Capitalism Didn't Invent "Keeping Up with the Joneses"
Anti-capitalists long ago lost the argument about whether or not capitalism is the most effective way to increase living standards. Thanks to the spread of a largely-capitalistic marketplace, global poverty rates have fallen precipitously, life expectancy has risen, and standards of living continue to rise. The greatest gains have been in the so-called "developing world."
But this hasn't stopped anti-capitalists from coming up with new reasons — reasons unrelated to overcoming poverty — as to why capitalism ought to be abandoned.
One common complaint along these lines is that the capitalist system — mostly through advertising — makes us miserable by convincing us we must continually compete with others to raise our economic and social status within society.
Perhaps the most famous and still-talked-about example of this capitalism-makes-you-miserable narrative is found in 1999's film Fight Club. The film centers around characters who attempt to escape their dull, depressing lives otherwise ruined by a desire for capitalist excess. At one point, the character named Tyler Durden delivers a monologue concluding that consumers in the capitalist society are
slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes. Working jobs we hate so that we can buy sh-t we don’t need.
At the root of this contention is the idea that capitalism causes consumerism, and consumerism drives us to strive ever harder to attain higher levels of material comfort and social status. Rather than enjoying a simple care-free lifestyle, the argument goes, we sacrifice our free time and happiness to working long hours in pursuit of needless consumption and competition.
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But is capitalism really to blame for this sort of thinking? Is the insatiable quest for higher social status something newly invented by modern market economies?
Unfortunately, the desire to be popular, desirable, and possessing of high levels of social status is not tied to any particular economic system. It is found in all societies, and was certainly not something that suddenly appeared as economies began to industrialize.
What capitalism and industrialization did do was create more options available to people seeking to improve their positions within the social hierarchy. In ages past, status was closely tied to one's family lineage or to how much favor one enjoyed with the imperial court. In capitalist times, these old criteria have not vanished, but a new pathway to status was opened up: wealth obtained through success in the marketplace.
Social Status and Wealth Attainment in Pre-Capitalist Times
Prior to indistrialization, social mobility was — with only rare exceptions — open only to people who were already born into a relatively high social strata. Those who were born into the nobility or high-ranking levels of government bureaucracy could perhaps aspire to reach even higher levels of rank within the ruling classes.
The average peasant had no such hopes. For an average person in the pre-capitalist world, the methods of raising one's status in society were few and exceedingly difficult.
In the ancient world, competition for social status was high-stakes and ever-present. Given the absence of a middle class and the grinding poverty experienced by the overwhelming majority of human beings in these times, those who had managed to rise above the peasantry fought hard to stay there.
The methods of maintaining and increasing status included:
- Successful military service.
- Winning favor with government officials through displays of personal loyalty.
- Marriage into a family of higher social status.
- Excellence in athletic competitions (most notably in Greece).
Military service was an especially fruitful means of increasing one's social status. In the Neo-Assyrian empire, to list just one example,
To kill a prominent enemy was a conspicuous way for a soldier to distinguish himself and prove his loyalty to the king ... [and this method was] explicitly highlighted as a method of raising a warrior's profile.1
Material rewards were meted out by rulers to "those who brought in the heads of high-ranking enemy leaders."2
Military service was a key factor in improving one's fortunes throughout the ancient world, which is to be expected since warfare — and not commerce — was among the most easily available means to increase one's wealth in a pre-capitalist world.
Overall, pathways to increasing wealth remained so limited, however, that gaining an inheritance was often seen as the most likely means of maintaining wealth and prestige. In ancient Rome, winning over a father's favor to ensure inclusion in the old man's will was often of paramount importance. Striking out on one's own to earn one's fortune was hardly a common narrative.3
Inheriting wealth — wealth itself often gained in the first place through successful military service and political jockeying — remained of immense importance well into the Middle Ages. Moreover, in areas that practiced primogeniture, inheriting land was reserved to the first-born son. Other children then were forced to pursue other methods of attaining social status. This might be done through military service or by ascending through the ranks of the Catholic Church as a cleric. Especially successful clerics (in the worldly sense) could hope to become bishops and leaders of monasteries. Corrupt clerics, of course, could also enjoy the company of concubines while living in luxurious surroundings.
Women had fewer options. Until industrialization finally made it possible for women to attain some level of financial independence as merchants and laborers, women had two options to attain some level of financial security and social status: they could marry, or join a convent. Convents preferred educated women, however, so for many women, marriage was the only option. Women outside of Europe, of course, had it far worse than this in most cases.
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Non-capitalist means of maintaining and advancing social status have never completely disappeared, and they have often persisted the longest and with the most strength in agricultural backwaters. These were often places where wealthy land owners continued to exercise significant control over access to wealth and social status.
In the British colonies of eighteenth-century North America, for example, homicides often resulted from duels and fights resulting from insults to "honor" and reputation. According to crime historian Randolph Roth, this was less common in New England where "most men believed they were as good as anyone else and could advance as far as they wanted." Further south, however, things were different "because the planter elite had a near stranglehold on the social hierarchy."4
In these situations, the desire to protect one's "honor" or reputation, did not stem from mere social convention. The ability to earn a decent living was often at stake, as it depended on approval from the gatekeepers of the social hierarchy.
Social Status in Socialist Systems
Nor are non-capitalist methods of gaining social status limited to pre-capitalist times.
Modern-day socialist societies are themselves characterized by widespread competition over social status — and the economic rewards that come with it.
In the old Soviet Bloc, for example, those who successfully won favor with the Communist Party — through displays or loyalty or through other types of political scheming — gained access to better jobs, better pay, and black-market goods unavailable to the average Soviet citizen.
In a place where private enterprise was largely a criminal offense, advancement through what communist social critic Milovan Đilas called "the New Class" became the only means of advancing one's own social status. Failure to do so relegated one to a life of enduring all the shortages, deprivations, and famines experienced by the non-elite of the communist world. This type of social structure continues today in places like North Korea.
Chasing after Status and Wealth Now Isn't as Bad as it Used to Be
Thanks to the rise of market economies, gone are the days when maintaining or improving one's social status required slicing off the heads of enemies in battle, or flattering a mid-level Imperial Roman bureaucrat in the hope of attaining some level of comfort and security. Women need no longer get married to avoid becoming paupers. Children unlucky enough to not be the first-born son need not become soldiers or monks.
Rather than rely on duels, wars, and intrigue at the royal court, people in a capitalist economy can instead preserve and improve social status and wealth by engaging in peaceful trade in the marketplace.
Nonetheless, it appears this has not freed humanity from the nagging desire to continnually better one's social status. But that's hardly a reason to blame capitalism for a human impulse that pre-dates capitalism by countless millennia.
It may very well be true, of course, that the peasants of old were not troubled with the idea that they ought to be working ever harder to advance in social status and material comfort. But this is hardly to the credit of the pre-capitalist age. And it's hardly a reason to pine for the allegedly care-free days of yore. Yes, in pre-industrial Europe, many people didn't fret about whether or not they bought a new house in the "right" neighborhood. But they simply had no options to buy a new house in any neighborhood. If social climbing is known to be futile, why bother striving to do so? What is different now is that ordinary people in a capitalist society can actually hope to obtain the trappings of a relatively comfortable standard of living — and beyond.
Capitalism doesn't force this way of thinking on anyone, of course. Capitalism merely makes advancement more within reach.
This is illustrated by the fact that not everyone choses to participate in the quest for status equally. Clearly, many people who have attained a moderate level of wealth and social status are content with their lot. On the other hand, many other people are never content with what they deem mere ordinary amenities. These people continue to strive to ever-higher levels of comfort and social status. Many do this to the point of working "jobs they hate" to "buy sh-t we don’t need." This is hardly the fault of capitalism, however. It is just a reality of the human condition.
- 1. "Fame and Prizes: Competition and War in the Neo-Assyrian Empire" by Karen Radner. In Competition in the Ancient World, Nick Fisher and Hans van Wees, editors. Classical Press of Wales, 2011. p45.
- 2. Ibid. p.45.
- 3. "The Roman Empire," by Paul Veyne. In A History of Private Life, Vol. I, Paul Veyne, editor. Harvard University Press, 1987.
- 4. American Homicide by Randolph Roth. Harvard University Press, 2009. p 86.