The Theory of the Leisure Class Author:Thorstein Veblen Veblen argues that economic life is driven not by notions of utility, but by social vestiges from pre-historic times. Drawing examples from his time (turn-of-the-century America) and anthropology, he held that much of today's society is a variation on early tribal life. — He maintains that beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a ... more »division of labor along certain lines. The "higher-status" group monopolized war and hunting while farming and cooking were considered inferior work.
He argues this was due to barbarism and conquest of some tribes over others. Once conquerors took control, they relegated the more menial and labor-intensive jobs to the subjugated people, while retaining the more warlike and violent work for themselves. It did not matter that these "menial" jobs did more to support society than the "higher" ones. Even within tribes that were initially free of conquerors or violence, Veblen argues that certain individuals, upon watching this labor division take place in other groups, began to mimic (or, in Veblen's term, "emulate") the higher-status groups.
Veblen refers to the emerging ruling class as the "leisure class." He argues that while this class does perform some work and contributes to the tribe's well-being, it does so in only a minor, peripheral, and largely symbolic manner. For example, although hunting could provide the tribe with food, it was not as productive or reliable as farming or animal domestication, and compared with the latter types of work, was relatively easier to perform. Likewise, while tribes occasionally required warriors if a conflict broke out, Veblen argued that militaristic members of the leisure class retained their position -- and, with it, exemption from menial work -- even during the extremely long stretches of time when there was no war, even though they were perfectly capable of contributing to the tribe's "menial" work during times of peace.
At the same time, Veblen claims that the leisure class manages to retain its position through both direct and indirect coercion. For example, the leisure class reserves for itself the "honor" of warfare, and often prevents members of the lower classes from owning weapons or learning how to fight. At the same time, it makes the rest of the tribe feel dependent on the leisure class's continued existence due to the fear of hostilities from other tribes or, as religions began to form, the hostility of imagined deities (Veblen argues that the first priests and religious leaders were members of the leisure class).
To Veblen, society never grew out of this stage; it simply adapted into different forms and expressions. For example, he noted that during the Middle Ages, only the nobility was allowed to hunt and fight wars. Likewise, in modern times, he noted that manual laborers usually make less money than white-collar workers.
"Armed both with science and satiric humor, Veblen exposes, with a ferocity like Swift's and with incomparably larger understanding, the dominion throughout all our moral and aesthetic world of judgments resting on the rivalrous display of wealth. To my mind the protest against false values contained in this book, is one of the landmarks in the life of reason" -- Max Eastman.« less