Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption: Unproductive Consumption of Goods Is Honorable is a strange literary chimera, part history, part politics, and a large part satire. With a surprising amount of historical reference, he charts the evolution of the leisure class, from “barbarian” societies in which all labor is shared almost equally, to modern, refined industrial societies, with their privileged elite who have not only leisure and capital, but a higher moral justification to it that the clumsy claims of “divine right” used by earlier leisure groups like royalty and priesthoods.
Veblen’s conclusions are both insightful and surprising, and his willingness to associate the “noble” virtuous classes of academics and clergy with the more easily mocked “idle” rich of monarchies or industrial heirs allows his discussion wider scope than usual. In recognizing the development of a leisure class as a specific indicator of societal development, Veblen, writing over a century ago, anticipated many of the more modern sociological theorists, and his ironic insistence on the idle class as a mark of righteous progress allows for a paradoxically more thorough exploration of the idea than might that often found in a negative or even neutral approach.
Captivating as it is, Conspicuous Consumption is never an easy read. Veblen assumes his readers are as willing to work for their enlightenment as he is; and this, coupled with a writing style straight out of the 19th century, makes this essential reading easier to set aside than it should be. Those readers willing to allow for a little productive consumption of their time, though, will be well rewarded.