Thorstein Veblen Theory of the Leisure Class (1898)

One of Veblen's greatest works was his book Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The basic premise of this book was centered on Veblen's observation that a pecuniary class must necessarily preserve predatory exploitation by "putting in evidence" pecuniary strength and repute. To do so, the pecuniary or wealthy class needed to consume and engage in leisure activities as conspicuously as possible and also vicariously through a wife and servants.


According to Veblen, the leisure class had a common characteristic of being non-industrial and included occupations roughly comprised of those under government, warfare, religion, banking, finance, law, and sports. The lower grades of the leisure class included women of high rank and those who specifically attended to the gentlemen of leisure, such as their wives. In contrast, the inferior class included those who were employed in the industry performing manual labor and those having anything to do with the everyday task of trying to earn a livelihood. This included, of course, slaves and most women.

There were two conditions required for the existence of a leisure class: a predatory habit of life and a sufficient material surplus which enabled a portion of the community to be exempt from routine labor. However, due to a man's innate "instinct of workmanship" or proclivity to seek out in every act the accomplishment of some concrete objective or end in terms of serviceability or efficiency, a gentleman of leisure was commonly led to compare himself with others in an emulative or invidious manner. Hence, pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption for the purpose of putting one's pecuniary strength or superiority in evidence becomes an important feature of the leisure class.

Emergence of the leisure class coincided with the concept of ownership, especially ownership of women and slaves, and was later extended to include the products of their industry (i.e. of the labor of women and slaves). The institution of private property, then, including ownership of things as well as persons, became the main characteristic of the economic process and led to a struggle between men for the possession of goods.

In order to display pecuniary prowess and strength, it was imperative that the leisure class abstain from all productive work (because it was considered a mark of poverty and subjection) and continually try to put possessions of wealth and power in evidence. Hence, to live a pecuniary life was made most evident by displaying a life of ease and comfort, possessing many slaves, being idle and wasting time, and by displaying trophies and badges of pecuniary honor or quasi-scholarly and quasi-artistic accomplishments, especially those of dead languages, sports, household art, etc., as evidence of past leisure.

It was the duty for the wife of the leisure class gentlemen to consume costly goods and waste time vicariously. Only the best in food, shelter, services, ornaments, and apparel met this requirement. Speaking of apparel, apparel had an advantage over many other goods in expressing a pecuniary standing to all observers because it was always in evidence. It was vital that gentlemen of the leisure class and all those in their company who consumed vicariously for their pecuniary repute avoided unfavorable notice and comment by always wearing the best and most expensive attire -attire that also demonstrated abstinence from productive labor. The bonnet, high heels, the skirt, and the corset were all examples of such attire.

As one continually pursued advancement to new levels of expenditures or standards of pecuniary living for the purpose of emulation or invidious comparison, it was very hard to retrogress to a lower standard. Not surprisingly, it was also the responsibility for the highest class, the pecuniary class, to determine what scheme of life society would be accepted as "decent or honorific." This process was gradual, however, since it took time for changes to permeate the mass and change the habitual attitude of the people. Although increased industrial efficiency made it possible to maintain the same standard of living with less labor, labor efforts were not allowed to slacken because of the need for pecuniary emulation and conspicuous waste,

The quest for pecuniary repute through conspicuous waste and vicarious consumption pervaded nearly all areas of life. Religious ceremony including priestly garb and ornamental and architectural waste and was one example. Domestic animals, especially dogs that had predatory impulses and served no industrial purpose, were another. Recreational parks, lawns, and flowerbeds were yet another.

For the leisure class, an article was not beautiful nor even considered beautiful unless it was expensive and wasteful. Machine-made goods that were nearly perfect in construction did not fit this requirement because they were not made with wasteful methods of production as were hand made goods. The more expensive and wasteful a good, the more it was considered "beautiful."

Although the pecuniary class's predatory nature, institutions, and habits of thought or canons of law did not always predominant as societal norms, the leisure class did everything possible to preserve their position and the status quo. In fact, because the wealthy class was in a highly sheltered position with respect to adverse economic forces, and because the poor were too tired and too poor to react, societal evolution and induction or adaptation to change primarily happened through actions of the middle class. Peaceable traits including conscience, truthfulness, equity, indiscriminate sympathy, and the instinct of workmanship in it non-invidious expression existed even prior to predatory or barbarian times. Unremitting emulation and antagonism between classes and individuals, ferocity, self-seeking, clannishness, force and fraud were all examples of predatory traits that were preserved by the pecuniary class from the barbarian culture in support of their competitive emulation cause.