The Theory of the Leisure Classby Thorstein Veblen
In his first and best-known book, Veblen defines the social attitudes and values that condone the misuse of wealth and observes the variety of ways in which the resources of modern society are wasted. Chief among these is the practice of conspicuous consumption, a pattern of behavior that more than survives to the present day. With exquisite irony, Veblen discusses the hollowness of our canons of taste and culture and considers the emptiness of those habits of life and thought that many of us like to regard as our strengths.
"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
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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.
Meet the Author
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was perhaps the most famous American economist and social critic of his time. He taught at the universities of Chicago and Missouri, Stanford University, and the New School for Social Research. His many books include The Theory of Business Enterprise, The Higher Learning in America, and The Theory of the Leisure Class, all available from Transaction.
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This book is one of the most significant works in American sociology. In it, the author presents the concepts of both 'conspicuous consumption' and 'consumer capitalism'. Thorsten Veblen developed these concepts and describes them here; both concepts are landmarks in the history of American culture. However, both Veblen's intellectual idiom and his prose style are typical of late 19-century rhetoric (the book was published in 1899). The essays are written in the pompous, stiff, and heavily embroidered purple prose of the era, and encrusted with the cultural chauvinism and bigotry of his day. I was barely able to get through it, and wondered more than once how Veblen, who is one of the most original thinkers in sociology, happened to retain such a fluid intelligence together with the small-mindedness of his time. It's still worth the read though. This is the man who was able to see beyond the ersatz science of the time to identify the cultural behaviors that define us as a people who buy things not because we need them, but for entertainment, and to display our personal identity.