Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen

New York: Viking, 1931, pp. 404.

Originally posted at Nader Elhefnawy, January 19, 2009

Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions identifies the origin of a leisure class as such in its distinguishing itself from its "inferiors" in its living by prowess in exploit rather than diligence. That prowess, which was once demonstrated by the hunter's trophies, later came to be demonstrated by conspicuous leisure (e.g., exemption from materially productive, "industrial," labor). Increasingly, it also came to be indicated by conspicuous consumption signifying wealth (on the grounds that only those who are wealthy, implicitly by virtue of their prowess, can afford to sustain such "pecuniary damage"). As a result, waste is a mark of the "pecuniary reputability" which is the proof of standing and mastery in societies with sharp, elaborate status schemes.

Along with that mastery goes what Veblen terms a "pecuniary" (acquisitive, predatory) ethos, epitomized by the aristocratic sportsman-warrior, in contrast with the "industrial" (productive, work-oriented) one more relevant to the practical operation and guidance of economic life in the advanced societies of his own time (the Western world, circa 1900), and it may safely be said, ours.

In demonstrating the continued presence and significance of the acquisitive mentality, he examines its manifestations in a broad gamut of cultural institutions, including the world of work, religion, education, sports, the operation of charitable foundations, and the place of women in society (his discussion of which reminds one how much contemporary feminism shies away from turning an economic lens on the objects of its criticism).

There are points at which I felt Veblen overreached. Leisure in itself is a significant good, a point not recognized in Veblen's study. While Veblen acknowledges that the motives are not always easily separable from one another (the purest conspicuous consumption is that of goods which do not even offer aesthetic satisfaction or physical comfort), material and aesthetic pleasure, hygiene and other such goods probably count for more than he allows, even at the more extreme end of financial extravagance, where a great deal of expenditure buys vanishingly small increments of these things. And though he admits the limits of his economic, material focus, it still may be that he is excessively utilitarian in his assessments (for instance, in his criticism of higher education).

On the whole, however, Veblen's theory has considerable explanatory power, shedding light on a wide range of phenomena. Reading his book I found myself thinking of the eagerness of so many businessmen to identify themselves with warriors and the warrior ethic (as with those who look to Sun Tzu as a guide); of what exactly is meant when people say that participation in team sports is a character-builder; of the differences between America and Europe in their respective outlooks on matters like war, peace, capitalism, socialism, welfare and religion (the latter a point to which Veblen devotes a number of pages in a discussion that seems surprisingly contemporary); of the role of the balance between these two mentalities in the rise and fall of great economic powers over history, in the ascendancy and decline of the Netherlands, Britain and (many argue) the United States today. I thought of how much of the mentality he describes fits in neatly with what has been written about the authoritarian personality by thinkers like Theodor Adorno.

I also thought of the political trends which have swept the world since the 1970s, particularly the economic ones: the worship of wealth and the mystical exaltation of "the market" (assumed as a matter of faith to inscrutably deliver the natural and optimal result); the (over)financialization of the global economy (especially the massive expenditure of energy and wealth on the staging and fending off of hostile takeovers, much like premodern princes spending bloody and treasure on squabbles over fiefs) and associated tendency to dismiss the actual production of goods and services as the central function of an economy among celebrants of those developments; the more broadly conservative mood of politics, which has not been unrelated to the heightened prestige of the world's socioeconomic elite, from the British monarchy to Donald Trump. Considering it all, it does not seem to me an exaggeration to say that the last several decades saw the resurgence of the leisure class, not only as a political power, but the esteem in which its values are held in the culture at large.

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