Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class”

Veblen’s work struck me hard from the first note, and he just kept building on that, example after example. I may depart a bit from summation and instead spin off this into mythologies ala Barthes somewhat. (At least that’s what I’m thinking…)

It seems to me, Veblen sets up a split, a path taken by humanity as far back as humanity could be called humanity. Whether chosen or not, what ruled the day emerged from this predatory notion, how wealth and leisure were deemed most valuable and everything of productive value – not so much. From this lens, Veblen shows how the ordering of modern society, around wealth, leisure, conspicuous consumption has come to be. It really turns things on their head – when we think of noblemen and honor, and then he conflates them with predatory behavior. It’s wonderful and horrifying all at once. On 26 he writes, “it is gain obtained by the honorable method of seizure and conversion. These occupations are of the nature of predatory, not productive, employment.” “honorable = seizure and conversion.” It’s like backwards day, and that’s what our world is.

I want to contrast this path taken with a quick parable I found in the Translator's Introduction to The Art of War:

 According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art. The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, "My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.”

 "My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.”

 “As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords."

   The healing arts and the martial arts may be a world apart in ordinary usage, but they are parallel in several senses: in recognizing, as the story says, that the less needed the better; in the sense that both involve strategy in dealing with disharmony; and in the sense that in both knowledge of the problem is key to the solution. (found here: )

Rather than seeing value in taking care of our community, it’s in having the biggest horde, the most beautiful wife – it’s collecting booty, and having others work for you. If we want to look at the Chinese example more literally, we see it reflected in the medical profession today: specialized surgeons get big bucks and are cloaked in status, whereas means of prevention are given little attention.

 How can we take another path? First off, I think awareness of this. Pulling the wool of our eyes and say this is not how things have to be, and this is not “natural”, it didn’t emerge from our environment, but it emerged from people taking – predatory quite literally. Can it be taken back? In time, through education and diligence and action. A change in values to something more like the parable and less like Veblen’s powerful and bleak view of who we are. – Nick 

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