but not completely. Actually, though, it is a tale told by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot to justify social inequality and modified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain why “man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow present the back story on this pervasive myth of progress.

Starting at around minute 44:00 to around 54:30 of the above video Graeber discusses the contributions of Kandiaronk, Madame de Graffigny, Turgot, and finally Rousseau to the modern evolutionary myth of progress. As Graeber and Wengrow put it in their book, Turgot invented his myth of social evolution to refute a compelling indigenous criticism of European society. Rousseau synthesized the indigenous critique and the mythical evolutionary refutation. Graeber jokes toward the end of the segment, that Rousseau invented what would become both the standard conservative and leftist political myths.

The consequences of this framing are too immense to go into here but one of the things that it does is domesticate any criticism of “the way things are.” Instead of “the best of all possible worlds” or even “there is no alternative,” the myth of progress admits that there are problems but implies that they can only be addressed by a gradual and virtually unintended process of evolution.