You add the complete lack of context to the fact that talking about structural issues rather than individual decisions to americans is the equivalent of blowing a great big dog whistle, and you get a comforting, easy moral imperative that virtually any one can follow by simply carefully describing their motivations.
We don't do THAT, we only buy what we really need, plus some occasional treats, but it's all okay. Pecuniary decency, by contrast, would have us interrogating that word "need" instead, a far more troubling proposition. Pecuniary decency explains why you can't wear that sweater with the hole in it, even if it still functions fine as a sweater. It tells you why you think you need a smart phone even if you don't, why everyone thinks they need one even if they don't, until everything is finally set up so that you actually DO need a smartphone but it's only because people thought they needed them when they didn't.
Pecuniary decency makes a mess of the world where the primary goal is to buy different stuff instead of less stuff, because maybe you find you don't really need those things after all. Maybe your needs were actually keeping up with the Joneses and you didn't even realize. I also very much like the tone of this; Veblen is able to say unbelievably devastating things without the slightest hint of upset or perspiration. The things he is able to say about religion, about sports, about a university education, about the status of women in society, about tradition; somehow if he were riled up he simply couldn't have done it, but the tone he uses makes anything possible.
I aspire to that tone. One day, perhaps, if I am very smart and very diligent, I will arrive where Veblen left us a century ago: Send me a key to this place, Thorstein, and I will sit with you of an evening, and we will talk. Veblen was the stand out interesting figure for me from reading "The Worldly Philosophers" having read that I was led to read "Theory of the Leisure Class". After that I read "The Spirit Level" and you can see ideas like the invidious comparison borne out in some of the findings discussed in that book. Aug 14, Andrew added it Shelves: So most of the time, he's kind of riffing, but Veblen does his best writing not when he's theorizing about the nature of the leisure class-- after all, his ideas have become so sublimated into social perception at this point, which I guess speaks to their power-- but when he's going into specifics and demonstrating how they correlate to the broader theory.
And when his talking points get Victorian believing in intrinsic and universal aesthetic values, referring to the savage mind , it seems lik So most of the time, he's kind of riffing, but Veblen does his best writing not when he's theorizing about the nature of the leisure class-- after all, his ideas have become so sublimated into social perception at this point, which I guess speaks to their power-- but when he's going into specifics and demonstrating how they correlate to the broader theory. And when his talking points get Victorian believing in intrinsic and universal aesthetic values, referring to the savage mind , it seems like it's not fundamental to his case.
Really, there's a timeless message here, and it's quite simple. I've started noticing that even most of the leisure class out here in Seattle, who are a much classier bunch than those in, say, Arizona or Fort Worth, really are a bunch of airheaded pricks who don't read books unless they're afraid their neighbor will read them first. Apr 08, Will rated it it was amazing. Woody Guthrie observed, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. He presented a picture of society in which routine, casual, legally sanctioned predation is the object of honor and adulation.
His explanation i Woody Guthrie observed, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. His explanation is applicable to all sorts of social phenomena, wherever the status system makes distinctions. For instance, it is no accident -- going on Veblen's logic -- that golf is the sporting activity par excellence of the jet set.
Golf requires the wasteful setting aside of huge tracts of valuably situated land, the artificial maintenance of grassy fields, water traps, and patches of sand, it requires mastery of a sport-specific vocabulary, the possession of a leather bag of valuable golf clubs, carried about by a paid laborer, and an entire ludicrous wardrobe to be worn only on the links.
It will be objected that people play golf because it's a fun game -- well, perhaps so, but why do they choose this game rather than basketball, or bocce ball, or Parcheesi? Nothing is more fun than bocce ball. Golf demonstrates status and prestige because it is wasteful and useless on such a grand scale. Similarly, we have the great importance attached to the wearing of lightly colored, collared shirts.
The modern-day collar doesn't even have a practical function. The beauty of this presentation is that it transcends cultural and temporal differences. It explains the behavior on display in the old TV show "Cribs" just as it explains the faux European castles that robber barons of the late 19th century had built for themselves. It explains why Japanese businessmen go for Scotch as their drink of choice just as why fur clothing was once so fashionable. It explains the mania for the latest cell phone technology the cell phone being a possession displayed publicly.
It explains the excessive cocaine use and whoring of Wall Street bigwigs during the housing bubble, as relayed in the movie Inside Job. The strength of Veblen's story relative to the story told by other thinkers in his vein is that it does not predict class solidarity. If the poor buy into the notion of status, then their object becomes the attainment of some status for themselves relative to their fellows -- and this precludes challenging the power structure in any meaningful, open way.
In emulating the mores of the leisure class, the lower classes actually bolster their power and legitimacy. This argument seems more persuasive to me than Gramsci's idea of hegemony. In like fashion, the problems Veblen describes can be addressed by adapting institutions to function differently. They do not necessarily require a revolution, violent or otherwise. Veblen relies on a conjectural history -- informed as much as it could be by the history and anthropology available in his day -- that puts him in a long tradition of thinkers such as Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Charles de Montesquieu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith and it is probable that Aristotle was relying on older works that have not come down to us.
This tradition sought to show how society first came to produce a surplus above its subsistence needs, and how the present arrangement for distributing the surplus was working out whether examined in terms of abstract justice, utility, or putatively objective virtue ethics. Although subsequent research in anthropology and history would allow much more fleshing out of such an approach, it seems largely defunct among modern-day intellectuals especially economists, among whom the maxim prevails that "bygones are bygones".
The highly successful men of all times have commonly been of this type; except those whose success has not been scored in terms of either wealth or power. It is only within narrow limits, and then only in the Pickwickian sense, that honesty is the best policy. The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicane, and success in the profession is therefore accepted as marking a large endowment of that barbarian astuteness which has always commanded men's respect and fear.
The servant or wife should not only perform certain offices and show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show an acquired facility in the tactics of subservience -- a trained conformity to the canons of effectual and conspicuous subservience. Even to-day it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the manifestation of the servile relation that constitutes the chief element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife.
The matter is one which has received large attention and illustration at the hands of those whose office it is to watch and admonish with respect to any departures from the accepted code of morals. In modern communities, where the dominant economic and legal feature of the community's life is the institution of private property, one of the salient features of the code of morals is the sacredness of property.
There needs no insistence or illustration to gain assent to the proposition that the habit of holding private property inviolate is traversed by the other habit of seeking wealth for the sake of good repute to be gained through its conspicuous consumption. Most offences against property, especially offences of an appreciable magnitude, come under this head.
It is also a matter of common notoriety and by-word that in offences which result in a large accession of property to the offender he does not ordinarily incur the extreme penalty or the extreme obloquy with which his offence would be visited on the ground of the naive moral code alone. The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law; and some good repute accrues to him from his increased wealth and from his spending the irregularly acquired possessions in a seemly manner.
Simple conspicuous waste of goods is effective and gratifying as far as it goes; it is good prima facie evidence of pecuniary success, and consequently prima facie evidence of social worth. But dress has subtler and more far-reaching possibilities that this crude, first-hand evidence of wasteful consumption only. If, in addition to showing that the wearer can afford to consume freely and uneconomically, it can also be shown in the same stroke that he or she is not under the necessity of earning a livelihood, the evidence of social worth is enhanced in a very considerable degree.
Our dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour 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 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.
This is the priestly class. Priestly vestments show, in accentuated form, all the features that have been shown to be evidence of a servile status and a vicarious life. Even more strikingly than the everyday habit of the priest, the vestments, properly so called, are ornate, grotesque, inconvenient, and, at least ostensibly, comfortless to the point of distress. The priest is at the same time expected to refrain from useful effort and, when before the public eye, to present an impassively disconsolate countenance, very much after the manner of a well-trained domestic servant.
The shaven face of the priest is a further item to the same effect. This assimilation of the priestly class to the class of body servants, in demeanour and apparel, is due to the similarity of the two classes as regards economic function. In economic theory, the priest is the body servant, constructively in attendance of the person of the divinity whose livery he wears. His livery is of a very expensive character, as it should be in order to set forth in a beseeching manner the dignity of the exalted master; but it is contrived to show that the wearing of it contributes little or nothing to the physical comfort of the wearer, for it is an item of vicarious consumption, and the repute which accrues from its consumption is to be imputed to the absent master, not to the servant.
This process requires a certain expenditure of energy, and so presumes, for its successful accomplishment, some surplus of energy beyond that absorbed in the daily struggle for subsistence. Consequently it follows that progress is hindered by underfeeding and excessive physical hardship, no less effectually than by such a luxurious life as will shut out discontent by cutting off the occasions for it. The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after to-morrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands to-day.
They are partly simple and unreflected expressions of an attitude of emulative ferocity, partly activities deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess. Sports of all kins are of the same general character, including prize-fights, bull-fights, athletics, shooting, angling, yachting, and games of skill, even where the element of destructive physical efficiency is not an obtrusive feature.
Sports shade off from the basis of hostile combat, through skill, to cunning and chicanery, without its being possible to draw a line at any point. The ground of an addiction to sports is an archaic spiritual constitution -- the possession of the predatory emulative propensity in a relatively high potency.
A strong proclivity to adventuresome exploit and to the infliction of damage is especially pronounce in those employments which are in colloquial usage specifically called sportsmanship. The tribute is paid in vicarious leisure, and the honorific effect which emerges is imputed to the person or the fact for whose good repute the holiday has been instituted. And as commonly happens with mediators between the vulgar and their masters, whether the the masters be natural or preternatural, he found it expedient to have the means at hand tangibly to impress upon the vulgar the fact that these inscrutable powers would do what he might ask of them.
Hence, presently, a knowledge of certain natural processes which could be turned to account for spectacular effect, together with some sleight of hand, came to be an integral part of priestly lore. Knowledge of this kind passes for knowledge of the "unknowable," and it owes its serviceability for the sacerdotal purpose to its recondite character. It appears to have been from this source that learning, as an institution, arose, and its differentiation from this its parent stock of magical ritual and shamanistic fraud has been slow and tedious, and is scarcely yet complete even in the most advanced of the higher seminars of learning.
Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do no contain this element of exploit, and especially those that imply subservience or submission, are unworthy, debasing, ignoble. The concept of dignity, worth, or honour, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and of class distinctions, and it is therefore necessary to say something of its derivation and meaning.
Its psychological ground may be indicated in outline as follows. He is, in his own apprehension, a centre of unfolding impulsive activity -- "teleological" activity. He is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, or impersonal end. By force of his being such an agent he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit and serviceability or efficiency and the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship.
Wherever the circumstance or traditions of life lead to an habitual comparison of one person with another in point of efficiencty, the instinct of workmanship works out in emulative or invidious comparison of persons. The extent to which this result follows depends in some considerable degree on the temperament of the population. In any community where such an invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. Esteem is gained and dispraise is avoided by putting one's efficiency in evidence. The result is that the instinct of workmanship works out in an emulative demonstration of force.
What emulation of an economic kind there is between the members of such a group will be chiefly emulation in industrial serviceability. At the same time the incentive to emulation is not strong, nor is the scope for emulation large. The opportunity and the incentive to emulation increase greatly in scope and urgency. The activity of the men more and more takes on the character of exploit; and an invidious comparison of one hunter or warrior with another grows continually easier and more habitual. Tangible evidence of prowess -- trophies -- find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature to the paraphernalia of life.
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Booty, trophies of the chase or of the raid, come to be prized as evidence of preeminent force. Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggression. As accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional evidence of successful contest. Therefore, by contrast, the obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.
The performance of productive work, or employment in personal service, falls under the same odium for the same reason. An invidious distinction in this way arises between exploit and acquisition by seizure on the one hand and industrial employment on the other. Labour acquires the character of irksomeness by virtue of the indignity imputed to it. The naive, archaic habit of construing all manifestations of force in terms of personality or "will power" greatly fortifies this conventional exaltation of the strong hand.
Honorific epithets, in vogue among barbarian tribes as well as among peoples of a more advanced culture, commonly bear the stamp of this unsophisticated sense of honour. Epithets and titles used in addressing chieftains, and in the propitiation of kings and gods, very commonly impute a propensity for overbearing violence and an irresistible devastating force to the person who is to be propitiated. This holds true to an extent also in the more civilised communities of the present day.
The predilection shown in heraldic devices for the more rapacious beasts and birds of prey goes to enforce the same view. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer's prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act. Arms are honourable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the field, becomes an honorific employment.
At the same time, employment in industry become correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Conspicuous Leisure This is the book that coined the term "conspicuous consumption". My own stance in regard to this practice is demonstrated in the fact that I read this book in a "Dover Thrift Edition"; so, I started reading the book with the expectation of it explaining other people's behavior.
However, before getting to conspicuous consumption, Veblen describes what he calls "conspicuous leisure"; this is significant time spent in ways which are not aimed a earning money, either immediately o Conspicuous Leisure This is the book that coined the term "conspicuous consumption". However, before getting to conspicuous consumption, Veblen describes what he calls "conspicuous leisure"; this is significant time spent in ways which are not aimed a earning money, either immediately or at some future date.
But leisure in the narrower sense, as distinct from exploit and from any ostensibly productive employment of effort on objects which are of no intrinsic use, does not commonly leave a material product. 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 household art; of the latest properties 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. Could it be that the many hours I have spent and continue to spend in reading and learning about the various arts were in fact a form of "conspicuous leisure"?
Though I resist the idea, by the end of the book, I was sure Veblen would say yes. It's possible then, that people who ask incredulously, "Where do you find the time to read? Perhaps, too, the increasing length of newer novels is not, as I had assumed, due to reduced editorial attention, but a response to a market need for readers who want to display their conspicuous leisure via thicker books. Pecuniary Aesthetics Veblen examines how the values promoted by the leisure class permeate a number of areas of a society, such as sports, religion, and education, beyond what we usually think of as consumption.
I was particularly interested to see what he had to say about the arts. He mentions limited edition hand bound books produced using earlier techniques of printing, such as those created by William Morris, as prestige items and points out that such volumes are less convenient and more difficult to read than the mass produced equivalent. He also creates a thought experiment which would fit into a book on the aesthetics of art forgery.
Imagine two metal spoons of elaborate design, indistinguishable to the eye. When told that one is silver and hand-crafted and the other aluminum and machine-made, the viewer would inevitably express an aesthetic preference for the silver spoon. In this way the pecuniary values which distinguish the leisure class affect judgments outside the monetary realm.
The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty. This is of a piece with his earlier description of how wealth is capable of bestowing virtue through a kind of transitive property: When accumulated goods have in this way once become the accepted badge of efficiency, the possession of wealth presently assumes the character of an independent and definitive basis of esteem.
The possession of goods, whether acquired aggressively by one's own exertion or passively by transmission through inheritance from others, becomes a conventional basis of reputability.
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
The possession of wealth, which was at the outset valued simply as an evidence of efficiency, becomes, in popular apprehension, itself a meritorious act. Wealth is now itself intrinsically honourable and confers honour on its possessor. By a further refinement, wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor's own effort; but this distinction belongs at a later stage in the evolution of the pecuniary culture and will be spoken of in its place. Racism and First-Wave Feminism Modern readers will find his references to "races" irrelevant, if not odious; the so-called races he speaks of at any length, "the dolichocephalic-blond, the brachycephalic-brunette, and the Mediterranean", would today all be subsumed under the term "Caucasian".
Whatever racial theorizing he does turns out not to invalidate any modern applications of his argument, nor, in fact, to really have much relevance at all to his theses. It is as if he wanted to suggest a relationship of his work to one of the leading "scientific" trends of his day without it really having any relevance at all, as one would after all suspect given the completely bogus nature of "racial science".
On the other hand, his discussion of "the new woman", as a first hand account of the reception of first-wave feminism is of continuing relevance. Veblen sees the new women's demands for "emancipation" and, especially, "work" as direct challenges to the ethics of the leisure class where wives were designated "vicarious consumers" to publicize their husbands wealth and were required to engage only in non-productive occupations.
Veblen's Style This book made for slow reading with me and proved quite a slog in the second half. Veblen's style is rather clotted and repetitious. I often found myself re-reading paragraphs to parse their meanings; then, moving on to the next paragraph, found the author repeating the point I had just laboriously extracted.
He also tends to write in generalities, which makes comprehension more difficult; this is unfortunate since, when he does clarify his meaning with a specific example, his argument is usually then made quite cogent, as with the silver spoon example above. Explication, Polemic, or Satire? There is probably enough internal evidence in this book to explain Veblen's sometimes vague and inelegant style, either as a way of "encoding" his actual message or as expressing disdain for elegance and precision in verbal communication.
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Some vagueness and generalizing is no doubt due to the fact that he is criticizing and calling into question the continued existence of his society's most powerful elements, what came to be called "the Establishment", and it would not do for the assault to be too direct. For example, attacking religion's detrimental effect on human reasoning power, he never refers to "Christianity", but always "anthropomorphism". He also tries to on occasion to mollify any reader who may be feeling the sting of his language, explaining that his use of negative terms such as "invidious" and "wasteful" are merely descriptive and not judgmental.
But there is a certain vehemence that comes through on occasion which makes his denials of negative evaluation unconvincing, such as when he compares the leisure class with the criminal element, as he does at several points: The ideal pecuniary man is like the ideal delinquent in his unscrupulous conversion of goods and persons to his own ends, and in a callous disregard of the feelings and wishes of others and of the remoter effects of his actions; but he is unlike him in possessing a keener sense of status, and in working more consistently and farsightedly to a remoter end.
The kinship of the two types of temperament is further shown in a proclivity to "sport" and gambling, and a relish of aimless emulation. The ideal pecuniary man also shows a curious kinship with the delinquent in one of the concomitant variations of the predatory human nature. The delinquent is very commonly of a superstitious habit of mind; he is a great believer in luck, spells, divination and destiny, and in omens and shamanistic ceremony.
Where circumstances are favorable, this proclivity is apt to express itself in a certain servile devotional fervor and a punctilious attention to devout observances; it may perhaps be better characterized as devoutness than as religion. I had an occasional suspicion during my reading that Veblen may have been practicing an elaborate irony: In this case his uncongenial style and rather far reaching racial and historical theses would conform to his mocking idea of academic respectability: The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces.
He is also quite perceptive of irony, at least when it comes to instances where the values of the leisure class directly conflict with their stated goals: Certain funds, for instance, may have been set apart as a foundation for a foundling asylum or a retreat for invalids. The diversion of expenditure to honorific waste in such cases is not uncommon enough to cause surprise or even to raise a smile. An appreciable share of the funds is spent in the construction of an edifice faced with some aesthetically objectionable but expensive stone, covered with grotesque and incongruous details, and designed, in its battlemented walls and turrets and its massive portals and strategic approaches, to suggest certain barbaric methods of warfare.
The interior of the structure shows the same pervasive guidance of the canons of conspicuous waste and predatory exploit. The windows, for instance, to go no farther into detail, are placed with a view to impress their pecuniary excellence upon the chance beholder from the outside, rather than with a view to effectiveness for their ostensible end in the convenience or comfort of the beneficiaries within; and the detail of interior arrangement is required to conform itself as best it may to this alien but imperious requirement of pecuniary beauty.
If however his book as a whole is not intended ironically, he can be seen as attempting to lay the foundations of a genuinely revolutionary change to society, one at least as sweeping as that of the Jacobins and Communists. The criticism of the complexities of English orthography may simply reflect a specific bugbear of the time; one is reminded of similar objections raised by George Bernard Shaw and the revolutionized spelling of discovered by Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames during his trip to the future.
He considers that "a familiarity with the animistic superstitions and the exuberant truculence of the Homeric heroes" reinforces and institutionalizes the values of the leisure class and objects to how the study of classical languages has by convention become incorporated into the sum of learning required of the scholar, and has thereby affected the terminology and diction employed in the useful branches of knowledge.
Except for this terminological difficulty—which is itself a consequence of the vogue of the classics of the past—a knowledge of the ancient languages, for instance, would have no practical bearing for any scientist or any scholar not engaged on work primarily of a linguistic character. Of course, all this has nothing to say as to the cultural value of the classics, nor is there any intention to disparage the discipline of the classics or the bent which their study gives to the student.
That bent seems to be of an economically disserviceable kind, but this fact—somewhat notorious indeed—need disturb no one who has the good fortune to find comfort and strength in the classical lore. The fact that classical learning acts to derange the learner's workmanlike attitudes should fall lightly upon the apprehension of those who hold workmanship of small account in comparison with the cultivation of decorous ideals Note that closing self-exculpation from any malicious intent which a concerned reader might read into the foregoing passage, a demurral typical of Veblen on the attack.
Even study of Arnold's "the best which has been thought and said" as a means of sharpening one's own thinking and expression is considered worthless by Veblen. It is contended, in substance, that a punctilious use of ancient and accredited locutions will serve to convey thought more adequately and more precisely than would be the straightforward use of the latest form of spoken English; whereas it is notorious that the ideas of today are effectively expressed in the slang of today.
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Classic speech has the honorific virtue of dignity; it commands attention and respect as being the accredited method of communication under the leisure-class scheme of life, because it carries a pointed suggestion of the industrial exemption of the speaker. The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumbrous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech.
Though hardly "the straightforward use of the latest form of spoken English", Veblen's style throughout the book shows little care to conform to classic ideas of written communication; neither Gibbon nor Johnson have been studied to learn elegance of style and clarity of meaning. On balance, I am inclined to consider this book a reformer's polemic rather than a critic's satire.
Perhaps because it is defined largely in terms of what would be eliminated, Veblen's efficient and productive new world seems rather joyless, but that does not necessarily mean he did not intend it seriously; other reformers have earnestly proposed less attractive Utopias. It was highly complimentary and its subject was Norwegian and neglected just like me.
I actually got around to reading The Theory of the Leisure Class some time after Dave Schweickart's courses in political economy got me interested in the subject and the reading of Kapital and re-reading of On the Wealth of Nations got me less intimidated by the subject area. Back in '87 Dad and his third wife, Lene, were living in a log cabin, a very fancy log cabin, in "The Galena Territories" outside of the town of that name in NW Illinois. Planning an extended summer visit, I brought Thorstein along, probably thinking the two of them would be impressed. I particulary recall reading it besides the, ah, "territorial" pool, thinking that being stuck there for the day would ensure that the boring tome would be gotten into substantially.
What a surprise then to discover that Veblen's most popular and perdurant book is really more sociology, even cultural anthropology, than the usual economics! May 04, John Hively rated it it was amazing. This is a great read if you have a dictionary handy. Microeconomics is the study of why people purchase stuff. This is the best micro-economic book ever written. I studied micro-economics in college, both on the undergraduate and graduate levels.
The theories I studied were stupid, generic marginal utility theories. Those theories told you nothing of why people do things. Veblen's classic was published years ago and it's still light years ahead of the valueless micro-economics being produced This is a great read if you have a dictionary handy. Veblen's classic was published years ago and it's still light years ahead of the valueless micro-economics being produced at elite universities such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago.
Essentially, it's all about keeping up with the Joneses, something that academic economists have never figured out. I give 4 stars because of what I read in wikipedia about the subject not because I understood the text of this book. The only thing that I remember is that Old man get woman as trophies because that what we have been doing for s of years. I marked the book as re read, so I can go line by line and translate to modern English and learn new words.
If your English are not on the level of Oxford professor dont get the unabridged version. If you want to challenge yourself with this version, you ha I give 4 stars because of what I read in wikipedia about the subject not because I understood the text of this book. If you want to challenge yourself with this version, you have been warned. I read this on the plane coming down from Portland, sitting beside a couple of software developers discussing their overseas properties- both apparently had second homes outside the US, one in Tuscany ooh, too outre-cliche!
Both happened to be interested in viticulture and considered themselves amateur vintners. I heard a lot of inside talk such as I hadn't been exposed to for some twenty years when I was working myself as an interviewing plebe for a high tech market research fi I read this on the plane coming down from Portland, sitting beside a couple of software developers discussing their overseas properties- both apparently had second homes outside the US, one in Tuscany ooh, too outre-cliche! I heard a lot of inside talk such as I hadn't been exposed to for some twenty years when I was working myself as an interviewing plebe for a high tech market research firm in SF regarding inner dealings at Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Needless to say, the irony was NOT lost on me!
Here right beside me were evidences in the flesh of Veblen's "society of conspicuous consumption"- status seekers apparently competing not only with each other, but the rest of the world, to see "who dies with the most toys, wins. I stifled belly laughs all the way to SFO.
The Theory of the Leisure Class
Feb 21, Tony rated it did not like it. This is the only book I have ever read in which every single solitary sentence absolutely baffles the hell out of me. I made myself finish it, but I was on autopilot most of the time, just looking at the words rather than reading them. And I've now seen the word "invidious" enough times to last a lifetime. Few books will make you rethink and reorder entire categories of your experience. This is one of them. The book does suffer from certain limitations: In spite of these problems, Veblen's concepts have tremendous explanatory power and, while they might not apply with the same force today that they did at the time it was published, they are still surprisingly relevant and illuminating over a hundred years later.
This book is worth reading not because everything he says is true, but because his ideas will help you to think more clearly and critically about the society and culture we live in. Dec 16, Miquixote rated it really liked it Shelves: Difficult language but very interesting. It needs to be understood as satirical, and it is therefore quite complicated to get the real drift but definitely worth the effort.
We are left to ponder some riddles, like if it is only a joke when Veblen states 'if something is more expensive, it is because it less useful'. It leaves a lot of conclusions open, and I tend to think he is mocking the leisure class. It is humorous with complicated yet interesting language. All this in an economics-oriented Difficult language but very interesting. All this in an economics-oriented text. Apr 17, Richard Thompson rated it really liked it Shelves: Veblen's basic concepts are beyond brilliant.
According to Veblen, the upper classes must engage in conspicuously unproductive activities to show that they do not have to work in order to distinguish themselves from the masses and one another, and since great wealth cannot be productively consumed, they must engage in unproductive consumption to show that they can.
It isn't enough for the rich man to do these things on his own; he must engage in vicarious leisure through the unproductive activit Veblen's basic concepts are beyond brilliant. It isn't enough for the rich man to do these things on his own; he must engage in vicarious leisure through the unproductive activities of his wife, family and retainers, and all of those people must also engage in varying degrees of wasteful conspicuous consumption.
These concepts become a Swiss Army Knife for explaining every aspect of society, including both the leisure class and the laboring classes. In applying his theories to fashion, culture, taste, manners, and grammar, Veblen is completely persuasive. In the areas of religion and scholarship, he has some telling points. I found him less convincing in his application of his theories to gambling and sports, and there is a point in the middle of the book where he slips into sloppy Spenserian Social Darwinism in analyzing "ethnic types" that is completely off the mark.
But none of this detracts from the power of the basic theory which provides an interesting lens for looking at almost anything. I think that for the next few months I am going to be looking at every book I read, every film I see and every business deal that I do through the lens of Veblen, seeking the "conspicuous waste" and "pecuniary merit" that lie behind more conventionally described motivations.
It will at the least be an amusing game and with any luck will give me some new insights. One other thing worth a brief note is Veblen's interesting writing style. It is very jargony, and yet completely comprehensible. He builds up a vocabulary of charged terms, such as "predatory fraud", "vicarious waste" and "anthropomorphic cults", which he innocently asserts mean nothing more than he defines them to mean, but of course they are carefully chosen to demean his targets.
The way that he recombines and reuses his terminology builds on itself to create a complex but understandable vocabulary. Anyone who jumped into this book at the fourth chapter would have a hard time understanding what is going on, but as long as you start at the beginning at let Veblen paint the picture for you, it all makes sense and is very effective, although somewhat understated, as a polemical technique.
As opposed to an economic theory of the leisure class non-productive leisure and consumption , Veblen's book might more potently be a theory of human nature. Veblen writes about rank in today's "predatory" culture where those of means display their superior status by not having to perform manual work or any work at all hence, leisure , by the accumulation of wealth and the honor it brings, and by conspicuous consumption and waste that displays one's status.
There is an elaborate system of "ran As opposed to an economic theory of the leisure class non-productive leisure and consumption , Veblen's book might more potently be a theory of human nature. There is an elaborate system of "rank and grade" within the the leisure class as signified by explicit and not so explict standards of taste and behavior that show whether one is a member and one's relative rank within the class.
Even those who support the leisure class "are trained in the practice of subservience. The relevance of the second half of the book sports, women, reversion to archaic traits to his overall theory is not clear. The strength of Veblen's book lies in the first few chapters where he lays out his argument clearly and powerfully. Here Veblen challenges the reader: Has he captured a fundamental truth? Do we give lip service to equality when we really want the same leisure status that Veblen writes about? Are we all the same or is there a fundamental division within human nature between those who become predators exploiting others and those who know this is wrong?
And, what might be the evolutionary origins of the need for status and display? Rick Sam Good thoughts 41 minutes ago. May 15, Robert Jerome rated it really liked it. I think this book is classified as being in the field of economics just because the author was teaching economics, not because of its content. An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions , the book arose from three articles that Veblen published in the American Journal of Sociology: The Theory of Business Enterprise , about how incompatible are the pursuit of profit and the making of useful goods; and The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts , about the fundamental conflict between the human predisposition to useful production and the societal institutions that waste the useful products of human effort.
In the late 19th century, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions established that the economic life of a modern society is based upon the social stratification of tribal and feudal societies, rather than upon merit , that is to say, upon social and economic utility.
Thorstein Veblen's anthropological examples indicate that many economic behaviours of contemporary society derive from corresponding tribal-society behaviors, wherein men and women practiced the division of labour according to their status group ; high-status people practiced hunting and warfare , which are economically unproductive occupations, whilst low-status people practiced farming and manufacturing, which are economically productive occupations.
In a stratified society, the division of labour inherent to the barbarian culture of conquest, domination , and exploitation featured labour-intensive occupations for the conquered people, and light-labour occupations for the conquerors, who thus became the leisure class. Moreover, it was socially unimportant that low-status, productive occupations tinker, tailor, chandler were of greater economic value to society than were high-status, unproductive occupations the profession of arms , the clergy , banking , etc.
In exercising political control, the leisure class retained their high social-status by direct and indirect coercion, by reserving for themselves the profession of arms, and so withheld weapons and military skills from the lower social classes. Such a division of labour economic utility rendered the lower classes dependent upon the leisure class, and so established, justified, and perpetuated the role of the leisure class as the defenders of society against natural and supernatural enemies, because the clergy also belonged to the leisure class.
In the event, contemporary society did not psychologically supersede the tribal-stage division of labour, but merely evolved different forms of said division-of-labour-by-status. Likewise, in contemporary society, skilled labourers of the working class usually are paid an income, in wages , that is inferior to the income paid, in salary , to the educated professionals whose economic importance as engineers , managers , salesmen , personnel clerks , et al. To attain, retain, and gain greater social status within their social class , low-status people emulate the respected, high-status members of their socio-economic class, by consuming over-priced brands of goods and services perceived to be products of better quality, and thus of a higher social-class.
In striving for greater social status, people buy high-status products goods and services which they cannot afford, despite the availability of affordable products that are perceived as of lower quality and lesser social-prestige, and thus of a lower social-class. In a consumer society, the businessman was the latest member of the leisure class, a barbarian who used his prowess business acumen and competitive skills marketing to increase profits , by manipulating the supply and the demand among the social classes and their strata, for the same products at different prices.
In the late 19th century, with The Theory of the Leisure Class: Conspicuous consumption is the application of money and material resources towards the display of a higher social-status e.
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
Therefore, such physical and intellectual pursuits display the freedom of the rich man and woman from having to work in an economically productive occupation. Moreover, from the conspicuous consumption of necessary, useful goods food, shelter, clothing, etc. In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. The modern industrial society developed from the barbarian tribal society, which featured a leisure class supported by subordinated working classes employed in economically productive occupations.
The leisure class is composed of people exempted from manual work and from practicing economically productive occupations, because they belong to the leisure class. As such, the material consumption of the leisure class has little to do with either comfort or subsistence, and much to do with social esteem from the community, and thus with self-respect. Theoretically, the consumption of luxury products goods and services is limited to the leisure class, because the working classes have other, more important, things and activities on which to spend their limited income, their wages.
Yet, such is not the case, because the lower classes consume expensive alcoholic beverages and narcotic drugs. In that emulation of the leisure class, social manners are a result of the non-productive, consumption of time by the upper social classes; thus the social utility of conspicuous consumption and of conspicuous leisure lies in their wastefulness of time and resources.
Consequently, to the lower classes, possessing such an object becomes an exercise in the pecuniary emulation of the leisure class. In a consumer society, the function of clothes is to define the wearer as a man or a woman who belongs to a given social class, not for protection from the environment. Moreover, the symbolic function of clothes indicates that the wearer belongs to the leisure class, and can afford to buy new clothes when the fashion changes.
A society develops through the establishment of institutions social, governmental, economic, etc. Politically, the leisure class maintain their societal dominance, by retaining out-dated aspects of the political economy; thus, their opposition to socio-economic progressivism to the degree that they consider political conservatism and political reaction as honorific features of the leisure class. The existence of the leisure class influences the behaviour of the individual man and woman, by way of social ambition.
To rise in society , a person from a lower class emulates the characteristics of the desired upper class; he or she assumes the habits of economic consumption and social attitudes archaic traits of demeanour in speech, dress, and manners. In pursuit of social advancement, and concomitant social prestige, the man and the woman who rid themselves of scruple and honesty will more readily rise into a stratum of the leisure class.
As owners of the means of production , the leisure class benefit from, but do not work in, the industrial community, and do not materially contribute to the commonweal the welfare of the public but do consume the goods and services produced by the working classes. As such, the individual success social and economic of a person derives from his or her astuteness and ferocity, which are character traits nurtured by the pecuniary culture of the consumer society. Within the social strata of the leisure class, the belief in luck is greater in the matter of sport wherein physical prowess does matter because of personal pride, and the concomitant social prestige; hence, gambling is a display of conspicuous consumption and of conspicuous leisure.
Nonetheless, gambling the belief in luck is a social practice common to every social class of society. As such, attending church services, participating in religious rites, and paying tithes, are a form of conspicuous leisure. The clergy and the women who are members of the leisure class function as objects of vicarious leisure, thus, it is morally impossible for them to work and productively contribute to society. As such, maintaining a high social-class is more important for a woman of the leisure class, than it is for a man of the leisure class.
In a consumer society, how a woman spends her time and what activities she does with her time communicate the social standing of her husband, her family, and her social class. Education academic, technical, religious is a form of conspicuous leisure, because it does not directly contribute to the economy of society. Therefore, high-status, ceremonial symbols of book-learning, such as the gown and mortar-board-cap of the university graduate educated in abstract subjects science, mathematics, philosophy, etc.
In The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions , Thorstein Veblen used idiosyncratic and satirical language to present the consumerist mores of modern American society; about the impracticality of etiquette , as a form of conspicuous leisure , Veblen said that:. A better illustration [of conspicuous leisure], or at least a more unmistakable one, is afforded by a certain King of France who was said to have lost his life in the observance of good form.
In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat, the King sat uncomplaining before the fire, and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But, in so doing, he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination. In contrast, Veblen used objective language in The Theory of Business Enterprise , which analyses the business-cycle behaviours of businessmen; yet, in the Introduction to the edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class , the economist Robert Lekachman said that Thorstein Veblen was a misanthrope, that:.
As a child, Veblen was a notorious tease, and an inveterate inventor of malicious nicknames. As an adult, Veblen developed this aptitude into the abusive category and the cutting analogy. In this volume [ The Theory of the Leisure Class ] the most striking categories are four in number: It is amazing what a very large proportion of social activity, higher education, devout observance, and upper-class consumer goods seemed to fit snugly into one, or another, of these classifications. That Veblen spoke satirically in order to soften the negative implications of his socio-economic analyses of the U.
That, unlike Marx, who recognised capitalism as superior to feudalism in providing products goods and services for mass consumption, Veblen did not recognise that distinction, because capitalism was economic barbarism, and that goods and services produced for conspicuous consumption are fundamentally worthless.
The publishing success of The Theory of the Leisure Class: As a contribution to the general theory of sociology, Dr. Its highly original character makes any abridgement of it exceedingly difficult and inadequate, and such an abridgement cannot be even attempted here. The following pages, however, are devoted to a discussion of certain points of view in which the author seems, to the writer [Cummings], to have taken an incomplete survey of the facts, or to have allowed his interpretation of facts to be influenced by personal animus.
An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions ; and reported that class anxiety impels American society to wasteful consumerism, especially the pursuit of social prestige by owning consumer goods.
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That, despite social classes being alike in most stratified societies , the novelty of the American social-class system was that the leisure class had only recently appeared in U. Howells concluded the book review by calling upon a novelist to translate into fiction the message reported by the social-scientist Veblen, because a novel of manners was an opportunity for American fiction to accessibly communicate the satire in The Theory of the Leisure Class:. It would be easy to burlesque [the American leisure class], but to burlesque it would be intolerable, and the witness [Veblen] who did this would be bearing false testimony where the whole truth and nothing but the truth is desirable.
A democracy, the proudest, the most sincere, the most ardent that history has ever known, has evolved here a leisure class which has all the distinguishing traits of a patriciate , and which by the chemistry of intermarriage with European aristocracies is rapidly acquiring antiquity.
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