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Weary of the leisure class

What would Thorstein Veblen, who took no prisoners in his 'Theory of the Leisure Class,' make of today's consumer culture?

NEW YORK -- Last Friday, a group of liberal academics and writers gathered amidst Manhattan's holiday shopping frenzy to ponder an urgent question: Would Thorstein Veblen have shopped at Wal-Mart?

Actually, the group assembled at the New School for Social Research -- which included Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, political journalist Michael Lind, and sundry Veblen scholars -- convened to debate a more sober matter: whether the insights of the maverick economist, best known for giving the world the enduring phrase "conspicuous consumption," could help revive the Progressive tradition in the age of NASDAQ, branding, and bling-bling. There was much talk about community organizing, the ills of suburbia, and the rise of red-state America, along with a good deal of earnest hand-wringing and general gloom about our crassly material ways.

Veblen would have been right at home with the griping. Perhaps best known for "The Theory of the Leisure Class," his withering 1899 classic of social criticism, Veblen was an arch and savage critic of modern capitalism who influenced such thinkers as Lewis Mumford (who said of Veblen's books that they "reflect the personality of a stick of dynamite wrapped up to look like a stick of candy") and John Kenneth Galbraith, whose seminal 1958 work, "The Affluent Society," bears the imprint of Veblen's notions about wealth and status.

Veblen minted the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the profligacy of the turn-of-the-century rich, who used ornament and glitz to signal their class and wealth to others. To the wealthy, uselessness was all. As Veblen summed up their glitter, "In order to be reputable it must be wasteful."

Today's pundits and scolds use "conspicuous consumption" more generally to describe the spending habits of a country awash in easy credit, mass-marketed luxury goods, and gas-guzzling SUVs. But Veblen's ideas went far beyond that one phrase. His collected works survey the "imbecile institutions" of American capitalism, including the academy itself (which he skewered in "The Higher Learning in America," published in 1918, a canny prophecy of today's McUniversity). If the conference panelists displayed scant interest in the full range of Veblen's thought, his brooding estrangement from (and condescension toward) mainstream American life echoed in their comments.

Born to Norwegian immigrants on a Wisconsin farm in 1857, Veblen was a precocious boy. After graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota, he went on to Johns Hopkins and then Yale, where he took a doctorate in philosophy and political economy in 1884, and eventually to the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1892.

In his bohemian habits, Veblen was something of a nutty professor. His own consumption was conspicuously inconspicuous: He refused to have a telephone and made his furniture out of burlap sacks and wood boxes. He mumbled his way through lectures, and once posted his office hours as "Mondays 10 to 10:05." His libertine carousing also raised eyebrows. After seducing the wife of a colleague in 1906, Veblen was promptly fired. He moved on to Stanford, where he also fell afoul of administrators for his philandering ways. (Legend has it that after Chicago's chancellor worried for the "moral health" of faculty wives, Veblen responded, "I've tried them all. They are no good.")

Veblen was equally unorthodox in his thinking, arguing that neither Marxism nor neoclassical economics adequately explained the workings of modern capitalism. "The Marxian system is not only not tenable, but it is not even intelligible," Veblen wrote in 1906 (though he would later write approvingly of the Bolshevik Revolution). But he reserved his most fiery scorn for the haute bourgeoisie and the modern businessman. If laissez-faire economists lauded them as forward looking harbingers of progress and civilization, Veblen argued their showy displays of wealth and status owed more to marauding, booty-seeking barbarian hordes and primitive tribes than to the cultivations of the Enlightenment.

Where the economists of his day deployed charts and graphs, Veblen turned to anthropology and the study of Icelandic clans and Polynesian islanders to expose the atavistic, irrational essence of capitalism -- a system, Veblen concluded, driven by the extravagant wastefulness of the rich and the rapacious habits of "pecuniary experts."

Though he formulated his ideas at a time of great populist ferment, Veblen was deeply skeptical that capitalism could ever be reformed. His infamously knotty, convoluted style (try getting your head around "the taxonomy of a monocotyledonous wage-system") is studded with gems of satirical wit, but he offers little in the way of constructive policy. H.L. Mencken dismissed Veblen's theories as nonsense, and thought him afflicted by "a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense." According to John Dos Passos (whose "USA" trilogy was in part inspired by Veblen's work), Veblen was a compulsive debunker who "could never get his mouth round [sic] the essential yes."

In the 1920s, Veblen turned his venomous pen on the money-mad Calvin Coolidge era, where smiling, glad-handing capitalists plundered the assets of common people and got away with it. Long before Thomas Frank, Veblen zeroed in on what was the matter with Kansas, writing with bitter sarcasm of the "captains of solvency": "The larger the proportion of the community's wealth and income which he has taken over, the larger the deference and imputation of merit imputed to him. . .."

What little faith he had Veblen put in scientists and engineers, the true creators of wealth. The strange man who owned no telephone and proposed making clothes out of paper extolled the clarifying "discipline of the machine," which would rid the mind of superstition and ground it in "opaque, impersonal cause and effect."

At the New School, Veblen's gloom suited the panelists' own views of American consumerism. As Lewis Lapham, himself a scourge of upper-class foibles, put it, "Once you get into him, things become wonderfully clear."

Whereas Veblen wrote about the affluent habits of a single class, Lapham noted, today conspicuous consumption is practically the American way of life. Donald Trump -- a "savage and a cheat" -- is a pop star while the lavishly funded Democratic Party itself is "a form of conspicuous consumption." (Earlier, Michael Lind pointed out that John and Teresa Heinz Kerry, with their six mansions, are far more conspicuous in their consumption than Lind's fellow Texan George W. Bush.) Lapham decried the effects of our "leisure state," denouncing the Vietnam and Iraq wars as geopolitical examples of the wasteful dissipation Veblen attributed to the wealthy classes. "You have to be a rich nation," said Lapham, "to think you can afford that stupidity."

Vassar political scientist Sidney Plotkin went so far as to call Veblen "the first theorist of red-state America." Indeed, the specter of Veblen's elitist suspicion of the average American hung over the proceedings, and at times seemed to confirm the paradoxical situation of an academic left that wants to speak for ordinary people but seems baffled by -- and disdainful of -- their habits.

Veblen, Michael Lind reminded his fellow panelists, "may have had sympathy for common people, but he portrayed them as dupes." And yet this elitist who hated elites might have been more a man of the people than his latter-day admirers. After all, Lind noted, "In Veblen's world, Wal-Mart is a rational distribution of goods."

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.  

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