Saturday, January 13, 2018

Theory of the Predator Class

A review of Thorstein Veblen's "The Theory of the Leisure Class."

The Occupy movement seems so long ago. The most durable movement to come out of the 2008 economic crash seems, in retrospect, to be the Trumpian revisionists- the Tea Party / Santelli Republicans who alchemized a total breakdown of financial markets and lack of proper regulation into a movement to hobble government even more, and increase inequality over its already breathtaking levels.

The fight between the predators and the prey, however, is perennial, from our most ancient records of Greek cities, between the oligarchs and the demos. The last century saw the most vociferous and ideological movement against inequality and aristocracy, in the form of communism. Sadly, that turned out almost as badly as the royalist/aristocratic/capitalist propaganda portrayed- an appalling recreation of status-ridden tyrannies, with the added insult of thorough-going inversions of truth, in the name of a worker's paradise.

But before all that, in 1899 Thorstein Veblen published a classic critique of the aristocratic system and its capitalist derivatives, whose leaders he called the "leisure class". It laid the foundations of institutional economics, was a scathing re-analysis of the class and economic system of the time, and prefigured many later developments, such as feminism and our continued inability to distribute our enormous wealth equitably with the consequence that the vast majority remain highly dependent on jobs and salary for sustenance, living more or less hand to mouth. Unfortunately, his writing is quite pedantic. But it is also archly sarcastic, so much so that it becomes a sort of a comic masterpiece. Here he describes the role of religion and its various officers and adherents as an example of economic (not to mention intellectual) waste sponsored by the aristocratic elements of society:
"While belief is by no means confined to the leisure class, that class to-day comprises a disproportionately large number of believers in the occult sciences of all kinds and shades. By those whose habits of thought are not shaped by contact with modern industry, the knowledge of the unknowable is still felt to be the ultimate, if not the only true knowledge."

The leisure class is in Veblen's system the predators of society, lineally decended from the owners, kings, chiefs, and nobles of yore. They live by the work of others. Their need to show status is not reflected in useful activities or service to the collective, but in waste- the waste of time, of money and especially of other people's time, which all goes to show their power and position. Their servants are dressed just so, their wives do not labor and conduct futile charitable activites. Their religions are devoted to a supernatural leisure class which lives even more wastefully than they do, intermediated and officered by an utterly useless class of theologians and priests. Their scholarly institutions are likewise based on theological origins, study useless things, (Veblen's time period was the late 1800's), and adopt finely graded and conservative ceremonies of punctilious status, all to show the capacity of the sponsoring and attending aristocrats to waste prodigious amounts of time and resources.

The sad part of all this is that the aristocratic class leads the society in a ladder of wasteful emulation. Like the British royal family, or its more modish incarnation in the James Bond character, the class with little to do but waste its time forms the inescapably rivetting spectacle and model of the ideal life, and thus what the lower classes should aspire to. Naturally, this is abbetted by native greed and ambition, for all aspire to be not just like the leisure class, but part of it. This leads to endless consumption and living beyond one's means, ironically sabotaging the very goal of gaining the wealth required to gain entry. In this way, the upper classes unconsciously collaborate with the middle and especially lower classes in a conservatism that perpetuates an invidious system.
"From this proposition it follows that the institution of a leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by withdrawing from them as much as it may of the means of sustenance, and so reducing their consumption, and consequently their available energy, to such a point as to make them incapable of the effort required for the learning and adoption of new habits of thought. The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale."

While historically, the predator class served as the warrior class, gaining land and wealth for the group as a whole, that function is now (with any luck) in abeyance. Thus their predatory instincts are turned exclusively inward, towards engines of capitalist fleecing, of government corruption, and the like, in order to maintain wealth and status. That they would receive the free sanction of a democratic people to run roughshod over the land, as happened in 2016, may be unimaginable to contemporary intellectuals, but might not be to Veblen himself, who had a relatively pessimistic view of human nature and institutions, including its tendency towards conservatism.

  • Our economy in a few graphs
  • Whence Capitalism?
  • Krugman gets a little pessimistic too.
  • "There have been two striking developments in economics over the last thirty years. First, a major theoretical revolution occurred in macroeconomics (from Keynesianism to Monetarism and beyond). Second, unemployment and broader labour under-utilisation rates have persisted at high levels."