Peace & War: theories of the warrior class

In my last post I explained Rivers’ ‘conversion’ from evolutionary to diffusionist models of social change. Before returning to psychology – and articulating a particular thesis about Cambridge moral science in my next post – I highlight some salient features of the two models by way of a concrete comparison. In this post I compare the historical explanations of the hegemony of a non-industrial elite class in modern society provided by, respectively, Thorstein Veblen and W.J. Perry.

Veblen (1857-1929) was a North American economist, who combined a background in philosophy with a profoundly original mind. He is hailed today as the founder of a heterodox ‘institutional school’ of economics. My discussion is derived from the first chapter of his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Please note that in writing on Veblen I am entering what for me is virgin territory, and I call upon those who know his writings better to catch me if I stumble.

Veblen adopts the evolutionary framework of Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877). He posits ‘primitive savage culture’ as peaceable, sedentary, and poor, and savage society as simple (‘archaic’) in structure and without a developed system of individual ownership.  He tries to show that social evolution out of this simple state of society generates a division of labour between those who work and those who engage in ‘exploit’ – predatory behaviour, primarily fighting, but also hunting. Out of this division grows a shift in cultural outlook, such that productive labour, which was once valued, is now deemed unworthy drudgery, while unproductive predatory exploit becomes honourable.

Two elements of Veblen’s argument should be highlighted:

(1) This is an account of how a cultural convention, or habit of mind, comes to overlay – and subvert – an instinct. The account as a whole can be considered an explanation of how the classical economic maxim that ‘man dislikes labour’ became true.  (With characteristic genius) Veblen points out that no animal species detests the activity requisite to its survival. All men, he argues, are born with an instinct of workmanship – and in primitive societies humans judge one another on the quality of their useful work. Veblen’s account of the emergence of the institution of the leisure class is thus an explanation of how social development generated a cultural state of mind that deemed workmanship unworthy – a cultural habit that subverts the original instinct.

(2) Veblen provides a self-consciously evolutionary account: he insists that the “transition from a peaceable to a consistently warlike habit of life” was “gradual” and not “an abrupt transition”, and he is careful to identify the material conditions of the shift in “spiritual” (i.e. mental and cultural) habits of social evaluation. Thus (for example):

Predation cannot become the habitual, conventional resource of any group or any class until industrial methods have been developed to such a degree of efficiency as to leave a margin worth fighting for, above the subsistence of those engaged in getting a living. The transition from peace to predation therefore depends on the growth of technical knowledge and the use of tools.

Perry (1887-1949) attended anthropology lectures in Edwardian Cambridge, became a protege of Rivers, a colleague of Grafton Elliot Smith, and a major spokesman for what has been called (with scorn) ‘hyper-diffusionism’: the idea that civilization developed but once – in Egypt – and spread from there across the globe. My discussion of Perry’s ideas is drawn from The Growth of Civilisation (1924). Here Perry reiterates Elliot Smith’s claims that a sort of ‘civilization package’ – a cultural bundle comprising agriculture, some domesticated animals, weaving, pottery, wood, stone and metal working, shipbuilding, and so on – was invented in Egypt and then spread around the world as Egyptian noblemen went in search of raw materials (a search for tin, for example, leads them to Western Europe). This account of the peaceful global diffusion of ‘archaic’ Egyptian civilization is put forward in direct opposition to the kind of evolutionary account developed by (among others) Veblen.

Perry assumes that human societies are naturally static and that development occurs only as a result of external interference. Perry, of course, believed he was giving a properly evolutionary account of the growth of civilization – which he treated as a unique thing the development of which was marked by continuity (rather than sporadic instances) and the emergence of which in Egypt was ultimately the product of random mutation. Perry emphasized the peaceful nature of both the archaic civilization and the primitive societies that it came into contact with. But drawing upon the idea of a ‘Heroic Age’ developed by the Cambridge Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, he posited a second mutation in the history of civilization, which occurred on the peripheries of the civilized world when fairly simple agricultural societies underwent corruption as a result of their contact with more sophisticated civilizations. The basic idea of this second mutation is that the young men of the agricultural societies find it more profitable to hire out their swords as mercenaries in the greater civilization than follow their fathers behind the plough: over time the social order of the simpler society collapses as a new order of warriors emerges, in which young men pledge their loyalty, not to their kin and elders, but to any warlord who promises booty and plunder. The new class of warriors now proceed to spread across the hitherto peaceful civilized world, conquering its various peoples and establishing themselves as a parasitical aristocratic order that values honour and war over peaceful industry – an aristocratic class that governs most of the nations of the globe to this day and which has repeatedly plunged the world into war ever since.

Commentary Both Veblen and Perry develop historical critiques of modern society that are built around the categories of productive and unproductive labour that Adam Smith borrowed from the Physiocrats. They both assume an initially peaceful and productive humanity and expose the values of modern culture to be those of unproductive bellicose warriors. I have found no evidence that Perry was aware of Veblen’s work and – with a certain sense of irony – proceed on the assumption that the overlap in their critiques of modern society was the result of  ‘independent invention’. If he had been aware of Veblen’s work, however, Perry would no doubt have identified it as another late nineteenth-century misinterpretation of social evolution and argued that a quarter of a century of anthropological and historical inquiry had generated sufficient empirical data to discredit the kind of conjectural framework that Veblen borrowed from Morgan. Of course there is another irony here in that modern anthropologists and historians would deny vehemently that Perry’s ‘hyper-diffusionist’ model was simply extrapolated from the evidence. The more interesting comment that arises from this comparison, however, is that Veblen’s version of evolution makes his critique of modern society much more profound than that of Perry. Perry’s history of civilisation provides a savage indictment of a warrior aristocracy that has recently plunged Europe into World War One. But his diffusionism identifies this aristocracy as a parasitical overlay upon an originally peaceful civilizational form. Remove the bellicose ruling classes, he suggests, and the world can return to peace. This might sound like the cry of a Marxist revolutionary, but is actually fully in keeping with Manchester Liberalism – this is the voice of those nineteenth-century industrialist reformers who saw curtailing government expenditure as synonymous with cutting, not welfare but military expenditure. Veblen’s analysis is much more profound because it identifies the cultural problem as inextricably bound up with the very basic institutional developments that (as Adam Smith long ago explained) give rise to commercial society: the division of labour that aids human industry, argues Veblen, rapidly gives rise to a class and a value system that hold industry in contempt. Social reform cannot be as simple as lopping off the heads of a few aristocrats and ushering in a more democratic social order because the mental habits of the leisure class have long been the dominant values and are consequently infused throughout and embedded at the heart of modern culture. Photo: ‘Australian gunners on a duckboard track in Château Wood near Hooge, 29 October 1917.’ Jared Eros.

2 thoughts on “Peace & War: theories of the warrior class

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    Simon, in another excellent Grote Club (GC) post, widens the view of the GC into a comparative study of the often-written about but far less frequently understood Thorstein Veblen. Much like my posts for this blog, Simon positions and draws out Vehblen’s critique of modern society through a comparative analysis of the lesser known W.J. Perry’s reconstruction of primitive social life and the makings of the modern world. Simon’s comparative method brings out both the radical nature of Veblen’s critique and its roots in Veblen’s gloss on Adam Smith’s division of labor and its unintended consequences.


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