Friday, 16 August 2013

Part LII – Decline of the Leisure Class

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 saw how economic developments shaped a more modern society which no longer held barbaric principles of status and leisure in quite so high esteem.  In particular, upper class women were no longer satisfied to live lives of vicarious leisure and futility.

Veblen sees this movement of thought as being a reversion to the thinking of a savage society, when communities were more cooperative than competitive, where there were less differentiated roles for men and women.  In that society, everyone is expected to contribute to the good of the community and there is no respect for futile leisure.  Activities that serve only individual gain, marauding, infliction of pain and all manner of invidious pursuits are also deprecated. 
“It may even be said that…in the modern industrial communities the average, dispassionate sense of men says that the ideal character is a character which makes for peace, good-will, and economic efficiency, rather than for a life of self-seeking, force, fraud, and mastery.”

Veblen felt that the ideals of modern society were a threat to the survival of the leisure class, or at least to the individuals of that class.  The luxury of being withdrawn from ‘the pecuniary struggle’ along with the ‘leisure-class canons of conspicuous waste of goods and effort, the institution of a leisure class’ he thought lessened the chance of survival of such individuals within the population.  If ones energy was taken up with the invidious stuggle there was none left for non-invidious expressions of life and one was left with a ‘self-regarding attitude.’  This, Veblen believed, did not augur well for any person living in a modern society.

I think his arguments for this concern are valid, but perhaps weak.  I think populist ideas were aided by the industrial revolution, re-imposition of income tax, creation of estate tax, suffrage given to the wider population instead of a privileged few, World War I, the stock market crash and many other things that occurred after Veblen’s book were more to the point.  But given that these things had not yet happened, I guess I have to give him break.  We are now finished with Chapter 13; only one more to go!

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