Monday, March 8, 2010

i'm a real samurai

Veblen, an inveterate reader of ethnographies, noticed a historical pattern that could illuminate America’s peculiar relationship with its economic institutions. Societies everywhere fall between two extremes. First, there are societies in which every person works, and no one is demeaned by his or her toil. In these societies, individuals pride themselves on their workmanship, and they exhibit a natural concern for the welfare of their entire community. As examples of such “productive” societies, Veblen mentions Native Americans, the Ainus of Japan, the Todas of the Nilgiri hills and the bushmen of Australia. Second, there are “barbarian” societies, in which a single dominant class (usually of warriors) seizes the wealth and produce of others through force or fraud—think ancient Vikings, Japanese shoguns and Polynesian tribesmen. Farmers labor for their livelihood and warriors expropriate the fruits of that labor. Exploitative elites take no part in the actual production of wealth; they live off the toil of others. Yet far from being judged criminal or indolent, they are revered by the rest of the community. In barbarian societies, nothing is as manly, as venerated, as envied, as the lives of warriors. Their every trait—their predatory practices, their dress, their sport, their gait, their speech—is held in high esteem by all.


In barbarian societies, the warriors plunder and parade. Their homes adorned with booty from past raids, they brazenly announce their superiority to the rest of their community. Destructive and wasteful, they avoid accusations of spiritual and social infertility by defining what counts as spiritual and social wealth. As Veblen notes, “The obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.” All throughout history, in fact, virtues of manliness track the least productive—and most esteemed—professions, hobbies and social ambitions. Fight, idle, wear ornate clothing, but suffer not touching the earth or assisting one’s fellow man.


The Wall Street worker understands that he is not yesterday’s noble captain of industry, but merely a deckhand on a ship rowing between the Scylla of unethical trading and Charybdis of financial ruin. To pass these troubled waters, someone needs to be sacrificed. On occasion, Scylla will capture a few of the crew (Madoff, Stanford), but generally, only clientele have to be handed over. Lewis describes his peculiar relief at being able to slough off financial losses:

[The client] was shouting and moaning. And that was it. That was all he could do. Shout and moan. That was the beauty of being a middleman, which I did not appreciate until that moment. The customer suffered. I didn’t. He wasn’t going to kill me. He wasn’t even going to sue me. I wasn’t going to lose my job. On the contrary, I was a minor hero at Salomon for dumping a sixty-thousand-dollar loss into someone else’s pocket.

the Point Magazine, courtesy of Woods Lot, the rest here.

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