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?





The Theory of the Leisure Class and Conspicuous Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen was an American economist and sociologist, along with being the leader of the institutional economics movement. He was born to Norwegian parents, and studied at well-known American colleges.

Context: The Theory of the Leisure Class was written in 1899, following the Industrial Revolution and during a time of more widespread prosperity as a result of industrialization.

Language:Using a didactic, matter-of-fact tone, Veblen uses the repetition of words such as “consumption”, “leisure”, “vicarious”, “superior”, “servants”, and “classes” to instill the key message of the work into readers’ minds. His tone is almost satirical in the way that he pokes fun at the way people use material goods as a sign of status.

Audience: Veblen writes for an audience interested in economics, sociology, or both.

Intention: Veblen’s intention is to make people aware of the consumerist culture that has taken over society as a result of the division of labor and the division of classes.

Message: Veblen’s message is to convey to society that consumption has become a way of conforming in modern society. He criticizes the way that the consumption of material goods has become a means of proving wealth and status, and points out the association between honor and material acquisitions. He also claims that clothing has become a way of expressing status, rather than a way of protection.

Conspicuous Consumption

Author:  The piece was written by Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist.  He is well known for his thinking in the field, as he applied Darwinian theory to economic analysis.

Context:  Written in 1902, Veblen was writing in the midst of the second Industrial Revolution.  As the middle class began to surge, many previously lower class individuals were becoming more prosperous.  Veblen observes this phenomenon, thus he writes Conspicuous Consumption.

Language: Veblen’s tone is analytic, observant, and unromantic.  His diction is advanced.

Audience: Veblen is writing for the a intellectual audience, as indicated by his advanced word choice.

Intent:  Veblen is pointing out the vast eruption of the middle class and its transformation into a consumer society, a society that spends money on luxury goods, in order to flaunt their wealth to others.  He sees this as relatively negative and criticizes them.

Message: Veblen makes an attempt to show that the world is becoming too materialistic, as many purchase items to simply show wealth; items that are otherwise useless.  He continues, saying that the rift between the rich and poor is becoming more vast, and the public displays of money only adds to this.

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.

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.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Author- Thorstein Veblen, American sociologist and economics, grew up with a lot of familial emphasis on education and caused resentment for “conspicuous consumption”
Context- 1899, takes place during the Gilded Age of America (economic boom that brought many immigrants from Europe)
Language- matter- of- fact language, extremely critical
Audience- became and instant success, highly praised, meant to be widely read
Intent- to shows the superficiality of the societal trend and to show the societal rift between those that can afford luxury items and those that produce the items (how that impacts class perception)
Message- criticism of how materialism of luxury goods became a symbol of wealth and of “conspicuous consumption” (displaying luxury items to maintain social status), uses dress as an example of display of goods to indicate one’s status