Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

41. Theory of the Leisure (Guardian) Class

Note: This post is the forty-first in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

"The Theory of the Leisure Class", by Thorstein Veblen, was published in 1899, before the rebirth of the Olympics in the 20th century, but I'd guess that if the Olympics had been around at the time, Veblen would not have been a fan. Veblen is critical of just about everything related to the Guardian syndrome, which he was a keen observer of, choosing to label it based on the 'make rich use of leisure' ethic that is one part of it.

The short version of this post is that while Veblen's description of the 'Leisure Class' is almost an exact match for Jacobs' description of the 'Guardian Class', Jacobs saw good reason for the Guardians to be as they were and thought that they were behaving ethically in following their syndrome. Veblen, on the other hand, sees Guardian behaviour as a counter/un-productive anachronism that survives from earlier days but doesn't really contribute much to society.

That the short version, but here's the long version...

He starts the introduction by noting that the leisure class is most developed in 'barbarian' or feudal societies such as feudal Europe or Japan, where the guardian/leisure class make up a completely distinct component of society. Although, the distinction is not as clear in earlier societies, he notes that the division between guardian and commercial work is already present in the form of gender differences,
"Any one of the North American hunting tribes may be taken as a convenient illustration. These tribes can scarcely be said to have a defined leisure class. There is a differentiation of function, and there is a distinction between classes on the basis of this difference of function, but the exemption of the superior class from work has not gone far enough to make the designation "leisure class" altogether applicable. The tribes belonging on this economic level have carried the economic differentiation to the point at which a marked distinction is made between the occupations of men and women, and this distinction is of an invidious character. In nearly all these tribes the women are, by prescriptive custom, held to those employments out of which the industrial occupations proper develop at the next advance. The men are exempt from these vulgar employments and are reserved for war, hunting, sports, and devout observances."

One difference between Veblen and Jacobs is that where Jacobs sees the difference between the two syndromes as being the difference between 'taking' and 'trading', Veblen sees it as a difference between dealing with inanimate things (gathering berries, manufacturing things, etc.) and dealing with animate things (hunting game, activities that involve dealing with other people, etc.).

"Under the guidance of this naive discrimination between the inert and the animate, the activities of the primitive social group tend to fall into two classes, which would in modern phrase be called exploit and industry. Industry is effort that goes to create a new thing, with a new purpose given it by the fashioning hand of its maker out of passive ("brute") material; while exploit, so far as it results in an outcome useful to the agent, is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to some other end by an other agent. We still speak of "brute matter" with something of the barbarian's realisation of a profound significance in the term.

The distinction between exploit and drudgery coincides with a difference between the sexes. The sexes differ, not only in stature and muscular force, but perhaps even more decisively in temperament, and this must early have given rise to a corresponding division of labour. The general range of activities that come under the head of exploit falls to the males as being the stouter, more massive, better capable of a sudden and violent strain, and more readily inclined to self assertion, active emulation, and aggression."

Veblen makes a distinction between consumption for consumption's sake and competitive consumption ('pecuniary emulation' in Veblen's terms, and 'conspicuous consumption' in a later chapter, a phrase coined by Veblen),
"The end of acquisition and accumulation is conventionally held to be the consumption of the goods accumulated—whether it is consumption directly by the owner of the goods or by the household attached to him and for this purpose identified with him in theory. This is at least felt to be the economically legitimate end of acquisition, which alone it is incumbent on the theory to take account of. Such consumption may of course be conceived to serve the consumer's physical wants—his physical comfort—or his so-called higher wants—spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual, or what not; the latter class of wants being served indirectly by an expenditure of goods, after the fashion familiar to all economic readers.

But it is only when taken in a sense far removed from its naive meaning that consumption of goods can be said to afford the incentive from which accumulation invariably proceeds. The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation; and the same motive of emulation continues active in the further development of the institution to which it has given rise and in the development of all those features of the social structure which this institution of ownership touches. The possession of wealth confers honour; it is an invidious distinction. Nothing equally cogent can be said for the consumption of goods, nor for any other conceivable incentive to acquisition, and especially not for any incentive to accumulation of wealth."

We see here that Veblen is echoing the distinction between the commercial syndrome which promotes comfort and convenience (consumption values) and the positional externality plagued guardian syndrome where consumption is based on emulation (i.e. keeping up with the Jones).

Another difference between Jacobs and Veblen is that Veblen believes that in the modern world where most people are in the commercial sphere of activity, the guardian values of exploit and exerting prowess have come to be associated with commercial activity.

"Prowess and exploit may still remain the basis of award of the highest popular esteem, although the possession of wealth has become the basis of common place reputability and of a blameless social standing. The predatory instinct and the consequent approbation of predatory efficiency are deeply ingrained in the habits of thought of those peoples who have passed under the discipline of a protracted predatory culture. According to popular award, the highest honours within human reach may, even yet, be those gained by an unfolding of extraordinary predatory efficiency in war, or by a quasi-predatory efficiency in statecraft; but for the purposes of a commonplace decent standing in the community these means of repute have been replaced by the acquisition and accumulation of goods. In order to stand well in the eyes of the community, it is necessary to come up to a certain, somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth; just as in the earlier predatory stage it is necessary for the barbarian man to come up to the tribe's standard of physical endurance, cunning, and skill at arms. A certain standard of wealth in the one case, and of prowess in the other, is a necessary condition of reputability, and anything in excess of this normal amount is meritorious."

This may not be a big difference between Jacobs and Veblen, as Jacobs doesn't say that such behaviour doesn't exist (people going into business for the purpose of gaining status rather than making profits by increasing comfort and convenience) just that it would be unethical, and from Veblen's tone, you get the feeling he regards this type of behaviour as unethical also.

On the topic of leisure, Jacobs regarded leisure as a necessary attribute of a guardian society, lest their 'productivity' lead to the depletion of the resources they depended on or endless war against their neighbours. Veblen sees leisure as a demonstration of status, people proving that they are so important they do not need to work for a living. Otherwise Jacobs and Veblen are in agreement on rich use of leisure being a key element of the guardian syndrome.

Veblen discusses the 'respect for tradition' of the guardian/leisure class, as compared to the innovative spirit of the commercial class,
"This conservatism of the wealthy class is so obvious a feature that it has even come to be recognized as a mark of respectability. Since conservatism is a characteristic of the wealthier and therefore more reputable portion of the community, it has acquired a certain honorific or decorative value. It has become prescriptive to such an extent that an adherence to conservative views is comprised as a matter of course in our notions of respectability; and it is imperatively incumbent on all who would lead a blameless life in point of social repute. Conservatism, being an upper-class characteristic, is decorous; and conversely, innovation, being a lower-class phenomenon, is vulgar. The first and most unreflected element in that instinctive revulsion and reprobation with which we turn from all social innovators is this sense of the essential vulgarity of the thing. So that even in cases where one recognizes the substantial merits of the case for which the innovator is spokesman—as may easily happen if the evils which he seeks to remedy are sufficiently remote in point of time or space or personal contact—still one cannot but be sensible of the fact that the innovator is a person with whom it is at least distasteful to be associated, and from whose social contact one must shrink. Innovation is bad form.

The revulsion felt by good people at any proposed departure from the accepted methods of life is a familiar fact of everyday experience. It is not unusual to hear those persons who dispense salutary advice and admonition to the community express themselves forcibly upon the far-reaching pernicious effects which the community would suffer from such relatively slight changes as the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, an increased facility of divorce, adoption of female suffrage, prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages, abolition or restriction of inheritances, etc."

Veblen further notes that at the time of his writing, there has been a general shift in society from guardian virtues to commercial ones.

"The general decay of the sense of status in modern industrial communities goes some way as evidence in this direction; and the perceptible return to a disapproval of futility in human life, and a disapproval of such activities as serve only the individual gain at the cost of the collectivity or at the cost of other social groups, is evidence to a like effect. There is a perceptible tendency to deprecate the infliction of pain, as well as to discredit all marauding enterprises, even where these expressions of the invidious interest do not tangibly work to the material detriment of the community or of the individual who passes an opinion on them. 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."

My feeling is that this shift has generally continued since Veblen's day.

Finally, in an interesting passage, Veblen invokes a duo I have encounted time and time again since starting this project, force and fraud,
"As it finds expression in the life of the barbarian, prowess manifests itself in two main directions—force and fraud. In varying degrees these two forms of expression are similarly present in modern warfare, in the pecuniary occupations, and in sports and games. Both lines of aptitudes are cultivated and strengthened by the life of sport as well as by the more serious forms of emulative life. Strategy or cunning is an element invariably present in games, as also in warlike pursuits and in the chase. In all of these employments strategy tends to develop into finesse and chicanery. Chicanery, falsehood, browbeating, hold a well-secured place in the method of procedure of any athletic contest and in games generally. The habitual employment of an umpire, and the minute technical regulations governing the limits and details of permissible fraud and strategic advantage, sufficiently attest the fact that fraudulent practices and attempts to overreach one's opponents are not adventitious features of the game. In the nature of the case habituation to sports should conduce to a fuller development of the aptitude for fraud; and the prevalence in the community of that predatory temperament which inclines men to sports connotes a prevalence of sharp practice and callous disregard of the interests of others, individually and collectively. Resort to fraud, in any guise and under any legitimation of law or custom, is an expression of a narrowly self-regarding habit of mind. It is needless to dwell at any length on the economic value of this feature of the sporting character.


The astute man, it may be remarked, is of no economic value to the community—unless it be for the purpose of sharp practice in dealings with other communities."

Of course, in Plato's 'Republic' he sets up the need for a guardian class precisely for the purposes of defending the republic against enemies both external and within. Veblen's view seems incorrect in my opinion, in seeing the use of force as being limited to a 'self-regarding habit of mind' without recognizing that the proper use of force in service of something other than the self is generally regarded as ethical behaviour (i.e. a soldier in battle against the enemy, a policeman chasing down a criminal, a fireman battling a blaze, etc.)

To my view, Veblen seems determined to only find harm in the leisure class. There's a good example here,
"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. But the action of all this class of proclivities is somewhat vague, and their effects are difficult to trace in detail. So much seems clear, however, as that the action of this entire class of motives or aptitudes tends in a direction contrary to the underlying principles of the institution of the leisure class as already formulated. The basis of that institution, as well as of the anthropomorphic cults associated with it in the cultural development, is the habit of invidious comparison; and this habit is incongruous with the exercise of the aptitudes now in question. The substantial canons of the leisure-class scheme of life are a conspicuous waste of time and substance and a withdrawal from the industrial process; while the particular aptitudes here in question assert themselves, on the economic side, in a deprecation of waste and of a futile manner of life, and in an impulse to participation in or identification with the life process, whether it be on the economic side or in any other of its phases or aspects."

Veblen recognizes that 'dispense largesse' or 'noblesse oblige' is a component of guardian/leisure class life, but insists that this behaviour is somehow contrary to the general spirit of the syndrome.

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  • I was introduced to Veblen through John Kenneth Galbraith. He was a hero of Galbraith and he has become one of mine as well.

    By Blogger Greg, at 5:19 AM  

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