Thursday, February 23, 2017

Theory of the Leisure Class

To tell truth I always had trouble connecting with this book, its kind of abstract and the way he talks about 'primitive' and 'barbarian' people seemed a bit presumptuous or al least out of sync with the way most of the other academics I was reading talk about such things- of course certain tag lines like 'conspicuous consumption' fit right in with the discourse of the late sixties- but it still remained difficult to follow his argument all the way through because he reels it out in a very extensive fashion rather than in a 'bullet point' way.
Well, lately, I hauled the thing from the dusty shelf were it has rested waiting for a more propitious time these past 30 years and started giving it another go. When he talks about the 'predatory classes' that struck a stronger note with me then ever before but I was still scratching my head- what precise point of view was he assuming, what rock in the stream was he standing on as he cast his line? Then it dawned on me.
He's like the ambassador from an alien world who has spent much time observing us humans over the whole period of historic time and is giving a report to a study group of an intergalactic council which includes many individuals who have either accompanied him on his investigation or conducted their own independently. He mounts almost no political engagements with earthly beings themselves, his 'moral tone' is primarily of the ironic type. He's not even pushing 'a policy' for the council, like say, ' 'The situation is so hopeless down there, we should just nuke em and be done with it, or , yes they are obviously in the thrall of the more primitive sorts of instincts but things might soon evolve in a more favorable direction. As complicated and dire as the situation seems, he simply endeavors to 'tell it like it is' with the least flourish as possible, and without pudding-headed self-congratulations, or projections of his own superiority as you might find in a character like Dr. Spock.

In Veblen's view the most significant mediator between  somewhat distinct schemes of social salvation (both founded upon a predatory animus never-the-less) is what he calls 'the instinct of workmanship',a natural aversion to waste one's time and industrial inefficiency. As an attribute to be emulated, however, the instinct of workmanship has its greatest force only in small, immobile populations where material honorifics (wealth) are relatively equal.Otherwise standards of decency and the means to self-complatency are founded on invidious comparisons of pecuniary status, that is what we use to call 'keeping up with the Jones' or rather surpassing the Jones' even where the obstacles, resistances and dire consequences of doing so are very high.

"As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labor, the energies of the industrial members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous consumption, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace. The strain is not lightened as industrial efficient increases and makes a lighter strain possible, but the increment of output is turned to use to meet this want, which is indefinitely expandable, after the manner commonly imputed in economic theory to higher or spiritual wants. It is owing chiefly to the presences of this element in the standard of living that J.S. Mill was able to say that "hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being."

It's clear to me that in the chapter titled "The Conservation of Archaic Traits' Veblen makes a parody out of the racial theories so popular in his time. The three main ethnic types he identifies the 'dolichcephalc-blond', the brachycephalic-brunette' and 'The Mediterranean' all possess similar traits which are portioned out to different degrees in adaptation to the development of the institutions of the society in which they live. Genetic determinations in his book largely concern physical stature- different 'bone intensities' between the sexes which, however, do not irrevocably determine the position or status of women in society which is actually the result of predation and the mechanism of pecuniary interest that characterize the leisure class. Some individuals might possesses a physical superiority which makes them better fitted for 'barbarian' practice but also for the role of industrial worker though the traits of such groups are quite different.

In his discussion of various ethnic groups an astute reader can easily see to whom he is referring- the peaceful Menomites and industrious German farmers. the Scot-Irish frontier settlers, the Glascow businessmen, the common Irish, the Jews and the English whom he always identifies as the chief predatory type, the 'blond' denoting the Viking-like proclivities of that class of people. The distinctions apparent in the different groupings of the Native inhabitants of the 'Occidental' hemisphere are also analogized. The parody and abstract typology are clearly intended to avoid any direct confrontation with the 'extreme chauvinistic nationalism' of his time which continue to exist in our own and was a relatively successful tactic; though he was fired from many positions at universities, he alway managed to get another somewhere.

Devout Observances of the Leisure Class
It is easily seen that the devout observances characteristic of the leisure classes in Veblen's time have been to some lesser and greater degrees transferred to the News and Political Parties, despite the forward development of scientific skepticism- greater attention away from animistic and anthropomorphic belief and habits of mind towards material cause and effect characteristic of advance industrial society-as exampled in the comments on PBS Newshour Facebook page, a large proportion of which are genuflectuary in character: expressions of devout confidence in what they have been told with very little critical content, and clearly reflective  of the habitual sense of personal status- a relation of mastery and subserviance which fits into 'the industrial scheme of predatory and quasi-peaceful culture'

The same holds true for the fans of other News media- The NYTimes, Fox, CNN-the differences in style being analogous to the variety churches and sects of Veblen's time.The same holds true for the Political Parties, the principle figures in them as well as government officials in general, who often attain a status of 'near divinity', whose practices are riddled with devout , repetitive ceremonies and the usual (though often formal only) expectation of personal austerity and moral probity which in the past was as accorded members of the priesthood or clergy whose sermons and discourses are of an un-intellectual  or anti-intellectual character.

"The guiding habits of thought of a devout person move on the plane of the archaic scheme of life which has outlived much of its usefulness for the economic exstgencies of the collective life today. In so far as the economic organization fits the extingencies of the collective life today, it has outlived the regime of status and has no use and no place for a relation of personal subserviency. So far as concerns the economic efficiency of the community, the sentiment of personal fealty, the general (predatory) habit of mind of which that sentiment is an expression, are survivals which cumber the ground and hinder inadequate adjustment to the existing situation."

"The habit of mind which best lends itself to the purposes of a peaceable, industrial community, is that matter-of-fact temper which recognizes the value of material facts simply as opaque items in a mechanical sequence. It is a frame of mind which does not instinctvely impute an animistic propensity to things ( it is not interested in 'games of chance'), nor resort to preternatural intervention as an explanation of perplexing phenomena ( God's special love for America) nor depend on an unseen hand to shape the course of events to human use ( e.g. being convinced that the Presidents 'messaging' has a decisive impact on the problems of inequality and bigotry). To meet the requirements of the highest economic efficiency under modern conditions (global warming etc), the world process must habitually be apprehended in terms quantitative, dispassionate force and sequence."

 Veblen identifies certain traits that are initially present yet alien to the devout life in its animistic and anthropomorphic stages in the barbarian and quasi-peaceful , largely predatory economy that later develop into non- invidious interests compatible with an advanced modern economy.

Survivals  of Non-Invidious Interests in the Devout Observances of the Leisure Class

Among the alien motives which effect the devout scheme in its later stages are charity and socal good fellowship or conviviality; the various expressions of the sense of human solidarity and sympathy, together with non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment mostly derived from the ancient habit of purposeful activity so inimical to the invidious and predatory schemes of the leisure classes. These motives can sometimes be identified as a disapproval of the futility and waste of human life, activities that only serve individual gain at the cost of the collectivity or other social groups and marked by a tendency to depreciate the infliction of pain as well as discredit marauding enterprises. Veblen characterizes these benevolent motives or traits as proto-anthropoid, reversions to a cultural stage that may be possibly characterized as sub-human.

" So far as concerns the chance of survival of individuals endowed with an exceptionally large share of these primitive states, the sheltered position of this class favors its members directly by withdrawing them from the pecuniary struggle; but indirectly, through the leisure class canons of conspicuous waste of goods and effort, the institutions of a leisure class lessens the chance of survival of such individuals in the entire population.

The 'decent' requirements of waste absorb the surplus energy of the population in an invidious struggle that leaves no margin for the non-invidious expressions. The canons of what is regarded as a decent life in the leisure class are an elaboration of of the predatory principle of invidious comparison and they accordingly act consistently to inhibit all non-invidious effort and to inculcate the self-regarding attitude."

Reading Theory of the Leisure Class and interacting with my professorial friends on Facebook got me wondering if searching for historical analogues is most fruitful in the historiographical sense, whether in light of new perspectives and unearthed evidences the theories and explanations of past historians can now be said to 'hold water'- or how far they do or don't- whereas contemporary events are unique to such extent that they don't much resemble what happened 'eons ago' or whenever (say the 'lessons of Watergate' in regard to Mr. Trump) and tell very little about how we should proceed today with any real cogency, however entertaining they often are ( they certainly inspire people to read books they might not have otherwise). For example, some general ideas in circulation today may seem reproduce those that have circulated in the past- 'freedom' ,'brotherhood', 'charity', entepenuerialship' etc- even stated in sentences in exactly the same way- but have a very different meaning and significance in contemporary debate and inspire people to act in ways that would be inimical to the intentions to those who used and acted upon those words in the past. Self-regard inspires us to believe that by stint of great effort and loads of experience  certain principles of natural law do indeed inhere in the in conduct of human affairs on this planet and they provide reliable guides the the course of events in our day, if only the human mind were a natural thing!. However, being largely ignorant of the past or holding tenaciously to the fallacies about the past promoted by various 'experts', pundits and politicians is not wanted either so my wonderings do have the aspect of a leaky boat.

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