Friday, 31 August 2012

Part III - Barbarian Culture

This post is part of a series about Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.

In this, Veblen writes that it is in ‘the higher stages of the barbarian culture’ that one finds the best developed tradition of the leisure class, characterised by rigorously observed distinctions between and within the various classes. He gives examples, eg feudal Europe or Japan amongst others, though his Wikipedia entry says that some of these cultures were fictitious! Let's ignore that for now, because Veblen's theory is nonetheless interesting and, I think, quite applicable.

Veblen says the most striking economic issue in the barbarian class distinctions is about what constitutes 'proper' employment. For example, the upper classes are barred from ‘industrial occupations and are reserved for those few occupations 'to which a degree of honor attaches':  government, warfare, religious observances and sports, but primarily the first three.

“Manual labor, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class. This inferior class includes slaves and other dependents, and ordinarily also all the women. If there are several grades of aristocracy, the women of high rank are commonly exempt from industrial employment, or at least from the more vulgar kinds of manual labor.”

In talking about Nordic and North American hunting tribes, in which the leisure class wasn't yet entirely applicable, the distinction is made between occupations of men and those of women and 'this distinction is of an invidious character'.  In these tribes, the women are by prescriptive custom held to the employments out of which the industrial occupations later develop.  Men are exempt from these 'vulgar employments' and are reserved for war, hunting, sports and devout observances. Although the men's work may contribute as much to the food supply and thus be considered 'productive', the hunter does not see himself at all connected with women's uneventful drudgery.  Rather his work is admirable and full of adventurous exploit.  Thus, the first class distinction was to give women a lower status.

Veblen says for a leisure class to emerge there must be three things in place:  

a) the community must be of a predatory habit of life, eg war and/or the hunting of large game; the men in the undeveloped leisure class must be habituated to inflicting injury by force and strategy;

b) subsistence for the whole of the society must be sufficiently obtainable that a considerable portion of the community can be exempt from steady labor; and

c) there is a growing discrimination between what is considered worthy or unworthy employments.

Unworthy employment includes all those necessary everyday things involving no element of exploit.  When reading this the phrases ‘women’s work’ and 'blue collar vs white collar' jobs came to mind.  Value labels are attached not just to the work, but even to the tools of labour.  It is reserved for a higher class to even handle the accoutrements of war or worship, but the ‘brute materials’ he calls ‘inert’ are left for the women to make useful. 

“Such being the barbarian man's work, in its best development and widest divergence from women's work, any effort that does not involve an assertion of prowess comes be unworthy of the man. As the tradition gains consistency, the common sense of the community makes it into a canon of conduct; so that no employment and no acquisition is morally possible to the self-respecting man at this cultural stage, except as proceeds on the basis of prowess - force or fraud. When the predatory habit of life has been long habituation, it becomes the able-bodied man's accredited office in the social economy to kill, to destroy such competitors in the struggle for existence as attempt to resist or elude him...”

Again, Veblen emphasises that the distinction between exploit and drudgery is an invidous one. Employments without honourable  status, particularly any that imply subservience or submission are unworthy, debasing, ignoble. The concepts of dignity and worth are not just applied to employments, but also to people and to their conduct (Where would we be without books on etiquette? Was your Grandmother as keen as mine to be perceived as 'respectable'?) and as a consequence, we have the development of classes and class distinctions.  This has knock-on effects, in that where (emphasis is mine):
"An invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem.  Esteem is gainted and dispraise (criticism) is avoided by putting one's efficiency in evidence.  The result is...and emulative demonstration...Tangible evidences of prowess (trophies) find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature of the paraphernalia of life.  Booty, trophies of the chase or raid come to be prized as evidence of pre-eminent force.  Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggretion.  As accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional evidence of successful contest.    

Therefore, obtaining goods by methods other than seizure becomes less worthy. Performance of productive work or employment in personal service becomes odious. Labor becomes irksome because it is now undignified and dishonorable.

Veblen goes on something of a rant about 'honorable' : 
“...primarily honorable is the assertion of the strong hand....The predilection shown in heraldic devices for the more rapacious beasts and birds of prey goes to enforce the same view. Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honor, the taking of life — the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human — is honorable in the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer’s prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act. “

So, these three posts (Savage CultureVeblen's Definitions and Barbarian Culture) cover the concepts discussed in his introduction, ideas that underpin the other chapters which follow.   In the next chapter, he discusses Pecuniary Emulation.


Beryl said...

My love of the PG Wodehouse books relies on understanding this concept - why Bertie and his friends can't work. Very well explained - thank you!

Anonymous said...

I will be chewing on this post for a week. I found it interesting that the first distinction was between the labor of men and the labor of women. And that higher forms of labor involve exploit. This has been on my mind lately as I attempt to start this eBay business of mine. In my role as an educator, my rate of pay has always been determined by my education and my years of experience, then I walk into a classroom and SHARE what I know rather than HOARD it proprietarily. I have done this for so many years that when I make a sale that maximizes my initial investment many times over...I somehow feel like I'm stealing. (exploiting). I think I'll need to get over that feeling if I want to succeed!

Shelley said...

Beryl - It is so different today,isn't it, that it's hard to understand what all that work thing was about. Veblen's theories only worked in my brain when I thought about the leisure classes from Jane Austen and the like. But oddly enough, many of his ideas are very modern. It's why I wanted so much to share this book.

Terri - I can see where moving from the public (education) sector to the private (profit) sector requires a change in thinking. The thing is, if you don't rescue these valuable items it is likely they'll go to the dump. If eBay buyers wanted, they could go scrounge for treasure in similiar places, but they prefer to let you do it for them. My thinking is that you have put a lot of time in finding, identifying, cleaning, photographing, describing, listing packaging and posting the thing you've sold. Never mind the worth of the object, you deserve to get some money for all that work to rescue and re-home it! I would be surprised if you actually make minimum wage at your eBay business, so I hardly think you could class this as exploit. It's only worth doing if you enjoy doing it.

Susan Partlan said...

Hi Shelley, I'm very much enjoying this series. I was familiar with the ideas, but not all of the details. Thank you again for making this accessible!

Shelley said...

Susan - I'm so pleased you like this series. It's a bit undertaking but I was just so amazed by what I read I was motivated to go back through it a second time and to try to share it. Fingers crossed, I won't make too much of a hash of it.