Friday, 3 May 2013

Part XXXVIII - Modern Economic Institutions

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




Veblen likes to categorise people and institutions, but I suppose this habit goes hand in hand with formulating theories and the like.  As mentioned before, he groups people and their temperaments, work and its respectability, into two groups, which I've attempted to summarise with the words he applies to each.



Savage
Barbaric
Working class
Leisure class
Peaceable
War like
Common good
Individual good
Workmanship
Conspicuous waste
Industry
Conspicuous leisure
Vulgar work
Honorific exploits
Production
Ownership
Industrial
Pecuniary

I’m currently  re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.  One of the characters talks about Labour and Capital.  These terms also fit neatly into these groups. 

Veblen describes modern businesses as being either industrial or pecuniary; the aptitudes required and training received differ widely between the two. 

He begins by describing how pecuniary pursuits foster the predatory character, which we’ll see in a moment.  As to the working classes, those occupied in the manual operations of production, their life is not habituated to ‘the emulative and invidious motives of the pecuniary side of industry.’  They think more about the ‘coordination of mechanical facts and sequences’.  For them, their education and selection moves them in the direction of the ‘non-invidious purposes of the collective life… therefore, it hastens the obsolescence of the distinctively predatory aptitudes and propensities carried over by heredity and tradition from the barbarian past of the race.’

However,
“Entrance to the leisure class lies through the pecuniary employments.”

Pecuniary employments conserve and cultivate predatory aptitudes and motivations both through education and through elimination of unsuitable individuals.  Habits of thought are shaped by the competitive process of acquisition and tenure, by the ownership of wealth, by management and financiering; and this shaping accentuates the predatory temperament.  If in earlier days ownership was achieved by forcible seizure, Veblen goes so far as to say that in modern times  
“…the pecuniary employments give proficiency in the general line of practices comprised under fraud…”

If at the top of business are found the ‘captains of industry’, the administrators of acquisition and ownership, lower down we find those involved with the more mechanical involvement with the details of production and organisation, the subordinates of a ‘less “practical” turn of mind — men who are possessed of a gift for workmanship rather than administrative ability.’

The thought has just crossed my mind about what the supposed classical education young men received at the Oxbridge colleges had to do with sharp business practices.  Of course, the classics probably are a sideline in modern times, and in any case, Veblen was probably writing with the American aristocracy, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, etc., in mind, not so much those in England. However it also came to me that ‘knowing one’s place’ could also mean knowing that one belonged on top of the heap and how to stay there…

2 comments:

Susan Partlan said...

Did you see the BBC production of North and South? I watched it recently finishing the hand sewing for my MOTB violet top and it was really interesting. I didn't realized there was a regional difference in attitudes about manufacturing.

Shelley said...

Susan - No, I haven't see it, but I bet it's good! Oh, N&S here in Britain has almost as many differences as N&S in the US. It's not so much about 'manufacturing' these days, more about jobs. Jobs, money, power all seem to be in the South. We have lower cost of living and beautiful beaches, but also colder weather... Amazing when you consider the size of the island. It's a sort of joke that for Londoners anything North of the M25 (about 25 miles) is The North. London-centricity is a sore point for sure.