Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen was born in 1857 in Wisconsin and moved to Minnesota where he spent the majority of his childhood working on his family’s farm. His family was a part of an immigrant farming community that stressed hard work and dedication, explains his disdain for the effects of capitalism, as shown in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Context: Veblen wrote about Conspicuous Consumption in 1902 in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the phrase as a way to describe the behavioral characteristics of the emerging social class that was a result of  acquired wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Language: Veblen’s tone is educated and informative. He provides an in-depth analysis of conspicuous consumption and how if affects society as a whole.

Audience: Veblen wrote for a more sophisticated and educated audience, as his text is quite complex. He also writes from a more philosophical standpoint.

Intent: Veblen sought to inform his audience about what he defines as a further division of labor—that between different servant classes. He saw one portion of the servant class, mainly those whose pursuit is leisure, who had undertaken the hobby of the various consumption of goods. Veblen wanted to educate people about the families of the upper class who used their wealth as a way of revealing their social prominence and power.

Meaning: In his text, Veblen vehemently criticizes conspicuous consumption, which he considered to be the unnecessary spending of money on luxury items and services as a means to display societal power. According to Veblen, people should only spend what is necessary to live an adequate life. He writes; “When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence.”

3 thoughts on “Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption

  1. Solid post. Veblen also pointed to the leisure class as the root of a new social conformity in which high-bred manners and ways of living were key. Everyone within the hierarchical leisure class (as well as below the leisure class) conformed to conspicuous consumption in attempt to outdo one another. Demonstration of wealth via dress became standard.

  2. Despite his intellectual writings, the instant success of his writings prove how influential they were. The complexity of his ideas are evident, yet the rate at which it was accepted- which surprised him too- shows that the intellectuals at the time took his work seriously and that it made great strides within the community.

  3. Power and money are undoubtedly the most forceful factors driving history, so with this new consumerist culture arising to support the quest for wealth and power, appearance and status were more important than ever. People now had to use their money to convey their power, strengthening the reciprocal relationship between the two.

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