The Theory of the Leisure Class

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The Theory of the Leisure Class
The theory of the Leisure Class.jpg
Author Thorstein Veblen
Country United States
Language English
Genre Economics
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date
Pages 400 pp
OCLC 17647347

The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899), by Thorstein Veblen, is an economic treatise and detailed social critique of conspicuous consumption, as a function of social-class consumerism, which proposes that the social strata and the division of labor of the feudal period continued into the modern era. The lords of the manor employed themselves in the economically useless practices of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, while the middle and lower classes were employed in the industrial occupations that support the whole of society; economically wasteful activities are those activities that do not contribute to the economy or to the material productivity required for the fruitful functioning of society. Veblen's analyses of business cycles and prices, and of the emergent technocratic division of labor by speciality (scientists, engineers, technologists) at the beginning of the 20th century proved to be accurate predictions of the nature of an industrial society.[1]

Background and reception[edit]

The Theory of the Leisure Class was based on a trio of articles published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1898,[2] and contained most of the major themes Veblen would develop in his later works.[3]

Upon its publication, one reviewer opined that the book "requires no other commendation for its scholarly performance than that which a casual reading of the work readily inspires",[4] while

William Dean Howells devoted two long reviews to it, and overnight the book became the vade mecum of the intelligentsia of the day: as an eminent sociologist told Veblen, "It fluttered the dovecotes of the East."[5]

This immediate success also came unexpectedly, including to Veblen.[5]


Later editions of The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) are distinguished by the author of the introduction, consolidating the Norwegian as a pivotal place in the history of thought; introductions were written by sociologists, economists, journalists, such as C. Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith, Stuart Chase, Max Lerner, and Robert Lekachman.


The Theory of the Leisure Class proposes that economic life is driven by the vestiges of the social stratification of tribal society, rather than by social and economic utility. The supporting examples, contemporary and anthropological, propose that many economic behaviors of contemporary society (c. late 19th century) are variants of the corresponding tribal-society behaviors, when men and women practiced the division of labor according to the person's status group, thus, the high-status people practiced hunting and war, whilst the low-status people practiced farming, cooking, et cetera.

Such a division of labor was due to the barbarian culture of conquest, domination, and exploitation, wherein, once in control, the conquerors assigned the labor-intensive jobs to the vanquished people, and, for themselves, assumed the military profession, and other less labor-intensive work, the elementary leisure class. In practice, it was sociologically unimportant that the low-status occupations provided greater economic support to society than did the high-status jobs of soldier, hunter, etc. Moreover, within an unconquered tribe, certain men and women disregarded the collective division-of-labor system, and emulated the behavior of the leisure class, the high-status social group of the tribe.

Although the leisure class did perform some useful work, and so contributed to the collective well-being of the tribe, such work tended to be minor and peripheral, functioning more as symbolic economic participation than as practical economic production. For example, although hunting could provide food for the tribe, it was less productive and less reliable than were farming and animal domestication, and easier, less labor-intensive, than the latter work. Likewise, whilst tribes required warriors for war, the members of the military stratum of the leisure class retained their high social-status and economic positions—exemption from menial, physical work—even during peace, despite being physically capable of performing labor-intensive, "menial" work that was more productive, and economically beneficial, to the collective well-being of the tribe.

Simultaneously, the leisure class retained its superior social status in the tribe by means of direct and indirect coercion; for example, the leisure class reserved for themselves the (honorable) profession of soldiering in defense of the tribe; and so withheld weapons and military skills from the lower-order social classes. Such a division of labor rendered the lower social classes dependent upon the leisure class, and so perpetuated and justified their existence for defense against enemies, natural (other tribes) and against supernatural (ghosts and gods), because the first clergy were members of the leisure class.

Hence, contemporary society did not psychologically supersede the tribal stage of the division of labor, but merely evolved different forms and expressions of said assignments of productive labor; for example, during the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), only the nobility were allowed to hunt and soldier; likewise, in contemporary society, manual laborers usually are paid less than managers and professionals, whose importance to society's economic well-being (by organizing work systems, inventing machinery and methods for working, obtaining and coordinating work, etc.) is less directly productive.

Conspicuous consumption and leisure[edit]

In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.

Thorstein Veblen, "The Theory of the Leisure Class", Chapter 3 "Conspicuous Leisure"

In The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899), Veblen presented the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Conspicuous consumption is the application of money, and other resources, to display a higher social-status, e.g. the use of silver flatware at meals, although flatware made of other materials might equally serve the function of eating. Moreover, Veblen goods are consumer goods made greatly desirable by high manufacturing cost, sale price, and scarcity in the market, especially "socially visible" consumer goods, rather than goods that are consumed in private.[6]

Conspicuous leisure is the extended length of time that a person devotes to pleasurable pursuits that grant him or her a higher social-status. For example, a gentleman of Veblen's day must study philosophy and the fine arts, which do not directly earn a living. Therefore, such intellectual activities displayed the rich person's freedom from the economic need to perform directly economically productive manual labor. In Veblen's view, higher social status derives from not having to perform manual labor, and not the other way around.

Economic drive[edit]

Whereas neoclassical economics define humans beings as rational, utility-seeking agents who try to maximize their pleasure, Veblen recast people as irrational, economic creatures who pursue social status with little regard to their own happiness; thus, people emulate the more respected members of their socio-economic class in order to attain a greater status within that social group. Certain brands and retail shops are considered of a higher class than other such shops; people might buy from such businesses even when they cannot economically afford to do so, despite the utility of consumer goods of lesser brands and lower prices.

Hence, businessmen were just the latest manifestation of the leisure class, because businessmen do not produce consumer goods and services, but simply shift them about the market in order to increase the profit yielded by the goods and services. The contemporary businessman, then, is no different from a barbarian, in that he uses prowess (business acumen) and competitive skills (marketing) to make increased sums of money from the conspicuous consumption of the buyers of the goods and services for sale; and then lives off the spoils of economic conquest rather than from producing consumer goods and services, himself.

Implications for society[edit]

As a sociologist Thorstein Veblen outlined some consequences of a tribalistic social order that underpins contemporary consumer society:

  • The subjugation of women: Because women once were war booty won by raiding barbarians, in contemporary society, the housewife is the trophy who attests to a man's socio-economic success. In disallowing his wife to have a discrete, independent socio-economic life—such as a profession, a trade, a job—a man can display her unemployed status as a form of his conspicuous leisure and as an object of his conspicuous consumption.
  • The popularity of sport: In the case of American football, although its practice could be socially advantageous to the psychological cohesion of the community, it is an economic side-effect, because it is a display of conspicuous leisure.
  • Supernatural worship: Religion is a tribal expression of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption, of social, but not economic, consequence. Hence, a church building is an economic waste of land and resources, whilst the clergy are people employed in unproductive "work".
  • Social formalities: Contemporary manners and etiquette are remnant formal practices of the social strata of barbarian society, of little practical, economic value, but much cultural value in identifying, establishing, and enforcing distinctions of place within a social stratum; a place for everyone, and everyone in his and her place.

In his introduction to the 1973 edition of Theory of the Leisure Class, J. K. Galbraith identified Thorstein Veblen as a man of his time, who reflected his Weltanschauung in his person and in his personality: his house often was unkempt; his grooming neglected, and his clothes disheveled; he was an agnostic in an anti-intellectual and superstitious society; and he tended to curtness in dealing with people less intelligent than himself.[7]

Literary style[edit]

Although a socio-economic treatise about economic consumption, Thorstein Veblen's language in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is idiosyncratic and satirical in its presentation of the consumerist mores of modern American society.

A better illustration [of conspicuous leisure], or at least a more unmistakable one, is afforded by a certain King of France who was said to have lost his life in the observance of good form. In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat, the King sat uncomplaining before the fire, and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But, in so doing, he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination.

The publishing success of The Theory of the Leisure Class derives from Veblen's pointed sociological reportage; the writer and critic William Dean Howells favourably reviewed the book as an economic treatise and as a social satire about the American way of life, and the pursuit of prestige through the ownership of consumer goods. The satirical usages of the word "evolve", in describing the socio-economic behaviour of the Leisure Class, underscore the proposition that a social class cannot evolve, given its human nature, and because the concept of "evolution by natural selection" is inapplicable to an industrial society whose fundamental system of values remains that of a barbarian tribe from the feudal period of human history. Nonetheless, Thorstein Veblen's reports of the business-cycle behaviour of businessmen in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), is straightforwardly objective. Nevertheless, in the opinion of Robert Lekachman, an interpretive problem arises from the personality of Thorstein Veblen, whom he considered a misanthrope; thus, in his Introduction to the 1967 Penguin edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class, he said:

As a child, Veblen was a notorious tease, and an inveterate inventor of malicious nicknames. As an adult, Veblen developed this aptitude into the abusive category and the cutting analogy. In this volume [The Theory of the Leisure Class] the most striking categories are four in number: Conspicuous Consumption, Vicarious Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Conspicuous Waste. It is amazing what a very large proportion of social activity, higher education, devout observance, and upper-class consumer goods seemed to fit snugly into one, or another, of these classifications.

— Lekachman , Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1967)

That opinion was seconded by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, in his introduction to the 1973 Houghton Mifflin edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class, wherein he proposes that the book is Veblen's intellectual put-down of American society; and that Veblen might have spoken satirically in order to soften the negative social implications of his social and economic analyses—because they are more threatening to the socio-economic status quo of American society than are the implications of the like analyses by Karl Marx. That, unlike Marx, who recognised that capitalism was superior to feudalism in providing goods and services, Veblen did not recognise that distinction, because capitalism was just a form of barbarism, and that goods and services, for conspicuous consumption, are fundamentally worthless.

Intellectual significance[edit]

While Veblen was an economist and published this book as a treatise on economics, many modern classical economists take issue with some of his ideas.[citation needed] The primary reason for this appears to be his attack on the rational expectations theories that continue to dominate the discipline. Only in recent years, with the rise of such theories as Butterfly Economics, is Veblen being given serious consideration by economists.

In contrast, Veblen quickly became influential within the field of sociology. The classic Middletown studies made much use of Veblen's theories. More to the point, these and many other sociological studies supplied empirical evidence that confirmed Veblen's theories. In the Middletown studies, for example, researchers learned that lower-class families were willing to go without necessities such as food or new clothes to maintain a certain level of conspicuous consumption.

The concept of conspicuous consumption has been applied to advertising, and to explain why poorer classes have been unable to advance economically. Veblen's views on the uselessness of "businessmen", while usually discarded, have been adopted by Warren Buffett,[citation needed] who has criticized the growth of practices such as day trading and arbitrage which make money solely through abstract means, with no value being added.[citation needed] However, the technocratic society predicted by Veblen in later books has not yet come to pass.

Filmmaker Gabriel Bologna wrote and directed a film called The Theory of The Leisure Class in 2001 about the disintegration of American culture. The movie starred Christopher McDonald, Tuesday Knight, and Brad Renfro. The film received awards from The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival,[8] the Milan International Film Festival, and the Los Angeles International Film Awards.


About author, book, and thesis of The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American intellectual H. L. Mencken said:[9]

Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one—or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven's Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists—or because I genuinely love music? Do I prefer terrapin à la Maryland to fried liver, because plowhands must put up with the liver—or because the terrapin is intrinsically a more charming dose?

— Mencken , Professor Veblen, Prejudices, First Series, 1919

Nonetheless, despite such disagreement, Mencken considered the game of golf to be a conspicuous leisure activity, of no useful function.[10] Attempts at a definitive denotation of the theory of conspicuous consumption have been criticised as "élitist", most notably the pertinent works of Herbert Marcuse, wherein a group of hyper-educated people is empowered to define what items of consumption become luxury commodities. Robert Heilbroner said that, although valid for their late 19th-century time (the Gilded Age of the 1890s), the economic and sociological theories of Thorstein Veblen have limited, contemporary application, because the studies are specific to the societies of the U.S. and the city of Chicago.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia Third Edition (1987) p. 970.
  2. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 160–1.
  3. ^ Vernon 1974, p. 53.
  4. ^ Cummings 1899, p. 425.
  5. ^ a b Heilbroner 2000, p. 228.
  6. ^ Chao & Schor 1998, p. ?.
  7. ^ John Kenneth Galbraith, "Introduction" to the Houghton-Mifflin edition, 1973
  8. ^ "Festival Screening Schedule". New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. Retrieved 2 October 2009. "TUESDAY JULY 17th, 2001 ... 8:00PM" 
  9. ^ Mencken, Henry Louis (1919). Prejudices. First series. New York: Knopf. OCLC 325153. 
  10. ^ Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, Nov. 9, 1948
  11. ^ Heilbroner 2000, p. ?.

External links[edit]