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"In his first and most fascinating book, Veblen was mocking a process as old as civilization. He expressed his skepticism in a rough-hewn prose style which made him the most impressive American satirist of his day."
"Every brash, upcoming generation should discover Veblen, and most complacent adults need to rediscover him."
—The Minneapolis Tribune
The institution of a leisure class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture; as, for instance, in feudal Europe or feudal Japan. In such communities the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches. Chief among the honourable employments in any feudal community is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to warfare. If the barbarian community is not notably warlike, the priestly office may take the precedence, with that of the warrior second. But the rule holds with but slight exceptions that, whether warriors or priests, the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank. Brahmin India affords a fair illustration of the industrial exemption of both these classes. In the communities belonging to the higher barbarian culture there is a considerable differentiation of sub-classes within what may be comprehensively called the leisure class; and there is a corresponding differentiation of employments between these sub-classes. The leisure class as a whole comprises the noble and the priestly classes, together with much of their retinue. The occupations of the class are correspondingly diversified; but they have the common economic characteristic of being non-industrial. These non-industrialupper-class occupations may be roughly comprised under government, warfare, religious observances, and sports.
At an earlier, but not the earliest, stage of barbarism, the leisure class is found in a less differentiated form. Neither the class distinctions nor the distinctions between leisure-class occupations are so minute and intricate. The Polynesian islanders generally show this stage of the development in good form, with the exception that, owing to the absence of large game, hunting does not hold the usual place of honour in their scheme of life. The Icelandic community in the time of the Sagas also affords a fair instance. In such a community there is a rigorous distinction between classes and between the occupations peculiar to each class. Manual labour, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class. This inferior class includes slaves and other dependents, and ordinarily also all the women. If there are several grades of aristocracy, the women of high rank are commonly exempt from industrial employment, or at least from the more vulgar kinds of manual labour. The men of the upper classes are not only exempt, but by prescriptive custom they are debarred, from all industrial occupations. The range of employments open to them is rigidly defined.
|V||The Pecuniary Standard of Living||76|
|VI||Pecuniary Canons of Taste||85|
|VII||Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture||123|
|VIII||Industrial Exemption and Conservatism||138|
|IX||The Conservation of Archaic Traits||155|
|X||Modern Survivals of Prowess||179|
|XI||The Belief in Luck||201|
|XIII||Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interest||243|
|XIV||The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture||265|
|Reading Group Guide||297|
1. Describe the process by which property and ownership gain an important status in the early stages of a civilization’s development. What relationship does Veblen see between the accumulation of wealth, the establishment and maintenance of a leisure class, and the display of virtue and prowess in early cultures? What are the distinctions between those members of an early community who display virtue and those who, because of position or capacity, cannot?
2. “Conspicuous consumption” is Veblen’s most famous coinage. What is the role of the conspicuous consumer in the leisure class? How is conspicuous consumption related to conspicuous leisure? Give examples of people in or associated with the leisure class who devote their lives to conspicuous displays of consumption or leisure and describe how doing so enhances their position in their society. Similarly, describe the function of vicarious consumption and vicarious leisure.
3. A standard criticism of The Theory of the Leisure Class is that, although Veblen’s analysis of the development of a leisure class does describe social pressure to maintain or acquire certain social distinctions, he focuses too closely on the economic aspects of class and does not give the proper due to purely social processes. Do you believe, as Veblen can be said to, that the upper or leisure class is primarily an economic entity, or are there characteristics of this class that are as important as money, or perhaps more important? If so, what are they and how do they relate to the purely economic aspects of the leisure class and its development?
4. One of the most striking recurring elements of Veblen’sdescription of the leisure class is his depiction of the role of women and servants. Describe and account for the change in the role of women in the upper class as they cease to be servants and property of men and become conspicuous consumers. How do servants fulfill roles similar to those of women in each step of the development of the leisure class? Although the first chapter clearly explains how the status of the head of a household is enhanced by his ability to treat women and servants as property, the effect of conspicuous consumption by women and servants on the status of the head of a household is less clear. Describe the process by which consumption by women and servants enhances the position of a household, especially in the middle class, where, according to Veblen, the wife is “the ceremonial consumer of goods.”
5. Describe the ways that dress, religious observances, gambling, and education have come to serve as markers of social position. To what extent is Veblen’s description of them accurate? To what extent are these still effective markers of class?
6. In the last paragraph of chapter II, Veblen claims that, with regard to his use of the word “invidious, ” “there is no intention to extol or depreciate, or to commend or deplore any of the phenomena which the word is used to characterise, ” that “the term is used in a technical sense.” Is this a legitimate claim on his part? Does his use of terms such as “invidious pecuniary comparison” and “waste” and “chattel” really lack a pejorative connotation, as he claims, or is he making moral judgments? Do you believe that Veblen provides an objective account of the leisure class, or is there an implied moral content in his writing?
Posted September 25, 2006
This may not be a book to read for recreation, unless you like 1890s verbal locutions, but there are other reasons to read it. The emergence of the economic analysis of Western society might intrigue you. You might discover the origins of such still useful terms as 'leisure class' and 'conspicuous consumption,' among others. You might be curious about author Thorstein Veblen¿s status-conscious, anachronistic world of working men and idle wives, which reflects upper-class society in his day. Published in 1899, this is a classic in sociology and economic literature, although it is a veritable dreadnought of density. It discusses property, ownership, status and leisure in a turn-of-the-last-century American context. Though scholars call it a 'satire,' the book is neither witty nor ironic. Instead, it is a stolid analytical daguerreotype of a world long gone. We suggest that if you tackle Veblen¿s old-fashioned, slow-flowing prose, you should do it for the background you may glean and the scholarly satisfaction you may feel when you are done. Instead of Alexander Pope¿s, 'What oft was thought but ne¿er so well expressed,' this book presents what oft was said and usually better, but not as early.
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Posted September 12, 2009
No text was provided for this review.