Home > Uncategorized > Class, in a nutshell

Class, in a nutshell

from David Ruccio


What happens when you combine conspicuous consumption and consumption productivity?

You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.

When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”

The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.

In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.

Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.


Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.

What’s next, corsets?*


*Here again is Veblen:

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .

the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.

  1. May 5, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Exellent, very good… «Dans la mouche» as the French say…

  2. Helge Nome
    May 5, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    Some stone statues on Easter Island showed foot long finger nails engraved in the stone.
    What’s new pussycat?

  3. May 5, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Absolutely fabulous post!

  4. May 5, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    If only we could have the transcripts of the design, marketing and “execution” meetings which led to those jeans. To be found on another season of “Madman?”

    Are the hard-hats and steel lunch-pails sold separately, in another department?

    I’m tempted to say, it’s a classic of “late capitalism,” but I’ve just learned about the imprecision of that term.

  5. May 5, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    We are capitalists and old well drillers like me are in style. My voting tool is almost ready for start up. Deal with it, Nancy.

    • robert locke
      May 5, 2017 at 8:36 pm

      No, oil well diggers are not in style, Just ask everybody choking in their city air. What silliness.

  6. patrick newman
    May 6, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    The masses are allowed access to ‘fashion’ but at a price. Mud encrusted jeans (that must never be washed?) is about affordable for people on modest incomes but deprived in common sense. There is a more general point here. Also illustrated by the $200 sunglasses that probably cost under $2 to make! Fashion creation or legal brainwashing is a wonderful device that enables the setting of prices that bear no relation to cost of production and produce spectacular mark ups! An interesting side angle is how companies are constantly testing the public’s price tolerance to raise acceptence of higher prices not forced by cost increases – what the market will bear!

  7. May 7, 2017 at 10:25 am

    Mel Gibson got some things wrong in “Apocalypto.” But one thing he did not get wrong, per Mayan historians was the depictions of Mayan society. Relevant here is the depiction of the sacrifice ceremonies. Mayan nobility paid hunters to bring in live captives from other tribes far and near to be sacrificed to the Sun god for rain and good crops. The time depicted in the movie is one of the several famines that hit the Mayan Empire. This one near the time of the Mayan contact with the first Europeans in their empire. The Mayan royalty is depicted as arrogant and self-absorbed. The depiction of the child of the Mayan king shows an indulged, narcissistic, fat little boy who enjoys watching the heads of the sacrificed roll down the steps of the temple. As has been said elsewhere Trump, hedge fund managers, CEOs of multinationals, etc. are American royalty, and behave accordingly. Traveling a well-worn and set path of European, Chinese, Mayan, etc. royalty. With full control of government there no longer any need to pretend. Now they proudly show their royal style and decorations. With much more of that to come. A year from now there will be royal parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, including the tanks and missiles Trump wanted at his inaugural. What I’m looking forward to is the American version of “Special Branch-Royalty Protection Group.” The British police agency (7,000 strong) that takes care of the royals. Sort of controlled by Parliament now, before WWII they answered only to the Royal Family and in their capacity killed, intimidated, and disappeared enemies of that family. Never know when one of you annoying rebellious economists might get a late-night knock on the door from American Special Branch-Royalty Protection Group, followed by a long walk on a short pier. Pleasant dreams!

  8. May 7, 2017 at 4:51 pm


    Boy, you’re really in a “late capitalism frame of mind.” A mood shared with other late Empire periods…not formally practicing capitalism.

    I have to laugh when David’s posting first appeared, I had a pair of mud caked jeans in the dirty laundry basket, waiting to be scrubbed (by me), due to my impromptu gardening job here in the Western Maryland Mountains. I did manage to get my rate of $15.00 per hour…though.

    • May 7, 2017 at 8:10 pm

      I’ve never liked capitalism, late, middle, or late. I’ve been “interviewed” by the KGB (in the old USSR) and the UK Special Branch-Royalty Protection. The second is a lot worse in my view.
      Definitely not joking.

      gracchibros, hate gardening. Even if that’s not PC. But I did work my way through graduate school as a cowboy in TX.

      • May 7, 2017 at 9:36 pm

        That’s ok Ken, not to like gardening. I’ve been souring on full course PC for some time now, even though I consider myself a social democrat. The decentralizing ecological left is very much into grow your own in the backyard, going off the existing international food grid, but it takes an incredible store of knowledge to do this, and very hard physical labor, under increasingly erratic weather conditions. As experiments in the laboratories of democracy nothing wrong with this trend, but the longer I live the harder time I have imagining the world uncoupling from what globalization has constructed, by hook crook or merit in some cases; uncoupling under anything other than a dsytopian “unraveling,” and I’m not sure the left comes out very well under the conditions of the Walking Dead, our modern Hobbesian rerun.

        I’ll bet you saw some nice wildflowers in the Texas landscape during your cowboy days.

      • May 10, 2017 at 7:29 am

        Dsytopian unraveling is bad. Globalization is here to stay. If nothing else our children will never agree to end it. The $64,000 question is how do we change it so it facilitates democracy and economic equality? Two things that might help. Bring the UN back into prominence. Believe it or not there was a time during the 1950s-1960s when the UN got a lot of good things done. But since the US and European conservatives began demonizing any sort of non-military international cooperation the UN has simply stopped functioning effectively. Even WHO is not under attack for its vaccination and family planning work. We must be like Lincoln, preserve the international union at all costs. Second, return the universal declaration of human rights to the center of international economic and diplomatic relationships. Even if this means destroying one or more international corporations. This is a time for decision making. Either corporations rule the world or democracies do. There’s no in-between.

        The ranch I worked on is near San Antonio. Lots of bluebonnets and yellow roses all around.

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