Friday, 5 April 2013

Part XXXIV - The Lower Class and Conservatism

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

As we saw in earlier posts conservatism is, among other things, about avoiding change, not having to adjust to new ways.  The leisure class is able to be conservative in this regard because they don’t work for their living and are shielded from change by their economic power.  The middle class is more likely to jump on new ideas and to try to direct change to meet their own ends.

Veblen reiterates that adjusting to new habits and outlooks requires mental effort, 
"— a more or less protracted and laborious effort to find and to keep one’s bearings under the altered circumstances."

This takes energy and success in coping with change presumes that there is excess energy to expend, beyond what is needed for the struggle for subsistence.  He points out that doing physical labour and shortage of nourishing food are hardships that limit the energy that is needed to cope with change.  The poor
“are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after tomorrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands today.”

Veblen goes on to say that the very existence of a leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by keeping them in poverty.
“The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale.”

This enforcement of poverty by the leisure class is not just by wielding their economic power over the poor, but also by ‘fixing the canons of reputability’ and thus fostering the practise of conspicuous consumption as an element in the standard of decency among all classes.  The requirements of decency are considerable and imperative so that after physical needs are met, money is often diverted to satisfy this ‘conspicuous decency’ rather than ‘to added physical comfort and fullness of life.’ 

Veblen reckons that the institution of a leisure class hinders development in several ways:  
"(1) by the inertia proper to the class itself, 
(2) through its prescriptive example of conspicuous waste and of conservatism, and
(3) indirectly through that system of unequal distribution of wealth and sustenance on which the institution itself rests.
To this is to be added that the leisure class has also a material interest in leaving things as they are. Under the circumstances prevailing at any given time this class is in a privileged position, and any departure from the existing order may be expected to work to the detriment of the class rather than the reverse.”

As I have mentioned before, the whole concept of conservatism was a revelation to me later in life than I want to admit.  I can remember a particular conversation with my boss in Utah (also a Mormon bishop) in which he pointed out to me that poor people are also often quite conservative; at which point I threw up my hands and acknowledged ignorance on the topic.  More than a decade later, Veblen provided me with an explanation for this, which I found very satisfying even though I know the world has changed a great deal since 1899 when his book was published. 


Beryl said...

The notion that the lower class is so conservative, gives carte blanche to the other classes to ignore them, since they are never going to change. Makes them just part of the scenery, sort of. It's not very different today.

Shelley said...

Beryl - I hadn't thought of it that way at all. Lower class people are called 'late uptakers or innovators' here. Wealthy people try out new fads and accept new ideas quickly, but abandon them for the next new idea; poorer people are slower to try things, but cling to them for longer. I read this once about views on immunisation of children and why it was the middle class mothers all screaming for individual vaccines, not the poorer mothers.

Susan Partlan said...

Hmmm. I'm wondering if I've observed this conservatism on the part of the poor. There definitely was quite a bit of resistance on the part of my family and school/community, when I lived at home with my mother, to my desire to plant myself more securely in the middle class. When I moved to my father's home (after his 2nd marriage) and lived in an affluent 85% Jewish community I did not experience any further resistance to advancement.

Shelley said...

Susan - Your experience is interesting, particularly as most parents want to see their children exceed what they have managed (not a very likely scenario for this current generation, sadly). I hadn't thought about it from that perspective.

Gam Kau said...

It seems to be very much value based whether or not one leans conservative or liberal.

It puzzles me much of the lower class leans conservative, but your post goes a long way to explaining.

Shelley said...

Oh gosh! I'm going to fall down the hole for days I think! Fascinating stuff there!