Friday, 14 June 2013

Part XLIII - The Belief in Luck

This is a series about the book, Theory of the Leisure Class, by American economist Thorstein Veblen, published in 1899.  Chapter Eleven is titled The Belief in Luck.

Veblen says the propensity to gamble is another trait of the barbarian temperament and is common among sporting types and those given to warlike and emulative activities.  He claims this archaic trait serves no purpose in the modern society.  It relates to his economic ideas in a negative way because it hinders the ‘highest industrial efficiency’ of a community where ‘it prevails in any appreciable degree’.

The chief factor in gambling as a habit is the belief in luck, which he says is traceable to a stage of human development prior to the predatory culture.  He says this belief is ‘one form of the artistic apprehension of things.’  

Let's consider an example where there is a contest of strength and wagers are taken.  He describes the outlook of the person betting on the outcome as not just about winning the wager and coming away richer.  It is predatory because of the belief that the psychological weight of the wager enhances the victory for the winner and makes the losing side more humiliated and defeated.  The belief in luck makes the person placing the bet feel as though he has enhanced the chances of success for his contestant by putting the force of his will behind them.

Veblen explains this as going back to when men held animistic beliefs, when they felt that objects had a ‘quasi-personal individuality’ and were ‘possessed of volition…or of propensities’.  I remember as a very small child believing that the flat stones that formed the paving on the side of our house had feelings.  Their familiarity as a place for pretend tea parties with my friends was a source of comfort to me.  Because the stones evoked emotions in me, it seemed logical to assume they had emotions as well.  I suppose with this as a starting point, it is only a short journey to believing that one can propitiate or cajole them to bring you luck.  From there, it makes sense to hold these objects as talismans of good luck.

“There are few sporting men who are not in the habit of wearing charms or talismans to which more or less of efficacy is felt to belong.”

I don’t know about the statistics, but I remember Paula Radcliffe had a lucky necklace.  Clothing, objects, mascots, foods and ritualpreparations are all among the animistic aids to winning at various sports.

Veblen seems to say in so many words that anyone who has this sort of wacky view of things can have limited reliability in the modern world.  In order to be useful, people need to have the aptitude and habit of relating facts in terms of cause and effect, physical laws of nature, take personal responsibility, etc.

Further more, he contrasts the outlook of a primarily agricultural society to that of an industrial community. 
“Under a system of handicraft an advantage in dexterity, diligence, muscular force, or endurance may, in a very large measure, offset such a bias in the habits of thought of the workmen. Similarly in agricultural industry of the traditional kind, which closely resembles handicraft in the nature of the demands made upon the workman. In both, the workman is himself the prime mover chiefly depended upon, and the natural forces engaged are in large part apprehended as inscrutable and fortuitous agencies, whose working lies beyond the workman’s control or discretion.
 As industrial methods develop, the virtues of the handicraftsman count for less and less as an offset to scanty intelligence or a halting acceptance of the sequence of cause and effect. The industrial organization assumes more and more of the character of a mechanism, in which it is man’s office to discriminate and select what natural forces shall work out their effects in his service. The workman’s part in industry changes from that of a prime mover to that of discrimination and valuation of quantitative sequences and mechanical facts.”

Veblen refers to the term ‘ignava ratio’ (Latin for ‘idle argument’) which is a philosophical idea ‘If it’s meant to be, it will happen.’  He discusses this alongside of ‘anthropomorphic divinity’, which he says is a higher development following on from the animistic belief.  I don’t think Veblen holds religion in high esteem.  He sees it as upholding a sense of status, which of course it does in that people are understood to have lower status than the deity they worship. 

And that, is my précis of the ideas in Chapter Eleven.

1 comment:

Beryl said...

I think of the instances where the upper class male has gambling losses so large that he marries the first newly rich heiress he can find. So in a roundabout way gambling did bring new blood to the upper class.