Monday, September 7, 2009

Leisure

In 1858, in the midst of turmoil incident to the American Abolitionist Movement, James Henry Hammond addressed the 35th United States congress with a speech that would later become known as the Mudsill Theory. In his speech, Senator Hammond claimed that all societies are built upon a class of people "requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill." Such a class was a necessary prerequisite of "progress, civilization, and refinement." Hammond said that a race of people "eminently qualified" for this role in society had been found for the south: "We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves."

At this point in Hammond's speech, things get interesting. Slavery, said Hammond, could be done away with in word only -- "the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that."In support of his assertion, Senator Hammond pointed to the only class of people worse off than slaves: those who relied, for their subsistence, on a wage paid out of someone else's pocket. Hirelings are "essentially slaves," said Hammond; only, without the perks. Hammond claimed that his slaves were well compensated, "there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either." In Senator Hammond's view, it was far better to be a slave than an employee.

In 1859 an Illinois Senator, Abraham Lincoln, refuted the mud-sill argument. Interestingly, this refutation did not include support of a working class of hired labor over a class of chattel slaves. Instead, Lincoln claimed that Free states didn't have a mud-sill class at all; almost everyone was self-employed! And those who weren't, Lincoln claimed, were just working their way up to it. The hireling was a transitory phase leading to self-sufficiency. According to Abraham Lincoln, America didn't need slaves of either stripe.

Six years and 360,000 dead Union soldiers later, the name "slavery" had been abolished from America, but not the thing. The institution had merely been transformed, and in July of 1894, in an unconscious vindication of James Hammond, Federal troops killed numerous laborers in the Pullman dispute. The strike was broken on August 3, and six days afterward the 53rd Congress bestowed national recognition to "Labor Day" (at the emergency request of President Cleveland) in a futile attempt to quell the anger. Grover Cleveland learned the hard way that it's often poor policy for a government to murder its own citizens.

Woodrow Wilson re-enshrined the Mudsill Theory with his "class of necessity" before America entered into World War I. Over a decade later, in the desperation of the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams coined the phrase "The American Dream." It is true that sometimes we don't find words for things until we lose them and wonder what it is that we lost. Abraham Lincoln was wrong.

At the turn of the 20th century, economist Thorstein Veblen tackled the mud-sill theory from the other end, publishing in 1899 his Theory of the Leisure Class. The book was not an exposition on the nature and practice of leisure, but rather an investigation of Darwinian-style institutional economics; of what happens when leisure meets money and power.

Veblen said that, as a society matures, some of the people will find that they can escape the need for full-time subsistence labor. This is done through the means of exploit and predation upon a class of industrious and unrefined (i.e. "those of a low order of intellect"). In Veblen's own words, industry "is effort that goes to create a new thing, with a new purpose given it by the fashioning hand of its maker," while exploit "is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to other ends by another agent."

The leisure class coincides with "a transition from a peaceful to a consistently warlike habit of life." Leisure must be preserved by predation and by inflicting injury on others (ostensibly to protect the economy or preserve the way of live). "the ancient tradition of the predatory culture is that productive effort is to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men."

The rich and powerful wear leisure as a badge to distinguish them from the lower classes, thus in the distinction of class, "the performance of labor has been accepted as a conventional evidence of inferior force; therefore it comes itself, by a mental short-cut, to be regarded as intrinsically base."

Veblen said that time had to be consumed in ways that are not productive "as evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness." From this idea arises the now-famous term, Conspicuous Consumption. There must be visible evidence of worthiness for one's exalted position in society, which demands excess and waste in the highest degree. From this perspective, the first institution of ownership "has begun with the ownership of persons..." Human resources, if you will. Ironically, this feeling of ownership does not extend to family ties; "the reputable maintenance of a child is very considerable and acts as a powerful deterrent."

Conspicuous consumption turned superfluous things into commodities and then into necessities of life. Things that had been done without in the past would become indispensable to the present. Even religion was a thing to be consumed, without the actual need to follow a particular precept or to mind inconvenient "commandments." Religious devotion was a putative thing; meant to be worn on the sleeves and displayed as a public adornment.

To the leisure class, utility and beauty become a function of cost. You get what you pay for. Under the law of conspicuous consumption, "admission to the [leisure] class is gained by... aptitudes for acquisition rather than serviceability."

In modern times, Veblen said, the "lines of demarcation" between the classes would become "vague and transient." In such a condition, the "norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its coercive influence ... down through the social structure." Each class would accept as its ideal of right living the form practiced by the next higher stratum. The dignity of the poor would not allow them to cast aside some "last trinket or... pretense of pecuniary decency" (better to starve); the middle class (a well-compensated class of people among whom there was "no starvation, no begging, no want of employment," to use James Hammond's verbiage) would fill its spare time with petty consumption, recreation, and ease.

Education for the leisure class gains as its "dominant aim... the preparation of the youth... for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial[.]" As for teachers, "administrative ability and skill in advertising the enterprise count for rather more than they once did, as qualifications for the work of teaching." The idea of work would become limited to only those activities likely to produce pecuniary gain while the standard of living would reach and even exceed the earning capacity of the class. Regardless of the situation, the tendency would be to live beyond one's means.

There is, however, a certain dissatisfaction with belonging to a leisure class. It is that nobody wants to feel useless or unproductive. Veblen said that people have an internal instinct for workmanship. How can there be a reconciliation between the ideal of conspicuous waste and the human need to produce?

It would be done through the "make-believe of purposeful employment." The leisure class would invent for itself "duties of a ceremonious nature." There would be much coming and going and a great deal of talk; they would become talkers and take their place among the most busy of all people. This new kind of "work" would leave little time to reflect on the "economic value of their traffic." A whole new type of false production was imagined: man invented the MBA. Leisure would be filled to the brim with management.

**********

Leisure, when corrupted by money and power, is no better than idleness and extravagance. But it has not always been the case for leisure to be viewed exclusively as an indicator of class distinction or economic success. It's true that leisure is more precious than gold. Leisure is the mother of philosophy and an essential vehicle for the development of character.

David McCulough said that, to the American Founders, the pursuit of happiness "didn't mean long vacations or material possessions or ease. As much as anything it meant the life of the mind and spirit. It meant education and the love of learning, the liberty to think for oneself."

In twenty-two volumes of British National Biographies detailing the lives of noteworthy individuals, there are nearly a thousand instances of leisure. In not a single case, that I could find, did leisure coincide with idleness. These notable people, almost without exception, filled their leisure with literacy and a passionate pursuit of self improvement.

"I must study politics and war," wrote John Adams, "that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Is it fair to view John Adams' vision as a litmus test for the success of the American experiment? In America, do we have time for leisure? If so, how do we spend it? Is ours a culture of economic and conspicuous consumption that relies on the toil of lesser classes, or is it a culture of refinement, education, and self improvement where Americans are self sufficient?