Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Someone once defined a classic book as one that everyone says he wants to read, but nobody you know actually ever has. There are lots of books like that on my gotta-read list, but I picked up a new one yesterday at the library after hearing a "best beach reads" review on NPR's Marketplace program: "The Theory of the Leisure Class," by Thorstein Veblen. You can read it online or download a copy here if you like.

Mr Veblen argues, if I understand his basic concept before actually starting to read, that the idea of division of labor led to the development of status classes based on the perceived value and utility of the labor performed. At the top of the heap was what he referred to as the leisure class - those who were high enough in the social order that they needed to do only symbolic or prestigious work, and who had accumulated sufficient wealth to be able to live an easy life. This life was marked by conspicuous leisure (demonstrating that they had plenty of time to relax while others labored), and conspicuous consumption (demonstrating that they had plenty of money or other resources to waste on ostentatious displays of personal accumulation of worldly goods).

This is a very brief (and possibly inaccurate) summary of a book I haven't begun to read yet, but the radio review got me to thinking about the ideas of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Although Mr Veblen developed his theories in the late 1800's, the era of the super-rich "Robber Barons," the concept of conspicuous consumption is clearly borne out today by such things as the enormous McMansion homes that sell for stratospheric amounts (or did, prior to the housing meltdown). Who buys these gigantic homes, and the Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, and Cadillacs in their driveways? Certainly not janitors, fry cooks, bus drivers, or young professionals just starting their careers and families...must be Mr Veblen's leisure class. As for conspicuous leisure, there are plenty of country clubs, resorts, and super-expensive restaurants here in DC where people can be seen being seen.

I'm looking forward to reading the book, because it looks like a fascinating insight into the things I see around me every day. It might be nice to someday be a member of that Leisure Class about which Mr Veblen writes...but then again, I kind of like being one of the Real People.

But a guy can dream, can't he?

Have a good day. Try to catch yourself a little leisure. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

6 comments:

The Mistress of the Dark said...

If only we could have a bit more leisure. Even people in that class can't afford the upkeep etc on the homes built by the Rockefellers and Carnegies

John said...

Unfortunately, much of the personal debt we have accumulated in our country is from people living beyond their means; wanting to appear to be in the next higher social or labor strata. Conspicuous consumption shows in the numbers of SUVs (and now the gas they consume), boats and other toys, as well as in homes that we can't afford to buy or maintain.

Amanda said...

I always think that if I suddenly became eligible for the Leisure Class overnight, I wouldn't actually join them. Yes, I'll probably splurge instantly (and hopefully temporarily) but I don't really want to become so high up and out of touch with people like who I am now.

craziequeen said...

My leisure time is spent being thrown around castles these days.....

cq

Mike said...

I think most people are comfortable in any of the middle classes; lower, middle or upper. Unfortunatly the middle / middle class is going away and there is no bridge between the lower and upper.

(Has my bouncer contacted you yet? I know I'd REALLY like to meet her.)

Bilbo said...

Andrea - I'm with you on the need for more leisure. I even have all those polyester leisure suits from the 60's just going to waste...

John - right on the money, as usual.

Amanda - I think I'm with you...it would be nice to try, but better to stay where we're comfortable.

cq - I saw the pictures of you being tossed around the castle grounds. You either need to be more selective with your affair, or get a smaller "husband."

Mike - you're absolutely right about the vanishing middle middle. Next to go will be the upper and lower middles, and then we'll have the great divide between the very rich and the very poor. And I'm waiting to meet your bouncer. The way I see it, if I dance with her, my face should come just about to...uh...never mind.