The rich used to show how much they could spend on things they didnt require. Today, a public display of productivity is the new emblem of class power
Almost 120 years ago, during the first Gilded Age, sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption. He used it to refer to rich person flaunting their wealth through wasteful spending. Why buy a thousand-dollar suit when a hundred-dollar one serves the same function? The answer, Veblen said, was power. The rich asserted their predominance by showing how much fund they could burn on things they didnt need.
While radical at the time, Veblens observation seems obvious now. In the intervening decades, conspicuous consumption has become profoundly embedded in the texture of American capitalism. Our new Gilded Age is even more Veblenian than the last. Todays captains of industry publicize their social position with private islands and superyachts while the president of the United States encompass nearly everything he owns in gold.
But the acquisition of insanely expensive commodities isnt the only way that modern elites project power. More recently, another form of status display has emerged. In the new Gilded Age, identifying oneself as a member of the ruling class doesnt simply require conspicuous consumption. It necessitates conspicuous production .
If conspicuous consumption involves the adore of luxury, conspicuous production involves the adore of labor. It isnt about how much you spend. Its about how hard you work.
Nowhere is the cult of conspicuous production more visible than among Americas CEOs. Todays top executives are devoted work-worshippers, nearly to the point of perversity. Apple CEO Tim Cook told Timethat he begins his day at 3.45 am. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told Fortunethat he has worked 100 -hour workweeks for 24 years. Not to be outdo, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg Newsthat she used to work 130 -hour workweeks. And so on.
It goes without saying that these individuals arent working out of necessity. The vast majority of Americans work because their survival depends on a wage. By contrast, Mayer, Immelt and Cook could retire tomorrow and still live very comfortably for the rest of their lives, with plenty left over to pass on to the next generation their collective net worth is nearly $1.5 bn.
But conspicuous production isnt about fulfilling ones material wants. Its about the public display of productivity as a emblem of class power. In an era of extreme inequality, elites need to demonstrate to themselves and others that they deserve to own orders of magnitude more wealth than everyone else. Cook is approximately 500,000% richer than the average American but he wakes up at 3.45 in the morning. This is the hallmark of conspicuous production: it justifies the existence of an imperial class by showcasing their superhuman levels of industry.
The irony is that grueling workweeks arent exclusively an upper-clas phenomenon. Far from it. Many less fortunate Americans perform similar accomplishments of productivity, although they have fewer incentives and opportunities to advertise it. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that Americans employees run significantly more hours than they did a few decades ago especially women, black people and the poor. A black woman in the bottom fifth of earners ran 349 more hours in 2015 than she would have in 1979. The reason is simple: wages have scarcely budged since the 1970 s, which means todays workers have to work harder to make ends meet.
Compare the woman running long hours for minimum wage with the woman running the same hours for $30 m a year. One is trying to avoid starvation and homelessness; the other is broadcasting her power and prestige. The labor of the latter isnt necessary in the normal sense but neither is a ten-thousand-dollar handbag. If conspicuous consumption celebrates gratuitous spending, conspicuous production celebrates gratuitous running. Both convey predominance by making a spectacle of excess.
In the first Gilded Age, excess looked like a woman in pearls alongside a woman in rags. In the second Gilded Age, it looks like a woman who works hundred-hour workweeks but doesnt require the money, alongside a woman who works just as hard but can scarcely keep a roof over her head.
Yet conspicuous production takes many forms. Even people who cant afford to retire tomorrow can still engage in some version of it and enjoy a portion of the elite status that it bestows. Veblens most provocative debate was that the wastefulness of the rich inspired appreciation , not anger. Other class tried to imitate it as best they could: middle-class people couldnt live like a railroad baron, but they could indulge in little luxuries to bid up their social standing. The same regulation applies to conspicuous production. Most Americans will never attain the decadent heights of CEO-style hyperwork, but they can still make a fetish of productivity.
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