In the “Theory of the Leisure Class” by Thorstein Veblen, he critiques the upper class for their behaviors regarding their dress and speech. He observes that their odd behavior stems from capitalism and the effect is has on their need to consume goods that are seemingly un necessary. He starts off by critiquing the way they dress and the emphasis they place on the value of clothing and its ability to show ones status. His tone remains critical throughout the entire reading, stating that he sees it as wasteful to place such an emphasis on clothing for status rather than for the obvious use of clothing. He then goes on to critique the English they speak. According to Veblen, the upper class spoke in classic English, as opposed to the regular English that everyone else spoke.
Veblen is very critical of the upper class, perhaps this comes from his back ground, being raised by an immigrant family and not knowing wealth as many people he later observes do. Do you think that where we come from, our backgrounds, influence the way we look at others/society? Do you think it is fair to have these biased views about others? Perhaps they were born into a family of wealth, but does that give us the right to judge them?
How can we truly go about with categorizing populations? In the case of Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany, populations were categorized by class and race respectively. Chapter 6 of Beyond Totalitarianism, Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum examine the different “radical recategorizations” of the populations in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. <Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Frameworks for Social Engineering: Stalinist Schema of Identification and the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)> Browning and Siegelbaum discuss both the Stalinist schema of identification and the Nazi ideal of Volksgemeinschaft and conclude that the need to reach a utopian and ideal society, justified imposing categorizations to better identify “enemies of the state.” In order to categorize populations, identification plays in big role in make categories that have to do with race and class. According to Browning and Siegelbaum,
“The Bolsheviks, without much controversy, identified the landless (batraki) and poor (bedniaki) among the peasantry as proletarians even if many of them did not identify themselves as such.”
This passage struck me the most because it demonstrates the power of the state and its capability to play the role of the “identifier.” In addition, this passage brings many things into question. How do was a proletarian defined as? Better yet, what if many did not identify as such? Similar to Nazi Germany, who was Jewish and who identifies as such? In terms of race, to what extent was someone of Aryan descent or how far can individuals trace back to the Jewish traditions of their families? One important point that I would make about this passage is the idea of human agency. Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to act in the world. When it comes to identity, it is difficult to categorize individuals in an effort to create a utopian society, because human agency will always exist. Although the state may assume the right to inscribe identity and place the population under categories, does order within these authoritarian societies have the potential to prevail?
Author: Herbert Spencer, English philosopher
Context: 1857, prior to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, on the tail-end of the first Industrial Revolution
Language: inquisitive and scholarly; here he asked what social progress really meant and whether it should be redefined
Audience: the intelligent but uninformed, more specifically those interested in philosophy and anthropology
Intent: to direct scholars’ attention to another way of thinking about society and social progress; until this time most were under the impression that social progress meant that societies were improving the standard of living. Spencer argued instead that social progress meant that people were living on more equal terms rather than on better terms in general.
Message: The point that Spencer tried to make in this essay was that people needed to rethink what they knew about social progress. Until this time people thought that social progress was the improvement of the quality of life through the advancement of technology. Instead, social progress meant that different factions of society were becoming more equal rather than just finding their lives easier. He analogized social progress to that of organic progress; that all organisms grow in the same way, from homogeneous to heterogeneous. He said that all forms of progress take this course, including social progress. He said that social progress had been doing so due to the division of labor, specialization, and the intervention of government. Society had been dividing itself based on what individuals within a community practiced, and how the need for trade arose as a result of this specialization, which in turn leads to an even greater level of subdivision, that of playing a single part in the creation of a final product.
Today, History 254 discussed the mobility of classes and ascription of identity. What does ascribing entail in this context? In this context, it is the government ascribing an identity of nationality to citizens in hopes of creating a more united society. Although this plan backfired, the tactic is important in relation to today’s discussion. When the government assigned identity, they also created a reformed class structure in some ways. A question discussed today was, is there mobility between classes? The concluding answer was yes, there was, and the peasantry class had the most mobility. The peasants were encouraged to get an education for the working force. The government was trying to wipe out the existing middle class and fill that gap with the rising peasantry.
On an unrelated subject, I have a bit of current news. As I was scrolling through the Moscow Times, I came across a headline predicting Russian adoptions to double. This subject peaked my interest when Russia banned U.S. adoptions of Russian children on January 1, 2013. Russia claimed that there had been too many recent cases of abuse of Russian adoptees in the U.S., commencing the ban of U.S. adoptions. I think this ban was largely political considering that children abuse occurs in many other areas to a much more extreme degree. Due to the face that the U.S. accounted for over 60,000 of Russian adoptees over the past two years, numbers of children kept in orphanages was expected to rise. However, this article says that the Russians have begun adopting these orphans. Within the first six months after the U.S. ban, the number of children in these orphanages dropped from 118,000 to 110,000. This rapid increase in domestic adoptions is excepted to sustain. The government predicts that 15,000 Russian children will be adopted by the end of 2013.
In her article “Us Against Them” in Fitzpatrick’s Stalinism: New Directions, Sarah Davies describes a society in the Soviet Union that is fraught with discontent. In the mid to late 1930’s the elite party leaders were attempting to reconstruct a class system–albeit a different one than before–and the people were growing weary.
The long-term goal of the revolutionaries was to abolish the class system and bring to fruition a country ruled by the working class, but it was a goal that proved to be nearly impossible. If the ideology of the party was based on a hatred for the Bourgeoisie and the belief that the workers ought to rule, eliminating all class structures and identification made it more difficult for the party to differentiate between its allies and enemies. Consequently, some new system had to be constructed to distinguish friend from foe.
In hindsight it is easy for us to see the flaws in the plan, but at the time it seemed the logical solution to a party-made problem. Elite party members became a new “class,” with workers, peasants, and other social groups like Jews classified at lower statuses. What resulted was in essence a new Bourgeoisie (the Party), with the lower working class remaining in the same old social stratum.
The workers had been “liberated” by the revolution and been given the hope that someday in the near future they would rule the Soviet Union, yet here they were less than two decades later being governed yet again by a class of elites–this time by members of the same revolutionary movement that deplored class distinctions. The grand strategists of this plan created an “us against them” environment that was counterproductive to its overall goals. Additionally, history shows that this dichotomy is a powerful motivating force–just look at the Russian revolutions.
The Communist Party may not have successfully abolished all class distinctions with their revolution, but they did instill a new mentality in the Proletariat. It was this new mentality that sparked discontent towards the new “classes” in the 1930’s, and ultimately eroded the revolutionary foundations of the Soviet Union.