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.
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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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Review: Modern Romance

Review: Modern Romance

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.

My introduction to modern romance was abrupt and unexpected. I was back in New York for the holidays, drinking with a few friends, sipping and gulping the wonderful IPAs that I miss when I’m here in Spain.

Sometime deep into the night, one of my friends, who is a gay man—this is relevant to the story; you should also know that I’m a straight guy—asked if anyone wanted to go on his Tinder. “I do!” I said, and soon found myself face to face with the infamous app for the first time in my life.

Now, for the three remaining people who don’t know how Tinder works, it’s very simple: You look at pictures of people, and swipe left if you don’t want to talk to them, right if you do. (In this respect it’s like the Last Judgment.) If someone you’ve approved of also approves of you, then you are both given the option to send messages.

My friend was obviously a stud, because I was getting matches left and right (well, only right). One of these matches was a young man who I’ll call Woodrow Wilson. With permission from my friend, I sent Woodrow a message. The conversation went something like this:

Me: What’s your favorite tree?

Woodrow Wilson: Uh, White Pines are pretty cool I guess.

Me: White Pines? So cliché.

Woodrow Wilson: You’re right, I was only testing the waters. I’m really fond of Quaking Aspens. You?

Me: Now we’re talking. I’ve always been fond of the Shagbark Hickory.

The conversation proceeded like this for about four days, by which time it was clear that I had found my soul mate through my gay friend’s Tinder. Unfortunately, many barriers stood in the way—I’m straight, I was going back to Spain, and I was basically deceiving him—so I didn’t meet Woodrow Wilson. (If you ever read this—hello, and sorry!) But the experience was enough to make me curious about the opportunities and hazards of romance in the modern world.

Being a reluctant single, a very reluctant millennial, and a very, very reluctant member of the modern world, you can imagine I was, well, reluctant to tackle this topic. This book enticed me, not because it was written by Aziz Ansari—I didn’t consider myself a fan, and in college I even passed up the opportunity to see him live on campus—but because he teamed up with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, to write it. I listened to the audiobook, nasally narrated by Aziz.

The most striking thing about this book is that, despite its lighthearted tone and frequent funny asides, it is basically a serious and even an earnest book. Sociological statistics, psychological studies, and anthropological analyses are mixed with anecdotes and interviews and a bit of humor to give a quick but surprisingly thorough tour of romance in the contemporary world.

Aziz begins by pointing out that dating in today’s world is strikingly different from dating in my grandparents’ or even my parents’ generation. This is not only because of advances in technology but, more importantly, because of shifts in values. We now have developed what you might call a perfectionistic attitude towards finding a partner. We want to find a “soul mate,” “the one,” somebody who fulfills us and thrills us. Aziz contrasts this with what he calls the “good enough” marriages of yesteryears—finding a partner that satisfies some basic criteria, like having a job and a shiny pocket watch

I myself have noticed this shift from studying anthropology and history. In cultures all around the world—and in the West until quite recently—marriages were considered a communal affair. Aziz’s own parents had an arranged marriage, and according to him have had a long, successful relationship. (To be honest the idea of an arranged marriage has always been strangely appealing to me, since I don’t think any decision of such importance should be left in my hands. But the rest of my generation disagrees, apparently, so now I’m left to rummage through apps.)

Connected to this rise in the “soul mate” marriage is a rise in our preoccupation with romantic love. According to the biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, there are two distinct types of love in the human brain: romantic, and companionate. Romantic love is the kind that writes bad poetry; companionate love is the kind that does the dishes. Romantic love hits early in a relationship and lasts up to a year and a half; companionate love grows slowly over time, perhaps over decades. This division accords well with my own experience.

(Parenthetically, I have long been skeptical, even morbidly suspicious, of romantic love: that kind of idealizing, gushing, delicious, walking on air feeling. To me it seems to be a form of self-deception, convincing yourself that your partner is perfect, even divine, and that nobody else in the world could make you so happy—when the truth is that your partner is a flawed person, only one of many flawed people who could induce the same delirious sensation. Wow, I sound really bitter in this paragraph.)

This cultural shift has been bolstered by our new dating technology. Now we do not only have the expectation that we can find the perfect partner, but we have the tools to do the searching. I can, and sometimes do, scroll through hundreds of faces on my phone per day. All this is very exciting; never before could I have so many romantic options at my fingertips.

But there are some major drawbacks to this. One is what the psychologist Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice.” Although you’d think having more options would make people more satisfied, in fact the reverse occurs. I remember watching TV was a lot more fun when I was a kid and I only had a few dozen channels; when we upgraded to hundreds of channels, it became stressful—what if there was something better on? Similarly, after spending three months in a camp in Kenya, eating whatever I was given, I found it overwhelming to go to a pizza place and order. How could I choose from so many toppings?

Along with these broader observations is a treasure trove of statistics and anecdotes that, if you’re like me, you’ll be quoting and misquoting for weeks. I found the little vignettes on the dating cultures in Japan, where there’s a sex crisis, Buenos Aires, where there’s a machismo crisis, and Paris, where there’s lots of infidelity but apparently no crisis, to be particularly memorable.

These anecdotes are not just for mental titillation, but are used to support several tenets of dating advice. Here are just a few takeaways. Check your punctuation before you send a text. When you ask someone out on a date, include a specific time and location, not “wanna hang out some time?” vagueness. Texting people is not a reliable way to gauge if you’ll like them in person; it’s best to ask them out sooner and not prolong a meaningless texting conversation. Take the time to get to know people; rarely do you see the more interesting side of someone’s personality on a first date.

As you can see, this book is quite a rare hybrid: part social science, and part self-help, and part comedy. And yet the book rarely feels disorganized or scatterbrained. Aziz keeps a tight rein on his materials; the writing is compact, clever, and informative. With the notable limitation that this book deals only with heterosexual couples, and covers no topic in serious depth, I can say that it’s hard for me to imagine how any such short book could give so complete a picture of modern romance.

Most impressive is the human touch. What could have potentially been a mere smattering of facts and stories, Aziz makes into a coherent whole by grounding everything in the day-to-day frustrations and realities of the dating world. Aziz knows firsthand how much dating can suck, how tiresome, uncomfortable, and stressful it can be. Yet, for all this, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Beneath all these shifts in values and demographics, all the innovations in dating technologies and changes in romantic habits, all the horror stories and the heartbreaks, beyond the lipstick and the cologne, below the collared shirts and high heeled shoes, above the loud music and the strong liquor, pushing every button and writing every text, is the universal human itch to connect.

This itch has always been with us and always will be. Each generation just learns to scratch it in new and interesting ways.

(If interested in setting something up, please direct all inquiries to my mom.)

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