A second great current of change was to be found in the slow decay of the religious spirit under the impact of the skeptical, inquiring, humanist views of the Italian Renaissance. The world of Today elbowed aside the world of Tomorrow, and as life on earth became more important, so did the notion of material standards and ordinary comforts. Behind the change in religious tolerance was the rise of Protestantism, which hastened a new attitude toward work and wealth. The Church of Rome had always regarded the merchant with a dubious eye and had not hesitated to call usury a sin. But now this merchant was every day climbing in society, now that he was no longer a mere useful appendage but an integral part of a new kind of world, some reevaluation of his function became necessary. The Protestant leaders paved the way for an amalgamation of spiritual and temporal life. Far from eulogizing the life of poverty and spiritual contemplation, as separate from worldly life, they preached that it was pious to make the most of one's God-given talents in daily business. Acquisitiveness became a recognized virtue -- not immediately for one's private enjoyment, but for the greater glory of God. From here it was only a step to the identification of riches with spiritual excellence, and of rich men with saintly ones. [p.35]
Obviously, this is still the dominant philosophy in mainstream religions today and Catholics are fully on board. After all, some of that usury keeps the doors open. As I've stated before, it is my opinion that usury -- any interest charged -- must be eliminated if we are to reverse our destructive course. I had a casual acquaintance who I believe to be religious tell me that he thought that usury was charging interest greater than 10%. Is this the position of his religion? If so, is there some sort of floating rate?
The new philosophy [one emphasizing commerce as the great source of national vitality] brought with it a new social problem: how to keep the poor poor. It was generally admitted that unless the poor were poor, they could not be counted on to do an honest day's toil without asking for exorbitant wages. [p.40]
The results are in. Society has succeeded admirably in this task.
But the trouble with Physiocracy was that it insisted that only the agricultural worker produced true wealth because Nature labored at his side, whereas the manufacturing worker merely altered its form in a "sterile" way. [p.49]
In a world of depleted fisheries and other natural resources, we may well return to this position.
But [Adam] Smith was above all a realist. In the very long run, he saw that a growing population would push wages back to their "natural" level. When would that time come? Clearly, it would arrive when society had run out of unused resources and introduced as fine a division of labor as possible. In a word, growth would come to an end when the economy had extended its boundaries to their limits, and then fully utilized its increased economic "space."
But why could not that boundary be further expanded? The answer is that Smith saw the all-important division of labor as a once-for-all, not a continuing process. As has been recently pointed out, he did not see the organizational and technological core of the division of labor as a self-generating process of change, but as a discrete advance that would impart its stimulus and then disappear. Thus, in the very long run the growth momentum of society would come to a halt -- Smith once mentions two hundred years as the longest period over which a society could hope to flourish. Thereafter the laborer would return to his subsistence wages, the capitalist to the modest profits of a stable market, and the landlord alone might enjoy a somewhat higher income as food production remained at the levels required by a larger, although no longer growing, population. For all its optimistic boldness, Smith's vision is bounded, careful, sober -- for the long run, even sobering. [p.67]
Today's situation is certainly sober. How do we address this reality in a comprehensive way?
They [the classical economists] saw the world in terms of individuals who rationally sought to better their own self-interest. Sometimes, as with Malthus's hopelessly multiplying laboring classes, brute human nature got the upper hand, but by and large mankind was depicted as a collection of reasoning beings. In the competitive struggle some rose to the top and some sta[r]ved at the bottom, and those who were fortunate or sagacious enough to prosper quite naturally took advantage of their fortune to minimize their labors. It was all very simple and quite reasonable.
But such a view of mankind made little sense to Veblen. He was not at all sure that the force that bound society together was the interplay of rationally calculated "self-interest," and he was not even wholly convinced that leisure was in and of itself preferable to work. His readings had introduced him to the ways of little-noticed peoples: the American Indians and the Ainus of Japan, the Todas of the Nilgiri hills and the bushmen of Australia. And these people, in their own simple economies seemed to lack a leisure class entirely. Even more striking, in such communities where the price of survival was labor, everyone worked, whatever his task, without feeling demeaned by his toil. It was not considerations of profit and loss that provided the positive drive of these economies, but a natural pride of workmanship and a parental feeling of concern for the future generations. [p.230]
This is obviously the antithesis of the "mine"ful culture that dominates today in the "developed" world.
But although the leisure classes [in certain societies] took without rendering any productive service in return, they did so with the full approval of the community. For these societies were not only rich enough to be able to afford a nonproductive class, but aggressive enough to admire them; far from being regarded as wasters or spoilers, those who rose to the leisured ranks were looked up to as the strong and the able. [p.231]
I think that most would agree that this is the prevailing attitude in the "rich" countries today. So the question is: what will be the tipping point to a mindset where we no longer think that we are rich? Will it be a market crash caused by the Boomer demographic fundamentals?
The workers do not seek to displace their managers; they seek to emulate them. [p. 233]
Again, what will be the tipping point to a mindset where we no longer admire the managerial class? When?
...but the Harrimans, Morgans, Fricks, and Rockefellers were far more interested in the manipulation of huge masses of intangible wealth than in the humdrum business of turning out goods. [p.237]
The Bush family is a contemporary example of this type of manipulation and the majority of the population does not seem to have a problem with their lack of productive activity.
In other words, the whole gain in technological unification [occurring during the time of the Robber Barons] was subverted to the end of maintaining a structure of make-believe finance. [p.238]
The same is true today but a majority of the public is complicit due to their ownership of stock. Very few in power have an incentive to call attention to the emperor's lack of clothes.
He [Thorstein Veblen] looked back on the days at [the University of] Chicago and summed up the perversion of centers of learning into centers of high-powered public relations and football in the most stinging commentary ever penned on the American university: The Higher Learning in America. While it was still in composition Veblen said, half-seriously, that it would be subtitled "A Study in Total Depravity." [p.241]
Some recognized the "depravity" earlier than others. It should be noted that the University of Chicago was initially funded by the Robber Barons. This may help explain the big business bias of the economics department that exists even today.
In the sequence of cultural evolution the emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership. This is necessarily the case, for these two institutions result from the same set of economic forces. In the inchoate phase of their development they are but different aspects of the same general facts of social structure. [p.22]
But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. [p.31]
As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labour, the energies of the industrious members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous expenditure, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace. [p.111]
Remember, this book was published in 1899. Those who predicted that we would have more leisure as productivity improved were unaware of this point or hoped that we would have developed beyond it. I believe that the time is right for a new class that incorporates leisure, but is not defined by leisure. An integral class that balances leisure with other goals including intellect, spirituality, etc. The wellness balance/wheel that wellness proponents describe.