"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, March 7, 2016

Indifference–The Most Evolved Philosophy Of Human Society

According to Thorstein Veblen ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was the driver of the American economy.  More, better, and more expensive things have validated status, position, and influence in capitalist societies since the early Renaissance.  A Bentley, Cartier watch, Armani suit or Hermes scarf spoke arrival, success, and privilege for the American upper class.  The simplicity and practicality of the Eastern old monied, establishment elite was anti-consumer statement of status.  Battered woodies, leather elbow patches on English tweed, sensible shoes, and patterned blouses worn by the wealthiest New England families were powerful statements of class and an implicit derogation of American bourgeois tastes.

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The same was true of the middle classes.  Although unfamiliar with the runways of Milan, Paris, and Rome and for whom Piaget, St. Laurent, and Harry Winston were out of reach, they were no less acquisitive.  They had their own emblems of status – bedroom sets from Henredon, Cadillacs, Italian marble and Renaissance reproductions, top-of-the-line American off-the-rack fashion, Louisiana patio furniture, and petrified wood tables from Northern California.

The lower classes had little and aspired to little.  Although they might dream of a home in the suburbs, floral arrangements, rec rooms, and tea sets, they knew that trailers, public housing, and life on the margins would be their families’ fate for many generations to come.  Yet dream they did both in Veblen’s day and today.

Republican primary voters were recently polled about their opinions of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – the one a man of stupendous wealth who parlayed modest family wealth into a great fortune; or that of a son of immigrant parents who worked his way up into the political powers-that-be.  Overwhelmingly voters of all income levels preferred Donald Trump.  The allure of great wealth, bling and glitz, trophy wives and fabulous houses, yachts, and planes was far greater than the modest political power of a presidential pretender.

Americans may be of modest means and limited economic mobility, but there is no challenging the appeal of an American who has made it big and flaunts it.  Donald Trump is a son of Hollywood and Las Vegas, and no one wants to hear about Cruz’s family persecution in Cuba and courageous flight to America.


So far, nothing new.  Americans are still seduced by wealth, power, and status, and love to read about Trump’s wives, 100-story skyscrapers, The Apprentice, Hollywood, and the Caribbean. 

What is new is that among young professionals – a bellwether of mainstream social change – status is being increasingly defined not by what you own but what you do.  The food you eat, the venues you prefer, travel destinations, wine pairings, eclectic fashion, personality and individual choice are all markers of the new bourgeoisie.  Things do not matter, or at least not the discredited things of Middle America and the Eastern Establishment. 

A piece of naturally sculpted driftwood, old Victorian lithographs, mobiles made from the jawbones of deep water fish, ironic pink flamingos bought in a Gift Shoppe along the Redneck Coast, retro-modern sculptures made of Capp Street detritus, and standing lamps crafted by Alameda sculptors – all are acceptable.  No one Northern California house resembles any other in specifics, but the tone, intent, and iconography of its collections are unmistakably similar.

Status is conferred by restaurants with eco-friendly, locavore, organic cachet.  Hundreds of dollars can easily be spent at restaurants which claim all of the above.  Even more money can be spent on woodsy spas in the redwoods, getaways to Death Valley and Burning Man, and eco-tourism to Iceland.


Today’s status-seeker is defined more by the type of consumption rather than the consumption itself.  In days past everyone who was anyone had to be seen at ‘21’ or Max’s Kansas City.  The brands or designers of desired jewels, dress, accessories, cars, furniture, and appointments were clearly specified.  There was no shame in every socialite wearing Dior as long as the dresses were of different design.  Now context defines status choice.  Organic rules, and the choice of restaurant or food boutique matters less than the purposeful effort.  Of course choices are stratified.  There are boutiques who not only have free-range poultry but chickens which have been raised in the New Zealand highlands far from even the motes of pollution.  There will always be differentiation.  Status is complex.

So who are the avant-garde in today’s consumer society?  Who has been inoculated against Veblen’s conspicuous consumption?  Can anyone living in America possibly be immune or at least resistant to the persistent pressures not only to consume but to consume with status and recognition in mind?

There are those who, if there were a category on the census form for ‘Indifferent’ when it came to religious choice, would choose it.  They are neither believers nor atheists; neither agnostics nor searchers.  Religion for them simply has no interest, no relevance, and no pertinence whatsoever.  They are neither lapsed Catholics petulantly refusing to check any boxes that even suggest affiliation, nor intellectual atheists who have made a religion out of no-belief.  They simply don’t care.

These Americans keep the rubber on the road until their old cars are beyond repair; who wear old suits of  two decades ago because it is a pain and a waste of money to upgrade; who duck tape, jerry-rig, and make do with old lamps, dish washers on their last legs, and lamps that flicker and fade.  They care nothing for the conspicuous consumption of Nantucket WASPs, Jersey goombas, or South Carolina trailer-and-grits Walmart shoppers.

The difference between these new avant-garde indifferent Americans and the old WASP culture which made a point of showy indifference is significant.  The old line New Englanders cared very much about outward displays of status.  They could no sooner buy a Coupe de Ville than a Dirt Cheap shirtwaist.   The new socially avant-garde will buy a used Cadillac with no hesitation or compunction whatsoever  as long as the price is right.  Status – either classic or obverse – has no salience at all.

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The new avant-garde does not make a display of practicality.  For them keeping the rubber on the road has no purpose other than avoiding the contentious and difficult process of buying a new car.  They have no geo-ecological mission, no resolution to save the planet or protect the environment.  They simply take the easiest, most cost-effective, and personally practical way out. 

The new avant-garde are the unintentional anti-capitalists; the Occupy Wall Street despite themselves; Bernie Socialists without a card to carry, true revolutionaries who challenge the ethos of consumption and status more than anyone.

“Dull, uninspired, predictable, and unproductive” are the many critical epithets of this emerging revolutionary class.  “Wishy-washy, uncommitted, amoral and anethical”.

To be sure indifference is very un-American.  In a nation of boosters, volunteers, political activists, religious evangelists, and social idealists sitting on the fence is the worst position possible.  Yet indifference is just as potent a political philosophy as grassroots communalism or Ayn Rand individualism.  It is more corrosive to entrenched capitalism than any other trend or movement.

Indifference is the highest state of philosophical evolution.  It incorporates the concept of Hindu maya (illusion) and Buddhist Middle Way.  It reflects Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard and Existentialism.  It is the most evolved principle governing human interaction for it is based on millennia of purposeless, pointless,  but predictable human history.  It is the antithesis of aggressive capitalism and personal acquisitiveness.  It is revolutionary.

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