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Exculpation of the Leisure Class

Solomon tries his hand at economics, via Thorsten Veblen.

by Solomon Wakeling

It occurred to me when I prepared to dislodge my copy of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class from the bottom of a very large pile, that my library is a form of conspicuous consumption. Marking off authors from Proust to Nabokov, Turgenev to Austen, it is a menagerie of classical authors, the bulk of which I have never read. It exists not primarily as a utility but for the purposes of being seen – not, as you might suppose, by anyone in particular but simply to satisfy myself that it exists, and, that I have achieved something, like a general presiding over the carcasses of a battlefield, or, if you will, a curator of an Art museum. The works I admire the most sit loftily at the top, whilst my bible and my copy of Atlas Shrugged lie inconspicuously on the floor. I only purchase books that are of a certain level of beauty – never will I buy any that contain a front cover derived from a film. It is not that I don’t read, it is simply that an excess of supply grossly out-strips my demand – and, of course, on the demands placed on my time by my studies.

It is unforgivably middle-class to view books as decorative, but, even where there is some benefit derived from the purchase, the benefit still exists in the realm of histrionics, where the knowledge contained within the product is appropriated by the consumer, for his or her own cerebral schtick. Through literature one can indulge in an inveigling display of intellectual masturbation. The more esoteric, erudite or purposeless the purchase, the more wealth and value there is in it. Veblen argues in Chapter VI that the defining characteristic of taste is that the object of the proprietary interest be as useless and/or as expensive as possible. The work is full of easily reducible statements like this and becomes enervating with repetition. It would have worked just as effectively as a series of Eastern religious motherhood statements, like the I Ching or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Unlike modern economic writing, the book does not flesh out its argument through empirical research, history or statistics but relies on the impudent persuasiveness of dogma backed up by the occasional anecdote.

The true value of the work is not in its perambulations and excursions but in the lexicon that it gives us. The terms "Conspicuous consumption" and "Conspicuous leisure" did not exist before Veblen and they explicate with precision a form of behaviour that is omnipresent and stupefying. Fashion, high fashion, is the pure, immaculate form of conspicuous consumption and in its brazen honesty it makes an overture to morality. Veblen hated the purposelessness, the vanity and the waste involved in bourgeois indulgences such as these but a society like our own does not and cannot. Modern, western capitalism is built on manufactured needs. A great bulk of our purchasing power is devoted to non-essential luxury items. This fact separates us from developing nations. We even go so far as to try and purchase intangibles, like glamour, style, the cadences of allurement. If it is a wrong, it is a wrong we exhibit because of our very nature. The purpose of global, political action should be, I assume, to bring developing nations in to a like state of persistent consumerist exigencies, not to strip us all bare of our acquired needs. The leisure class now embraces all of the western world – one day, maybe, it will embrace us all.

It is time we behaved like civilised people and not Marxist barbarians. It is inelegant to disdain "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure" and a sure sign of threadbare reactionary tendencies. Consumption, accumulation, wealth, taste and even fashion are not profane concepts, except to dreary misandrists and moralists. Status achieved through individual effort – and not, as in the past, through hereditary wealth – should be the subject of overt displays. Like any other animal, humans need to strut their stuff. The recent film The Devil wears Prada contained token moralising about the fashion industry, whilst simultaneously defending it against its critics. Had it taken a scorched earth policy to the wowsers and puritans it might have been brilliant. Instead it was an entertaining but mediocre production, giving us a little spice and easing our petty consciences.

The pleasures evinced by superfluous gestures are the sweetest of all. The apogee of human bliss may lie in the choices we make at the shopping centre. The natural world is one of sunsets, oceans and stunning, purposeless beauty. The lavishness of God’s touch is all the more exquisite because it does not serve any goal but beauty for its own sake. To coin a phrase, we live in a world of conspicuous creation and purposeless splendour. Perhaps we should take our cue from the extravagance of our creator.


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Fiona, I would say the obvious, that exams are a form of gambling, but for the fact that I suspect that the odds are always tipped in your favour. You can't lose, no matter what you do.

On the luxury front: I decided the other day that I would do something unexpected and send my ex an expensive piece of jewellery. I perhaps should have thought of this earlier, whilst we were still together, but I guess it is better late than never.


I'm sorry, my melancholia always increases around exam time. Also I'm part of the UWS culture - especially the law faculty - which has lost its way. I don't quite know how to explain UWS as an institution. I'm sure there is a word for it when an organisation becomes so dysfunctional - yet, it manages to function anyway, like someone that has been paralysed from the waist down who learns to walk on their hands. And we're surrounded by people with canes who keep trying to insist that we walk the right way up. If you want to be frightened I could compare it to DIMIA..

The problem with succession, Malcolm, is that it creates people like James Packer and the young Rupert Murdoch. Inheritors of wealth, who, through no virtue of their own, are given the keys to the world. If everyone started off with nothing it would be a true meritocracy.

Of course, lawyers could always be given special priveleges by virtue of the torture they have to go through. A form of victim's compensation.

Corporate moons

I don't see why it upsets your image of me, Jenny. What are literary types supposed to wear? A long beard, cardigan and ug boots? I have totally corporatised myself, in line with my moral philosophy on life, the one which compelled me to study law and to defend consumerism. Of course, there is the other part of me that can see the beauty in playing tennis in said corporate uniform instead of preparing a brief, or whatever it is I'm supposed to do.

You tell a sad tale, Jenny. What on Earth is there to say? One day I shall buy you some earrings.

And yes, Jenny & Fiona, I have given up the fight. I gave up the fight long ago. Fitzgerald once wrote: The manner remains some time after the morale cracks. It is the truest thing he ever wrote. I definitely have exams pending – tomorrow, in fact, but I am struggling to keep my attention on the books instead of the moon. Somehow, sometime, it will be dealt with, though with each day that passes I wish more and more that I could just swim out in to the sea and drown.

Its funny – my exam is on wills and succession. Its a grim business and a part of me thinks it should all be relinquished upon death, and that each person should start their life without the benefit – or, if you will, curse – of hereditary wealth.


And what, Solomon Wakeling, is exactly wrong with the redistribution of wealth?

The law of Succession has always been an effective way of redistributing wealth from undeserving rich accumulators to starving lawyers - and a good thing too.    It acts as a subsidy for us to attend to the halt, the lame and the poor.

Go and wash your mouth out with soap.    With an attitude like that, I don't possibly see how you can pass nor should you.

That should draw Dr Reynolds out.

Fiona: That should draw Dr Reynolds out of what, Malcolm? By the way, I note that your keyboard still needs re-education.

Nothing succeeds like ... succession

Solomon, my dear young friend, succession is as succession does: see Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.  Or Rose Hancock v. virtually anyone.  Because, as Malcolm B Duncan so correctly says, the only people whom battles over succession have ever enriched are  –  the lawyers.

And probably rightly so. After all, if families cannot sort things out in a civil manner, they must expect to pay for due expertise.

Thank goodness I’m an only child.

PS. My main memory of the day of my Succession exam was that it was Melbourne Cup day. I read my law at ANU, and remember waking to the news that severe storms were forecast for Melbourne. My first action – after breakfast and dressing, was to head down to the TAB and place all my money on Van der Hum (because he was a notorious mudlark). To good effect, I must say.

Not a good idea my friend!

Now Solomon: "Somehow, sometime, it will be dealt with, though with each day that passes I wish more and more that I could just swim out in to the sea and drown."

Take it from one who was fished out of the sea at age five, that is not a very good idea at all. The cold water closing over one's head is most certainly an experience to be missed! Easier to just cheer up.

Long beard, cardigan, ug boots? Hmm... maybe, when your moon is about to set for the last time. Meanwhile better stay with the suit.

Me. Earrings? Dear boy. Have not worn such adornments for the past forty years. I am too busy trying to hide said ears. Nice thought though. Good luck with Wills and Succession. Sounds dead dreary.

Fiona: That's the one. Thanks. Mother was always reciting bits of poems, picked up from her mother. BTW: Hope you can swim better than me if we have to go and haul young Solomon out of the briny.

Fiona: Fat floats, as I've been told recently, Jenny. I'm sure that between the two of us Solomon could be rescued beyond his wildest dreams. So, Solomon, you'd better cheer up - the alternative is perhaps too dreadful to contemplate... (with all due respect to you, Jenny).



The only people I ever heard talk about My Lady Poverty
were rich people, or people who imagined themselves rich.
Saint Francis himself was a rich and spoiled young man.

Being born among the working people
I know that poverty is a hard old hag,
and a monster, when you're pinched for actual necessities.
And whoever says she isn't, is a liar.

I don't want to be poor, it means I am pinched.
But neither do I want to be rich.
When I look at this pine-tree near the sea,
that grows out of rock, and plumes forth, plumes forth,
I see it has a natural abundance.

With its roots it has a grand grip on its daily bread,
and its plumes look like green cups held up to sun and air
and full of wine.

I want to be like that, to have a natural abundance
and plume forth, and be splendid.

—D. H. Lawrence

Dressed to impress

Oh and Jenny I forgot to tell you, today after a university presentation I went and played tennis, in a suit, with beautiful girls. I played very badly but that is scarcely the point. There was even a full moon.

Must have been the moon

Solomon: You played badly? Must have been the moon, not the beautiful girls. Get rid of the suit. Upsets my image of you scrabbling around the floor looking for some tome.

And you will fight no more! That really sounds serious. Marshall your strength my boy and fight on I say.

Three gone. Yes very careless of me, or rather them. Will miss them all more than I care to admit. But life is like an ever rolling stream.... Know that old hymn? Probably not! My mother used to recite it and a poem by Addison, the name of which escapes me but talking of the moon, I recall these lines;

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth.

I forget the rest. Probably just as well. Cheers and fight on I say.


Jenny Hume, the words were by Joseph Addison. The full poem is:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s powers display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty Hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
While all the stars that round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

From recollection, Haydn used the words as a chorale in the Creation, though I first encountered it as a very young member of the chorus in Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde.

Solomon, all I can do is endorse Jenny's injunction. Besides, if you don't fight, you might as well give in entirely, and surely you have examinations pending? No time for despair, dear boy.

Lo, the redeemer cometh

Jenny, losing two is a tragedy: three sounds like carelessness. I truly am sorry, I can't imagine what it must be like. It is sad to picture you alone in someone's garden, who has passed from this world. I think there is some dignity in choosing to leave quietly, rather than, as Joan Baez insisted, that your ashes be spread from a snow-white horse of a cliff in to the ocean. Though that is a beautiful song.

You suffered sweeter for me, than anyone I've ever known..

Weddings are meant to be excessive. I wont hear a word against them. Princess Di had the right idea.

On the "Marshal" point I suppose we could compare sources. Instead, though, I shall concede the point. I give up not just this battle but all battles. I shall fight no more forever - as the great Indian once said.

Pro and contra

Jenny, if my humble piece can put a smile on your face in such melancholy times then I am pleased. Forgive me for stepping in to sensitive territory but I must say I think the funeral is one of the most peculiar forms of conspicuous consumption around. Think of the pomp, the ceremony, the roses and the gold-plated mahogany coffins. Even in death we seem to feel a need to out-do ourselves in superfluity.

Robyn, sustainability is of course always a consideration. The true characterisation of the depth of the issue requires proof, evidence, analysis, etc, but the principle I am putting forth here remains the same. Where possible, we should not shy away from consumption/exhibitionism but to embrace it. It does of course have a vulgar feel when put in to the context of western affluence vs third world poverty, which explains the persistent guilt the west seems to suffer from around their lifestyle.

Timothy, I took my cue from Fitzgerald, who appears to have been influenced by Veblen; Somewhere in The Last Tycoon he even uses the phrase "Conspicuous consumption". Richard Godden cites Veblen in his Marxist critique and introduction to Tender is the night. I think what I object to, and what Fitzgerald objected to was the trivialisation of the issue. It is easy to mock such behaviour but harder to examine it seriously.

I feel I regrettably haven't discussed Veblen's ideas in any great length but I am quite confident that his ideas centre around the superfluous uses put to resources by the bourgeois class, in their consumption and in how they spend their time.

David, cataract removal and hearing aids are luxuries. The yard-stick by which I measure luxuries is whether or not people in a developing nation would naturally expect to receive them. Hence I once described Habeas Corpus and human rights as luxury items of the free world.

Times are changing Solomon

Solomon: Thank you. Sadly this afternoon it became a trifecta so I am a bit stunned to put it mildly. Oh the power of three! Aircrashes. Weddings. Deaths. I think I will switch off the phone and shut down the email, just in case. Funerals? Well. Not always as you describe. One directed no funeral at all and I find that to be more and more common. So it was just a cuppa. I dropped by to sit in her garden when no one was there. How lonely a place is when the person who made it live has gone, but maybe she was there in the wind in the trees, or in the roses in bloom. Just in case I took one and left. Cheers to you anyway. Tomorrow is another day as they say.

On reflection, I think it is weddings that have become one of the  most gross forms of conspicuous consumption today. Untold thousands for the dress alone, with brides outdoing each other world wide! And with the divorce likely already scheduled. Seems daft to me.

Compare Veblen with Bourdieu, perhaps?

This is an article by Pierre Bourdieu on neo-liberalism which contains a passage which may also be close to Veblen's intentions with regards the problem of economic agency.

From the article:

 (Neo-Liberalism) is a pure is a pure mathematical fiction. From the start it has been founded on a formidable abstraction. For, in the name of a narrow and strict rationality as individual rationality, it brackets the economic and social conditions of rational orientations and the economic and social structures that are a condition of their application.

Veblen and Institutional Economics

Solomon Wakeling, I find it a little strange that in your review/reading of Veblen, you find a reason to celebrate the very form of leisure and consumption which he, himself despised.

No need to share his misanthropy, of course, but I wonder if you haven't missed his point a little. 

Veblen's theories of leisure were intended to show the hollowness of the "rational-choice" theory of economic actors which were/are axiomatic to Neo-Classical economics. On the net, I've managed to find an ok summary here.

I think one may be more accurate if one thinks of Veblen as attempting to devise a historical theory of economic agency rather than as a theorist of consumption or of abundance, as such.

You brighten a gloomy day Solomon.

Solomon: Mindful that I have not sent you that poem yet about those who come and then are gone forever, you now force me to confront the dilemmas I face when in one of those infernal Malls!

But today was not a good day. It started off with the sun shining and I felt good. Then the phone rang twice in half and hour. Two dear friends gone and I was not ready for it.

But tonight you have given me a good laugh.  As I scrabble around the bookshelves/piles here, where chaos is the only rule observed, I will think of you and smile at the images that come to mind. But take care I do not turn up on your doorstep to satisfy an urge I have. Do you think you could reach down and pick up that Bible? 

Now those damned Malls. I got to make my one visit a year recently before heading back to the bush and the dust.  But the moment I go into a place like that I start to feel down, (not helped by the fact that I know I will have to ask directions as to how to get out, and then spend the odd half hour looking for the blasted car) and I feel guilty. Yes guilty. I know the shopowners depend on us but I drift past the fine jewellery, the gold watches, the fancy hats, the leather bags, the household gadgets, the shoes, the designer clothes and I think, why would one want any of that. I try not to look the hopeful owners in the eye, and I feel sorry for those with no one in there to buy, but I walk past. I know I am not going to buy so much as a tea towel. I am only there to get some new glasses, and I feel guilty. I end up buying an icecream. I don't really want it, but I feel better. But on reading your piece I think perhaps next time I will indulge in a little extravagance, ease the guilt. Useless emotion, guilt.

But Robyn is right. It is hard to escape the reality, that this is not sustainable. Yet, as I contemplate God's extravagance out here, it all seems so far away and I can avoid that reality. There is only the dust to remind one of our own sins against that creation.       

By the way. The poem is entitled Good bye. Seems kinda appropriate today. Must dig it out for you.  But thanks for sparking up the day a bit. And Robyn, I too confess to total ignorance of said Thorsten Veblen. Cheers.


My creator isn't at all extravagant

... but then she's 85 now, and most of what counts as extravagance is somewhere between necessary and life-enhancing, eg cataract removal and new hearing aids.

The price of extravagance

I will admit, Solomon, that Thorsten Veblen does not feature in my own library. In fact this ignoramus has never heard of him, but it sounds like I might agree with a lot he says. Your statement that, "The purpose of global, political action should be, I assume, to bring developing nations in to a like state of persistent consumerist exigencies, not to strip us all bare of our acquired needs" , would be fine, except that the level of consumption enjoyed by the Western world is not sustainable. It is possible only because of the exploitation of both the environment and less "educated" and economically organised people. It will not continue.

Creation grows less splendiferous by the minute through human activity. The threshold at which the damage done will start to severely impact our way of life is not far off, I believe. The forces of globalisation, if allowed to operate fairly, should also result in an evening of standards of living. Perhaps this is already evident in standards improving in China and the IR laws setting the scene for reductions in Australia. But an average and sustainable standard of living is nowhere near what we currently enjoy.

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