The Theory of the Leisure Class
Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen is a tough nut to crack. Half the time he wrote seriously, half the time he wrote satirically, and much of the time readers and even his own colleagues couldn’t tell which was which. Mostly he seemed to hate just about everything, reaching deep into human history and prehistory to make the point that the world of industrial liberal capitalism was in large part just more of the same human folly, vanity, and parasitism.
Theory of the Leisure Class laid out an economic theory largely influenced by psychology and anthropology, arguing that the basic characteristics of economic life have been fairly constant across all human societies from the tribe to the contemporary world economy. Through the division of labour and the development of a surplus, groups and sub-groups that are able to exert coercion over the whole – largely but not exclusively through a monopoly of violence or the threat of violence – every society from the tribe to the medieval city-state to industrial capitalism is ruled by a class whose primary motivation is the retention of status and whose status is demonstrated in large part by leisure. That is, contrary to economic mythologies from the centrality of hunting to subsistence through the productivity of capital, the ruling class is not a major contributor to economic well-being but always and everywhere parasitical. Headmen and chiefs, kings and clergy, businessmen and investors – what they share in common is control over the symbols of productivity and the legitimate use of force in society, a less-than-average contribution to the real productive life of the society, and a conspicuous consumption and conspicuous labour that symbolize success and power and become primary motivators of others who seek to join and/ or mimic the leisure class.
Theory of the Leisure Class was hugely influential – particularly its introduction of the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ – and remains a standard for students of economics and sociology. Its anthropology is often poor or outright wrong, its social psychology is overly simplistic, and its insights into economics are partial at best. But here’s the trick of Veblen – despite everything that is so wrong, there’s something here, some kernel of insight that won’t let go and that continues to be as important as it is elusive. Socialisms of the non-Marxist variety, feminist analyses, studies of consumerism and anything that looks to the role of culture in economic life: they all owe a debt to Thorstein Veblen. You don’t have to be right to be significant, and you don’t have to be consistent to be right.