work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Veblen in the Inner City: Sense of Entitlement and the Normality of Looting – A Reply to Iain Duncan Smith

09.18.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

update 2nd december 2011: an expanded version of this is now published in sociological research online – available here:

The London Riots have been interpreted as symptoms for what went wrong with our society in many ways – as an anomaly. It has been suggested that they are the expression of consumerism gone mad (e.g. by the doyen of sociology, Zygmunt Bauman – or by the Guardian’s Zoë Williams), the loss of a realistic alternative to capitalism (para-Stalinist philosopher Slavoj Žižek), or the “breakdown of traditional structures of support” (i.e. families) in “dysfunctional commuities” leading to a “distorted morality” (Iain Duncan Smith in Thursday’s Times).

I think none of them are right. What has surfaced on the streets of London last August may have been a symptom, but not a symptom for something new. They may constitute an anomie – but not an anomalie. The “distorted morality” Iain Duncan Smith bemoans and which the Prime Minister has vowed to correct by inculcating the young the ability to tell “right from wrong” is one that is in the DNA of capitalism. The oft-invoked logic of work and equal exchange at the heart of capitalist legitimacy has an ugly twin, the logic of violence and intimidation: the latent aggression of appropriation, of taking without giving, a sense of entitlement to that which one can lay one’s hands on. Marx called it the “primitive accumulation” (translate: robbery) on which capitalist development is built and which – according to early 20th century Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg – has never stopped since. Thorstein Veblen, the American economist famous for his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class in which he coined the notions of “conspicuous consumption” and “emulation” (i.e. keeping up with the Joneses), called this ruthlessly acquisitive aspect of capitalism “pecuniary prowess” – a social character trait which he ascribed to both the upper classes (i.e. leisure class and business class) and the criminal classes. Iain Duncan Smith (like so many others in recent weeks) is right to make the connection between the moral outlook of the looters and that of those at “the very top”, manifested in “the banking crisis, phone hacking or the MPs’ expenses scandal”. But he is mistaken to imply that this is somehow a decay of a bygone harmony of respectable citizens infused with Protestant family values and work ethics. Neither London’s corporate leaders nor London’s gangsters and petty criminals ever had much scruples when it came to the issue of appropriation. I have deliberately chosen some antiquated theorists to make this point. The only thing that really has changed is that the enhanced technologies of communication facilitate both the detection and the coordination those practices.

According to Veblen this is all part of a continued dominance of barbarism. According to him, ever since the neolithic revolution property has been distributed according to the superior ability to enact violence and intimidate others in war, extortion of taxes, forced labour etc. So capitalism was just a new form of feudalism in which those on the top, the leisure class and the business class, demonstrate and validate their position through the display of excessive luxury. Through this they publicly waste the product of others’ work. The fact that they get away with this unchallenged affirms their authority over those who work. It proves that they are worth it – and others are not. Whoever takes them on will be met with the force of the law, the law of a state that protects their property rights and by threat of violence continues the inequality of power that comes with them. Not surprisingly, the consumption practices of the propertied classes often make barely masked reference to violence: from a predilection for “blood sports” to the superior lethality of the 4by4.

However, nested within the framework of property relations that are guaranteed by the state monopoly on violence, a new legitimacy of property began to flourish with the emergence of a bourgeois society – a legitimacy founded on work and equal exchange. It is this legitimacy that the condemnation of the looters rests on, the notion that if you want something you don’t just take it, but you work and exchange it (mediated by the use of money as symbol of social wealth as such) for the work of others. What emerges is the meritocratic ethos of what Veblen termed the “industrial classes” – workers, craftsmen, engineers, scientists. Again, this legitimacy finds expression in practices of consumption. Wealth here expresses productivity and social utility and contemporary meritocratic middle classes love to show such virtue through healthy eating or educational consumption (reading, culture tourism…). The middle-class nature of Zoë Williams’ sneer on the rioters could not be more pointed that in her observation that neither did they go for food – nor did they touch Waterstones to pick a good read. Feigning amusement the sneer overplays a deep seated fear. Normally such fears are dealt with by keeping those who could pose a threat “out of sight of the middle-class majority”, as Iain Duncan Smith points out. The August unrests were a stark reminder that the essentially peaceful principle of work and exchange relies on violence and intimidation to protect the resulting property relations.

The consciousness about the violence behind property is stronger in the working classes. Veblen pointed out the irony that the recognition of labour, the principle of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” as the old slogan goes, was achieved by militancy: strikes and the implicit or open threat of rebellion. Until today the recognition of work is expressed in the logic of the leisure class: through participation in conspicuous consumption, through paid holidays, and through an entitlement to pensioned retirement. If the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is serious about strengthening the prestige of work he should be acutely aware of this symbolic dimension of income and pensions.

What the looters did indeed is in utter contempt for “productive employment”. They went for over-priced branded goods that stand for leisure and luxury. Through brands they acquire symbols of (corporate) power. As the pioneering theorist of consumer society W. F. Haug suggested in his Critique of the Commodity Aesthetics, through brands we ally ourselves with the power of capital itself. The looters, unable or unwilling, to strive for tokens of meritocratic recognition through education and work, went for the symbols of precisely what they were doing: appropriation and exploitation. And in the process, by way of profit maximisation, they destroyed the small corner shops as well. They were a very neoliberal mob indeed.

Given the moral complicity between capitalist accumulation and looting it is difficult to see what could be done. Iain Duncan Smith’s assertion that this, despite the non-political nature of this mainly criminal uprising, is nonetheless an issue of social justice is not far off the mark. The more social wealth is distributed according to widely accepted moral principles such as desert, merit, or need, the less likely is a culture of unchallenged and unquestioned violent appropriation. But what Duncan Smith suggests does not imply any move in that direction. He wants to see families supported by the voluntary sector, stronger classroom discipline and make work more attractive by “simplifying the welfare system so that work pays”. The latter normally is code for lowering benefits so that they are less than the lowest available pay. He also wants a more responsible behaviour “at the top”. But “social justice”, even in non-egalitarian terms, implies the redistribution of income. For this reason the leading lights of neoliberalism – Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek – have long dismissed the notion of social justice as nonsense. And not without reason: Even in the form in which defenders of the free market economy have long promoted notions of fairness and which Friedman summarises as “To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces”, distribution according to criteria of social justice puts in question the basic mechanisms of a capitalist society. Social justice comes at a price.

But there is no cause for concern. The way the life patron of the Centre for Social Justice employs this concept is truly Orwellian. What is meant is not the implementation of a principle such as “everybody according to their needs” or “to their efforts” or even “to their abilities”. To the contrary: Families, schools and role models shall be employed to ensure that people put up with existing inequalities. If social justice is a question of strong families, then the answer is indeed not to tackle inequality and privilege but to “tackle disincentives for people to form strong and stable couples”.

Iain Duncan Smith’s editorial in The Times comes under the heading “We cannot arrest our way out of these riots”. His suggestion is that we educate and moralise our way out of them. A cheap solution that will not work.

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