Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class — January 31, 2018

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

One of your classic nameless Dover book covers that looks like nothing so much as Victorian wallpaper
The essential premise of this book is quite brief, so I’ll try to be brief in my treatment of it.

In brief, Veblen says that people do a lot of things purely as a way of demonstrating that they have wealth. In communities of a small enough size, you spend lots of time around your neighbors, so you can demonstrate your wealth through the conspicuous display of wasted time: you’re so wealthy that you can spend much time doing nothing. Beyond a certain level of wealth you can take this to the next remove: now you can hire servants whose role in life is to do nothing. So now you’re so wealthy that both you, and those you pay, can do nothing.

One next step from there is to develop behaviors that you could only have learned if you had ample time to waste. Hence table manners. Hence the learning of dead languages. Hence the observance of a certain formality in writing, as opposed to the use of a vernacular that keeps up with modern usage. All of these, to Veblen’s eyes, are mere conspicuous demonstrations of wealth.

In a larger society where you have less time to associate with more people, you demonstrate your wealth through the possession of useless goods rather than by publicly wasting time. Hence cars, fancy homes, fancy clothes, etc. Hence heavy, expensive silverware, when cheap aluminum stuff would do just as well. The belief that the expensive stuff is fundamentally better, says Veblen, is baked into society’s most basic norms, which result from the more fundamental belief that that which makes you appear wealthy is better.

The norms start from the top and radiate down through the servant class; Veblen was writing in 1899, when presumably servants were part of the picture. Recall that Julia Child felt it necessary to explain that her book from the early 1960s was for the “servantless American cook”. Nowadays I don’t think the qualifier would be necessary. But the story can still be saved: were Veblen writing today, I imagine he’d say that the norms percolate down from the highest income classes. Somewhere in Theory of the Leisure Class, he writes that you have to reach the class that’s living at the bare subsistence level before you find people who truly do nothing to demonstrate their wealth. In all other classes, at least some fraction of our assets is dedicated to conspicuously proving our wealth.

With that observation in mind, Veblen really does make you question a lot of the way you perceive the world. Take this, on religious ceremony:

whoever comes into the presence should come cleansed of all profane industrial features in his apparel or person, and should come clad in garments of more than everyday expensiveness; that on holidays set apart in honour of or for communion with the divinity no work that is of human use should be performed by any one.

The point here is that we are required to dress before the Lord in clothing that is markedly different from the sort of grubby clothing we’d wear if we were doing work. But why? As a non-religious person, I would assume the answer is something vague like “to demonstrate respect.” This just knocks the question down a level: why is it considered respectful to wear our best clothes? To Veblen the answer is that the Christian God has been adapted to fit our norms: just as our most powerful men are our best-dressed, and their servants are required to be well-dressed as a public display of their master’s wealth, so we are required to stand in a relation of servitude toward Him. And the priest is required to wear clothes that are egregiously over-decorated, to perform services in a building with a lot of extra ornamentation. Why? Again, na├»vely, I would say something about how all this ornamentation is some kind of an offering before God. Veblen would say that it’s just another manifestation of conspicuous consumption. And it’s hard to think of a reason that doesn’t sound like a disguised form of conspicuous consumption. Why, for instance, isn’t a humble church with a humble pastor wearing simple clothes allowed?

Really, I think the answer is that it is allowed. I’m thinking of Karl Malden’s character from On The Waterfront, or of any number of famously humble little churches in any number of famously adorable American small towns. Or are those, rather, proof of Veblen’s contention that a community will spend a significant fraction of its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth? The smaller the community, the smaller the margin, and the correspondingly smaller the church. But the church will never be allowed to be as shabby as the least among us.

As a good Popperian, I look for cases by which Veblen can be proven wrong, rather than ones by which he can be proven right. I think refutations would have to come from a place like this: a place where a community could choose to spend its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth, but doesn’t. Or it would have to come from challenging what he perceives as a conspicuous display of wealth, but we’d perceive as something which is valuable in its own right. To Veblen’s eyes, much of what we perceive as the beautiful or the intellectual is just the disguised display of wealth. One needs to argue against Veblen that the study of some things is just beautiful in itself—mathematics, for instance, or poetry, or sculpture. These are not just disguised wealth. They may result when society is able to climb above mere subsistence, but that doesn’t mean they’re tantamount to a display of that margin above subsistence.

I’m thinking here of a friend’s gloss on Aristotle from some years ago (which, if I weren’t lazy at the moment, I would chase down to an actual Aristotle citation): if I do thing X in order to achieve thing Y, then Y is the more important thing. (This is my gloss on my old memory of my friend’s gloss, and my friend was working on a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy, so any errors here are quite likely mine.) So if I study Newtonian mechanics in order to put planes in the air, the flight is the more important thing; the mechanics is a tool rather than an end in itself. And why do I fly? To travel and see other countries. So perhaps the travel is the higher good. But why travel? To learn new cultures. So perhaps learning about cultures is the higher good. And so we travel upward, until we reach some activity which is the final end, which is not used as a tool in the service of anything else. Those activities which serve no end but themselves are the highest. This might be the tradition from which Godfrey Hardy was drawing when he wrote approvingly, in A Mathematician’s Apology, that no one would ever be able to find a use for the number theory to which Hardy devoted his life. And he must have been quite miffed when cryptography turned up a use for number theory a few decades later.

All of which is to say both that I think we need to take Veblen seriously, and that there’s a danger that he’ll venerate only those things which are in some sense obviously useful, because only those things which are obviously useful have any grounds to call themselves “actually” beautiful; the rest are figments of our wealth-obsessed imaginations.

Veblen’s book does come at the world from an economic perspective that tries to build a world fit for industrial production, whence I conclude that this sort of utilitarian focus on the useful might actually be Veblen’s goal. One problem with the leisure class, says Veblen, is that they’re insulated enough from economic forces, and (practically by the definition of the class) from the need to do useful work, that they’re not required to change with the times. So the leisure class is almost necessarily the conservative class. Their manners, and their understanding of the good, will necessarily be somewhat stuck in the past. They hold back the economy from its full dynamism.

In particular, the leisure-class display of wealth is a holdover from an earlier—Veblen calls it “predatory”—era in human history when the prominent display of one’s wealth was the way by which society advanced. Cultures have moved on and grown denser, and nations have industrialized, and we’re now in an era when collective activity will move society ahead. The predatory habits are a drag which the conservative leisure class carried with them into modern life.

The leisure class’s conservative norms then percolate to the rest of society, because the wealthy are the models for what what the lower classes view as right behavior. So these predatory habits, ill-fitted as they are for modern life, make their way into the rest of society.

Leisure-class conservatism harms the rest of us in another way, says Veblen: by sucking wealth from the lower classes, such that they don’t have the time to do anything more than earn a subsistence living. To quote Veblen: “The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale.”

This is unclear along a few dimensions. First, we should immediately reject a zero-sum model of the economy, which seems to be what Veblen implies here. Second, it’s not clear that the poor are so unable to fight against the predations of the upper classes; if I got anything from E.P. Thompson, it’s that those in the real flesh-and-blood working class can understand the class structure and their place in it more than theorists often give them credit for.

Veblen’s argument can withstand these objections. It can also survive the deletion of his rather eye-roll-inducing argument from evolution (something about ethnicities, in which the phrase “dolichoblond” turns up for the first time in my reading life), which I’d prefer to just pass over in silence.

Veblen’s argument ends with this, which I swear is self-referential:

English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensable to a blameless scholastic life.

That is, the most prominent day-to-day proof of our good breeding, hence our wealth, hence our ability to waste time on truly useless pursuits, is adherence to the canons of proper English grammar. The ultimate such proof would be a rather archaic grammar that carries out-of-date norms forward into modern use … Veblen must realize that he himself is the ultimate exemplar of this conservatism. This is the man who writes that

the classics have scarcely lost in absolute value as a voucher of scholastic respectability, since for this purpose it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognised as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use. Indeed, there can be little doubt that it is their utility as evidence of wasted time and effort, and hence of the pecuniary strength necessary in order to afford this waste, that has secured to the classics their position of prerogative in the scheme of the higher learning, and has led to their being esteemed the most honorific of all learning.

Or maybe this is just what everyone in 1899 sounded like. I, instead, prefer to imagine that Veblen, while making a serious point about the structure of human society, decided to have some fun and take the piss out of conservatives, sportsmen (nothing is more conspicuously useless than riding a horse), religious figures and, finally, himself.