Friday, 28 September 2012

Part VII - Leisure vs Labor

This is part of a series about The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is Conspicuous Leisure.

I’ll recap Veblen’s view that the effort to amass wealth is not about subsistence or physical comfort.  It’s to emulate, to have as much or more that one’s fellows, or to create an invidious distinction, to make others envious.   He describes the problem of the ever increasing level of wealth required for satisfaction. 

For those who must labor to accumulate, the struggle for ‘pecuniary reputability’ will result in an increase of diligence and parsimony.  These lower classes cannot avoid labor and so, within their class, it’s not so derogatory to them.  In fact, they take emulative pride in having a ‘reputation for efficiency’, this being their only available line of emulation.

For the superior class, there is also the incentive for diligence and thrift, but the demands of pecuniary emulation override it.  The most imperative demand of emulation is the requirement to abstain from productive work.  In the predatory culture labor is associated with weakness and subjection to a master,  so it is seen as a mark of inferiority, debasement and therefore unworthy of ‘men in their best estate’.    

So, in addition to possessing wealth or power – and, in order to gain and hold the esteem of men - one must demonstrate that they are above work.  The evidence of wealth is needed not just to impress others with one's importance, but is necessary to 'preserve one’s self-complacency.’  The average man is 'comforted and upheld in his self-respect by decent surroundings and by exemption from menial offices'.  Departure from this is felt to be a ‘slight on his human dignity;’  Refined persons feel there is a 'spiritual contamination inseparable from certain offices that are conventionally required of servants'. Vulgar surroundings, mean (that is to say, inexpensive) habitations, and vulgarly productive occupations are condemned as incompatible with life on a satisfactory spiritual plane with 'high thinking'.

“Conspicuous abstention from labor therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since application to productive labor is a mark of poverty and subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community.”
Labor is considered dishonourable and indecorous; Veblen even uses the term ‘indecent’. 

The ‘consummate form’ of the leisure class is found in the quasi-peaceable stage, initially characterised by chattel slavery, herds of cattle and a servile class of herdsmen and shepherds.  The community is no longer dependent upon the chase or any other activity that can be classed as exploit. 

“From this point on, the characteristic feature of leisure class life is a conspicuous exemption from all useful employment.” 

The appropriate occupations of the class in this mature phase are much the same as in its earlier days:  government, war, sports, and devout observances.

In the next post on this topic, I will share more of Veblen’s ideas about suitable occupations.


Expat mum said...

Interesting post. That's why the aristocracy around the turn of the 20th century and into the 1920s had "Thursday to Mondays' or long weekend house parties - to illuminate the fact that none of them had a job to go to.
It's interesting in these days that people who make a lot of money (like Simon Cowell) almost pride themselves on being workaholics. Wonder that the psychology behind that is?

Beryl said...

Where did Veblen think he fit in with his theories? He could have been a writer or an educator, but I don't see how he would fit into those catagories of "government, war, sports, and devout observances", not that he needed to.

Shelley said...

Expat - Lovely to hear from you! Yes, the long weekend gatherings would be a good example of conspicuous leisure. Veblen, having written around the turn of the last century, is of course writing about a different time to now and referring to historical trends. Post modern thinking has changed a great deal, but your example of workaholics would fit in with Veblen's views on the lower classes' need for efficacy and workmanship. Also, I'm guessing Simon Cowell is a 'self-made man', that he didn't inherit his wealth. Technically that means he's not part of the leisure classes, no matter how wealthy, at least not until he partakes of some more leisure. My impression is that he does pretty well with the predatory mind-set, however.

Beryl - Veblen definitely did not see himself as part of the leisure class. He was a middle class educator and was quite sneering about certain other segments or habits of society. You might find reading his Wikipedia entry interesting.

Terri said...

This very issue has been a bone of contention in my marriage. My husband made his living as a master carpenter; his work was physically tiring and at the end of a day there was a "product" of some sort that he could point to as a result of his labors.

Although my work takes a similar number of hours, the work involves a lot of sitting on my rear end and giving thorough feedback to student writing. In his eyes, that doesn't quite constitute "work", though we've been married long enough for him to understand that it can be mentally taxing and tiring.

Shelley said...

My second husband was a concrete finisher, a very hard physical job with a finished surface to show for it. He thought my sitting in an office talking on the phone wasn't really work and even my unpredictable demands for travel or media interviews, which I found quite stressful, didn't particularly impress him. It wasn't until he attempted to return to college and get an academic qualification that he began to appreciate mental work. He was astounded to find himself exhausted after a day of study! It helped, but never really resolved that conflict.

Serene McEntyre said...

IMO, work is work. I've done physically demanding jobs such as soldiering and nursing home care AND I've done the office job that requires more cerebral demands, though technically, I'm sitting around typing on a computer. At the end of the day, I FEEL like I've worked. The more physically demanding jobs were less mentally stressful. When I left work, I was physically exhausted, but didn't feel mentally stressed and had no problem leaving work at work. The "desk" jobs were WAY more mentally stressful and I often felt like I never really stopped working, even when I left the office. Work is work.... Btw, I found you through Terri and I'm thrilled!!

Shelley said...

Serene - I'm thrilled you're thrilled! I agree totally, many forms of physical labour are less stressful. Perhaps because they come with a built-in stress reliever: exercise?

Susan Partlan said...

So interesting that your former husband and Terri's husband don't think of jobs not involving manual labor as "work" because sometimes, when I need a rest from school work, I like to do some manual work!