The 3rd Economy: Gift, Market and Plunder [2] | Individual Ownership and The Root of Warfare

Tarapalmer-1In the previous post I began to set out some further thoughts on gift, springing from my reading of Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 satire Conspicuous Consumption. I want to continue to develop the thoughts outlined there about the ‘leisure class’ that Veblen describes.

Essentially, we might now see them as the aristocracy, or celebrities. They are those who do not feel they ought to work. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is perhaps the best example I can give for a UK readership. I’m sure there are similar figures in other countries. These people are allowed to work, but classically only in ‘governance, sport, priesthood and warfare.’ *

Veblen notes:

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‘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.’

What I think he is suggesting, here and elsewhere, is that there is a connection between the rise of individual ownership and war. Trophies – evidences of a warrior’s powerful exploits – are perhaps the first items that attain individual ownership status, as they are potent symbols. We thus enter a vicious circle: the way to display power over another group is to plunder the symbols they hold of their own exploits. And so war and retaliation and the growth of personal wealth as a symbol of power and might increases.

I’ll expand on this in the next post, but basically this suggests to me that, in addition to the economies of gift and the market I mentioned in the book, there is a 3rd economy – the economy of ‘plunder’. And, as with the other economies, the economy of plunder has its own leverage in terms of relationships between parties on the two sides of the exchange.

* And yes, I’d put Tara P-T in the role of priest. Celebrities do carry that function in many ways now.


3 responses to “The 3rd Economy: Gift, Market and Plunder [2] | Individual Ownership and The Root of Warfare”

  1. How would Tara ride into Jerusalem? Auto-crucified by plastic surgery.
    Kes, are 4×4’s a symbol of plunder? If so it’s a weird one, as wealth has always carried an element of ‘unconditional expenditure’ (to use Bataille’s terminology) and excess. It’s a really difficult line to tread, for as much as I hate the pig-ignorance of the wealthy and the pretenders, there is a real space for non-utilitarian acts and waste. Maybe it’s back to the nature of transaction and community, potlatch versus shopping- the difference between individual excess and organised communal destruction. There is also the question of the nature of consumption, Lewis Hyde’s definition of consumption being the same as movement- ownership is always static.
    Do you remember, back in the days of yore, we were going to do something on the idea of ‘God is useless’? I’ve still got the sketches.

  2. When you say ‘there is real space for non-utilitarian acts and waste’ you’re right – I think we have to ‘distinguish between potlatch and shopping’. Nice turn of phrase.
    On the 4×4’s, I would think they could be seen as a symbol of plunder, but only in certain contexts. Your farmer dad, for example, might actually well need a vehicle like that. If you go around Africa, an old Defender is a symbol of frugality, not frivolity as they can be so infinitely repaired. But around London… yes, I’d say they were definitely trophy vehicles. A pure status symbol, or status sign – physically putting people above others.
    This is a classic example of the vicious circle, because the justification many people give for having them is security – they offer better protection. But the logical conclusion of that is that if we all have them, then they wouldn’t offer better protection, so the rich would get even bigger ones… and so it continues.
    I’ll get onto what I mean by plunder soon, but suffice to say, the only way out of such a viscious circle is through ‘gift’ – a positioning of the other before the self… And in such a position you wouldn’t buy the 4×4 as it would harm ‘the other’.

  3. have you seen banksy’s latest?
    thought of this series of posts straight away… actually, i’m staying in kensington, post greenbelt. these posts are on my mind every day.
    i was hoping to meet you at greenbelt – where did the weekend go? loved the talk.