Thorstein Bunde Veblen, (1857-1929) was an American sociologist and economist and a primary mentor, along with John R. Commons, of the institutional economics movement. Besides his technical work he was a popular and witty critic of capitalism, as shown by his best known book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Veblen is famous in the History of economic thought for combining a Darwinian evolutionary perspective with his new institutionalist approach to economic analysis. He combined sociology with economics in his masterpiece, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), arguing there was a basic distinction between the productiveness of "industry," run by engineers, which manufactures goods, and the parasitism of "business," which exists only to make profits for a leisure class. The chief activity of the leisure class was "conspicuous consumption", and their economic contribution is "waste," activity that contributes nothing to productivity. The American economy was therefore made inefficient and corrupt by the businessmen, though he never made that claim explicit. Veblen believed that technological advances were the driving force behind cultural change, but, unlike many contemporaries, he refused to connect change with progress. Although Veblen was sympathetic to state ownership of industry, he had a low opinion of workers and the labor movement and was hostile toward Marxism. As a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era, his sweeping attack on production for profit and his stress on the wasteful role of consumption for status greatly influenced socialist thinkers and engineers seeking a non-Marxist critique of capitalism. Experts complained his ideas, while brilliantly presented, were crude, gross, fuzzy, and imprecise; others complained he was a wacky eccentric. Scholars continue to debate exactly what he meant in his convoluted, ironic and satiric essays; he made heavy use of examples of primitive societies, but many examples were pure invention.
The Theory of the Leisure Class (Unabridged)by Thorstein Veblen
The Theory of the Leisure Class was first published in 1899 by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen while he was a professor at the University of Chicago. The Theory of the Leisure Class is considered one of the first detailed critiques of consumerism. In the book, Veblen argues that economic life is driven not by notions of utility, but by social vestiges from pre-historic times. Drawing examples from the contemporary period and anthropology, he held that much of today's society is a variation on early tribal life. According to Veblen, beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a division of labor along certain lines. The "higher status" group monopolized war and hunting, while farming and cooking were considered inferior work. He argued this was due to barbarism and conquest of some tribes over others. Once conquerors took control, they relegated the more menial and labor-intensive jobs to the subjugated people, while retaining the more warlike and violent work for themselves. It did not matter that these "menial" jobs did more to support society (in Veblen's view) than the "higher" ones. Even within tribes that were initially free of conquerors or violence, Veblen argued that certain individuals, upon watching this labor division take place in other groups, began to emulate the behavior in higher-status groups. Veblen referred to the emerging ruling class as the "leisure class." He argued that while this class did perform some work and contributed to the tribe's well-being, it did so in only a minor, peripheral, and largely symbolic manner. For example, although hunting could provide the tribe with food, it was not as productive or reliable as farming or animal domestication, and compared with the latter types of work, was relatively easier to perform. Likewise, while tribes occasionally required warriors if a conflict broke out, Veblen argued that militaristic members of the leisure class retained their position-and, with it, exemption from menial work-even during the extremely long stretches of time when there was no war, even though they were perfectly capable of contributing to the tribe's "menial" work during times of peace. At the same time, Veblen claimed that the leisure class managed to retain its position through both direct and indirect coercion. For example, the leisure class reserved for itself the "honor" of warfare, and often prevented members of the lower classes from owning weapons or learning how to fight. At the same time, it made the rest of the tribe feel dependent on the leisure class's continued existence due to the fear of hostilities from other tribes or, as religions began to form, the hostility of imagined deities. Veblen argued that the first priests and religious leaders were members of the leisure class. To Veblen, society never grew out of this stage; it simply evolved different forms and expressions. For example, he noted that during the Middle Ages, only the nobility was allowed to hunt and fight wars. Likewise, in modern times, he noted that manual laborers usually make less money than white-collar workers.
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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.