A while back, Clay Shirky (Gin, Television and Social Surplus) invoked 18C England in arguing that gin was the enabling — and stupefying — technology of rapid urbanisation.
Television, he argued, played the same role in — presumably, he doesn’t really elaborate — the suburbanisation of the US in the second half of the 20C. The stupefaction of gin was chemical and publicly degrading. The stupefaction of TV was electronic and the degradation? Well, you either stood with Neil Postman or you went with the flow.
Shirky’s real point is one that would have been familiar to those who campaigned against gin in the 18C — it robbed people of potentially productive time. This time is what Shirky calls the ‘civic surplus.’
It is a very old-fashioned idea re-clothed in electronic fibres — the problem of leisure, or indolence as they would have put it in the 18C. And it was a problem that manifested itself most obviously with the very rich.
Keynes had recognised the great challenge that leisure presented in Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren:
It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself…
To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing!
For these are, so to speak, our advance guard — those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there.
For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me — those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties — to solve the problem which has been set them.
Keynes was writing in the 1930s, but it is to the 18C that I want to return, specifically to the most leisured — or indolent — class of the period — the British aristocracy. From 1700 to 1800 a thousand and three people held peerages.
Amongst the most significant of their lordships was a man remembered today rather obliquely through a magnificent painting in London’s National Gallery. It is an 11-ft tall picture of a horse painted in 1762 by George Stubbs.
The horse, Whistlejacket, rears up on a golden canvas. The greatest prize he won his owner was 2,000 guineas — about a quarter of a million pounds today — before being retired to stud and wheeled out for the odd picture.
Whistlejacket’s owner didn’t keep horses to win money, although rumour had it that he paid for his magnificent stables with his winnings on the turf. His land rentals alone gave him an annual income that would have run to a few million a year today.
The race-horse owner was the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Charles Wentworth-Watson, twice British Prime Minister, and — in his final term — the man who acknowledged the independence of the American states. But politics wasn’t even his hobby. That began and ended with the turf.
Some level of political participation was required of peers, since a title came with a seat in the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords. But the ‘civic surplus’? As one historian noted, Rockingham’s rank and immense fortune gave “to the sobriety that comes from constitutional languor the loftier character of sagacious moderation.”
In the attention economy of the 18C, interest in the affairs of state of the most powerful nation on earth struggled to compete with the thrill of the race track.
And this is the problem we cannot square. What is the correct amount of time to be entertained? Are we amusing ourselves to death? And what is the opportunity cost of leisure?
The painting of horses, the building of Palladian stables, breeding for the track, the thrill of the wager, victory and defeat. There is the ‘civic surplus.’
But it kept Rockingham — “the dullest man whom England ever saw in the rank of first minister” — happy.