A few months ago I came across the writings of the philosopher/ economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen and was astounded at the relevance of aspects of his economic philosophy to contemporary South African society. Veblen was the son of Norwegian immigrants and he was part of what is commonly known as the Institutionalist school of economics.
Veblen’s theory was that a nation’s economy consisted of what he termed the “leisure class” which was characterised by conspicuous consumption and a propensity to avoid useful work. This leisure class, according to Veblen, engages in the predatory seizure of goods without working for them. To me this sounded an awful lot like the pot-bellied fellows that I often run into when I am having breakfast at Annica’s Restaurant at the Michelangelo Towers in Sandton or when I am enjoying High Tea at the Michelangelo in Sandton.
Those who accumulate wealth do so not merely to take care of their physical wants or even their spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual wants but also wish to consume in a way that displays their wealth, because a show of wealth indicates power, prestige, honour and success in this pecuniary culture. To be reputable such consumption must also be wasteful. Again, this sounded a lot to me like the Mabheleni Ntuli’s, Khanyi Mbau’s and Kenny Kunene’s of South Africa, whose opulent lifestyles have come to characterise and define so much of modern day South Africa.
Poorer people must work in order to subsist, but even their pattern of spending includes an element of wasteful conspicuous consumption. Their outlook on life is imposed by the dominant leisure class. This reminded me of South Africa’s poor black majority who display all the attributes Veblen describes above as they aim to emulate the lifestyles of the Khulubuse Zuma ‘s and the “King’s of Bling” of this world.
Veblen’s writings where uncannily accurate when viewed from within the context of South African society and I found myself wondering what this may mean for us as a society. It then dawned on me that Veblen’s theory could also be used to describe modern Russia and its opulent oligarchic elite, which got rich through its political connections, Latin America’s rich elites who live in the lap of luxury whilst poor majorities can only look on with envy whilst trying to unsuccessfully emulate them and so many Asian countries and their rich, politically connected elites.
I then realised that maybe this is a phase that all developing countries go through as part of their economic evolution. Or perhaps Thorstein Bunde Veblen was some kind of economic prophet?