by Emrys Westacott
Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a famous, influential, and rather peculiar book. Veblen (1857 – 1929) was a progressive-minded scholar who wrote about economics, social institutions, and culture. The Theory of the Leisure Class, which appeared in 1899, was the first of ten books that he published during his lifetime. It is the original source of the expression “conspicuous consumption,” was once required reading on many graduate syllabi, and parts of it are still regularly anthologized.
The central argument of the can be briefly summarized. In the earliest human communities, pretty much everyone contributed to securing the means of life. In this situation there was no steep or rigid social hierarchy. Cooperative traits were socially valuable and therefore generally respected, and individual property was not important. At some point, however, certain members of the group created a situation in which they didn’t need to beaver away at mundane tasks like tending crops or making clothes. These individuals would typically be the biggest, strongest, boldest, most competitive types–for example, men who were good at hunting, which made them also good at fighting against other hostile groups. Social hierarchies emerged. Women and the less able-bodied men drudged away to produce the means of life; men who possessed the necessary traits engaged only in activities such as hunting and fighting. These men became the “leisure class.”
The leisure class came to include others who did no genuinely productive work, for instance, priests and administrators. This elite came to look down on productive work, which was performed by the majority who had to do it out of necessity. Not having to do such work thus came to be a distinguishing mark of a person’s higher social standing. In smaller societies it was fairly easy to flaunt this privilege in the form of “conspicuous leisure”, but in larger, more complex societies, one exhibited one’s status by showing off one’s wealth through conspicuous consumption.
The leisure class in the US at the end of the nineteenth century largely consisted of wealthy people whose money came from inheritances, investments, and business profits. But like their ancient predecessors, they were essentially predators and exploiters, living off the backs of those who did genuinely productive work. At bottom, the two basic methods used by the elite to get and hold their wealth are force and fraud. (Going beyond what Veblen actually says to illustrate his meaning, one might count union-busting police action as force, and exploitative contracts as a sort of fraud.)
Human beings everywhere are concerned with status, but this is especially true of members of the leisure class since they tend to be highly competitive types. That is, after all, why they got to where they are. The competitive urge driving people to exhibit and enhance their status–particularly their leisured status–is the key to understanding much human behaviour and a wide range of social and cultural phenomena. For example, it underlies:
– the honor given to martial prowess
– the esteem in which learning is held
– the longstanding disparagement of manual labour
– men insisting that their wives should not work (which proves they don’t need that extra income)
– the vestments of priests and courtiers being scrupulously clean, expensive, and unsuitable for any practical work
– the fashion industry (keeping up with the latest fashion shows that one has money to spend on this pointless project)
– high-heeled shoes (which are virtually impossible to work in)
– the value placed on useless accomplishments such as knowing Latin, playing the piano, knowing about art, or speaking correctly (all of which shows that one had the leisure time to acquire these endowments.
The values of the leisure class inevitably percolate down through society, and something like the same struggle to improve or maintain status using the same criteria and methods can be found in every social tier. Among the “productive” class, pragmatic and scientific ways of thinking have come to dominate in the modern world. Here one also still finds a spirit of cooperation, sympathy, and solidarity. Among the leisure class, however, predatory competitiveness is still the rule, and traces of pre-scientific thinking persist.
Obviously, much has been omitted here, but I believe this summary provides the bones of Veblen’s position. So what makes the book peculiar? After all, while some of the anthropological analysis of late nineteenth century American culture may be novel, the socio-historical basis for it is decidedly reminiscent of Marx’s account of class struggle and exploitation. What makes The Theory of the Leisure Class peculiar, though, is the strange way in which it is written. Here is a representative sentence:
Wherever at the present time the predatory habit of mind, and the consequent attitude of mastery and of subservience, gives its character to the accredited scheme of life, there the importance of all punctilios of conduct is extreme, and the assiduity with which the ceremonial observance of rank and titles is attended to approaches closely to the ideal set by the barbarian of the quasi-peaceable nomadic culture.
The sentence is typical of the book in a number of ways. First, it is delivered in what one might call the relentlessly annunciatory mood. No arguments, no evidence, no references; no questions, no doubts, no hesitancy; nor, God forbid, any indication–such as the introduction of an “I”–that the text is the product of a limited mortal mind. Just straight theoretical truth presented with quasi-divine authority.
Second, the prose moves in the rarified air of high abstraction. On page after page, Veblen offers general claims of this kind with relatively few concrete examples to illuminate his meaning, To be fair, there are sections, such as the chapter on “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture,” where he does do this. But he seems perversely averse to specificity. For instance, throughout the work he hardly ever refers explicitly, by name, to any country, state or city, or to any century historical period, or well-known historical event, or to any individual person. No mention, for instance, of Greece, Rome, Paris, New York, the Renaissance, the French or American revolutions, Southern plantations, the American civil war, the industrial revolution, or capitalism. Instead, Veblen offers an account of social evolution and cultural phenomena using his own preferred terminology: “savage”; “barbarian”; “predatory”; “pecuniary”; “industrial”; “waste”; “leisure”. And as he uses them, each of these terms carries a meaning distinct from its ordinary sense.
Third, the writing is exhaustingly prolix and scholarly. In fact it often seems to be almost a parody of pompous academic prose. What, after all, does the passage quoted above mean? Something like: Where people today care about status, they attach as much importance to manners, etiquette, proper use of titles, etc., as in ancient times.
And this brings us to something very strange in the way the book has been received. One school of thought insists that the book should, indeed, be read as satire. G Wright Mills, for instance, in his Preface to the Mentor edition (1953), says that Veblen is “the only comic writer among modern social scientists,” and describes his style as “hilarious.” (I fear I’d have a hard time convincing my students of this, were I ever to be so sadistic as to assign the book.) Yet others, including H. L. Mencken, who for all his faults one can hardly accuse of lacking a sense of humour, have taken the book at face value. (For Mencken, who claimed it was “impossible to imagine worse English within the limits of intelligible grammar” its face value was exceedingly low!) From this perspective, it can be understood as a sort of detached, anthropological analysis of how the concern for status manifests itself in modern times, especially among the upper classes.
Interpreted this way, Veblen’s stance toward his subject might be compared to that adopted by Marx in Capital. The official, declared methodology of value-neutral scientific analysis regularly takes on the tones of moral criticism. But whereas Marx lets his moral vehemence show, as when he declares that capital comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”, Veblen maintains the mask of objectivity throughout. He contents himself with describing the rich in loaded language (that he insists is intended neutrally) as still essentially, for all their fancy clothes and manners, barbarian, predatory, exploiters who waste the wealth of society in their own vain obsession with status.
But as we know, rich texts often allow different readings, and this is perhaps the case here. One has to admit, though, that the final chapter of the book–”The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture”– does offer support to those who read Veblen as an ironist. Here he seems to relish pointing out how much of academic life, from cap and gown ceremonies to the “wasteful” studies in the humanities, can ultimately be traced to a concern for “conspicuous leisure” on the part of upper-class predators. At the very end he discusses the cultural significance of using language “correctly”, and concludes with this obviously self-referential sentence:
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.”
 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Ch. 3. New York: Mentor, 1953, p. 48
 Menken’s essay, “Professor Veblen” is in A Mencken Chrestomathy, pp. 265-275. For further discussion of this topic, see Stephen Conroy, “Thorstein Veblen’s Prose,” American Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 605-618, and William Hedges, “The Mask of the Befuddled Professor; or. A Theory of The Theory of the Leisure Class, Studies in American Humor, New Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 2/3 (Summer, Fall, 1984). pp. 138-154.