Friday, 26 July 2013

Part XLIX - A Kinder Society

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

The first time I saw that chapter title, my brain went ‘Whaaaat?’  Basically he means to say something about ‘nice people’; the ones who aren’t going to cheat you out of your money or step on your head as part of their social climb, people who aren't quite so competitive. Strangely, he sees the business of the industrial world eroding the former system of status, thereby creating an environment where non-barbaric people can get ahead.   According to Veblen, the decay of the original forms of devout observances and of the class system which demands personal subservience has allowed the development of ‘alien motives’ which he labels as charity, social good-fellowship, conviviality, the sense of human solidarity and sympathy.

While Veblen seems to feel these attributes are alien to the religious outlook, he recognises they are part of the modern practice of church-going.  It almost sounds as though he’s saying that society has improved because churches aren’t so religious but I doubt this can be quite right.  It may be that he’s saying the leisure class was losing its dominance of the religious structures and that religious organisations were increasingly ‘of the people’. 

Another idea that he espouses is of a ‘non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment’ which indirectly shapes people’s thinking along away from the self-centredness of the earlier regime of status.  This ‘aesthetic congruity’ removes the  
"the antagonism of self and not-self which has previously insisted upon the divergence between the self-regarding interest and the interests of the generically human life process.  This non-invidious residue of the religious life — the sense of communion with the environment, or with the generic life process — as well as the impulse of charity or of sociability, act in a pervasive way to shape men’s habits of thought for the economic purpose."

Doesn’t Veblen have a marvellous way of using lots of long words?  Imagine having a conversation with the man…but I digress.  Coming at this from a distance, it seems the short version of Chapter 13 might be that the industrial revolution brought about a growing middle class, the creation of jobs, etc.  This meant the modern world was not quite as ‘dog-eat-dog’ as before and so people could afford to be kinder to one another.  However, this being Veblen, we can't do a short version.  Also, my interpretation may be over-simple and some of his observations are too funny to miss.

Veblen describes the development of modern society (as of 1899) from the standpoint of the leisure class and, for them, it's looking fairly disastrous.  The usual leisurely pursuits are vanishing:  the decline of war, the disappearance of large game to hunt, the ‘obsolescence of proprietary government, and the decay of the priestly office’.   However, 
"Human life must seek expression in one direction if it may not in another; and if the predatory outlet fails, relief is sought elsewhere."

You may or may not be aware that one of the main activities of very well-to-do people is to engage in ‘charitable events’.  If it's not being a patron of a charity or forming a foundation, it's throwing a ball or organising a fete.  For others its joining the Junior League, the Masons, the Rotary clubs, volunteering for this or that cause.  Veblen describes these activities as being ‘reversion to a non-invidious temperament’, something even more likely among leisure class women, being the most protected from any economic stress.  

In his day the charitable organisations were semi-religious and tended to be promoting temperance, prison reform, spreading education or support for pacifism.  He also names sewing-clubs, art clubs and even commercial clubs (no idea what that means), all endowed by wealthy individuals or through collections from persons of smaller means.  Now, he still maintains that much of this work is primarily to enhance the reputation or their promoters, particularly with the foundation of something like a library or hospital wing with one’s name plastered on the front.  That sort of thing is all over the US, but you don’t see it much at all here in Britain, I’ve noticed.  There is a big ceremony and PR splash when the Duke of this or that donates a piece of land or the like, but if there is any label, it is a smallish plaque or an etched foundation stone, not names that can be read half a mile away.  Be this as it may, Veblen still maintains there are ‘motives of a non-emulative kind’.  The fact that reputability is sought through charitable works shows that society has shifted a great deal.


D A Wolf said...

Hmmm. If our world were less "dog eat dog," could we afford to be kinder?

Sadly, I doubt that's possible now.

In my own experience, the greatest kindnesses have come from those with the least financial resources to be kind, but their hearts were big and they knew - from having lived their own ups and downs - that a kindness can be invaluable.

Naturally, there are exceptions (we can look at philanthropists, I suppose); then again, how "kind" are the individuals in their real world lives?

Gam Kau said...

Oh, most certainly charitable donations, the more visible the better, are part and parcel of the leisure class code of conduct. This RCA building is funded by my Uncle.

Shelley said...

Heavens, you are well-connected! I found it interesting that he has a 'title'. I've never been to China, I wonder if we might go one day?