The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class is in the tradition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, yet it provides a surprisingly contemporary look at American economics and society.

Establishing such terms as "conspicuous consumption" and "pecuniary emulation," Veblen's most famous work has become an archetype not only of economic theory, but of historical and sociological thought as well.

Reviews of the The Theory of the Leisure Class

From this disparity, Veblen concluded that great wealth is not the goal of human activity, but rather what people aspire to, both in their economic activities and in life, is to be a part of "The Leisure Class." It's important to note that the term Leisure Class does not necessarily apply to the very rich, nor necessarily the very idle, but rather to those whose livelihood is as far removed from mundane labor as possible. Perhaps the most widely known and resilient of his concepts, this is what Veblen coined as "conspicuous consumption." The key, as Veblen points out, is that for people of the Leisure Class, the essence of their livelihood is tied not to work, but to exploit. According to Veblen, this tendency to regard exploit as socially superior to work goes back to our early history as hunter-gatherers and is probably descended from the original division of labor that occurred between men and women. Despite the fact that the work done by women actually provided far more material support to the community than the occasional caribou or mastodon brought home by the men, it was the hunt that was celebrated in cave paintings and which was valued in the formation of society's oldest political hierarchies. Perhaps this disparity in regard arose because exploits such as the hunt and war required courage and strength, whereas labor and production merely required effort and the occasional act of ingenuity, but as the distinction between the respect one gets for exploit versus work became more palpable, this division of duty became more rigidly defined to the point where the male hunters refused to even gut or clean their own prey, reserving that less dignified task for the female labor class and thereby preserving the quality of their own status. I'm not sure how relevant Veblen's theories on the Leisure Class are in a society where there is no royalty, hardly anybody can name a war hero, and practically nobody frets about whether they're good enough to warrant an invitation to the cotillion.

The most obvious point people will bring up about this book is the idea of conspicuous consumption and why not, it really is such a useful idea. To explain this Veblen starts his analysis by considering communal, hunter/gatherer societies and discusses divisions of labour and the impact these had on social standing. As society becomes more productive and certain people are able to keep a larger and larger shares of what society produces, the major way that the ruling classes have of showing their position in society is by conspicuous leisure. Veblen uses the idea of the division of labour to show that it is not that the leisure classes do nothing at all, but that what they do cant be considered productive. The notion of conspicuous leisure is really interesting in classes below the ruling ones, a persons status is often not defined by ones own leisure, since they are likely to not be high enough up the social ladder to be able to afford to avoid work entirely, but rather in your ability to allow the vicarious leisure of your wife. Im going to quote a couple of paragraphs from the excellent introduction to this book to show some of the scope of what Veblen discusses here: Do not think that the ideas Veblen introduced in his first two chapters complete the shocks The Theory of the Leisure Class has to offer. Among his conclusions are the following: (1) to be seen doing work is to be lowered in social esteem; (2) ceremonial labour is executed only for show, in concert with the busy idleness of conspicuous leisure; (3) the superficial display of good manners and good forms is a waste of time, yet clung to as an enhancement of ones social prestige; (4) although modern-day gentlemen may not wolf down their caviar, their gluttony is merely more discreet than that of feudal lords who gnawed on beef-bones; (5) the host who displays expensive forms of hospitality expects this to demonstrate that he owns so much he cannot consume it all himself; (6) the obsessive decoration of homes is too often the sad result of desperate house-wives whose lives are defined by the wasteful expenditure of time and money; (7) the poor cling to cheap gewgaws in an attempt to emulate upper-class habits accepted as the sign of social respectability; (8) when educated to believe that to save their earnings is not a good, people buy useless products that only bring profit to their manufacturers; (9) the age-old craving for gold and diamonds (breeders of wars and misery, lacking all social use) is supplemented by the modern hunger for brand-names that give objects a value they do not actually possess. Basically, Bourdieu argues that different social classes find ways to display their status by the things they prefer. He twice discusses how English spelling and the very difficult to learn rules that govern its beauty are part of the busy work involved in being able to display social distinction all matters of taste, such as the archaistic rules of English spelling allow those allowed the leisure to learn such rules the ability to judge those as manifestly inferior given their clear inability to master these rules.

Pecuniary decency makes a mess of the world where the primary goal is to buy different stuff instead of less stuff, because maybe you find you don't really need those things after all. I also very much like the tone of this; Veblen is able to say unbelievably devastating things without the slightest hint of upset or perspiration. The things he is able to say about religion, about sports, about a university education, about the status of women in society, about tradition; somehow if he were riled up he simply couldn't have done it, but the tone he uses makes anything possible.

This tradition sought to show how society first came to produce a surplus above its subsistence needs, and how the present arrangement for distributing the surplus was working out (whether examined in terms of abstract justice, utility, or putatively objective virtue ethics). 142) "In order to satisfy the requirements of the leisure-class scheme of life, the servant should show not only an attitude of subservience, but also the effects of special training and practice in subservience. Even to-day it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the manifestation of the servile relation that constitutes the chief element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife." (p. 72) "But the function of dress as an evidence of the ability to pay does not end with simply showing that the wearer consumes valuable goods in excess of what is required for physical comfort. Simple conspicuous waste of goods is effective and gratifying as far as it goes; it is good prima facie evidence of pecuniary success, and consequently prima facie evidence of social worth. If, in addition to showing that the wearer can afford to consume freely and uneconomically, it can also be shown in the same stroke that he or she is not under the necessity of earning a livelihood, the evidence of social worth is enhanced in a very considerable degree. Priestly vestments show, in accentuated form, all the features that have been shown to be evidence of a servile status and a vicarious life. His livery is of a very expensive character, as it should be in order to set forth in a beseeching manner the dignity of the exalted master; but it is contrived to show that the wearing of it contributes little or nothing to the physical comfort of the wearer, for it is an item of vicarious consumption, and the repute which accrues from its consumption is to be imputed to the absent master, not to the servant." (p. The ground of an addiction to sports is an archaic spiritual constitution -- the possession of the predatory emulative propensity in a relatively high potency. The tribute is paid in vicarious leisure, and the honorific effect which emerges is imputed to the person or the fact for whose good repute the holiday has been instituted." (p. Hence, presently, a knowledge of certain natural processes which could be turned to account for spectacular effect, together with some sleight of hand, came to be an integral part of priestly lore. By force of his being such an agent he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. Wherever the circumstance or traditions of life lead to an habitual comparison of one person with another in point of efficiencty, the instinct of workmanship works out in emulative or invidious comparison of persons. In any community where such an invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. "During that primitive phase of social development, when the community is still habitually peaceable, perhaps sedantary, and without a developed system of individual ownership, the efficiency of the individual can be shown chiefly and most consistently in some employment that goes to further the life of the group. Tangible evidence of prowess -- trophies -- find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature to the paraphernalia of life. As accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional evidence of successful contest. "Honourable" is "formidable": "worthy" is "prepotent." A honorific act is in the last analysis little if anything but a successful act of aggression; and where aggression means conflict with men and with beasts, the activity which comes to be especially and primarily honourable is the assertion of the strong hand. The naive, archaic habit of construing all manifestations of force in terms of personality or "will power" greatly fortifies this conventional exaltation of the strong hand. "Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honour, the taking of life -- the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human -- is honourable to the highest degree. Arms are honourable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the field, becomes an honorific employment. At the same time, employment in industry become correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men.

So most of the time, he's kind of riffing, but Veblen does his best writing not when he's theorizing about the nature of the leisure class-- after all, his ideas have become so sublimated into social perception at this point, which I guess speaks to their power-- but when he's going into specifics and demonstrating how they correlate to the broader theory.

So, for instance, in our time there is the knowledge of the dead languages and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music and other household art; of the latest properties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race-horses. Could it be that the many hours I have spent and continue to spend in reading and learning about the various arts were in fact a form of "conspicuous leisure"? Pecuniary Aesthetics Veblen examines how the values promoted by the leisure class permeate a number of areas of a society, such as sports, religion, and education, beyond what we usually think of as consumption. There is probably enough internal evidence in this book to explain Veblen's sometimes vague and inelegant style, either as a way of "encoding" his actual message or as expressing disdain for elegance and precision in verbal communication. Where circumstances are favorable, this proclivity is apt to express itself in a certain servile devotional fervor and a punctilious attention to devout observances; it may perhaps be better characterized as devoutness than as religion.I had an occasional suspicion during my reading that Veblen may have been practicing an elaborate irony: that his book was a satire in the form of an essay on economics. In this case his uncongenial style and rather far reaching racial and historical theses would conform to his mocking idea of academic respectability:The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces.He is also quite perceptive of irony, at least when it comes to instances where the values of the leisure class directly conflict with their stated goals:Certain funds, for instance, may have been set apart as a foundation for a foundling asylum or a retreat for invalids. "The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture" The nature of this revolutionary change became most evident in Veblen's final chapter in which the earlier quote listing "dead languages", "correct spelling", and "syntax and prosody" as activities highlighting "conspicuous leisure" is expansively elaborated upon. However, Veblen's attacks on the study of classics and the language arts anticipates modern "reformers" of higher education who would have universities become advanced vocational / technical schools, relegating the humanities to a much reduced role, if not eliminating them altogether. He considers that "a familiarity with the animistic superstitions and the exuberant truculence of the Homeric heroes" reinforces and institutionalizes the values of the leisure class and objects to how the study of classical languages has by convention become incorporated into the sum of learning required of the scholar, and has thereby affected the terminology and diction employed in the useful branches of knowledge. Even study of Arnold's "the best which has been thought and said" as a means of sharpening one's own thinking and expression is considered worthless by Veblen.It is contended, in substance, that a punctilious use of ancient and accredited locutions will serve to convey thought more adequately and more precisely than would be the straightforward use of the latest form of spoken English; whereas it is notorious that the ideas of today are effectively expressed in the slang of today. Classic speech has the honorific virtue of dignity; it commands attention and respect as being the accredited method of communication under the leisure-class scheme of life, because it carries a pointed suggestion of the industrial exemption of the speaker. Though hardly "the straightforward use of the latest form of spoken English", Veblen's style throughout the book shows little care to conform to classic ideas of written communication; neither Gibbon nor Johnson have been studied to learn elegance of style and clarity of meaning.

I particulary recall reading it besides the, ah, "territorial" pool, thinking that being stuck there for the day would ensure that the boring tome would be gotten into substantially.

Veblen is famous for the idea of "conspicuous consumption".

  • English

  • Economics

  • Rating: 3.92
  • Pages: 320
  • Publish Date: November 13th 2001 by Modern Library
  • Isbn10: 0375757872
  • Isbn13: 9780375757877