Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

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.
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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Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized parties are at-bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

Yesterday I wrote an essay trying to answer this question: What’s the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? This is one of the oldest and most vexing questions of human existence; and there’s no way I’m going to crack this nut in one blog post. That’s why I’m writing another one.

As George Orwell points out, this question isn’t confined to any one sphere of our lives, but confronts us every day, in manifold and invisible ways. When we go to the grocery store, when we buy a shirt, when we download a song, when we get the latest model of smartphone, we are supporting business practices that are largely hidden from us, but which may be morally repulsive.

What is life like for the factory workers who made my computer? What are the conditions for the animals whose meat I eat? Where does the material from my jeans come from, how is it processed, who are the workers who make it? For all I know, I may be patronizing exploitative, abusive, oppressive, and otherwise unethical businesses—and, the more I consider it, the more it seems likely that I do.

Unethical business practices aside, there is the simple fact of inequality. On the left we spend a lot of time criticizing the vast wealth inequality that exists within the United States; and yet we do not often stop to realize how much wealthier are most of us than people elsewhere. Is the first situation unjust, and the second not? Is it right that some countries are wealthier than others? And if not, can we logically desire our present standard of life while maintaining our political ideals?

To the extent that opponents of inequality are immersed in a global economy—and we are, all of us—they are participating in a system whose consequences they find morally wrong. But how can you rebel against a global paradigm? You can try to minimize your damage. You can try to patronize businesses who have more humane business practices. You can become a vegan and buy second-hand clothes.

And yet, it is simply impossible—logistically, just from lack of time and resources—to be absolutely sure of the consequences of all your actions in a system so vast and so complex. It would be a full-time job to be a perfectly conscientious consumer. You can’t personally investigate each factory or tour each farm. You can’t know everything about the company you work for, the bank you store your money in, the supermarkets you buy your food from.

This is the enigma of being immersed in an ethically compromising system. To a certain extent, resist or not, you become complicit in a social system you did not design and whose consequences you don’t approve of. It is one of the tragic but unavoidable facts of human life that good people can still do bad things, simply by being immersed in a bad social system. An economy of saints can still sin.

In economics this has a technical name: the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy of extrapolating from the qualities of the parts to the qualities of the whole. A nation full of penny-pinchers may still be in debt. A nation full of expert job-seekers may still have high unemployment. Morally, this means a nation of good people may yet do evil.

The question, for me, is this: Where do we draw the line separating the culpability of the individual from the culpability of the system? To illustrate this, let me take two extreme examples.

Since teaching, as a profession, tends to attract idealistic and left-wing people, I think many teachers, old and young, think that the educational system in the United States is deeply flawed. The standardized tests, the inequality between school districts, the way that we evaluate kids and impart knowledge—many aspects of the system seem unfair and ineffective.

And yet, I think very few people would condemn the teachers who continue to work within this system, even if the system tends to reproduce inequality. We naturally blame the policy-makers and not the teachers, who are only doing their best in compromising circumstances.

Take the opposite extreme: soldiers working in a concentration camp. Now, it is clear that these soldiers were not personally responsible for creating the camp, and were following the orders of their superiors. Like the teachers, they are immersed in a situation they did not design, in a system with morally reprehensible results. (Obviously, the results of a concentration camp are incomparably worse than even the most flawed school system.)

In this situation, I’d wager that most of us would maintain that the soldiers had some responsibility and, at the very least, some of the blame. That is, we do not simply blame the system, but blame the individuals who took part in it. The whole situation is so totally, fundamentally, indisputably unacceptable that there are no extenuating circumstances, no deferment of guilt.

Now, there is obviously a very big difference between a system that is (ostensibly at least) designed to reduce inequality and provide education, and a system that is designed to kill people by the thousands and millions. As a result, in both of these situations, the moral verdict seems relatively clear: the noble aims of the first system excuse its flaws, while the horrid aims of the second system condemn its participants.

The problem, for most of us, is that we so often find ourselves in between these two extremes (although, admittedly closer to the case of teachers than Nazi soldiers, I hope). But where exactly do we draw the line? Where does our responsibility—as participants in a system—begin? And in what circumstances are we morally excused by being immersed in a flawed system?

The more I think about it, the more I am led to the conclusion that being alive requires some ethical compromise. In this regard, I often think of something Joseph Campbell said: “You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.”

And this quote, I think, is where I have to stop for now, since it brings me to another Quotes & Commentary.

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson


The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cities are improbable. For most of our history we lived in little roving bands: Groups held together by personal relationships, of blood, marriage, or friendship, scattered lightly over the landscape, not tied to any particular spot but moving in accordance with their needs.

Agriculture changed that. You cannot raise crops without tending them throughout the year; thus you need a permanent settlement. Crops can also be grown and gathered more efficiently the more people there are to help; and a stable food supply can support a larger population. Cities grew up along with the crops, and a new type of communal living was born.

(I remember from my archaeology classes that early farmers were not necessarily healthier than their hunter-gatherer peers. Eating mostly corn is not very nutritious and is bad for your teeth. Depending on a single type of crop also makes you more sensitive to drought and at risk for starvation should the crops fail. This is not to mention the other danger of cities: Disease. Living in close proximity with others allows sickness to spread more easily. Nevertheless, our ancestors clearly saw some advantage to city life—maybe they had more kids to compensate for their reduced lifespan?—so cities sprung up and expanded.)

The transition must have been difficult, not least for the social strain. As cities grew, people could find themselves in the novel situation of living with somebody they didn’t know very well, or at all. For the vast majority of humankind’s history, this simply didn’t happen.

New problems must be faced when strangers start living together. In small groups, where everyone is either related or married to everyone else, crime is not a major problem. But in a city, full of strangers and neighbors, this changes: crime must be guarded against.

There is another novel problem. Hunter-gatherers can retreat from danger, but city dwellers cannot. And since urbanites accumulate more goods and food then their roving peers, they are more tempting targets for bandits. Roving nomads can swoop down upon the immobile city and carry off their grain, wine, and women. To prevent this, cities need defenses.

As you can see, the earliest denizens of cities faced many novel threats: crime from within, raids from without, and the constant danger of drought and starvation.

Government emerges from need to organize against these threats. To discourage crime the community must come together to punish wrongdoers; to protect against attacks the community must build walls and weapons, and fight alongside one another; to protect against starvation, surplus crops must be saved for the lean times.

Hierarchy of power, codes of law, and the special status of leaders arise to fill the vacuum of organization. Religion was also enlisted in this effort, sanctifying leaders with titles and myths, reinforcing the hierarchy with rituals and customs and taboos, and uniting the people under the guardianship of the same divine shepherds.

Despite these unpropitious beginnings, the city has grown from an experiment in communal living, held together by fear and necessity, into the generic model of modern life. And I have the good fortune to live near one of the greatest cities in history.

* * *

Whenever I am alone in New York City, I wander, for as many miles as time allows. The only way to see how massive, chaotic, and remarkable is New York, is by foot. There’s no telling what you might find.

I like to walk along the river, watching the freighters with their bright metal boxes of cargo, the leviathan cruise ships carrying their passengers out to sea, the helicopters buzzing overhead, giving a few lucky tourists a glimpse of the skyline. Bridges span the water—masses of metal and stone suspended by wire—and steam pours forth from the smokestacks of power plants.  

I pass through parks and neighborhoods. Elderly couples totter by on roller blades. A lonely teenager with a determined look practices shooting a basketball. The playground is full of screaming, running, jumping, hanging, falling, fighting kids. Their mothers and fathers chat on the sidelines, casting occasional nervous glances at their offspring.

Soon I get the United Nations building. The edifice itself is not beautiful—just a grey slab covered in glass—but what it represents is beautiful. The ideal of the United Nations is, after all, the same ideal of New York City. It is the ideal of all cities and of civilization itself: that we can put aside our differences and live together in peace.

The city is not just the product of political organization and economic means; it is an expression of confidence. You cannot justify building walls and houses without the belief that tomorrow will be as safe and prosperous as today. And you cannot live calmly among strangers—people who dress different, who speak a different language, people you have never seen before and may never see again—without trust.

It is that confidence in tomorrow and that trust in our neighbors on which civilization is built. And New York City, that buzzing, chaotic, thriving hive, is a manifestation of those values.

Review: Imperial Spain

Imperial Spain, 1469-1716Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 by J.H. Elliott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Already by the end of the sixteenth century many Spaniards seem to have been gripped by that sense of fatalism which would prompt the famous pronouncement of a Junta of theologians in the reign of Philip IV. Summoned to consider a project for the construction of a canal linking the Manzanares and the Tagus, it flatly declared that if God had intended the rivers to be navigable, He would have made them so.

For Anglophone readers interested in the history of Spain, this book is invaluable. Elliott has here accomplished a real feat, of research, of writing, and of analysis. The book ably navigates that forbidding passage between simplifying popular accounts and unreadable scholarly monographs, managing to be both a work of serious intellectual synthesis and an absorbing account of Spain’s history.

Elliott has an astounding ability to seamlessly combine many disparate threads into the same narrative. He pays close attention to economic history: crop yields, interest rates, inflation and deflation, the debasement of currency, the balance of trade, tariffs and regulations. He incorporates social and cultural shifts: changing religious attitudes, demographic trends, class tensions, intellectual movements. And yet he also does not neglect the superlative individuals: Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, the Conde Duque, among others. The only thing conspicuously absent was military history, which suited me just fine.

Although the story of Spain during this time was heavily interwoven with both the New World and the rest of Europe, Elliott’s focus doesn’t stray from the Iberian peninsula. He gives only the most cursory account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and only mentions the struggles of Charles V against the Protestant Reformation. For those looking for a history of Spanish colonization, this book will therefore be disappointing. I must also add that Elliott’s judgment is at its worst in his brief section on the conquistadores. He describes them as glorious conquering heroes of a barren civilization, which I cannot abide in the light of the destruction and exploitation that followed in their wake.

Keeping those exceptions in mind, this book is a superlative account of this period of Spanish history. The competing centrifugal and centralizing forces at play, the conflicting traditions of Castilian and Aragonese governments, the infinitely subtle machinations of power, the gradual emergence of a national identity, the meteoric rise of the Spanish Empire, the cruel, grinding decline that followed, the heroic and hapless individuals struggling with forces beyond their control—all this is related with brevity, insight, and power.

It is difficult not to see the whole story as a morality play writ large. What with the ruthless exploitation of the treasure mines of the New World, the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors, the obsession with purity of blood, and the alignment of religious orthodoxy with central power, it seems as if the collapse of the grand but hollow edifice was the inevitable result of intolerance and folly. But even if we can learn some valuable lessons from this history, it is important to remember that the story is not so simple, and many decisions which in retrospect seem obviously foolish were at the time fairly reasonable (though of course many weren’t).

In short, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this fascinating time and place. It could hardly be better.

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