Friday, 22 March 2013

Part XXXII - The Leisure Class and Conservatism

This is part of a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, by American economist Thorstein Veblen.  He titled Chapter Eight Industrial Exemption and Conservatism.

Social adaptation, selective adaptation, is not just something that occurs among individuals but also applies to institutions, a ‘…natural selection of the fittest habits of thought…’.  Institutions are products of the past and therefore never quite in tune with current thinking.  While they are shaped by prevailing attitudes, institutions also prevail upon people to change and so are in themselves shapers of society. 

Can you remember when you first learned something that changed your outlook?  I can remember when I was young thinking that an institution was a large building.  When I learned some of the other definitions I felt I’d acquired a new awareness.  Perhaps I was always meant to be interested in sociology, in human populations.

- A custom, practice, relationship, or behavioral pattern of importance in the life of a community or society, ie the institutions of marriage and family.
-(informal) One long associated with a specified place, position, or function.
- An established organization or foundation, especially one dedicated to education, public service, or culture.

The evolution of society comes about through pressure upon individuals to change their ways.  These changes are made reluctantly and tardily, as a response to a stimulus.  The pressure for change is often economic, eg the need to get work, to keep a position, etc.  While in earlier societies there may have been other drivers, Veblen views the pressures for change in a modern society to be economic forces.

The capacity for change in social structures relates to the capacity for pressures to impact upon various members of the society.  The leisure class is sheltered from this economic pressure and so does not feel the need for change as much as other classes might. The fact that they are ‘exempt from industry’, not having to work for a living, places them in this privileged position of not having to suffer the pains of change.  Veblen makes a stark statement:
 “The leisure class is the conservative class.”

I made it through several decades of my life not knowing what was meant by the political term ‘conservative’.  I didn't really want to know anything about all that, it was far too serious!  Growing up in Oklahoma, I only ever heard the term liberal with the prefix ‘bleeding-heart’ (my Dad's closest  friend was one of those, but they were still best buddies). Asking me then what ‘conservative’ meant was like asking a fish to describe water.  It was only after moving to a possibly even more conservative area, Utah, that I began to recognise the political concept at all.  So, I will stop pause here and give a dictionary definition:

- Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
- Traditional or restrained in style.

As my friend Vivien might say, there is Conservative with a capital C and conservative with a little c, except I think she talks about Politics and politics.  I’ve forgotten and I’ll have to ask her about that again sometime.  I'm still no expert on this, but I am assuming that Veblen's leisure class is both conservative by nature and Conservative in vote.  

In any case, because the leisure class is not required to change their habits and views to suit the demands of an altered world, they are not fully part of the community in the same way as are the people who need to work to earn money.

Veblen goes on to say that not only is the leisure class the conservative class, in that
“The office of the leisure class in social evolution is to retard the [social] movement and to conserve what is obsolescent.”
I don't know how well this statement might apply to the modern day wealthy class, though I suspect it probably does.  One could say that the monarchy here is obsolescent.  Regardless of how much one might admire the Queen, she doesn't rule, she reigns.

That institution started down the slippery slope of redundancy practically with the signing of the Magna Carta and certainly with the English Civil War (beheading of Charles I) and the Glorious Revolution (deposition of James II).  The universal right  to vote has gradually chipped away at the perquisites of land owners.  (There isn't a lot of land here in Britain, so to own sizable bits is a definite hallmark of wealth) .  More recently there has been the reform of the House of Lords; opposed, of course, by the Conservative Party.

Can you think of ways Veblen's statement applies to the leisure class of other countries?


Beryl said...

Moving to Oklahoma from Seattle was pretty strange for us, too. So I read your comment about "asking a fish to describe water" to my husband. How funny! (But true, of course.) We are still laughing!

Susan Partlan said...

"I can remember when I was young thinking that an institution was a large building." I did too!

This description of conservatism -- yours and Veblen's -- sounds right to me, expect that I don't think everyone in this category is able to avoid working for money. Not in this day and age.

Shelley said...

Beryl - I gather Seattle would be quite a contrast! I don't think it's just about politics, though. People who don't ever travel outside their own culture seem to have that fish-in-water thinking too. If you've never met anything different, you don't know there is anything different.

Susan - I suspect there are more people who live on investment income than we know. They don't all announce it loudly. I don't know much about modern class systems, but I suspect that if a person actually belongs in Veblen's Leisure Class these days, they work out of choice, not from need. The main thing I think that has changed is society's attitude to work...and that attitude isn't changed quite as much here in Britain as it is in the US.