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The Manly Barbarian:
Masculinity & Exploit in Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class

[1]1,371 words

Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class was written as a treatise on economics, but in pieces—like the work of Freud and Darwin—it reads today like an early stab at evolutionary psychology. I decided to dig into it after reading Venkatesh Rao’s brilliant essay “The Return of the Barbarian [2].” Rao updated some of Veblen’s basic ideas and used them as a jumping off point for an argument about conflicts between sedentary cultures (which invest everything into civilization and become completely dependent on it) and pastoral nomads (who are used to thinking on their feet). I was interested in the way that the traits Veblen assigned to Barbarians overlap with the archetypal essence of masculinity I developed in The Way of Men [3]. “Manliness-as-barbarianism” offers a muscular way to expand an anti-modern, extra-Christian understanding of men and masculinity.

Veblen’s opening “Introductory” essay is alive, colorfully written and packed with interesting ideas. The rest of the book, although peppered with smart and timeless observations, suffers from a middle class bookworm’s ressentiment toward both “delinquent” bullies and predatory elitists (who he thinks have a lot in common) as well as a lot of rambling, convoluted writing and thinking about classes which no longer exist in quite the same forms.

His basic theory rests on the idea that humans were once relatively peaceful savages who acquired a predatory habit. These peaceful savages—“noble savages,” you might say—shared work and resources, and could afford no class of individuals who abstained from certain kinds of work. However, as men developed the knack for preying on other living creatures, including other groups of men, divisions of labor occurred. Men are generally better suited to hunting and fighting, so hunting and fighting became man’s work, and women were left to do the work which remained. This gendered split of labor occurs at the “lower” stage of barbarism, when technology has advanced to the point where hunting and fighting are feasible, and opportunities for hunting and fighting occur with enough regularity for the action to become culturally important to the group. For instance, an isolated island with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but no pigs to hunt, would be less conducive to the predatory “habit” of mind.

According to Veblen, the barbarian man’s work is characterized by exploit. He “reaps what he has not strewn.” The manly barbarian takes what he wants with a violent hand and an iron will.

More broadly, the work of men deals with animate phenomena. Veblen stresses that, to the barbarian, that which is “animate” is not merely what is “alive.” Like his contemporary Thomas Carlyle, he recognized that our forefathers inhabited a far more magical world. As Carlyle wrote in Heroes and Hero-Worship:

To the wild, deep-hearted man all was yet new, not veiled under names or formulas; it stood naked, flashing in on him there, beautiful, awful, unspeakable…

. . . The world, which is now divine only to the gifted, was then divine to whosoever would turn his eye upon it.

The angry volcano, the changeable sea, the exclamatory thunderclap and the snap of lighting—each one as animated as a bear or a snake or a herd of aurochs. Before our age of conceit, the whole world was alive in a way. The task of man was to challenge and master the world, to dare and to fight against its untamed fury. To leap a crevasse, to climb a mountain, to tramp through the white powder that falls from the sky. In Veblen’s words, the work of men was work that demanded “prowess,” not mere “diligence” and “drudgery.”

According to him, “virtually the whole range of industrial employments is an outgrowth of what is classed as women’s work in the primitive barbarian community.” Men reserved their strength for dynamic activities. Mere chores—the preparation of food, the production of clothing, the repetitive execution of menial processes—were assigned to women, to the weak and infirm, to slaves.

Masculinity must be proved, and the work that demonstrates strength, courage and mastery, bestows proof. A fresh carcass, a rack of antlers, a string of ears, your enemy’s wife. These proofs of exploit convey achievement and status. The trophy is physical evidence of honor and successful initiation into the hierarchy of men, a symbolic representation of dominance demonstrated in conflict with men or beasts. Veblen wrote:

Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honor, the taking of life—the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human—is honorable in the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer’s prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all of the tools and accessories of the act. Arms are honorable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the fields, becomes an honorific employment. At the same time, employment in industry becomes correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of the tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Labor becomes irksome.

The accumulation of objects of honor becomes an end in itself, and Veblen’s economic theory is based on the idea that as civilizations become more complex, symbols and the appearance of honor become more important than honorific deeds themselves. The upper classes make ostentatious and often wasteful displays of wealth as a matter of habit, and—especially in the open-caste system of American society—the lower and middle classes toil to gain honor by attaining high-end goods. Hence, the popular obsession with logos, luxury vehicles and all our sundry forms of bling and swag.

More relevant to the discussion of masculinity, however, is Veblen’s breakdown of manly and unmanly work. As the drudgery of industry among those engaged in lackluster occupations increases in efficiency, a surplus of goods allows particularly talented or well-born men to devote themselves completely to tasks which produce little of tangible value, but which deal specifically with the animate world and the application or management of exploit. These non-industrial occupations include government, warfare, religious observances, and sports. In the barbarian world, where manly exploit is righteousness, the highest status men are warriors, priests, and kings. Athletics include abstract rehearsals for war and the practice or demonstration of skills applicable to hunting, fighting or mastering nature. The rightful role of the barbarian priest—as storyteller, shaman, philosopher, scribe and artist—is to place the exploits of men in the magical, animate world. The barbarian priest provides the barbarian warrior with a compelling narrative. As Mishima might say, the priest finds the poetry in the splash of blood.

Veblen’s take on the predatory culture of barbarian thugs—and evidence of it in the aristocracy of his time—was somewhat snide. He was clearly biased in favor of the sensible, hard-working middle class, who he saw as being less concerned with violence and exploit, and more in touch with the peaceful ways of pre-barbarian savages. Today, there is every reason to believe that tribal violence has always been golden [4] to males, as it is even in our close ancestors, the chimpanzees. The supposedly non-violent savages studied by the scientists and explorers of Veblen’s era are more reasonably understood as culs-de-sac in human cultural development. In zero scarcity pockets of peace and plenty, men tend to lapse into softness and mother-worship. Men who are attracted to the barbarian way of life—or the idea of it—continually warn against this tendency. Settled as we are in this suburban bonobo cul-de-sac of a global empire, the majority of modern men can only daydream about an age of blood and poetry, and listen to stories about the days of high adventure [5].

If we put aside fantasies of noble savages and recognize the barbarian as the father of all men, his interest in exploit and preference for demonstrations of prowess over mere industry help to explain some of the conflicts between manliness and our modern industrial (and post-industrial) way of life. Anti-modern passions in men, while often couched in talk of the greatness of dying or past civilizations, are also often connected to a yearning for a return to the “barbarian values” of blood, honor, magic, poetry, adventure and exploit which are forbidden to all but a few in our “evolved” modern world.