In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) distinguishes between two classes of individuals, the class that is focused on productive labor and the leisure class, a division that developed during the barbarian/feudal stage of society. These groups can be understood as similar to Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) notion of classes within capitalism, in which the proletariat and the capitalist (bourgeoisie) class are in conflict over the distribution of society’s wealth, power, and the division of labor. However, Veblen incorporates culture into this division with an understanding of production and consumption, material life, status, and economic stratification. According to Veblen, modern economic behavior was based on the struggle for competitive economic standing, as the aristocratic consumption of luxuries served as a litmus test for elite status during the peak of capitalist industrialization. The leisure class itself consists of social elites, businesspeople, and captains of industry (those at the top of the social-class pyramid), who engage in pecuniary activities that detract from the productive aspect of society.
Members of the leisure class attempt to garner status and competitive social advantage through their patterns of consumption (of goods and symbols) and their conduct, thereby driving economic life around status rather than utility. Social status is symbolized by the leisure class through conspicuous waste, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous leisure, which are used to communicate and enhance social position and social standing and to obtain heightened self-evaluation. Conspicuous waste is evidence that one can afford to be frivolous with items as well as time (no need to work); conspicuous consumption is the socially visible display of expensive goods that signify class status. Both of these activities indicate wealth and the ability to afford leisure, meaning the lack of a need to perform manual and useful labor.
Conspicuous leisure is the benchmark for determining elite status and serves as a symbolic statement that one is above laboring. In this way, it functions similarly to what Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) referred to as cultural capital in that it is a description of class compounded with status. Lower-status groups emulate the leisure class in an attempt to increase their own status. Veblen discusses how women are exploited by men through vicarious conspicuous consumption, waste, and leisure, where women perform the conspicuous activity of leisure, and men benefit in terms of status from these activities. For example, ideals of feminine beauty (frailty, weakness, paleness—indicating that the woman is not able to labor), certain restrictive fashions that incapacitate labor, and the removal of women from socially visible productive labor all contribute to the good name of the household and its master.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Conspicuous Consumption; Stratification; Veblen, Thorstein
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tucker, Robert, ed. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.
Veblen, Thorstein.  1994. Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin.
Ryan Ashley Caldwell
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