The Vicarious Consumption of Goods

In 1899 Thorstein Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” on his observation of division of labor; specifically the effect capitalism had on the upper/leisure class.  As a child of immigrant parents being raised in Wisconsin, Veblen had trouble adjusting and felt isolated from the American way.  This detached upbringing seems to have an impact on the way he describes the leisure class, as he speaks as though he is on the outside of society looking in.  Veblen is very critical of the effects capitalism had on the leisure class and believed it was leading to regression rather than progression. His writing calls out those of the leisure class for their over consumption of goods and their archaic values.

Veblen starts off by describing how the leisure class has taken on the duty of “…the vicarious consumption of goods” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)).  It’s obvious that he is poking fun at the wealthy, as he sees that their only role in society is to buy the products the working class makes.  In a visual sense he is basically comparing them to a parasite, as they received goods without contributing anything back to society.  Veblen goes on to describe the unnecessary waste of goods that go into how people dress.  Dress is considered the easiest way to show others your class, as all observers will know your status at first glance ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)) .  Veblen has trouble trying to fathom why people give up life’s necessities just so they can afford more expensive clothing.  The value of clothing is based on fashion, rather than their practical use which Veblen sees as unenlightened.

After his rant on dress, Veblen decides to go after the very language used by the leisure class.  Those of wealth practice classic English rather than the common tongue seen with the rest of society.  Just as dress shows class status, the use of old/classic English shows that you are of an important, wealthy family.  Veblen describes the word “classic” as word that carries the “…connotation of wasteful and archaic” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)), implying that the use of classic English is simply inefficient and backwards.

Do you agree with Veblen’s statement that the leisure class’ duty is only to consume products?  Why is there such an emphasis on class status during this time?  Do we still stress importance on the way we dress and speak today?





Imperialism and “The horror!”

Jules Ferry, a two-time prime minister of France, supported the ideals of Imperialism. In 1884 France, competition amongst Britain, Germany, and the United States sparked a sense of urgency in people like Ferry. Germany conquered nations in Africa, prevailing over Britain and creating pressure in Britain. Ferry notes that this competition, as well as supply and demand and freedom of trade are major problems. In a proud, almost desperate tone, he insists that “the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.” ((Jules Ferry, On French Colonial Expansion)) Ferry implies that men of higher rank need to be on board in order for French colonial expansion to take place, and he speaks to them often in his piece, addressing them as “Gentlemen.” He says, “Gentlemen, we must address them more loudly and more honestly!” ((Jules Ferry, On French Colonial Expansion)) Ferry writes in a convincing, enthusiastic tone to try to improve support for French Imperialism, which was somewhat lacking upon his writing. With competition in Western Europe and the United States increasing, Ferry notes that the time to act is now; he notes that market success in South America is dwindling because of North American products. A weak French navy needs to be improved in order to face this increasing competition, as it needs “harbors, defenses, [and] supply centers on the high seas.” ((Jules Ferry, On French Colonial Expansion)) Previously conquered territory such as Vietnam did not suffice, for individuals such as Ferry feared an economic collapse. Clearly an Imperialist, Ferry believed that exporting best served the economy of France, especially with the shrinking of markets in Europe.

Ferry’s contradictory and racist beliefs puzzled me. When I first read this, I was surprised with the “hierarchy of races” that he believed in. Nonetheless, Ferry’s beliefs set the basis of the beginning of the French colonial empire. As I searched more, I found out that Ferry became interested in acquiring the Congo. I immediately thought of the novel Heart of Darkness, a novel that accurately represents the evil ideologies of imperialism and takes place in the Congo. One of the novel’s main characters, Kurtz, conducts raids for ivory, and other immoral acts because of his greed. His lack of compassion and respect for the natives is evident. To not extend into too much further detail, Kurtz’s last words are “The horror! The horror!” These last words resemble his realization of his brutality, and how “the horror” ultimately killed him. I thought the connection between Ferry and this novel worked rather well. Heart of Darkness included such brutal, sickening images, and when reading it I found it difficult to truly believe the fact that European imperialism mirrored the brutalities in Heart of Darkness. This world has such a long history.

Do countries act with immorality in order to achieve their realist goals, or are we shifting away from this in today’s society? How can you compare French and other countries’ Imperialism with Christopher Columbus? Why must states be so competitive; is “world peace” without any imperialism ever possible?

Passing the Torch: Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”

In 1899 Rudyard Kipling composed the poem “The White Man’s Burden” in response to the American colonization of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. With his tone of command urging the white landowners of the United States to “Take up the White Man’s burden” ((The White Man’s Burden, 1899)), Kipling is implying that the USA must now carry the torch of imperialism once held by Great Britain as well as other European nations. Kipling’s message is one of command and warning, by implying that if the United States is to become an imperial power it must commit fully to the duty and complexities inherent with this position of power. It is clearly no small task, as it requires large economic burdens as well as a large commitment of manpower to travel and conquer foreign lands.

When I first read this last year I thought it was satire. Kipling seemed to be bashing the United States for its growing imperial presence in the world with what I confused as his almost-sarcastic tone. However once I realized he was serious, consequences and costs were easier to understand. However after taking my Senior Seminar on Empire last semester, I learned about the many different imperialist nations throughout history as well as what it takes to be not only an empire, but imperialist as well. In this poem, Kipling outlines several of the tenets to imperialism:

To be imperialist, a state must dehumanize a civilization and use them as the foundation for a colonialized civilization. In the first stanza Kipling highlights this with “Your new-caught sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.” ((The White Man’s Burden, 1899)), inferring that a powerful state has overtaken a much smaller, foreign state and dehumanizing its people in the process.

As our class established last semester, a state must not only dominate indigenous folk, but it must also exploit them in favor of the colonizing state. Kipling highlights this in the second stanza with “To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain” ((The White Man’s Burden, 1899)), explaining that colonists are using the indigenous people’s economic source for the benefit of the colonizing state.

In those two stanzas Rudyard Kipling clearly outlines two of the most important tenets to imperialism: dominating a foreign population and siphoning their natural resources into the economy of the colonizing nation. Although this is essential to the imperialist process, it is a cruel and unforgiving ritual. The colonized state is reduced to little more than a slave state through the process called imperialism, and those indigenous people’s lives suffer as a consequence.

For class tomorrow, I pose these questions:

Where else in history have we seen these same things happen? When has a world power taken over a much weaker power in order to exploit it for various (economic, military strategic, etc.) reasons? What was the reasoning behind this takeover? Was it easily justified?

A Critique of Imperialism


John Hobson argued that the capitalist market drove the imperialistic trend of the late 1800s, as opposed to nationalism. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) Much like colonialism, imperialism is a policy that allows for one country to take control over another, generally by military force. Hobson was writing Imperialism in London just after the Long Depression, one of the worst recessions in history. The depression affected economies worldwide; however, England took the hardest hit. Being in the midst of all the economic failure around him must have prompted Hobson to criticize imperialism. Although many people were literate in England at this time, Hobson was most likely writing for Parliamentary members because they had the most political influence. 

Hobson argued that nationalism was a term being used too loosely; he inferred that imperialism couldn’t be considered a nationalist policy because it involved people in the empire who were not geographically, culturally, or linguistically bound. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) He called out the British government for not focusing on their political and economic problems instead spreading their power to other parts of the world that were not asking to be controlled. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) Hobson’s intent with this piece was essentially to tell the British government to get their act together and deal with their issues rather than create more problems in other parts of the world.

Morel’s Morals

Edward Morel was born in France in 1873, although he attended school in Britain and eventually became a naturalized British citizen in 1896. Throughout his life he held various jobs and was known as a British journalist, author, pacifist and politician. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” which celebrated colonialism and discussed the duty of the white man to civilize ‘savage’ populations. ((Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899)) Morel wrote The Black Man’s Burden in direct response to this work by Kipling. In The Black Man’s Burden, he discussed how colonialism decimated African populations through famine, forced labor and disease as well as by destroying social ties and breaking their spirits. ((Edward Morel, The Black Man’s Burden, 1903)) In this time period, there were few advocates for African rights but Morel developed an uncommon sympathy and respect for African cultures earlier in his life when working for a British shipping company. When looking at this company’s trade between Belgium and the Congo, Morel saw that no commercial goods were brought to the Congo, but valuable natural resources were brought back. Morel explored this relationship more, realizing that the resources were brought back at the expense of the native African people. He resigned his job at the shipping company and began to campaign against Congo misrule. He published his own magazine and started the Congo Reform Association to advocate for change in colonial practices in the Congo.

African colonies in 1914.

African colonies in 1914.

Morel was an unusual case for his time in Britain as many were supportive of imperialism and its ability to provide economic benefits to the controlling country. He spoke out against imperialism and brought many other prominent figures into the Congo Reform Association, eventually succeeding in changing the colonial rule there. Do you think that support from British citizens was necessary for change in colonial practices or would the suppressed peoples eventually have resisted and demanded this change for themselves? Did Morel go far enough in demanding better conditions for laborers or should he have advocated for no longer having colonies?

Magnitogorsk: semi-realized city


Magnitogorsk Steel Production Facility 1930, courtesy of wikicommons


The city of Magnitogorsk was founded as a center of industrialization, however even as it failed on many fronts it was a progressive center of industrialization. In the 1930’s the Soviet Union was in need of industry, and so the plan to create industrial cities was implemented. Detailed in the article Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography by Stephen Kkotkin is the reasoning, creation and outcome of Magnitogorsk as both an industrial city and as a “factory for remaking people”. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 63)) 

In an attempt to industrialize the country, industrial cities were created throughout the Soviet Union. By recruiting citizens, military personnel assignment, foreign workers (European refugees, hired technical personnel and tourists) and the incidental acquisition of wandering peasants (samotek ) Magnitogorsk’s population rapidly grew. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 70)) However, the city became a ‘revolving door’ of workers due to the poor living conditions and low wages. Some of the original workers were otkhodnik- peasant seasonal workers, who saw factory employment as a supplement to their agricultural income. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 71)) In order to maintain steadier population the Soviet Union saw it necessary to eliminate the seasonal workers by “transform[ing] the construction industry into a year-round activity”. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 72)) 

In 1933 The Soviet Union became afraid of the “peasnatization” of the workforce. As the ideal underclass was the proletariat efforts to educate the largely literate and unskilled work force began. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 75)) This organized system of education proved to be less effective than on the job training, during which individuals were instilled with the belief that with even the smallest extra effort they could become a hero to the Soviet Union. These sentiments gave rise to workplace competition and national pride.

With the issue of desertion sill prominent within the city, a passport system was created. The passports, which could have prevented the misuse of trains and government money, became an opportunity for the rise of black markets because of the demand for documentation. Even after many of the pitfalls of Magnitogorsk, it is still viewed as a successful industrial center that taught its citizens national pride and created a trained working class.

What struck me as I read the article was the need for progress, even when nothing was in fact achieved. The construction of the damn is the greatest instance of a failed but somehow respected occurrence. While it is true that the damn was built ahead of schedule and as a result party authority vastly increased, the damn was not functional and almost as soon as construction was completed it once again began. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 80)) Thant the Soviet Union was able to turn a major construction failure into a morale booster and convince the workers that even “the lowest individual could become a great hero by straining to pour an extra load of cement” is a testament to the strength of the collective mindset ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 80))  The ability of the Bolsheviks to deftly turn a critique of their shortcomings into a party asset is one of the many characteristics that helped to keep the party in power during the Soviet Union.


A City Upon a Hill


A monument built to commemorate Magnitogorsk’s crucial production of supplies during World War II.

The onset of Stalin’s five-year plan in 1930 spelled disaster for peasants living in the countryside of Soviet Russia. Agricultural collectivization forced many peasants on to mass collective farms where they worked for little to no return, and organized “dekulakization” was decreed by the center in 1931. Dekulakization was meant to oust the kulaks, or well-off peasants, and was carried out through executions or deportations to mass construction sites. ((Stephen Kotkin. “Peopling Magnitostroi.” Chap. 4, In Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization, edited by William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, 63. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1993, 70.)) These sites popped up around the Soviet Union, one of the largest was a city known as Magnitostroi. Stephen Kotkin details the development of a barren wasteland into a city of 200,000 in his “Peopling Magnitostroi.”

Kotkin introduces Magnitostroi as more than an industrial center; he asserts it was a “political device,” which the Bolsheviks hoped to fill with a socialist proletariat. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The site started as an isolated, bare patch of land in the southern steppe, it had few if any natural resources and no nearby cities. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The soviet center attempted multiple tactics to populate the city; army regiments, political and industrial workers, and graduates of higher education were mobilized to the city on a party member’s whim, but many did not make it. ((Kotkin, 65.)) Recruitment of ordinary soviet citizens through propaganda was also pursued. Deals with heads of factories and collective farms garnered a promise of new labor for the construction site, but far fewer bodies than what was agreed upon were sent. ((Kotkin, 69.)) Chronic labor shortages plagued Magnitostroi and the Central Committee solved this problem by deporting thousands of Kulaks to the work site. ((Kotkin, 70.)) The purported shining symbol of socialism became a dumping ground for the exiled.

Magnitostroi was meant to become an efficient capital of industry in which a proletariat diligently labored for the good of their socialist republic. This image was bastardized by brutal tactics employed to accomplish the soviet center’s goals through any means necessary. Many of the peasants who migrated to Magnitostroi came with village groups known as “artels,” in which one held power and the others remained obedient. Each artel divided wages amongst themselves as they saw fit, a collective concept which should have been looked fondly upon by socialists. Despite the supposed overlap of ideology, Bolshevik leaders took measures to “smash” what was seen as a competitor to their ultimate authority. ((Kotkin, 77.)) The Bolsheviks would compromise their ideals further by adopting the formerly Tsarist internal passport system in 1932. ((Kotkin, 86.))The system was meant to establish order and slow the rapid departure of a majority of Magnitostroi’s work force, but the policing system lacked the necessary manpower and the result was an extensive underground market for counterfeit documents. ((Kotkin, 87.)) Abuses of power and subjugation of Bolshevik ideals were performed under the guise of “defending the revolution” ((Kotkin, 86.)) and Magnitostroi became a shining example of nothing more than oppressive population management by the Bolshevik regime.

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The Process of “Peopling” in Industrialization

Stephen Kotkin’s article Peopling Magnitostroi explores the industrialization period of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, specifically regarding the newly built industrial city of Magnitostroi. Located in a remote area of the steppe, the soviet regime mobilized and recruited the masses to come and work at this factory center. The workers sent there – a mix of skilled workers, unskilled peasants or exiled kulaks, and seasonal workers, otkhodniki, were overall reluctant to go there, especially those sent there from other factories in the cities. Despite the high number of workers who passed through Magnitostroi, there was a fluctuation or fluidity in when the workers came and left. Often workers would sign up only to leave again the next month ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 85)) .

It was combination of the bad working conditions, lack of food and water, and lack of shelter that kept the workers there for only a few months. Many workers also had to be trained there at the factory due to a need for more skilled men. Despite all the problems the officials Magnitostroi faced, they called it a success because they still achieved their goals within the chaos of running a new industrial city with a lack of resources ((Kotkin, 90)) .

Kotkin’s exploration of the conditions in industrial cities and the workers temperaments gives us an idea of what the Soviet Regime was trying to achieve and how they were trying to achieve it. They were entirely focused on increasing production and were willing to go to great lengths to say that they achieved their goals. The “dekulakization” movement gave the government a reason to send more workers, if by force, and the government also urged seasonal worker-peasants to the factories in order to eliminate seasonal working entirely, which would address permanent employment. This was not well executed though, since the area where the factory was built had no useful resources and they had to transport everything by train. There was also not enough resources for the people, so obviously they had not many incentives to stay there. Despite the ever-changing population of workers and arising problems, the government saw Magnitostroi as an achievement since they managed to educate the workers with both useful skills and the soviet mindset: changing the people to be better soviet citizens.

The Psychopolitics of a Metallurgic Mecca: Social and Demographic Transformations

"For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four; against religion" Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (

“For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four” Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (source)

The construction of the Magnetostroi, an envisioned beacon of industrial prowess and microcosm of the idealized egalitarian society, was an enormous undertaking by the Soviet government in the 1930s that engendered massive paradigmatic shifts in demographics, economics, and the relationship between central authority and the proletarian masses. The frequently irrational ambition of the Bolshevik government sparked a variety of obstacles that were often met with rather paradoxical schemes in an attempt to rapidly and efficiently allocate human resources. In his essay entitled Peopling Magnitostroi, Stephen Kotkin illustrates how the rise of construction centers in the untamed Siberian steppe encompassed the drive for collectivization, rapid economic development, and proletarianization that so permeated Stalin’s first Five Year plan.

Kotkin begins by discussing the first step undertaken in order to propel this tremendous project upon its course: the idea of mobilization, a key element integral to the mindset of the Bolsheviks in authority. However, due to the high demand for workers and the refusal of many to leave their posts to embark on a fantastical quest to the unforgiving Siberian wilderness, the central authority executed a process laced with sensationalist propaganda often bordering on fanaticism known as recruitment (orgnabor) ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 67.)) in an attempt to incentivize the peasants with raw materials in exchange for labor – essentially setting up the foundations for a pseudo-labor market. As more obstacles vindictively thwarted the site’s path to industrial nirvana, the Soviet government often resorted to more capricious and coercive methods, including the assembly of exiled kulaks and peasants caught in a vicious cycle of subjugation into human resources, rapid and fleeting economic success, greater ambitions at the central authority, and further subjugation. Nonetheless, not all of the peasant migration from the countryside to the cities was violently induced; the otkhodniki, or peasant seasonal workers, often came of their own will. It was the government’s desire, however, to make them permanent and bring a wide variety of foreigners from the outside regions into a single collective working group in the cities, leading to large-scale demographic transfigurations. ((Ibid, 72-73.))

Another pivotal argument posed by Kotkin is the idea of the social transformation, propagated by the government’s garnering of illiterate and inexperienced individuals, blank slates on which socialism could be deeply etched into via training programs at the industrial center, which had been employed to simultaneously play the role of the supreme factory of skilled proletarians and cadres that “grew like mushrooms.” ((Ibid, 76.)) The philosophy of collectivization and crushing counterrevolutionary thought also prevailed in the industry through the government’s vanquishing of peasant artels, a capitalist-esque form of hierarchy and authority. ((Ibid, 77))

An incredulous aspect of the nature of Magnitostroi’s development is the paradoxical policy decisions made by the government in attempts to combat the disorder and reluctance of the workers to perform their jobs during construction. To incentivize, the oxymoronic socialist competition was introduced, ((Ibid, 79)) and to organize, the old Tsarist passport identification system was reintroduced. This serves to illustrate how far the government was willing to go for the sake of industrial progress and efficient collective work, and how exponentially the authority of the government rose at the same time, imbuing the populace with industrial spirit. Despite the fact that the increased systemization brought along with it an onslaught of limitations and obstacles, the government was relatively successful in dictating the blueprints for a modern metallurgic civilization. Overall, the essay was quite the comprehensive dissection of Soviet industrialism and social change during the 1930s, using Magnitostroi as an example. Delving into the idea of Stalinism as the encroaching dominant political philosophy and Stalin’s involvement further than just the Five Year Plan would make for a broader discussion.

United Nation?

There was a lot of tension leading up the Austro-Prussian War also known as the Seven Week’ War. The war was fought between the Austrian Empire with the aid of Germans, and Prussia who was also aided by the Germans and Italy. Prussia ended up winning the war and therefore took control of the German states, leaving Austria as a separate country. In the first set of documents, there are several passages that show the build up to the War. In the first text, Johann Gustav Droysen, a German historian, discusses the relationship between Germany and Prussia where he implies that Prussia is already a part of Germany. Otto von Bismark, an advisor to the King of Prussia states in some of the later passages that he foresees a need for a war between Prussia and Austria because Germany is too small for both to exist under its reign. In the end, Prussia and Germany do end up uniting, creating one nation. The Imperial Proclamation states this newfound concept of unity and nationality which Mazzini discusses in his text. Mazzini, a leader in the Italian unification states that the people of Italy were fighting for the unification of their country. This idea of unification is brought up throughout the texts as either being spread throughout Europe or through each country’s individual will.

Image result for american flag

America is a very powerful, strong nation. We take our national pride very seriously, but recently I feel as though there has been a divide within the nation; or maybe this divide has always existed. A country made up of so many people from many different backgrounds is hard to unify. Do you think America is truly a united nation?