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.

The Leisure Class

“The Theory of the Leisure Class”, written by Thorstein Veblen, was a piece written from observations on the effects of capitalism of the leisure class. Veblen mentions that the only purpose for the wealthy/leisure class is to consume. Veblen sees this type of lifestyle as a waste. He does not say it out right but Veblen looks at this time period as a sort of step back in terms of society and not a step forward. Veblen makes a mockery of the clothing as well as the language of those in wealthy positions.

In the second excerpt from chapter 7, Veblen talks about the dress of the leisure class and how that shows to the others they have status in society.[i] “One portion of the servant class, chiefly those persons whose occupation is vicarious leisure, come to undertake a new, subsidiary range of duties–the vicarious consumption of goods”.[ii] This quote shows Veblen saying that the main purpose for the leisure class is consumption. Veblen also talks about how one can look like they are in a leisure class just by the way they choose to dress. This gives the illusion of a lower person in society appearing as a member of a higher class. With dress being an area of focus for Veblen, he focuses on language as well.

Just as dress is a way to show status so is language. Those in the leisure class who use old/classic English are showing they have higher status within society and are better than those below them.[iii] He also mentions that since the leisure class speaks classic English, they spent their lives doing work other than useful.

[i] The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899

[ii] The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899

[iii] The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899

The Vicarious Consumption of Goods

In 1899 Thorstein Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” on his observation of division of labor; specifically the effect capitalism had on the upper/leisure class.  As a child of immigrant parents being raised in Wisconsin, Veblen had trouble adjusting and felt isolated from the American way.  This detached upbringing seems to have an impact on the way he describes the leisure class, as he speaks as though he is on the outside of society looking in.  Veblen is very critical of the effects capitalism had on the leisure class and believed it was leading to regression rather than progression. His writing calls out those of the leisure class for their over consumption of goods and their archaic values.

Veblen starts off by describing how the leisure class has taken on the duty of “…the vicarious consumption of goods” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)).  It’s obvious that he is poking fun at the wealthy, as he sees that their only role in society is to buy the products the working class makes.  In a visual sense he is basically comparing them to a parasite, as they received goods without contributing anything back to society.  Veblen goes on to describe the unnecessary waste of goods that go into how people dress.  Dress is considered the easiest way to show others your class, as all observers will know your status at first glance ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)) .  Veblen has trouble trying to fathom why people give up life’s necessities just so they can afford more expensive clothing.  The value of clothing is based on fashion, rather than their practical use which Veblen sees as unenlightened.

After his rant on dress, Veblen decides to go after the very language used by the leisure class.  Those of wealth practice classic English rather than the common tongue seen with the rest of society.  Just as dress shows class status, the use of old/classic English shows that you are of an important, wealthy family.  Veblen describes the word “classic” as word that carries the “…connotation of wasteful and archaic” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)), implying that the use of classic English is simply inefficient and backwards.

Do you agree with Veblen’s statement that the leisure class’ duty is only to consume products?  Why is there such an emphasis on class status during this time?  Do we still stress importance on the way we dress and speak today?





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.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen was an American sociologist and economist born in Wisconsin in the year 1857. He was raised in a prosperous Norwegian household by his two parents, and he thrived as from an early age they instilled solid life values and beliefs in him. He studied at multiple prestigious colleges around the country. He wrote his most famous work The Theory of the Leisure Class, when he was in his forties.

Context: This piece was published in 1899, during a period known as the Gilded Age. This was a time of great economic expansion in the United States, leading Veblen to write about how the profits were being spent.

Language: Veblen uses very critical language in this piece, as he is going directly after a singular group of people. His tone can be categorized as somewhat flippant towards the leisure class, although the piece is an excellent example of how prose can be put together. He knows exactly what he is trying to say and uses a specific tone and set of words to get his point across.

Audience: Veblen is writing to a the educated world as a whole. He is giving his thoughts to anyone who would like to read them, especially the people to whom he is writing about (leisure class). He wants his ideas to be seen, debated, and taken into account by the populace as a whole.

Intent: Veblen wanted to break down the society into the people who spend superfluously and those who are rational and understand how to be fiscally responsible. He wanted to show how those extravagant people were actually hurting their country and themselves more than they were helping (waste=bad).

Message: Veblen put the leisure class out on a line in this piece. He showed how their flamboyance was a detriment to themselves and the society around them as it started new negative trends that the rest of the populace would then adopt. His main point was that it was poor form to waste materials (even if you had the financial means to do so) because it doesn’t help anyone in the long run – it just makes you look like a fool.

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.