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Thorstein Veblen Essay

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  1. Veblen’s account of pecuniary emulation rests heavily on the distinction between productive work and non-productive work. Explain how he makes this distinction and apply it to the specific examples he uses. Assess its adequacy.

Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘pecuniary emulation’ to explain a social phenomena that one living in these contemporary times might call Keeping up with the Jones.’  His work, ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’ was released at the end of the nineteenth century.  And while a reading of it in the 21st century might uncover some weaknesses to his argumentation, one cannot deny the social significance and impact of his theory.

One of the more interesting assertions that Veblen maintains is that the idea behind consumption can be examined through a lens of status considerations.  What one spends on will ultimately reflect on who they would want to become.

Although the subject of this essay is specifically the distinctions drawn between non-industrial (non-productive) and industrial (productive) types of work, it is instructive to note a short background on the ideas that precipitated the distinction.

  It would therefore be instructive to begin with a deconstruction of the leisure class. “The institution of the leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy.  Under this ancient distinction the worthy employments are those which maybe classed as exploit;  unworthy are those necessary everyday employments into which no appreciable element of exploit enters.”[1]

Veblen notes that the establishment of such a class was on of gradual emergence, tracing the primitive/savage times to barbarism.  “Activities of the primitive social group tend to fall into two classes (….) exploit and industry.  Industry is effort that goes to create a new thing, with a new purpose given it by the fashioning hand of its maker out of passive (brute) material’ while exploit, so far as it results in an outcome useful to the agent, is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to some other end by another agent.”[2]

If one will put it in other terms, it was the timeline where man came from a usually peaceful existence to one of constant warfare (or at least the threat of it).

Veblen (1899) outlines “two conditions upon which the development of a leisure class depends. First, the community must be of predatory habit of life (that is, be habituated to the infliction of injury by force) and second, the subsistence must be obtainable on sufficiently easy terms to admit the exemption of a considerable portion of the community from steady application to a routine of labour.”[3]

The significance of these two conditions can be explained by saying that if “the advances of technology can the second condition be met, creating an opportunity that frees a class of people who can be the leisure class. If everyone must struggle to meet subsistence, then no one can afford to neglect productive activity, let alone dismiss productive activity in order to distinguish oneself from others who must labour to survive.”[4]

         As society began to progress shaping itself, the demarcations, distinctions and differences between individuals vis-à-vis the occupations they held began to define itself much more clearly.  At this juncture, Veblen introduces the concepts of Industrial and Non-Industrial work, which one is more worthy than the other, and how to tell the difference between the two.

         At this stage, it must be said that the differences in the distinction is primarily rooted in class differences. Veblen writes that the “most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes.  The upper classes are by custom exempt of excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honor attaches.” [5]  But how does one make the distinction?

         Industrial occupations are those that have “to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class.” This inferior class includes slaves and other dependents, and ordinarily also all the women.[6]

“A distinction is still habitually made between industrial and non-industrial occupations (…) Such employments as warfare, politics, public worship and public merrymaking are felt, in the popular apprehension, to differ intrinsically from the labor that has to do with elaborating the material means of life.  The precise line of demarcation is not the same as it was in the early barbarian scheme, but the broad distinction has not fallen into disuse. “[7]

         The distinctions could therefore be summarized as non-productive vs. productive, worthy vs. unworthy, exploit vs. drudgery and superiority vs. inferiority.  “In the earlier stages of culture, when the personal force of the individual counter more immediately and obviously in shaping the course of events, the element of exploit counter for more in the everyday scheme of life.”[8]

Veblen further asserts that it is the fact of ownership that brought all this on.  Moses (2002) offers the explanation that “ownership is psychologically relevant in terms of what an owner believes ownership conveys to the rest of the world. In other words, ownership is interesting specifically because of the unspoken messages that ownership communicates to the rest of the community.”[9] When the transformation happened from a peaceful society into a war-mongering one, there was the creation of the victors team.  What came about was public merrymaking, trophies or whatever outward praise was given to soldiers who had won in battle.

As mentioned by Veblen, one of the highest forms to show how much honor or esteem you hold is the employment of domestic help.  Having butlers or maids is considered the ultimate manifestation of wealth.  I would have to agree also with the point that Veblen makes that it is not just about the accumulation of wealth that is important, but the manifestation of that wealth that is even more crucial.  I think that Veblen makes a good example of the butler and the maid as being ‘owned’ by their employers.

I do not speak of issues of slavery but merely the concept that one can pay another person to do tasks that one considers menial…this is the height of lording it over people.  “The concept of dignity, worth, or honor, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and of class distinctions…”[10]

While I think that Veblen’s body of work was quite provocative in the 19th century and can still be considered a must-read economic reference text, I feel that there are some pockets of his writing that no longer have as much relevance today as it did in the yesteryears.

Although the idea that people constantly compete with one another in terms of who has more, who looks like they have more, comfort, job status, etc, I do not agree with Veblen that the role of women are still considered inferior.  Much has been achieved in terms of women’s rights in the last two centuries or so.

I think Veblen also underestimates the role that physical comfort can play in the pecuniary emulation.  Let me leave you with this question, all things being equal (pay and status), would one rather be a garbage collector or an accountant?  Being in a physically happy place also makes the demand (and consequently, the wages) better for some jobs.

[1] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.4

[2] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.4

[3] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.7

[4] Moses, L. (2002) The Psychology, Life and Relevance of Thorstein Veblen. p.4 Retrieved from http://www.econ.duke.edu/dje/2002/moses.pdf

[5] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.5

[8] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.4

[10] Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. p.8

 

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