The Theory of the Leisure Class (Illustrated)


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Thorstein Veblen.

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The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions , by Thorstein Veblen, is an economic treatise and detailed social critique of conspicuous consumption, as a function of social-class consumerism. It proposes that the social strata and the division of labor of the feudal period continued into the modern era.

The lords of the manor employed themselves in the economically useless practices of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, while the middle and lower classes were employed in the industrial occupations that support the whole of society. Economically wasteful activities are those activities that do not contribute to the economy or to the material productivity required for the fruitful functioning of society.

Veblen's analyses of business cycles and prices, and of the emergent technocratic division of labor by speciality scientists, engineers, technologists at the end of the 19th century proved to be accurate predictions of the nature of an industrial society. The Theory of the Leisure Class was based on a trio of articles published in the American Journal of Sociology in , and contained most of the major themes Veblen would develop in his later works. Veblen's theories were based on and relevant to contemporary issues in the U.

His most important inspiration, however, seems to have been Karl Marx, in that Veblen argues for a materialist perspective on the formation of society, saying that the latter is shaped by its citizens' ways of procuring a livelihood. Unlike Marx, on the other hand, Veblen did not see labor, but technology and industrial arts, as the creative forces in society.

His interest in production as not just a means of serving society's needs, but also a way of making a profit for the owner class, was shared by classical theorists of his day. Product details Format Paperback pages Dimensions Thorstein Bunde Veblen born Torsten Bunde Veblen; July 30, - August 3, was an American economist and sociologist, and leader of the institutional economics movement. When Veblen extends these concepts to his contemporary period, his most celebrated ideas result.


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Most of these ideas ring true through the twenty-first century. Leisure Class remains one of the most important studies of the effects of living in a consumer society. Veblen notes that when life grows increasingly urban and the pace quickens, the consequence is a pervasive emphasis on display. Display, of course, is central to merchandising such as in the windows of department stores, the earliest of them only a generation old when Veblen wrote and to advertising. Veblen's enduring insight is that display is also central to the psychology of individuals.

Owning goods is not actually the point; being seen with them is the goal. He captures this other-driven, frenzied psychology: "In order to impress. Moreover, much of this conspicuous display is vicarious: a man needs a wife and other dependents, such as liveried servants and well-coiffed poodles, to help spend—and thus showcase—his wealth.

The corseted, delicate, neurasthenic woman clearly cannot do any useful work, and precisely because of that fact, she effectively advertises her husband's pecuniary strength. Wasteful consumption makes for particularly useful publicity; hence, scrupulously manicured lawns with topiary tomato plants would hardly confer honor on the lord of the manor. The principle of vicarious consumption holds true for philanthropic gifts one might think, for example, of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie 's conspicuous endowment of libraries.

The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject's vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work. It is true, the corset impairs the personal attractions of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity.


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  7. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman's apparel resolves itself. An often overlooked point is that, according to Veblen, consumption as that term is commonly understood is not what motivates people: consumers do not seek to satiate themselves but rather to emulate their social superiors. In consequence, the process is unending; desire is indefinitely extendable. As Veblen puts it, "The standard of expenditure which commonly guides our efforts is not the average, ordinary expenditure already achieved; it is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach" p.

    An element that he describes as "make-believe" p. University faculty, he notes in a delicious aside, are especially guilty, as their social status exceeds their salary. The most insidious consequence of life under the regime of the leisure class is that the status quo is effort-lessly, and seemingly invisibly, maintained.

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    The notion of institutions is a key concept in Veblen's thinking note the subtitle of Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Veblen uses "institutions" to refer to the external organizations that come to mind—legal institutions, educational institutions, and so forth—but as the quotation indicates, institutions are especially important to Veblen for the cultural attitudes and beliefs they perpetuate. Both mind-set and organization are, by definition, handed down from past to present; thus institutions foster conservation of past ways of doing things.

    If one follows Veblen's logic, the result is that institutions and habits of thought are inevitably behind the times. Scholars often refer to this concept as "cultural lag" or "institutional lag. This conservative tendency, hardwired into human thinking, receives further sanction from the leisure class, to whom conservatism itself is a "mark of respectability" and who see innovation as "bad form" pp. Thus any socially progressive movement Veblen mentions women's suffrage and the easing of divorce laws will appear disreputable and dishonorable.

    When this process of social control is combined with insatiable consumer desire, the vicious cycle is complete.

    Consumers who are constantly trying to move up to the next best neighborhood are not going to challenge the status quo; rather, their every action will reinforce it. While the leisure class exerts what might be described as a top-down means of social control, consumers contribute from the bottom up. One of Veblen's most important insights is also one of his bleakest: he says that society under the regime of status, leisure, and consumption is not prone to change, but rather to keep replicating itself, world without end. Rather than the inevitable revolution predicted by Karl Marx , Veblen anticipates more of the same.

    His theory of social stability ad nauseum is less inspiring, and less glamorous, than Marx's theory, but Veblen's ideas continue to provide a powerful interpretive matrix for understanding American life. Perhaps the best expression of the influence of Leisure Class was recorded by the journalist and later dramatist Maxwell Anderson in a letter to The Dial: "I once asked a friend if he had read The Theory of the Leisure Class.

    All my friends have read it. It permeates the atmosphere in which I live'" p. The influence of the book was immediate especially on college campuses and lasting, but also ambiguous. Anderson's description of what might be called Veblen-by-osmosis is perceptive, for Veblen is one of those writers who get referenced even by people who have not read him.

    Perhaps his facility as a phrasemaker is to blame: there is a catchiness to his most familiar concepts that makes them seem familiar even to people who do not really understand them.

    Thorstein Veblen

    The leisure class, in the nature of things, consistently acts to retard that adjustment to the environment which is called social advance or development. The characteristic attitude of the class may be summed up in the maxim: "Whatever is, is right"; whereas the law of natural selection , as applied to human institutions, gives the axiom: "Whatever is, is wrong. One challenge for serious readers has always been determining how to classify Leisure Class. Notwithstanding its subtitle, An Economic Study of Institutions, readers are unlikely to experience the book as a work of economics.

    As promised in the preface, Leisure Class examines all sorts of data commonly overlooked by economists and, for that matter, material ignored by other social scientists. The preface also asserts the impossibility of confining the analysis within commonly observed boundaries. Veblen was an interdisciplinary thinker during a time when modern academic disciplines were beginning to articulate their territories and boundaries.

    Theory of the Leisure Class: Pecuniary Emulation [Chapter 2]

    As a social scientist, his interests were qualitative, not quantitative. Yet he refused to make predictions and tried to avoid obvious value judgments, for he believed that neither pursuit was appropriate for scholarly inquiry. Veblen systematically defied epistemological categories, and as Rick Tilman notes, there has never been a consensus regarding either the meaning or the value of his work.

    His relationship to some of the foundational thinkers of the modern period—particularly Marx and Charles Darwin—continues to be debated. Dress, therefore, is ideally placed as a vehicle with which to assert superior status in relation to one's peers within the leisure class, as well as collectively displaying the superiority of this class over all others. Veblen concluded that dress has only a tentative connection to protection and bodily comfort, observing 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" p.

    Veblen argued that a prime function of dress within the leisure class is to display the wearer's wealth by their consumption "of valuable goods in excess of what is required for physical comfort" p. According to Veblen the most immediate form of conspicuous consumption is quantity , or the possession of items of clothing for instance shoes or suits far beyond the requirements of reasonable daily wear. However, dress in the leisure class is also subject to considerations of quality.

    The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions - Online Library of Liberty

    Ability to pay can also be demonstrated by the ownership of garments distinguished by the expensiveness of their materials, such as the goat hair used to weave pashmina shawls. Time-consuming methods of garment construction, and therefore expense, can, Veblen argued, insinuate itself into the esteem in which its wearer will be held. The comparison between a handmade garment and a machine-made one is almost always in favor of the former. Finally, the scarcity of a garment can also be a factor in adding to the repute of its wearer.

    An original item from the studio of a famous designer, or a garment bearing the label of a chic fashion house, carries more prestige than an undistinguished item of clothing. One final way that members of the leisure class exhibit pecuniary strength is always to appear in fashionable, up-to-date clothing.

    Veblen observed that "if each garment is permitted to serve for but a brief term, and if none of last season's apparel is carried over and made further use of during the present season, the wasteful expenditure on dress is greatly increased" p.

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    The Theory of the Leisure Class (Illustrated) The Theory of the Leisure Class (Illustrated)
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