Living the Lifestyle of a Celebrity: Conspicuous Consumption within the Leisure Class In Thorstein Veblen’s, The Theory of the Leisure Class which was first published in 1899, Veblen identifies a problem in our society for which many did not see. Veblen described society as a division of classes, one of these classes as he described as the “leisure class” or what we know today as the wealthier, upper class. In this book, Veblen describes society, and the economy, through the leisure class and analyzes their lifestyle through his time.
The leisure class is a predatory culture and harmful to society, he explains, a leisure class has emerged from a “peaceable to a consistently warlike habit of life” (Veblen 7). Through this predatory class, Veblen describes various terms associated with the lifestyle of the leisure class, conspicuous consumption, vicarious leisure, and conspicuous leisure are only few terms he uses. These terms and the study of different lifestyles in different stages of development are described throughout this book, to explain the competitiveness and harm for which the upper class has brought to our society.
In this paper, I will describe and discuss Veblen’s terms and lifestyles of the leisure class, how it relates to Karl Marx and his theories in society, and also similarities in which Veblen’s description of the leisure class is seen today. According to Veblen, the leisure class developed during the barbarian era, more specifically during the transition from savagery to barbarism, which also brought a more warlike community. Veblen argued that these warlike characteristics emerged through the leisure class; the members of this class were mostly men.
During this time, hunting and gathering was the primary labor work, which was mostly employed by men of the leisure class. Veblen explains that even though this type of work provided food, farming and other work was more productive than hunting and gathering. The leisure class took over these warfare positions and prevented individuals of the lower class from learning to fight or owning weapons, this is when the leisure class started to gain their power and other classes started to rely and depend on the leisure class.
In the predatory culture, this time of employment becomes only a form welcome to the upper class, this is what Veblen describes as conspicuous leisure, these individuals are wealthy enough to avoid work and engage in a type of lifestyle for which no other class can live. Individuals of conspicuous leisure don’t necessarily have to work because they already have the money. Veblen explains the individual’s time is “consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” (Veblen 23).
During this time the leisure class started to emerge and the divisions of class’s were becoming more known to society. Similar to Veblen, Karl Marx also believed society was made up of class divisions. He explained his theory of class division through “proletariats” (have nots) and “bourgeoisie” (haves). The proletariats were those of the poorer class, which had nothing and the bourgeoisie were the wealthier class that had everything; these individuals would be considered the leisure class.
Like the bourgeoisie, Veblen explained that individuals of the leisure class were expected to have almost everything, from servants to luxuries goods, this type of conspicuous consumption defined their status within the leisure class. These individuals of the leisure class can afford servants however the “real” leisure class, or the individuals at the top of the leisure class, can afford servants and also servants who do nothing. Marx believed that “class exploitation takes place when the labor power of one man is the property of another (Romero et al. . Marx theory is shown through servants of the leisure class. “Class Exploitation” is seen in the leisure class when the labor of servants is the property of those of the leisure class, “there supervenes a division of labour among the servants or dependents whose life is spent in maintaining the honour of the gentleman of leisure” (Veblen 63). Servants are only one factor that shows the wealth of the leisure class. According to Veblen, a member of the leisure class is known to show off his/her earnings.
This type of behavior goes all the way back to the barbarian era when men showed off trophies, weapons, and other ideal possessions, “the last evidence of productive labour is its material product- commonly some article of consumption” (Veblen 44). The leisure class must have certain goods or items to gain fulfillment. This is similar to Karl Marx’s “false consciousness” which is described as a “sense of common identification with members of the same class” (Romero et al. ). False consciousness” is seen in the leisure class, regarding Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, the leisure class must consume certain items to be “happy” this is not necessarily known and explained however within every member of the leisure class they must have certain things to live happily in the upper class. Veblen defined this behavior within the leisure class in Chapter 6, “Pecuniary Canons of Taste”, “as it is a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency in the amount and grade of goods consumed” (Veblen 102). He explains that the standard of living is keeping up with the others of one’s personal class.
For example, if a neighbor buys a new car, you may go buy a new car just to keep up. “Each class envies and emulates the class next above it in the social scale, while it rarely compares itself with those below or with those who are considerably in advanced” (Veblen 104). Veblen defines the divisions of labor and that one whom competes with a higher class, through material may not be able to afford some materials of the higher class, and competing with a lower class is not striving for increasing achievement, so individuals stay within their class and compete with those whom are a little bit higher than them in the social structure.
Marx defines this theory of “false consciousness” as something for which the individual does not necessarily notice, however it occurs. Like Marx, Veblen describes this standard of living as a habit, it’s something an individual is immune to and becomes a lifestyle, to which the individual does not realize they are constantly competing to keep up with the same lifestyles as others. “A standard of living is of the nature of habit. It is a habitual scale and method of responding to given stimuli” (Veblen 106).
The longer the habit, the harder it is to let go, so one is constantly trying to keep up with class, society, and the standard of living. To keep up with the standard of living, individuals, mostly of the leisure class, will constantly continue to consume luxuries items and even though they are constantly consuming new items, the individual never seeks satisfaction; this refers to what Veblen describes as “chronic dissatisfaction”. This term is defined as always wanting more, one is never satisfied with what they have so they are constantly needing more (Veblen 31).
Chronic dissatisfaction is a continuous cycle once one earns or receives something they just strive for the next thing. Chad Ochocinco is a NFL football player, who is constantly striving for more. He pursued modeling, then acting, and now has his second television series, and a video game. Ochocinco is an example of chronic dissatisfaction, although he has money and a career he wants more, after receiving a television series, he continued to strive for another one and added on a video game (“Wiki:Ochocinco”).
Like Ochocinco, many individuals of the leisure class, continue to need more, this includes luxuries and other items. This type of consumption leads to another one of Veblen’s arguments of conspicuous consumption, which is when one consumes various goods, the best of food, and luxuries to show off one’s earnings. Conspicuous consumption is seen in our society today, this type of behavior does not just exist within the leisure class, however throughout every class and individual in our society. The want to consume is nothing new, we work and live to consume, we are what we consume.
As seen with celebrities today, they consume the best cars, the best clothes, the biggest houses. Veblen explains a man of wealth “consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons, and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities (Veblen 73). This type of consumption is what Veblen describes as “conspicuous waste”, the manner in which people dress is always seen and noticed, especially when celebrities are displaying them.
With conspicuous consumption, the consumption and wealth must be displayed and noticed. As seen on the television show “ Mtv Cribs” many celebrities, who are members of the leisure class, show off their homes, cars, clothes, and other items. Veblen argues this is harmful to our society, these luxuries and types of consumption are only for the leisure class, and one is expected to live this certain lifestyle in order to keep their standing in the leisure class.
A man of the leisure class must consume certain goods and give away certain types of rewards or gifts to with hold his position within the leisure class. One example of conspicuous consumption he gives, which is seen today, is the consumption of “intoxicating beverages or narcotics”, which members of the leisure class are known to consume (Veblen 70). Like Grey Goose and Jose Cuervo, many celebrities only drink the top self alcohol. Also, many celebrities are getting involved in alcohol or drug related crimes, however we still honor them.
For example, Lil Wayne, Michael Vick, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton are only a few celebrities who were convicted of criminal charges, yet are still in the lime light today. Paris Hilton was convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) in 2006, and charge in 2007. In 2007, Hilton was sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating her probation, “according to prosecutors, she fail to enroll in an alcohol education course by mid-April 2007, and was stopped for two more traffic violations, including driving with a suspended license” (“Wiki:Paris Hilton”).
After these incidents took place, Paris Hilton continued to live vicariously through the leisure class, from initially earning her fortune from her great-grandfather’s wealth, (Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels) she continues to be a social icon, with her own hit television show, “Paris’s BFF”, as well as, her role as an actor in several movies, singer, model, and author (“Wiki: Paris Hilton”). Like Paris Hilton, many members of the leisure class are still honored and have status after criminal offenses, or drug/alcohol related mistakes.
These celebrities are idols and influence our society, this is another reason Veblen argues the leisure class can be harmful to our society, “drunkness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to become honorific” (Veblen 70). The “emergence of the leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership” (Veblen 22). During the barbarian stages, women became a form of ownership. Women were seen as a status symbol, a trophy wife, for which men of the leisure class could own and show off.
When we own people, we own material or production, so by owning something one can exploit his earnings. Like ownership, most women of the leisure class are considered “vicarious leisure”. Veblen’s “vicarious leisure” is defined as people who live the life as though they are a member of the leisure class however don’t get all the material that comes with it because they are living through the wealthy. Throughout the barbarian stages, men were considered the breadwinner and worked while the women stayed at home while women were considered to live through their spouses.
The women of the household were not suppose to work and were expected to be more “showy” about their leisure than men, they were expected to be beautiful and represent the household’s wealth. Like women, Veblen claims many individuals of the leisure class receive their wealth from their ancestors and get wealth without even working for it, “wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor’s own effort” (Veblen 29).
Like mentioned earlier, celebrity Paris Hilton received her wealth through her great grandfather, Conrad Hilton whom was the founder of Hilton hotels. Through his wealth, Paris Hilton had a very wealthy childhood. She was born in New York, and moved to several different homes, including the homes in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, and the Hamptons, which are all very upper class locations (“Wiki: Paris Hilton”). Hilton had all the references to succeed and was not obligated to work.
Like Hilton, Veblen describes these types of individuals within the leisure class, he refers to the leisure class as “waste”, meaning the leisure class does not contribute to society or the world as a whole, “does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole” (Veblen 97). Hilton pursued her career in modeling, eventually getting signed with Donald Trump’s model agency and appearing in various magazines (“Wiki: Paris Hilton”).
Hilton’s career as a model, is an example of Veblen’s view on waste in the leisure class, pictures of Hilton in various magazines has no specific benefit to our society however only benefits her and her status, and wealth within the leisure class. According to Wikipedia, in September 2009, Hilton’s quote in one of her books, “Dress cute wherever you go, life is too short to blend in” was added to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Similar to Hilton, many celebrities and women care a lot about what they wear and how they dress.
In Veblen’s chapter, “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture” he describes how dress is an example of conspicuous waste, and how most women express their leisure through clothing. Like many celebrities and individuals of the leisure class the point of having nice clothes is to show them off, “our dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour” (Veblen 170).
This type of clothing is not used for protection or comfort yet its primary purpose is for show. Many women of the leisure class wear heels to work, especially women who are considered celebrities are constantly wearing heels wherever they go. Veblen explains that for a women to wear heels to work is unnecessary and “even the simplest and most necessary work extremely difficult” (Veblen 171). Today, dressing and fashion of the leisure class is very evident and is expected, however this is nothing new, this expensive and uncomfortable clothing for women goes very far back. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work” (Veblen 172). The corset is only one example that Veblen gives, however this piece of clothing is the most constricting, and is only worn for show, ignoring the discomfort of the clothing. Veblen also continues to argue that the fashion and clothing styles change with the seasons and also are different in various areas.
It’s amazing for one to see that this was the case during Veblen’s time because this is very true today. With winter, comes scarf’s, boots, and sweaters while summer women tend to wear shorts, cut off shirts, ect. Veblen also explains that the urban areas are more involved in fashion changes than the rural areas, meaning the wealthier communities have greater amounts of conspicuous waste in their clothing. New York City is one example of Veblen’s argument, this city is known for fashion and most women in New York City are examples of dress as a conspicuous waste. Sex in the City” was a huge television series and movie, about four women who lived in New York City and engaged in the fashion world. Through these four women, one can see the effects of an urban area on the style of dress needed to fit into the city. In the first “Sex and the City” movie, Carrie after a breaking it off with her boyfriend and buying very expensive shoes she explains, “It’s really hard to walk in a single woman’s shoes—that’s why you sometimes need really special shoes”. As in Veblen’s time, society is still using dress as a conspicuous consumption, which is more evident in women than men.
If an individual is wearing cheap clothing, this can be considered unworthy by some, and those who wear expensive clothing are seen to be of the wealthier class. Dress as a conspicuous waste is seen as a spiritual need. For example church, when a family is getting dressed for church they tend to dress up in formal clothing. Veblen describes the need for this type of dress for spiritual reasoning is “not wholly, nor even chiefly, a naive propensity for display of expenditure” (Veblen 168). Veblen’s theory of leisure class is still in existence today and has a huge influence on our society as a whole.
Today, the leisure class is taking over the media and is the idols and the people for which society looks up to, they are considered the successful individuals of society, the wealthy. Before reading Veblen’s book, I never thought the upper class, or now as I call it the leisure class, as harmful to society, however now it seems as though this standard of living and conspicuous leisure and consumption is harming our communities and the way individuals of our society live their lives. Conspicuous consumption is seen in every division of class, not just the leisure class.
Each class is striving among themselves to be better than the other. One example Veblen uses in the book, is the use of silver spoons, explaining that many individuals of the leisure class use articles of gold, even though there are spoons for which are made from machines which are cheaper, and in most cases are more useful and better. However, the beauty and price of these expensive items are the reasoning behind this conspicuous consumption. Like Veblen’s example, this is seen in our society today, from decorations in a person’s home, to their cars, to their style of clothing, ect.
Our society has grown to constantly be involved in conspicuous consumption and compete with others of the same class. Veblen was definitely correct with his ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’ and his theory is still very present today. I was surprised to see how present the leisure class was in pre-historic times and how similar the behavior of the leisure class is to the leisure class today. However, without the leisure class, and competitive society, I’m not sure if our society would be as successful as it is today. Many individuals strive for success because of the competitive drive and competition within our society.
So maybe the leisure class and the competitive factors within the division of classes is good for the society, or maybe Veblen’s theory is right and the leisure class is actually harmful to our society and world as a whole.
Works Cited Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. NewYork: Peguin, 1899. Print David Ashley, David Michael Orenstein. Sociology Theory: Classical Theory. Boston: Pearson, 2005. Print Romero, Rachel. Sociology 230: Classical Theory. Texas A&M University. College Station, TX: August-November, 2010. Lecture Wikipedia: Paris Hiltion. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Web. 21 November 2010. Paris Hilton’s DUI Charges. Find Law. Web. 2010 Bushnell, Candace. Sex and the City. Part One. New York, 2008. Movie Thorstein Veblen. Academic Search Complete (ESBCO). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. July 1, 2010. Print.