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Veblen, Lasch, Debord: The 20th Century's Three Most Cogent Social Critics

[Contribution towards a proposed festschrift for Nina Fishman (1946-2009)]

Today is the first anniversary of the death of Nina Fishman, political historian, activist and a very dear friend of mine. Nina's personality and energy was a bonding force for a whole group of friends: through various campaigns, through numerous dinners at her home, Wigmore concerts and operas, and through the political Supper Club she inaugurated which continued successfully for over a decade. 

Nina loved politics, music, art, food and most of all people, which is to say that she was a humanist in the oldest and most generic sense of that term. That means, in short, she believed that despite the vast diversity of character and opinion, we have sufficient in common to be able to claim solidarity with all humans. Nina was not especially interested in that narrow and rather desiccated humanism that exists solely to combat religion and promote secularism (she was fairly relaxed about religion), nor was she much moved by a legalistic humanism that consists solely of identifying and defining human "rights". However she felt, as I do, with a great urgency that humanism in the current world is not merely moribund but actively under attack, and not just from religious fundamentalists but from many of those on the Left whose interest it should properly be to preserve it. That strain of Left theory which claims descent from Nietzsche and post-structuralist philosophy (Althusser, Derrida) declares itself to be anti-humanist, while certain strands of the libertarian Left go further into nihilistic Sadean misanthropy, conceived as somehow revolutionary. 

For a while we planned to write a paper together that would attempt to define a new style of humanism, purged of that Methodist earnestness whose musty odour permeates even the most secular of modern humanisms. And that was the only time Nina and I actually fell out. We were discussing the paper in the Lord Palmerston pub when I mentioned that I'd just read Adam Philips' "Darwins Worms" and was impressed by his prologue which lucidly expounded Freud's ideas about death, and in particular the central importance of the knowledge of its inevitability to human cultures. Nina exploded, vehemently denying the importance of fear of death and rejecting Freud and all his works, even the existence of an unconscious mind. Her humanism was founded on an older, more rationalistic and realist view of human nature, as espoused by Marx and by most socialists since. I could certainly sympathise with her distrust because Nina was born and raised in the USA in the 1950s, just when Freudianism was conquering liberal opinion and fuelling a newly-confident and intrusive advertising industry. Nevertheless, we never wrote that paper.

Freud, as commonly understood, undermined the notion of a common human nature by claiming that much of our behaviour is unconsciously determined and therefore beyond our control. I'm far from being an uncritical Freudian, but such objections as I have to psychoanalysis depend on facts and ideas that have emerged since Freud's time, and I believe there can be no going back before his insights (any more than economics could go back before Keynes or Marx). Freud himself was aware that his terminology – ego, id, libido, cathexis and so on – was a mythology, and he predicted that one day neurophysiology would advance to a point where such terms could be replaced by more scientific ones. We're almost at that day now, but research into affective neuroscience (the biochemical and neurological mechanism of emotions) suggests that the driving forces of our behaviour – our instincts, if you will – are more diverse than Freud could know, so that no theory based on only one or two conflicting instincts could be adequate.

I started researching my own paper on a new humanism, setting out from my favourite statement of faith, by Anton Chekhov: 

"My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves."

Chekhov claims a pair of negative human rights, the right not to be lied to and the right not to be brutalised, and the only positive right he proposes is to be allowed to flourish in the absence of those two evils, in the manner of classic liberalism. However Hegel and Marx showed us that human nature is socially and historically determined, and that therefore setting idealistic goals is not enough. You need to propose social institutions that might lead towards those goals. Nina believed, as I do, that the only form of social organisation that can ensure such rights is not liberalism but social democracy: a limited solidarity across class boundaries, without ultra-egalitarian illusions of total equality, and subject to constraint by electoral democracy. 

I tried to combine insights from modern affective neuroscience with key ideas from information and complexity theory, trying to shake out the idealist illusions inherited from German Romantic philosophy. I discovered the almost-ignored philosophical works of George Santayana, a trenchant critic of Romantic Egotism, who advocated a kind of post-humanism that fully recognises our natural limitations and unconscious motivations. I re-read Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism" (1974), a work more relevant today than when it was written – and marvelled at his prescience in predicting the rise of the cult of celebrity and the consequent erosion of community. Finally I rediscovered the work of Thorstein Veblen, that eccentric and radical economist who wrote "The Theory of the Leisure Class" and coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption".

On mentioning him to Nina she brightly told me "Oh, my dad [the late Professor Les Fishman, Marxist economist] was very interested in Veblen, he contributed to a volume of essays on Veblen back in the 1950s". With the help of the indispensible Abebooks I located a lone copy of "Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Reappraisal" (Cornell University 1958) and was astonished by the profundity of his ideas, briefly revisited by a few American Leftists in the 1950s and then dropped almost without trace. Veblen's theory, if you can penetrate his irritating style of delivery, is as quite as central to any analysis of modern consumer capitalism as is Lasch's Narcissism or Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle".

It's a fundamentally anthropological and psychological theory of what he loosely called the "instincts" that underlie our economic behaviour. Veblen suggested that the invention of agriculture during the Stone Age 10,000 years ago precipitated not merely a division of labour between hunters and tillers, but lead gradually to a split in human nature itself into "predatory" and "workmanlike" instincts. He wasn't too concerned about the precise mechanism of this split and certainly didn't suggest that it was physical (like H.G. Wells' Morlocks and Eloi), nor genetically transmitted. Rather the division of labour lead to socio-economic hierarchy, to classes who lived without laboring on the surplus generated by others (as in Marx), which in turn stratified institutions including the institutions of child-rearing, which might provide a sufficient transmission route.

Hunters take what they want from nature through personal prowess and force: the "predatory instinct" becomes associated with superstition (luck) and ritual (propitiating the game spirits) thanks to the of uncertainties hunting, with sport and gambling, and with pomp and pageantry (celebration of success). Eventually it becomes the mindset of aristocracies, monarchies and organised religions. 

Tillers on the other hand have to transform nature through toil in order to grow food crops, and they need to cooperate to do so. His "workmanlike" instinct therefore becomes associated not merely with routine tedious labour and cooperation rather than individual prowess, but with the observation of nature in order better to explain and hence exploit it – it eventually points toward medicine, engineering, industry and science.

Veblen suggested that while this split runs between castes, classes and professions within each society (and to some extent between the genders too) it also runs within each individual psyche: both instincts are at work in all of us, with a different balance in different individuals, and they steer our decisions. He was careful not to moralise his "instincts" by branding one or the other good or bad, nor did he suggest that they're mutually exclusive. The predatory is also the playful, and hunters need craft in addition to prowess. In fact most human endeavours involve some degree of both behaviours, most obviously in the arts where some degree of craftsmanship is typically required for success, but where most artists are "predatory" in the sense that their living is uncertain and demands a constant "hunt" for patrons. Picasso and Jackson Pollock were as predatory as they were craftsmanlike. (Actually the movement away from craft values and toward conceptual art that’s typified the last 20 years could be seen as part of a larger, post-1960s movement back toward the predatory). But modern finance capital is the most obvious vector of the instinct of predation - banker/gamblers, on the prowl for profit.

Veblen never clearly discussed the relationship of these "instincts" to Freud's, neither did he bother to claim that they are of the same kind or depth. As with Freud, it's best to regard them as suggestive and fertile metaphors. From a neurophysiological viewpoint Veblen's instincts would constitute a different and orthogonal axis to Freud's life/death axis, and neither axis could be fundamental, both being complex composite effects of multiple emotion centres in the brain. What's more relevant to today's world is the economic result Veblen predicted these instincts would produce, which is where he departs drastically from Marx but looks rather closer to the bulls-eye. Veblen was a leading thinker of the Progressive Era in the USA, writing in 1899 at the time of Standard Oil, the Rockefellers and the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. He predicted the eventual dominance of those wings of capitalism – finance (making money from money) and extractive industries like oil and coal – that are predatory in character. More pertinently still, he analysed the economics of display and ostentation that’s associated with wealth, celebrity and predation.

His concept of "conspicuous consumption" proposed a pricing mechanism wholly at odds with the notion of rational choice raised by Adam Smith and adopted almost unchanged by Marx. So-called "Veblen goods" consumed by the rich aren't priced as cheaply as possible but rather as expensively as possible to exclude the lower orders and act as signifiers of wealth. But Krug, Petrus, caviar, Patek Philippe, Rolls Royce don't merely signify the celebrity of their consumers, they actually confer it, and to make them cheaper would quite defeat their purpose. This style of pricing was confined to a more or less private elite for much of the 20th century, during which the mass-production culture pioneered by Henry Ford transformed the living standards of Western populations. However it returned in a big way in recent decades, during the economic bubbles spawned by the IT, media and financial industries. Think footballer's wives, Top Gear, the cult of Ferrari and Lamborghini.

The difference this time around is that, thanks largely to the confidence inculcated by three decades of de facto social democracy following WWII, a sizeable fraction of middle-class Western consumers now feel entitled to consume such Veblen goods too, and so our accommodating and inventive banking classes saw fit to provide them with endless credit with which to do so – in the process perhaps bankrupting the whole world economy. A Veblenian view of the contemporary world situation might counterpose these predatory innovators of finance – investment banks, hedge funds, private equity – to the workmanlike innovations of the technology sector – computers, internet and mobile communications. Or if you like, Goldman Sachs versus Google, AIG versus Apple. But of course in practice such protagonists need and collaborate with each other: the question is who gets the last say. Or viewed from a more global perspective, you might counterpose the predatory West, which manufactures less and less, to the workmanlike East which makes more and more (with a similar proviso about mutual interdependency).    

It seems to me that Veblen's notion of the predatory is at least as rich as, and complementary to, Guy Debord's concept of the spectacular society and Christopher Lasch's narcissistic individualism. Debord's notion of The Spectacle was an extension of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism, required by the vast expansion of the mass media and the coming of image as mass commodity. Published in Paris in 1967, his thesis, to condense it rather brutally, was that the worlds of capitalism and Soviet communism were converging toward similar systems in which advertising or propaganda colonize the very human imagination, producing an ahistorical world in which appearance dominates reality: everything authentic in human life is replaced by its representation so that citizens become spectators of their own lives, which are lived vicariously through a worship of celebrity and self-definition via brandnames. It wasn't a conspiracy theory, because although The Spectacle might serve the interests of capitalists and bureaucrats by absorbing dissent, they are as much mesmerised by it as everyone else.

Lasch's concept of narcissism overlaps in many ways with Debord's vision, though he was a more conservative figure than Debord. He believed that competitive individualism was once a strength of American society but that "in its decadence [it] has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self." Influenced by Freud, C. Wright Mills and Richard Hofstadter, Lasch saw changes in child-rearing practices during the 20th century as leading to the dominance of a new personality type, characterised by manipulative charm, pseudo-awareness of one's own condition, promiscuous pan-sexuality, fascination with oral sex, hypochondria, protective emotional shallowness, fear of dependence and commitment, inability to mourn, admiration for fame and celebrity and a dread of old age and death. The result is a proliferation of therapy and health movements that invade all aspects of life, along with a degradation of community and the healthy sort of sporting competition that he saw as a virtue. In Veblen's terms, Lasch was describing the gradual conquest of the predatory over the workmanlike instinct. Indeed all three men were talking about the same phenomenon - falling in love with our own images - but from different angles, the economic, the sociological and the psychological. They all recognised that our visual sense is coming to dominate all the others due to our all-pervasive mass media, so that in a curious way modern hi-tech society is succumbing to the age-old sin of idolatry.

However, as a critical method I believe that Veblen's theory has the advantage over the other two, because its twin poles render it capable of generating practical politics as well as social criticism. Puritanical campaigns against the consumption of commodities can gain little purchase either in the hedonistic West or the wannabe-hedonistic East, while refusal to participate in The Spectacle is a recipe for political impotence in the modern world, as Debord himself realised and acknowledged by dissolving the Situationist International in 1972. But a Veblenian analysis points toward concrete agitation in favour of an effective social democratic state that can regulate predatory financiers and maintain the necessary balance in favour of craft and public good, while also eschewing Chekhov's twin vices of violence and lies. 

If this sounds reminiscent of the values of the non-revolutionary wing of the 1960s counter-culture, nothing could be further from the truth. It's becoming more and more clear that the counter-culture, with its promotion of hedonism, individualism and libertarianism was in practice a revolt against the bureaucratic social democracy of the post-war settlement, in both the USA and the UK. Its ultimate outcome, far from a proletarian revolution, was precisely the new "cool capitalism" that we've been living with for the last 30 years. If it was a revolution of sorts, it was against the tattered remains of the Protestant Work Ethic rather than against capitalism per se, easing the transition from a society based on making things to a society based on consuming things. Or in Veblen's terms, away from workmanship and toward predation. The orgiastic lifestyles of 1960s rock stars, massively enriched by burgeoning new electronic distribution channels, set the template for a get-rich-quick, spend-without-fear culture, soon to be amplified by the DotCom boom and the following property boom. (One fascinating irony is that the US libertarian Right, which gets so het up about the decline in traditional values wrought by the '60s "boomer" generation, is unable to accept that it's their beloved liberty that underlies this decline).  

Veblen's theory also brightly illuminates that growing anti-humanism which so worried Nina. Current popular culture, along with certain strands of the far Left, has thrown in its lot with the predators rather the toilers. Graphic depiction of horror and violence has been a weapon of satire against the ruling classes since Goya and before, and when the Situationists lauded the works of De Sade and Lautreamont they were continuing a proud tradition of French anti-clericalism and ├ępater les bourgeois – a romantic refusal of the complacency and prudence of 1950s affluent society. But their context was a continuing belief in the possibility of proletarian revolution. When that revolution failed to materialise, succeeding generations of sub-Situ and post-modernist social critics have been drawn deeper and deeper into the fantastic violence of those dark authors, and into a nihilistic rejection of capitalist society. Those masses who have failed to make the revolution are corrupted by commodity fetishism, addicted, zombified, yes let's say it, they are somewhat less than human

The kitsch emotionalism of so much of current popular culture disgusts these critics to the extent that they recoil from empathy itself, retreating into wounded solipsism. Such a nihilistic anti-humanism can be sensed behind the novels of J.G. Ballard, James Ellroy, Michel Houellebecq, Tom McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis (several of whom I'll confess to having enjoyed) and scores of pierced post-punk pundits. It's equally visible in the evolution of ever-more explicit horror movies and computer games, often featuring zombies and vampires. George Romero, doyen of horror directors claims that he used zombies to "criticize real-world social ills – such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation – while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies". But isn't it just as likely that young viewers actually see zombies as symbolising the brainwashed masses (of whom they're not themselves a part of course), or their parents' greedy generation, or even at a deeper level themselves as dangerous predators in the grip of uncontrollable lusts. Such nihilism has ramifications far beyond popular culture though: it's manifest in deadly form in those death cults of suicide bombing promoted by Islamist terror groups, which Ian Buruma has so ably analysed. Far from pointing to any kind of liberation, it points toward a new sort of fascism.

So what would a humanism that turns away from the predatory and favours life over death look like? It would have to rebuild solidarity between all those who are willing to reciprocate, regardless of race, class and religion. Applied to politics it would have to exploit such solidarity to tackle those urgent environmental threats that face the whole planet and therefore any prospects of continued human flourishing. However it couldn't do that by preaching any ascetic morality: on the contrary it should revel in the human craft that produces great art, music, food, wine, but with the intention of sharing such pleasures and educating about their existence, rather than flaunting them to exclude others and aggrandise one's own ego. For example it would resist the relentless degradation and emblandening influence of the fast food industry, in the manner of Italy's Slow Food movement.

It would refuse to employ lying as routine political practice (a vicious innovation from the Right since the 1970s that New Labour found itself unable to resist), and it would refuse to employ unilateral aggression even to achieve "progressive" ends (New Labour, Iraq) but confine itself to robust defence against international predators. 

Very importantly, it would eschew the propagation of fear as a tool of social manipulation, a practice which has reached debilitating levels in recent decades. This vice is by no means confined to politicians, but on the contrary was pioneered by the advertising industry (think Domestos and germs), while in the computer industry it warrants its very own acronym, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) - the stuff you spread about a competitor's product to slow them down until you can catch up. 

It most certainly would be less bashful about regulating the worst excesses of predatory capitalism than either New Labour or the Obama administration, and it would support and subsidise employment in socially useful industries. It fact, applied to politics it would look a lot like the muscular social democracy advocated by James K. Galbraith in his 2008 book "The Predator State", which is the work that originally sent me scurrying back to re-read Thorstein Veblen. This quotation will give a flavour of its deeply unfashionable tone:

"You want higher wages. Raise them. You want more and better jobs. Create them. You want safer food, cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions. Pass laws and establish agencies to achieve this. Enforce the laws, staff the agencies, give them budgets and mandates… Politics may stand in the way, but economics does not. And there is nothing really to lose, except ‘free-market’ illusions."
We're much further from any such prospect today than at any time since 1997, when Blair and Brown had a mandate that might have allowed them to make a start on something of this sort. Unfortunately Blair was never any kind of social democrat and Brown never escaped the dark and depressive shadow of Thatcherism. It's a fair question whether such a vision is achievable at all, and perhaps the future is a slow descent into chaos, but that doesn't mean that it's not worth examining these ideas (universal suffrage must have once looked equally hopeless, but people carried on pursuing it anyway). Nina Fishman was too busy finishing her monumental biography of miners' leader Arthur Horner during the last year of her life to read Galbraith or Veblen (though she did read the first part of my manuscript and pronounced these ideas "useful", high praise from her). I bitterly regret that she is no longer among us to argue over these ideas, to stimulate and to organise in her inimitable way.


  1. Hello Dick, I'm reading your remarkable blogpost in a cafe in Glanmire Cork Ireland. Sitting opposite me is Phil McManus - Nina's husband. We are having a good laugh about the way blogging has brought us three into contact again today.
    I need an hour or so to take in the argument you've presented but I've already shared the blogpost via Twitter.
    The ferry from Swansea to Cork worked - you could ride your bike over here.

    Ps. Phil say he thinks "Paul is mad".

  2. Paul - I'm afraid I only run a Vespa PX125 nowadays - even getting to Swansea on it would be a trial!


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