The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) proposes that economic life is driven by the vestiges of the social stratification of tribal society, rather than by social and economic utility. The supporting examples, contemporary and anthropologic, propose that many economic behaviors of contemporary society (ca. late 19th c.) are variants of the corresponding tribal-society behaviors, when men and women practiced the division of labor according to the person’s status group, thus, the high-status people practiced hunting and war, whilst the low-status people practiced farming, cooking, et cetera.
Such a division of labor was due to the barbarian culture of conquest, domination, and exploitation, wherein, once in control, the conquerors assigned the labor-intensive jobs to the vanquished people, and, for themselves, assumed the military profession, and other less labor-intensive work, the elementary leisure class. In practice, it was sociologically unimportant that the low-status occupations provided greater economic support to society than did the high-status jobs of soldier, hunter, etc. Moreover, within an unconquered tribe, certain men and women disregarded the collective division-of-labor system, and emulated the behavior of the leisure class, the high-status social group of the tribe.
Although the leisure class did perform some useful work, and so contributed to the collective well-being of the tribe, such work tended to be minor and peripheral, functioning more as symbolic economic participation than as practical economic production. For example, although hunting could provide food for the tribe, it was less productive and less reliable than were farming and animal domestication, and easier, less labor-intensive, than the latter work. Likewise, whilst tribes required warriors for war, the members of the military stratum of the leisure class retained their high social-status and economic positions — exemption from menial, physical work — even during peace, despite being physically capable of performing labor-intensive, “menial” work that was more productive, and economically beneficial, to the collective well-being of the tribe.
Simultaneously, the leisure class retained its superior social status in the tribe by means of direct and indirect coercion; for example, the leisure class reserved for themselves the (honorable) profession of soldiering in defense of the tribe; and so withheld weapons and military skills from the lower-order social classes. Such a division of labor rendered the lower social classes dependent upon the leisure class, and so perpetuated and justified their existence for defense against enemies, natural (other tribes) and against supernatural (ghosts and gods), because the first clergy were members of the leisure class.
Hence, contemporary society did not psychologically supersede the tribal stage of the division of labor, but merely evolved different forms and expressions of said assignments of productive labor; for example, during the Middle Ages (5th–15th centuries), only the nobility were allowed to hunt and soldier; likewise, in contemporary society, manual laborers usually are paid less than white-collar workers, whose importance to the economic well-being of society is more symbolic than practical.
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