Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Theory of the Leisure Class

A dude named Thorstein Veblen wrote a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen has intrigued me ever since I was introduced to his theories last spring in the Anthropology of Popular Culture class in which I was a student. Veblen contends that the markers between classes are actually their engagement with leisure. Here is what he has to say:

"The…gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialization as regards the quality of the goods consumed."

"Since the 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."


"Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner."

"Conspicuous consumption of the valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is there fore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments."

Veblen's ideas make even more sense today than they did back in 1899. He certainly had heard of RVs, Hybrid cross-overs, time shares and 52 TV's but he seems to have captured an aspect of how society works that is hauntingly evident today. To boil it down Veblen basically says that the marks of social difference in class (rich and poor) is their ability to consume stuff conspicuously. The more and better quality goods that a person or group consumes reveals their status in comparison to others in society. But it is not just the ability to consume these goods that makes him/her distinct. Veblen suggests that it is how that consumption is made public or apparent that achieves the goal of setting apart an individual as a higher class person. This public or conspicuous consumption has interesting effects. It forces the consumer to change the way in which he/she consumes these better quality goods (i.e. there is a certain way that fine wine is to be tasted and ultimately drunk). This distinctive behaviour further empowers the higher class person to be honoured even more as other people try to emulate the way they consume certain goods. Here Veblen's theory really makes an interesting comment on our consumeristic society:

Have you ever gone on a vacation or trip and not bothered to tell anyone about it? Have you ever stopped to evaluate why you purchased a newer vehicle when the old one was still functioning to transport you from one place to the other? Is it because of appearance? Or what about renovations to your house? Or that new big screen TV? Our ability to engage with excess is a huge factor in determining our social status but it is not just what we can all afford that make the difference. It is out ability to use that consumption to negotiate a higher status in the social context within which we operate. If we can't talk about it – why bother.

A Trip to Cuba is a higher rank than holidays in the Rockies which is higher than 3 nights at a hotel with a waterslide. Why? Because when we talk about our holiday the exotic nature of Cuba garners higher currency than the hotel in terms of how it is evaluated in comparison to how other people spend their holidays. Our ability to engage in leisure is the currency. Money itself is devalued as a social indicator and leisure becomes the social capital. Spend some time listening to teenagers and you will see that they talk like this already. Money is devalued as the focus of work or career. The ability to engage leisure is the real deal.

1 comment:

roverT said...

So true...very intriguing to me.