Desperately seeking social approval: Adam Smith, Thorstein Veblen and the moral limits of capitalist culture


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Adam Smith and Thorstein Veblen shared much in matters of economic ontology. Both dismissed the very notion of an autonomous economic self and instead investigated the processes through which self and other are mutually constituted under changing cultural traditions of individual aspiration. Their strikingly similar critiques of status-oriented consumption and concern for the moral basis of the market economy are established in this manner. However, the political implications of their analyses point in different directions, with Veblen being the more radical. The Smithian individual can always use spectatorial insights to assert through genuinely praiseworthy behaviour personal moral distance from social norms of status-oriented consumption. The Veblenian individual, by contrast, has no such capacity for elevating abstract moral principles above socially-situated conduct, as mind and environment co-evolve in line with changing material circumstances of life. For Veblen, the rise of status-oriented consumption itself acted as a form of moral self-education that more deeply entrenched the social norms of ownership out of which it arose, thus the impossibility of an autonomous economic self was matched by the impossibility of an autonomous moral self. To his way of thinking, moral degradation in conspicuous consumption was irredeemably inscribed into the whole cultural structure of capitalism.