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Classe disagiata

“I have never lacked anything”: this is the typical phrase of many of my generation, and even slightly later, let’s say those born until the end of the 1980s. We have lacked nothing, referring of course to material goods, and with this phrase we express our belonging to a wealthy class. It’s a shame that in the space of a generation, this wealthy class has been overturned into its opposite: this is what the book Teoria della classe disagiata by Raffaele Alberto Ventura, published online in 2015 and by Minimum Fax in 2017, is all about.

How did such a reversal come about? According to the author, in fact, the line between ease and discomfort is very thin and it is easy to cross over to the other side. When we grew up, the global situation changed, the economic crisis broke out, and we began to give up what we took for granted: economic tranquillity, job security, the possibility of satisfying our desire for the superfluous.

Today we no longer feel able to satisfy our needs, and this generates frustration, anger, anguish, fear.

But the concept of need is not absolute, it is relative: it depends on how we are used to it.

To explain this, Ventura introduces the story of A Rebours, a pre-Proustian novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884. It tells of the rich duke Jean des Esseintes, who one day picked up a poor little boy named Auguste Langlois on the street: he took him with him to the brothel, offering him the opportunity to have a good time as never before; and every 15 days he repeated the operation. After three months, the boy had become so accustomed to this pleasurable experience that he could no longer do without it. The duke’s plan was not generous, but diabolical: once deprived of this pleasure, the boy would be willing to do anything, even steal and kill, to find it again: he would become a monster.

In short, Ventura concludes, ‘To make a man unhappy, it is enough to accustom him to a lifestyle he cannot afford: unhappiness will increase his resentment towards society, which is incapable of guaranteeing needs that have become absolutely necessary. This unhappiness will increase their resentment towards society, which is incapable of guaranteeing needs that have become absolutely necessary.

In order to understand economic phenomena, it is therefore necessary to use a little more psychology and a little less economics: people’s behaviour in satisfying their needs is not always rational, Ventura speaks of a “hierarchy of needs” that is sometimes overturned, chasing the superfluous to renounce the indispensable. And this is the same thing that a Sicilian friend of mine pointed out to me many years ago about his fellow Sicilians, who were willing to starve to death in order to get alloy wheels for their cars.

This self-defeating relationship with status symbols was explained as early as 1899 by Thorstein Veblen, author of the Theory of the Affluent Class from which Ventura’s book is explicitly inspired. In it he defined the Veblen effect, concerning those goods whose demand does not decrease with increasing price – as would be logical – but on the contrary, increases. And many people are happy to pay a higher price only because this guarantees them entry into a privileged group, that of those who can afford it. In short, paradoxically, one ‘buys the price’ instead of buying an object. By flaunting it, one does not flaunt the object, but rather its symbolic exchange value.

According to Ventura, the Veblen effect also manifests itself among intellectuals, as their activities are largely nothing more than status symbols: they do not produce wealth, indeed they disperse it, they only serve to testify that those who practice these activities can afford it. Apparently, taking biodance courses, meditation retreats, philosophy degrees, creative writing and Latin translations are very different activities from buying a gold watch or a Ferrari gadget; in essence, however, the author seems to say, they are just two different types of positional consumption. That is, of waste.

There is an endless series of quotations that could be explored further. Ventura cites the case of the Rich Kids Of Instagram, Silvio Lorusso’s entreprecariat, Tommaso Labranca’s Neoproletariat and Abraham Maslow’s self-realisation, Luciano Bianciardi’s delusions of the 1950s about “cultural work”, Baudrillard’s essay The Ideological Genesis of Needs (1969), and Pierre Bordieu’s writings on culture as “distinction” and “symbolic capital”. And then there is Francesco Pacifico, who in his novel Class seems to recount exactly what the underprivileged class is and how it lives.

A long and articulate interview with the author appeared in September 2017 on the blog Bastonate.

Other interesting articles have been written for the Sole 24 Ore magazine, on minimaetmoralia.it, on his personal blog and on tlog, but these have not been updated for some time. Ventura is also editor of the book series Datacrazia and Panarchia.

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