Over a time span of forty-four years, Kenneth Burke wrote a series of four essays beginning with “Waste — or the Future of Prosperity,” published in 1930, and concluding with “Why Satire, With a Plan for Writing One” in 1974. Between those two bookends were “Recipe for Prosperity: ‘Borrow. Buy. Waste. Want.,'” in 1956 and “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision,” in 1971. Burke made explicit the affinity between the four essays in each successive iteration with repeated reference to the first essay:
Recipe for Prosperity: “Some years ago, in fact just before the stock-market crash of ’29, 1 wrote an article entitled “Waste or the Future of Prosperity.” It was a burlesque, done along the lines of Veblen’s ingeniously ironic formula, “conspicuous consumption,” as used in his Theory of the Leisure Class.”
Towards Helhaven: “Years ago I published a satire closely akin to the theme of my present “Helhaven” vision. It was called “Waste—or the Future of Prosperity.” The general slant was that, although there is a limit to the amount that people can use, there’s no limit to the amount that people can waste.”
Why Satire: “A rudimentary version of my satire was written just before the market crash of 1929, and published after. Done under the obvious influence of Thorstein Veblen, it was called “Waste—or the Future of Prosperity” (The New Republic 58). It was a perversely rational response to a time when the principle of “planned obsolescence” was already becoming a major factor in the engineering and merchandising of commodities manufactured for the mass market.”
In “Toward Helhaven,” Burke presented the satire of the “Culture-Bubble on the Moon,” the haven to which the .01% would flee to escape the polluted hell they had created on the earth.
For a happy ending, then, envision an apocalyptic development whereby technology could of itself procure, for a fortunate few, an ultimate technological release from the very distresses with which that very technology now burdens us.
Not incidental to Burke’s technological paradise would be a “Super-Lookout” for observing those “scurvy anthropoid leftovers that might still somehow contrive to go on hatching their doubtless degenerate and misshapen broods back there among those seven filthy seas”:
…a kind of chapel, bare except for some small but powerful telescopes of a special competence. And on the wall, in ecclesiastical lettering, there will be these fundamental words from the Summa Theologica: “And the blessed in Heaven shall look upon the sufferings of the damned, that they may love their blessedness the more.”
Of course Bezos claims that his vision will preserve earth as a pristine residential zone, with only light industry. Of course! Bezos, however, doesn’t have a track record for that kind of long run prediction. Burke did. His 1930 burlesque was proven prophetic by the time of his 1956 reassessment.
Central to Burke’s futurist satire, as he emphasized several time, was Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. Familiarity with Veblen’s theory and “his ingeniously ironic formula, ‘conspicuous consumption'” would enhance understanding of Burke’s satire.
It is not easy to give a quick overview of Veblen’s book and theory. For starters, his “ironic formula” of “conspicuous consumption” is not meant to be ironic. Although composed in a satirical tone, The Theory of the Leisure Class is not a satire. Readers may find the sustained, exaggeratedly-elevated tone of the book grating, which may well be intentional.
Reading backward from the last chapter, “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture” reveals that the “theory” of the title has a dual reference. The very notion of theory is itself imbued with class privilege, prestige, parasitism and obscurantism. To have the leisure to criticize the nature of class society is already to be implicated in the perpetuation of class hierarchies. There is no escaping from the labyrinth of language that has evolved to vindicate the right of the mighty.
Or, at least, there is no leisurely escape to be achieved by reading about it. One must do the work.
Veblen left a clue in the last chapter when he discusses the role of the priest or shaman as mediator between the “inscrutable powers that move in the external world” and the “common run of unrestricted humanity.” Science enters as a token of priestly prowess:
…as commonly happens with mediators between the vulgar and their masters, whether the masters be natural or preternatural, he found it expedient to have the means at hand tangibly to impress upon the vulgar the fact that these inscrutable powers would do what he might ask of them. Hence, presently, a knowledge of certain natural processes which could be turned to account for spectacular effect, together with some sleight of hand, came to be an integral part of priestly lore.
To illustrate his point, Veblen presented the “typical case” of the Norwegian peasants who “have instinctively formulated their sense of the superior erudition of… even so late a scholar in divinity as Grundtvig, in terms of the Black Art.” Norwegian peasants is self-referential; the Danish minister, N. F. S. Grundtvig, was a major influence on Veblen, particularly on his concept of language. In effect, Veblen was warning the reader that his prose was exemplary of the “sympathetic magic” performed by the theorist — “a by-product of the priestly vicarious leisure class.”
The core of Veblen’s theory is presented in the “Introductory” chapter one and the first six paragraphs of chapter two, “Pecuniary Emulation.” The following thirteen chapters elaborate the implications of that theory with the final chapter “deconstructing” the pretense of theory existing outside of the social strictures that have given birth to it. Veblen’s speculation about the origins of a “leisure class” and of ownership is outlined in two brief passages from chapter two:
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 ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian stages of culture, apparently with the seizure of female captives. The original reason for the seizure and appropriation of women seems to have been their usefulness as trophies.
From that inauspicious beginning things only get more complicated and ingrained through emulation until ultimately even “enlightenment.” ritually clothed in its atavistic cap and gown, comes to the aid of subjugation and social domination. Emulation, invidious comparisons and distinctions, conspicuous and vicarious leisure, consumption and waste accumulate as habits in an accustomed way of life. But first of all emulation, which brings us back to the theme of Burke’s essays: waste as the basis of continued “prosperity”:
With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper. In an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation; and this, so far as regards the Western civilized communities of the present, is virtually equivalent to saying that it expresses itself in some form of conspicuous waste. The need of conspicuous waste, therefore, stands ready to absorb any increase in the community’s industrial efficiency or output of goods, after the most elementary physical wants have been provided for.
Two other aspects of Veblen’s theory indicate its usefulness for understanding our current predicament of regression: the central role played by subjugation of women, previously mentioned, and by the glorification of arms. Veblen stressed repeatedly the symbolic importance of arms to leisure class values:
Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honour, the taking of life — the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human — is honourable in the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer’s prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act. Arms are honourable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the fields, becomes a honorific employment.
So, those offices which are by right the proper employment of the leisure class are noble; such as government, fighting, hunting, the care of arms and accoutrements, and the like — in short, those which may be classed as ostensibly predatory employments.
It is noticeable, for instance, that even very mild-mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking.
Kenneth Burke may have predicted Jeff Bezos’s moon colony dream 48 years ago but Thorstein Veblen predicted the 21st century GOP platform 120 years ago.