Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class is part lampoon of the affluent middle classes and part serious economic analysis. Veblen coined the expression ‘conspicuous consumption’, an idea that has gained widespread currency today.

Despite the supercilious and faintly satiric tone that Thorstein Veblen takes in his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class, much of his thesis, written now over a hundred years ago, rings sharply true today. In it he painted a society of conspicuous consumers, buying useless items for show that had a socially agreed upon high status value. Think today of the advertising and branding that we are all drowned in, and how susceptible people still are to buying ‘classy’ brands and showing them off.

The joke is we don’t pursue these products and brand names because they are useful and help improve quality of life. In fact, pursuit of conspicuous consumption may indeed reduce quality of life, creating feelings of envy, emptiness and large mountains of credit card debt.

Middle Class Leisure Rooted in Pre-Historic Barbarism

Veblen’s theory runs something like this. In pre-historic times, at a more barbaric stage of human development, tribes started dividing labour into levels of status or caste. Menial, useful labour like cooking and gathering food was placed at the bottom of the rung, and was allocated to women (no wonder women are still less well paid in comparison to men). The higher status groups indulged themselves in war, hunting and religion, all occupations with a limited productive value. That is, wars were few and lasted a limited time; hunting was not as productive as farming and gathering food. Religion of course produced no tangible products.

Veblen argues that the vestiges of this pre-historic, tribal way of life have remained to the current day, its more clearly barbaric attributes showing up in the predatory nature of modern business and the sporting field. Business managers simply manage and don’t produce, while sport is merely a game with rather spurious spiritual values attached to it. Barbarism, in the end, is how great wealth is accrued. Writes Veblen:

“Freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty and regard for life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further the success of the individual in the pecuniary culture. 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.”

Serious Analysis, or Lampoon of the Middle Classes?

While much of Veblen’s analysis is very compelling indeed, his somewhat over-the-top baroque writing style, suffused as it is with many tedious longueurs and difficult words, makes the reader wonder how much of the book is tongue in cheek. The last page even sees the author almost sending himself up. When discussing ‘elegant diction’ as a symptom of the leisure class, Veblen finishes his book with this final line:

“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 need of direct and forcible speech.”

It seems extraordinary to leave this as the last line of the book, as though the reader has been strung along the whole way for one long joke. Veblen is effectively saying that he is a self-identified member of the leisure class, cheerfully using their language.

How should The Theory of the Leisure Class be read? Certainly not as a gigantic joke, but with a fair degree of caution. Veblen throws out many fascinating insights, making his points with a dry wit. The job of the reader is to separate the genuine insights from the lampoons of middle class culture.

The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. Published by Dover. ISBN: 0-486-28062-4

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