Friday, 2 August 2013

Part L - 'Assisting' the Lower Classes

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".

Last week we learned that the leisure classes have had to shift their attention slightly from the making of war, running of government, etc., to the promotion of charitable causes.  This is particularly the activity of upper class women.  Veblen is sceptical about these supposedly charitable intentions.  To start with, he thinks the attention should focus entirely on the secular issues and leave religion alone; this would save money and trouble all around.  He also thinks that charities are trying to ‘convert’ the lower classes in a different direction:
“…many of the efforts now in reputable vogue for the amelioration of the indigent population of large cities are of the nature, in great part, of a mission of culture. It is by this means sought to accelerate the rate of speed at which given elements of the upper-class culture find acceptance in the everyday scheme of life of the lower classes.”

I think it could be said today that both government and private enterprise has an interest in dragging the poorest segment of the population up from poverty, if only to collect income tax from them instead of paying out benefits.  Also, the sooner someone has an income, the sooner you can convince them to buy your product, right?
“The propaganda of culture is in great part an inculcation of new tastes, or rather of a new schedule of proprieties, which have been adapted to the upper- class scheme of life under the guidance of the leisure class formulation of the principles of status and pecuniary decency.”

Veblen reminds us that the leisure class still holds a ‘disesteem’ of useful occupations, but ‘guiding the action of any organized body of people that lays claim to social good’ is acceptable.  There are limitations however. 
“There is a tradition which requires that one should not be vulgarly familiar with any of the processes or details that have to do with the material necessities of life. One may meritoriously show a quantitative interest in the well-being of the vulgar, through subscriptions or through work on managing committees and the like. One may, perhaps even more meritoriously, show solicitude in general and in detail for the cultural welfare of the vulgar, in the way of contrivances for elevating their tastes and affording them opportunities for spiritual amelioration. But one should not betray an intimate knowledge of the material circumstances of vulgar life, or of the habits of thought of the vulgar classes, such as would effectually direct the efforts of these organizations to a materially useful end. This reluctance to avow an unduly intimate knowledge of the lower-class conditions of life in detail of course prevails in very different degrees in different individuals; but there is commonly enough of it present collectively in any organization of the kind in question profoundly to influence its course of action.”

He goes on to explain that a lot of money is wasted in building grand buildings ostensibly for charitable purposes.  Also, there are rules for the recipients of beneficence, including that they should know their place and tow the line.

I wonder if I like Veblen because he shares my cynicism?

1 comment:

sanda said...

Hi Shelly,
I've seen your comments on Beryl's blog forever, but only today knew had a blog; not sure how I ended up here but glad I did. I will enjoy perusing your blog posts in the coming days!
Sanda at Halcyon Days.