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Comments by Bob Corbett
This preface is much less about this book than about me and my relationship to the book. You may well wish to just skip this section and go to my comments on the book itself, below.
I have known about this book for many years and avoided it. When I encountered mention of it in the 1950s it was made to sound like a book that was much too difficult to read (which turns out to be terribly misleading), and a bit of a theory of someone outside the general tradition of economics (which is certainly true) and that it would be of interest mainly to the curious (which I think is completely incorrect).
Nonetheless, the things said about the book served two purposes in my life:
I grew up in a working class neighborhood which had a marvelous spirit of closeness of community, a great deal of kindness to one another, and I lived in a household of love and support. I was attracted to books and ideas, but few others whom I knew were so attracted, and virtually none of my elementary school classmates or friends were so inclined.
In my high school days I learned of this work, but it was presented in a bit of a negative manner – this sort of rogue economist had written a book which attacked the “American” way, but nonetheless, it was said, it is a rather refreshing and fascinating look at economics.
When I went off to college I found the book on the library shelf and sat with it for an hour or so, but was intimidated by its opening which is set in pre-historical barbarian culture and focusing so much on the warrior class. However, I went back to it a couple times, surprisingly attracted and repelled at the same time. Finally, by my junior year in college, as best I can remember, I just decided I had better things to read and let it be. However, I never forgot the book and some of the things said of it that had attracted me.
Finally, a month or so ago I began to think of this book again, and thought, I should at least read it and give it a chance. So, I got the book and began to read. I was immediately hooked and challenged and bawling myself out for not having read it with care at an earlier time. I found myself to be very much a kindred spirit to much of what Thorstein Veblen has to say and his attitudes toward the world.
I was never attracted to the pursuit of wealth. Rather, I had a great suspicion of wealth and “ease” and liked the working class world. I was also very attracted to social involvement in causes of social justice, peace, simple living and similar notions, and slowly carved out a life in that space.
Now, in retirement and living a much more hermitic life, I can look back on my world and see that all this time I have been a person who saw the world in many ways like Thorstein Veblen does, perhaps more so than any other author I have ever read. Thus, reading this book was like coming home. It was challenging, for sure, but comforting and familiar. I think I would have liked the man a great deal and I am certainly sorry I waited until the later years of my life to read this challenging and wonderful book.
Thorstein Veblen was born in Wisconsin in 1857. He graduate from Yale in 1884 and was a well-known economist and social critic. In this work under comment, he introduced the now well-known concept of “conspicuous consumption.”
Thorstein Veblen uses the term “barbarian” society to refer to our own societies of the past 1500 years of so. The barbarian is contrasted to “primitive” societies. The distinction rests on their being a special class of people who have separate ways to be that the rest. However, the “barbarian” is the specific version of this evolutionary advance that is what we normally would call “western culture.” He sticks with the term “barbarian” throughout the book. In general he argues that in the barbarian world manual labor, industry, everyday work for a livelihood is the “. . . exclusive occupation of the inferior class. There is a second class, the upper class, which lives and behaves differently – this is the leisure class.
“Such employments as warfare, politics, public worship, and public merry-making, are felt, in the popular apprehension, to differ intrinsically from the labour that has to do with elaborating the material means of life.”
His notion of this “barbarian society” of which we are the latest development has two major earmarks:
This leisure class is a predatory class. “. . . the warriors and the hunters alike reap where they have not strewn.”
Within this society there are two basic classes, the leisure class and everyone else:
“Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit, and especially those which imply subservience or submission, are unworthy, debasing, ignoble.”
One of the things this society of the leisure class needs is some visible sign of one’s success. This is how one can be recognized as a worthy person.
There is a necessary condition for the development of the “barbarian” culture he describes: there must be the knowledge and skill to create excess, and to free the leisure class for their form of life. There must be a higher culture and war-like tendencies.
The notions of a leisure class are closely connected to the concept of ownership. Veblen claims this begins in a division between the concepts of men’s work and women’s work in early “barbarian” civilizations and it was a concept that involved the man “owning” the woman. He claims this seems to have begun in the seizing of women in war, and soon other captives were also taken and became slaves, thus creating households of some size. This ownership of persons extended to their products as well.
Thus a system of the ownership of property came into existence. In all cultures where private property exists there is also a struggle for the possession of goods. This possession of wealth is also a struggle for possession of goods. The possession of wealth thus confers honor. In early cultures the ownership of goods was an honor to the community, but very soon honor was differentiated within the community toward individuals.
Property started out as booty in successful raids. However, fairly early on honor began to accrue among the individuals within the community itself.
Trophies of war were replaced by industry within the community. The opportunities for accumulation by outside acquisitions were generally fewer than within the group itself. Along with this shift it is more toward property that confers honor than heroic activity.
“When accumulated goods have in this way become the accepted badge of efficiency, the possession of wealth presently presumes the character of an independent and definitive basis of esteem.”
It is the mere possession of wealth, and not its manner of achievement that confers the honor. (Thus, for example, inheritance is perfectly acceptable and continues the honor of the ancestor, at the same time an inheritor of wealth given the inheritor the honor of that elder.)
Actual exploits continue to confer honor, but the possession of wealth becomes a dominant theme, a lack of wealth is usually a sign of failure to those who lack it.
Veblen certainly recognizes the desire for comfort and security to also be important factors, yet he does argue that accumulation is generally the strongest honorific.
As time moves on the easiest manner of comparison is a pecuniary measure. Thus he argues, with the amount of money one has, “pecuniary emulation” emerges as the general measure of worth.
Labor in the period of agricultural production caused the working class to be:
One must show one’s wealth to earn the esteem of others in this class.
Great emphasis is on put upon a significant measure of leisure and avoidance of “base” labor.
Characteristic features of the leisure class are in occupations of government, war, sports and devout observances. (It is interesting that scholarly pursuits are not among these even to our times!)
“Leisure” does not mean either laziness or a retiring nature, but “non-productive consumption of time.”
As time moves on there is an understanding of “acceptable” leisure activities:
“. . . there is (at the time of this book) knowledge of dead languages and the occult science; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of various forms of domestic art and other household arts. . .”
. . .
“Such are what is known as manners and breeding, polite usage, decorum, and formal and ceremonial observances generally.”
A complaint Veblen notes among the leisure class with the new “industrial” class is that:
“. . . manners have progressively deteriorated as society has receded from the patriarchal stage.”
The use of well-trained servants is also a hall-mark of the leisure life.
“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a mean of reputability to the gentleman of Leisure.”
The signs of success are not only the consumption of goods, but the ability to show comfort and knowledge with the objects of consumption. It enhances one’s image as being superior.
In modern times, with the middle class, the household male head often must work to acquire the means of upper middle-class living, but the woman of the house may well be the one who can display conspicuous leisure living, all to the benefit of the household’s reputation.
In these times of the early 20th century the effective expression of where one stands depends on the circle. In circles of relative closeness both leisure and consumption are effective tools to place one’s household. But, on a wider scale it is consumption which is more effectively expressive.
Undertaking work, generally voluntary rather than paid, is seen as socially beneficial and admirable, but obviously the standard of living one has limits that possibility, thus, again reinforcing the notions of class.
His general thesis is that within most households any increase in income will be accompanied by an increase in socially popular consumption, almost automatically. On the other hand decreases in wealth and consumption tend to create significant stress. The primary standards are set by the leisure class, and then imitated as it can be, by the lesser classes.
The central point here is that when greater expenditure is possible then that expenditure is most likely to be heavily determined by the forms of consumption in the next highest group in the socially accepted hierarchy. But, when any decrease is demanded, the tendency is a personal choice of what can be left out as being more determinative.
“The effect upon the serious activities of men is therefore to direct them with great singleness of purpose to the largest possible acquisition of wealth, and to discountance work that brings no pecuniary gain.”
This section was very informative to me. In the very early days of becoming a wage earner my wife and I made conscious choices CONTRARY to everything that this dominance of the life of leisure requires. First of all, after one year as a single man after college I taught high school, and was sort of asea. But during that year the Peace Corps came into being and I went to take the first test for acceptance. At the exam I met the woman who would become my wife and some months later we rejected a Peace Corps offer and went off to the Bahama Islands to teach in a small school for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Bahamas. The salary was virtually non-existent, but we didn’t care at all. The two years we spent there set a course of life for us which was RADICALLY contrary to upward mobility and the whole dominance of the leisure class notion.
Years on we continued our own path and CONSCIOUSLY sought out “downward mobility” as our ideal and way of life. In an essay I wrote in the 1970s I expressed our ideals and values, again which were governed by this notion of downward mobility and directly opposed to the leisure class notion. While it definitely was not the choice of many in our upper middle class neighborhood close to the university where I was teaching, there was a significant community of people in the metro St. Louis area who embraced quite similar values to our way of life.
See: the section in my web page on the notion of “the simple life”
and especially my paper on ‘downward mobility’
This is in no way a criticism of Thorsten Veblen’s magnificent study. It is just to note that there have always been some who have CONSCIOUSLY rejected and resisted the life form initiated by the leisure class which, indeed, is followed by most people in the western world as the ideal of living.
He argues that there is a prescription for what he calls conspicuous waste. This is not blatant and rigorously conscious, however, in items not “seen” or much noted by others (under clothing, kitchen utensils and such) there tends to be class pressures to spend as one can for items whose utilitarian “advantage” is not very close to the difference in price from less costly goods.
Veblen also argues that there is usually a communal sense of conspicuous spending on houses of worship, and all the trimmings of religion and the clothes worn to services.
In general Veblen argues throughout our expenditures for all manner of goods and our very “tastes” are shaped by notions of conspicuous spending:
“The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste, but it is not the less 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 man not.”
He argues that some objects are, indeed, intrinsically more beautiful and scarcer, thus more costly to own than others. However, he underlies his thesis of conspicuous consumption by pointing out that “ownership” is not a necessary condition of the intrinsic beauty of the objects.
He observes that very often, even usually, our sense of taste and beauty are much more related to the scarcity and expense of objects than to their intrinsic beauty or usefulness.
He gives dozens of examples of this in relations between cost of an item or behavior and its becoming valued more, in his view, for its pecuniary value than its intrinsic value or beauty.
This chapter is a detailed analysis of the expenditures on dress to underline his general point that a huge portion of the “value” placed on our clothing is rooted more in its pecuniary value than its intrinsic aesthetic value or even comfort or utility.
He embraces a strongly Darwinian notion of evolution. His emphasis is not on the individual, but the social institution (he calls them “. . . the habits of thought”). These come from the past and are never fully appropriate to the present, which is constantly, but very slowly, changing.
In our modern world (1899+) the primary determinatives are economic and signify what is good and right “. . . in a large part [the result] of pecuniary exigencies.”
Since the leisure class is more insulated from negative aspects of change (because of having more wealth) “. . . the leisure class is the conservative class.”
“The office of the leisure class in social evolution is to retard the movement and to conserve what is obsolescent.”
He sees three primary contemporary ethnic types, each which carries a differing social tendency:
Within each are 2 variants – a. the peaceable, b. the predatory.
“The salient characteristic of the barbarian culture is an unremitting emulation and antagonism between classes and between individuals.”
. . .
“The traits which characterize the predatory and subsequent stages of culture, and which indicate the types of man best fitted to survive under the regime of status, are (in their primary expression) ferocity, self-seeking, clannishness, and disingenuousness – a free resort to force and fraud.”
Two dominant sorts of modern economic institutions “ownership or acquisition” are related to “workmanship or production.”
The leisure class has, dominantly, pecuniary employment
The working class has, dominantly, industrial work.
“. . . the immediate function of the leisure class is acquisition / accumulation.”
As this sector grows larger much of it becomes more routine and has “. . . less of the character of chicane and shrewd competition in detail.” Thus there are fewer predatory habits among subordinate employers. However:
“The duties of ownership and administration are virtually untouched by this qualification.”
He does acknowledge a modern developing trend among the leisure class toward both philanthropic activities and reformative acts regarding the underclass. However, he cautions this is a limited number of the leisure class.
“In order to hold in place in the class, a stock must have the pecuniary temperament; otherwise its fortune would be dissipated and it would presently lose caste. Instances of this kind are sufficiently frequent.”
. . .
“In order to reach the upper levels the aspirant must have, not only a fair average complement of the pecuniary aptitudes, but he must have these gifts in such an eminent degree as to overcome very material difficulties that stand in the way of his ascent.”
One must keep in mind the distinction of pecuniary employment and industrial employment. On his view they require very different sorts of persons.
The “barbarian temperament” today substitutes fraud and prudence, or administrative ability in place of physical damage.
There is a significant evolutionary movement in the classes toward continuing the barbarian values. It remained an “. . . age of prowess and predatory life.”
He sees a close relationship between leisure class men and delinquents of the lower class. He also leans toward a racial notion of the “blond” (dolicho-blond) most exhibiting these traits.
There is a tendency of the lower classes for this violent phase to lessen in adulthood. Not so in the aristocratic class.
His treatment of sports, especially American football, as a return to early barbarism, had me giggling out loud:
“The culture bestowed in football gives a product of exotic ferocity and cunning. It is a rehabilitation of early barbarian temperament.”
The belief in luck is not limited to our particular culture. However
“. . . it is to be taken as an archaic trait, inherited from the more or less remote past, more or less incompatible with the requirements of the modern industrial process, and more or less of a hindrance to the fullest efficiency of the collective economic life of the present.”
Veblen is looking at devout observances to see what economic relevance can be garnered. He does see a utility to the economic mind. There may well be
“. . . a perceptible inclination to make terms with the preternatural agency by some approved method of approach and conciliation.”
This sound sort of like a bribing of the gods!
The “useful” believers are
“ . . . prone to accept so much of the creed as concerns the inscrutable power and the arbitrary habits of the divinity which has won his confidence.”
The spending on religious ritual is a form of conspicuous spending which is an economic burden on the average wage earning believer. However, it enhances the notion of conspicuous spending.
“There is a striking parallelism, if not rather a substantial identity of motive between the consumption which goes to the service of an anthropomorphic divinity and that which goes to the service of a gentleman of leisure . . .”
. . .
“As a general rule the classes that are low in economic efficiency, or in intelligence, or both, are particularly devout – as, for instance, the negro population of the South, much of the lower-class foreign population, much of the rural population . . . (are) more religious than others.”
As religious piety decreases other behaviors become more mixed with religion than in past times:
“Among these alien motives which affect the devout scheme in its later growth, may be mention the motives of charity and of social good-fellowship, or conviviality, or in more general terms, the various expressions of the sense of human solidarity and sympathy.”
These behaviors are often at considerable conflict with typical leisure class activities which are of conspicuous meaningless wasteful consumption. This behavior works best with those who are in fact in the leisure class. If they do not tend toward the predatory actions typical of their leisure class, they may still find an expression in life that is satisfying even if not predatory.
These modes seem (again, this is 1899) more assessable to leisure class women than men. Veblen then gives a list of some typical directions toward which these feelings may be expressed in these modes:
“Such, for instance, are the agitation for temperance and similar social reforms, for prison reform, for the spread of education, for the suppression of vice, and for the avoidance of war by arbitration, disarmament, or other means . . .”
However, Veblen is cautious to note that not all such behavior is fully sincere:
“. . . many ostensible works of disinterested public spirit are no doubt initiated and carried on with a view primarily to enhance repute, or even to the pecuniary gain, of their promoters.”
The author is highly suspicious of the effectiveness of these measures and argues that even under the supposition of pure motives (which he clearly doubts) the alledged “gains” are suspect.
“The doubt which presents itself is simply a doubt as to the economic expediency of this work of regeneration – that is to say, the economic expediency in that immediate and material bearing in which the effects of the change can be ascertained with some degree of confidence, and as viewed from the standpoint not of the individual but of the facility of life of the collectivity.”
I must admit a strong agreement with this last paragraph. For nearly 25 years I worked with what I am convinced was a desperately sincere effort to bring employment and improvement to some desperately poor villages in rural Haiti by sponsoring various small economic projects. Despite my sincerity and what I think was the overwhelming sincerity of most of the people in the villages where I worked, the levels of success were terribly disappointing. Our various talents or rather lack of them (mine in any sort of business management or even encouragement and theirs of the skills necessary to bring about the improvements we sought) led to very mediocre results, leading me often to think that a better use of the money various donors gave would simply have been to pass out cash to the various households and let the people use the funds as best suited their purposes. It saddens me to look back on such many years of hard and sincere effort on my part and the various villagers with whom I worked and the (seemingly) paltry results of all that effort and wealth.
On the other hand, I am at the same time convinced that many less material gains were made in my own sense of self and service, successes in the hearts and minds of the donors, in the hope and, at least, slim gains, for the people of the villages in their needs, still made the work worthwhile, just not as materially successful as I thing more professional handling could have achieved.
And I think this would not be unaccepted to Veblen’s analysis. It isn’t that he, here at least in this section, doubts the sincerity of aim. Rather he is suspect of the efficiency. Oh my, do I agree with him on that!
The last section of this chapter deals with the incredible difficulty women have in coming to where they can be seen and judged in terms of the value of their own work (even if unpaid charity service) independent of their husbands. He carefully and powerfully spells out the difficult road such women face.
The aim of this final chapter is to point out the features of university education which are “. . . traceable to the predilections of the leisure class on to the guidance of the canons of pecuniary merit . . .”
The universities arose with conservative norms of passing on traditional (but ‘higher’) learning, but as received and accepted view, not in any sense of scholarly doubt or of original inquiry. The whole conservative bent has led the universities to be very slow and suspicious of new theories and claims, especially in the sciences.
While the universities now (1899) have schools for women (though not often in the same schools as men) even the curricula for women are geared toward what women of the leisure class will be likely to be using, and not for intellectual development for its own sake.
Veblen points out that the slow shift to greater acceptance of science into the standard university suggests some shifting away from the leisure class model, yet it is a slow and painful growth.
Veblen’s study is a very refreshing and challenging look at the development of the class structure which still dominates American and European culture and which is fast becoming the dominant world model. I highly recommend this book to all, noBob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org