As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a novel for the past few months, playing with themes, among others, of the links between identity and consumption. One of the books I’ve picked up to feed the furnace has been Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 satire Conspicuous Consumption (an excerpt from his longer work The Theory of the Leisure Class, available as part of the lovely Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series), and I’m glad I did, as it’s nudged me to re-thinking some of the ideas on gift within The Complex Christ. These are unrefined thoughts, but I wanted to set out a few posts on what I’ve mulled over.
Firstly, an outline of Veblen’s ideas.
His thesis begins with an examination of what he calls the ‘leisure class’ which ‘is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture; as, for instance, in feudal Europe or Japan. This leisure class is basically what we might now call the aristocracy, but his labeling is quite deliberate and, I think, rather contemporary. What obviously separates them – and Veblen gets us to think about this in more ancient cultures, rather than just in terms of stately homes etc. – is their employment:
‘The upper (leisure) classes are by custom exempt from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a certain degree of honour attaches. Chief among the honourable employments in any feudal community is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to warfare.’
Actually, Veblen continues to list four main lines of activity for the leisure class: government, warfare, religious observance and sports. And, as World Cup fever truly grips (perhaps for only 4 more hours as England face Ecuador at 1600) it is interesting to note our continued fascination with the leisure class – we might call them celebrities now I suppose – who play for £120000 a week.
I want to explore the links Veblen identifies between warfare, consumption and leisure in another post. What interests me briefly here is whether Christian leadership is still seen as part of the ‘leisure class’ – a get out from real work, an escape of some sort.
Perhaps I’ll do no more than present the question; what I would like to add is this fascinating quote from a letter a great friend and critic of Thomas Merton wrote to him. It talks of ‘the monastic’, but made me think on the insularity of some full-time Christian work:
“The point of being a Christian in the city is to try to humanize modern technology and modern society, and you [Merton] are trying to escape this. Let us admit that at the outset I am radically out of sympathy with the monastic project. […] All monasticism rests on a mistaken confusion of creation with this world, and so they suppose that by withdrawing in some symbolic fashion from creation they are leaving the world. But creation is precisely not the world, but its antithesis, and so what they do is essentially the opposite of salvation. They withdraw from creation into the desert taking ‘this world’ with them and then they dwell apart from creation, but in a newly erected kingdom of the prince of this world. You have not withdrawn from this world into heaven, you have withdrawn from creation into hell.”
Rosemary Ruether writing to Merton. In Merton: A Biography, Monica Furlong, p 287