The 3rd Economy: Gift, Market and Plunder [1] | Christian Leadership and the Leisure Class

0143037595.01. Scmzzzzzzz 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

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3 responses to “The 3rd Economy: Gift, Market and Plunder [1] | Christian Leadership and the Leisure Class”

  1. Dana Ames

    This looks interesting. Thanks for blogging it and your ideas.
    Another blogger I read, Michael Kruse, is very interested in economics & Christianity. I think you and he could have some very fruitful discussions, if you have time. I’m not sure you would agree on some particulars, but you are both good thinkers “looking for the Kingdom of God”, and could probably find some very interesting common ground.
    Best to you-

  2. I’m not sure that pro footballers are ‘the leisure class’ – the very top ones may earn £120000 a week but they work very hard (ok, in spates) for it: witness Beckham’s physical illness on-pitch as a current example. The extreme physical extremes they put themselves through means that they’ll be literally crippled in later life (Tommy Smith lives nearby here: he can’t walk any more).
    Honour attaches to a sportsperson for a brief window while they’re at their peak; after that they have to fend for themselves, many through taking up less ‘leisurely’ employment.
    Reflecting on Veblen’s thesis I think that pro football IS an industrial occupation – a branch of the leisure industry. And just like their predecessors these guys are working-class. The leisure class are still those born advantaged who are sent to schools which teach them governance, warfare, religious observance and sports, and sadly, yes, the church still serves them far more readily than it serves industrial workers. That’s the main reason, I think, why the church is seen as part of the ‘leisure class’.

  3. Really interesting points John. I’d agree that perhaps traditionally footballers have been ‘industrial’, but I think that if we haven’t already moved away from that, we are doing so rapidly.
    The difference will perhaps only become apparent when people like Beckham start to retire. These are guys who simply will never need to work again. I’ve heard them justify their wages with arguements about the brevity of their careers, and I think this consolidates their place in the ‘leisure class’. They consider other employment (other than connected punditry or coaching) totally below them. Sure, they may have working class roots, but they are plucked from that and taken into a different world… What Veblen might have called the ‘celebrity class’ – who just don’t think that they ought to have to work at all.