Friday, 26 April 2013

Part XXXVII – The Diligence Dichotomy

This is a series about the book, Theory of the Leisure Class, by American economist Thorstein Veblen, published in 1899.  Chapter Nine is titled The Conservation of Archaic Traits.

It appears that Veblen, as an economist, was also interested in the ideas of his day provided by anthropology and sociology.  He seems more concerned with individual personality traits relating to how predatory and war-like individuals were.  And though what he called the barbarian culture has survived up until even today, I would argue, there are sufficient peaceable types around that even the fierce competition for resources has not extinguished them.  That said, what would be the point of being the upper class if there were no lower classes?  So even the barbarian system has to support the lower classes to some extent.  (My logic, not Veblen’s theory).  Veblen feels that the barbarian nature has more variation than in the past because modern life doesn’t support the predatory temperament in its fullest.  Modern industry, for example, requires more peaceable types. 

I was able to satisfy my curiosity about why Veblen said that the institution of the leisure class arrested the spiritual development of a community.  He uses the term ‘spiritual’ in the following way, in discussing the peaceable, savage culture:
“…the dominant spiritual feature of this presumptive initial phase of culture seems to have been an unreflecting, unformulated sense of group solidarity, largely expressing itself in a complacent, but by no means strenuous, sympathy with all facility of human life, and an uneasy revulsion against apprehended inhibition or futility of life.”

“Among these archaic traits that are to be regarded as survivals from the peaceable cultural phase, are that instinct of race solidarity which we call conscience, including the sense of truthfulness and equity, and the instinct of workmanship, in its naive, non-invidious expression.”

In this chapter Veblen seems concerned with explaining how it is that the less predatory type people have survived throughout the stages of barbaric culture.  He is also beginning to talk about more modern ways of life, modern in his time (1857-1929) or the time of his book (1899).  Much as Veblen doesn’t particularly seem to admire the leisure class, the predatory types, he doesn’t exactly exalt the savage temperament either: 
“At his best he is “a clever, good-for-nothing fellow.” The shortcomings of this presumptively primitive type of character are weakness, inefficiency, lack of initiative and ingenuity, and a yielding and indolent amiability, together with a lively but inconsequential animistic sense. Along with these traits go certain others which have some value for the collective life process, in the sense that they further the facility of life in the group. These traits are truthfulness, peaceableness, good-will, and a non-emulative, non-invidious interest in men and things. 

The traits which characterize the predatory and subsequent stages of culture, and which indicate the types of man best fitted to survive under the regime of status, are (in their primary expression) ferocity, self-seeking, clannishness, and disingenuousness — a free resort to force and fraud. 

In ‘modern’ times, economic life has evolved in the industrial communities such that the interests of the community no longer coincides with those of the individual.  That is, communities no longer have to compete for the means or right to live, except as the ruling classes are inclined to keep up the tradition of war and pillage.  Communities aren’t hostile to one another, except for ‘circumstances of tradition and temperament’; this made me think of the rather wry habitual disparagement of all things French, by Brits.  The world has moved on and the success of one community is not dependent upon getting the better of another.  The same is not true for individuals and their relationships with others. 
“The collective interests of any modern community center in industrial efficiency.”

Individuals who are efficient in the so-called vulgar, productive employments are the most useful. 

“This collective interest is best served by honesty, diligence, peacefulness, good-will, an absence of self-seeking, and an habitual recognition and apprehension of causal sequence, without admixture of animistic belief and without a sense of dependence on any preternatural intervention in the course of events. Not much is to be said for the beauty, moral excellence, or general worthiness and reputability of such a prosy human nature as these traits imply; and there is little ground of enthusiasm for the manner of collective life that would result from the prevalence of these traits in unmitigated dominance."

Veblen doesn’t really like anyone, does he?  We're all either dishonest or stupid.  This reminds me of a blog I used to read but have lost track of.  The woman wrote brilliantly about the many dichotomies of preference, ie, are you a dog person or a cat person; long hair or short?; salty or sweet tooth? 

Are you savage or barbarian?


Beryl said...

So if I'm peaceful, law abiding, and educated, what does that make me? Neither seem to fit. But I am a cat person, who recently became enamoured with small dogs now that they can be trained to use puppy pads just like the cats use litter boxes.

Shelley said...

I suspect you are a savage, Beryl, like I am. Barbarians are greedy, ambitious and probably not very nice. I have always been a dog person, but I did love my mother's cat that I inherited when she died. He was the most affectionate thing I've ever seen. I don't know about puppy pads (sounds like a diaper) but dogs have always been trainable to go outside or to use a box. Small dogs would be a lot easier, but I do think that pure breed dogs are more and more problematic. My last dog was a Golden Retriever and a sweeter animal you'll never find, but smart, he was not. By the time his brain could cope with training he was big enough to be hard to manhandle. I didn't get much past good manners, 'come', 'sit' and 'stay'. He was great company, though, as was Mom's cat.