Friday, 10 May 2013

Part XXXIX - War and the Leisure Class

This is part of a series about Theory of the Leisure Class, a book by American Economist Thorstein Veblen.  We are now in the tenth of fourteen chapters, which is titled Modern Survivals of Prowess.  

The leisure class lives alongside of, not as part of, the industrial community.  When Veblen says the relationship is pecuniary rather than industrial, he’s talking about the financing, or the ownership or maybe a position on the Board of Directors.  

"Admission to the [leisure] class is gained by exercise of the pecuniary aptitudes – aptitudes for acquisition rather than for serviceability."  

He suggests that the population of the leisure class changes through ‘selective sifting of the human material’ but that the overall scheme of their lifestyle continues to be a heritage from the past, embodying ‘habits and ideals of the earlier barbarian period’.  These ideals are also passed on to the lower orders to a greater or lesser extent. 

The most obvious aptitude from the barbarian age is that of fighting, of making war. 

“In cases where the predatory activity is a collective one, this propensity is frequently called the martial spirit, or, latterly, patriotism. It needs no insistence to find assent to the proposition that in the countries of civilized Europe the hereditary leisure class is endowed with this martial spirit in a higher degree than the middle classes.”

Veblen says that war is honourable and confers honour and the admiration of all men.  Enthusiasm for war and the predatory temperament are found largely among the leisure classes, but particularly among those of the hereditary leisure class. 

“Moreover, the ostensible serious occupation of the upper class is that of government, which, in point of origin and developmental content, is also a predatory occupation.”

The only class which can match the ‘habitual bellicose frame of mind’ is the ‘lower-class delinquents’.   

Somehow that phrase about the occupation of the upper class being government and all this talk of war - not to mention the use of the term 'patriotism' - caused me to flash back to my last year of high school, my junior year, 1972.  My peers were nearing draft age and the threat of going to Vietnam loomed large.  A few enlisted as they became of age, just to exert that little bit of control.  Others hoped to get into college to avoid the draft, but how to pay for it was a mystery.  I remember feeling helpless.  

There is a bit in one of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher novels, set in the 1920s, just after World War I.  Some old gent says to another "Why don't young people listen to their elders any more?"  The answer was "Because we told them all to go and die."  
Of course in the usual times, most of the industrial classes are averse to any other than a defensive fight and perhaps even a bit reluctant then.  The more civilised a community, the less aggressive they are, but they can eventually be roused to assert themselves martially.  Veblen believes that the more ethnically homogeneous a population, the less distinction there is  between classes, and the less war-like they will be.  It could be that any resentment about class differences may fuel the fighting spirit.  Europe, consisting of many nation-states and different tribes, of course is quite war like.  America, being the melting pot that it has prided itself on being, has of course followed suit.


Susan Partlan said...

Government, whether of corporation or state, does seem to be all about power.

Do you have access to Netflix? While finishing hours of hand sewing of my new top I needed some things to watch. The US version of House of Cards presented by Netflix was one of the things I watched. It broadly paints the culture of Washington DC as one of relentless power striving.

Shelley said...

Susan - I'm not sure if we can get Netflix or not. I tend to think we're unlikely to pay for it even if we can. We're stingy that way. Plenty of free stuff on catch up (£4 a month) if you only watch once or twice a week as we do.

Government is all about power plays and has been for a long time. I remember hearing that members of Congress were useless until they had been in long enough to build a power base, to trade favours and build up allies. I'm certain power is an addictive drug and I don't see things changing. The people keep wanting politicians to do the job as public servants, but no matter what ideals a person begins with, the power drug must take over at some point. I figure everyone in politics is dirty at some level. I hang on to my naivety in believing that if a politician was a basically good person when they went into the game, they might manage to use their power to accomplish good things... I bet House of Cards is fascinating (I loved West Wing), but I also think since it's about revenge that it could be quite depressing. Happy sewing!

Susan Partlan said...

House of Cards is a bit depressing in the sense that after watching you feel utterly powerless as a voter.

Gam Kau said...

These "barbaric" traits really remind me of the swagger of young investment bankers. Could be they are using the banking industry as a replacement for war-like industry.

Shelley said...

Investment bankers probably think of themselves as accomplishing 'heroic exploits' in the course of their day. They certainly did some impressive stuff with the world's economy a few years ago! Whenever I used Veblen's word 'acquisition' I often thought of it as a banking term. I've always banked with a credit union in the US and would here in Britain but they don't work the same. Personally I hold banks in fairly low esteem and since this last recession, bankers as well.