Thorstein Veblen and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism


Thorstein Veblen’s analysis of America’s capitalist society in The Theory of the Leisure Class contains one chapter toward the end of his argument on religion, or, as he articulates it, “devout observances” (191).  The substance of Veblen’s critique of religion fits well within his larger treatment of the leisure class—indeed, the forces at work in religion seem to mirror much of what he finds wrong with capitalist societies.  But, Veblen also brackets his critique of religion to distinguish it from a more general, spiritual dimension, referenced elsewhere throughout his work.  In what follows, I discuss Veblen’s critique of religion and consider ways in which Veblen’s analysis and vision for capitalism contains a spiritual dimension.

Veblen’s critique of religion is essentially a critique of the leisure class applied; religion serves as one institution, added to the long list of others falling under his gaze, whose presence and inner-working is exposed for what it is.  In religion, Veblen finds an overt display of leisure class power and influence in defining class distinctions, mores, and attitudes.  Through the institution of religion, the leisure class signifies its fealty to an established status quo, a social structure whereby valuation and status is determined by a select few at the expense of the many.

Veblen argues that “priestly education, priestly service, pilgrimages, fasts, holidays, and household devotions all serve to extend and protract the vogue of those habits of thought on which an anthropomorphic cult rests” (Veblen, 200).  He continues:

“[Devout observances] further the habits of thought characteristic of the regime of status. They are in so far an obstruction to the most effective organization of industry under modern circumstances; and are, in the first instance, antagonistic to the development of economic institutions in the direction required by the situation of today” (201).

Religion, or at least devout observances of a certain character, seems worthless for Veblen.  Judged against the backdrop of burgeoning industrial capitalism it offers nothing useful or productive by its terms and only serves to impede economic progress.  Consequently, religion operating in contemporary industrial society offers Veblen a useful parallel to all that is wrong with the consumptive sensibilities of the leisure class rooted as they are in the same barbaric tendencies to exploit, aggrandize oneself and one’s office, and generally further a system that serves the pecuniary interests of the leisure class.  He notes this by charging:

“There is a striking parallelism, if not rather a substantial identity of motive, between the consumption which goes to the service of an anthropomorphic divinity and that which goes to the service of a gentleman of leisure—a chieftain or patriarch—in the upper class of society during the barbarian culture.  Both in the case of the chieftain and in that of the divinity there are expensive edifices set apart for the behoof of the person served.  These edifices, as well as the properties which supplement them in the service, must not be common in kind or grade; they always show a large element of conspicuous waste” (200).

In religious organizations and institutions Veblen finds a crude class system that affords those in power, the clergy and some laity, preternatural authority over others based ostensibly on religious creed.  This hierarchical structure within the church not only mirrors that of larger society but it operates according to the same archaic traits.  In fact, Veblen contends that religious adherents conceive of angels and saints in the same way as the lower class conceives of the leisure class—as a “superhuman vicarious leisure class” looking to earn good favor and esteem from God through emulation (202).

The conspicuous waste and vicarious leisure of the priestly class, defined largely by religious leaders control of language, exclusionary status, use of decorum, abstinence from industry, and reverence of traditional forms and beliefs, run counter to Veblen’s perceived logic of industrial progress.  “The characteristic traits of the devout temperament are a hindrance rather than a help,” he charges, mostly due to devoutness being understood as a way to gain personal status and good repute, the hallmark motivation for men of leisure (207).

Concluding his critique of religion, Veblen revels in the trends he sees among industrializing countries.  The rise of industry and what he terms “effective work” seems to be ushering in an era of secularization—emancipation from old habits and customs that were propped up by religious institutions.  Habits of toil, in an industrial economy, engender certain habits of thought; people’s enlightened status directly correlates with proximity to industry.  Conversely, those classes or societies that still exhibit a degree of devoutness are those relatively untouched by industry, including rural areas, among women, and the residual aristocratic class of agrarian economies (210).

The contours of Veblen’s critique of religion here are certainly nothing new.  Indeed, his ideas resonant clearly with both Marx and Weber in that he demonstrates a keen interest—even an obsession—with the meaning of industrial capitalism at the turn of the 19th century.  But unlike Marx or Weber, both of whom predicted capitalism’s demise in different ways, Veblen offers a different take on the ideal trajectory of industrial capitalism, one in which material progress and scientific sensibilities form a sort of raison d’être such that capitalism can finally flourish (158-160).

If this is the case, where does this position Veblen as critic of religion?  Is the rejection of a spiritual realm wrapped up in his critique of religion, or does he make some concessions to an animating raison d’être or “spirit” of capitalism?   

My contention is that while Veblen offers a strident critique of religion’s official manifestation from barbaric times to current, the content of his critique centers more on religion as a symptom rather than a disease.  To point, the problem with religion, in his estimation, seems to be the extent to which leisure class tendencies—values, attitudes, and consumptive trends—have infiltrated religion, co-opted it, and used it to further class power and distinction.  Thus, the problem with capitalism is not one of systematic deficiencies but of latent proclivities and misdirected loyalties.

The inherited habits and patterns of consumption that define the leisure class are rooted ultimately in archaic notions of value: what is beautiful, worthy, and sublime are those things that add distinction and solidify a certain class position among others in society.  These values are in need of a re-valuation, argues Veblen, from archaic notions of what is important to more modern, rational, and productive notions of what is important and what humans ought to strive for in the end.

In line with this point, Veblen does not hesitate in assuming humans to be creatures driven by meaning or telos, often noting these motivations as falling under a spiritual realm.  Indeed, Veblen’s proposed system of capitalism, where society is organized around effective industry, driven by scientific progress, and beholden to the logic of cause and effect, is one predicated on teleological assumptions.  The force of both his critique and his proscriptive vision for capitalism would seem to suggest the significance and meaning with which humans act.  He writes early on that:

“Man is, in his own apprehension, a center of unfolding impulsive activity—“teleological” activity.  He is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end.  By force of his being such an agent he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort” (16).

The force of his critique of the leisure class, from pecuniary emulation to conspicuous consumption, relies on a seemingly irrational compulsion to consume—symbolically, for status, and personal repute.  This tendency, treated as something innate to humans from barbaric times, does not seem positioned to completely erode away but simply shift from one set of religious symbols and habits to another, what Veblen sees as the true spirit of capitalism itself.

Given Veblen’s assumptions about human telos, he seems to imply a circumscribed place for a spiritual dimension.  For instance, he notes that, “devoutness is to be looked upon as a survival form from an earlier phase of associated life—a mark of arrested spiritual development” (198).  If the presence and preponderance of the leisure class serves to render spiritual development stagnate, Veblen connotes not a withering of spirituality but an appropriation of it in proper context and form.  The focus on telos is also clear in the dialectic between capitalism as it is and capitalism as it should be returned to often during the course of his argument, designating the working out of contradictions inherent to a system.

Summarily, Veblen’s vision for capitalism relies on the elevation of science and rationalism not only to provide material benefits to all but also to provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life in that system.  The fact that this set of symbols and patterns of behavior fly under the guise of rationalism, material productivity, and the value of industrial labor or “effective work” is ancillary; they prove the appropriation of a spiritual dimension all its own and one that comports more adequately to the demands of his vision of capitalism.  If a re-valuation of the sort Veblen implies is afoot it would seem to position the logic and efficiency of industry, scientific progress, and capitalism itself as the transcendent ideal approaching that of religious creed.

So what of the contours of Thorstein Veblen’s critique of religion and his treatment of the spiritual today?  Given my reading, Veblen seems a more astute and possibly a more cautious observer of religion than his immediate contemporaries and critics of industrial capitalism, hailing as they did the end of religion as the eventual end of the spiritual: faith, and belief as such.  In such a way, it may be argued that Veblen’s work seems akin to a postmodern treatment of religion, that treats the spiritual in a much broader and freer light, not encumbered or threatened by its claims to truth or ultimate meaning.  This proves a conundrum for Veblen however, as his methodology of critique is one that posits a purely objective conceit, or “view from nowhere”, while his assumptions about human nature’s innate desire for meaning, either through conquest and status during barbaric times or at the shrine of industry, usefulness, and rational progress seem to run contrary.

The thrust of Veblen’s insight into religion also recalls modernity’s first tangle with reconciling the demands of traditional faith with enlightenment politics around the question of authority, made most forcefully by Rousseau.  Religion, for all its vagaries and abuses, says something fundamental about the human condition and human yearning and therefore must be transformed to more useful ends not rejected.  Implicit in Veblen’s critique of the leisure class and his allegiance to science and progress—emblemized in the dispassionate, coolly objective industrial engineer as capitalism’s savior—is that same hope: that what appeals to humans about religion may be redirected in the service of more efficient and productive economies and societies.  That may be why, for instance, Veblen hesitates to reject capitalism whole clothe, as his own ideal-type takes on a sort of religious character, providing a system of meaning and value centered on empirical science, industrial progress, and a commitment to usefulness as a standard of value.


Work Cited

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Aaron Stuvland is a doctoral student in political science at George Mason University’s Department of Public and International Affairs, where he also earned a Master’s degree in 2009.

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