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A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen
Veblen’s ideas on the effect of wealth on behavior were penetrating, original and, to the dismay of his contemporaries, highly uninhibited.
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
It is hard to divorce Veblen’s language from the ideas it conveys. The ideas are pungent, incisive, and insulting. But the writing itself is also a weapon. Mitchell noted that Veblen normally wrote “with one eye on the scientific merits of his analysis, and his other eye fixed on the squirming reader.” Veblen also startles his reader with an exceedingly perverse use of words. Their meaning rarely varies from that sanctioned by the most precise and demanding usage. But in the context they are often, to say the least, unexpected. This Veblen attributes to scientific necessity. Thus, in his immortal discussion of conspicuous consumption, he notes that expenditure, if it is to contribute efficiently to the individual’s “good fame,” must generally be on “superfluities.” “In order to be reputable it [the expenditure] must be wasteful.” All of this is quite exact. The rich do want fame; reputable expenditure is what adds to their fame; the dress, housing, equipage that serve this purpose and are not essential for existence are superfluous. Nonessential expenditure is wasteful. But only Veblen would have used the words “fame,” “superfluity,” “reputable,” and “waste” in such a way. In the case of “waste” he does decide that a word of explanation is necessary. This is characteristically both airy and matter-of-fact. In everyday speech, he says, “the word carries an undertone of deprecation. It is here used for want of a better term … and it is not to be taken in an odious sense. …”
And so he continues. The wives of the rich forswear useful employment because “abstention from labor is not only an honorific or meritorious act, but it presently becomes a requisite of decency.” “Honor,” “merit,” and “decency” are all used with exactness, although these words are not often associated with idleness. A robber baron, Veblen says, has a better chance of escaping the law than a small crook because “a well-bred expenditure of his booty especially appeals … to persons of a cultivated sense of the proprieties, and goes far to mitigate the sense of moral turpitude with which his dereliction is viewed by them.” One does not ordinarily associate the disposal of ill-gotten wealth with good breeding.
Thus the way The Theory of the Leisure Class —or anything by Veblen—must be read. If one goes rapidly, words will be given their ordinary contextual meaning—not the precise and perverse sense that Veblen intended. Waste will be wicked and not a source of esteem; the association of idleness with merit, honor, and decency will somehow be missed as well as that between the crook and his expenditure. The book yields its meaning, and therewith its full enjoyment, only to those who too have leisure.
When Veblen had finished the manuscript of The Leisure Class, he sent it to the publisher, Macmillan, and it came back several times for revision. Eventually, it is believed, Veblen was required to put up a guarantee before Macmillan would agree to publish the book. It is tempting to speculate as to the reason for this reluctance. The book could not have been badly written in any technical or grammatical sense. Veblen, after all, was by then an experienced editor. Nor was he any novice as a writer. One imagines that the perverse and startling use of words, combined no doubt with the irony and the attack on the icons, was more than any publisher could readily manage. But someone must also have seen how much was there.
The thesis of The Theory of the Leisure Class can be quickly given. It is a tract, the most comprehensive ever written, on snobbery and social pretense. Some of it has application to American society at the end of the last century—at the height of the gilded age of American capitalism—but more is wonderfully relevant to modern affluence.
The rich have often been attacked by the less rich for enjoying a superior social position that is based on assets and not moral or intellectual worth, for using their wealth and position to sustain a profligate consumption of resources of which others are in greater need, and for defending the social structure that accords them their privileged position. And they have been attacked for the base and wicked behavior that wealth sustains and that their social position sanctions. In all this the attackers, in effect, concede the rich their superior power and position; they deny them their right to that position or to behave as they do therein. Usually the denial involves a good deal of righteous anger or indignation. The rich have been thought worth the anger and indignation.
Here is Veblen’s supreme literary and polemical achievement. He concedes the rich and the well-to-do nothing, and he would not dream of suggesting that his personal attitudes or passions are in any way involved. The rich are merely anthropological specimens whose behavior the possession of money and property has made more interesting and more visibly ridiculous. The effort to establish precedence for oneself and the yearning for the resulting esteem and applause are the most nearly universal of human tendencies. Nothing in this respect differentiates a Whitney, Vanderbilt, or Ast or from a Papuan chieftain or what one encounters in “for instance, the tribes of the Andamans.” The dress, festivals, or rituals and artifacts of the Vanderbilts and Whitneys are more complex; that does not mean their motivation is in any way different from that of their barbarian counterparts.