Plunging Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. With an Introd. by John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

The son of Scandinavian peasants who spoke no English and lived in rural Wisconsin, Thorstein Veblen was known as a purely scientific thinker who by in large deviated from most moral and cultural ways of thinking in his own time, siding with ways of life deemed amoral, and refusing even fundamental assumptions such as social evolutionism to seek a more logical theory of class structure. His atheism also marked him as a scholar, and much of his life he spent between universities, writing books in his downtime, but always saw himself as a teacher. His book can be seen as both an astounding diatribe against the upper-class and an anthropological study of what it means to be leisurely and the influence of the leisure class onto those with lesser means. His data is “by preference drawn from everyday life, by direct observation or through common notoriety” (xxix).


His first way of categorizing the upper-class is that they are “non-industrial,” and are rather employed under “government, warfare, religious observances, and sports” (21). Thus a there is an effort whereby industrial work is discriminated against as “ordinary” or “vulgar,” where “virtually the whole range of industrial employments is classed as woman’s work in the primitive barbarian community” (23), marking the leisure class not as an ahistorical human structure, but as something that has emerged gradually from “a peacable to a consistently warlike habit of life” (24). Types of labor here are never gendered neutral, but are divided strictly between “aggressive assertion of force and sagacity” and “the women’s assiduous and uneventful shaping of materials” (28). The man has agency, in other words, and must remain in an active workmanship that “works out in an emulative of invidious comparison of persons” (29). As comparisons are made, success must be made overtly visible to those it seeks to disqualify or feminize. The drive to bring home booty, and to show booty off, makes labor that does not immediately result in a form of visible booty, such as industrial labor, seem “irksome” (31). In this predatory phase of mankind, therefore, visible booty becomes meaningful as a sign of dominance and male power.

The earliest form of this booty is symbolized by the “ownership of the woman by the man” (33). The acquisition of the female creates that “motive that lies at the root of ownership,” emulation:

the possession of wealth confers honor; it is an invidious distinction. Nothing equally cogent can be said for the consumption of goods, nor for any other conceivable incentive to the accumulation of wealth. (35)

Wealth now confers honor, and wealth acquired passively more “honorific” than work acquired by effort. Pecuniary emulation then becomes a struggle for honor by individuous comparison, to meet the new standard of wealth that offers “greater satisfaction,” to “gain the esteem and envy of one’s fellowmen” (38-9).              For the lower classes, who have little choice in the matter, honor is conferred by building “a reputation for efficiency in their work,” and rather than conspicuously displaying their wealth, move towards gaining prestige among the workplace through greater efficiency. In contrast, the leisure class make their wealth or power always “in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence,” ever-conscious that their way of life is being envied by those around them, that their “life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilized man’s eyes” (42). Especially at a time when wealth consisted of the ownership of cattle, women and slaves, “productive effort [was] to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men” (43). From this point on in the text, Veblen redefines the leisure class from simply those employed in non-industrial work, to an aversion to productive work itself: “the characteristic feature of leisure-class life,” he says “is a conspicuous exemption from all useful employment” (44).

Idleness, then, comes to symbolize wealth. Though the buying of expensive clothes, of playing sports and participating in warfare also symbolize wealth, none of these activities would be possible without significant leisure time to spend on them. “decorum,” Veblen states, “is a product and an exponent of leisure-class life and thrives in full measure only under a regime of status” (48). But how to measure idleness—couldn’t one make their purchases in a speedier fashion, or find ways to participate without giving up a directly even amount of time as everyone else? For Veblen, this problem is remedied by a canons of taste, which “are constantly under the surveillance of the law of conspicuous leisure, and are indeed constantly undergoing change and revision to bring them into closer conformity with its requirements,” and in most cases this simply means that “the pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time” (51). In other words, it is by societal conventions that leisurely activities come to symbolize wealth, and that certain matters of form, including good stock, allow for only certain types of leisure to symbolize “booty.”

That type of leisure which Veblen calls “vicarious” is that done by “housewives and menials,” which is nearly the same leisurely activities as those of the upper-class, but are simply “performed by others than the economically free and self-directing head of the establishment” (55). Veblen goes to great lengths to justify the use of this term:

where this happens, the domestic service which comprises the duties of this servant class might aptly be designated as wasted effort, rather than as vicarious leisure. But the latter term has the advantage of indicating the line of derivation of these domestic offices, as well as of neatly suggesting the substantial economic ground of their utility; for those occupations are chiefly useful as a method of imputing pecuniary responsibility to the master or to the household on the ground that a given amount of time and effort is conspicuously wasted in that behalf (55).

This class then is a derivative leisure class, whose leisure shows not only their own high status among their own class, but the status of their masters, which is “presumed to enchance the master’s own well-being and fullness of life” (56). If all servants were engaged in constant work, it would “imply inability to pay for the consumption of time, effort, and instruction required to fit a trained servant for special service under an exacting code of forms” (57). The members of a leisurely household then are “required” to spend time “ostensibly…in a performance of conspicuous leisure, in the way of calls, drives, clubs, sewing-circles, sports, charity organizations, and other social functions” (59). In other words, little or no pleasure need actually be derived from participating in these activities, rather, it is a duty that they be carried out, and are therefore may be “irksome” but are still “unavoidable.”

Those who undertake conspicuous leisure inevitably come to participate in a “new range of duties,” those of conspicuous consumption, its most obvious form in the “wearing of liveries and the occupation of spacious servants’ quarters” (60). Here Veblen must separate the productive consumption of the housewife, to whom he sees as “merely incidental to their work,” and the unproductive consumption that is “honorable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a prerequisite of the more desirable things” (62). The buying of necessities, like the work for production, is marked as feminine and tabu, while “certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class” (61). As Veblen states, “the consumption of luxuries, in the true sense, is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is, therefore, a mark of the master” (63). Yet, like the canons of taste that guide leisurely activities, something must guide the form of this consumption, in this case it is “high bred manners and ways of living” that serve as “items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption” (64). The goods identified through this system as signs of obstinate wealth then becomes “a means of reputability to the gentlemen of leisure,” inserting him into a “more or less elaborate system of rank and grades” that makes up a class, where those below it are otherwise ranked within a hierarchical “class of impecunious gentlemen of leisure” who “affiliate themselves by a system of dependence or fealty to the great ones…they become his courtiers or retainers, servants; and being fed and countenanced by their patron they are indices of his rank and vicarious consumers of his superfluous wealth” (65). For the wife, she becomes “the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces,” and in this act serves as “his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant” (69).

What is most important about these acts of consumption of leisure, is not quite that they fit the norm, are done in high degree, or that they offer some sort of pleasure (often they do not), but that they are conspicuous, and therefore, seen by an audience of less prestigious persons. “The observances of these standards,” Veblen explains, “becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale” (70). The result of these acts being conspicuous then, is that “the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting their good name and their self-respect in case of failure, they must conform to the accepted code, at least in appearance” (70). In an age of mass communications and mobility, this becomes an even more pivotal requirement, as the leisure class begins to “have no other means of judging his reputability than the display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is under direct observation” (71). For Veblen the anthropologist and social philosopher, there is an instinctual motivation of workmanship present in all human beings that “asserts itself even under very adverse circumstances,” so that “however wasteful a given expenditure may be in reality, it must at least have some colorable excuse in the way of an ostensible purpose” (75).

The display, performance and conspicuousness of leisure and consumption is the purpose behind what is often called “wasteful spending.” However, from an economic standpoint, this purpose of spending and aversion to labor “does not satisfy the economic conscience,” and must be questioned “whether, aside from acquired tastes and from the canons of usage and conventional decency, its result is a net gain in comfort or in the fullness of life” (79). In other words, conspicuous lifestyles do not pass the “principle of pecuniary reputability or relative economic success,” and are wasteful to a growing American economic agenda. Yet unconsciously such expenditure has been accepted in American societal codes, and is present “as a constraining norm selectively shaping and sustaining our sense of what is beautiful, and guiding our discrimination with respect to what may legitimately be approved as beautiful and what may not” (95).

For academics, perhaps the most poignant chapter of Veblen’s is his last on higher education as “an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture,” where Veblen identifies higher learning itself as a “vicarious leisure performed for the supernatural power with whom negotiations are carried on and whose good-will the service and the professions of subservience are conceived to procure” (235-6). This move towards the supernatural of course is Veblen’s anthropological side speaking, which sees higher education within this tradition where superior knowledge became a type of control over the elements, a magic that got one closer to the supernatural. Yet to Veblen a greater impulse of this higher learning lies in its direct contrast to feminine learning that focuses around “a better performance of domestic service” (243). For Veblen, “knowledge is felt to be unfeminine if it is knowledge which expresses the unfolding of the learner’s own life, the acquisition of which proceeds on the learner’s own cognitive interest, without prompting from the canons of propriety, and without reference back to a master” (243). In other words, the knowledge Veblen means here is that which does not by any means need to be learned, but that which follows an interest or metaphysical problem.

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