The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Thorsten Veblen

The Origin of the Term “Conspicuous Consumption”

Society evolved from peaceful “savages” and competitive “barbarians.” Each of these historical groups has different characteristics that manifest in different ways in the modern classes. Veblen likens the leisure class, the rich, as the high-achieving descendants of barbarians, caught up in showing off “pecuniary” (financial) ability. They like games of skill, sports, hunting, and the like. He likens the working classes (industrial, as this was written in the 1890s) to the more peaceful savages, with qualities that are less self-serving, and more likely to serve the interests of the collective. Women and men of the cloth are also more likely to have retained these same qualities. All aspects of modern society have been shaped around the pecuniary class’s taste for conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption, and people use all of their energy to the end of consumption, exhausting their means to examine a life lived to any other possible ends. The lower classes are so hand-to-mouth that they are unable to question anything. The middle class, the industrial class, is the only class which can question how things have been, says Veblen. The upper classes and lower classes are thus conservative, as the upper class benefits from the way things are, and the lower classes cannot imagine any other alternative. Humanity is naturally descended to superstition, luck, and thus, religion, as an easy explanation of that which perplexes them. The rich are not exposed to the stresses of economic competition, while the poor are excessively exposed to it, the net result of which is the same — no change. This could be particularly true in societies with no middle class. Animism and devoutness (religion) are also something which play largely to personal status and identity. Even charity and acts of goodwill, which Veblen says may be more the domain of women and men of the cloth, are able to become part of the world of “conspicuous waste,” to show off how grand the person who donated money (or whatever it was) is. People who have excelled at “pecuniary emulation” and capitalism are those whose traits lend themselves to it; though Veblen argues that many in the “leisure class” don’t have to actually do anything to be a part of it since they are already there. People like to show prowess and appreciate good workmanship, which can be an end in itself and does not have to be an economic one

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