Conspicuous Consumption of the Leisure Class: Veblen’s Critique and Adorno’s Rejoinder in the Twenty First Century

 

Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class stands as a testament to both insightful social commentary and an unquestioning dogmatism of its contents in everyday academic discourse which verges on the commonsensical. Written at a time when the excesses of so-called late capitalism or postmodernity could scarcely be imagined by even the most gifted of social critics, Veblen’s belligerent and bombastic volume shatters the idyllic ambiance of the era with a scathing critique reaching back through the historical development of leisure and barbaric culture, as well as, unintentionally perhaps, into the future of consumer society. So powerful were his statements that one can even find mainstream media outlets parroting the famous concept of conspicuous consumption as they simultaneously peddle advertising slots to companies moving products through the ideological reflections of what consumption of these products might blissfully entail (a beautiful woman suddenly being interested in a geeky young chap just for using a body spray, for example). The empirical relevance of the concept in contemporary society is puzzlingly remarkable considering the original volume, as Veblen wrote it, is bereft of any empirical or theoretical citations, justified by the author by invoking the commonsensicality of the historical and empirical data, but also the onto-epistemological foundations on which Veblen’s thought rests.

But conspicuous consumption, what I consider the most politically salient concept in the book, has become conspicuous enough in everyday parlance to warrant a second look. The unreflexive usage of the term in both the academy and the media obscures, in my opinion, the critical insight that such practices reveal about consumer capitalism both historically and contemporarily. As a point of departure, this essay critically analyzes The Theory of the Leisure Class through the prism of Adorno’s critique of the book, which has largely been overlooked in assessments of Veblen’s sociological contributions. Even work comparing the two theorists in the tradition of “consumer critiques” have failed to take into account Adorno’s criticism of Veblen (Schor 2007), which would undoubtedly pull the rug from under commentators building careers off of condemning Adorno’s culture critique envisioning a functionalized cultural dope blindly consuming due to some false consciousness and superstructural reflection of the economic base. Adorno’s treatment of Veblen, in other words, provides analysts of consumer culture both a developed critique of Veblen’s foundational logic and the blind spots that develop from a strict adherence to said foundations, as well as a more penetrating appropriation of Veblen by transcending the simplistic reduction of his thought typically proffered by academicians building their niche.

Veblen’s thesis is quite easily grasped and the general framework he employs clearly develops in the first few chapters. His contention is rather simple in light of the profundity associated with it: contemporary society emerges from historically conditioned institutions that separate people according to their relationship with economic production—a proposition with similarities to that of Marx. But Veblen pushes further noting that the leisure class is an institution that gestates and develops from within lower barbaric culture until it reaches maturity in industrial society so as to be full-blown condition of the contemporary social system. Members of the leisure class owe their existence to those who labor in the production of subsistence goods and necessities, freeing them from the burden of labor, associated by Veblen with the creation of private property and ownership (1994:16). Possession of property becomes a sign of prestige necessitating a method by which it is evaluated, namely via exchange. From its incipient stages, then, possession functions as a symbolic method of distinction which ossifies through continued and normalized relations of exchange that become morally sanctioned. From this constant evaluation and valuation of what others possess and regularized exchange, Veblen draws the conclusion that visible success, particularly in goods, becomes its own end and forms the foundation for “utility as a basis of esteem” (1994:10). Rational choice, instilled through the mechanism of evaluation and subsequent invidiousness, becomes the general structure of decision making, which latches on to the so-called instinct of workmanship that Veblen takes as a natural condition of the human species.

As the theory develops, Veblen increasingly comes to differentiate between utility derived from industrial activity and utility derived from pecuniary ostentation, which becomes the expression of total domination. Conspicuous leisure is the first concept employed that highlights this bifurcation of capital forms, as Adorno calls it (1967:83). The ability to meet subsistence needs through non-productive means simultaneously devalues labor while imbuing leisure with prestige and power. As Veblen puts it, “Conspicuous abstention from labour therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability” (1994: 25). To be clear, Veblen considers leisure to be the non-productive use of time, or more clearly a waste of it. Waste, in Veblen’s book, best characterizes his critical use of the term “conspicuous” throughout, or as he declares: “In order to be reputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries of life, except by comparison with the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistence minimum” (1994: 60). Conspicuous leisure is the ostentatious waste of time just as conspicuous consumption represents the waste of human productive capacity into the creation of objects which bear no real benefit to the one that consumes it—essentially anything consumed above subsistence level.

The importance of conspicuous leisure in the scheme of Veblen’s theory is that its historical appearance coincides with the refinement of tastes and the hierarchical organization of prestige as a semiotic system of distinction, which surely factored into Bourdieu’s treatment of class and prestige in Distinction (1984; see Trigg 2001). The differences are obvious enough, however, as the entirety of Veblen’s conspicuousness thesis revolves around the proximity to laboring activity. Conspicuous consumption, perhaps the most famous concept lifted from Veblen’s work, explicitly fuses prestige and status with the consumption of luxuries “directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is, therefore, a mark of the master” (1994:45). Luxuries, goods that dispense with any claims to subsistence, become markers of distinction and refinement as people attempt to emulate the leisure class that consumes them. The following chapters detail how such arrangements are possible, citing examples of the development of manners, landscaping, dog breeds, dress and uniform, and so on. Veblen’s critique hinges on puritanical enshrinement of labor cum expression of morality, and an equally evangelical denunciation of any activity removed from productive (read: required for subsistence) labor or its immediate reproduction. The predatory instinct that drives the irrational exploitation visible in modern society is nothing other than a vestige of history lagging behind technological and material changes, destined to evolve eventually, when the institution changes.

Perhaps it is difficult to fathom the implications of Veblen’s theory, particularly when we reduce its purview to the invidious machinations of “keeping up with the Jones’s.” Theodor Adorno, himself a widely cited cultural critic often reduced to a monochromatic reading of the “culture industry,” in one of his most penetrating essays on culture and society, critically evaluates the totality of Veblen’s commentary with the scathing dialectical criticism for which he was known. As I mentioned, reviewing Adorno on Veblen not only provides us with a frame through which we can examine Veblen’s claims, but such a move also gives voice to an Adorno who envisions the consumption of goods as being motivated by something more than ideological compulsion or superstructural determinism.

Adorno begins his analysis by highlighting what he sees as Veblen’s onto-epistemological foundations and sources: 1) Evolutionary school of American Pragmatism as the cornerstone of a theory of adjustment, 2) the content of which is furnished by the early school of Positivism (Comte, Saint Simon, Spencer), and 3) Marx and the theory of commodity fetishism, which in the end Adorno characterizes as an amalgam of positivism and historical materialism (1967:76-8). Adorno praises Veblen’s for insightfully recognizing the importance of consumption long before other social scientists, by focusing on “not the political economy of bourgeois society seen in terms of its foundations but the uneconomic life of that society” (Adorno 1967:77). It is his keen contribution of pseudo-uniqueness to consumption theory, long before the historical predominance of the culture industry, which Adorno admires so much in Veblen’s book.

While the similarities don’t end there, it is at this point in which the two diverge. For instance, due to Veblen’s puritanical insistence on productive labor as the supreme good and his abhorrence of ostentation and frivolity in consumption, Adorno contends that, for Veblen, culture is nothing more than kitsch rather than kitsch being a part of culture. “For him all culture becomes the distorted image of naked horror… Culture, which today has assumed the character of advertising, was never anything… but advertising” (Adorno 1967:79). The Veblen Adorno reads is a misanthropic curmudgeon, one who can only perceive “the bloody traces of injustice even in images of happiness” (79). Adorno, often portrayed as a cultural elitist, problematizes Veblen’s analysis on the grounds that it trivializes necessary consumption as pure utility and disavows non-utilitarian forms of consumption.

Another point of contention is the thesis of cultural lag and the predatory spirit. Sports, in particular, become the vehicle for demonstrating vestiges of barbaric, predatory culture in the present, whereby the condition of physical domination prevails as a form of entertainment and diversion in Veblen. Adorno, however, sees in sports the highest forms of contemporary totalitarianism combining cruelty, aggression, authoritarianism, and a strict observance of rules, both the condition of barbarism and the subjugation of the self to its requirements as the perfect metaphor of modernity in practice (1967:80). Veblen’s predatory spirit is predicated on doling out punishment and pain to others, while Adorno envisages a banal and contemporary sadomasochism of excessive brutality to others and a desire for pain to be inflicted on the self. The invidious and unjust mechanisms that Veblen excoriates as cultural lag, whereby barbarism trumps a natural instinct productiveness and rational utilitarianism get turned on their head by Adorno, dramatically revealed as the engines of modern society and its attendant terrorism.

It would, therefore, strike unsuspecting readers as odd that Adorno’s most penetrating point of contention revolves around the issue of happiness. Adorno claims that Veblen only pays lip service to the “fullness of life,” which he essentially reduces to a strong work ethic and frugality. Adorno mentions that Veblen’s “image of society is based not on the ideal of happiness but that of work,” and that “while he never tires of attacking taboos, his criticism stops at the sacredness of work” (1967:83). By lacking a concept of totality and a dialectical method, Veblen reduces all consumption to pure functionalism: it either is productive and useful for reproducing life or its use is embodied in a symbolic system of invidiousness and distinction, akin to Pierre Bourdieu’s prognostications. In his most illuminating statement on the subject, Adorno, criticizing Veblen’s morality of work and distaste for wasteful exuberance, claims:

“But the happiness that man actually finds cannot be separated from conspicuous consumption. There is no happiness which does not promise to fulfill a socially constituted desire, but there is also none which does not promise something qualitatively different in this fulfillment… Even the commodity fetishist who has succumbed to conspicuous consumption to the point of obsession participates in the truth-content of happiness.”  (1967:87)

The residual truth content of consumption, the happiness it has the potential to impart, remains even if we reduce consumption to a purely functional demonstration of power and prestige.

In the end, Veblen’s Leisure Class remains canonical for various reasons in various disciplines. Its insights presaged the rising importance of consumption studies throughout the Twentieth Century. Even so, the dogmatic acceptance of “conspicuous consumption” in many quarters of social science and popular media remains problematic, as it essentially reduces consumption to a semiotic functionalism. Such a system of signs is predicated on an assumption that all nonsubsistence and even necessary consumption is driven by a need to emulate others, whereby the currency and measure of such practices is the functional differentiation of people into a division of labor—the further from necessary labor one is, the more prestigious they will be. Objects get placed into this symbolic matrix under similar definitional criteria: the further from bare subsistence its use is removed, the more highly appraised the object will be considered. This is why Adorno considers Veblen’s critique an attack against culture, because it takes culture as a total condition of oppression and refuses to evaluate it by any other measure. Adorno’s critique, however, blossoms from the seeds Veblen plants, opening up culture and consumption to a variety of motivations and impulses, of which emulation and invidiousness remain important dimensions. Adorno, who sees Veblen clinging to a Rousseau-ian celebration of the primitive, locates Veblen’s utopia in the past due to his adherence to positivistic rigor and insistence on the primacy of scarcity and adjustment, which preserve the relations of power. Closing with a discussion of method and potential, Adorno highlights the essential difference between Veblen’s positivism and dialectics: “Today, adjustment to what is possible no longer means adjustment; it means making the possible real” (1967:94); the world remains a field of possibilities for the realization of a culture less barbaric and predatory than the one Veblen repudiates.

 

Work Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 1967. “Veblen’s Attack on Culture.” Pp. 73-94 in Prisms, edited by T. W. Adorno. Trans. By S. Weber and S. Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of  the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schor, Juliet B. 2007. “In Defense of Consumer Critique: Revisiting the Consumption Debates of the Twentieth Century.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science. 611:16-30.

Trigg, Andrew B. 2001. “Veblen, Bourdieu, and Conspicuous Consumption.” Journal of Economic Issues. 35(1):99-115.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1994. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications.

 

Robert Fenton is a Doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at George Mason University.  

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