Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

The social scientist and economist Thorstein Veblen was born in Wisconsin and educated at Yale. His most enduring and famous contribution is probably the term "conspicuous consumption," which is explained at great length in this short book. His language is dense with minute logical connections and repetitive social science jargon of the time. Some of his favorite words include "invidious," "emulation," "reputability," and "honorific." I'm not sure I can exactly recommend The Theory of the Leisure Class, because it's kind of a slog, but I will say Veblen is capable of undercutting the stuffy tone with a lacerating wit. In his social science way he is a student of the Oscar Wilde school of paradoxical statement. "The ancient tradition of the predatory culture is that productive effort is to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men.... The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer's hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure.... The possession and maintenance of slaves employed in the production of goods argues wealth and prowess, but the maintenance of servants who produce nothing argues still higher wealth and position." The latter nugget, for example, is a de facto explication of field slaves and house slaves. The book is rich with observations such as these. One of my favorites is an anecdote about a king whose servant inadvertently places him too close to the fire before hurrying off on other duties. His Majesty must suffer the pains of burnt feet because it would be undignified for him to get up and move the chair himself. I first read this book in the early '80s. Coming back to it throws things into relief. Now that we are deep into the decadent phase of this second Gilded Age, which was only starting then, it's more obvious how much these issues of economic inequalities were driving Veblen's thought—and his contempt. The interesting thing to me about his greatest hit, "conspicuous consumption," is that I suspect it needs no explanation whatsoever to anyone in the US who hears it. Everyone knows it intuitively and has their examples. Mine is the Rolex watch—or perhaps diamonds. At any rate, this book is more exactly about two types of conspicuous consumption: conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure. But it all amounts to the same thing. The wealthy are entitled to use a lot of resources doing silly and/or reckless things, because they can—and you can't. It explains a lot about the way we live, and incidentally takes the caustic bitterness around the bend into a few dark night laughs. And the ethnic Norwegian name notwithstanding, it's as American as Wisconsin apple pie.

In case it's not at the library.

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