Review of “The Theory of the Leisure Class”

The history of all hitherto society is a history of class struggle.” These words, from Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, assert an essential truth about the organization of human civilization through exploitative modes of production. From slave economies to feudalist economies and today in capitalism, there have generally been two principle classes: the owning class and the working class, the ruling and the ruled classes. Marx could not have been the first person to realize this, as many tens of millions of people must have realized this first hand. Rather, what Marx did was provide a theoretical framework which allows us to assess rationally the contradictions and forces at play in exploitation. Others have talked about the phenomena, yet Marx contributed greatly towards a more complete understanding of this essential truth of class antagonism throughout history.

There are others, however, who have lent their voice and insight to describing the dynamic of the exploiter versus the exploited, of those born into power and those born to serve it. One noteworthy example of such a contributor is Thorstein Veblen. In his 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen puts forward a biting critique of the bourgeoisie of his day which, utilizing a historical perspective comparing capitalism’s “leisure class” with others throughout history, attacks specific manifestations of bourgeois decadence as indicative of their parasitic relationship to the rest of society. His controversial work has made an incredible contribution in the fields of sociology and economics, and makes for a worthwhile read for any student of capitalism’s culture of comparative deprivation and decadence.

Veblen: A Different Student of Society than Marx

To understand the origins of the differences between the analysis of Veblen and Marx, it is important to understand that both had different backgrounds lending themselves to these two theorists being very different students of society from one another. Veblen, an American born child of the labor aristocracy, authored his work on the “leisure class” some sixteen years after Marx’s death. While it is without a doubt that Veblen had Marx’s theory available, what we see in his analysis is not a Marxist analysis, with his politics and social theory being confined to America’s progressive movement and not a broader revolutionary movement. Considering his location within the United States, which was evolving economically into an imperialist power (and, incidentally, launching its imperialist efforts on the Philippines the year of his work’s publication) we can see how his analysis of culture stems from his experiences with the American bourgeoisie and the development of a culture of commodity fetishism at the turn of the century. This leads to an analysis that, while making general statements about economics implementing a historical perspective going back to the earliest human societies, does not say much at all about how these dynamic work internationally. In this work, there is no call to action about the problem of “leisure class,” making it more of a cultural critique done for academic purposes rather than a scientific analysis for the purpose of informing and arming workers as social actors against economic domination at a societal level.

Veblen’s Historical View Compared to Marx

Stemming from this difference, Veblen’s historical focus differs from that of Marx. Rather than seeing “the history of all hitherto society is a history of class struggle,” with an ownership class opposing a laboring class originating in the first establishment of property and private ownership of the means of production, Veblen applies his understanding of a leisure class to the very first organizations of human society, with no consciousness of a struggle between this class and those made subservient to it. Rather than this class being instituted around property and property ownership, Veblen argues that having certain occupations is indicative of one’s membership within a “leisure class”:

The range of employments open to them is rigidly defined. As on the higher plane already spoken of, these employments are government, warfare, religious observances, and sports. These four lines of activity govern the scheme of life of the upper classes, and for the highest rank — the kings or chieftains these are the only kinds of activity that custom or the common sense of the community will allow. Indeed, where the scheme is well developed even sports are accounted doubtfully legitimate for the members of the highest rank (Veblen 8).

By having this class defined not by what they own, but what they do and the role they play in broader society, makes less of a socio-economic argument and more of a socio-cultural one. While Veblen does go into the economics of the leisure class’s industrial exemption and economically reinforced higher-station, his largest concerns are with the cultural manifestations of such a position.

Veblen’s Perceptions of Status Trump Weber

It is at this point worth noting that Veblen is not the first to focus on the culture of exploitation and a super-structural justification for the difference of position and power between groups. Max Weber, in an attempt to soften and downplay Marx’s contributions to our understanding of capitalism, argued for a view of social status that supercedes and trumps class as the central antagonism in society. Yet Veblen, while very much making a status argument as Weber did (being that his leisure class is justified more in terms of cultural practice, much the same as a Weberian status-group) does not make an effort to underplay the economics of this antagonism, nor does he fetishize the bourgeois electoral process as Weber did with his notions of party.

Conspicuous Consumption and Commodity Fetishism

In contrast, the advantage of Veblen to Weber is that his analysis of bourgeois culture can be viewed in comparison to Marxist concepts used to understand bourgeois ideology in a matter more uprooted from bourgeois ideology than Weber. In other words, rather than being a “bourgeois Marx” (as some refer to Weber) Veblen manages to use his socio-cultural analysis in a manner more fitted to justifying a Marxist position, making him something of a “proletarian Weber” (or as close to proletarian as his Labor Aristocrat perspective may allow). To demonstrate this, take the example of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism compared to Veblen’s discussion of conspicuous consumption.

In Chapter 1 of Capital Volume 1, Marx discusses how commodities acquire a value beyond their use in the context of their social production:

…A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses….

…There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world…. (Marx and Engels 1867)

Marx outlines in this section how commodities acquire this fetishized value and uses the example of a table, whose value can be determined in the market place not by how useful it is but also by the manufacturer, intricacy of the design, etc. In his analysis, he also examines how precious metals and stones are given a fetishized value, saying “So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond” (Marx and Engels 1867).

What Marx does here is point out a peculiar absurdity within bourgeois economy and assessment of value that is ultimately arbitrary. Yet more can be said here about this fetish. Why must there be this fetish? What cultural forces are responsible for encouraging it? To satisfy such a socio-cultural inquiry, Veblen can be very useful in outlining the cultural essence and necessity of commodity fetishism in his analysis of conspicuous consumption. Here he uses the example of silver flat-ware and other luxuries utilized and fetishized by members of the “leisure class”:

It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life; and it may in this way become as indispensable as any other item of the consumer’s habitual expenditure. As items which sometimes fall under this head, and are therefore available as illustrations of the manner in which this principle applies, may be cited carpets and tapestries, silver table service, waiter’s services, silk hats, starched linen, many articles of jewelry and of dress. The indispensability of these things after the habit and the convention have been formed, however, has little to say in the classification of expenditures as waste or not waste in the technical meaning of the word (Veblen 62).

Here, Veblen outlines how commodity fetishism, despite being wasteful in terms of use value, becomes perceived to be a necessity among those within the “leisure class” in holding with their “pecuniary canons of taste.” Understanding such cultural manifestations of Veblen’s “leisure class” can provide Marx’s assessments with a sort of back-story that, while not immediately prudent to a dialectical understanding of the phenomena, can (in a Weberian sense) provide us an “ideal type” for seeing this economic force acted out in a cultural context. Just as culture stems from the material, Veblen’s cultural analysis can be viewed as extending from the underlying economic structures which Marx analyzed in his theories.

Industrial Exemption Defining Class Antagonism

One feature defining Veblen’s understanding of the “leisure class” which, again, suggests that Veblen’s work can easily be reconciled with and used to provide a cultural footnote to Marx’s economic understandings is the notion of industrial exemption. Veblen writes:

The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modem, 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….

….The office of the leisure class in social evolution is to retard the movement and to conserve what is obsolescent. This proposition is by no means novel; it has long been one of the commonplaces of popular opinion. (Veblen 117-118)

This section is perhaps among the most Marxist of Veblen’s statements, being that it correctly identifies the position of his “leisure class” as being outside of production, exempt from participation in it and as a result more shielded from those forces which impact workers on a day-to-day basis. Stemming from this, he also makes a statement about ideology in a rather Marxist manner, seeing it as the logical extension of the economic circumstances of such a class. As well, in just a few sentences, has properly pegged the “leisure class” as being an ultimately counter-revolutionary element.

This is indeed an analysis that is suited to Marxism, to extending into a cultural analysis from a materialist one, because Veblen very clearly illustrates a class dynamic wherein the most powerful class (which, by character of its industrial exemption and opulence, can be no other than the bourgeoisie) is at an essential opposition to social revolution, to the movement of workers and others within the toiling masses for the evolution of society, and paints this in a manner where the modern proletarian-bourgeoisie dynamic (or to him, perhaps, the “leisure class” and “under-classes” dynamic) can be related to other dynamics throughout history, such as slave master and slave, feudal lord and serf, etc. He has basically outlined Marx’s “the history of all hitherto society is the history of class struggle” without meaning to, by properly identifying the “leisure class” as the counter-revolutionary belligerent in social revolution, as well as putting the origin of this stance into an understanding of their position in regards to industry. Whereas Weber would try to retard our understanding of this, Veblen properly understands the class origin and dynamic beneath notions of status and its prominence in influencing bourgeois ideology’s partisan position against social revolution.

The Essence of Difference Between Marx and Veblen: Material and Purpose

Despite this knowledge, Veblen hardly plays the role of revolutionary in his social theory as Marx did. Rather, his social critique offers us little to go on as far as solutions go, instead giving us an interesting yet moot cultural analysis of the bourgeoisie. The essence of difference between the theories of Marx and Veblen are materialism and purpose; Marx applies a dialectical understanding of the material conditions in capital for the purpose of understanding this structure in aiding proletarian revolution to change the status quo of capitalist domination, while Veblen provides criticism of the cultural manifestations of this structure without a proposed solution. He doesn’t even provide us a means of understanding whether such a system can be changed or not; from his comparisons of bourgeois culture to the cultures of earlier “leisure classes,” it almost seems that there is a veiled human nature argument in which “leisure classes” will always sprout up to absorb wealth and lord their position over society while practicing their cultural decadence with impunity. It is this sort of position that divides the revolutionary from the academic, placing Veblen squarely within the comparatively safe realm of an academic criticism of capitalism while Marx’s ideas offer viable solutions to capital’s dictatorship that are dangerous to the status quo.

Conclusion: A Worthwhile Contribution

Despite being an academic rather than a revolutionary, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of capitalism. His analysis contributes by corroborating certain features of capitalism’s structure at the level of superstructure while not belittling or down-playing class antagonisms. For a labor aristocrat and member of the intelligensia, this is an incredible achievement, considering how other theorists have contributed little while detracting much in playing the same role. While the content of his work will not surprise the veteran Marxist in the least, it is worth noting that there is at least one non-Marxist that can be used to corroborate Marx’s analysis of capitalism from a different perspective.

Works Cited:

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Rockville: Arc Manor, 1899. Print.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. “The Fetishism of Commodities.” Capital. 1. Web. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4>.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. eBook. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works…to/ch01.htm#007>



Categories: Books, History, Media & Culture, Theory, World History

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