As an interpretation somewhat removed from mainstream Marxism, the natural synergies between Communism and Capitalism are a favorite topic of this blog. This trait was best recognized by no other than an American, organic anti-capitalist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). Veblen had been a keen student of Marx’s ideas, and he was not at all convinced. He considered that Marxism, while critical of some tenets of Liberalism, in the end stood firmly within the latter’s premises. This is due to their shared origin in both Hedonism and the doctrine of Natural Rights, the basis of English Liberal thought and the foundation of Marxist ideas of property, economic development and social evolution.
Veblen had his own class theory, which was rooted in neither of these three elements. In his book “Theory of the Leisure Class”, he identified the dominant class in Capitalism as an “idle” sector of society, made up of individuals who held as a common characteristic not being industrialists nor carrying out productive work: the leisure class. This sector of society is derived from the social customs of primitive societies, and can be traced to the origins of the division of labor. Said division was established mainly between productive and non-productive work. The former was characterized by efficiency, industriousness, and a greater capacity to supply the tribe of material goods; the latter was more prestigious, and implied depredation on another living being, animal or human, usually as a display of prowess. Archetypal examples of both activities are agriculture and manufacture, on the one side, and hunting and combat on the other.
Sexual division of labor was embedded within this distinction, males being the dominant, leisurely class; practices such as wife kidnapping and slavery are derived from this culture, and thus were central to social organization. Thus, the leisure class grouped together men who did not engage in any materially productive activity. On the contrary, they dedicated themselves to spending and, especially, superfluous spending, while taking on unproductive tasks related to government, the military, religion, and sports. Their ability to spend was revealed by the accumulation of riches, slaves, servants and wives, all of which had to be mantained.
As shown above, the violent acquisition of goods and their display was a direct indicator of prowess and thus awarded prestige to the owner. As irrational beings, instinctively Humans will look for ways to increase their social status, even to the detriment of their material well-being. The original leisure class demonstrated their superiority not by producing more, but by their increased capacity for wasting resources. Thus, as a demonstration of power and social position, a culture emerged in which conspicuous consumption was a sign of prestige and honorability. To be able to maintain servants exclusively dedicated to minor, ritualized and/or non-essential tasks (such as music playing, or help in dressing up) represented an enormous pecuniary power, a symbol of prowess. The subsequent refinement in form and manners and progressive stratification of social hierarchies was the prime characteristic of barbaric feudalism, eventually leading to civilized society.
According to Veblen, in the peace awarded by this blossoming civilization, the predatory instincts of the barbarian and feudal eras became more and more absorbed by economic institutions. Archaic practices such as concubinage and the violent capture of slaves were not repressed, but transformed. Bourgeois capitalists, who had earned a measure of respect from the authors of the Communist Manifesto, were in the American economist’s judgment a bunch of greedy simpletons, with the mentality of lower class criminals. Lacking an outlet in tribal warfare, their rapacious instincts had been reconfigured under the guise of corporate fraud. Capitalism isn’t built on owners and proletarians, as Marx thought, but on two types of men: those who create value through industry and those who feed on money itself. Society asks of the former to be diligent, effective, and cooperative; of the latter, to be aggressive, to exert power, and to live off the others.
The exercise of power is not a simple enjoyment for members of the leisure class: it represents their only means of life, and it depends completely on social status and credibility. Enjoying a luxurious lifestyle is a serious matter, requiring considerable effort and dedication. Social obligations are called obligations for a reason. Hierarchies are upheld by displays of pecuniary strength through a form of specialized spending: acquisition of luxury items for oneself and one’s dependants. Veblen explicitly cites women’s clothing as an industry capitalizing on this impulse, this being the quintessential example of conspicuous consumption of women and, especially, their men. Yachts are another example of this, their upkeep being enormous and their use being almost purely social.
Economic life is just an arena where individuals fight for power. There are is no social classes, no nations and no states in Veblen’s theory. In the same way, neither do politics have the function of managing the economy and responding to social demands. On the contrary: politics is just a vehicle of Man’s desire for power. Statesmen are not there to monitor compliance with supposed laws of balance and justice, nor to protect the ideal of the common good. Politics is a business. And as in any business, the goal is to make the most profit possible, with the least expenses (or, even better, with others paying the price). Politics is the fight in which, in order for one to win, the other has to lose: the ultimate social zero-sum game.
This system, of course, is not designed to select the cream of the crop. Its effect is as simple as can be: to eliminate those individuals who cannot keep up. Veblen speaks without reservation in this context of the physical elimination of human material. This is the real mechanism of Darwinian Capitalism, and the real reason why crafty commerce and unscrupulous state administration perpetuate themselves, only serving the purposes of their masters. In direct opposition to Marx, Veblen knows that Capitalism is not there to produce better, but to discard human material; this is the root of its accelerationist effect. It has to be noted that in Veblen’s time, these statements about human selection were not controversial in the slightest. They were seen as a feature and not a bug of the system, and were fully in consonance with the expectations of the American Capitalist elite. The capitalist “shock therapy” introduced in Eastern Europe and Russia after the fall of real socialism is a magnificent example of this mechanism.
The leisure class is made up of the men of the upper classes, although what is decisive about them is not their economic situation but their disposition to adapt to continuous change. If individuals from the lower classes are eliminated, says Veblen, it is not because of their material hardship, but because they do not have the capacity to evolve at the rate of change promoted by the leisure class. Furthermore, they are more easily purged when they commit the recklessness of emulating the conduct of the upper classes without belonging to them.
Like individuals, institutions are also subject to the selection process. Only the best can survive, the working definition of “best” being those which themselves contribute to further selection of the most convenient mental habits. Veblen sees in Capitalism an unproductive organism in service of financial power: a tool against the productive class. Unlike Marx, Veblen thought that the pure monetary, “unearned” profit obtained by financial capitalists was not the surplus value created by the workers’ exploitation. It was the result of a network of three institutions: price, property and contract; magic formulas of power and engines of spending to which everyone submits, some with pleasure, and others despite themselves.
The role of these institutions is to stimulate and ensure continuous spending, especially of the conspicuous variety. A required rate of consumption unattainable for those in the bottom is essential for the leisure class to maintain power. This is especially true in industrial societies with traumatic erasures of the past, like America or some East Asian countries. The ante-bellum South had a traditional, martial leisure class similar to those found in European or Japanese barbarian culture. Those elites who could afford slaves, the ultimate status sign, were a small minority and enjoyed an idle way of life rich in ritual and social etiquette; their conflict with the industrial, productive North was thus unavoidable. The former could not keep up with the weapons of the latter: the price system, artificial scarcity and planned obsolescence.
The Civil War, however, did not eliminate the leisure class, but only its most traditional and outdated exponent. The death warrant of Southern slave-owning gentry wasn’t signed due to its low productiveness, but of its lagging capacity to compete in spending with the emerging northern capitalists, the America of holds and robber barons. The trend of traditional, “barbarian” leisure classes being substituted by a capitalist and globalist working class accelerated throughout the end of the 19th century, as pecuniary power became progressively disengaged from war spoils and every day more connected to predatory capitalism. Conflicts with a similar root followed the American Civil War all around the world, such as the Meiji Restoration in Japan and to some extent the First World War, which ended most European monarchies and empires in one sweep (with President Woodrow Wilson’s explicit intent to do so). The new elites would take on occupations according to their rank: politics, the military, religion and sports.
Veblen can be described as an anti-Marxist militant throughout his life. This anti-Marxism is what made him an enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution. A few months prior to his death, he said that he had set great hopes on Communism. The revolutionaries he had in mind, though, were not the same communists the authorities were thinking of when they opened an investigation against Veblen in response to the complaint of a Russian-born emigrant, who accused him of being “a traitor for hire who wishes for America what Lenin and Trotsky have done in Russia”. However, Veblen was no Trotskyist, but a Stalin devotee, in the sense he favored Stalinist emphasis on the material development of the USSR and not Trotsky’s theory of worldwide revolution.
In an essay with the title “Bolshevism is a threat – to whom?” he wrote that the Bolsheviks posed a threat to the establishment, but not because they could take over the United States. As happens with all revolutions, the threat was memetic in nature. Veblen explained it in a series of papers published together in 1921 under the title “The Engineers and the Price System”. It was his most subversive book; in it he encouraged engineers to create a “Soviet of Technicians” to attack the bankers, who were simply saboteurs unscrupulously hindering production to obtain better prices. The American leisure class was not endangered by the diverse soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants that Lenin had designed. The enemy it feared was a conspiracy of engineers and scientists revolting against their rule and way of life. Thus, any hint of utopian technocracy is to be coopted or destroyed.
The current crisis of Capitalism is both the manifestation of individualistic, internal competition within the leisure class, and the unavoidable result of its accelerationist, meat grinder-like nature. European Union mandarins, Blackrock finance druids, Silicon Valley technolords and Open Society spooks are all representative types of the contemporary leisure class; the same can be said of Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Kanye West. Their common enemy has not changed either: it is the productive class, now incarnated in the Chinese industrial juggernaut, itself a body infested by voracious and parasytical financiers and CCP bureaucrats. Meanwhile, ghetto thugs, BLM activists, lone-wolf jihadis, resentful incels and impoverished woke millenials go down the drain, leftover from pecuniary emulation of the leisure class and marked for physical elimination by way of death, prison or childlessness. The Dramatis personae for 21st century drama grows everyday more extensive.