Invidious Comparison and the New Global Leisure Class: On the Refeudalization of Consumption in the Old and New Gilded Age

Olaf Kaltmeier, Bielefeld University:

In 2017, the NGO Oxfam had the merit to denounce the extreme global social inequalities in its report “An Economy for the 99%” (Oxfam) and initiate a broad political debate on the new rich elites. Oxfam states that since 2015, the richest one percent of the world’s population has more wealth than the whole rest of the world’s population. In this essay I argue that the emergence of a global elite of hyper-rich people can be understood in sociological terms as an integral aspect of an ongoing process of refeudalization. However, such resurgence of aristocratic or (neo-)feudal aspects is not unique in modern history. In the US, the so-called Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century was characterized by a resurrection of aristocratic elements in sociological forms and cultural aesthetics.
In this sense, this essay explores the historical juxtaposition of these two dynamics of refeudalization after the French Revolution. Thereby I use Thorstein Veblen`s approach of the “leisure class” and of “invidious comparison” as a tool-kit. For restrictions of this essay, I will limit myself to a comparative juxtaposition, but not to a methodological historical comparison. After a short historical contextualization, special emphasis is directed to the emergence of new economic elites in both historical constellations and the emergence of specific forms of luxury consumption. A second layer of comparison consists of an analysis of the practices of comparison of elites. Thereby, I will differentiate between categorical and inter-personal comparative practices. Third, this essay gives a short outlook on subaltern or popular practices of comparison that highlight the conflictive dimension of comparison in both Gilded Ages.

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