Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class

If you’re looking for a non-Marxist critique of Capitalism and modern society in general, then you need to read Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Published in 1899, the book 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.

I’d like to share my favorite parts with you, but first, a little vocabulary to help with your reading:

  1. Conspicuous: Attracting notice or attention.
  2. Pecuniary: Relating to or consisting of money
  3. Éclat: brilliant display or effect
  4. Chicane: Trickery

Let’s dive in:

Chap. 1: Introductory

Chief among the honorable employments in any feudal community is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to warfare. … the rule holds with but slight exceptions that, whether warriors or priests, the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank. (p. 7)

Manual labour, industry, whatever has to do with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class. … The men of the upper classes are not only exempt, but by prescriptive custom they are debarred, from all industrial occupations. The range of employments open to them is rigidly defined. As on the higher plane… these employments are government, warfare, religious observances, and sports. (p. 8)

The institution of leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy. … It is a distinction of a personal kind – of superiority and inferiority. (p. 11)

Employments such as warfare, politics, public worship, and public merry-making, are felt, in the popular apprehension, to differ intrinsically from the labour that has to do with elaborating the material means of life. (p. 12)

But men’s hunting and fighting are both of the same general character. Both are of a predatory nature; the warrior and the hunter alike reap where they have no strewn. … As the tradition gains consistency, the common sense of the community erects it into a canon of conduct; so that no employment and no acquisition is morally possible to the self-respecting man at this cultural stage, except such as proceeds on the basis prowess – force or fraud. When the predatory habit of life has been settled upon the group by long habituation, it becomes the able-bodied man’s accredited office in the social economy to kill, to destroy such competitors in the struggle for existence as attempt to resist or elude him, to overcome and reduce to subservience those alien forces that assert themselves refractorily in the environment. (p. 15)

Tangible evidences of prowess – trophies – find a place in men’s habits of thought as an essential feature of the paraphernalia of life. Booty, trophies of the chase or of the raid, come to be prized as evidence of preeminent force. … “honourable” seems to connote nothing else than assertion of superior force. (p. 16)

Arms are honorable, and the use of them… becomes a honorific employment. At the same time, employment in industry becomes correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of the tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Labor becomes irksome. (p. 18)

Chap. 2: Pecuniary Emulation

The emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership. (p. 20)

Ownership began and grew into a human institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum. The dominant incentive was from the outset the invidious distinction attaching to wealth, and, save temporarily and by exception, no other motive has usurped the primacy at any later stage of the development. (p. 23)

Property now becomes the most easily recognized evidence of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic or signal achievement. It therefore becomes the conventional basis of esteem. Its possession in some amount becomes necessary in order to any reputable standing in the community. (p. 24)

Relative success, tested by an invidious pecuniary comparison with other men, becomes the conventional end of action. (p 27)

Chap. 3: Conspicuous Leisure

These lower classes can in any case not avoid labour, … labour is their recognised and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, this being often the only line of emulation that is open to them. (p. 28)

During the predatory culture labour comes to associated in men’s habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority. (p. 28-29)

…there are few of the better class who are not possessed of an instinctive repugnance for the vulgar forms of labor. We have a realizing sense of ceremonial uncleanness attaching in an especial degree to the occupations which are associated in our habits of thought with menial service. …Vulgar surroundings, mean (that is to say, inexpensive) habitations, and vulgarly productive occupations are unhesitatingly condemned and avoided. They are incompatible with life on a satisfactory spiritual plane—with “high thinking”. (p. 29)

From the days of the Greek philosophers to the present, a degree of leisure and of exemption from contact with such industrial processes as serve the immediate everyday purposes of human life has ever been recognized by thoughtful men as a prerequisite to a worthy or beautiful, or even a blameless, human life. In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilized men’s eyes. (p. 29)

a life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, … Conspicuous abstention from labour therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since application to productive labour is a mark of poverty and subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community. (p. 30)

and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. (p. 32)

The term “leisure”, as here used, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. (p. 33)

Refined tastes, manners, and habits of life are useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application, and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work. (p. 36)

This conspicuous leisure of which decorum is a ramification grows gradually into a laborious drill in deportment and an education in taste and discrimination as to what articles of consumption are decorous and what are the decorous methods of consuming them. (p. 37)

The institution of ownership has begun with the ownership of persons, primarily women. The incentives to acquiring such property have apparently been: (1) a propensity for dominance and coercion; (2) the utility of these persons as evidence of the prowess of the owner; (3) the utility of their services. … During the stage of quasi-peaceable industry, and especially during the earlier development of industry within … this general stage… Women and other slaves are highly valued, both as an evidence of wealth and as a means of accumulating wealth. … The accepted evidence of wealth is the possession of many women, and presently also of other slaves. (p. 39-40)

The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master’s ability to pay. (p. 45)

Chap. 4: Conspicuous Consumption

[the] industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. In the nature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the leisure class. Under the tabu, certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class.The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific. Expensive vice is conventionally accepted as marks of superior status, (p. 50-51)

Since consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit. (p. 53)

He becomes a connoisseurThis cultivation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kinds of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence rise good manners. (p. 53)

The leisure class stands at the head of the social structure in point of reputability; and its manner of life and its standards of worth therefore afford the norm of reputability for the community. … The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that idea. (p.59)

The exigencies of the modern industrial system frequently place individuals and households in juxtaposition between whom there is little contact in any other sense than that of juxtaposition. One’s neighbors, mechanically speaking, often are socially not one’s neighbors, or even acquaintances; and still their transient good opinion has a high degree of utility. The only practicable means of impressing one’s pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic observers of one’s everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of ability to pay. (p. 60)

the struggle to outdo one another the city population push their normal standard of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, … this requirement of decent appearance must be lived up to on pain of losing caste. … especially everybody’s pecuniary status, are known to everybody else. (p. 61-62)

consumption has gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds primacy. (p. 64)

Chap. 5: The Pecuniary Standard of Living

The motive is emulation – the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves. … Each class envies and emulates the class next above it in the social scale, while it rarely compares itself with those below or with those who are considerably in advance. (p. 71)

The need of conspicuous waste, therefore, stands ready to absorb any increase in the community’s industrial efficiency or output of goods, after the most elementary physical wants have been provided for. (p. 75)

Through this discrimination in favour of visible consumption it has come about that the domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers. (p. 76)

Chap. 6: Pecuniary Canons of Taste

there is of course an obvious implication as to the temperament, tastes, propensities, and habits of life imputed to the divinity by the worshipers. … to enrich and fill in their picture of the divinity’s presence and manner of life they habitually impute to him such traits as go to make up their ideal of a worthy man. (p. 83)

It is felt that the divinity must be of a peculiarly serene and leisurely habit of life. And whenever his local habitation is pictured in poetic imagery… the devout word-painter, as a matter of course, brings out before his auditors’ imagination a throne with a profusion of the insignia of opulence and power, and surrounded by a great number of servitors. … the office of this corps of servants is a vicarious leisure, their time and efforts being in great measure taken up with an industrially unproductive rehearsal of the meritorious characteristics and exploits of the divinity; while the background of the presentation is filled with the shimmer of the precious metals and of the more expensive varieties of precious stones. (p. 84)

There is… relatively little incentive to the exclusive possession and use of these beautiful things, except on the ground of their honorific character as items of conspicuous waste.Even as regards personal ornaments it is to be added that their chief purpose is to lend éclat to the person of their wearer (or owner) by comparison with other persons who are compelled to do without.Any valuable object in order to appeal to our sense of beauty must conform to the requirements of beauty and of expensiveness both. …The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive habitually identifying beauty with reputability, it comes about that a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful. (p. 87-89)

Chap. 7: Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture

our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first glance … 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.Probably at no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress. (p. 111)

Our dress, therefore… should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labor.No apparel can be considered elegant, or even decent, if it shows the effect of manual labor on the part of the wearer, in the way of soil or wear. The pleasing effect of neat and spotless garments is chiefly, if not altogether, due to their carrying the suggestion of leisure – exemption from personal contact with industrial processes of any kind. … The wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use. Elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance… because it is the insignia of leisure. (p. 113)

Chap. 8: Industrial Exemption and Conservatism

Institutions are not only themselves the result of a selective and adaptive process which shapes the prevailing or dominant types of spiritual attitude and aptitudes; they are at the same time special methods of life and of human relations, and are therefore in their turn efficient factors of selection. (p. 125)

Men’s present habits of thought tend to persist indefinitely, except as circumstances enforce a change. These institutions… these habits of thought, points of view, mental attitudes and aptitudes, or what not, are therefore themselves a conservative factor. This is the factor of social inertia, psychological inertia, conservatism. (p. 127)

The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modern, highly organized industrial community. The exigencies of the struggle for the means of life are less exacting for this class than for any other; and as a consequence of this privileged position we should expect to find it one of the least responsive of the classes of society to the demands which the situation makes for a further growth of institutions and a readjustment to an altered industrial situation. The leisure class is the conservative class. (p. 131)

The office of the leisure class in social evolution is to retard the movement and to conserve what is obsolescent. (p. 131)

This conservatism of the wealthy class is so obvious a feature that it has even come to be recognized as a mark of respectability. Since conservatism is a characteristic of the wealthier and therefore more reputable portion of the community, it has acquired a certain honorific or decorative value. (p. 132)

Conservatism, being an upper-class characteristic, is decorous; and conversely, innovation, being a lower-class phenomenon, is vulgar. …Innovation is bad form. … The fact that the usages, actions, and views of the well-to-do leisure class acquire the character of a prescriptive canon of conduct for the rest of society, gives added weight and reach to the conservative influence of that class. It makes it incumbent upon all reputable people to follow their lead. … By virtue of its high position as the avatar of good form, the wealthier class comes to exert a retarding influence upon social development far in excess of that which the simple numerical strength of the class would assign it. (p. 133)

The aversion to change is in large part an aversion to the bother of making the readjustment which any given change will necessitate, (p. 134)

The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after tomorrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands today. … The institution of a leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by withdrawing from them as much as it may of the means of sustenance, and so reducing their consumption, and consequently their available energy, to such a point as to make them incapable of the effort required for the learning and adoption of new habits of thought. … The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale. It is a commonplace that, wherever it occurs, a considerable degree of privation among the body of the people is a serious obstacle to any innovation. (p. 135)

To this is to be added that the leisure class has also a material interest in leaving things as they are. Under the circumstances prevailing at any given time this class is in a privileged position, and any departure from the existing order may be expected to work to the detriment of the class rather than the revers. … The leisure class, in the nature of things, consistently acts to retard that adjustment to the environment which is called social advance or development. The characteristic attitude of the class may be summed up in the maxim: “Whatever is, is right” (p. 136)

The institution of a leisure class, by force or class interest and instinct, and by precept and prescriptive example, makes for the perpetuation of the existing maladjustment of institutions, and even favors a reversion to a somewhat more archaic scheme of life; (p. 137)

Their office is of a parasitic character, and their interest is to divert what substance they may to their own use, and to retain whatever is under their hand. The conventions of the business world have grown up under the selective surveillance of this principle of predation or parasitism. (p. 138)

Chap. 9: The Conservation of Archaic Traits

The institution of a leisure class has an effect not only upon social structure but also upon the individual character of the members of society. …This effect is wrought partly by a coercive, educational adaptation of the habits of all individuals, partly by a selective elimination of the unfit individuals and lines of descent. Such human material as does not lend itself to the methods of life imposed by the accepted scheme suffers more or less elimination as well as repression. (p. 140)

Entrance to the leisure class lies through the pecuniary employments. … The discipline of the pecuniary employments acts to conserve and to cultivate certain of the predatory aptitudes and the predatory animus. … the pecuniary employments give proficiency in the general line of practices comprised under fraud, rather than in those that belong under the more archaic method of forcible seizure. (p. 151)

These pecuniary employments, tending to conserve the predatory temperament, are the employments which have to do with ownership – the immediate function of the leisure class proper—and the subsidiary functions concerned with acquisition and accumulation. (p. 151)

Employments fall into a hierarchical gradation of reputability. Those which have to do immediately with ownership on large scale are the most reputable of economic employments proper. Next to these in good repute come those employments that are immediately subservient to ownership and financing – such as banking and the law. … The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicance. … Manual labour, or even the work of directing mechanical processes, is of course on a precarious footing as regards respectability. (p. 152)

The chances for survival and transmission of atavistic traits are the greatest in those classes that are most sheltered from the stress of circumstances. (p. 153)

Entrance into the leisure class lies through the pecuniary employments, and these employment, by selection and adaptation, act to admit to the upper levels only those lines of descent that are pecuniarily fit to survive under the predatory test. And so soon as a case of reversion to non-predatory human nature shows itself on these upper level, it is commonly weeded out and thrown back to the lower pecuniary level. (p. 154)

To gain entrance to the class, the candidate must be gifted with clannishness, massiveness, ferocity, unscrupulousness, and tenacity of purpose. These were the qualities the counted toward the accumulation and continued tenure of wealth. … These have remained our traditions as the typical “aristocratic values.” (p. 155)

The ideal pecuniary man is like the ideal delinquent in his unscrupulous conversion of goods and persons to his own ends, and in a callous disregard of the feelings and wishes of others and of the remoter effects of his actions. (p. 156)

The pecuniary struggle produces an underfed class, of large proportions. This underfeeding consists in a deficiency of the necessaries of life or of the necessaries of a decent expenditure. In either case the result is closely enforced struggle for the means with which to meet the daily needs; whether it be physical or the higher needs. The strain of self-assertion against odds takes up the whole energy of the individual; he bends his efforts to compass his own invidious ends alone, and becomes continually more narrowly self-seeking. … Indirectly, therefore, by imposing a scheme of pecuniary decency and by withdrawing as much as may be of the means of life from the lower classes, the institution of a leisure class acts to conserve the pecuniary traits in the body of the population. The result is an assimilation of the lower classes to the type of human nature that belongs primarily to the upper classes only. (p. 159-160)

Fascinating, isn’t it? Easily on of my favorite books in my collection. I highly recommend it for your next dinner party 🙂

The book continues with a few other chapters that I decided not to bore you with. In my opinion, the real meat is int he first nine chapters.

Thanks for reading,


Veblen, Thornstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Oxford University Press Edition 2007, originally published: New York, Mcmillan, 1899

2 responses to “Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Veblen is still high on my reading list – along with Henry George. Imho Veblen is more relevant than ever before.

  2. […] is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as […]

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