Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899)

Over 110 years ago Norwegian-American Sociologist and Economist Thorstein Veblen coined terms that are still used in our culture and society – “Conspicuous Consumption”; “Conspicuous Leisure”; “Vicarious Consumption” and “Vicarious Leisure”.  In a nutshell, Veblen argues that people in society consume for the sole purpose of displaying their wealth, and therefore elevate themselves in the eyes of others.  The fact that society is engaged in pursuing industrially “useless” skills suggests that people value a showoff of lavish consumption over practical products that serve better human development and economic growth.

Two questions came to mind when reading the text:

1. What part of Veblen’s argument is still applied today?  Do people who live in a Capitalist democracy with a bigger middle class (well, recently shrunken…) than early 1900’s in Europe seek a different lifestyle that is supposedly afforded to a bigger mass?  Veblen’s claim is that people would always want to display more wealth, and that the individual suffers from a “chronic dissatisfaction” (pg. 20).

2. Reflecting on my choice to pursue a doctoral degree at an ivy league university, what part of my decision relates to my desire to belong to the leisure class?  Veblen writes about scholarly and artistic professions (pg. 29):

“The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of “immaterial” goods. Such immaterial evidences of past leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life.  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 house-hold art; of the latest proprieties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race horses. In all these branches of knowledge the initial motive from which their acquisition proceeded at the outset, and through which they first came into vogue, may have been something quite different from the wish to show that one’s time had not been spent in industrial employment; but unless these accomplishments had approved themselves as serviceable evidence of an unproductive expenditure of time, they would not have survived and held their place as conventional accomplishments of the leisure class.”

While one could argue that education today integrates more practical skills into the scholarly curriculum, it is still a privilege of the wealthy to expenditure years on scholarly or artistic development.  Moreover, later when pursuing a job, a graduate from an ivy league, private school has more prestige (and not always justified) over the same degree from a school that costs less. Eventually, according to Veblen, such prestigious display of wealth not only elevate one self on the social ladder, but acquires the individual self-respect and greater sense of self efficacy. This, in my opinion is something we must seek to change.

“only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows… so soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to that complacency which we call self-respect” (pg. 20).

As a society, our mission is to change the value that more money brings about more self-respect. Could we do that in the face of capitalism, materialism, commercialism and mass media?

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April 21, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate.

One Comment

  1. Ruth Palmer (and Frank Moretti) replied:

    I love the youtube clip! Very relevant. Sadly, i think it would more accurately reflect Veblen’s take on reality if the girl ALSO saw what the boy saw and was attracted by it. You raise excellent questions here and I think you really zeroed-in on some key passages. One thing I really like about Veblen is how he calls our attention to the fact that our own psychological well-being is very much tied to how we sense we are perceived by others.

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