Veblen, Marx and Mill…and Inspiring Professors

All this talk about whether anthropology is or should be a science propelled me to examine copious notes I wrote in a marvelous history of science class I took with an inspiring professor at Harvard Extension School. I owe so much to brilliant and generous professors who have inspired me in my graduate career. Professor Peter Buck was the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer at Harvard’s History of Science department and had been actively teaching since 1966. I was overwhelmingly impressed by Professor Buck’s sheer intellect and kindness. He was a soft-spoken man, an avid feminist, and an intellectual giant. He challenged us to think critically about the readings and encouraged us to provide referential input from contemporary debates about science, yet he always grounded the readings in their respective historical context, particularly amid debates about “science,” “progress,” and the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. The body of literature was eclectic, encompassing the works of Karl Marx, Thomas Malthus, Thorstein Veblen, Thomas More, John Stuart Mill and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein). I learned immensely from the course and some of the discussions still resonate with me as I review literature on political economy and anthropology.

According to Harvard Crimson, Professor Buck retired in 2006. I have decided to include excerpts of the final paper I wrote here as a tribute to Professor Buck and many other professors who have made an indelible mark in my life.

Where Women Belong in the Good Society

If waste that is measured by the impracticable consequences of work is now contributing to improving human condition – it is better to be struggling for consumption than for existence – we must attempt to ascertain whether the ideal of feminine beauty often demonstrating her inability to do productive work and the emulation of the leisure class are also signs of progress for women. In this paper, I attempt to question the assumption that conspicuous waste and consumption indicate human progress within the context of the women’s liberation movements and struggle for social equality. I proceed to delineate the advantages and disadvantages of pecuniary culture deriving inferences and evidence from Veblen, Darwin, Marx, and More, as well as readings outside the course. I then endeavor to show why women are still oppressed and why the good society, according to Veblen, is out of reach even though we have made strides in technological and scientific progress.

Veblen propounds the recurring theme of “habits” evolving into accepted customs, such as the “coercive ownership-marriage” shaped by men to aggrandize their masculinity and prowess. Despite initially being “a ritual of initiation into servitude,” it eventually eases into a “definitive” appreciation by women.5 The greater the number of women a man owns, the higher his status, and the more entrenched the system of emulation and competition becomes among the warlike men. In the earlier stages of industry, women and slaves were regarded as status symbols of wealth. As the community advances and wife-capture ceases to be feasible, the wife of noble blood, who becomes exempt from “vulgar” work, nonetheless remains her husband’s chattel. While servants and wives may experience upward mobility in status by exemption from productive labor, they still primarily serve as “ornaments” for their male master, to improve his status. Hence, their leisure is a vicarious one, for their exemption from “vulgar” work is aimed not for their own comfort, but for their master’s. Whereas in earlier stages, the wife produced for the male warrior or hunter to consume, their roles have evolved such that the modern day wife has become the consumer of goods which he produces. But to repeat: she is still his chattel, engaging in vicarious leisure and consumption and remaining an un-liberated servant. She continues her role as man’s chattel by conforming her beauty to the “canons of taste” undoubtedly molded by the “canons of pecuniary reputability.”6

The strongest men had the most attractive women at their disposal, and the chiefs of nearly every tribe throughout the world could obtain more than one wife, according to Darwin, thus ensuring that their genes would more likely be passed on to offspring than the weaker and lower members of the tribe. The attractiveness of the women and the number of wives chosen affirmed the men’s status in “establishing or confirming their privilege.”1 What Darwin gathers from Mr. Mantell is that almost every girl in New Zealand who was pretty or promised to be pretty was tapu, or sacred in the religious sense, to some chief, bearing implications of exclusive ownership of the woman so that other men are prohibited from viewing, touching, or violating her beauty. Sexual selection – the “unconscious” selection by the strongest and most powerful men of the tribe mating of the prettiest women producing a greater number of offspring – may, according to Darwin’s prediction, after many generations, “modify” the character of the tribe.2 In effect, the progeny would over time resemble the “most approved individuals,” just as the animals express the character of the breeder; the plumage of the birds, for example, are altered by sexual selection.

Herein lay the nexus between Darwin and Veblen — sexual selection as the agent of social change; in the same way that peacocks adapted to beautiful, wasteful plumage because those were the ones selected to pass on their genes, we have also adapted our behavior to conspicuous waste and consumption. Yet perhaps Darwin and Veblen also diverge in numerous ways. Whereas Darwin describes the tendency of cats to catch rats rather than mice as an inherited trait, Veblen does not seem to make the same striking statement about the desire to emulate, to gain status, and to be pecuniarily beautiful. Emulation of an economic kind does exist in pre-predatory stages of life, but the incentive to do so is not yet strong. The changes occur in predatory culture where the mastery of tools creates a surplus of goods so that people no longer have to struggle for survival and begin to have more time for acquisition and domination over others. Productive work suddenly becomes regarded with disdain; tactics of exploitation and force, aggressive behavior, used in obtaining women and goods are commended, just as the stronger men with prowess are praised and selected to pass on their characteristics to offspring. In tracing the historical roots of conspicuous consumption, Veblen seems to suggest that human behavior has adapted to existing social conditions; it is human culture that has evolved quite considerably and yet those who can best adapt to the changes created by economic conditions also have the best chance of success. Some possible Darwinian approaches to Veblen is to (a) analogize the evolution of humans engendered by economic institutions with the theory of natural selection, that changes in organisms are caused by pressures of the environment that make certain characteristics more likely to be passed on than others or (b) emphasize the influence of sexual selection upon the division of labor, thus giving rise to the distinction between the leisure and working classes and shaping the habits of conspicuous consumption and emulation as part of the process of attracting and keeping mates. Still, Veblen does not say whether the desire for status through emulation is an inherited, biological trait, only to be mitigated but never eradicated or a habit – perhaps it is reversible with the instinct of workmanship – that can be reformed with economic and sociological changes. This begs two important question pertinent to our exploration of the function of beauty: does Veblen in fact justify conspicuous consumption and waste as contributions to improving the human and female condition and if so, how has waste, which either gives rise to or reinforces standards of beauty, become the marker for progress?

Long-term effects, ranging from physical to psychological problems, were exposed in a study by Tim Kasser on a random sample of 100 adults living in New York in 1993. The findings corroborated that “adults who focused on money, image, and fame reported less self-actualization and vitality, and more depression than those less concerned with these values. What is more, they also reported significantly more experiences of physical symptoms.”1 The same author reports the results of an experiment that involved showing advertisements with models to over 200 undergraduate women. Women who viewed the ads experienced unpleasant feelings of inadequacy and greater dissatisfaction with their looks.2 Though these studies examine only a small portion of individuals in the United States, the implications are much broader. There is a reason “one cannot find anywhere else a more excellent people or a happier society” than Utopia, absent the inequality imposed upon servants and women.3 To his credit, Thomas More noticed the correlation between pride and unhappiness. Among the “counterfeit pleasures,” ambition – the constant desire to outdo another – involves a “good deal of suffering.”4 By Utopian standards, Veblen’s wealth-obsessed, status-driven society is a dreary place, filled with “fear, anxiety, stress, long days, and sleepless nights.”5 The leisure class does not exist in Utopia, for idlers are expelled from society. Utopia is reminiscent of the early stage of Veblen’s “peaceable savagery,” where neither a division of labor nor a division of the sexes has solidified, although Utopia seems to maintain relative equality even with the advent of weapons and tools. Utopian women are producers, preparing, cooking, and serving the meals; they assume responsibility for most domestic chores, but men also learn the trades of the women.6 Men and women alike engage in productive work six hours a day and participate in learning in their leisure time; they produce but they do not consume. Utopians do not emulate each other, for they are annoyingly homogenous, except for the slaves. The women wear comfortable clothes of the same pattern all year round so there is no trend to follow, no ladies to emulate. They do not pride themselves in their appearances, and yet they also do not completely disregard attraction as important in marriage. For example, the custom of showing the future spouses naked to each other applies to both sexes. The prudential concern is not that one’s wife is not beautiful enough – or in Veblen’s terms, sufficiently pecuniarily beautiful – but rather that she does not conceal a deformity; the Utopian woman is stripped of her conspicuous waste, her beauty more akin to Veblen’s notion of aesthetics, simple and pristine, untouched by the artificial desire for expensiveness. “Temperate living” in Utopia means that everything, even the focus on beauty is moderate, rendering it a promising and happier alternative to Veblen’s Victorian America in this regard.

However, Utopian women are not quite fulfilling their potentials. Utopia’s political institutions hinge on the inferior status of women, barring them from becoming a syphogrants, tranibors, or chief executives. Denied the opportunity to influence decisions on public policy and to vote, the women are politically oppressed. Utopia, then, is not so ideal for women after all. John Stuart Mill, cognizant of the political and social oppression of women, grappled with this problem and courageously waged a battle against the argument that women were “naturally” inferior. The most pernicious evil confronting progress for women, according to Mill, is history: “But in history, as in traveling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds; and few learn much from history, who do not bring with them to its study.”7 Therefore, we cannot possibly determine the “nature” of women when they have been conditioned and coerced by society to accept subordinate positions. Mill then justifies admitting women to all occupations, including political ones, by pointing to examples in which women, like Queen Elizabeth and Joan of Arc have proven themselves fit and worthy of ruling. Citizens would benefit from the sagacious leadership of women; the work force would be supplied with a wider selection of qualified and skilled workers. Any weaknesses or flaws possessed can be rectified or strengthened through reading and education. Education is the panacea for the disenfranchisement of women, facilitating them in the process of garnering jobs, which would then serve as leverage, an alternative, to the state of subjection required by marriage. While John Diggins contends that Mill’s perception of women’s emancipation as an “article of political faith” is quite different from Veblen’s view of women’s oppression as a “residue that reflected the persistence of custom and the continuity of habit,” I respectfully disagree.8 Mill intimated the danger of making women attractive to men the goal of education for it concentrated power into the hands of men to further subject women to their will by sanctioning the submissiveness of women as “an essential part of sexual attractiveness.”9 Thus, Mill and Veblen surprisingly share a common thread. Mill’s proposal for political and social emancipation fails to purge Veblen’s Victorian America and modern-day society of the “residue” that continues to plague women even when they have been accorded their rights; habits and customs honed by a history of training women to be submissive and sexually attractive to men linger in the midst of the twenty-first century.

Recall images of the one-dimensional, uninteresting characterization of Elizabeth in Frankenstein. All we know of her is that she is beautiful and adored. As a foil to the creation shunned by his master and ostracized by all whom he encounters, she, having only passively stood by, is instantly nurtured and admired – her beauty associated with merit in the minds of her adopted family. It was mentioned in class that attractiveness is often admired and resented10, but if indeed the latter response is more powerful than the former, we would have to find ways to explain the results of studies propounded by MSNBC that attractive people are offered more jobs, assisted by strangers, and given benefits where benefits may be undeserved. We might also scratch our heads and wonder why it is not merely women in ads that entice people to consume – models selling cosmetics, cars, computers, furniture, and even items that one would not normally associated with “sexiness” — but incredibly attractive women. Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy socialite from The Great Gatsy, who is Elizabeth (from Frankenstein) incarnate sums up the problem when her baby girl is born: “All right…I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Herein rests the problem: women in America are politically and legally liberated; yet the “object of being attractive to men” is still the “polar star” of female aspirations.11 The opening of occupations to women has not proved to be the propitious alternative to marriage as Mill had predicted it to be, for women are dangling their baits to attract mates as vigorously as ever, devoting a disproportionate amount of leisure time to conspicuous waste. Mill thought that the major obstacle to women dedicating themselves to pursuits open to both gender was the demands of society imposed exclusively upon her; she simply does not have the time.12 But Veblen says they indeed do have the leisure time but rather than devoting it to her personal pursuits, they are busy wasting it on non-productive activities like decorating and beautifying themselves so they will enhance the status of their husbands. The worst part of the problem is that women from the lower pecuniary grades want to emulate the upper-class ladies, which renders Mill’s exhortation to grant equality to women in the work force and in society because of the variety and diversity women help to furnish, completely futile. Instead, Veblen’s women come to resemble the alarmingly, Borg-like citizens of Utopia, minus the conspicuously wasteful clothing. Many modern-day women are similarly homogeneous, subjecting themselves to the same “mutilations” – breast enhancements, tummy tuck, nose job, and face lifts – so that not only is aesthetic beauty eliminated, as Veblen predicted, but diversity is also diminished as women begin to look alike.

Would the situation be ameliorated if the leisure class never existed? Marx does not directly address the problem of vicarious conspicuous leisure and consumption but his solution to liberating women from being a “mere instrument of production” for her husband was to abolish private property and the family.1 However, Marx’s proposal, had it been successful, might have retarded progress for women. We must remember that the women of nineteenth-century America who first organized on behalf of women’s rights were “uniformly of British descent, Puritan-Quaker religion and leisure-class status.”2 In the lower strata, “where any degree of leisure…has become impracticable,” the woman has little time or energy to “spare for a rebellious assertion.”3 Exemption from having to earn one’s livelihood afforded upper-class women the leisure to participate in and lead the women’s movements. Aside from history, however, we can also speculate that Marx’s communist state in which general production is regulated may actually be more conducive to the progress of women because lower-class women, having been relieved of their intensively laborious jobs, would be able to participate and “train” themselves in any area they desire. Still, we must question how, in a society where production is regulated, would social movements be funded? In American history, feminism’s high-class origins – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott came from well-to-do families and married wealthy and educated husbands – enabled them to make pamphlets, prepare speeches and complete other tasks that required time and capital. According to Mill, we have to reach the stationary state where “no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to themselves forward”4 before we can turn to socially worthy concerns, like the liberation of women. Yet Mill contradicts himself; waiting too long for the stationary state to arrive, as Mill well knows, may allow a protracted history of oppression to form prejudices that become so entrenched, for example attitudes towards the “inferior” women or habits of conspicuous consumption, that those biases appear to be “natural” and thus become more difficult to rectify.

1 Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Writings ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 183.

2 Linda Scott, “Market Feminism: a Paradigm Shift” in Marketing and Feminism, p. 18.

3 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 359, p. 84.

4 Mill, On Political Economy, Book IV, Ch VI.

1 Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), p. 11.

2 Ibid., p. 57.

3 Thomas More, Utopia ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), p. 118

4 Ibid., p. 118.

5 Ibid., p. 158

6 Ibid., p. 97.

7 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women ed. Susan M. Okin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), p. 23.

8 John P. Diggins, The Bard of Savagery (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 142.

9 Mill, The Subjection of Women, p. 16.

10 As a conjecture, perhaps extreme beauty breeds resentment, especially arising from jealousy. Still, this does not detract from the argument that being reasonably attractive or pretty, brings more benefits than harm.

11 Mill, p. 16

12 Mill, p. 79.

1 Ibid., p. 275.

2 Ibid., 275.


1 John P. Diggins, The Bard of Savagery (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 143.

2 Thorstein Veblen, Theory of Leisure Class (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1967), p. 6.

3 Thorstein Veblen, “The Barbarian Status of Women” in Thorstein Veblen on Culture and Society ed. Stjepan Mestrovic (London: Sage Publications Ltd., 2003), p. 141-144.

4 Veblen, Theory of Leisure Class, p. 23.

5 Thorstein Veblen, “The Barbarian Status of Women” in Thorstein Veblen on Culture and Society, p. 114 -115.

6 Veblen, Theory of Leisure Class, p. 146.

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