Friday, 12 April 2013

Part XXXV - Business and the Leisure Class

This is a series discussing Theory of the Leisure Class, a book published in 1899 by American economist Thorstein Veblen. He titled his Chapter 8 Industrial Exemption and Conservatism.

This post will briefly cover the last idea Veblen outlined in Chapter Eight.  Aside from his referring to the leisure class as barbaric and predatory, this is the place in the book when I began to suspect that Veblen didn't actually like or admire the upper class. Of course even by 1899 the industrial revolution had made many of the middle class quite wealthy and perhaps it was this group that Veblen held in greater esteem, people who worked to achieve their place in society.  

Still talking about conservatism, Veblen acknowledges that all change is not for good and so some reserve on the matter might thwart a few disasters.  However, social change does occur in spite of conservatism.  He goes on to characterise economic institutions into two camps.  One camp is to do with acquisition or what he labels as ‘pecuniary’ and serving ‘invidious’ interests.  He also calls these ‘business interests’.  The other camp is to do with production or industrial purposes and they are considered ‘non-invidious’.  He says this latter type of institution rarely concerns the ruling class and so doesn't normally become involved in legislation, which of course is under the control of the leisure class.

 “The relation of the leisure (that is, propertied non-industrial) class to the economic process is a pecuniary relation — a relation of acquisition, not of production; of exploitation, not of serviceability.  Their office is of a parasitic character, and their interest is to divert what substance they may to their own use, and to retain whatever is under their hand. The conventions of the business world have grown up under the selective surveillance of this principle of predation or parasitism. They are conventions of ownership; derivatives, more or less remote, of the ancient predatory culture. 

The legislation to which Veblen refers has to do with 'changes affecting bankruptcy and receiverships, limited liability, banking and currency, coalitions of laborers or employers, trusts and pools.' 

These are matters that only concern people with property, those ranked upon the leisure class.  However Veblen claims that in controlling and manipulating this sort of business, the ones in the 'pecuniary' camp, there is indirect impact upon the industrial sector and the rest of the community.   This actually serves a purpose in the community in  facilitating 'the greater facility of peaceable and orderly exploitation' through the more facile conduct of pecuniary business.  

The more that any 'disturbances and complications calling for an exercise of astute discrimination in everyday affairs acts to make the pecuniary class itself superfluous. As fast as pecuniary transactions are reduced to routine, the captain of industry can be dispensed with.'

I confess that I don't fully understand this last paragraph.  It seems to parallel the idea of mechanisation being a replacement for workers, but at a different level altogether.  Veblen seems to be making a dire prediction about the future.  What do you make of it?


Susan Partlan said...

To be honest, I have no idea what he is talking about. Re-reading it three times hasn't helped either!

Shelley said...

Susan - I suspect it is my wooley writing that needs sorted, or perhaps he is just talking nonsense...