Capitalism Didn’t Invent “Keeping Up with the Joneses”

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Anti-capitalists long ago lost the argument about whether or not capitalism is the most effective way to increase standards of living. Thanks to the spread of a global largely-capitalistic marketplace, global poverty rates have fallen precipitously, life expectancy has risen, the standards of living continue to rise. The greatest gains have been in the so-called “developing world.”

But this hasn’t stopped anti-capitalists from coming up with new reasons — reasons unrelated to overcoming poverty — as to why capitalism ought to be abandoned.

One common complaint along these lines is that the capitalist system — mostly through advertising — makes us miserable by convincing us we must continually compete with others to raise our economic and social status within society. Rather than enjoying a simple care-free lifestyle, the argument goes, we sacrifice our free time and happiness to working long hours in pursuit of needless consumption and competition.

Perhaps the most famous and still-talked-about example of this capitalism-makes-you-miserable narrative is found in 1999’s film Fight Club. The film centers around characters who attempt to escape their dull, depressing lives otherwise ruined by a desire for capitalist excess. At one point, the character named Tyler Durden delivers a monologue concluding that consumers in the capitalist society are

“slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes. Working jobs we hate so that we can buy sh-t we don’t need.”

At the root of this contention is the idea that capitalism causes consumerism, and consumerism drives us to strive ever harder to attain higher levels of material comfort and social status. Conversely, were it not for capitalism, we would be more easily contented with our place in the world, and less driven to consume, wasting out lives away in “wage slavery” in the pursuit of status and comfort.

But is capitalism really to blame for this sort of thinking? Is the insatiable quest for higher social status something newly invented by modern market economies?


Unfortunately, the desire to be popular, desirable, and possessing of high levels of social status is neither modern, nor tied to capitalism. It is found in all societies, and was certainly not something that suddenly appeared as societies began to industrialize.

What capitalism and industrialization did do was create more pathways and options available to people seeking to improve their positions within the social hierarchy.

Social Status and Wealth Attainment in Pre-Capitalist Times

In the medieval and ancient world, of course, social mobility was — with only rare exceptions — open to people who were already born into a relatively high social strata. Those who were born into the nobility or high-ranking levels of government bureaucracy could perhaps aspire to reach even higher levels of rank within the ruling classes.

The average peasant had no such hopes. For an average person in the pre-capitalist world, the methods of becoming significantly more rich and powerful were few and exceedingly difficult.

Capitalism changed that.

In the ancient world, competition for social status was high-stakes and ever-present. Given the absence of a middle class and the grinding poverty experienced by the overwhelming majority of human beings in these times, those who had managed to rise above the peasantry fought hard to stay there.

The methods of maintaining and increasing status included:

  • Successful military service.
  • Winning favor with government officials through displays of personal loyalty.
  • Marriage into a family of higher social status.
  • Excellence in athletic competitions.

Military service — assuming one was not killed in battle — was an especially fruitful means of increasing one’s social status. In the Neo-Assyrian empire, to list just one example,

To kill a prominent enemy was a conspicuous way for a soldier to distinguish himself and prove his loyalty to the king … [and this method was] explicitly highlighted as a method of raising a warrior’s profile.”

Material rewards were meted out to “those who brought in the heads of high-ranking enemy leaders.”

Military service was a key factor in improving one’s fortunes throughout the ancient world, which is to be expected since warfare — and not commerce — was among the most easily available means to increase one’s wealth in a pre-capitalist world.

Overall, pathways to increasing wealth remained so limited, however, that gaining an inheritance was often seen as the most likely means of maintaining wealth and prestige. In ancient Rome, winning over a father’s favor to ensure inclusion in the old man’s will was often of paramount importance. Striking out on one’s own to earn one’s fortune was hardly a common narrative.

Inheriting wealth — wealth itself often gained in the first place through successful military service and political jockeying — remained of immense importance well into the Middle Ages. Moreover, in areas that practiced primogeniture, inheriting land was reserved to the first-born son. Other children then were forced to pursue other methods of attaining social status. This might be done through military service or by ascending through the ranks of the Church as a cleric. Especially successful clerics (in the worldly sense) could hope to become bishops and leaders of monasteries. Corrupt clerics, of course, could also hope to enjoy the company of concubines while living in luxurious surroundings.

Women had fewer options. Until industrialization finally made it possible for women to attain some level of financial independence as merchants and laborers, women had two options to attain some level of financial security and social status: they could marry, or join a convent. Convents preferred educated women, however, so for many women, marriage was the only option. Women outside of Europe, of course, had it far worse than this in most cases.

But even as Europe began to industrialize,the means of increasing one’s social status remained mired in older rigid methods of controlling status. The need for laborers from lower social classes grew, but the ruling classes were as yet unwilling to relinquish control. Drawing on the work of Max Weber, Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira writes:

The notion of social honor, which forms part of the concept of a status group, in fact refers principally to the higher status groups formed by the dominant class and its associates as the pre-capitalist bureaucracy. For a member of the lower class to belong to a professional status group is also viewed by the dominant class and accepted by the dominated class as an indication of social honor. It is an ‘honor’ and a ‘privilege’ to belong to the status group of masons or butchers, especially if we consider that the monopoly over this distinction derives from ‘appropriation of political or hierocratic powers.’ … The strategic importance that this kind of distinction holds for the dominant class is apparent. By establishing castes and status groups, the dominant class neutralizes class struggle.

In other words, higher-status groups in the “pre-capitalist bureaucracy” were careful to control access to the means of attaining wealth — lest economically successful tradesmen forget who their true “betters” were.

In these situations, bettering one’s social status thus remained a game of gaining political favor with those who controlled access to “social honor.”

Non-capitalist means of maintaining and advancing social status persisted even later in primarily agricultural areas. These were often places where wealthy land owners continued to exercise significant control over access to wealth and social status.

In the British colonies of eighteenth-century North America, for example, homicides often resulted from duels and fights resulting from insults to “honor” and “reputation.” According to crime historian Randolph Roth, this was less common in New England where “most men believed they were as good as anyone else and could advance as far as they wanted.” Further south, however, things were different, “because the planter elite had a near stranglehold on the social hierarchy.”

In these situations, the desire to protect one’s “honor” or reputation, did not stem from mere social convention. The ability to earn a decent living was often at stake.

Social Status in Socialist Systems

Non-capitalist methods of gaining social status are not limited to pre-capitalist times.

Modern-day socialist societies are themselves characterized by widespread competition over social status — and the economic rewards that come with it.

In the old Soviet Bloc, for example, those who successfully won favor with the Party — through displays or loyalty or through other types of political scheming — gained access to better jobs, better pay, and black-market goods unavailable to the average Soviet citizen.

In a place where private enterprise was largely a criminal offense, advancement through what communist social critic Milovan Đilas called “the New Class” became the only means of advancing one’s own social status. Failure to do so relegated one to a life of enduring all the shortages, deprivations, and famines experienced by the non-elite of the communist world. This type of social structure continues today in places like North Korea.

Chasing After Status and Wealth Now Isn’t As Bad As It Used to Be

Thanks to the rise of market economies, gone are the days when maintaining or improving one’s social status required slicing off the heads of enemies in battle, or flattering a mid-level Imperial Roman bureaucrat in the hope of attaining some level of comfort and security. Women need no longer get married to avoid becoming paupers. Children unlucky enough to not be the first-born son need not become soldiers or monks.

Moreover, social mobility is no longer reserved to a small minority lording over a permanently impoverished majority.

It may very well be true, of course, that the peasants of old were not troubled with the idea that they ought to be working ever harder to advance in social status and material comfort. This is hardly to the credit of the pre-capitalist age.  In pre-industrial Europe, many people didn’t fret about whether or not they bought a new house in the “right” neighborhood because they simply had no options either way.

Given all of this, it is odd that it is capitalism which somehow gets the blame for allegedly manufacturing a world in which human beings seek to compete with one another for social status or strive ever harder to buy a larger house or a newer automobile.

On the contrary, competition for social status and greater wealth has always existed. Indeed, competition in times and places were resources were limited by pre-capitalist penury was especially cutthroat. But competition of this sort has also tended to be limited in times and places where the possibility of advancement was generally seen as out of reach. If social climbing is known to be futile, why bother?  What is different now is that ordinary people in a capitalist society can actually hope to obtain the trappings of a relatively comfortable standard of living — and beyond.

Capitalism doesn’t force this on anyone, of course. Capitalism merely makes advancement more within reach.

Nor does everyone chose to participate in the quest for status equally. Clearly, many people who have have attained a moderate level of wealth and social status are content with their lot. In America, at least, this often means safe living quarters, a reliable automobile, and access to various modest forms of entertainment. On the other hand, many other people are never content with what they deem mere ordinary amenities. These people continue to strive to ever-higher levels of comfort and social status. Many do this to the point of working “jobs they hate” to buy “buy sh-t we don’t need.” This is hardly the fault of capitalism, however. It is just a reality of the human condition.

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