The Race to Consume

Thorstein Veblen wrote his “Conspicuous Consumption” towards the end of the industrial revolution in 1902. The work intended to highlight what Veblen saw as frivolous consumption for the sake of status rather than for a necessity. Veblen witnessed large scale consumerism in its early stages and pinpointed the essential characteristics of a caste system based entirely upon one’s ability to purchase the correct things.

The upper level of Veblen’s caste system was known as the “leisure class,” a class which ostensibly consumed luxuries, and was wealthy enough to indulge in leisurely activities.1 This class was also able to consume alcohol and narcotics, indulgence in which was considered noble. In the early stages of a nation’s economic development, consumption of luxuries was strictly limited to the leisure class. According to Veblen’s model, a later “peaceable stage” would eliminate this restriction. The “peaceable stage” of development included private ownership of goods and a system of wage labor which resulted in more money in the hands of the middle or lower classes.2 Veblen observed the increasing prominence, both economically and socially, of the middle class, and he recognized their entrance into the practice of conspicuous consumption. He attributed this entrance to the “the norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extend[ing] its coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the social structure to the lowest strata.”3 If one failed to consume as much as his peers, he appeared inferior and lost social standing.

Members of the leisure class displayed their status through both leisurely activities and conspicuous consumption. The former was a waste of time and energy while the latter was a waste of goods or resources; both demonstrated possession of wealth to garner the good opinion of neighbors.4 Veblen described a leisure class which had always existed to some degree. The explosion of production abilities during the industrial revolution fueled the tendency of this class to squander its wealth on luxuries for the sake of appearing elite.

  1. Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902 []
  2. Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902 []
  3. Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902 []
  4. Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902 []

One thought on “The Race to Consume

  1. I agree with this idea that status is connected to how much an individual can and does consumes. Veblen’s argument that the aristocracy exploits the working class in order to consume definitely resonates, even today. However, if we apply that on a macro level, does that not mean the US is the “elites” and countries like India and China are the “exploited workers”? We consume so much yet produce relatively little in terms of goods exported; albeit, our economy differs greatly than that of early 20th C. America.

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