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A dream of complete idleness

[ 111 ] December 23, 2011 |

kardashians

Recently I’ve seen bits and pieces of several episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Kourtney and Kim Take New York. (I can only watch about ten minute stretches of these shows before beginning to experience some impairment of higher cognitive function; I suspect a week-long marathon would render me illiterate). I’ve also watched parts of a few episodes of The Real Housewives series’ set in Beverly Hills, Orange County, and New Jersey.

I’m not a reality TV snob — I confess to indulging regularly in viewings of Top Chef and Pawn Stars — but the Kardashian and Real Housewives shows have a voyeuristic quality that make them too quasi-pornographic for me to really enjoy. Still, these particular programs, and others like them, are interesting cultural texts as several people are probably going to point out at the next meeting of the MLA.

What I find particularly interesting is the vision they present of a desirable life. These programs cater to the wealth fantasies of their audiences, obviously, but they do so in a way that suggests that the epitome of the contemporary American Dream is to acquire either enough independent capital, or a sufficiently unlimited access to an income stream generated by someone else’s labor, to allow one to do nothing — or more precisely, to do nothing but consume.

Indeed, despite the enormous differences in context, these shows remind me of nothing so much as Orwell’s description of the world view of many a Victorian novelist, and in particular Dickens:

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something, that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us — that he has no idea of work.

With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job. His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister. In any case, in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle. The feeling ‘This is what I came into the world to do. Everything else is uninteresting. I will do this even if it means starvation’, which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries — this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens’s books. He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done. But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion. And, after all, it is natural enough, considering his rather negative attitude towards society. In the last resort there is nothing he admires except common decency. Science is uninteresting and machinery is cruel and ugly. Business is only for ruffians like Bounderby. As for politics — leave that to the Tite Barnacles. Really there is no objective except to marry the heroine, settle down, live solvently and be kind. And you can do that much better in private life.

Here, perhaps, one gets a glimpse of Dickens’s secret imaginative background. What did he think of as the most desirable way to live? When Martin Chuzzlewit had made it up with his uncle, when Nicholas Nickleby had married money, when John Harman had been enriched by Boffin what did they do?

The answer evidently is that they did nothing. Nicholas Nickleby invested his wife’s money with the Cheerybles and ‘became a rich and prosperous merchant’, but as he immediately retired into Devonshire, we can assume that he did not work very hard. Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass ‘purchased and cultivated a small farm, more for occupation than profit.’ That is the spirit in which most of Dickens’s books end — a sort of radiant idleness. Where he appears to disapprove of young men who do not work (Harthouse, Harry Gowan, Richard Carstone, Wrayburn before his reformation) it is because they are cynical and immoral or because they are a burden on somebody else; if you are ‘good’, and also self-supporting, there is no reason why you should not spend fifty years in simply drawing your dividends. Home life is always enough. And, after all, it was the general assumption of his age. The ‘genteel sufficiency’, the ‘competence’, the ‘gentleman of independent means’ (or ‘in easy circumstances’) — the very phrases tell one all about the strange, empty dream of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century middle bourgeoisie. It was a dream of complete idleness. Charles Reade conveys its spirit perfectly in the ending of Hard Cash. Alfred Hardie, hero of Hard Cash, is the typical nineteenth-century novel-hero (public-school style), with gifts which Reade describes as amounting to ‘genius’. He is an old Etonian and a scholar of Oxford, he knows most of the Greek and Latin classics by heart, he can box with prizefighters and win the Diamond Sculls at Henley. He goes through incredible adventures in which, of course, he behaves with faultless heroism, and then, at the age of twenty-five, he inherits a fortune, marries his Julia Dodd and settles down in the suburbs of Liverpool, in the same house as his parents-in-law:

They all lived together at Albion Villa, thanks to Alfred… Oh, you happy little villa! You were as like Paradise as any mortal dwelling can be. A day came, however, when your walls could no longer hold all the happy inmates. Julia presented Alfred with a lovely boy; enter two nurses and the villa showed symptoms of bursting. Two months more, and Alfred and his wife overflowed into the next villa. It was but twenty yards off; and there was a double reason for the migration. As often happens after a long separation, Heaven bestowed on Captain and Mrs. Dodd another infant to play about their knees, etc. etc. etc.

This is the type of the Victorian happy ending — a vision of a huge, loving family of three or four generations, all crammed together in the same house and constantly multiplying, like a bed of oysters. What is striking about it is the utterly soft, sheltered, effortless life that it implies. It is not even a violent idleness, like Squire Western’s.

That is the significance of Dickens’s urban background and his noninterest in the blackguardly-sporting military side of life. His heroes, once they had come into money and ‘settled down’, would not only do no work; they would not even ride, hunt, shoot, fight duels, elope with actresses or lose money at the races. They would simply live at home in feather-bed respectability, and preferably next door to a blood-relation living exactly the same life:

The first act of Nicholas, when he became a rich and prosperous merchant, was to buy his father’s old house. As time crept on, and there came gradually about him a group of lovely children, it was altered and enlarged; but none of the old rooms were ever pulled down, no old tree was ever rooted up, nothing with which there was any association of bygone times was ever removed or changed.
Within a stone’s-throw was another retreat enlivened by children’s pleasant voices too; and here was Kate… the same true, gentle creature, the same fond sister, the same in the love of all about her, as in her girlish days.

It is the same incestuous atmosphere as in the passage quoted from Reade. And evidently this is Dickens’s ideal ending. It is perfectly attained in Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit and Pickwick, and it is approximated to in varying degrees in almost all the others. The exceptions are Hard Times and Great Expectations — the latter actually has a ‘happy ending’, but it contradicts the general tendency of the book, and it was put in at the request of Bulwer Lytton.

The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic. In the moss-grown churchyard down the road are the graves of the loved ones who passed away before the happy ending happened. The servants are comic and feudal, the children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blind man’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality.

Orwell’s essay is more than 70 years old, and it makes me wonder about the extent to which contemporary American society has returned, or regressed, to the rentier values that Dickens’s novels uncritically reflect. The key to these programs is that no one, or least none of the central characters, ever does anything resembling work. The “housewives” don’t have jobs, of course, but they are also almost never shown doing any parenting, let alone performing traditional domestic unpaid labor (all this has, as the expression goes, been outsourced). The Kardashian sisters are occasionally shown dabbling in things like launching a perfume line, but the point of their various shows is that they are 24/7 Party Girls. (For all I know turning your life into a reality TV show may be very hard work. The point here is not how much work the various Kardashians may do, but that their programs work very hard to represent them as people who do nothing).

And this isn’t merely a matter of not working for income: the most striking aspect of these shows is the extent to which they portray a class of people who have no vocation, in the broadest sense, of any sort, or indeed even any serious interests, besides spending money while being on the equivalent of a perpetual vacation.

All of this is strongly gendered of course: as J.K. Galbraith mentions somewhere, modern capitalism would be impaired significantly if the wives of the captains of industry and their lieutenants did not spend a great deal of time buying stuff. It’s no coincidence that these shows focus on idle rich women (although with the exception of a couple of NBA basketball players the men hanging around the Kardashian sisters also give off the air of being in easy circumstances). It’s probably still the case that the Protestant ethic is strong enough that it would be difficult to produce hit reality TV shows starring men who do nothing but consume leisure and buy expensive things no one actually needs.

Still, one of the consequences of America’s increasingly unabashed embrace of plutocracy over the last generation is that we now have a genuinely enormous class of social parasites, living off inherited capital, or the stupendous income stream of the one member of an extended family who has a job. (A vignette from the beginning of the previous century: The Duke of Somewhere or Another was passing through customs at Ellis Island. On the immigration form under “Occupation” he wrote “Peer of the Realm.” The Irish-American cop who took the form crossed that out and wrote “Unemployed.”).

Consider that the bottom threshold for the annual income of the richest .1% of American households is close to two million dollars (that’s per year), and that there are approximately 120,000 such households, containing around 500,000 people. This suggests that well over one million Americans live in households with annual incomes of at least one million dollars per year. Of course some of these people are children, but a lot of them are fundamentally aimless adults who have nothing to do but spend money. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, increasingly, we’re seeing the celebration of a social class full of people who, as Orwell pointed out, are “just about as useful as so many tapeworms.”

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  1. chris y says:

    one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job.

    Ebenezer Scrooge? As I recall, even after his conversion to the idea of celebrating the occasional holiday, there’s no suggestion that his primary interest wasn’t still in managing his company, or that this was in itself a bad thing.

    • Hogan says:

      Possible, although I’ve never been clear on what exactly Scrooge’s company did or what was involved in running it. A better example might be the criminals in Oliver Twist. Fagin shows a certain zest for his career.

    • Sean Peters says:

      It probably deserves pointing out that there are many, many of us who don’t actually live to work. I, for one, am not particularly interested in my job, and would be quite happy to be independently wealthy. This is not to say that I’d sit around doing nothing but consuming all day, but still… there’s a reason they need to pay us to do this stuff. Most jobs are not really that fulfilling in and of themselves.

  2. Bill Murray says:

    Oddities is the only cool reality show

  3. The news is full of those kooky rich people and the shenanigans they get up to. Ha! Ha!

  4. Stag Party Palin says:

    Not *really* sure of your point here. We have to define “parasite” a bit better, and “work” too. Is anyone who does not have to work a parasite? Working for the sake of the Protestant Ethic doesn’t make any more sense to me than Communion (yes, I am mixing religions). Perhaps Dickens felt that people only worked if they had to, work being non-pleasurable. He worked, but at art, which is different from coal mining or scrivening. The goal of most people would be to stop working and smell the roses. And, note that Dickens’ retirees did not behave like the Kardashians.

    If nobody had any ambition, our world would be *more* backwards than it is. If everybody had ambition, we would have non-stop war. Surely there is room for both types without bringing in ‘parasites.’

    • wileywitch says:

      Yeah, and there’s really enough for people who want to immerse themselves in consumerism and the trappings of wealth without them having the power to influence Congress and/or regulatory commissions, and with those people being taxed enough to keep the wealth from being overly concentrated in a few hands giving those people entirely too much power, and consequently such power over the global economy that whether they choose to hoard or to spend has a dramatic impact on the lives of millions and the shapes of entire economies.

      The job of corporate media is to make these very wealthy look like heros/heroines and superstars living an enviable life. These people are ill and are not role models for anyone who wants to live responsibly and within their means. These scions of wealth and leisure live in a bubble. Television provides them with a lens into their bubble, and with all that, they must have such a distorted view of themselves and their actual value to society that they cannot be anything other than deluded to a degree that would get a poor person ostracized, if not committed.

      When they die, or are depressed, or are suffering genuine psychic stress or trauma, it’s just another story and they are only icons in that story or avatars. I truly believe that these people are as abused by the cult of celebrity and the school of “free market” capitalism as most poor and working people are abused by it. Being shamed for being poor and internalizing that shame is painful and unnecessary. Being told again and again that you have no reason to feel shame is just as emotionally crippling and unnecessary.

      We’re all creatures of our environs and social circles. No matter how strange or extreme a situation may appear to be, it’s probably a textbook case. The Kardashians are doing what people in their situation are expected to do. They are fulfilling a role that the larger tribe finds desirable and appropriate. They wouldn’t be on television or plastered all over magazines if they didn’t sell.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

      I think Marx pointed out that one of the things that make us fundamentally human is our drive to rearrange our environment, or, in other words, work.

    • njorl says:

      Some scriveners were notorious for their reluctance to work.

  5. Horatio Alger stories are mostly about marrying the boss’s daughter, not about working 80 hrs. a week, living frugally, saving, and investing in a startup.

  6. Jim Lynch says:

    Sad old Bruce Jenner. Who in 1977 would have guessed the man was fated to look even sillier than he already did on those stupid Love Boat episodes in which he “performed”?

  7. Tybalt says:

    “I’m not a reality TV snob — I confess to indulging regularly in viewings of Top Chef and Pawn Stars”

    The word you are hunting for is “possessed of taste”.

    • One word…two words… This is hard!

    • Linnaeus says:

      I like Pawn Stars a lot myself, and my new addiction is Storage Wars.

      • MikeJake says:

        I like to watch the show with the truck driver navigating the crappy mountain roads in South America. I enjoy hyperventilating for half an hour.

      • MD Rackham says:

        Re Storage Wars, I find nothing entertaining about people who have lost their possessions because they can’t pay their storage unit bill. The fact that someone else finds something of value in there doesn’t mitigate the loss of the “junk” that just gets thrown out.

        Pawn Stars has similar issues. People losing their possessions because they were so desperate that they had to pawn them is not very entertaining to me.

        And Horders is just laughing at the mentally ill.

        Having people fight lions is more honest entertainment.

        • Linnaeus says:

          Okay, that’s a fair point re: Storage Wars. I don’t take delight in people losing their possessions – that’s not what I find entertaining, since I’m not one who finds schadenfreude very appealing. In fact , the schadenfreude aspect of most reality TV shows is quite explicit and what I find quite repugnant about them. But that aspect is strongly downplayed in Storage Wars, and I’ll have to think about that more.

          As for Pawn Stars, I don’t see the desperation, unless one would argue that the very institution of a pawn shop preys on desperation. The customers one sees featured on Pawn Stars are usually not in a situation of absolutely needing the money.

          • Fraud Guy says:

            The worst/best to me is Repo Games, where two beefy guys and a camera crew show up to repo your car, and if you can answer 3 of 5 trivia questions right, you get to keep it. If not, well, humiliation on cable just gets added to your list of problems.

            For grins and giggles, if you get a wrong answer, they start jacking your car up on the tow truck.

        • Gus says:

          I don’t really find a lot of “laughs” in Hoarders.

  8. Scott de B. says:

    Is this really completely new, though? This sort of thing seems a frequent characteristic of the middle class’ view of the wealthy life. The Clampetts didn’t do anything, after all, and Granny’s desire to continue at her housework is made fun of. The Howells didn’t do anything, either, even before fetching up on the island. Other examples?

    • Bill Murray says:

      what about Miss Hathaway. sure she was trying to marry Jethro, but she certainly worked more than anyone else. and worked it too

    • Srynerson says:

      For that matter, it could be pointed out that even many middle class characters on television are rarely depicted working or doing anything other than hanging out with each other. The characters on Friends and Seinfeld, for example, were all theoretically middle to lower middle class, but I doubt that even 20% of the shows’ run times were devoted to their jobs and the characters rarely expressed concern about financial constraints.

      • pacifist viking says:

        “the characters rarely expressed concern about financial constraints.”

        What is Festivus if not a day to air minor grievances, but I might point out that the first five seasons of “Seinfeld” featured George losing jobs, trying to find jobs, trying to make a quick buck, struggling to keep his unemployment insurance, ultimately moving back in with his parents for lack of money, and generally behaving notoriously cheap (this all toned down in season six when he went to work for the Yankees).

        That said, I still agree with your point. Happy Festivus!

        • Bill Murray says:

          Even when he was with the Yankees, a fair amount of George working was on the show. Well, if sleeping in his desk, meeting with Steinbrenner, cotton uniforms and the jerk store are considered working

        • Hogan says:

          And yet he never lacks the time and money to have lunch at the diner, take women out to dinner, go to movies, go to the mall, etc. I once heard Seinfeld described as “pornography of time.” It’s a lot like what Paul is describing, except that no one pretends the characters on Seinfeld are anything but deeply unpleasant.

      • wengler says:

        Roseanne was basically the only one that did it successfully.

        And even then, her family eventually won the lottery.

      • Thlayli says:

        Dunno about percentages, but every single episode featured at least two scenes of Jerry “at work”.

      • Joshua says:

        Everybody Loves Raymond is another good example here – I guess Raymond is a sportswriter, but I’ve never seen that guy put pen to paper once (in fairness, I haven’t seen many – I hate that show).

        But there are some. To name two in syndication – King of Queens and Home Improvement both revolve around the characters’ working lives. And then there are shows like The Office and 30 Rock which are set in the characters’ places of employment.

        So, yes and no I guess.

  9. Dan Miller says:

    I think you have to consider the audience of these shows as well. Dedication to career looks a lot different for janitors than law professors (echoing the thoughts here of Ezra Klein on raising the retirement age). These shows are at least partly aspirational, and if you have a crappy job, doing nothing is part of your aspirations.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head here. Having achieved the age of 53, with a college degree and tons of experience in the business world, and finding myself in a job which consists of little more than making travel reservations for my boss, and filing reams of documents that no one will ever gaze at again,
      I often fantasize about winning the lottery and doing nothing more strenuous than lighting up a hash pipe for the rest of my days.

  10. Warren Terra says:

    Dickens’s happy endings are hardly unique to him. He was a product of his time, and his characters showed rather more striving and effort that did other 19th century popular English novelists. Trollope in particular wrote god knows how many books about achieving the perfect inheritance, as did Austen. The Brontes were more interested in people who worked for a living, but the goal was often still blissful wedded idleness.

    • Gus says:

      I think that was Orwell’s point. I absolutely love Dickens, so I wasn’t happy about his being criticized, but Orwell’s right. I just don’t hold that point against the brilliant work. He was a man of his time in a society in which class was everything. Few of his heroes are truly of the lower classes. They’re mostly people like Nicholas Nickleby’s father. They’re “gentlemen,” just not wealthy ones.

    • Hogan says:

      Orwell makes it pretty clear that it isn’t just Dickens, it’s a larger Victorian mindset. Orwell happens to find that disappointing in Dickens because he’s exceptional in so many other ways.

  11. encephalopath says:

    I was thinking about these shows this week and noticed that the people on them never seem to have any skills or interests that the acquired on their own.

    Other than putting on makeup and picking out clothes in the service of going somewhere to be seen and photographed, they never do anything even for fun that requires skill and effort to learn.

    They occasionally will step away from the clubs and fashion world, but the thing they go to do always invovles some expert instructor to walk them through the event that they are trying out for the first time.

    They have time, money, youth, and health. Why are they not snowboarding or doing track days with the local motorcycle club? Musical instruments? Something…

    • steelpenny says:

      picking out clothes

      Actually, they don’t even do that. They have stylists to tell them what to wear.

      Given the ubiquity of the frankenbite and, on bigger shows, the use of multiple takes, the ‘reality’ in reality t.v. is pretty meaningless.

  12. thebewilderness says:

    It is traditional for the entertainment industry to focus on high society and wealth during times of depression. I do not watch the teevee, but I am going to assume that the tradition holds true with the current offerings.

  13. BJN says:

    RE: idle men as opposed to women.

    It’s not reality, but this seemed to be main theme of the show Entourage, which was popular enough. It was similarly boring, but they made more of an effort to give the characters personalities and interests (yes, reality TV stars are characters, written as such). The only really interesting people on the show though were Jeremy Piven and his assistant though. The ones who work.

  14. partisan says:

    Actually the long quote from Orwell shows how he can be both convincing and seriously misleading at the same time. The first four novels do have the heroes winning bequets and solving all their problems. But DOMBEY AND SON, LITTLE DORRITT, and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are about people who lose fortunes, notwithstanding two of them dealing with people who’ve won them. Arthur Clennam is a businessman at the end of LITTLE DORRITT (and his partner is an inventor as it happens), Esther Summerson is married to a hard working doctor by the end of BLEAK HOUSE. Paul Dombey’s son-in-law works hard at the company he’s employed at. Personally, Orwell felt guilty about a number of things. He felt guilty for having had the prvileges of an upper middle class background. But he felt guilty about his relatively Bohemian life as a novelist and journalist, as opposed to the more sustained efforts from the military/imperial background that he came from. One way he dealt with this guilt was to assume that other novelists and socialists were lazier and more disreputable than he was.

    • Or Not Well says:

      Umm, Eric Blair, a possible rapist and certain compromiser, did NOT judge with his own guilt, others. Read his stuff. Instead, you can see a real evolution from early things like casual anti-semtisim, in rumours he quotes from Parisians in an early work, or assumptions that some prole-feed like serial comic/novelist of formuliac youth novels *must* be a designed committee of Winstons but, as it happens, is really a prolix single guy churning them out. The unfairness of his first assumptions are suddenly, startingly revisited (by Orwell his own ashamed self) with a harrowing examination of Eric: what was correct about his first stab at it and what was wrong?

      I regret the memorable Orwellian conclusion about Dickens’s points is here illustarted but not expressed is Orwell’s summation. Something like: Dickens showed repeatedly the rotteness of the world but had no programme, political ideology or plan except, maybe through the intervention of supernatural spirits or, possibly, his own works appealing to your better nature, could this be corrected. Orwell is very keen on other authors — not inflicting his self-loathing at all — and points out Dickens’s essential pragmatic innocence: this is wrong and wouldn’t it be nice if Scrooge changed for the better, somehow, or something?

      Also, he (and no other critic I know of) points out how much Dickens really rolled up the sleeves to write about food. Its almost penuriously medieval envy when a table is set! I know hungry monks went off about castles of lard and all, but from about 1000 AD onwards, until Dickens (I think the inventories of Dafoe also hint at this), most of English literature ignores this most basic of indulgences. Maybe you have to be desperately hungry (like Orwell trying to convice himself/me that garlic bread is more filling and hunger-forestalling than regular bread) to wallow, like Dickens in his paragrap after paragrph on hisset-pieces on some feast.

      Orwell said that Dickens knew the grievances: what was his solution?

  15. mark k says:

    Is there a more useless, idiotic word on earth than “Glamour”?

  16. Murc says:

    I’m not particularly proud of this, but I’m also not particularly ashamed that I consider having enough cash to do nothing much at all would be super nice. I’d travel, I’d consume massive quantities of art, I’d spend a lot of time gaming, but aside from a vague interest in writing there’s nothing I’m really passionate enough about to bust my ass doing it if I didn’t need to in order to eat.

    I work to support myself. I’ve yet discover something (productive) to do that I’d be willing to invest 40+ hours a week in, and if I won the lottery tomorrow (which I don’t play, because I’m not dumb) I would certainly live a life of complete leisure afterwards.

    • pacifist viking says:

      I do use my summer break (and much short winter break) for consuming a lot of art, playing what games I can, and traveling as money allows, and do so with relish. I think the point here isn’t that the leisure to do so isn’t desirable; these shows (from what I’ve come across of them) aren’t presented as being about people with the leisure and disposable income to pursue their passions. Rather, they are shows about people who have seemingly no passions (beyond themselves) to pursue at all, and whose leisure and income is used largely for consumption. It is hard to criticize the desire for leisure to pursue one’s passions; the critique is of the presentation of leisure as an end in itself to consume and be idle (I think).

  17. Mark Heath says:

    Elizabeth Gaskell portrays an another Victorian ethos.The manufacturers of “North and South” are proud and passionate.

  18. LosGatosCA says:

    Maybe it’s me, but fundamentally entertainment seems to be escapism. Or voyeurism. People watch sports to lose themselves in the event, people don’t pay to watch them practice, call their family from the road, etc. Same for teevee – people want the glitter. What was Ozzie Nelson’s occupation? People want escapism – cut straight to the chases, skip all the prep, the angst, the adversity in the setup. It’s not that complicated.

  19. John says:

    Looking at nineteenth century novels in general (and, as Warren points out above, Dickens is hardly the worst offender when it comes to novels about the idle rich), I do think that we can distinguish what we mean by that.

    The Kardashians don’t act like the heroes in nineteenth century novels – they act like the villains. They are like the Kuragins in War and Peace, or any number of rich wastrels in Trollope. They are rich, but they use their wealth for conspicuous personal consumption and rather proudly contribute nothing to society.

    The good wealthy characters in nineteenth century novels generally don’t have jobs, per se. But they are generally large landowners, and the ones we’re meant to admire are the ones who apply themselves to that conscientiously – who are good landlords, who make efforts to improve their lands, and so forth. Wealthy people who don’t have to work might still do other useful things for society, too. In Trollope, for example, we see lots of clergymen and politicians. Archdeacon Grantly is rich enough that he could be completely idle if he wanted to – instead he is actively committed to his work in the Church, even if his view of it is rather worldly. After his marriage to an incredibly wealthy heiress, Doctor Thorne, I believe, still continues his medical practice. Plantagenet Palliser will inherit a vast fortune, but is a workaholic completely devoted to his political work. Johnny Eames continues his career in the civil service even after inheriting a sizeable sum from Earl de Guest. Trollope does sympathize with the fact that his characters generally want a large income, but he doesn’t present idle consumption as the ideal – his heroes often have some sort of interesting career beyond simply living off their income. And if they do simply live off their income, they do so in a responsible and non-showy manner. Women in these situations are expected to run the household and be attentive hostesses. What is being idealized here is something very different from what the Kardashians represent.

    And, of course, more progressive nineteenth century writers are often very far from this – the Hardy character most like the Kardashians is probably the despicable Alec d’Urberville. In Eliot’s Middlemarch, Lydgate views himself as a failure for taking up a lucrative practice in London in order to pay for his wife’s expensive (Kardashian-like) consumption habits; Dorothea gives up her large inheritance from her husband to marry Will and take up his political causes.

    So, anyway, whatever the fascination with the Kardashians is, it seems quite different from the rentier dreams of the 19th century.

    • Anonymous says:

      It is clear that Trollope prefers the landed gentry to the aristocracy or those of the commercial class.
      Middlemarch seems to be all about “what am I going to do with my life” (and the gap between intentions and reality).

  20. calling all toasters says:

    I think it was Bill McKibben in The Age of Missing Information who pointed out that the only way to see people actually at work on TV (back then) was to watch sports or cooking shows.

    You know why? Work is boring. Even fictional shows titularly about work (say, E/R) are all about relationships. Does anyone remember what doohickey saved the patient’s life? No, but we remember the patient who yelled at the doctor.

    Complaining about this is like complaining about the lack of physics in football announcing.

  21. thebewilderness says:

    Scrooge apprenticed with a man in the warehouse business, so I think it reasonable to conclude that that was the business he was in.

  22. jeer9 says:

    For dreams of complete idleness, little compares with Oblomov. Much more entertaining, satirically self-aware, and poignant than the canned consumerism of the crass, creepy K girls.

  23. catclub says:

    Those who claim to have enough taste not to watch keeping up with the k’d’sns, watch Downton Abbey, which shows the total waste of air that the British upper class is. Same attitudes about work.

  24. wengler says:

    I’ve been in the neighborhoods of the rich on a typical workday. It is nothing but a stream of service vehicles cluttering the driveways and sides of the windy roads that the wealthy seem to prefer.

    The workers are directed by a foreman who receives his marching orders from the captain of the mansion, almost always the wife of the manor husband.

    Perhaps these weren’t the richest of the rich, and merely scraping by on a mere $750,000 a year(their husbands have to still work after all), but what I witnessed was indicative of the culture-a whole army of people in different colored uniforms serving their masters and lords.

    Rather than the Dickens comparison, I would say that the impulse in this country is to cash out at a young age. Become a Yahoo billionaire. Watch something you created become huge overnight and sell it off to retire. There is very little value of work in that, because there is very little indication that the money these people are receiving equals value.

    This dissonance of course can exist in a society in the short term, but in the long term it will lead to disastrous results. The psychological impact of getting your ass kicked by over-compensated plutocrats is not something that can endure for long, even in a highly coercive form.

    • Fraud Guy says:

      One of my wife’s friends lived in a tony neighborhood/enclave, which they were able to afford thanks to her husband’s string of service stations in and near downtown Chicago. The neighbors were such lights as 2 of Oprah’s attorneys, doctors, and the like.

      She was a near outcast because of their habit of doing their own yard work and landscaping; while the neighbors were discussing the color coordinator they had hired for planning their front yard, she was weeding and her husband was mowing the grass.

      They moved to a townhome complex after that.

  25. David M. Nieporent says:

    Still, one of the consequences of America’s increasingly unabashed embrace of plutocracy over the last generation is that we now have a genuinely enormous class of social parasites, living off inherited capital, or the stupendous income stream of the one member of an extended family who has a job.

    It seems sort of odd to denounce people living off their own money as “parasites”; somehow I can’t see Paul, as a committed member of the left, describing the actual welfare class that way (*). Granted, the people he’s talking about may not be “productive members of society,” as the saying goes, but they’re not living off other people (or, to the extent they’re living off “the stupendous income stream of the one member of an extended family who has a job,” that’s a voluntary arrangement.)

    (*) Oh, maybe he’d describe a defense contractor that way, but never a poor person.

    • Walt says:

      David has a good point. They stole that money fair and square.

    • Kal says:

      The moral world of the right: consume huge amounts of the products of others’ labor, but pay with money your daddy ‘earned’ by gambling on the stock market, and you’re certainly no parasite. Work however hard, and if you don’t make enough to get by without food stamps, then you’re a parasite.

      It would be funny if it wasn’t the operative logic of US politics.

  26. Jeffrey Beaumont says:

    As my wife just pointed out, there is another level to these shows. They do portray a weird modern version of the American Dream, i.e. wealthy idleness, but they also portray some seriously dysfunctional individuals. Apparently part of the fun is envying their wealth and leisure while simultaneously judging them for being reprobates.

    • dave says:

      The difference between that and the mass audience for crim. con. cases in the nineteenth-century English press is one you could only get a very slim MLA paper between.

  27. Manju says:

    As a kid i wanted to be a pro football player. But I was bothered by the fact that these guys didn’t work. They were just playing.

    Paul is making the same mistake. Kim & Co’s job is to play. It takes a lot of effort (everyone on this blog sould know how difficult it is to stay in shape) and they get paid for it.

    Indeed, its unclear how much of their income is inherited. The dad was just a lawyer. For all we know the daughter makes more.

    Also, Paris Hilton lost her inheritance. So the lifestyle we see her living is now largely a product of her job: partying.

    • Paul Campos says:

      From the OP:

      (For all I know turning your life into a reality TV show may be very hard work. The point here is not how much work the various Kardashians may do, but that their programs work very hard to represent them as people who do nothing).

    • Julian says:

      The same thing happened to me with olympic gymnastics. I was like, that looks too much like fun, thank you.

      Otherwise I’d probably be training right now.

    • Sean Peters says:

      But I was bothered by the fact that these guys didn’t work. They were just playing.

      I think this is a fairly serious misconception of the level of effort (and risk, at least in the NFL and NHL) required. These guys are no kidding working for it.

  28. Mark says:

    So if someone dropped $100 million in your lap tomorrow, you’d what? Live exactly the way you do now? Go work in a coal mine? If you’d keep doing anything that you wouldn’t do for free, I’m pretty sure you’re in the minority. I can tell you that if I had that kind of wealth I wouldn’t work for a paycheck another day in my life. I wouldn’t even start a perfume brand or star in a reality show.

    One of the goals of progressive politics should be to increase leisure time. Why criticize the Kardashians for taking advantage of the opportunity to do nothing?

    • Scott de B. says:

      If you’d keep doing anything that you wouldn’t do for free, I’m pretty sure you’re in the minority.

      But there are lots of kinds of work that we would do for free, but don’t because we need to eat. For example, restoring antique automobiles. Paul’s point is that the Kardashians don’t even engage in those kinds of wealthy hobbies.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I think Orwell is right about Dickens’ audience, but not Dickens. Most of his life, Dickens wrote to make money. He wrote for his audience. When he wrote what he wanted, he wrote “Great Expectations”, without the tacked on happy ending.
    It was a ringing refutation of all of the happy endings he ever wrote. The person with the rewarding life was Joe Gargery. Pip, who was the character on the traditional Dickens’ protagonist path, winds up alone, realizing everything he ever worked toward was pointless.

    The reaction to the ending is telling. His readers were furious. They would not tolerate this turn of events. They had to have Pip get Estella and live happily ever after. Dickens’ rebellion against his audience failed. If he were writing now, he would be forced to add a gratuitous sex scene and a car chase.

  30. Maybe the point you’re trying to make is there is a fascination with the idle rich… who will always be with us. But, using a couple U.S. television programs may be getting you off track.

    Living in Mexico, I’ve never seen the programs you mention, but I do see a lot of telenovelas. As an art form, the telenovela was based on 19th century novels (specifically Balzac and Dickens) and, like the 19th century novels, certainly focuses on marrying for money, or at least acquiring the trappings of the “good life”. But, it’s hard work to get there, and even the villains have to work pretty hard at doing evil… and I should add it has nothing to do with Protestantism, let alone the Protestant work ethic.

  31. Anderson says:

    I’ll watch the Kardashian sisters when they move from quasi-pornographic to pornographic.

    • Jaime says:

      Dude – I hope you’re being sarcastic cuz as my comment way upthread pointed out, Kim K’s celebutante notoriety derived utterly and completely from a Paris Hilton-esque sex tape that was AFAIK deliberately leaked to create that very same clebutante notoriety. Her siblings and family are merely trailing in the wake of that.

  32. jim says:

    But people in nineteenth century England were forced to work: hard, backbreaking, never-ending work. Of course the dream was not to have to. There’s the apocryphal gravestone:

    Don’t cry for me, friends; don’t cry for me never.
    I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

    A relief profoundly to be wished.

  33. THRNKS says:

    “…it would be difficult to produce hit reality TV shows starring men who do nothing but consume leisure and buy expensive things no one actually needs.”

    You mean besides Top Gear?

  34. jake the snake says:

    Didn’t Thorstein Verblen cover this material pretty completely. Except for the voyeuristic aspect which has always existed, just not as obviously as it is through unReality TV.

  35. W. Kiernan says:

    I think the customers who soak this stuff up have as their fondest dream – unrealizable in their unrelenting actual lives – a vision of not only a drunk hour of erzatz relief but an entire weekend of genuine, worry-free idleness, no, a whole week, two weeks. No, however long it would take for the pressure pressure pressure pressure to back off, all the time they’d need to stop worrying, like she’s got. They’ll think about what to do with their lives much later, after they’ve caught up on their rest.

  36. […] oddity of religious figures carrying out state marriages. •Some terrorists are right-wingers. •Thoughts on the Kardassians. The reality-show stars, not the aliens from Star Trek. •Why Social Security […]

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