A review of The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein VeblenI spent about six months reading this book, and I thought about it nonstop as I did. I can’t think of another book which was more cathartic for me, nor one that I found as intellectually invigorating. Depressing as all hell, sure, and not one to stoke your native faith in humanity with, sure, but still a hell of a sound read.

The Leisure Class which sits as the center of Veblen’s inquiry is the higher side of a stratified society, which is built bottom to top on the basis of invidiuous distinction by pecuniary strength.  That statement packs a wallop, and pretty well sums up the core idea of the book, which Veblen elaborates on and embroiders for several hundred pages.  But the essence is that societies are based upon status, upon some people being better than other people, and both of them knowing it.  I’ve begun to view society as a large vertical stack in which the indigent are on the bottom, and the rich are on the top, and everyone slides in among their pecuniary peers, using visual displays of wealth to ensure that they’re in the right spot.

Veblen traces this back to early barbarian societies, where a distinction was made between industry and exploit. Essentially, if you could go hunt and kill a bear, you didn’t have to pick berries.  That’s the origin of the Leisure Class.  Those who could perform acts of exploit were exempt from industrial occupation.  Shortly, as society grew, these abilities of exploit were demonstrated through the booty that one could claim through them, first in the form of women—apparently the first kind of property was human chattel—and then in the form of stuff.  You displayed your wealth as evidence of your talents of exploit, and this allowed you to assert dominance or deference to those around you, depending on how much respectives wealth you were able to display.

Work of industry is considered base, and so early society stratifies between those who are industrially productive and those who are not, which Veblen names The Leisure Class.

Under this ancient distinction the worthy employments are those which may be classed as exploit; unworthy are those necessary everyday employments into which no appreciable element of exploit enters.

This distinction has but little obvious significance in a modern industrial community, and it has, therefore, received but slight attention at the hands of economic writers. When viewed in the light of that modern common sense which has guided economic discussion, it seems formal and insubstantial. But it persists with great tenacity as a commonplace preconception even in modern life, as is shown, for instance, by our habitual aversion to menial employments.

Among the primitive leisure class, the suitable employments are warfare, politics, religion, and sports. As society grows and institutions arise and are refined, the display of pecuniary strenth as a proxy for talents of exploit takes the form of conspicuous leisure, and ones ability to be conspicuously at leisure becomes the measure of your worth in society and the source of ones personal esteem.  From there, things get progressively more rococo, but follow this same basic idea, that the acquisition and display of wealth is the primary driver of human society.

For example, consider the landed gentlemen of Victorian England.  This man is exempt from industrial occupation by virtue of his wealth, and in part to demonstrate this exemption he wears impeccable clothes that are unsuitable to labor, he cultivates useless talents such as fox hunting and the reading of Greek, and he does so as a demonstration of how much time he is able to spend not working.  But our landed gentlemen is wealthy enough that his own leisure is insufficient to demonstate his true worth, so he employs people to engage in vicarious leisure on his behalf – the footman, the topiary gardener, and the master of the hounds are nothing more than able, industrious hands that are taken out of use merely to demonstrate the wealth of one individual.

As this tendence evolves and grows, Conspicuous Leisure gives way to Conspicuous Consumption, which accomplishes the same end by different means. And all of it is driven by the need for invidious distinction, the need to say who is master and who is servant, who is better than whom, and what strata of society you belong to and whether you’re better off than the guy next door.  When I first heard about conspicuous consumption in college I misapprehended it to be some kind of critique of the bourgesiosie, but I have come to understand that it applies to everyone, up and down the scale, and underlies pretty much every decision we all make about how to dispense with our wealth.

While this is an extremely clean and simple proposition, it achieves multiple layers of supplementary meaning in everyday life, so that we’re generally a step or three removed from the naked significance of our choice of car or mouthwash. Veblen first talks about pecuniary emultion and then the pecuniary standard of living, which can be crudely understood as keeping up with the Jonses.

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. In an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation;

We want to be better than those around us, so we buy things that show those around us what we’re worth.  That’s why we all get up and go to work in the morning, and that’s why we buy our rugs from the persian importer rather than Target, or why we buy our rugs at Target rather than the guy on the side of the road with a bunch of rugs slung over a fence. Veblen spends a devastating chapter talking about the pecuniary canons of taste, and the fact that we prefer handmade goods to machine-made goods because they are more wasteful.  The focus on waste becomes a key determiner of the honor associated with any given purchase, so avoiding such waste in the name of pure utility becomes an impossibility:

Any consumer who might, Diogenes-like, insist on the elimination of all honorific or wasteful elements from his consumption, would be unable to supply his most trivial wants in the modern market. Indeed, even if he resorted to supplying his wants directly by his own efforts, he would find it difficult if not impossible to divest himself of the current habits of thought on this head; so that he could scarcely compass a supply of the necessaries of life for a day’s consumption without instinctively and by oversight incorporating in his home-made product something of this honorific, quasi-decorative element of wasted labor.

When it comes to demonstrating pecuniary strength for the purpose of invidious distinction, clothes are a prime vehicle, and Veblen spends an amusing chapter exploring the various ways that we use clothes invidiously:

Other methods of putting one’s pecuniary standing in evidence serve their end effectually, and other methods are in vogue always and everywhere; but expenditure on dress has this advantage over most other methods, that our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance. It is also true that admitted expenditure for display is more obviously present, and is, perhaps, more universally practiced in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption. No one finds difficulty in assenting to the commonplace that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person. And probably at no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress. It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed.

Here, as ever, Veblen hits it on the head, and then keeps on hammering to a second point, that while the sheer display of wasted expenditure is an important aspect of our choice of garments, they also serve to signify social standing in other ways as well:

The pleasing effect of neat and spotless garments is chiefly, if not altogether, due to their carrying the suggestion of leisure-exemption from personal contact with industrial processes of any kind. Much of the charm that invests the patent-leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking-stick, which so greatly enhance the native dignity of a gentleman, comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use. Elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive, but also because it is the insignia of leisure. It not only shows that the wearer is able to consume a relatively large value, but it argues at the same time that he consumes without producing.

Or, shorter:

The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this; it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion. The like is true of the feminine custom of wearing the hair excessively long.

After talking about taste and fashion, Veblen talks about social conservatism being that default position of the Leisure Class, since they are immune from the need to earn a living, and have the most to lose in a change of the social order.  He spends a couple of entertaining chapters talking about luck and religion, about how both spring from a belief in animism, and that the belief that the more honorable opponent will prevail in a sporting event springs from the same well as a belief that God is ordering all things, and that rich people deserve their money.  As he puts it:

The sporting or gambling temperament, then, comprises some of the substantial psychological elements that go to make a believer in creeds and an observer of devout forms, the chief point of coincidence being the belief in an inscrutable propensity or a preternatural interposition in the sequence of events.

Veblen seems like he wants to believe that the rise of industrialization is causing men to turn away from this belief toward one of causal relationships:

The artisan class, on the other hand, is notoriously falling away from the accredited anthropomorphic creeds and from all devout observances. This class is in an especial degree exposed to the characteristic intellectual and spiritual stress of modern organized industry, which requires a constant recognition of the undisguised phenomena of impersonal, matter-of-fact sequence and an unreserved conformity to the law of cause and effect.

But I think he is engaging in a rare instance of wishful thinking, myself, which is one of the rare points of doubt I have on the whole thing.  Another place where I think Veblen misses things is in his exploration of the genetic underpinnings of the traits of the different classes:

The man of our industrial communities tends to breed true to one or the other of three main ethic types; the dolichocephalic-blond, the brachycephalic-brunette, and the Mediterranean—disregarding minor and outlying elements of our culture. But within each of these main ethnic types the reversion tends to one or the other of at least two main directions of variation; the peaceable or antepredatory variant and the predatory variant.

I’m afraid with this he ends up coming across as a bit of a crackpot and a fairly bad geneticist, but I just stuck a pin in this and moved on.  Overall, Veblen makes such a devestatingly clear and apprehensively true case, that I forgave him this bit of underinformed nonsense.

Veblen closes the book with a discussion of higher education, and makes the now obvious point that the esoteric fields are more honoriffic than the exoteric ones because they are so very useless. Consider the snobbery that a pure mathematician has for the applied mathematician, of the university philosophy major for the trade school technician.  Here, fancying himself a scientist, he can’t resist a good kick at the humanities:

But while this is true, it is also true that the classics have scarcely lost in absolute value as a voucher of scholastic respectability, since for this purpose 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.

As I said, I found Veblen a highly edifying read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good prose challenge, a good intellectual challenge, and a good personal challenge. On that latter front, I found the book most edifying of all, and well worth the six months I’ve spent thinking about it so far. I have always fancied myself a man apart, and flattered myself that I was immune to the material acquisitiveness of those around me, but Veblen has shown me that this is utter nonsense, and that I am as prone to invidious distinction on the basis of pecuniary strength as anyone.  The fact that I drive a Honda, and would never ever dream of driving a Hyundai seems proof enough of this, but I’m able to peel back layers and layers of this stuff, with everything in my life.  It’s devastating, edifying, and exhausting.

For me, as Veblens illustrates, the need for invidious distinction is truly less about the pecuniary strength itself, and more about evidence of prowess.  I think I am driven, both personally and professionally, to be seen as a man of great prowess, as smarter than those around me, cleverer than the next man, and able to shape the world to my own ends.  I see myself and want others to see me as a man of exploit, and neither years of therapy nor determined introspection confronted me with this fact more clearly than Veblen did.  That this manifests as wealth coming my way is very really an interesting and often enjoyable byproduct of my powers of exploit, but it’s the exploit I crave, the dominance of the world about me, and my superior dominance to those around me.

The question I wrestle with is, why?  I am living by and with a predatory barbarian mindset, and it has served me just fine, but is that really the way I should live my life?  Should I suppress this need for superiority, or simply ride it up to a big house on the hill?  Should I find non-predatory ways to demonstrate my prowess, should I focus on hiding my wealth, and should I attempt to defy what I think Veblen rightly identifies as a foundational aspect of ourselves?  Seems foolish to try, but it also seems, as I finish this book, the unanswered question in my mind.  How much of this is inherent to me, and how much might I control, redirect, or transcend.

Early on in the book, Veblen references a deeper, more fundamental driver of human actions.  He sort of breezes past it, but it socked me on the jaw at the time, and I felt a bit betrayed, as if I’d been given a glimpse of a secret truth only to be then told that there was a bigger, more important truth beyond that next door.  Reading a Veblen book is enough of an intimitating exercise without getting additional homework assigned mid-stream, but that’s just what he did, the bastard.  So I’ve just gotten my copy of The Instinct of Workmanship, and I’m about to dive in.  My hope is that Veblen will help me see and understand the other half of my nature, hopefully a prettier aspect than barbarian predation, and I’ll emerge uplifted rather than merely enlightened.  But the verdict there will have to wait for another day.

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