The Theory of the Leisure Class

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When The Theory of the Leisure Class appeared in 1899, Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) was a little-known professor of economics at the fledgling University of Chicago, one of the country's first research universities. By his death just before the collapse of the stock market in 1929, Veblen had written ten books, of which Leisure Class would remain the best known, and he was famous—indeed, notorious—as America's most influential cultural critic and one of its most memorable phrasemakers. References to "conspicuous consumption," a concept immortalized in Leisure Class, remain obligatory in studies of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. Veblenian concepts are amply illustrated in countless literary texts, especially those in the realist tradition: from predatory businessmen like Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood and Frank Norris's S. Behrman to the "trained incapacity" (another of Veblen's memorable phrases) of society women like Edith Wharton's Lily Bart and the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" to bumbling boosters like Sinclair Lewis's George F. Babbitt and Dreiser's Charlie Drouet. Veblen himself appears in John Dos Passos's The Big Money (1936) in a portrait entitled "The Bitter Drink" that suggests Veblen was America's Socrates.


Considering Veblen's skillful use of satire, perhaps Socrates combined with François Rabelais would be even closer to the mark. With its omnivorous learnedness and jolting comparisons, Leisure Class is a peculiar book. Readers who expect an analysis of conspicuous consumption and the excesses of the robber barons are often puzzled by the book's opening tongue-in-cheek ethnology that pits peaceable savages against predatory barbarians. Why Veblen begins his book in this fashion can best be understood by noting that he plots his entire argument along a Social Darwinian graph. The author, who as a Yale graduate student had studied under one of America's foremost Social Darwinist scholars, William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), well understood the philosophy so beloved by capitalist apologists. Leisure Class holds orthodox Social Darwinism up to a fun-house mirror as Veblen overturns assertions promoted by its leading practitioner, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Whereas Spencer says that evolution traces a path from simple to complex organisms, from few to many, from good to better, with the fittest (and best) species inevitably triumphing over the weakest, Veblen construes the increasing complexity of modern life as evidence of Homo sapiens' fall from grace. Far from celebrating the captains of industry as illustrations of human progress sanctified by God, Leisure Class deflates them to latter-day predatory barbarians. Veblen clearly prefers the peaceable savages, with their "amiable inefficiency when confronted with force or fraud" (p. 7). Dipping again into ethnological terminology, he takes particular aim at the "dolichocephalic blond" (p. 215) of European descent, remarking that this ethnic group is most likely to revert to predatory tendencies—and to dominate over other ethnic groups who are "repressed and pushed into the background" (p. 220). In other words, the dominant Anglo-Saxon male held to be king of the Social Darwinian hill becomes in Veblen's analysis a raging, grasping yahoo. Like Gilman's Women and Economics (1898) and Lester Frank Ward's Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society (1903), Leisure Class reminds one that although evolutionary thought tends to produce conservative views when applied to human society, that outcome is not required.

Besides providing a putatively scientific way of attacking the status quo, the ethnological underpinning of Leisure Class allows Veblen to speculate about a time before the emergence of private property. The peaceable savages as he imagines them did not conceive of individual ownership. That snake in the garden originated with the predatory barbarians. Private property was necessary for the development of a leisure class who own so much that they must conspicuously waste time and resources to show how wealthy they are. The key point for the leisure class is how much wealthier than others they are; the objective is sustaining an "invidious comparison" (p. 31). Because the goal is asserting personal superiority, the process advances the individual's reputation over the collective good. Human worth becomes increasingly reduced to cash value, and "pecuniary canons of taste" (p. 115) pervade the culture.

The ethnological basis also allows Veblen to spotlight the gender dynamics central to his theory. He does so in two ways. First, he says that the distinction between leisure and work originates in an early distinction between men's and women's activities. While early barbarian men engaged in ceremonial acts of honorific "exploit," such as priestly service and warfare (Veblen identifies sports and government as later instances of this category), women did the actual productive work that he calls "industry"—such as harvesting plants and caring for children. Prehistoric women thus exemplify the "instinct of workmanship" (p. 15), and the distaste in which such activity comes to be held illustrates the "irksomeness" of labor (p. 17). (The latter response, again registering Homo sapiens' fall from grace, is a learned response, in contrast to the former, which Veblen considers a beneficent "instinct.") Simply put, the propensity to posit "invidious distinctions" (p. 26) originates in gender difference. Second, Veblen says that the idea of private property itself developed out of gender difference: the first "things" recognized as private property were women, as useful as trophies for the barbarian men as they are for men in the era of advanced capitalism.


When Veblen extends these concepts to his contemporary period, his most celebrated ideas result. Most of these ideas ring true through the twenty-first century. Leisure Class remains one of the most important studies of the effects of living in a consumer society. Veblen notes that when life grows increasingly urban and the pace quickens, the consequence is a pervasive emphasis on display. Display, of course, is central to merchandising (such as in the windows of department stores, the earliest of them only a generation old when Veblen wrote) and to advertising. Veblen's enduring insight is that display is also central to the psychology of individuals. Owning goods is not actually the point; being seen with them is the goal. He captures this other-driven, frenzied psychology: "In order to impress . . . transient observers, and to retain one's self-complacency under their observation, the signature of one's pecuniary strength should be written in characters which he who runs may read" (p. 87).

Moreover, much of this conspicuous display is vicarious: a man needs a wife and other dependents, such as liveried servants and well-coiffed poodles, to help spend—and thus showcase—his wealth. The corseted, delicate, neurasthenic woman clearly cannot do any useful work, and precisely because of that fact, she effectively advertises her husband's pecuniary strength. Wasteful consumption makes for particularly useful publicity; hence, scrupulously manicured lawns with topiary (tomato plants would hardly confer honor on the lord of the manor). The principle of vicarious consumption holds true for philanthropic gifts (one might think, for example, of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie's conspicuous endowment of libraries).

The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject's vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work. It is true, the corset impairs the personal attractions of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman's apparel resolves itself . . . into the more effective hindrance to useful exertion offered by the garments peculiar to women.

Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 172.

An often overlooked point is that, according to Veblen, consumption (as that term is commonly understood) is not what motivates people: consumers do not seek to satiate themselves but rather to emulate their social superiors. In consequence, the process is unending; desire is indefinitely extendable. As Veblen puts it, "The standard of expenditure which commonly guides our efforts is not the average, ordinary expenditure already achieved; it is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach" (p. 103). An element that he describes as "make-believe" (p. 96) comes to dominate social life; the obsession with appearance encourages people to skimp on necessities to better display the honorific extras. University faculty, he notes in a delicious aside, are especially guilty, as their social status exceeds their salary.


The most insidious consequence of life under the regime of the leisure class is that the status quo is effort-lessly, and seemingly invisibly, maintained. Chapter 8 of Leisure Class, "Industrial Exemption and Conservatism," delineates this process. "The situation of to-day," Veblen explains, "shapes the institutions of tomorrow through a selective, coercive process, by acting upon men's habitual view of things, and so altering or fortifying a point of view or a mental attitude handed down from the past" (pp. 190–191). The notion of institutions is a key concept in Veblen's thinking (note the subtitle of Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions). Veblen uses "institutions" to refer to the external organizations that come to mind—legal institutions, educational institutions, and so forth—but as the quotation indicates, institutions are especially important to Veblen for the cultural attitudes and beliefs they perpetuate. Both mind-set and organization are, by definition, handed down from past to present; thus institutions foster conservation of past ways of doing things. If one follows Veblen's logic, the result is that institutions and habits of thought are inevitably behind the times. (Scholars often refer to this concept as "cultural lag" or "institutional lag.") Driving another nail in the coffin of orthodox Social Darwinism, Veblen claims that regression is easier than progress. This conservative tendency, hardwired into human thinking, receives further sanction from the leisure class, to whom conservatism itself is a "mark of respectability" and who see innovation as "bad form" (pp. 199, 200). Thus any socially progressive movement (Veblen mentions women's suffrage and the easing of divorce laws) will appear disreputable and dishonorable.

When this process of social control is combined with insatiable consumer desire, the vicious cycle is complete. Consumers who are constantly trying to move up to the next best neighborhood are not going to challenge the status quo; rather, their every action will reinforce it. While the leisure class exerts what might be described as a top-down means of social control, consumers contribute from the bottom up. One of Veblen's most important insights is also one of his bleakest: he says that society under the regime of status, leisure, and consumption is not prone to change, but rather to keep replicating itself, world without end. Rather than the inevitable revolution predicted by Karl Marx, Veblen anticipates more of the same. His theory of social stability ad nauseum is less inspiring, and less glamorous, than Marx's theory, but Veblen's ideas continue to provide a powerful interpretive matrix for understanding American life.


Perhaps the best expression of the influence of Leisure Class was recorded by the journalist (and later dramatist) Maxwell Anderson in a 1918 letter to The Dial: "I once asked a friend if he had read The Theory of the Leisure Class. 'Why no,' he retorted; 'why should I? All my friends have read it. It permeates the atmosphere in which I live'" (p. 370). The influence of the book was immediate (especially on college campuses) and lasting, but also ambiguous. Anderson's description of what might be called Veblen-by-osmosis is perceptive, for Veblen is one of those writers who get referenced even by people who have not read him. Perhaps his facility as a phrasemaker is to blame: there is a catchiness to his most familiar concepts that makes them seem familiar even to people who do not really understand them.

The leisure class, in the nature of things, consistently acts to retard that adjustment to the environment which is called social advance or development. The characteristic attitude of the class may be summed up in the maxim: "Whatever is, is right"; whereas the law of natural selection, as applied to human institutions, gives the axiom: "Whatever is, is wrong."

Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, pp. 206–207.

One challenge for serious readers has always been determining how to classify Leisure Class. Notwithstanding its subtitle, An Economic Study of Institutions, readers are unlikely to experience the book as a work of economics. As promised in the preface, Leisure Class examines all sorts of data commonly overlooked by economists and, for that matter, material ignored by other social scientists. The preface also asserts the impossibility of confining the analysis within commonly observed boundaries. Veblen was an interdisciplinary thinker during a time when modern academic disciplines were beginning to articulate their territories and boundaries. As a social scientist, his interests were qualitative, not quantitative. Yet he refused to make predictions and tried to avoid obvious value judgments, for he believed that neither pursuit was appropriate for scholarly inquiry. Veblen systematically defied epistemological categories, and as Rick Tilman notes, there has never been a consensus regarding either the meaning or the value of his work. His relationship to some of the foundational thinkers of the modern period—particularly Marx and Charles Darwin—continues to be debated.

The problem of how to classify Veblen is compounded by his pointedly satirical bent. Characteristically, he disavows any satirical intent several times in Leisure Class: "the term 'invidious' . . . is used in a technical sense" only. Likewise, the "term 'waste' . . . carries an undertone of deprecation" (pp. 34, 97) that the author claims to regret. As Dos Passos says, "People complained they never knew whether Veblen was joking or serious" (p. 116). There remains a small group of heterodox economists, self-described "institutional economists" who trace their practice to Veblen. But generally speaking, most social scientists eschew satire, seeing the comic impulse as "literary" as opposed to "scientific." That is the sort of distinction, however, that Veblen would see as insubstantial and "ceremonial" (p. 37). As readers of classic satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Voltaire well know, the comic dimension of satire is not an end in itself. Satire performs serious cultural work, and in the hands of a master, it does so with the precision of a trained surgeon wielding a scalpel. Leisure Class is best understood as a book that is satirical and scientific, literary and critical.

Central to Veblen's satirical vision is the structuring of positive and negative values as a series of contrasts—one might even say invidious contrasts: industry (making things) versus business (making money); useful activity versus ceremonial activity; peaceable savages versus predatory barbarians; the common man versus the vested interests; even women versus men. Moreover, Veblen always values the term that he claims the culture at large despises. When he remarks, for example, that cats are "less reputable" than dogs because they are "less wasteful" (p. 140) and less servile, the reader can safely conclude that Veblen prefers the feline species.

Veblen's investment in satire, so evident in Leisure Class, confirms his lifelong study of language and literature. The first book he completed was a translation of an Icelandic saga into English. It is impossible to know whether, had Veblen managed promptly to secure a publisher for that book (The Laxdaela Saga would not appear until 1925), his career might have taken a more conventional literary path, but it is clear that literature always moved him. Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888), had a great influence on him when he read it as a young man. Veblen's stepdaughter recalls his saying he wished he could have written "just one good novel" (Eby, p. 5). Yet in his own way, Veblen left a trace on literature and language: as Max Lerner provocatively remarks, "Any anthology of American prose in the future and any history of American literature will ignore Veblen at its peril" (p. 141).


An irony that Veblen would not appreciate is that for decades after his death, personal anecdotes achieved practically mythic status and permeated discussion of his writings. That is, Veblen became himself something of a celebrity, an unwitting product of the culture of conspicuousness that he despised. One reason is that the foundational work in Veblen scholarship, Joseph Dorfman's Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), was itself a biography. The book portrayed its subject as a misanthropic man from Mars and gave authority to the legends that had been circulating—tales of a rustic figure with coonskin cap in the groves of academe, of a man who would not make his bed because it was wasteful effort, of a cynical predator on faculty wives. The Dorfman thesis has influenced the majority of the scholarship on Veblen, and emphasis on personal eccentricities has unfortunately blurred the focus on Veblen's cultural commentary. A 1999 biography by Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen and Henry Irvin Jorgensen seeks to redeem Veblen, particularly regarding his relations with women. Thorstein Veblen: Victorian Firebrand uncovers much new information, but Dorfman's book remains indispensable for tracing the facts—if the reader takes care to disentangle the myths—about Veblen's life, career, and influences.

Those members of the community who fall short of this . . . 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 neighbors.

Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 30.

After a stable midwestern upbringing—his father was a successful farmer in Minnesota—Veblen attended Carleton College. His family, of Norwegian descent, was Lutheran; Veblen was agnostic. An itinerant scholar, he was driven out of the University of Chicago (where he published his first two books) and landed at an institution far more to his liking. But what might have inaugurated for Veblen a halcyon period at Stanford University quickly soured, as his first wife refused to share him with the woman who had followed the couple to California (and who would later become his second wife). The ensuing scandal lost Veblen his second academic position. Although Veblen seems to have seen himself as a man fated for unhappiness, he always had people looking after him, and various advocates arranged positions at the University of Missouri and the New School for Social Research as well as helping Veblen secure positions as editor of The Dial and with the Food Administration.

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.

Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 32.

Leisure Class was the first book Veblen published and remains his most influential. Unsympathetic critics claim that later works only repeat ideas contained in the first, an assessment that has truncated understanding of one of America's most important thinkers. It would be more accurate to say that the first book introduces core ideas that the ensuing books further explore. Readers interested in the "instinct of workmanship" (p. 15), the ethnological underpinnings of Veblen's work, or what he tantalizingly refers to in Leisure Class as "woman's pre-glacial standing" (p. 356), will find The Instinct of Workmanship, and the State of Industrial Arts (1914) illuminating. Veblen further enumerates his positive values in The Engineers and the Price System (1921), which pits heroic engineers against predatory businessmen and describes the sabotage of industry by business. For elaboration of Veblen's views of business, The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) and Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (1923) are essential. The essays reprinted in the collection The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays (1919) spotlight his criticisms of orthodox economists and clarify his relationship to important thinkers on the left, such as Marx. In An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (1917) and Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), Veblen traces the activities of predatory barbarians on the international front, providing incisive analyses of modern war and its handmaiden, patriotism. The theory of cultural conservatism central to Leisure Class is elaborated in The Vested Interests and the Common Man ("The Modern Point of View and the New Order") (1920). The brief analysis of academia in the last chapter of Leisure Class provides an entrée into one of Veblen's most prescient books, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918), in which he analyses the corporatization of the university.

See alsoEthnology; Feminism; Wealth


Primary Work

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Macmillan, 1899. The 1934 edition published by the Modern Library is quoted herein.

Secondary Works

Adorno, Theodor W. "Veblen's Attack on Culture." In Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Anderson, Maxwell. "Incommunicable Literature." The Dial 65 (2 November 1918): 370.

Conroy, Stephen S. "Thorstein Veblen's Prose." American Quarterly 20 (1968): 605–615.

Diggins, John P. The Bard of Savagery: Thorstein Veblen and Modern Social Theory. New York: Seabury Press, 1978. Reprinted as Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Dorfman, Joseph. Thorstein Veblen and His America. New York: Viking, 1934.

Dos Passos, John. "The Bitter Drink." In The Big Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936. Reprint, New York: Signet, 1969.

Eby, Clare Virginia. Dreiser and Veblen, Saboteurs of the Status Quo. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Jorgensen, Elizabeth Watkins, and Henry Irvin Jorgensen. Thorstein Veblen: Victorian Firebrand. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1999.

Lerner, Max. "Veblen's World." In What Veblen Thought. New York: Viking, 1936. Reprinted in Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas. New York: Viking, 1939.

Qualey, Carlton C., ed. Thorstein Veblen: The Carleton College Veblen Seminar Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Riesman, David. Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation. New York: Scribners, 1953.

Tilman, Rick. Thorstein Veblen and His Critics 1891–1963: Conservative, Liberal, and Radical Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Toulouse, Teresa. "Veblen and His Reader: Rhetoric and Intention in The Theory of the Leisure Class." Centennial Review 29 (1985): 249–267.

Clare Eby

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The Theory of the Leisure Class

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