On Skulls and Barstools

Yesterday: On the Populousness of Ancient Nations   Tomorrow: Catiline’s War

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/ (specializing in online Great Books programs!)

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

Yo-ho, Yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me!  I am reminded of the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean when I think of this masterpiece, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899.  Veblen was himself something of an odd fellow: the son of a Norwegian immigrant, he preferred other men’s wives to his own and after a series of affairs with other professors’ wives (or so the legend goes) was released from his duties at Stanford.  It is also speculated that he may simply have been a poor teacher, but in our modern age we have all been told that all teachers are perfect, so this must not be true.

The main gist of Veblen’s theory is that the leisure class is the modern incarnation of the head warriors of barbarian times.  When in pre-civilized eras savages fought for control of their resources (food, drink, hott women), the bravest and best among the men would return with prizes, especially skulls or other body parts, and possibly gold and silver accouterments that were affixed to their opponents’ bodies.  This was the symbol of their prowess and manliness, and it secured their status among the clan, which most likely consisted mainly of their kin and kind.  The more conspicuous was the display, the better was the savage’s reputation, and so there was an encouragement to waste in war–either in the form of excessive violence or carrying back more than was necessary.

What Veblen so ingeniously does is to encapsulate this idea in the phrase “conspicuous consumption”, which he then turns to good use in bringing to his era of robber-baron capitalism.  Now remember that Veblen is writing in an age where the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, and the Carnegies control a vast majority of the wealth of the nation.  He is not writing to an egalitarian society.  There are deep troubles in late 19th and early 20th Century America, extreme poverty in its South, riots and strikes in the Midwest and Great Plains, and a conflict between government and big business that resulted in several lawsuits filed by the Attorney General.  So when Veblen hypothesizes that the leisure class–the wealthy–support themselves by ostentatious display rather than hard work, he is criticizing what he sees as an economic system that breaks the backs of its true laborers and pays them next-to-nothing in the process, while those who benefit sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Veblen’s critique of capitalism is, of course, tame.  You can compare it with Marx’s, which is not tame, and see the difference immediately.  Moreover Veblen is rational, and he is a good writer, while the same definitely cannot be said of the other idiot (who is our schools’ favorite economist, by the way, since they have such discriminating judgment).

What makes Veblen so poignant, then, is that he’s actually criticizing the very essence of Western Civilization itself!  Even if we assume that the Greeks were pre-Western, or that classical antiquity isn’t really a part of the modern West (which I agree with), one of the major legacies left behind from that age was the distinction between the occupations of free men–philosophy, government, arms, which amount to an ostentatious display of free time and a tendency towards destruction rather than production-and those of slaves–agriculture, craftsmanship, manual labor.  The Greco-Roman world was big on private property and big on the accumulation of estates, and despite some philosophic movements which favored economy and/or poverty the value system was generally assumed to be one of capitalism.  While we might discard this as irrelevant to the modern West, historically speaking the development of modernity isn’t much different, with feudal lords and barons conspicuously displaying their leisure as their peasants toiled away for no gain on the fields.

(Mwahahaha I get the droit de seigneur! when all my lady friends get married– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droit_de_seigneur)

Again this book is not terribly lengthy.  It is roughly the same length as Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, and it’s just as relevant.  I long to teach it as part of a course on longer essays, for adults.

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