In the previous two posts I’ve begun reflecting on Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicious Consumption thesis about ‘the leisure class’ – a group of people he identifies who feel that work is somehow below them:
‘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.’
He also adds to warfare and priestly service governance and sport, and goes on to explore how:
‘When the community passes from peaceable savagery to a predatory phase of life […] the activity of the men more and more takes on the character of exploit. Tangible evidences of prowess – trophies – find a place in men’s habits.’
I’ve suggested that this implies a change in the thinking I set out in the book, and adds a third economy to the pair of market and gift. I’ve decided to call this the ‘plunder economy’, and, like the other two, has its own relational characteristics, which I want to set out here before exploring what the implications are for us in terms of urban spirituality.
I’ve often used the examples of food transaction to think about these different economies. The economy of the gift is characterised by having someone round for dinner. It would be a) offensive to offer to pay for the meal at the end of the night and b) strange if the gift was not reciprocated in some way at some later date. In the gift economy there is a movement of the empty place – and thus a virtuous circle of relational potential built up.
The market economy is analogous to going to a restaurant, or the supermarket. You pay your money, and get your food. The scales are balanced, so there is no ’empty place’ to move, and thus no relational potential. For better or worse, the market is typically relationally benign. You don’t go hugging the chef after a meal and demanding they must come over to your place some time. The money deals with it.
So as an example of the plunder economy, I’ll suggest another culinary situation: stealing food from a shop, or walking out without paying. In many ways, plunder is thus ‘anti-gift’. There is an empty place again, but it is a place of hurt, a place where relationships are destroyed, not built up. And this empty place is in danger of moving on, as people seek to fill their empty place by plundering themselves. A vicious, not virtuous circle.
On the surface then, it seems we can summarise things this way:
Lewis Hyde has expressed much of the idea of gift using hunting as another analogy. (See my chapter on Gift in The Complex Christ) But we can now expand on this and contrast it with Veblen’s view of the Victorian ‘leisure’ hunter as plunderer. Hyde’s hunters saw their activities as part of a cycle. The forest gives prey to them, they give the food to the priests, the priests offer it back to the forest. Veblen’s hunters are in no way part of such a cycle. They take from the forest, and hang the stuffed heads on the walls as trophies. By thus emptying the forest, but not replacing, they will destroy the eco-cycle. And what they fail to recognise is that this will, by turn of the vicious circle, destroy them.
Plunderers are therefore a symbol of those who consider themselves outside of life’s cycles. Outside of the normal economy of work. Outside of the cycles of gift that sustain us. And outside of any ramifications that might have. They, like the celebrities I have mentioned are one modern equivalent, consider themselves immortal.
And its to the implications of this ‘set apartness’ – you might call it holiness, self-righteousness – of the plunderer that I want to turn to next. Because I think we have been guilty of collusion with this economy more than we might think.