Sidharth Vardhan

Respectablity of Rich – Theory of Leisure Class

(Review of by Thorstein Veblen's
'The Theory of Leisure Class'
First written on July 8, 2015)

"For the last half of my life, I've learned to say 'sir'. Its word you use when you've come down in the world."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Brother Karamazov)

There were times in my early teens when I was confounded when upon being called by such titles like 'sir' by some manual-laborer, some tourist guide or like, a person much older than me - I'm a very absent-minded and in some way abnormal person and often end up in being ignorant of things which most people have already got used to - even now I feel uncomfortable being waited upon, which is at times embarrass my friends. Anyway, this observation shocked me because I didn't fit any grounds for such respect known to me- the person in the question was obviously older and unlike me was earning and self-dependent. I, I was just a kid. Why such respect?

With time I learned it was simply because I was richer. This book has a term for this phenomenon - Pecuniary respect. To date and even in the best of minds; other things being equal, a wealthy person, even one that inherits wealth, gains a special sort of respect. Here are a few examples where such respect shows up - popularity of 'Forbes list of wealthiest persons'; almost all ideal other-halves for young protagonists in fairy tales turning out to be princes and princesses; popularity of Christan Grey etc.

Origion

Back to Early-men times - when first societies appear; the natural division of labor almost naturally came out to be like this - physically strong men go out for war, hunting, sports and gathering (author's term - predatory/exploratory activities); women, old and sick staying back cooking, taking care of children etc (industrial activities, note the terms). Exploratory activities took physical effort and there was some amount of chance involved - and men successfully doing them came to seek special respect (honor) for themselves. Over time, even industrial activities were taken over by men and all women were needed to do was to serve them.

Still the barbarian habit of men involved predatory activities wanting to be respected continued to persist. The modern predatory activities include - sports, warfare, intellectual activities, lawyers, top-level management, arts, religious preachers, politicians, administrators etc. Jobbers, small traders, laborers, teachers, farmers, Manuel workers are doing industrial activities.

thorstein veblen theory of leisure class sidarth vardhan

Women as property and Origin of Marriage

Back in ancient days, when there were no marriages there were still wars between tribes, men of two tribes would fight and the winning side often took women of losing side as trophies - the more wives you can have, the more 'honorable' you are, (remember Homer, remember 'Things fall apart'). These women were supposed to be serving as slaves (hence the Stockholm syndrome). In a way women were first property men came to claim (probably even before land, which was too abundantly available.) Women were to barbarian minds, most valuable assets - more difficult to acquire than cattle and land.

The problem with so many women slaves around, was that the women of one's own tribe would be no better than the others. This along with a father's affection for his daughter gave birth to the institution of marriage, which basically was meant to give women of one's own tribe to give a special status among slaves after making a social statement (marriage rings). This broke my long-held assumption that marriage was at least once coming together of equals - and it had decayed overtimes.

With the growth of more tangible economic and mercantile system, wealth come to be seen as a better trophy. And so, the concept of property widened to cover assets like land, cattle, money along with women. Another advantage of marriage must have been in fact that the predatory respect earned by a man will not go waste even after man is dead and shall be passed to his sons (birth of patriarchy).

According to author, wives had continued to serve as servants - even for middle class people who worked in industrial activities and could afford only one wife. He is basically saying a housewife is just a sugar-coated word for a special kind of servant - she does same things that servant or slave would do. They had always been the property of men - first their father than their husbands (The word 'kanyadan' (literally the 'gift of the girl') can ring bells for Hindus). He argues where women do not have right to property (which was not always there for them) and where society considered it unfeminine to work for money, they shall themselves continue to be a property of men.

Conspious Leisure and Leisure Class

"The institution of leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employment, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy."

 Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

"Abstention from labor is not only an honorific or meritorious act, but it presently comes to be a requisite of decency. The insistence on the property as the basis of reputability is very naive and very imperious during the early stages of the accumulation of wealth. Abstention from labor is the convenient evidence of wealth and is, therefore, the conventional mark of social standing, and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure."

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

The wealthier a man gets, the lesser he is socially expected to work. "Leisure' here includes economically unproductive work. At the uppermost level, there is a class that can go without working at all (Bill Gates, landlords, Jane Austen People) - that is called Leisure class, however a lot of such leisure is seen in middle classes and to some extent even in lowest classes.

Whosoever is 'honorable', must not do anything vulgar. Remember the rich from Jane Austen's world who do next to no work? Elizabeth was considered eccentric for having walked her way to her neighbors.

The vulgar jobs must be left for those who are not rich enough. In early men times when physical strength was honorable; its extreme was that

"in many hunting tribes the man must not bring home the game which he has killed, but must send his woman to perform that baser office."

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

Even in modern times, it shows when wealthy won't drive their own car, clean their own homes or cook their food. They would avoid walking or using public vehicles. Remember how Mrs. Bannet won't allow her daughters to do house-chores to show that they were wealthy. And of course you may consider it base; you may consider it against decorum:

"A breach of faith may be condoned, but a breach of decorum can not. "Manners maketh the man."

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

This thing almost becomes an instinct, at times dangerous to oneself:

"In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat, the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But in so doing he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination."

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

But to be respectable it is not enough to set free, one must have a proof that one has done nothing even when no one is seeing. Here are some commonly used proofs:

a. manners and breeding, polite usage, decorum, and formal and ceremonial observances

Most Indians won't know how to eat with a knife and a fork. The exception would be a wealthy class who have free time to waste on learning such stuff.

"Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work. A knowledge of good form is prima facie evidence that that portion of the well-bred person's life ..... has been worthily spent in acquiring accomplishments that are of no lucrative effect.

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

b. Immaterial goods and knowledge

"knowledge of dead language, of the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music and other household art; of the latest properties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race-horses. "

Thorstein Veblen (Theory of Leisure Class)

Economics actually have a term for useless goods - 'Veblen goods' (after author's name) which are expensive only as far as they have little demand. Their prices decrease if their demand increases. e.g. Diamonds and other gems, jewelry, expensive cars, original paintings etc.

c. possession of servants

If your own being free is not enough evidence of wealth; then you should set your wife free too, by employing some servants. Go a little further, and you shall have servants whose job is to stay free and doing nothing for you (the 'Jesters' in courts of kings, the women who accompany queens all day).

In some uprising classes (example - present upper middle class of India and once again Bennet family), to give appearance of leisure while men continue to work they employ domestic servants to free their wives (have no delusion wives still remain, servants of men enjoying leisure for them,).

d. Expensive Parties.

e.g. Indian marriages, clubs.

e. Money wasted on religious activities

Author says the religion of lower classes is animistic and superstitious; that of upper classes is conspicuous (large donations to temples, expensive religious ceremonies etc). Don't look at me like this, these are author's words.

f. Dress

A wealthy person's dress shows how little she or he works. A man in business suite obviously can't work physically without spoiling it; a woman in heels can run fast. Check out rich English and American class dresses specially for women or remember love for gold jewelry among Indian women. These thin dresses were or are actually very uncomfortable at times (especially, heels and neck-ties, I will never understand how can any sane soul wear them) and uselessly so - they still stayed in fashion because they showed how little people wearing them physically worked.

g. Charities

Remember Bruce Wayne's fund-raising parties. A Darwinian observation (from 'God Delusion') is that altruistic giving is a way to show one's dominance. It is one of good effect of predatory instincts

h. Games

Test matches in cricket take up to five days - not a daily wager's thing.

i. Consuming art products

Buying useless painting for unbelievable prices, watching movies and - on not to forget; reading useless books and writing large reviews on Goodreads.

thorstein veblen theory of leisure class sidarth vardhan

Conspicious Expenditure

With increase in our wealth, we are expected to spend more - on clothes, houses etc. Conspicuous expenditure is money wasted for no good use except to show one's social class. Examples - dowry in Indian Marriages, buying iPhones instead of smartphones, branded clothes instead of ordinary ones, preferring bottled water instead of drinkable water from government supplies etc. At the highest levels we are talking about personal yachts and helicopters.

This too is an barbarian habit - the men involved in predatory activities in ancient times and hence which were wealthy, were ones involved in conspicuous activities like Gambling and Drinking (ever wondered why Penelope never drank.)

The funny thing is while we can easily increase on conspicuous expenditure (which is after all a wastage of economic resources), we can't cut on it. You may, live without conditioned air all your life; but once you have it in home; it is going to stay there - even if due to some future problem you can no longer afford it.

Some of the examples given above showing proofs of leisure can also be read as examples of conspicuous expenditure.

Beauty and other tastes

Expensive food or food harder to cook would taste better and so on. It may sound hard to digest but read on.

Let us take for example, our definition of beauty. Earlier, wealth showed in largeness of body sizes because it meant you have enough to eat. And so there was no craze for size zeroes. Also Socrates once called a young man handsome because of his clean face (shaving must had been an expensive thing those days).

And now, that most of us can manage enough to eat, the thing shows in zero sizes in women or men with strong bodies (six packs) which both need leisure and money to achieve - thus show you are rich. Similar examples are breast implants in west for women (which require money) and 'fairness = beauty' illusion for Indian women (a white skin is untanned one, showing you do not need to go out in sun for work). To put it simply, beauty is what requires money to attain or retain.

Sports

Sports are most common way of saving predatory instincts of ancient times. It is easily proved by the fact that terms used in sports (offensive, defensive, strategy, tactics etc.) are same as those of war (which is a predatory activity).

Moral values

Now you have to crooked ( or predatory) to become or stay wealthy - or you shall fall from leisure class. The way to Leisure class (which is the ultimate motive of an individual in every capitalist economy) is the same as that of values preached by religions but it goes in the opposite direction, i.e., downwards. Perhaps religious values were made to keep poor and ensure moral idiots (Dostoevsky's The Idiot) quickly become poor. Just compared the concept of precautionary leisure requirements for the wealthy with 'right to work' for poorer sections. In a world full of people with predatory instincts, moral values is biggest temptation of path leading to poverty.

All the modern cut-throat competitive spirits (sports, businessmen, lawyers etc.) are result of barbarian predatory instincts that we have still come to retain.

Conclusion

Veblan is right about conspicuous waste, but he doesn't remark as powerfully on the way to grow out of habits. Hence you only see an unsolvable problem. The way out suggested by Marx was other extreme - to throw out the child along with bathwater - to be done away with capitalism. Precautionary instincts are actually a big booster to economies. Also it feeds, for example, art industries but, above all, you can't kill a habit that is part of human nature, just by creating a system that assuming it is not there.

What we need is to do is to bring a culture where conspicuous expenditure shows in altruistic forms (charities); same for leisure (more good books) - let Jonas Salk be your hero rather than Steve Jobs. And make sure predatory instincts are allowed only a controlled freedom.

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