|Work and Wealth|
CHAPTER X: CLASS STANDARDS OF
§1. We may now apply these general considerations regarding the
evolution of wants to class and individual standards of consumption. In a
concrete class standard of consumption we may conveniently distinguish three
determinant factors: 1st. The primary organic factor, the elements in
consumption imposed by general or particular conditions of physical environment,
such as soil, climate, in relation to physical needs. 2nd. The industrial
factor, the modifications in organic needs due directly or indirectly to
conditions of work. 3rd. The conventional factor, those elements in a standard
of consumption not based directly upon considerations of physical or economic
environment but imposed by social custom.
So far as the first factor is concerned, we are for the most part in the region of material necessaries in which, as we have already seen, the organic securities for human utility are strongest. Where any population has for many generations been settled in a locality, it must adapt itself in two ways to the physical conditions of that locality. Its chief constituents of food, clothing, shelter, etc., must be accommodated to all the more permanent and important conditions of soil, climate, situation and of the flora and fauna of the country. A tropical people cannot be great meat-eaters or addicted to strong drinks, though the materials for both habits may be abundant. An arctic people, on the other hand, must find in animal fats a principal food, and in the skins of animals a principal article of clothing. In a country where earthquakes frequently occur, the materials and structure of the houses must be light. In the same country the people of the mountains, the valleys, the plains, the sea-shores, will be found with necessary differences in their fundamental standard of consumption. It is, indeed, self-evident that physical environment must exercise an important selective and rejective power represented in the material standard of consumption. So far as man can modify and alter the physical environment, as by drainage, forestry, or the destruction of noxious animals or bacteria, he may to that extent release his standard of consumption for this regional control.
Primitive man, again, and even most men in comparatively advanced civilisations, are confined for the chief materials of food, shelter and other necessaries, to the resources of their country or locality. They must accommodate their digestions and their tastes to the foods that can be raised conveniently and in sufficient quantities in the neighbourhood: they must build their houses and make their domestic and other utensils out of the material products within easy reach. The early evolution of a standard of necessary consumption, working under this close economy of trial and error, appears to guarantee a free, natural, instinctive selection of organically sound consumables.
The primary physical characteristics of a country, also of course, affect with varying degrees of urgency those elements in a standard of consumption not directly endowed with strong survival value, those which we call conveniences, comforts, luxuries. The modes and materials of bodily adornment, the styles of domestic and other architecture, religious ceremonies, forms of recreation, will evidently be determined in a direct manner by climatic and other physical considerations.
Recent civilisation, with its rapid extensive spread of communications, and its equally rapid and various expansion of the arts of industry, has brought about an interference with this natural economy which has dangers as well as advantages. The swift expansion of commerce brings great quantities of foods and other consumables from remote countries, and places them at the disposal of populations under conditions which give no adequate security for organic utility of consumption. Under an economy of natural selection exotics are by right suspect, at any rate until time has tried them. The incorporation of articles such as tea and tobacco in our popular consumption has taken place under conditions which afford no proper guarantee of their individual utility, or against the bad reactions they may cause in the whole complex standards of consumption.
The back stroke of this commercial expansion is seen in such occurrences as the deforestation of great tracts of country and the alteration of the climatic character, with its effects upon the lives of the inhabitants.
But though certain errors and wastes attend these processes of commercialism and industrialism, they must not be exaggerated. There is no reason to hold that mankind in general has been so deeply and firmly specialised in needs and satisfactions by local physical conditions that he cannot advantageously avail himself of the material products of a wider environment. Though the digestive and assimilative apparatus may not be so adaptable as the brain, there is no ground for holding that conformity during many generations to a particular form of diet precludes the easy adoption of exotic elements often containing better food-properties in more assimilable forms. A Chinese population, habituated to rice, can quickly respond in higher physical efficiency to a wheat diet, nor is the fact that bananas are a tropical fruit detrimental to their value as food for Londoners.
How far the purely empirical way in which foods and other elements in a necessary standard have been evolved can be advantageously corrected or supplemented by scientific tests, is a question remaining for discussion after the other factors in standards of consumption have been brought under inspection.
§2. Industrial conditions, themselves of course largely determined by physical environment, affect class and individual consumption in very obvious ways. Each occupation imposes on the worker, and indirectly upon all the members of his family, certain methods of living. Physiological laws prescribe many of those methods. A particular sort of output of muscular or nervous energy demands a particular sort of diet to replace the expenditure. The proper diet of an agricultural labourer, a mill operative and a miner, will have certain recognised differences. Muscular and mental, active and sedentary, monotonous and interesting work, will involve different amounts and sorts of nourishment, and different expenditures for leisure occupations. These differences will extend both to the necessaries and the higher elements in standards of consumption. Industrial requirements will stamp themselves with more or less force and exactitude upon each occupation. An analysis of budgets would show that the standard of the clergyman was not that of the merchant or even of the doctor, and that the same family income would be differently applied. The stockbroker will not live like the mill-owner, nor the journalist like the shopkeeper. So right through the various grades of workers. The skilled mechanic, the factory hand, the railway man, the clerk, the shop-assistant, the labourer, will all have their respective standards, moulded or modified by the conditions of their work: their needs and tastes for food, clothing, recreation, etc., will be affected in subtle ways by that work.
'Productive' consumption is the term given by classical political economy to that portion of consumption applied so as to maintain or improve the efficiency of labour-power in the worker and his family. Necessaries alone were held absolutely productive, conveniences and comforts were dubious, luxuries were unproductive. Regarded even from the commercial standpoint, it was a shallow analysis, confined to a present utilisation of immediately useful commodities, and ignoring the reactions upon future productivity of a rise in education and refinement. It belonged to an age before the economy of high wages or the moral stimuli of hope and an intelligent outlook upon life had won any considerable recognition as 'productive' stimuli.
But from the standpoint of our analysis the defect of this treatment is a deeper one. For us the distinction between productive and unproductive consumption is as fundamental as in the older economic theory. The difference lies in the conception of the 'product' that is to give a meaning to 'productive'. Productive consumption, according to the older economic theory, was measured by the yield of economic productivity, according to our theory by the yield of vital welfare. The two not merely are not identical, they may often be conflicting values.
A diet productive of great muscular energy for a navvy, foundryman or drayman, may produce a coarse type of animalism which precludes the formation of a higher nervous structure and the finer qualities of character that are its spiritual counterpart. The industrial conditions of many productive employments are notoriously such as to impair the physique and the muscle of the workers engaged in them, and there is no ground for assuming that the habits of consumption, conducing to increased productivity in such trades, carry any net freight of human utility.
Nor is it only in manual labour that the industrial influences moulding a standard of consumption may damage its human quality. Much sedentary intellectual work involves similarly injurious reactions upon modes of living. The physical abuses of athleticism, stimulants and drugs, are very prevalent results of disordered competition in intellectual employments. But, as bad elements in standards of expenditure, the intellectual excesses, the fatuous or degrading forms of literature, drama, art, music, which this life generates, are perhaps even more injurious. One of the heaviest human costs of an over-intellectual life today is its 'culture'.
§3. When we come to 'conventional' elements in standards of comfort, we enter a region which appears to admit an indefinite amount of waste and error.
The very term 'conventional', set as it is in opposition to 'natural', indeed, suggests an absence of organic utility. We hear of 'conventional necessaries' even in the lowest levels of working-class expenditure. I presume that the expenditure in beer, tobacco, upon sprees or funerals, or upon decorative clothing, would be placed in this category.
From the purely economic standpoint such expenditure has been accounted either waste, or, even worse, 'disutility'.
It is often argued that a labouring family on 21s. per week could be kept in physical efficiency, if every penny were expended economically in obtaining 'organic value'. This is the ideal of a certain order of advocates of thrift and temperance. Whole generations of economists have accumulated easy virtue by preaching this rigorous economy for the working-classes. It has always seemed possible to squeeze out of the standard of any working-class enough of the conventional or superfluous to justify the opinion that most of the misery of the poor is their own fault, in the sense that, if they made a completely rational use of their wages, they could support themselves in decency. The amount spent by the workers on drink alone would, it is often contended, make ample provision against most of the worst emergencies of working-class life.
Now there are several comments to be made on this attitude towards conventional expenditure. 1. As one ascends above the primary organic needs, the evolution of desires becomes less reliable and more complicated: the element of will and choice and therefore of choosing badly, becomes larger. Some condiments are useful for assisting the digestion of primary foods, but it is easier to make mistakes in condiments than in staple foods. So with all the higher and more complex wants. As one rises above the prime requisites and conveniences, organic instincts, or tastes directly dependent on them, play a diminishing part as faithful directors of consumption. This natural guidance does not indeed disappear. The evolution of a human being with finer nervous structure, and with higher intellectual and moral needs and desires related to that structure, is a fairly continuous process. The finest and best-balanced natures thus carry into their more complex modes of satisfaction a true psycho-physical standard of utility. But it is already admitted that the liability to go wrong is far greater in those modes of expenditure which are not directly contributory to survival. This is the case, whether individual tastes or some accepted convention determines the expenditure.
This is so generally recognised that it is likely that the organic utility of personal tastes on the one hand, custom and convention on the other, has been unduly disparaged. The temper of economists in assessing values has been too short-sighted and too inelastic. A good deal of personal expenditure that is wasteful or worse when taken on its separate merits may be justified as a rude experimental process by which a person learns wisdom and finds his soul. What is true of certain freakish personal conduct is probably true also of those conventional practices, in which whole societies or classes conduct their collective experiments in the art of living.
A too rigorous economy, whether directed by instinct or reason, which should rule with minute exactitude the expenditure of individuals or societies, in order to extract from all expenditure of income the maximum of seen utilities, would be bound to sin against that law of progress which demands an adequate provision for these experimental processes in life which, taken by themselves, appear so wasteful.
Social psychology brings a more liberal and sympathetic understanding to bear upon some of the practices which to a shortsighted economist appear mere wasteful extravagance, destitute of utility and displacing some immediately serviceable consumption. Let me take some notable examples from current working-class expenditure. The lavish expenditure upon bank-holidays, in which large classes of wage-earners 'blow' a large proportion of any surplus they possess beyond the subsistence wage, is the subject of caustic criticism by thrifty middle-class folk. But may not this holiday spirit, with a certain abandon it contains, be regarded as a 'natural' and even wholesome reaction against the cramping pressure of routine industrialism and the normal rigour of a close domestic economy? It may not, indeed, be an ideally good mode of reaction, may even contain elements of positive detriment, and yet may be the vent for valuable organic instincts seeking after those qualities of freedom, joy and personal distinction that are essential to a life worth living.1
Or take the gravest of all defects of working-class expenditure, the drink-bill. This craving, hostile as it is to the physical and moral life of man, is not understood, and therefore cannot be effectively eradicated, unless due account is taken of certain emotional implications. The yielding to drink is not mere brutality. Brutes do not drink. It is in some part the response to an instinct to escape from the imprisonment in a narrow cramping environment which affords no scope for aspiration and achievement. It may indeed be said that the drinker does not aspire and does not achieve. He is doubtless the victim of an illusion. But it is a certain dim sense of a higher freer life that lures him on. 'Elevation' is what is sought.
'Kings may be blessed but Tam was glorious
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious.'
Or take still another item of working-class expenditure
frequently condemned as a typical example of extravagance, the relatively large
expense of funerals. Is this to be dismissed offhand as mere wanton waste? A
more human interpretation will find in it other elements of meaning. In the
ordinary life of 'the common people' there is little scope for that personal
distinction which among the upper classes finds expression in so many ways. The
quiet working-man or woman has never for a brief hour through a long lifetime
stood out among his fellows, or gathered round him the sympathetic attention of
his neighbours. Is it wholly unintelligible or regrettable that those who care
for him should wish to give this narrow, thwarted, obscure personality a moment
of dignity and glory? The sum of life is added up in this pomp of reckoning, and
the family is gathered into a focus of neighbourly attention and good-feeling,
the outward emblems of honour are displayed, and a whole range of human emotions
finds expression. Such excess as exists must be understood as a natural fruit of
those aspiring qualities of personality which, thwarted in their natural and
healthy growth by narrowness of opportunity, crave this traditional
In fact, the more closely we study the conventional factors in consumption, the less are we able to dismiss them out of hand as mere extravagance or waste. Some organic impulse, half physical, half psychical, nearly always enters into even the least desirable elements. A margin of expenditure, either conventional or expressing individual caprice,2 which serves to evoke pleasure, to stir interest, and above all to satisfy a sense of personal dignity, even though at the expense of some more obvious and immediate utilities, may be justified by considerations of individual and social progress.
§4. Such considerations must not, however, be pressed very far in the defence even of the most firmly-rooted elements of conventional consumption. For, though the deeper organic forces which work through 'natural selection' must eliminate the worst or most injurious modes of expenditure from the permanent standard of a race or class, it may leave elements fraught with grave danger. For neither the animal nor the spiritual nature of man is equipped with a selective apparatus for testing accurately for purposes of organic welfare the innumerable fresh applicants for 'consumption' which appear as the evolution of wants, on the one hand, and of industries upon the other, becomes more complex and more rapid. An extreme instance will enforce my meaning. To take a Red Indian or a Bantu from a natural and social environment relatively simple and staple, and to plunge him suddenly into the swirl of a modern Western city life is to court physical and moral disaster. Why? Because the pressures of animal desires or the emotions of pride and curiosity, which were related by effective 'taboos' in the primitive life from which he is drawn, now work their will unchecked. For the 'taboos' of civilised society are both ill-adapted to the emotional texture of his nature, and in their novelty and complexity are not adequately comprehended. But even for those born and bred in the environment of a rapidly changing civilisation there are evidently great hazards. Not only individual but widely collective experiments in novelties of consumption will often be injurious. This may be explained in the first instance as due to the perversion or defective working of the 'instincts' originally designed to protect and promote the life of the individual and the species. An animal living upon what may be termed unmodified nature is possessed of instincts which make poisonous plants or animals repellent to its taste. A man living in a highly modified environment finds such shreds of instinctive tastes as he possesses inadequate to the risk of rejecting the fabricated foods brought from remote quarters of the earth to tempt his appetite. If this holds of articles of food, where errors may be mortal and where some protection, however insufficient, is still furnished by the palate and the stomach, still more does it hold of the 'higher' tastes comparatively recently implanted in civilised man. 'Bad tastes' thus may introduce the use of books or art that disturb the mind without informing it, recreations that distract and dissipate our powers without recreating and restoring them. Nor does the 'social organism' furnish reliable checks which shall stop the spread of individual errors into conventional consumption.
§5. The question of individual errors and wastes in the process of evolving standards of consumption must not detain us. For though it rightly falls within the scope of a fully elaborated valuation of consumption, it must not be allowed to intrude into our more modest endeavour to discuss the several grades of wants which comprise a class standard of consumption. The relative size of the wastes or defects of the conventional factors in a class standard will not indeed depend upon the mere addition of the perversion of the separate choices of its individuals. For a convention is not produced by a mere coincidence of separate actions of individual desire.
It may be well here to revert to the distinction which we found convenient to employ in our analysis of the human value of different forms of work, viz., the distinction between creation and imitation. Here it will take shape in an enquiry as to the ways in which new wants are discovered and pass into conventional use. Let us take for an example the case of a medicine which has become a recognised remedy for a disease. Among animals or 'primitive' man the habit of eating a curative herb may be regarded as due to an organic instinct common to each member of the herd or group. Such consumption, however, would not really fall within the category of our 'conventional consumption'. It would in effect be confined to a limited number of articles containing strong elements of 'survival value', in a pre-economic period, though, as soon as tribal society began to evolve the medicine man, his prescriptions would add many elements of waste and error. But the consumables whose origin we are now considering must be regarded as involving invention or discovery, and conscious imitation or adoption by the group. Unless we suppose that the chewing of cinchona bark had a backing of instinctive adaptation, and so passed by tradition into later ages of Indian life, we must hold that the first beginnings of the use of quinine as a cure for intermittent fevers in South America were due either to chance or to early empiricism in treatment. Some person, probably enjoying distinction in his tribe, tried cinchona bark and recovered of his fever, others tried it upon this example and got benefit, and so the fame of the remedy spread first from a single centre, and afterwards from a number of other personal centres by conscious imitation. Or, similarly, take the adoption of some article of diet, such as sugar or tobacco, which is an element not of prime physical utility but of comfort or pleasure. The first men who chewed the sugar-cane, or tried the fumes of the herba nicotina, must be deemed to have done so 'by accident'. Liking the result, they repeated the experiment by design, and this personal habit become the customary habit of the group, moulded by a tradition continuously supported by a repetition of the feeling which attended the first chance experience.
Such accretions to a standard of consumption may be regarded as possessing guarantees of utility or safeguards against strong positive disutility in their method of adoption. They have grown into the conventional standard 'on their merits'. Those 'merits' may indeed be variously estimated from the 'organic' standpoint. Quinine has a high organic virtue, sugar perhaps an even wider but less vital virtue, while the virtue of tobacco may be purely superficial and compensated by considerable organic demerits. But both discovery and propagation have been in all these cases 'natural' and 'reasonable' processes, in the plain ordinary acceptation of these terms. Some actual utility has been discovered and recognised, and new articles thus incorporated in a standard of consumption, either for regular or special use, have at any rate satisfied a preliminary test of organic welfare.
If all new habits of consumption arose in this fashion, and the preliminary test could be considered thoroughly reliable, the economy of the evolution of standards of consumption would be a safe and sound one. This hypothesis in its very form indicates the several lines of error discernible in the actual evolution of class standards. A falsification of the standard, involving the ad mission of wasteful or positively noxious consumables, may arise, either in the initial stage of invention, or in the process of imitative adoption. This will occur wherever the initial or the imitative process is vitiated by an extraneous motive. A very small proportion of medicines in customary use among primitive peoples have the organic validity of quinine. Most of them are 'charms', invented by medicine men, not as the result either of a chance or planned experiment, but as the work of an imagination operating upon the lines of an empirical psychology, in which the relation of the actual or known properties of the medicine towards the disease play no appreciable part. So a whole magical pharmacopoeia will be erected upon a basis of totemist and animist beliefs, mingled with circumstantial misconceptions and gratuitous fabrications, and containing no organic utility. Each addition or variant will begin as an artificial invention and will be adopted for reasons of prestige, authority or fear, carrying none of that organic confirmation which secured its position for quinine. The limit of error in such cases will be that the medicine must not frequently cause a serious and immediate aggravation of the suffering of the patient. The patent or 'conventional' medicines among civilised peoples must be considered in the main as containing a falsification of standard of the same kind, though different in degree. As the primitive medicine man, called upon to cure a fever or a drought, is primarily motived by the desire to maintain or enhance his personal or caste prestige, while the adoption of his specific into a convention is due to a wholly irrational authority or to a wholly accidental success, so is it with a large proportion of modern remedies. Even in the orthodox branches of the medical profession the process of converting vague empiricism into scientific experiment has gone such a little way as to furnish no guarantee for the full organic efficacy of many of the treatments upon which the patient public spends an increasing share of its income. But as regards the profession there is at any rate some basis of confidence in the disinterested application of science to the discovery of genuine organic utility.
In the patent medicine trade there is very little. Here we have a condition very little better than that of the power of the witch-doctor in primitive society. The maxim 'caveat emptor' carries virtually no security, for the guidance of the palate is ruled out, while the test of experience, except for purgation or for some equally simple and immediate result, is nearly worthless.
§6. When the invention and propagation of a mode of consumption have passed into the hands of a trade, the guarantees of organic utility, the checks against organic injury, are at their weakest. For neither process is directed, either by instinct or reason, along serviceable channels. Where the commercial motive takes the initiative, there can be no adequate security that the articles which pass as new elements into a standard of consumption shall be wealth, not illth. Where an invention is stimulated to meet a genuinely 'long-felt need', the generality and duration of that need may be a fair guarantee of utility. But this is not the case where the supply precedes and evokes the demand, the more usual case under developed commercialism. Neither in the action of the inventor, nor in the spread of the new habit of consumption, is there any safe gauge of utility. The inventor, or commercial initiator, is only concerned with the question, Can I make and sell a sufficient quantity of this article at a profit? In order to do so, it is true, he must persuade enough buyers that they 'want' the article and 'want' it more than some other articles on which they otherwise might spend their money. To unreflecting persons this, no doubt, appears a sufficient test of utility. But is it? The purchaser must be made to feel or think that the article is 'good' for him at the time when it is brought before his notice. For this purpose it must be endowed with some speciously attractive property, or recommended as possessing such a property. A cheap mercerised cotton cloth, manufactured to simulate silk, sells by its inherent superficial attraction. A new line in drapery 'pushed' into use by the repeated statement, false at the beginning, that 'it is worn', illustrates the second method. In a word, the arts of the manufacturer and of the vendor, which have no direct relation whatever to intrinsic utility, overcome and subjugate the uncertain, untrained or 'artificially' perverted taste of the consumer. Thus it arises that in a commercial society every standard of class comfort is certain to contain large ingredients of useless or noxious consumption, articles, not only bad in themselves, but often poisoning or distorting the whole standard. The arts of adulteration and of advertising are of course responsible for many of the worst instances. A skilled combination of the two processes has succeeded in cancelling the human value of a very large proportion of the new increments of money income in the lower middle and the working-classes, where a growing susceptibility to new desires is accompanied by no intelligent checks upon the play of interested suggestion as to the modes of satisfying these desires.
Where specious fabrication and strong skilled suggestion cooperate to plant new ingredients in a standard of consumption, there is thus no security as to the amount of utility or disutility attaching to the 'real income' represented by these 'goods'. But this vitiation of standards is not equally applicable to all grades of consumption, or to all classes of consumers. Some kinds of goods will be easier to falsify or to adulterate than others, some classes of consumers will be easier to 'impose upon' than others. These considerations will set limits upon the amount of waste and 'illth' contained in the goods and services which comprise our real income.
First, as to the arts of falsification. Several laws of limitation here emerge. Some materials, such as gold and rubber, have no easily procurable and cheaper substitutes for certain uses. Other goods are in some considerable degree protected from imitation and adulteration by the survival of reliable tests and tastes, touch and sight, in large numbers of consumers. This applies to simpler sorts of goods whose consumption is deepest in the standard and has a strong basis of vital utility. It will be more difficult to adulterate bread or plain sugar to any large extent than sauces or sweets. It will be easier to fake photographs than to pass off plaice for soles. But it cannot be asserted as a general truth that the necessaries are better defended against encroachments of adulteration and other modes of deception than conveniences, and conveniences than luxuries. Indeed, there are two considerations that tell the other way. A manufacturer or merchant who can palm off a cheaper substitute for some common necessary of life, or some well-established convenience, has a double temptation to do so. For, in the first place, the magnitude and reliability of the demand make the falsification unusually profitable. In the second place, so far as a large proportion of articles are concerned, he can rely upon the fact that most consumption of necessaries lies below the margin of clear attention and criticism. Except in the case of certain prime articles of diet, it is probable that a consumer is more likely to detect some change of quality in the latest luxury added to his standard than in the habitual articles of daily use, such as his shoe-leather or his soap. In fact, so well recognised is this protection afforded to the seller by the unconsciousness which habit brings to the consumer, that, in catering for quite new habits, such as cereal breakfast foods or cigarettes, the manufacturer waits until the original attractions of his goods have stamped themselves firmly in customary use, before he dares to lower the quality or reduce the quantity.
These considerations make it unlikely that we can discover a clear law expressing the injury of commercialism in terms of the greater or less organic urgency of the wants ministered to by the different orders of commodities. It will even be difficult to ascertain whether the arts of adulteration or false substitution play more havoc among the necessaries than among the luxuries of life. In neither is there any adequate safeguard for the organic worth of the articles bought and sold, though in both there must be held to be a certain presumption favourable to some organic satisfaction attending the immediate act of consumption. If a 'law' of falsification can be found at all, it is more likely to emerge from a comparative study not of necessaries, conveniences, comforts and luxuries, in a class standard, but of the various sorts of satisfactions classified in relation to the needs which underlie them. Where goods are consumed as soon as they are bought, and by some process involving a strong appeal to the senses, there is less chance for vulgar fraud than where consumption is gradual or postponed, and is not attended by any moment of vivid realisation. Other things equal, one might expect more easily to sell shoddy clothing than similarly damaged food: the adulteration of a jerry-built house is less easily detected, or less adequately reprobated, than that of a jerry-built suit of clothes.
Along similar lines we might, in considering non-material consumption, urge that there are more safeguards for utility in the expenditure upon books or music-hall performances than upon education or church membership. And in a sense this is true. If I buy a book or attend a concert, I am surer to get what I regard as a quid pro quo for my expenditure than in the case of a prolonged process involving many small consecutive acts.
So far as this is true, it means that relics of organic guidance are more truly operative in some kinds of satisfaction than in others, and furnish some better check upon the deception which commercialism may seek to practise. But, of course, our valuation of such checks will depend upon how far we can accept them as reliable tests, not of some short-range immediate satisfaction, but of the wider individual and social welfare. The fact that so many notoriously bad habits can be acquired by reason of an immediate 'organic' attractiveness that is a false clue to the larger welfare, must put us on our guard against accepting any easy law based on the test of 'natural' tastes.
§7. But, in considering the degradation of standards of consumption, it is well to bring some closer analysis to bear upon the processes of suggestion and adoption that are comprised in 'imitation'. In analysing the forms of wealth, the goods and services, which are the real income of the nation, in terms of their production, we recognised that, other things equal, the human cost of any body of that wealth varied directly with the amount of routine or purely imitative work put into it, and inversely with the amount of creative or individual work. That judgment, however, we felt bound to qualify by the consideration that a certain proportion of routine work, though in itself perhaps distasteful and uninteresting, had an organic value both for the individual and for society. How far can we apply an analogous judgment to the same body of Wealth on its consumption side? Can we assume that the utility of consumption of any given body of wealth varies directly with the amount of free personal expression which its use connotes, and inversely with the routine or conventional character it bears? Evidently not. The same analysis does not apply. The chief reason for the difference has already been indicated, by pointing out that, in a modern industrial society, each man, as producer, is highly specialised, as consumer highly generalised. The high human costs of routine work were, we saw, a direct result of this specialising process. A little routine work of several sorts, regularly practised, would involve no organic cost, and might indeed yield a fund of positive utility as a wholesome régime of exercise, provided it was not carried so far as to encroach upon the fund of energy needed for the performance of other special work, creative and interesting.
Indeed, the usual economic justification of the excessive division of labour existing at present in advanced industrial societies is that it is essential to yield that large body of objective wealth which, by its distribution, enriches and gives variety to the consumption of all members of the society. The producer is sacrificed to the consumer, the damage done to each man in his former capacity being more than compensated by the benefits conferred upon him in his latter capacity.
The full validity of this doctrine will be considered when we gather together the two sides of our analysis and consider the inter-relations between production and consumption as an aspect of the problem of human values. At present we may begin by accepting variety of consumption as a condition in itself favourable to the maximisation of human welfare. This assumption is not, however, quite self-evident. The routine factors in a standard of consumption (and a standard qua standard consists of routine), so far as they are laid down under the direction of an instinctive or a rational evolution of wants, must be regarded as containing a minimum of waste or disutility. Since they are also the foundation and the indispensable condition for all the 'higher' forms of material or non-material consumption in which the conscious personality of individuals finds expression, they may be held to contain per unit a maximum of human value. From this standpoint there would seem to emerge a law of the economy of consumption, to the effect that the maximum of social welfare would be got from a distribution of wealth which absorbed the entire product in this routine satisfaction of the common needs of life. This economy need not be conceived merely in terms of a uniform standard of material satisfactions. A wider interpretation of life and of necessaries might extend it so as to cover many higher grades of satisfaction, all the 'joys that are in widest commonalty spread.' The natural evolution of such an economy of consumption might, it is arguable, yield the greatest quantity of social welfare.
§8. But a high uniform level of welfare throughout society does not exhaust the demands of human welfare. It evidently overstresses the life of the social as against the individual organism, imposing a regimen of equality which absorbs the many into the one. Now, desirous to hold the balance fair between the claims of individual personality and of society, we cannot acquiesce in an ideal of economical consumption which makes no direct provision for the former. So far, however, as the consumption of an individual is of a routine character, expressing only the needs of a human nature held in common with his fellows, it does not really express his individuality at all. The realisation of the unique values of his personality, and the conscious satisfaction that proceeds from this individual expression, can only be got by activities which lie beyond the scope of custom and convention. Though this issue has most important bearings that are outside the economic field, it is also vitally connected with the use of economic goods. For, unless a due proportion of the general income (the aggregate of goods and services) is placed at the free disposal of individuals in such forms as to nourish and stimulate the wholesome and joyous expansion of their powers, that social progress which first manifests itself in the free experimental and creative actions of individuals whose natures vary in some fine and serviceable way from the common life, will be thwarted. This brings us to a better understanding of the nature and origin of the human injury and waste contained in large sections of that conventional consumption which plays so large and so depressing a part in every class standard of comfort. Where the production of an economic society has grown so far as to yield a considerable and a growing surplus beyond that required for survival purposes, this surplus is liable to several abuses. Instead of being applied as food and stimulus to the physical and spiritual growth of individual and social life, it may be squandered, either upon excessive satisfaction of existing routine wants in any class or classes, or in the stimulation and satisfaction of more routine wants and the evolution of a complex conventional standard of consumption, containing in its new factors a diminishing amount of human utility or even an increasing amount of human costs. If the industrial structure is such that particular groups of business men can make private gains by stimulating new wasteful modes of conventional consumption, this process, as we have seen, is greatly facilitated.
But, after all, the business motive is not in itself an adequate explanation. Business firms suggest new wants, but the susceptibility to such suggestions, the active imitation by which a new article passes into the conventional consumption of a group or class, requires closer consideration. Falsification of a standard can seldom be understood as a mere perversion of the free choice of individuals. A convention is not produced by a mere coincidence of separate choices. Imitation plays an important part in the contagion and infection of example. In endeavouring to assess the human utility of the consumption of wealth we see the play of several imitative forces. Current Prestige, Tradition, Authority, Fashion, Respectability supplement or often displace the play of individual taste, good or bad, in moulding a class and family standard of consumption. The psychology and sociology of these distinctively imitative forces which form or change standards are exceedingly obscure.
The merely gregarious instinct may lead to the spread in a class or group of any novelty which attracts attention and is not offensive. Where supported by any element of personal prestige, such novelty, irrespective of its real virtues or uses, may spread and become embedded in a standard of consumption. The beginnings of every fashion largely belong to this order of imitation. Some prestige is usually needed fairly to launch a new fashion; once launched it spreads mainly by 'gregariousness', the instinct to be, or look, or act, like other people. The limits of error, disutility or inconvenience, which can be set upon a novelty of fashion, appear to depend mainly upon the initial force of prestige. The King might introduce into London society a really inconvenient high hat, though the Queen perhaps could not carry a full revival of the crinoline.
Fashions change but they leave deposits of conventional expenditure behind. What is at first fashionable often remains as respectable and lives long in the conventional habits of a class. Every class standard is encrusted with little elements of dead fashion.
§9. But this formative influence of Prestige itself demands fuller consideration. For it not merely implants elements of expenditure in the standard of consumption, but infects the standard itself.
A true standard would rest on a basis of organic utility, expenditure being apportioned so as to promote the soundest, fullest human life. But all conventional consumption is determined largely by valuations imposed by the class possessing most prestige. It is, of course, a commonplace that fashions in dress, and in certain external modes of consumption, descend by snobbish imitation from high life through the different social strata, each class copying the class above. It is a matter of far more vital importance that religion, ethics, art, literature and the whole range of intellectual activities, manners, amusements, take their shapes and values largely by the same process of infiltration from above.
This is not the case everywhere. In many nations the distinctions of caste, class, locality or occupation, are so strong as to preclude the passage of habits of material consumption, manners, tastes and ideas, from one social stratum to another. The exclusive possession of a code of life, of language, thought and feelings by a caste or class, is itself a matter of pride, and often of legal protection. This holds not only of most Asiatic civilisations but, though less rigorously, of those European countries which have not been fully subjected to the dissolving forces of industrialism.
But in such countries as England and the United States, where the industrial arts are rapidly evolving new products and stimulating new tastes, and where at the same time the social strata present a continuous gradation with much movement from one stratum to another, the process of Station by prestige is very rapid and general.
The actual expenditure of the income of every class in these countries is very largely determined, not by organic needs, but by imitation of the conventional consumption of the class immediately above in income or in social esteem. That conventional consumption in its turn is formed by imitation of the class above. The aristocracy, plutocracy, or class with most power or prestige, thus makes the standards for the other classes.
Now, even if it were a real aristocracy, a company of the best, it by no means follows that a standard of living good for them would be equally good for other social grades. But there would be at least a strong presumption in its favour. To copy good examples, even if the copying is defective, is an elevating practice, and in as much as the essentials of humanity are found alike in all, thoughtless imitation of one's betters might raise one's own standard. If in a society the men of light and leading occupied this place because they had discovered a genius for the art of noble living, the swift unconscious imitation of their mode of life, the morals and manners of this aristocracy, would surely be the finest schooling for the whole people: the models of the good, the true, the beautiful, which they afforded, would inform each lower grade, according to its capacity.
But where the whole forces of prestige and imitation are set on a sham aristocracy, copying as closely as possible their modes of consumption, their ways of thought and feeling, their valuations and ideals, incalculable damage and waste may ensue. For the defects in the standard of the upper few will, by imitation, be magnified as well as multiplied in the lower standards of the many. Let me illustrate.
If gambling is bad for the upper classes, its imitation becomes progressively worse as it descends, poisoning the life and consuming a larger proportion of the diminishing margin of the income of each class. If the inconvenience of decorative dress is bad for rich women, who live a life of ease and leisure, its imitation by the active housewives of the middle, and the women-workers of the lower classes, inflicts a graver disutility. For the waste of income is more injurious and the physical impediments to liberty of movement are more onerous. It is the immeasurable importance of this prestige of the upper class, percolating through all lower social grades, and imposing, not merely elements of conventional consumption, but standards and ideas of life which affect the whole mode of living, that requires us to give closer consideration to the life of the leisure class.
§10. Here we can find valuable aid in a remarkable book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Mr. Veblen, an American sociologist. Regarded as a scientific study, which it rightly claims to be, this book has two considerable defects, one of manner, one of matter. Its analysis is conducted with a half-humorous parade of pompous terminology apt to wear upon the temper of the reader. Its exaggerated stress upon a single strain of personality, as a dominant influence in the formation of habits and the direction of conduct, is a more serious blemish in a work of profound and penetrating power. But for our present purpose, that of discovering the elements of waste in national consumption, it is of first-rate importance.
Mr. Veblen's main line of argument may be summarised as follows. In primitive society war and the chase will be the chief means by which men may satisfy that craving for personal distinction and importance which is the most enduring and importunate of psychical desires. Personal process, mainly physical, displayed in fight or hunt, will secure leadership or ascendency in tribal life. So those trophies which attest such prowess, the skulls or scalps of enemies, the skins of slain animals, or the live possession of tame animals, will be the most highly-prized forms of property. When the capture and enslavement of enemies has taken the place of promiscuous slaughter, the size and variety of his retinue of slaves for personal service, concubinage, or merely decorative show, attest the greatness of the warrior-chief. When the industrial arts are sufficiently developed, slaves will be set to produce such other forms of property, enlarged housing, quantities of showy garments, cultivated fields, herds of cattle, as afford conspicuous evidence of the personal prowess of the chief. Glory, far more than utility or comfort, continues to be the dominant motive.
As civilisation begins to make way, the notion of what constitutes personal process begins to be modified. Though physical force may still remain a chief ingredient, skill and cunning, wisdom in counsel, capacity for command and law-making, come to be recognised as also giving prestige. As not only the strong man by his strength, but the cunning man by his cunning, can get that wealth or property which are the insignia of prowess, property will however still be valued by its owner mainly for the prestige it affords him among his fellows. It will still for the most part take shape in external forms of adornment or magnificence. As it develops into the culminating form of the oriental court, the element of display will remain the paramount consideration, to which even the sense-enjoyments of the owner will be secondary.
The effect of this early linking of property to personal prowess will be that in the general mind of man the possession of property is honorific. It secures for its owner a presumption of personal greatness. Therefore, its possession must be kept in full and constant evidence, especially where inheritance destroys the direct presumption of the personal prowess of the actual owner. Hence the two essential features of the mode of living of the dominant class or caste, ostentatious waste and conspicuous leisure. For thus the prestige of property is best enforced. Gorgeous palaces with luxurious grounds, magnificent banquets and entertainments, extravagant refinements of sensual luxury, adornments of fabrics, jewels and articles of laborious skill, magnificent tombs and other monuments -- the elaborate parade of waste, in order to fasten on the common imagination the sense of wonder and of admiration of the person who could afford so lavish a waste! The family of the rich man is chiefly valued as an instrument for making this display effective. His wife or wives must do no work, not even copy his parasitic activities; they must stand as open monuments of conspicuous leisure, their personal adornments, their retinues of servants, the entire elaborate ritual of their futile lives, must be devoted to showing how much their possessor can afford to caste. Such was the life of the aristocracy in olden and medieval days!
It has passed in most essentials, by tradition and imitation, to the life of the upper class in modern civilised nations. The modes and conceptions of personal prowess and prestige have indeed shifted. The man of business has dethroned the warrior or the political chieftain. The typical great man of our time is the great entrepreneur, the financier who directs the flow of capital and rules prices on change, the railway or shipping magnate who plans a combine, the able and astute merchant, who controls a market, the manufacturer who conducts a great productive business, the organiser of a successful departmental store. The personal qualities and activities involved in these tasks are very different from those possessed by barbarian chieftains or oriental despots. Add to such men the surviving landed aristocracy of rent receivers, and a considerable number of families that live on dividends, taking no real part in the administration of industry, and we have a synopsis of the class which to day wields prestige. Though the elaboration of modern arts of pleasure directs a great part of the expenditure of this, our upper class, the traditional habits of ostentatious waste and conspicuous leisure as modes of glory are still paramount motives. Most rich people value riches less for the pleasures they afford than for the social consideration, the personal distinction, they procure. The craving to realise superiority over others, as attested by their servility or imitation, the power of money to make others do your will, the sense of freedom to realise every passing caprice, these remain the chief value of riches, and mould the valuations of life for the bulk of the well-to-do.
Such are the inevitable effects of easily-gotten and excessive wealth upon the possessors. So far as they operate, they induce futile extravagance in expenditure. Instead of making for utility, they make for disutility of consumption. Such is the gist of this analysis of the leisured life.
§11. Expenditure which is to be effectively ostentatious, so as to impress its magnificence upon the largest number of other people, cannot be directed to the satisfaction of a real personal want, even a bad want. Futility is of its essence. The very type of this expenditure is a display of fireworks: there is no other way of consuming so large a quantity of wealth in so short a time with such sensational publicity and with no enduring effect whatever. This private extravagance may perhaps be paralleled in public expenditure by the squandering of millions upon war-ships which are not needed, will never be used, and will be obsolete within a few years of their construction.
The defects which every sane social critic finds in the modes of living of the rich, their frivolity, triviality and futility, are illustrations of Mr. Veblen's thesis. Perhaps the largest complex of forms of futile waste, waste of money and of time, is contained in the performance of what, with curious aptness of phrase, are termed 'social duties', the idle round of visits, entertainments and functions which constitutes the 'society life'. I speak of the aptness of the term 'social duties'. This is no paradox, but merely the finest instance of that perversion of values and valuations which is inherent in the situation. For it is essential to the accuracy of this analysis that the rich members of society should regard their most futile activities as 'duties', and their small section of humanity as 'society'.
Of the expenditure which is laid out on the satisfaction of material wants, the waste or disutility will often be considerable. But Nature is strong enough to enforce some sense and moderation in the satisfaction of primary organic desires. While, therefore, there is much luxury and waste in the material standard of comfort of the rich, we do quite wrong to find in food and clothing and other material consumption our chief instances of luxury and waste. It is in the non-material expenditure that the proportion of waste or disutility is largest. The great moral law, corruptio optimi pessima, requires that this be so. If we seek the largest sources of injurious waste in the standard of the well-to-do classes, we shall find them in the expenditure upon recreation, education and charity.
1. On the side of Consumption as of Production a progressive
society that has not abandoned itself to excessive rationalism will recognise
the desirability of keeping a scope for 'bonne chance' and 'hazard'. Cf Tarde.
I., p. 130.
2. Though the term 'conventional' appears formally to preclude the play of individual taste or judgment, it is in fact only in such expenditures that these qualities obtain scope for expression. For though convention prescribes the general mode of such expenditure, it leaves a far larger scope for personal choice and capricious variation than in the more necessary elements of expenditure.