As Consume This! enters its second year of production and I come into term as the Chair of Consumers and Consumption, I am reminded of the inspiring essays of the past year. Section members contributed their latest works about art in Chilean households, craft makers and services in Brooklyn, beauty culture among American men, finance advisers in Argentina, and many more fascinating insights into consumption practices and meanings around the world. In this issue, I follow the tradition of the chair leading off Consume This! with an essay of my own work, likewise taking you around the world as well as back into classical economic anthropology. This is an excerpt of a book I am working on about VIP nightclubs and conspicuous consumption — there’s a word we don’t hear too often in mainstream sociology, but as the Consumers and Consumption section grows, the likes of Veblen and his interlocutors may yet revive.
– Ashley Mears
The Potlatch Revisited: Staging Wealth and Waste
By Ashley Mears
Like most social behaviors, there is a certain dramaturgy to displays of wasting money.
Sam noticed it in Saint Tropez in 2011, when the 31 year-old Texas-based hedge fund associate watched with fascination as a “bottle war” unfolded in a VIP nightclub. In a bottle war, “whales,” as big spenders in clubs are called, publicly play a game of one-upmanship to see who will buy more expensive champagne.
Sam flicked through the pictures he saves of it on his phone. Two bottle buyers faced off from opposite sides of the club, surrounded by young women and popped bottles of champagne. “It’s a circus act!” he said, about how champagne bottles dropped down from cords in the ceiling into the center of the club, and from there they were carried off by cocktail waitresses, or “bottle girls,” also carrying firework sparklers to the customers’ tables. The DJ even interrupted his music to announce who was purchasing which expensive bottles, and with each big purchase, the crowd got more and more worked up. Everyone was taking pictures, and Sam was jubilant: “At this point the crowd is really worked up, like “Oh my god, these people are gonna spend each other to bankruptcy!”
By the end of this night, almost everyone in the club seemed to be drinking from their own bottle of Dom, as the excessive bottles were handed out like favors to the crowd. It was a show of waste, in Sam’s estimate, upwards of 300,000 euros. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
From 2012 – 2014, I followed the VIP party circuit from New York, the Hamptons, Miami and the French Riviera, in search of what Sam described in terms of both admiration and disgust. Like Sam, I became part of the audience bearing witness to a modern form of potlatch.
Franz Boas, the German-born pioneer of modern American anthropology, was among the first ethnographers to document wasting rituals in late-19th century tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast, in what is now Canada. Boas described what looked like competitive gifting and feasting, called potlatch. In a potlatch, a tribal chief or noble solemnly lavishes gifts of considerable riches upon his clan—large quantities of woolen blankets or silver bracelets—to advance his rank or title. Sometimes a nobleman attempted to give gifts so large that his rival could not match it. Since a recipient is obliged to reciprocate in a bigger show of generosity later on, he would suffer humiliation in this failure to repay the gifts.
A potlatch sometimes involved the outright destruction of property, like tossing blankets into the fire, breaking canoes, even throwing heirloom copper plates into the ocean. Tribal leaders were not competing to see who could accumulate wealth, but who could give more of it away.
Giving away treasures seems to be on the surface a social equalizing act. It is anything but. In typical form, the potlatch host loses a lot of wealth but gains the recognition of a new title among his peers, thus defining the status structure. Potlatch is about rank. It can be playful and transgressive, but it is always deeply meaningful to a system of prestige and power. The spirit of the potlatch, writes the anthropologist David Graeber, is a strange combination of aggression and generosity. This is why, for Marcel Mauss, charity is an insult; it reflects a social awareness that the recipient is not prosperous enough to enter into mutual exchange relations.
Contemporary scholars don’t talk much about potlatches. It belongs to histories of archaic rituals and tribal societies. But ethnographers continue to document them in a surprising range of settings, without invoking the term.
Take the small southern Mexican village of Xalisco, where, journalist Sam Quinones writes in Dreamland, the labor supply of black tar heroin dealers emerged to drive America’s opioid epidemic. Heroin dealers were mostly farm boys who followed family networks up north to deliver heroin, and they returned flush with cash and eager to show it. They built new houses, bought new cars, and brought home suitcases full of Levis(501) jeans to distribute to their newly respectful family and friends. During the town’s annual corn festival, dealers sponsored feasts and banda performances, and spent the rest of their earnings “on beer, strip clubs, and cocaine, and walked the streets of Xalisco for a week or two the object of other men’s envy” (261). This envy propelled other men’s desire to reciprocate and out-spend one another, a potlatch dynamic that, sociologist Gabriel Rossman notes, fueled the labor supply of heroin retailers across America in the 2000s.
Displays of ostentation turn out to be central to business dealings in China. Anthropologist John Osburg documents how nouveau rich businessmen in Chengdu forge relationships through lavishly entertaining state officials in upscale restaurants, karaoke clubs, massage parlors and brothels. What makes a boss is his constant display of generosity and its recognition in the eyes of aspiring men around him as he lavishes them with name-brand whisky and beautiful sex workers. At dinner, more dishes are always brought to the table than can ever be consumed. The Chengdu potlatch forges masculine solidarity among business networks and underworld gangs, which in post-reform China, amount to the same thing.
Potlatches occur at weddings and casinos. They are the defining logic of fraternity parties and their free flowing beer kegs at the start of the school year on every college campus with a prominent Greek life. They are on full display on the Rich Kids of Instagram, a Tumblr page curating images posted by rich people documenting their own consumption habits (and the subject of research by sociologists Bruno Cousin and Sebastien Chauvin). The site features plenty of pictures of kids explicitly wasting their wealth—burning dollar bills and soaking in bubble baths of Dom Perignon champagne.
Potlatches exist today. But sociologists don’t have a way to understand them.
The economist Thorstein Veblen scandalized elites at the turn of the 20th century by likening high society to the primitive peoples he read about in Franz Boas’ anthropology reports. To Veblen, the natives and the elites share the impulse to show off through “invidious consumption,” seeking status among their respective audiences. But Veblen was too reliant on a shaky assumption, that rich people naturally act this way.
Most people, including Veblen, imagine that ostentation comes easy. It doesn’t always. It violates widespread norms of the contemporary Western social world, like the rudeness of showing off, our supposed belief in the fundamental equality of all people, and our tendencies to downplay social hierarchies. As Rachel Sherman shows in her new book Uneasy Street, wealthy people often downplay their success in the face of discomfort with their position at the top of the economic hierarchy.
Furthermore, status is a sensitive good. It exists only in the recognition of an audience, yet it cannot be bought outright because people will see right through the buyer’s illegitimate quest. VIP clubs have to construct the potlatch in a way that suspends the deliberateness of status-seeking, primarily by making it fun and playful. Such venues go a long way to mobilize people to break these norms to show off and to create an environment where such behavior is normal, even good.
There are of course a lot of differences between the VIP potlatch and the Pacific Northwest tribal one, most importantly there is not a stable status hierarchy either among the global elite or even within a VIP club from one night to the next. But like all potlatches, the VIP club is a dramatization of the relationship between subordination and domination. Which means we can study the dramaturgy of the show—the scripts, the props and the cues provided by the club as the “big man” is carefully choreographed into production. It takes considerable collective effort to mobilize people into wasting money, and the VIP nightclub has mastered it.
Ashley Mears is an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. She researchers gender, culture, and economic life. She is the author if Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press 2012). Her next book is an economic anthropology of VIP consumption, forthcoming with Princeton University Press.