At Reason Thaddeus Russell argues that Macklemore and Lorde embody a kind of progressive cultural critique of capitalism, captured in the attack on “conspicuous consumption” made famous by Thorstein Veblen. Russell traces the “progressive lineage” of this critique: “Their songs continue a long tradition, rooted in progressivism, of protests against the pleasures of the poor.”
Having never listened to him, I have no opinion about Macklemore. Russell’s piece makes me want to take a moment to hear “Thrift Shop.” But over at Q Ideas today, I argue that in Lorde we find some cultural resources to inoculate us against the corrosive effects of envy.
The Christian tradition has long recognized that the poor can be just as materialistic and greedy as the rich. The poor just don’t usually have the same resources to bring those vices to such “conspicuous” manifestation. And it really is a stewardship problem to spend money on luxury goods when basic necessities are given short shrift.
If Russell thinks that this phenomena doesn’t exist among those in poverty, or that it isn’t problematic, then he is sorely mistaken. I still remember how important it was to me when I was in middle and high school, living in a trailer park, to have a Starter jacket. And I had one like this. Looking back it wasn’t at all a healthy kind of desire.
It was a reaction to an innate sensibility of the evils of poverty, but it was a kind of irresponsible, imaginary reaction. We could pretend to be rich by wearing name brand clothing and so on. But we wouldn’t be doing the kinds of work, cultivating the kinds of virtues, or learning the kinds of things you need to in order to create wealth. This kind of conspicuous consumption by those in poverty really is a kind of trap, in which the hard work of living responsibly is traded for the pottage of the illusion of wealth.
If anything is oppressive of the poor, it is the message that they need to spend money on frivolous fronting. That’s precisely the message Lorde is trying to critique. Russell would seemingly rather have the poor envy the rich, hoping that in Mandevillian fashion they might spend their way out of poverty. The truth is that there are no shortcuts to wealth, at least not ones to wealth that is sustainable.
You don’t need to be a progressive or buy into a Marxian interpretation of society to see problems with conspicuous consumption or a culture of “bling.” All you need to do is realize that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 NIV).