After my March letter, “Three Days in Sodom, Two in Gomorrah,” readers of this magazine have written to ask why I am so down on conspicuous consumption. I want to go on record here: I am not. But even a gourmand should disapprove of gluttony, since pleasure exists only insofar as it is subject to will. If you think about it, this applies to all human activity of which conspicuous consumption is the fruit: “Labor not for the meat which perisheth,” we read in John 6:27, “but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life.” The scientific advances in refrigeration, the spread of vegetarianism, and the art of nouvelle cuisine change nothing.
A book entitled The Fashion Conspiracy is all the rage here. It is a chatty book, by a chatty man (Nicholas Coleridge) who edits a chatty magazine (Harpers & Queen), written for chatty people; that it has received so much attention in the pages of serious periodicals run by sober editors and read by ordinary people is largely attributable to the author’s digressions from his fashionable subject. In these, the author “exposes” the industry’s terrible secret, namely (in the words of one serious reviewer) the fact that
serious money can be made in the fashion business, although outworkers, on whom the business relies, may be illiterate, confined to barrack-like sweatshops in Seoul or Stoke Newington, and useless after the age of 25 when their eyes give out.
Here is another revelation: “thousands” of dresses, “thousands” of dollars each, are never picked up from the cleaners by their owners. Where? The Meshal Dry Laundry in Kuwait. “Meanwhile, in a sweatshop in Madras . . . “
All right, what’s the point? The point is that any fool can draw a line between wise consumption and unwise consumption, and only an idiot will do it using facts and figures. The author of The Fashion Conspiracy is one such fool, but he is too chatty; so let us turn to the source, to the idiot if you will. He is, of course, John Kenneth Galbraith, Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard, sometime Ambassador to India, and erstwhile Fortune editor. Last year, his book A View From the Stands was published here and in the U.S., and I propose that one look at it will rehabilitate conspicuous consumption, from Balducci’s to Valentino, in the eyes of the strictest of Puritans.
People, politics, military power, and the arts are the subjects enumerated in the book’s subtitle. The absence of economics. Professor Galbraith’s own field, is noteworthy but not surprising: Professor Galbraith is a thinker in the Hegelian tradition of presumptive omniscience who writes on any subject with equal confidence and facility. As he (modestly) acknowledges, these essays are “the less solemn offering”; yet like his economic writings of the past they give a cogent expression to the Galbraith world view. What is it?
Since the 1950’s, when American Capitalism, A Theory of Price Control, and The Affluent Society appeared and were deemed “influential,” Professor Galbraith has believed that American society consists of the rich and the poor, concepts which, in his mind, possess as much meaning as they did for Marx a century earlier. In the essays included in this book, in a variety of contexts, he continues to speak of the two “classes,” though it may be expected that his readers are even more bewildered by this time-worn wordplay today than they had been in years past.
In a 1984 essay, “The Inconvenient Reverse Logic of Our Time,” for instance. Professor Galbraith speaks of “Americans living below the poverty level” as if the definition of poverty by a particular government (one which, in 1984, he incidentally abhorred) had some transcendent value. Struggling for a more concise definition of the downtrodden class, he uses another yardstick: “a minimum of decency and happiness.” Yet what that minimum is we are never told, nor can we know with ultimate certainty if decency and happiness consist in faith in God, guaranteed income, or success in a game of poker.
Way back in the 1920’s, “the founder of socialist planning,” S.G. Strumilin, developed the Soviet “norm of consumption” for every manmachine: 1,250 calories a day. In practical terms, this was to mean 1.54 lb. of rye flour in addition to 0.25 lb. of groats (although 0.25 lb. of meat, 0.006 lb. of sugar, and 0.05 lb. of animal fat were theoretically included), and all human wants beyond this “scientific norm” would henceforth be known as “artificially generated,” that is, superfluous. Is Professor Galbraith’s method of measuring the “minimum of decency and happiness” any different from Strumilin’s? Only, I suspect, in that it is less “scientific,” based more on the subjective upper-middle-class whimsy of a Harvard intellectual than on the “objective needs of the Soviet state.”
In a 1966 essay, “The Starvation of the Cities,” Professor Galbraith writes: “We can easily afford an income floor. It would cost about $20 billion to bring everyone up to what the Department of HEW considers a reasonable minimum.” This, to him, is an acceptable criterion, and yet in the same paragraph he says with disapproval that the same amount would be wasted “during the next fiscal year to restore freedom, democracy, and religious liberty, as these are defined by experts, in Vietnam.” Why do some experts in the U.S. government know more about happiness and freedom than others? Only, I suspect, because the author of How to Get Out of Vietnam disagrees with some people and agrees with others, an excusable human trait that makes for an idiot’s public policy.
It must be noted, incidentally, that Professor Galbraith did not write his study of the Vietnam conflict in 1954 to advise the U.S. government, ready to defend South Vietnam, how to win the war for which its bureaucracy was no better prepared than it was for anything else. He wrote the study in 1967 to tell the U.S. government how to lose the war, abandon South Vietnam, “get out”! Anyone can write pamphlets on how to lose a war, just as anyone can advise the government on how to redistribute its tax revenues or berate it for its failure to provide its citizens with “a minimum of decency and happiness.”
Time and again, as in the 1984 essay on “Money in American Fiction,” Professor Galbraith enlarges on his axiomatic distinction between the happy rich and the miserable poor, but nowhere is his vision of society so absurdly materialist as in his view of “work,” a concept which he had defined with Hegelian completeness early in his career (in The Affluent Society) as “any exertion of mind or body undergone partially or wholly with a view to some good other than the pleasure derived directly from work.” Personally, as a writer, I have never done a day’s work by Professor Galbraith’s definition and would surely have been exiled or incarcerated for parasitism in Strumilin’s Russia. Yet, as a denizen of the free West, I am protected from the good professor’s idea of “work” every bit as much as I am immune to his notion of “decency and happiness.” So, fortunately for them, are all the other poor and downtrodden whose champion Professor Galbraith has been ever since his days at Fortune.
And we owe it all to conspicuous consumption.