I spent about six months reading The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen, and it occupied my brain throughout. I can’t think of another book which was more enlightening for me, nor one that I found as intellectually invigorating. Depressing as all hell, sure, and not one to stoke your native faith in humanity with, no, and also completely exhausting to read, most definitely—but still a hell of a sound read. Across this book Veblen dissects human society down to the bone, through the lens of wealth, which it turns out is what society’s bones are made of. Because according to Veblen, wealth is a symbol of prowess and hence social value. Got that?
The Leisure Class which sits at the center of Veblen’s inquiry is the higher side of a stratified society, which is built bottom to top on the basis of invidious distinction by pecuniary strength. That statement packs a wallop and pretty well sums up the core idea of the book, but it’s worth admitting that I had to look up half the words in that sentence, and I still struggled to understand what it meant. Pecuniary means money, and invidious means something designed to invoke jealousy. So basically, people use visual displays of wealth to signal who they’re better than, who their peer group is, and who is their better. So yeah, get comfortable, this is going to take a while.
Veblen elaborates on and embroiders this core idea for several hundred pages, taking us from hunter-gatherer society through the Industrial Revolution. The essence of his argument is that societies are based upon status, one person being better than another, and both of them knowing it. Think about society as a large vertical stack in which the poorest are on the bottom, the richest are on the top, and everyone slides in among their pecuniary peers, using visual displays of wealth to ensure that they’re in the right spot. That is the idea, and I was amazed by how obviously true it is. One look at your shoes, your car, and your zip code, and everyone knows where you fit in.
Veblen traces this back to early barbarian societies, where a distinction was made between industry and exploit. Essentially, if you could go hunt and kill a bear, you didn’t have to pick berries. That’s the origin of the Leisure Class. Those who could perform acts of exploit were exempt from industrial occupation. Shortly, as society grew, these abilities of exploit were demonstrated through the booty that one could claim through them, first in the form of female slaves—apparently the first kind of property was human chattel—and then in the form of stuff. You displayed your wealth as evidence of your talents of exploit, and this allowed you to assert dominance or deference to those around you, depending on how much respective wealth you were able to display.
Work of industry is considered base, so early society stratifies between those who are industrially productive—picking berries and whatnot—and those who are not, whom Veblen names The Leisure Class.
Under this ancient distinction the worthy employments are those which may be classed as exploit; unworthy are those necessary everyday employments into which no appreciable element of exploit enters.
Among the primitive leisure class, the suitable employments are warfare, politics, religion, and sports. As society grows and institutions arise and are refined, the display of pecuniary strength as a proxy for talents of exploit takes the form of conspicuous leisure, and one’s ability to be conspicuously at leisure becomes the measure of their worth in society and the source of their personal esteem. From there, things get progressively more elaborate, but follow this same basic idea, that the acquisition and display of wealth is the primary driver of human society.
For one example, consider the landed gentleman of Victorian England. This man is exempt from industrial occupation by virtue of his wealth, and in part to demonstrate this exemption he wears impeccable clothes that are unsuitable for labor, he cultivates useless talents such as fox hunting and the reading of Greek, and he does so as a demonstration of how much time he is able to spend not working. But our landed gentleman is wealthy enough that his own leisure is insufficient to demonstrate his true worth, so he employs people to engage in vicarious leisure on his behalf—the footman, the topiary gardener, and the master of the hounds are nothing more than able, industrious hands that are taken out of use merely to demonstrate the wealth of one individual.
As this tendency evolves and grows, Conspicuous Leisure gives way to Conspicuous Consumption, which accomplishes the same end by different means. And all of it is driven by the need for invidious distinction, the need to say who is master and who is servant, who is better than whom, and what strata of society you belong to and whether you’re better off than the guy next door. When I first heard about conspicuous consumption in college, I mistook it to be some kind of critique of the bourgeoisie, but I have come to understand that it applies to everyone, up and down the scale, and underlies pretty much every decision we make about how to dispense our wealth.
While this is an extremely clean and simple proposition, it achieves multiple layers of supplementary meaning in everyday life, so that we’re generally two or three steps removed from the naked significance of our choice of car or mouthwash. Veblen first talks about pecuniary emulation and then the pecuniary standard of living, which can be crudely understood as keeping up with the Joneses.
With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper. In an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation.
We want to be better than those around us, so we buy things that show those around us what we’re worth. That’s why we all get up and go to work in the morning, and that’s why we buy our rugs from the Persian importer rather than Target, or why we buy our rugs at Target rather than the guy on the side of the road with a bunch of rugs slung over a fence. Veblen spends a devastating chapter talking about the pecuniary canons of taste, and the fact that we prefer handmade goods to machine-made goods because they are more wasteful. The focus on waste becomes a key determiner of the honor associated with any given purchase, so avoiding such waste in the name of pure utility becomes an impossibility:
Any consumer who might, Diogenes-like, insist on the elimination of all honorific or wasteful elements from his consumption, would be unable to supply his most trivial wants in the modern market. Indeed, even if he resorted to supplying his wants directly by his own efforts, he would find it difficult if not impossible to divest himself of the current habits of thought on this head; so that he could scarcely compass a supply of the necessaries of life for a day’s consumption without instinctively and by oversight incorporating in his home-made product something of this honorific, quasi-decorative element of wasted labor.
When it comes to demonstrating pecuniary strength for the purpose of invidious distinction, clothes are a prime vehicle, and Veblen spends an amusing chapter exploring the various ways that we use clothes invidiously:
Other methods of putting one’s pecuniary standing in evidence serve their end effectually, and other methods are in vogue always and everywhere; but expenditure on dress has this advantage over most other methods, that our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance. It is also true that admitted expenditure for display is more obviously present, and is, perhaps, more universally practiced in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption. No one finds difficulty in assenting to the commonplace that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person. And probably at no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress. It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so 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.
Here, as ever, Veblen hits it on the head, and then keeps on hammering to a second point, that while the sheer display of wasted expenditure is an important aspect of our choice of garments, they also serve to signify social standing in other ways:
The pleasing effect of neat and spotless garments is chiefly, if not altogether, due to their carrying the suggestion of leisure-exemption from personal contact with industrial processes of any kind. Much of the charm that invests the patent-leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking-stick, which so greatly enhance the native dignity of a gentleman, comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use. Elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive, but also because it is the insignia of leisure. It not only shows that the wearer is able to consume a relatively large value, but it argues at the same time that he consumes without producing.
The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this; it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion. The like is true of the feminine custom of wearing the hair excessively long.
After taste and fashion, Veblen talks about social conservatism being the default position of the Leisure Class, since they are immune to the need to earn a living and have the most to lose in a change of the social order. He spends a couple of entertaining chapters talking about luck and religion, about how both spring from a belief in animism, and that the belief that the more honorable opponent will prevail in a sporting event springs from the same well as a belief that God is ordering all things and that rich people deserve their money. As he puts it:
The sporting or gambling temperament, then, comprises some of the substantial psychological elements that go to make a believer in creeds and an observer of devout forms, the chief point of coincidence being the belief in an inscrutable propensity or a preternatural interposition in the sequence of events.
Veblen seems like he wants to believe that the rise of industrialization is causing men to turn away from this belief toward one of causal relationships:
The artisan class, on the other hand, is notoriously falling away from the accredited anthropomorphic creeds and from all devout observances. This class is in an especial degree exposed to the characteristic intellectual and spiritual stress of modern organized industry, which requires a constant recognition of the undisguised phenomena of impersonal, matter-of-fact sequence and an unreserved conformity to the law of cause and effect.
But I think he is engaging in a rare instance of wishful thinking, myself, which is one of the rare points of doubt I have about the whole thing. Another place where I think Veblen misses the point is in his exploration of the genetic underpinnings of the traits of the different classes:
The man of our industrial communities tends to breed true to one or the other of three main ethic types; the dolichocephalic-blond, the brachycephalic-brunette, and the Mediterranean—disregarding minor and outlying elements of our culture. But within each of these main ethnic types the reversion tends to one or the other of at least two main directions of variation; the peaceable or anti-predatory variant and the predatory variant.
I’m afraid with this he ends up coming across as a bit of a crackpot and a fairly bad geneticist, but I just stuck a pin in this and moved on. Overall, Veblen makes such a devastatingly clear case, that I forgave him this bit of underinformed nonsense.
Veblen closes the book with a discussion of higher education, and he makes the now obvious point that the esoteric fields are more honorific than the exoteric ones because they are so very useless. Consider the snobbery that a pure mathematician has for the applied mathematician, of the university philosophy major for the trade school technician. Here, fancying himself a scientist, he can’t resist a good kick at the humanities:
But while this is true, it is also true that the classics have scarcely lost in absolute value as a voucher of scholastic respectability, since for this purpose it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.
It’s easy to see why he wasn’t popular at the faculty mixers.
As I said, I found Veblen a highly edifying read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good challenge, whether of prose, intellect, or personal life. On that latter front, I found the book the most edifying of all, and well worth the six months I spent with it. I have always fancied myself a man apart and flattered myself that I was immune to the material acquisitiveness of those around me. Veblen has shown me that this is utter nonsense, and that I am as prone to invidious distinction on the basis of pecuniary strength as anyone. The fact that I drive a Honda and would never ever dream of driving a Hyundai seems proof enough of this, but I’m able to peel back layers and layers of this stuff, with everything in my life. It’s devastating, edifying, and exhausting.
For me, as Veblen illustrates, the need for invidious distinction is truly less about the pecuniary strength itself, and more about evidence of prowess, of capacity for exploit. I think I have in my life been driven, both personally and professionally, to be seen as a man of exploit in my own way, running my own business, being a highly paid consultant. The checks are great, but if I’m honest it’s the acclaim that I actually want, the recognition that I am exceptional somehow, even though of course I am not. Even this essay can be seen as a flex of my own ego, an attempt to be better than—an assertion of my own worth disguised as an evaluation of Veblen’s, even though I do this for free. Years of therapy gave me modest results, but Veblen had me pegged right out of the gate.
The question I wrestle with is, why? I accept Veblen’s assertion that I am living by and with a predatory barbarian mindset, and it has served me just fine, but is that really the way I should live my life? Should I hide my wealth, cultivate selflessness, and attempt to defy what I think Veblen rightly identifies as a foundational aspect of ourselves? Seems foolish to try, but it also seemed, as I finished the book, the remaining question in my mind. How much of this is inherent to me, and how much might I control, redirect, or transcend?
Happily Veblen offers an answer, in his Veblian way. Early on in the book, he references a deeper, more fundamental driver of human actions. He sort of breezes past it, but it socked me on the jaw at the time, and I felt a bit betrayed, as if I’d been given a glimpse of a secret truth only to be then told that there was a bigger, more important truth just around the corner. Reading a Veblen book is enough of an intimidating exercise without getting additional homework assigned mid-stream, but that’s just what he did, the scoundrel. So I’ve just gotten my copy of The Instinct of Workmanship, and I’m about to dive in. My hope is that Veblen will help me see and understand the other half of my nature, hopefully a prettier aspect than barbarian predation, and I’ll emerge uplifted rather than merely enlightened. But until then, I’ll be here, trying to dominate the world in my own small way.
Excerpt from The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen
Gradually, as industrial activity further displaced predatory activity in the community’s everyday life and in men’s habits of thought, accumulated property more and more replaces trophies of predatory exploit as the conventional exponent of prepotence and success. With the growth of settled industry, therefore, the possession of wealth gains in relative importance and effectiveness as a customary basis of repute and esteem. Not that esteem ceases to be awarded on the basis of other, more direct evidence of prowess; not that successful predatory aggression or warlike exploit ceases to call out the approval and admiration of the crowd, or to stir the envy of the less successful competitors; but the opportunities for gaining distinction by means of this direct manifestation of superior force grow less available both in scope and frequency. At the same time opportunities for industrial aggression, and for the accumulation of property, increase in scope and availability. And it is even more to the point that property now becomes the most easily recognised evidence of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic or signal achievement. It therefore becomes the conventional basis of esteem. Its possession in some amount becomes necessary in order to any reputable standing in the community. It becomes indispensable to accumulate, to acquire property, in order to retain one’s good name. When accumulated goods have in this way once become the accepted badge of efficiency, the possession of wealth presently assumes the character of an independent and definitive basis of esteem. The possession of goods, whether acquired aggressively by one’s own exertion or passively by transmission through inheritance from others, becomes a conventional basis of reputability. The possession of wealth, which was at the outset valued simply as an evidence of efficiency, becomes, in popular apprehension, itself a meritorious act. Wealth is now itself intrinsically honourable and confers honour on its possessor. By a further refinement, wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor’s own effort; but this distinction belongs at a later stage in the evolution of the pecuniary culture and will be spoken of in its place.
Prowess and exploit may still remain the basis of award of the highest popular esteem, although the possession of wealth has become the basis of common place reputability and of a blameless social standing. The predatory instinct and the consequent approbation of predatory efficiency are deeply ingrained in the habits of thought of those peoples who have passed under the discipline of a protracted predatory culture. According to popular award, the highest honours within human reach may, even yet, be those gained by an unfolding of extraordinary predatory efficiency in war, or by a quasi-predatory efficiency in statecraft; but for the purposes of a commonplace decent standing in the community these means of repute have been replaced by the acquisition and accumulation of goods. In order to stand well in the eyes of the community, it is necessary to come up to a certain, somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth; just as in the earlier predatory stage it is necessary for the barbarian man to come up to the tribe’s standard of physical endurance, cunning, and skill at arms. A certain standard of wealth in the one case, and of prowess in the other, is a necessary condition of reputability, and anything in excess of this normal amount is meritorious.
Those members of the community who fall short of this, somewhat indefinite, normal degree of prowess or of property suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they suffer also in their own esteem, since the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbours. Only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows. Apparent exceptions to the rule are met with, especially among people with strong religious convictions. But these apparent exceptions are scarcely real exceptions, since such persons commonly fall back on the putative approbation of some supernatural witness of their deeds.
So soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to the complacency which we call self-respect. In any community where goods are held in severalty it is necessary, in order to his own peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others. But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours. So far as concerns the present question, the end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the community in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is distinctly unfavourable to himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard. The invidious comparison can never become so favourable to the individual making it that he would not gladly rate himself still higher relatively to his competitors in the struggle for pecuniary reputability.
In the nature of the case, the desire for wealth can scarcely be satiated in any individual instance, and evidently a satiation of the average or general desire for wealth is out of the question. However widely, or equally, or “fairly”, it may be distributed, no general increase of the community’s wealth can make any approach to satiating this need, the ground of which is the desire of every one to excel every one else in the accumulation of goods. If, as is sometimes assumed, the incentive to accumulation were the want of subsistence or of physical comfort, then the aggregate economic wants of a community might conceivably be satisfied at some point in the advance of industrial efficiency; but since the struggle is substantially a race for reputability on the basis of an invidious comparison, no approach to a definitive attainment is possible.