The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Where you see trees, sociologists see a forest.

This is the “sociological perspective.”

As all reputable sociologists, Veblen looks at everyday dynamics from a social or structural point of view, instead of an individual one. Think about you and I having a conversation. Sociologists don’t see two independent individuals talking to each other, but they see individuals whose identities are determined by the group(s) they belong to, and they see interactions as determined by social forces (i.e., economics, power, politics). Sociologists are not interested in individuals but in aggregates (“the economy,” “society,” “culture,”...) that shape individuals and eventually determine their behavior.

With that in mind, in “The Theory of the Leisure Class” Veblen reconstructs the evolution of classes within Western society. He was attracted by the emergence of a new social class (what he calls the “leisure class”) which distinguished itself for “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste.” (Read: they spent tons of money on stupid things and did not use time productively).

His driving question is, essentially:

How did society produce the Leisure Class?

To address this, Veblen formulates a theory of class evolution:

💡
NOTE that it is not a theory of progress, as evolution, according to Veblen, was an amoral process
  1. Primitive savagery: There is no class distinction because there is no division of labor or ownership.
  2. Division of labor is established (based on the difference between sexes): Drudgery is for women, exploit for men.
  3. Discrimination between employments arises: Some labors are worthy (exploit), as they signal ability and health. The others are unworthy.
  4. Beginning of ownership and emulation: As worthiness is now associated with exploit, objects or services obtained by seizure serve as conventional evidence of social esteem. By contrast, the obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.
  5. Emergence of the leisure class: The emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership. Labor comes to be associated with weakness and subjection to a master. It means you are working for someone and do not own enough resources to be without a master. Therefore, productive or manual work is considered unworthy. The leisure class requires abstention from productive work (you may find them in business but not in industry).

However, the leisure class doesn’t merely possess wealth or power. It’s something more. They put their wealth or power in evidence, for esteem is awarded only in evidence.

How do they show that they can afford not to work?

There are many ways in which the lesiure class shows and perpetuates conspicuous consumption:

  • Immaterial Goods: Knowledge of dead languages and the occult sciences, of correct spelling; of classical music and other household art; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race-horses.
  • Consumable Goods: A taste for alternative furniture, houses, parks, and gardens.
  • Idleness.
  • Conspicuous Waste: They found many organizations, with some specious object of amelioration embodied in their official style and title.
  • Dress: Your apparel immediately reflects your pecuniary standing. It is arguably the most potent means, as it is always evident. It's even better if your clothes are up-to-date. This indicates that you can afford more clothing frequently and that you have time to stay updated with fashion and educate yourself about it.
💡
Note that it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable, it must be wasteful. (No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries of life.)
💡
Leisure for WOMEN: It takes the form of a painstaking attention to the service of the husband or taking care of the household. The more expensive and the less productive the women in the household appear, the more respectable and successful the household or its leader will seem for the sake of reputation.

Why is the "leisure class" Conservative?

Veblen identified in pecuniary standing a proxy for political ideology:

  • The leisure class is conservative.
  • The poorer classes (mainly industrial workers) are progressive.

WHY?

The leisure class doesn't feel the impact of the environment in a significant way. They have more money, so they aren't greatly affected if the economy goes wrong. They will always be able to satisfy their basic needs. This allows them to keep their lifestyle and views unchanged. For example, they don’t need to suit the demands of an altered industrial technique since they are not part of the industrial community – as in the case of the lower classes.

💡
A paradox arises: As being "conservative" starts to be associated with wealth, it becomes a mark of respectability, of honor. Conversely, innovation, being a lower-class phenomenon, is vulgar.

Will the "leisure class" shape the future of our society?

Veblen thinks that the leisure class - being considered the most worthy and honorable class - stands at the head of society. This class determines what scheme of life the community shall accept as decent or honorific and the lower classes will try to emulate it.

This will have dramatic consequences.

In fact, their being insulated from economic forces acts as a hindrance to social evolution. This affects the cultural development both by guiding men’s habits of thought, and so controlling the growth of institutions, and by selectively conserving certain traits of human nature.

And lower classes are already acting accordingly. Trying to achieve the leisure class's pecuniary standing and lifestyle, they change their behavior in 2 ways mainly:

  1. Lower birth rates in order to afford a more expensive (thus worthy, honorable) life;
  2. Screening of private life from observation.

My Take Today

What Veblen did not understand, in my humble opinion, was that when you give people the maximum amount of freedom and choice - as was precisely occurring during the 19th-20th century in the US with the Second Industrial Revolution and the massification of society for the first time - what they mostly do is (paradoxically) imitate each other. And they imitate either (or both) those who they want to be one day or/and those they have something in common with.

That means: I'll tend to imitate a person who is very good at something because I’d like to be in their position one day or/and I'll tend to imitate some of my friends because I have something in common with them. It is not necessarily an economic matter. And this tendency doesn’t need to be connected with a socially constructed ideal of worthiness and esteem.

It's just human nature that is such that people want to seek the school, the herd, the tribe. Most people like to be like other people, and this makes them feel better, but this isn’t a disease or an economically driven factor, it is just human nature.

On a personal note, Veblen's theory and, in many instances, sociology at large fail to win me over. I remain skeptical of universal, sweeping theories aiming to unravel human behaviors and explaining society.