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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
Indeed, it is inconceivable that the affluent should be viewed with indignation. The scientist does not become angry with the primitive tribesman because of the extravagance of his sexual orgies or the sophistication of his self-mutilation. Similarly with the social observances of the American rich. Their banquets are equated in commonplace fashion with the orgies; the self-mutilation of the savage is of a piece with the painfully constricting dress in which (at that time) the well-to-do bound up their women or their women corseted themselves.
It is well to remember that Veblen wrote in the last years of the last century—before the established order suffered the disintegrating onslaught of World War I, Lenin, and the levelling oratory of modern democratic politics. It was a time when gentlemen still believed they were gentlemen and—in the United States at least—that it was wealth that made the difference. And, by and large, the rest of the population still agreed. Veblen calmly identified the manners and behavior of these so-called gentlemen with the manners and behavior of the people of the bush. Speaking of the utility of different observances for the purpose of affirming or enhancing the individual’s repute, Veblen notes that “presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naive ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present. … Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end.” The italics equating the potlatch and the ball are mine; Veblen would never have dreamed of emphasizing so obvious a point.
The book is a truly devastating put-down, as would now be said. But much more was involved. The Theory of the Leisure Class brilliantly and truthfully illuminates the effect of wealth on behavior. No one who has read this book ever again sees the consumption of goods in the same light. Above a certain level of affluence the enjoyment of goods—of dress, houses, automobiles, entertainment—can never again be thought intrinsic, as in a naive way established or neoclassical economics still holds it to be. Possession and consumption are the banner that advertises achievement—that proclaims, by the accepted standards of the community, that the possessor is a success. In this sense—in revealing what had not hitherto been seen— The Leisure Class is a major scientific achievement.
It is also true, alas, that much of the process by which this truth is revealed—by which Veblen’s insights are vouchsafed—is scientifically something of a contrivance. There is no doubt that before writing The Leisure Class he had read widely on anthropology. He has a great many primitive communities and customs at his fingertips, and he refers to them with an insouciance that suggests—and was probably meant to suggest—he had much more knowledge in reserve. But the book is wholly devoid of sources; no footnote or reference tells on what Veblen relied for information. On an early page he explains that the book is based on everyday observation and not pedantically on the scholarship of others. This is adequate as far as Fifth Avenue and Newport are concerned. Accurate secondhand knowledge can be assumed. But Veblen had no similar opportunity for knowing about the Papuans.
In fact, Veblen’s anthropology and sociology are weapon and armor rather than science. He uses them to illuminate (and to make ridiculous) the behavior of the most powerful class—the all-powerful class—of his time. And since he does it in the name of science and with the weapons of science—and since no overt trace of animus or anger is allowed to appear—he does it with nearly perfect safety. The butterfly does not attack the zoologist for saying that it is more decorative than useful. That Marx was an enemy whose venom was to be returned in kind, capitalists did not doubt. But Veblen’s venom went undetected. The American rich never quite understood what he was about—or what he was doing to them. The scientific pretense, the irony, and the careful explanations that the most pejorative words were being used in a strictly nonpejorative sense put him beyond their comprehension.