Monday, October 20, 2014

Consumption as status symbol

In our society, what we own expresses and defines who we are to others. This is common in most societies: although the status symbols may change (feathers or beads in some traditional societies, cars in ours), the presence of status signalling possessions is common. This is probably partly because humans don't have seniority symbols as part of their bodies (eg, silver-back gorillas). That kind of social hierarchy is just as ingrained in us though (we are primates, after all), and I believe that any attempt to ignore or deprecate humans' deep need for hierarchy will lead to societal dysfunction (as new hierarchies are established, generally based on dominance and/or aggression instead of leadership and experience [1]). Because of this, humans will always have need of status symbols -- this cannot be trivialised or ignored -- they are a vital part of what makes us human.

Despite this, there are plenty [2] of relatively affluent people who voluntarily choose to consume less (this is part of the project of this blog) and thus renounce those status symbols. This doesn't make sense -- if status symbols are so important, why are some people renouncing them?

The reason is that there is more than one kind of status symbol.

Not all status symbols involve consumption and material goods.

The British aristocracy [3]

In centuries gone by, the British aristocracy controlled the majority of the wealth in Britain: they owned the land, controlled the trade, owned the weapons and soldiers, dominated the intellectual life. As the British Empire declined, and the welfare state distributed wealth more widely, the traditional aristocracy were greatly impoverished, and lost the majority of their wealth. Many of them still retain their country houses, but they cannot really afford to maintain them. This is why many of them are now (at least partially) open to the public -- the aristocracy need that tourist income. Nowadays, they often wear relatively shabby clothing too. Nonetheless, they are clearly still aristocratic. Consider:

  • They wear tweed, and other clothing symbols that, although shabby, are status symbols
  • They are highly educated, and speak in a distinctive manner that displays they have been to the "right" schools
  • They preserve their family heritage, and demonstrate their "blue blood" wherever possible (eg. coats of arms, customs, etc)
  • They are often fluent/native standard in multiple high-status European languages (eg. French, German)

Thus, they cultivate status symbols that are not based on consumption. Despite this, do not think that you can just talk your way into the British aristocracy -- despite its (sometimes) poverty, this is a very elite club.

Values, knowledge and skills as status symbols

Given that people will always need status symbols, I'd like to encourage an open movement that considers values, knowledge and skills as status symbols and as being "higher status" than mere possessions. What would this look like? Here are a few ideas:

  • Being skilled at a musical instrument would confer status. Here I imagine a Jane Austin society, where the ability to play (eg) piano and sing was highly regarded
  • Being well-read and abreast of international politics and its historical context would be highly regarded
  • Being a skilled cook would be highly regarded (this is more a working class status symbol than aristocratic, but is very important!)
  • Piety could become a status symbol
  • Being athletic would continue to be a status symbol

Problems I can see

I can't think of examples where people (en masse) have voluntarily reduced their material consumption while maintaining status. The British aristocracy were forced, by diminished circumstance, to cut their consumption (perhaps this happened during WW2? Frugality as patriotism?). Still, I think it is plausible that society could "learn to love" non-consumption-based status symbols, given the right leadership.

It will be difficult to reduce the status of the motor car. This is because of the power (size, speed) controlled by a car-driver as compared with someone not in a car. For many motoring enthusiasts a request that they replace their cars with a game of intellectual elitism will be a tough sell. I will think more about how this could be addressed.

(possible) Solution

The only way I can see this working is by appealing, as in WW2, to patriotism. If consumption can be cast as making Australia weaker (a very good case can be made here), then thrift and frugality can be shown to be patriotic. I think this needs to be the approach. Perhaps Martin Luther, the Renaissance thesis-nailer and initiator of the Protestant Reformation (not the American civil-rights leader) could be a good example of someone who made a strong case that material excess represents a weakening and distraction from what is truly important.

Consumption makes Australia weaker -- frugality is patriotic!

This article was written by Angus Wallace, and first appeared at

[1] Refer to almost every political revolution ever
[2] As a proportion of the population they are few, but in absolute numbers there are many
[3] This subject necessarily dredges up ideas of class, elitism, etc. I want to put it on record that I'm not a believer in these things -- I believe in the egalitarian project, in theory. I just can't see it working in practise because of the deep-seated need for hierarchy that humans posses. I think it would be nice if people were less hierarchical, but we need to work with people as we are, rather than try to idealise ourselves into something we're not (an approach I don't think will be successful in reshaping our society).

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