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Thorstein Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class, with an introduction by C. Wright Mills. (New Brunswick [NJ, USA] and London [UK]: Transaction Publishers, 1992 [original edition published in 1899]). pp. xx-282. ISBN 1-56000-562-9.

Eric Gilder

Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu

Classic Texts for ABC Disciplines1

As C. Wright Mills observed about seminal American sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s life in his valuable introduction to this edition of Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class,2 one could say that Veblen was an “accomplished failure” in the eyes of his time, despite his solid academic pedigree – and his coining of the now-familiar term “conspicuous consumption.” Born in Wisconsin in 1857, and raised in Minnesota, Veblen attended “a small Congregational school in Northfield, Minnesota, [i.e., Carleton College]” where, Mills noted, “he was regarded as impressive but likely to be [mentally] unsound.”3 In 1881, Veblen went to Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, for his post-graduate studies and then to Yale University, where, in 1884, he took the Ph.D. degree.

Perhaps because of his bohemian life and manners, including a marriage and position at the University of Chicago destroyed by his “problems” with female students (ix), Veblen would have appreciated the ironic incorporation of his oeuvre’s ideas into the foundation of American social thinking in the twentieth century. According to Mills:


Veblen would have appreciated the fate his work has suffered. An unfashionable mind, he nevertheless established a fashion of thinking; a heretic, his points of view have been received into the canon of American social thought. Indeed, his perspectives are so fully accepted that one is tempted to say there is no other standard of criticism than the canon which Veblen himself established. All of which is to prove that it is difficult to remain the critic of a society that is entertained by blame as well as praise. (vi)


Furthermore, Mills argues that, while the criticisms Veblen made of his fin-de-siécle bourgeois society “are still plausible,” it is the author’s “style” that matters, even as the specific sociological arguments made lose their force and credibility over time.

          In fact, Mills forwards the thought that this work should (particularly now) be read not as serious sociology, but rather as art. “In a grim world,” he states,


Veblen’s style is so hilarious that one would wish to see it left intact as a going force of sanity. One may not always be sure of his meaning today, but his animus remains unmistakable and salutary.... As works of art, Veblen’s books[4] do what art properly should do: they smash through the stereotyped world of our routine perception and feeling and impulse; they alert us to see and feel and to move toward new images, many of them playful and bright and shrewd.... We might learn from him that the object of all social study is to understand the types of men and women that are selected and shaped by a given society – and to judge them by explicit standards. Much of Veblen’s comedy comes simply from his making his fresh standards explicit. (vii)


If this makes Veblen sound vaguely Marxist, that association might well explain why his theory of economics has had a much better historical reception in Europe than in his native United States. His own analyses of Marxian theory show both his affinity to Marx as well as the two thinkers’ crucial differences.5

Mills points to the fact that Veblen’s writings sought to bridge two then-current schools of social thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “Higher Statisticians” and “Grand Theorists,” forgoing their “higher ignorance” for something more synthetic and encompassing:


The work of Thorstein Veblen stands out as a live protest against these dominant tendencies of the higher ignorance. He always knew the difference between the trivial and the important, and he was wary of the academic traps of busywork and pretension.  While he was a man at thought, he always kept the bright eye of his mind upon the object he was examining. Veblen was quite unable to be a specialist. He tried philosophy and was trained as an economist, but he was also a sociologist and a psychologist. While specialists constructed a world to suit only themselves, Veblen was a professional anti-specialist. He was, in short, a social thinker in the grand tradition, for he tried to do what Hegel and Comte and Marx and Spencer and Weber – each in his own way – had tried to do. (x)


While Mills in one passage refers to Veblen an “a kind of intellectual Wobbly”6 (or syndicalistic anarchist rebel in the academe) – albeit a productive pioneer in his attempt to carry out the tasks of grasping “the essentials of an entire society and epoch,” describing the characteristics of the “typical” people within it, and then predicting its “main drift” into the future – he also forwards the idea that Veblen could just as easily be regarded as a “profoundly conservative critic of America.” The American value that empowered his work of image-destruction was the most “un-ambiguous” and “all-American” value of “efficiency, of utility, of pragmatic simplicity” (xi). But, just as Socrates was pilloried for showing up the sham of his beloved Athens by constantly pointing to its founding principle, so Veblen was pilloried by many for doing likewise. For, Mills agues:


If Veblen accepted utility as a master value, he rejected another all-American value: the heraldry of the greenback, the world of the fast buck. And since, in that strange institution, the modern corporation, the efficiency of the plain engineer and the pecuniary fanaticism of the business chieftain – are intricately confused, Veblen devoted his life’s work to clarifying the differences between these two types and between their social consequences. (xi-xii)


I would say that the genius of Veblen’s insight on “utility” was similar to the analysis of John Stuart Mill: While one could surely not ignore the concept, neither should one simply assume its most obvious “quantitative” mass-market aspects. Rather, a humane “utilitarianism” would need to well consider the “qualitative” societal implications for the (admittedly numerical minority) intellectual and artistic class.

In a centennial reassessment of Veblen’s work, Stephen Edgell7 clearly places Veblen in a Marxist frame of analysis, with what he takes to be the eight theses of his theory of “conspicuous consumption,” a consumption predicated on human reactions, habitations and other situated responses to economic forces. Marc Tool, considering Veblen’s vision of the other side of the equation (i.e., institutions and how they adapt to changing cultural forces) as articulated in “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” states:


For Veblen, institutional change then is not deterministic in the sense of conformity to some natural or historical law. Veblen offers no great-man theory, “law of motion” dictum, or preternatural account of social change. He sees all cultures as continuously evolving but not according to any predetermined pattern. Habits govern behavior but habits are themselves subject to discretionary alteration when perceived circumstances suggest or demand revision. Institutions are products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present.... This process of selective adaptation can never catch up with the progressively changing situation in which the community finds itself at any given time; for the environment, the situation, the exigencies of life which enforce the adaptation and exercise the selection, change from day to day; and each successive situation of the community in its turn tends to obsolescence as soon as it has been established. (1934: 191)8


Concluding his assessment of the heuristic value of Veblen’s “classic” analysis today, Edgell gives a concise summary of his still-valid insights across the social sciences:


First, if Veblen is judged on his own terms and those of the time he was writing, his idea of what constitutes theory involved the rejection of the extant ahistorical and static conception of economic activity and this informed his theory of conspicuous consumption in the important sense that he “alerted us to the social meaning of what money buys” (Zelizer 1989: 343), thereby transforming the “economic uses of consumption” (Gusfield 1990: 39). Second, in the process of achieving this Veblen not only anticipated the anti-positivist attack on social “science,” but he provided an interpretation of the stability of unequal class relationships which was highly original, provocative, and has stood the test of time (Diggins 1978). Third, innumerable scholars, including historians (e.g. Smith 1981; Vichert 1971), have drawn upon Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption to comprehend the consumption of a great variety of products including buildings and vacations (e.g. MacDonald 1989; Mills 1968). Fourth, his theory has been developed in an attempt to update it in ways which accentuate its continued relevance (e.g. Bell 1992; Brooks 1981). Fifth, what has been called the classical sociological tradition of social criticism (Mills 1967) or the “debunking tendency in sociological thought” (Berger 1963: 38), which Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption helped to pioneer, has been kept alive by those who have been inspired by Veblen to disregard dominant versions of social reality in their search for alternative understandings. The prime sociological example here is arguably Mills (Eldridge 1983), though he is not alone even where the theory advanced bears little relation to Veblen (MacCannell 1976).9


In closing, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class remains a worthy text for economic, social, and cultural scholars and critics to read and consider, even if the particular arguments cited by him must be reconfigured in the light of a century of often unforeseen changes. That his work has survived and fostered new inquiry speaks much for its quality and relevance. As Mills concluded in his cogent analysis:


We must remember that we could not entertain, at least not so easily, such criticisms and speculations had Veblen not written. And that is his real and lasting value: he opens up our minds, he gets us “outside the whale,” he makes us see through the official sham. Above all, he teaches us to be aware of the crackpot basis of the realism of those practical Men of Affairs who would lead us to honorific destruction. (xix)


For me, the best idea Veblen leaves us all with is a healthy suspicion of “conventional wisdom,” tellingly referred to by him as “crackpot realism.” The present world economic meltdown and ongoing terrorist crises, each first “unseen” by the real politicos in charge (much as the “events” of 1989 were also unseen by the powers-that-be), prove the appropriateness of Veblen’s timeless challenge to us to look “behind the curtains” to see which wizards are pulling the levers of power. For if we are not educated to “see” this mode of social-economic power operating, even within the academy, we will surely be entrapped by its lures and snares.10 Such is the true “realist” position.



Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu




[1] This is an adapted English-language version of the author’s entry “Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) “Thorstein Veblen: Teoria clasei cu timp liber” in the Enciclopedia Operelor Fundamentale ale Filosofiei Politice, Modernitatea Târzie (The Encyclopedia of Fundamental Works of Political Philosophy of the Modern Period) (Trans. A. H. Mitrea. Bucharest: Editura Institutului de Ştiinţe Politice şi Relaţii Internaţionale, 2004. 66-74).

2 Author of The Power Elite (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) and many other classic sociological texts of the post-WW II period. A Professor of sociology at Columbia University (NY, USA), Mills lived from 1916-1962, penning the introductory essay referred to herein in 1953. I selected this edition of Veblen’s work because, like the Modern Library version it reprints, Mills’ introduction is a valuable “credulous detector” commentary, showing him to be the most simpatico on Veblen’s life and work.

For a fascinating history of the very title of this book, see P. A. Saram’s study, “The Vanishing Subtitle in Veblen’s Leisure Class” in International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 13.2 (1999): 225-40. (The original long title was The Theory of the Leisure Class, An Economic Study of Institutions.) Saram states that, “without the subtitle, or better yet, a serious acknowledgement of its intent in some manner, TLC has been often interpreted as essentially [merely] a literary satire on the upper-upper class of America’s gilded age” (236). (Mills introduction to the employed edition helps to, in my mind, correct this interpretation, even though, ironically, the same edition sports the shortened title.)

3 A view no doubt generated by Veblen’s penchant at the respectable religious college to deliver, according to Robert Heilbroner in his book The Worldly Philosophers; The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), obligatory speeches on such idiosyncratic topics as “A Plea for Cannibalism.”

4 Veblen’s bibliography includes: The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions [original title] (1899), Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), The Instinct of Workmanship (1914), Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of its Perpetuation (1917), The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918), The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919), The Engineers and the Price System (1921) and Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: the Case of America (1923), “which many consider his best single volume,” according to Mills. Two collections of Veblen’s essays were, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, published during his lifetime (1919, republished under the title, Veblen on Marx, Race, Science and Economics in 1969 by Capricorn Books of New York, USA), and Essays in Our Changing Order, published in 1927. Mills concludes, “there is no better set of books written by a single individual about American society.” Speaking of his own intellectual indebtedness to Veblen, Mills states, “there is no better inheritance available to those who can still choose their own ancestors” (xi).

5 See “On the Nature of Capital,” “Some Neglected Points in the Theory of Socialism,” and “The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and his Followers, (Part I and II).” (Reprinted in Veblen on Marx, Race, Science and Economics [New York: Capricorn Books, 1969]).

6 Colloquial name of members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905. Of anarchist-syndicalist ideology, the “Wobblies” were instrumental in fermenting and participating in the great labor strikes and protests (some violent) in America in the early decades of the 20th century, which, one could reasonably argue, set the stage for the later acceptance of “moderate” labor unions (such as the American Federation of Labor [AFL] and the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO]) by US industrialists.

7 In “A Centennial Reassessment of Veblen's Theory of Conspicuous Consumption,” delivered to the Second Conference of the International Thorstein Veblen Association, Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota, USA), 30 May-1 June 1996. (This writer wishes to point out that, while the source cited is a confidential “draft” version of Edgell’s work, he nonetheless assumes it is appropriate to quote herein, given that it is “published” on the website, “Elegant Technology: Economic Prosperity through Environmental Renewal” at http://elegant-technology. com/TVedgeI.html, accessed 1 November, 2008).

8 In “A Neoinstitutional Theory of Social Change in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class,” prepared for publication in Warren J. Samuels, ed., The Leisure Class and Sovereignty: The Centenary of the Founding of Institutional Economics (London, et al.: Routledge, published in 1998, but “in press” when the referencing essay was written), available online at the “Elegant Technology” website (, accessed 1 November, 2008). Veblen’s noted 1934 essay is in Leon Ardzrooni, ed. Essays in Our Changing Order (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1934 [1964]).

9 References referred to by Edgell (cited in his essay, “A Centennial Reassessment of Veblen's Theory of Conspicuous Consumption,”) in this quotation are: V. Zelizer, “The Social Meaning of Money: ‘Special Monies’,” American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 95, 1989: 342-77); J. R. Gusfield, “Sociology’s Critical Irony: Countering American Individualism,” in H.J. Gans ed. Sociology in America (London: Sage, 1990); J. P. Diggins, The Bard of Savagery: Thorstein Veblen and Modern Social Theory (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978); B. G. Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981); G. Vichert, “The Theory of Conspicuous Consumption in the 18th Century,” In P. Hughes and D. Williams eds. The Varied Pattern: Studies in the 18th Century (Toronto: A.M. Hakkert, 1971); K. M. MacDonald, “Building Respectability,” Sociology (Vol. 23, 1989: 55-80); C. W. Mills, White Collar (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968 [1951]); Q. Bell, On Human Finery (London: Alison & Busby, 1992 [1947]); J. Brooks, Showing Off in America: From Conspicuous Consumption to Parody Display (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1981); C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967 [1959]); P. L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (New York: Doubleday, 1963); J. Eldridge, C. Wright Mills (London: Tavistock, 1983); and D. MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken Books, 1976).

10 See particularly the concluding chapter on “The Higher Learning as a an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.”


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