Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption describes how luxury goods or services (yachts, private aircraft, fowling pieces, Fabergé eggs eggs, Gucci handbags), because of their expense, are a badge of class membership. Their purpose is the signalling of status, adherence to a collective tradition or identity, or display of credentials, intelligence and good taste.
The middle classes lack the purchasing power for such displays, but their private consumption choices and leisure activities do often serve the purpose of signalling good taste and discernment (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).
The more exacting the better, as Adorno described in Minima Moralia:
The high life aspires to be the beautiful life. It affords those engaging in it ideological pleasure gains.
Because the formalization of life becomes a task requiring the adherence to rules, the artificial preservation of a style, the maintenance of a delicate balance between correctness and independence, existence appears endowed with meaning, so appeasing the bad conscience of the socially superfluous.
The constant injunction to do and say what exactly befit’s one status and situation demands a kind of moral effort. By making it difficult to be the person one is, one gains the feeling of living up to a patriarchal noblesse oblige.
Thus are life’s common activities, the everyday routines of consumption, transformed into exercises of style (what Kojève called snobisme, using the example of Japanese tea ceremonies that survived as a kind of postmodern ritual adornment without content or substance).
‘You must change your life,’ ran the injunction issued to bourgeois audiences by Rilke’s archaic torso. Today’s middle-class public is likewise encouraged to shed its complacency. But postmodern art, more gratifying, presents itself to readers and viewers as lifestyle supplement, rather than revision. It offers a means to decorate their lives, adorning, adjusting and embellishing themselves with the finest appurtenances and soundest thoughts.
Members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).
Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent. According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.
The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education — foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.
These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes, cultural products, etc.
Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).
Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.
Alexander Cockburn described such consumer behaviour in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:
Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk…
For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.
His examples came from fair-trade coffee and similar speciously ethical products.
When it comes to products like art and periodical publications, such markers of quality include the latest bienséance: the ideological badges of decorous respectability, intellectual fashion and contemporary right-thinking.
Middlebrow arthouse cinema is one example, draped like ‘literary fiction’ with obvious badges of ‘seriousness’ that are designed to distinguish it from mainstream filmic dross (which it dwells happily alongside as a complementary market segment, in peaceable and mutually constitutive coexistence).
Such middlebrow products today include an especially deplorable sub-genre: a filmic variety that, dramatically incoherent and gesturing limply towards political ‘topicality’, gels utterly with liberal-progressive ideology. The latter now includes various tenets of identity politics, and has abandoned any attempt to think seriously about imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.
Instead there is the posturing and demagogy of ‘collective guilt.’
When it comes to novel and film publicity, any promise to ‘explore’ the theme of collective guilt is a fairly reliable warning of middlebrow vacuity to come: of portentous and dramatically specious attempts to fuse ‘psychological complexity’ with political ‘topicality’.
More than this: for a particular social layer, these art products are a kind of positional good, in Veblen’s sense.
In Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, Daniel Auteuil’s adult character is haunted by a nasty lie he told as a six year-old boy, which turned out to have terrible consequences for an Algerian boy.
This seems intended as an allegory for France’s colonial legacy. Here the secret of overdrawn individual culpability (for who could blame the man for the child’s petty fib?) lies in national guilt. Auteuil’s character is culpable not for what he personally did, but, as a Frenchman and by virtue of that alone, for colonialism.
Even more representative of the genre is Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which received Oprah’s seal of approval and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.
In this story, a young German man feels guilty because, as a fifteen-year old, he had a sexual relationship with a woman who later turned out to have been an SS camp guard.
At the novel’s beginning, his parent’s generation, which ‘had been been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock’.
Eventually, though, the main character learns of his ‘accrued or inherited responsibility’:
I was guilty of having [unwittingly, as a child!] loved a criminal… [Perhaps] we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents… [My] love for Hannah was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate [das deutsche Schicksal].
Here a person, by virtue of national origin, has acquired responsibility for something he wasn’t directly involved in. And, in a step beyond Caché, he wasn’t even born in time to see the crime.
Schlink has since expanded on his theme.
Last year Queensland University Press published a group of his essays called Guilt about the Past. Schlink can be watched addressing the Melbourne Writers Festival on how ‘individual guilt becomes collective guilt and is passed on to the next generation.’
Collective liabilities, he says, are founded on ‘communities of solidarity, such as ‘a family, an association, an organisation or institution and even a people’. Nations are like kinship groups, in which the ‘web of guilt… is high and wide’. If a member of my group offends against morality, I can only achieve absolution by severing the ‘ties of solidarity’ between us — ties that ‘exist by default’.
Guilt thus extends not only to ‘perpetrator, inciter and accessories to the crimes’, nor merely to ‘those who were perfectly capable of resistance but did nothing’. It ‘entangles an entire generation and even casts a shadow over later generations’, so long as the criminals aren’t ‘cast out’.
Here Schlink has borrowed — his Australian audience no doubt remains ignorant of the transaction — from Max Weber and Otto Bauer’s description of the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft, or ‘community of fate.’ The intellectual pedigree is impeccable.
Yet its origins in the early-twentieth century empires of Wilhelmine and Habsburg Europe ought to give pause. Stripped of Schlink’s piety and examined coldly for its consequences and internal logic, the notion of assigning guilt to an individual on the basis of group membership or ascriptive characteristics (racial or ethnic identification, language, religion, etc.) is bizarre, incoherent and sinister.
It’s the precise analogue of the idiotic demands, regularly made over the past decade, for ‘moderate Muslims’ to disavow or condemn every terrorist attack committed by other Muslims (Daniel Dennett adds an extra layer of responsibility: ‘if we non-Muslims do not speak out, we too must share in the blame.’) And Schlink’s notion of trans-generational guilt, acquired by ‘a people’ then transmitted via consanguinity, creepily mimics that old anti-Semitic saw, by which Jews are forever condemned as Christ killers.
Is there a Jewish or Muslim ‘fate’ (Schicksal), along with a German one?
Underlying the idea of collective guilt is a vision of ‘the nation’ (or the ‘race’) as a collective personality, a supra-individual actor that can perform actions and incur liabilities (and culpability for wrongdoings) just as a natural person does.
This entity (the nation) is understood to have an existence distinct from that of the individuals who constitute it: like a limited-liability corporation, with its ‘perpetual succession’, the nation endures after the departure of its original members. The nation is considered to act vicariously through the agency of (some or all of) its members. A government, especially, is said to act ‘on behalf of the nation’, either as its mandated representative, or in holding jurisdiction over the territory in which members of the nation reside. The consequences of actions undertaken ‘by the nation’ at one time may fall upon subsequent members, just as an individual is assigned responsibility for actions he has performed during earlier periods.
The nation is a kind of moral agent, which entails that its members, having jointly committed a collective wrong, may justly be subjected to collective sanction.
The appallingly reactionary origins and implications of this line of thinking hardly need to be stated.
The idea of national guilt collapses the distinction between a territorial state, its population, and the imagined community that ideologically binds part of the population (the in-group) into a ‘nation’ (or ‘community of solidarity’, to use Schlink’s term).
Among other things, this confers a whiff of legitimacy on the targeting of civilians in times of war. After all, by signalling their membership of the enemy out-group — by saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or speaking the national language — they become, on this view, responsible for the state’s actions like any member of the ruling elite: the Kaiser, police chief or army general.
Once deemed collectively culpable, they may — why not? — be susceptible to collective punishment.
This last argument, it will be recognized, was used to justify the murder of ordinary people in New York’s World Trade Center. And Schlink’s book, in turn, reads like the fictional equivalent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
The adherence of avowedly ‘progressive’ people to such ideas (they are expressed not just in middlebrow cinema but in bien-pensant organs of opinion) testifies to the deep intellectual and political confusion of the ‘liberal left’ in the present era, and to the deep contempt felt for the broader population among members of the skilled intelligentsia and middle classes.