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Abstract

Against the backdrop of contemporary discourses of “sustainable growth” and “cultures of waste”, this essay considers the arguments of early sociologists concerning the relationship between subsistence economies of reproduction and sacrificial economies of symbolic exchange. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Marcel Mauss and Thorstein Veblen each formulated influential accounts of the social barriers and physical limits to human life which find an echo in later cultural theories concerning economies of excess and overproduction in (post)modern societies. Rather than assess the empirical validity or theoretical accuracy of these arguments, this essay examines how factual descriptions of excess and decay can be read as sociological allegories of a world in ruins. The model for such a reading can be found in the work of another sociological classic, Georg Simmel, whose systematic account of the self-preservation and expansion of social groups anticipates his later more impressionistic and fragmentary reflections on “the tragedy of culture”, understood as a struggle for individual autonomy against social and natural forces of objectification. Simmel and his classical contemporaries thus anticipate later thinkers who ask whether “the end of an era” should be understood as a terminal point, an ideal purpose, or a cyclical stage in the “progress” of history.