Summary, Notes and Critiques of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class
Consumption is driven by a desire to illustrate power and status. This is the important takeaway of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class which when understood, completely transforms how one views human decisions.
Society has changed over the past 120 years since Veblen published his influential work, but the rise of social media and endemic advertising has only increased the desire to improve one’s social standing through consumption. Observe the ‘influencers’ of Instagram and TikTok, the ‘need’ to always have the latest iPhone, perfect job, and newest fashion. On my blog, I’ve spoken at length of the detriment of consumerism and the wide array of literature that documents its effects. One comes to live not for their own happiness and satisfaction, but to please others in a world where everyone is so focussed on doing the same that no one gains a thing.
Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class provides a very fascinating analysis into the phenomenon of what he calls conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, tracing its origins and outlining how it impacts our desires and choices.
Transformations of Society
The ‘gilded age’ in which Veblen was writing was a very special period. The industrial revolution brought about immense changes in consumption and production. It enabled the creation of a new middle-class, one where status was very important and the actions of the wealthiest guided the actions of the rest of society. We also saw the emergence of the ‘Industrialist’ — men like J P Morgan and John D Rockefeller, born into poverty yet who, through talent, hard-work, and sometimes luck, amassed immense amounts of wealth. Yet this was not a purely meritocratic society: the nobility and gentry continued to exert substantial influence, deriving most of their profits from land and capital as opposed to work.
Contrast this with the world of today, a world in which the wealthiest are CEOs, Goldman Sachs Bankers, and management consultants, working 70, 80, or even 100-hour weeks. As We have seen a reversal in the traditional ways of doing things. As Daniel Markovits, author of ‘The Meritocracy Trap,’ outlined in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein:
‘Fifty, 60, 70 years ago, you could tell how poor somebody was by how hard they worked. Today, that relationship has been completely reversed. Elites work for a living. They work harder than they used to. They work harder in terms of brute hours than the middle class on average, and they get most of their income by working.’
Though the principles of Veblen’s work still ring true, with our consumption being driven by a need to exemplify wealth and power. Indeed, work itself is a means of doing this — our jobs and university degrees are often seen as measures of virtue and strength. It is common for employers, and increasingly algorithms on their behalf, to reduce people down to just these factors.
Another major change is that of social media and advertising, the two being closely linked. Both social media and other forms of mass-media have widened the scope of conspicuous consumption and leisure. This was previously limited to ones friends, acquaintances and close circles, but is now open for all to see. Furthermore, whilst one was previously only judged on their current consumption, social media now provides a record of all our previous tastes and habits. Advertising, which is pervasive on social media and in our increasingly urbanised world, manipulates this need for social acceptance. Through the constant comparisons which it invokes, we are sold this idea of ‘success’ which in reality is unconducive to living a full and pleasant life.
Origins of the Leisure Class
Veblen commences by analysing the origins of the leisure class as an institution. We start by peeling back the layers, stepping through time by looking at various groups at different stages of development. Veblen outlines that leisure classes are most distinctly found in high stages of barbarian culture, feudal Europe and Japan are the examples that he uses. Here, there is a strong class demarcation, with classes separated by their employments. Through the wealth that they have accumulated, the higher classes are exempt from all forms of manual or ‘industrial’ labour, and the most honourable occupations for those in these classes are warfare, priesthood, government and sports. All forms of labour and industry are left to those in the lower classes and are looked down upon by those in higher classes.
If we go one step back and look at ‘lower stages of barbarian culture,’ we see similar distinctions in class as a result of distinctions between employment, but in this case (Veblen uses the tribes of North America as an example) the differences in employment are not distinct enough to warrant the emergence of a leisure class. He outlines that the distinction in these societies are often done on the basis of gender — with men taking up ‘higher’ forms of labour such as war, hunting, and religious observances, and women taking up less desirable forms of employment.
As these societies become more and more complex, these class differences persist, with ‘virtually the whole range of industrial employments [being] an outgrowth of what is classed as women’s work in the primitive barbarian society.’ Due to the increasing numbers of people required in industrial professions as societies become more complex, these industrial employments cease to be segregated by gender.
One step further back and we come to ‘savage groups.’ These are generally non-violent, small groups with little social differentiation and little private ownership. It is the absence of a class structure within these groups which leads Veblen to conclude that the institution of a leisure class emerges gradually as groups transition from primitive savagery to barbarism — with savage societies being non-violent and peaceable, and barbaric societies being of a ‘predatory habit of life,’ pursuing war, hunting or both. The two requisites for the emergence are this predatory habit, as well as sufficiently obtainable subsistence (perhaps in the form of agricultural surpluses which make the institution of leisure classes feasible).
The reasons for the inevitable transformation of societies from ‘savage’ to ‘barbaric’ could be linked to natural selection, with ‘barbaric’ groups simply stronger and outnumbering savage groups, forcing them either to adapt or die out. Within barbaric societies, where physical strength is of the utmost importance, employments classed as ‘exploit’ became seen as the most worthy and prestigious, whereas ‘drudgery’ was seen to have little value.
To gain esteem, it is vital for one to demonstrate their efficacy, and where efficacy is synonymous with physical strength, that demonstration is done through ‘trophies’ and ‘booty,’ which later became titles and epithets, demonstrating strength and power over others. Labour, on the other hand, is seen as ‘irksome,’ something to be avoided.
Whilst this theoretical explanation of the leisure class’s roots in the move to Barbarism might work well in medieval Europe, it seems difficult to reconcile in the world of 1899 when the work was published. By then, society had advanced greatly, with intellect rather than brute force being what distinguished men. Yet his theory is compatible: the establishment of a leisure class might trace its roots to the move towards barbarism, only made possible as a result of the food surpluses which accompanied the agricultural revolution, yet once this leisure class was established, it did what it could to maintain power, widening divisions between it and the other classes.
In today’s world the ‘leisure’ classes have evolved once more, to the point where the words ‘leisure class’ do not quite seem appropriate. The concentration of wealth and power today is far more meritocratic than it was 120 years ago, with those at the top often working long hours and having graduated from top schools such as Harvard and Yale, where competition is stiff. Though as Markovits points out in his books and essays on the subject, this is not making any of us happier.
Veblen traces the origin of private property to the ownership of women by able-bodied men in low barbarian societies. Women were captured and are held as trophies; they were a means of demonstrating one group’s physical strength over another. This is brilliantly demonstrated in Peter Paul Ruben’s infamous ‘Rape of the Sabine Women.’
From this followed further forms of private property: the enslavement of other captives, and an extension of owner-marriage, which has been the norm for thousands of years (in the UK, it was not until the Married Women’s property act that women were allowed to own and control property in their own right). There onwards evolves the private ownership of products of one’s industry.
Whilst the struggle for property is at first synonymous with the struggle for subsistence, this quickly ceases to be the case in more advanced societies, where that struggle becomes ‘a competition for an increase in the comforts of life.’ Though this is only true to some extent, and property transforms again into a means of conferring honour. Whilst at first representing one group’s dominance over another, individuals within that group will come to make comparisons with each other, and so private property also begins to confer honour internally. As society continues to industrialise, the status of this property increases further, to the point where it becomes the primary way of demonstrating one’s honour. Wealth is then pursued for its own sake, and men with a lot of wealth are seen as ‘successful,’ whereas those without are seen as failures by others, often resulting in low esteem on their part and perpetuating the cycle, even if the initial divisions in wealth were due to chance. This is the origin of a constant pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ as one’s status is only upheld so long as they can demonstrate higher material wealth than others. This forms the basis for the book’s primary arguments: in order to demonstrate wealth (and therefore status), the leisure classes will only enter certain professions, they will consume certain goods, and they will put their wealth to evidence (think the extravagant displays of wealth seen in Fitzgerald’ Great Gatsby).
I do think (and Veblen also concedes this) that things aren’t always that simple. Firstly, whilst one’s profession is certainly used to demonstrate status (especially in today’s meritocratic world), it can equally be the case that members of the leisure class, and its modern equivalent, are in this class as a result of their profession which gives them the material means to do so; as opposed to selecting professions based on class.
Regarding Veblen’s theories on the origins of private property, regardless of the origins of private property it clear that in its current form, the institution does more good than harm. If this were not the case and private property were merely an institution set up by the minority to exploit the masses, we would have seen across various countries the disestablishment of private property, given that the working and middle classes always outweigh the bourgeoisie. Instead, private property gives us security as we do not have to live in fear that our work and achievements will be taken from us. It is also a way of storing wealth for later. Private property gives us dignity: it gives us the means to depend on our own labour rather than to be at the mercy of someone else’s good will. Far from encouraging theft or brute force, it enables man to trade peacefully and work co-operatively with others in ways that benefit both parties.
Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Consumption
Both conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption share one purpose: to demonstrate one’s wealth and status. By conspicuous, Veblen refers to purchases made over and above one’s basic needs which are purchased or done not because one inherently enjoys the activity, but because it will elevate their standing in the eyes of others. They’re methods of gaining power and status.
The leisured classes will, for instance, hire many servants trained to understand ‘good form’ as a way of showing their pecuniary ability to do so. ‘The first requisite of a good servant,’ says Veblen, ‘is that he should conspicuously know his place. It is not enough that he knows how to effect certain desired mechanical results; he must above all, know how to effect these results in due form.’
A key point made is that all productive labour is seen as unworthy and degrading. To engage in such labour would mean risking one’s status as an elite. At the same time, we all have a biological instinct against laziness and for work. Under this system, which I would argue is primarily cultural, the way this plays out is that the leisured classes almost invent non-productive tasks to fill their time, so that they continue to be very busy but not really doing much.
Whilst this may have been true in a former age of feudalism where the masses had no option to change jobs or compete for better working conditions, this system has broken down since the first industrial revolution. Landowners wasting their labour will be outbid and workers will go someplace else where they will be paid more and live better lives. The wealthy landowner choosing who wishes to do nothing will therefore have to adapt and start creating enough wealth for others, or he will perish. The latter phenomenon is touched upon by Veblen — he mentions those who are brought up to believe that productive work is morally degrading and cannot bring themselves to engage in it. Whilst they remain gentile and ‘noble’ through their titles, their pecuniary situation does not agree with this.
In the case of consumption, this has become today’s preferred way of demonstrating status and prestige. As mentioned, a lot of this is due to the rise of social media, but it is practised in all forms. What is considered ‘classy’ has also become a lot vaguer. It is all a matter of ‘taste,’ and being overly conspicuous certainly does not connote taste. Hence a never-ending struggle to curate the perfect wardrobe, to have the latest iPhone, and to give all semblance of the perfect life. It is a sad fact however that many seemingly ‘successful’ people are very miserable.
My sole critique of these chapters is that the influence of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption seems at times overdone. Whilst true that they might always be a consideration, whether conscious or unconscious, there are also many other reasons why one chooses to engage in a given activity or purchase a given good. Veblen recognises this fact and mentions it several times, but the heavy focus on these considerations remain.
The Pecuniary Standard of Living
Conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, in Veblen’s view, dominate our lives. Each and every decision we take is guided by this force, in the same way that gravity pulls the earth towards the sun. There might be a number of other factors at play — sometimes someone really will enjoy the activities they are pursuing, but the need to assert power and status will always be present.
Though it’s not always as simple as that. Many of us won’t even be aware of these forces acting upon us, much like for hundreds of years, men were affected by gravity but had no awareness of it.
Rather than being a conscious effort to exert one’s wealth and power, ‘the proximate ground of expenditure in excess of what is required for physical comfort’, for most but not all of the population, ‘is not a conscious effort to excel in the expensiveness of their visible consumption, so much as it is a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency in the amount and grade of goods consumed.’
As a society becomes increasingly wealthy, things that previously seemed like luxuries will come to be seen as necessities. Even something as simple as an indoor toilet or running water was once considered a luxury that only the very richest could afford, whereas these are now considered very basic amenities.
Veblen notes how the ‘acceptable standard’ is set by the leisure class and trickles down, so long as it preserves its initial purpose (that is, to demonstrate power and status), and whilst always present, will change forms depending on contextual events. When one has acquired a given habit or has become used to a given standard of living, it is very difficult to recede from this. The varying levels to which one will be attached to a habit will depend on a number of factors, including the length of time that has passed, as well as inherited traits.
‘With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper,’ notes Veblen. Whilst I agree that, either consciously or subconsciously, this propensity for emulation is always present, I believe that the extent to which it is present is especially dependent on personal and cultural factors. The world in which we live today has become especially narcissistic: people curate their lives for social media, regardless of whether they are rich and poor.
‘Through this discrimination in favour of visible consumption is has come about that the domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers.’ This is especially evident in the case of people of low socioeconomic status who insist on owning the latest iPhones, cars and clothes — financing these with consumer debt and working long and difficult jobs in order to finance these.
Veblen’s use of the following J.S Mill quote is especially fitting when one considers that ‘the need for conspicuous waste, therefore, standards ready to absorb any increase in the community’s industrial efficiency’: ‘hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.’
There is an alternative. One should reject the notion of conspicuous consumption and define success not relative to the material wealth of others, but with regards to one’s personal objectives and the things one truly values in life.
Veblen’s ‘Conspicuous Consumption’, Rousseau’s ‘Amour-Propre’ and mass consumerism in the 20th Century
There are a number of links that can be made between Veblen’s ideas on ‘conspicuous consumption’ and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of ‘amour-propre,’ a form of infatuation with the self that leads to a constant comparison of oneself to others, an unhealthy obsession with image, and excessive worry over the opinions of others. This concept of ‘amour-propre’ is rooted in jealousy and greatly increased as a result of increased urbanisation, with closer proximity to one’s neighbours making it easier for this comparison to occur.
‘L’amour-propre’ provides an explanation for the sometimes-destructive forms of conspicuous consumption which occur — it is all with the aim of pleasing others and trying to create the perfect image. This trend has only gotten far worse since the inception of mass-media and social media platforms. The average person now spends many hours a day on social media platforms where they are bombarded with constructed images of others, both of friends and celebrities. This leaves many with a sense of ‘FOMO’ or ‘Fear of Missing Out,’ and makes our lives which would otherwise be perfectly happy feel inadequate.
Most importantly, the ‘amour-propre’ and conspicuous consumption which accompanies it is not in our best interests. A recurrent theme in 20th century literature is that of dissatisfaction with consumerism and this falsified image of the ‘American Dream’ which we are sold. We see it in American Psycho, in The Great Gatsby, in Norman Mailer’s ‘American Dream’, and in so many others. The message is clear: rather than focussing on outward appearances and over-consumption with the aim of impressing others, we must stop and ask ourselves what it is that we truly want.