Venality: a word whose time has come (again)

What’s the connection between John le Carré’s gripping new novel A Delicate Truth and Michael Sandel’s marvellously thought-provoking What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets?

Well apart from the fact that they both made my summer reading list and ended up being two of the best books I’ve read in a long time, you might think that they don’t have a great deal in common. But to my mind they both, in their very different ways, promulgate essentially the same argument.


That argument is that money (and the love of it) has infiltrated areas of our common, civic and public life that just a few decades ago appeared sacrosanct, and we should all be gravely concerned by this. Sandel describes it as shifting from having a market economy to being a market society. He cites a catalogue of examples of so-called market solutions being implemented and begs the question of whether these are in fact eroding the ethical and moral underpinnings of a civilised society.

Is it right for lobbyists on Capitol Hill to pay homeless people to stand in line for them so that they can attend congressional hearings? What about for an airline to pay people to use their foreheads as advertising billboards? And what about paying someone to get you a ticket to a supposedly free public Shakespeare festival? Or what about the increasingly prevalent practice of the wealthy paying to keep themselves as separate as possible from the hoi polloi – be it by living in gated communities, or watching Sandel’s beloved baseball from the safety of one of the relatively newly erected corporate skyboxes? Or even (in one prison in Santa Ana, California), paying for an upgrade to a clean, quiet private cell away from other non-paying prisoners?

Le Carré is much less placid. His book is a brilliant excoriating critique of what he calls the ‘corporatisation’ of war, intelligence (in the espionage sense) and arguably even the rule of law. Without wanting to give too much away, the story revolves around a botched operation dreamt up by the heads of a private company that trades in supposedly first-rate intelligence and military interventions, who succeed in selling their dodgy wares to a rather easily swayed minister at the Foreign Office in the dying days of the New Labour government. Most of the book focuses on the struggle between a few good men who want to blow the whistle on the operation and the powers that be, who wish to cover the whole thing up. Seemingly, the wealthy private contractors have captured the arms of the state completely and are able even to shape the legal system to protect themselves.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. As I thought about these two books and the arguments at their core, a word that I don’t think I’ve either seen or heard since I was seventeen and studying the French Revolution at school suddenly popped into my head. It’s a word that captures better than any other I can think of what it is that Sandel and le Carré are so worried about: venality.

Venality is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being ‘the quality or fact of being for sale.’ As this graph (created using my new favourite toy Google Ngrams again) shows, venality as a concept reached its apotheosis in the two decades leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 and has gradually fallen out of favour since then (flat-lining for most of the last hundred years). Whether this reflects a decline in venal behaviour is debatable, but irrespective of how closely the prominence of venality in public discourse mirrors reality, the word and its usage matters. I’m not saying that the French Revolution was solely caused by a sudden surge in the volume of writing about the venality of the ancien régime, but the correlation is certainly more than a coincidence.

Venality, it has been proven time and again, undermines the legitimacy of any regime – think not only of Louis XVI’s France but also early sixteenth century Catholicism and the widespread practice of selling Indulgences, the backlash against which launched the Protestant Reformation. And today as well, venality, whether or not we call it that, is doing much to undermine the legitimacy of government. It’s one of the root causes of our current political apathy: the sense that moneyed interests will win regardless breeds despondency.

Venality is the common thread that underpins so many of the most damaging political stories of our day. It’s what the party funding debate is about; it’s why so many people are concerned by the scale of the lobbying industry, particularly when it represents industries whose pockets are deep, like financial services or arms manufacturers; it lurks behind every story of a screw up by private companies that have won lucrative public contracts, where we’re left wondering how they got the contract in the first place. It’s the omnipresent, yet unspoken theme that defines our current political malaise. And if you don’t believe me that it’s omnipresent just look at this story from today’s Independent.

So what are we going to do about it? And are we on the brink of another revolutionary moment on the scale of 1517 or 1789? Well, either way, whether your goal is reform or revolution, I think we should start by calling a spade a spade and rehabilitating venality as a popular concept. The first step towards fixing the problem is naming it.

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31 Responses to Venality: a word whose time has come (again)

  1. Howell harris says:

    Hi, Richard — you’ve definitely got a future as a moralist, and thanks for introducing me to Ngrams. Isn’t it possible that the declining use of the words venal & venality is a cobined effect of two things: (1) British society became less corrupt (try that one), and/or less conscious of being corrupt in this particular way; (2) when they did complain about this sort of thing, people came to use different language to describe it. Nowadays, you have to be reasonably well educated to know the difference between venal and genial, or to use either term.

    • Thanks Howell. I have to admit I’ve become a little bit infatuated with Ngrams since discovering them recently, so yes I fully accept they’re a pretty blunt tool of analysis and that there are a combination of factors that have led to the decline in usage of words like venal and venality. I still think it’s a word we could and should use more today though. Even if to start with nobody has a clue what you’re on about.

  2. Tom Adshead says:

    Very interesting blog, and you make a good point. But I would expand it further, from the philosophical point of view of Russia, (where I live) which I see as a society that has been struggling for the last few hundred years with the Enlightenment.
    My read of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement that set the individual as the primary unit of society, and created the moral foundation for an individual to set their interests above those of their community, their sovereign, or their god. The central point of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” is that you can have a well-functioning society even if everyone is purely seeking their own self interest.
    An awful lot of what I see in Russia today (and maybe in the Bible Belt in America too) is a reaction against this, and I think it lies at the heart of the rejection of American culture by China and the Islamic nations. Yes, the Enlightenment does open the road to the Industrial Revolution and all its material benefits, but maybe the baby was thrown out with the bathwater when we shed the straitjacket of religion. There’s a strong thread through Russian philosophy trying to find a third way between East and West, rejecting the outright individualism (or venality) of the latter while preserving its obvious material benefits. I don’t think anyone has found a way, and avenues like collectivism were immediately hijacked politically, but I do sometimes wonder if the last couple of hundred years will be seen as a sort of dark ages when the human race took a wrong turning before finding a better way. Or maybe the modern age is a nasty neighbourhood through which we must drive before reaching a better destination.

    • Thank you Thomas for the very thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I think there’s a great deal in what you say, although you sound a little overly pessimistic for my taste. I think to equate venality with individualism and therefore to write off the whole Enlightenment is pushing the argument too far. My view is that individualism, in one form or another, is probably here to stay and a) I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing, and b) the pragmatic response therefore is to think about how best we shape individualism and our conception of it to create a better society. The purely economic view of individualism (which I admit is pretty close to venality) is wrong-headed in my view not because it puts the individual at the centre of all moral/political/economic thinking, but because it assumes that the only plausible goal of any and every individual’s life is to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In fact individuals are capable of striving for multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals. So my hope is not that we learn to reject individualism but that we are able to come up with a much richer, more moral, less economic conception of it – and certainly one that’s based on a much deeper awareness of the ties that bind us all together.

      • Tom Adshead says:

        Thank you for the reply! I agree that the Enlightenment has given us a lot, and most people wouldn’t want to abandon it entirely, but I don’t think anyone’s come up with a way to preserve individualism without falling into veniality, but I am optimistic that we will find a better way over time, although probably only after trying all the other ways!

  3. kitchenmudge says:

    Interesting post. I was really surprised by that graph. The American political system is so saturated with venality, yet we use the word less than centuries earlier? I guess it goes well with how (social) “class” has become a dirty word in mainstream media in recent decades: It’s TOO relevant. Can’t let the peasants think about it.

  4. Quite interesting!… Gives thought

  5. umanbn says:

    Great Post and I would agree with Tom that it seems we are heading for a bigger crash than the economic one of late, after which we could hope it may in turn lead to a new enlightenment and a middle way between selfish individualism and totalitarianism at present. We certainly seem to have lost in the work place a pride in the old work ethic of just doing a good job, where people now seem primarily concerned with moving up and stepping on each other to get there. And this seems to mirror society in general. And your right about the apathy in towards our political system, because it feels futile….In terms of definition, does not venial mean ” showing or motivated by susceptibility to bribery and corruption” as opposed to just being for sale? Great post btw and congratulations!

  6. davidatqcm says:

    thank you for an inspiring and thoughtful post. I must re-blog this . The use of Ngrams was new to me, but no longer, we truly live in a wonderful age.
    I look forward to more of your work.
    Congratulations on your FP

  7. davidatqcm says:

    Reblogged this on Did I really hear that ? ! and commented:
    An excellent article. These are thoughts we avoid at our peril and insights which penetrate to the core of todays life.

  8. After reading your post I am now eager to read the books mentioned (will be adding them to my must read list) and perhaps you will revisit this concept again? I would be interested to hear more in the months ahead, particularly as venality relates to the current problems in America what with politics and the economy, as well as its projected long term impact on the global economy. Your perspective is definitely more creative and fascinating than the news reports here in the US!

  9. Laura says:

    Fascinating post! You articulated a lot of what I’ve vaguely thought but quite been able to put a finger on – but now I have a word for it, venality! Also, I had no idea Ngrams existed but I have a feeling I will be happily wasting the rest of my day on them. And congrats on getting Freshly Pressed too – it is well deserved! 🙂

  10. Mishchiefette says:

    A fascinating post indeed. Many thanks for highlighting Sandel’s book I will certainly check that out!

  11. iammikami says:

    Reblogged this on Kahit ekonomista nagmamahal din! and commented:
    I think it’s really going to be fun writing about the money-weakening-social-ethics thing when you have blogs of this kind to read. Really interesting!

  12. Sweet! Thanks for your post. I am going to be writing about the privatisation of Royal Mail soon, just don’t know where to start. Your post resonates with a lot of the views I read on the matter. If I had time, I would write a story about living in a 100% privatised, capitalist society but unfortunately, my blogging time is limited, currently. And of course such has been written a million times before. The idea of creating such a dystopia is intriguing, though, and perhaps it wouldn’t have to be that time-consuming, after all, as nothing much would have to changed before we were a ‘privatised society’. No taxes, pay as you go, be healthy and earn money, and when that is not possible anymore, die quietly.

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