OK, sorry if the last post was hard work. But sometimes you have to mine deep…
To summarize for those who didn’t make it: Veblen identified the ‘leisure class’ as those who typically don’t lower themselves to proper work, but rather flit around doing ‘trophy’ occupations. He uses the hunter as an example of this, which drew me back to Lewis Hyde’s thoughts on Maori hunting rituals and the nature of gift exchange, and thus to reflect on a 3rd economy of ‘plunder’ to go with gift and the market.
In the hunter analogy:
The gift-hunter (typified by the Maori) kills in the forest, offers cuts to the priest, who offers it back to the forest. A virtuous gift-cycle that binds hunter to priest to forest to hunter.
The plunder-hunter (typified by Veblen’s aristocrat hunters) kills in the forest and hangs the stuffed heads as trophies on the wall. A vicious anti-gift cycle.
In the food analogy:
Gift: people round for dinner. Market: buying from the supermarket. Plunder: theft or exploitation of food resources.
So what the hell is this all about, and why does it matter to us? Well, to quote from the end of the last post:
“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.”
Firstly, some implications for city life. I’m wondering if the economy of plunder is becoming almost the default for many people in urban areas. Many of the children I’ve taught have been convinced that they won’t need to work. They see celebrities living this glamourous life, a life of leisure, and aspire to that instead, thus disengaging from the proper gift and market cycles involved in everyday work. They want to be ‘players’ – a word Veblen would probably have latched on to if he’d been around now.
Beyond work though, the ‘player’ mentality is more deeply problematic. The plunderer pays no attention to the gift-cycles around them, and is thus blind to the interconnectedness of life. In a city this becomes a major cause of community friction. Thinking back to the post on noise, the plunderer plays their car stereo over-loud as a ‘trophy’ statement, oblivious to the effect the noise may be having on others. Drugs and petty crime are often mainstays in the plunder economy, and yet the plunderer sees little of the wider destructive effects that these things have.
So what might we do to bring about change? Firstly, we need to reflect on our own urban practice, and consider where we might be engaging in ‘plunder’. Secondly, just as the gift economy creates a virtuous circle, so the plunder economy creates its own destructive cycles. It can be very difficult to break these, but acts of generosity are certainly going to be a way in, allowing trust and mutual respect to replace fear and suspicion. There also need to be opportunities for people to begin working within the ‘market’, and those within business need to be proactively re-engaging with communities to inspire them. And finally, we need somehow to debunk this cult of celebrity which I believe is driving so many of these problems. Many of these people do actually work very hard – but the image of themselves that they promote is that they don’t. And somehow this needs to be countered.
I’ll end this series of posts with some final thoughts on implications for the church, which I believe has perhaps been less into gift than plunder than we might like to admit.