The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.
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Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:

As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.

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