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. ((Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902)) 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. ((Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902)) 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.” ((Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902)) 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. ((Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption, 1902)) 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.

Thorstein Veblen on Conspicuous Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen, born in Wisconsin in 1857, was an economist and sociologist. He grew up in Minnesota, raised by his parents to value education and hard work. Perhaps this is the root for his distain of what he termed as “conspicuous consumption” and waste of the Gilded Age.

Context: He wrote Conspicuous Consumption in 1902 in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He wrote this during the second industrial revolution.

Language: Veblen’s tone is critical, informative and philosophical.

Audience: Veblen’s audience is the upper class and other philosophers or sociologists.

Intent: Veben’s intent in this piece is to deconstruct the consumer culture of the “Gilded Age” and enlighten people on America’s money lust and thirst for status. He exposes the upper class’ need to show off their status by buying items in excess and splurging on superfluous extras.

Message: His overall message in this piece is the harm in society’s need for status based on wealth. He believes it is a waste for people to spend extraordinary amounts on what they don’t need just to prove to society that they have the means to. He has brings up the problems this causes for the economy and the character of people as well. Veblen argues that this culture creates a bigger divide between the rich and poor and is wasteful of resources. According to him, people should not consume more than is necessary for quality of life- it is bad form and extremely wasteful.

Veblen’s Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption (1902); American-born son of Norwegian immigrants who owned a farm where he spent his youth; his rural background may have led to his prejudice against the so-called “wasteful consumption” urban dwellers engaged in, leading him to write this essay

Context: beginning of the 20th century, during a period of rapid urbanization; the influx of Americans to large cities allowed the economy to grow because of the rise of the middle class, or the “leisure class” as he calls it

Language: he seemed to have disdain for the rise of the leisure class; he often mentions these people’s spending habits as wasteful and unnecessary

Audience: seems to be written for educated individuals, perhaps directed at those within the leisure class; may have been an address to enlighten those who participated in “conspicuous consumption” about the faults of their actions

Intent: again, it seems to have been written as a wake-up call to those within the leisure class to prevent them from further spending wastefully; he wished to highlight the divide between the middle class (those who in his eyes spent money wastefully and those who appeared to be more thrifty)

Message: The essay noted the rise of a socioeconomic class that fell somewhere between the upper class as he knew it and the lower class. This developing class could not be grouped as consistent however; those living in urban areas adapted the traits of those around them–the upper class–by spending money on things other than what was necessary for survival, like clothing, for this group of people was wont to appear to fit with those around them. Meanwhile, others of similar economic situations living in rural areas found no need for such frivolous spending because of the lower amount of human interaction. These, he argued, were people who spent their money wisely, because it was only done in an effort to survive, and not to acquire unnecessary materials. He scorned those in urban areas for trying or pretending to be something that they were not, and asked them (although not directly) to look to those he considered fiscally responsible for guidance on how to spend money properly.

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.”

Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, born in 1857, was a respected American sociologist and economist. He was raised in Nerstrand, Minnesota by successful Norwegian parents who accentuated the values of hard work and education while contributing to his disdain for lavishness. He began his formal studies in economics at the age of seventeen and worked under the tutelage of many prominent economists.
Context: Veblen’s renowned economic treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class, was published in the United States in 1899. The Gilded Age, a period of economic growth and increased immigration in the U.S., was just reaching its conclusion. Veblen accused the leisure class of squandering the advantages of the Gilded Age through their ostentation, or conspicuous consumption.
Language: The prose in The Theory of the Leisure Class is intelligent and complex. Using precise word choice and sophisticated sentence structure, Veblen was able to squeeze a substantial amount of insight into little space. The tone of the treatise is derisive and overflowing with contempt for the leisure class and their conspicuous consumption.
Audience: The language reveals that Veblen wrote his book for an educated audience with a prior understanding of economic and sociological theory.
Intent: In ridiculing the leisure class, Veblen elucidated his desire to reverse the prevailing sociological mindset of conveying economic reputability. Veblen sought to warn his contemporaries and the public of the wastefulness of conspicuous consumption and urged consumers to rely on prudence instead of propriety.
Message: The primary aim of The Theory of the Leisure Class was to denounce the leisure class’s use of conspicuous consumption as a vehicle to enhance their apparent economic or social stature. Veblen provided an appropriate example of conspicuous consumption in identifying society’s preoccupation with how people dress. He recognized attire as the most prevalent expenditure in any line of consumption because of its immediate observability and effectiveness in indicating one’s economic standing. Regrettably, the desire to be fashionable overwhelms the need for a practical and comfortable wardrobe. The growth of the economy during the Gilded Age led many people to purchase extravagant items in an effort to enhance their observable economic standing, which Veblen condemned as a squandering of potential advantages.

Vicarious Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen was born in Cato, Wisconsin on July 30, 1857. He spent the majority of his childhood working on his family farm as part of a Norwegian immigrant farming community.  His parents stressed hard work and education, an emphasis that would factor into his disgust for conspicuous consumption. Veblen studied and worked at several universities including Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell.  Veblen wrote The theory of the Leisure Class when he was in his early forties.

Context: The Theory of the Leisure Class was written in America in 1899.  America was amidst the Gilded Age, a period of immense economic growth and industrialization.

Language: Veblen’s tone is satirical. He saw the leisure class as a hindrance to the progress of society. Veblen stated, “no one finds difficulty in assenting to the common place that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person.”  Veblen used dry humor to make his point.

Audience: Veblen wrote for the Academic world.  After Veblen graduated from Yale, he was unable to obtain an academic job due in part to prejudice against his Norwegian ancestry and because most universities considered him insufficiently educated in Christianity, so he returned to his family farm and began avidly reading.  He then left to study economics as a graduate student at Cornell University and obtained his first academic appointment at the new University of Chicago. There he published his best-known books, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). These books made him famous overnight.

Intent: Veblen felt that other leading economists’ views were too narrow. He wanted economists to more fully understand the social and cultural causes and effects of economic changes. Specifically, he thought the focus should be on the social and cultural causes that were responsible for shifts in industry such as hunting to farming, and the effects of such shifts.

Message: Veblen argued that there was a split between the working class. He saw two groups in this division of labor: one group making wealth via industry and the other via exploit, which he identifies as the leisure class. The leisure class became vicarious consumers of ostentatious products in dress, food, furniture, and housing. Class pecuniary standing was based on public display of wealth via dress. Veblen cited the leisure class as the root of social conformity. As a model for dress and livery, the leisure class set a social precedent, which compelled those in classes below them to match. Veblen believed the demonstration of wealth was done solely for social status and thus criticized the leisure class. He associated the leisure class with waste and he also viewed such waste as a hindrance to economic productivity.