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The Theory of the Leisure Class

In the “Theory of Leisure Class,” Veblen argues that people in society exist in social classes because of social stratification. He talks of priests and chiefs as the leisure and middle classes as the dynamic people. The leisure class consists of wealthy people who do less or no work, whereas the middle class is based on production as they work in the industries by offering their labor. Veblen established that the middle class does a lot of work compared to the leisure class, and he developed the idea of Pecuniary emulation. According to Veblen, the middle class was working hard to overcome the economic status of the leisure class, which he identified as pecuniary emulation. Additionally, he argued that the desire to surpass the rich by acquiring wealth contributes to the development of culture and society as these people also seek to gain status in society.

“The practice of seizing women from the enemy as trophies, gave rise to a form of ownership-marriage, resulting in a household with a male head” (Veblen pg. 21). This quote shows a financial struggle of ownership where men would seize women to be rewarded. The winners would have the best women, while the losers would have the fair ones and could also be enslaved. In most cases, the leisure class had the best women while the middle class held the rest. However, through this financial struggle, the solid middle class would win the women and some trophies, and their social status would change, promoting cultural development. After observing how the Barbarian culture worked, Veblen hatched the idea of pecuniary emulation, where the noble group consisted of priests and chiefs. He established that in society, there exists a financial struggle where the middle class, who are industrious, work hard to achieve a status and surpass the economic status of the rich. Hence, the group would do their best in the lands and the industries not only for production but also to change their economic status. Notable, Veblen acknowledged that pecuniary strong is the driving mechanism of cultural and societal development, implying that the struggle is necessary.

Later in his book “Theory of the Leisure class,” Veblen introduced the idea of conspicuous nature, focusing on tangible status evidence that originated from leisure or nonwork time activities. “But certain secondary features of the emulative process, yet to be spoken of, come in to very materially circumscribe and modify emulation in these directions among the inferior pecuniary classes as well as among the superior class” (pg.28). In this quote, Veblen discusses conspicuous leisure as practiced by both the low class and the superior classes and bring about tangible evidence of status. The inferior class is not an exemption, as Veblen argues they take pride in production since it is what they are attached to. However, there is no difference in pecuniary emulation among these two groups regarding conspicuous leisure because the outcome is similar. Following this concept, Veblen introduces the idea of conspicuous consumption, where one attempt to show off their luxuries through consumption or expenditure.

“The most obvious form in which this consumption occurs is seen in the wearing of liveries and the occupation of spacious servants’ quarters” (pg.49). Veblen used the idea of financial strength to conclude how the inferior class would show off their luxuries and properties by spending on furniture, clothes, and more many servant quarters among other expenditures as a way of showing their prestige which he identified as conspicuous consumption. According to Veblen, the lady would spend on food, a dwelling place, and furniture, among other establishments. However, Veblen noted a distinction existed between the inferior and the superior class; in this case, women were the inferior while men were the superior. He argues that the men were strong in complexion and stayed in offices while women were weak and responsible for production, concluding that women’s production was not on leisure. Veblen later notes that the distinction between the inferior and superior based on material wealth fades significantly after the introduction of private ownership of products and wages acquired from work done in the Therefore, a relationship exists between pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption, as explained by Veblen. Pecuniary emulation is the process where the low class strives to overcome the rich and acquire social status in society. In contrast, conspicuous consumption is where people lavish their goods and luxuries for societal prestige. Hence, pecuniary emulation acquired financial strength, which enabled the inferior pecuniary class to have luxuries such as furniture and dwellings, among others. That is, through pecuniary emulation, conspicuous consumption is achieved as the inferior strives to surpass the rich, acquiring goods that they show off. “Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit” (pg.53). This quote brings about the link between pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption whereby the inferior class would strive to access the goods but could only have them in low quality and quantity as compared to the superior class. Hence, the former is disadvantaged because of their status, while the rich acquire significant wealth and consume it. In addition, wealth is acquired through pecuniary emulation and consumed through conspicuous consumption. However, both classes have something to show off as the low class acquires larger servant quarters among others, and the leisure class lavishes their luxuries.

Secondly, pecuniary emulation is linked to conspicuous emulation because both are determined to end the distinction between the noble and the ignoble by encouraging the inferior class can acquire what they each have through hard work, including social status. As a result, conspicuous consumption offers the inferior class an opportunity to enjoy their luxuries and feel how the rich feel when squandering their luxuries. Veblen uses both terms to bring about a crucial idea of social differentiation and how it impacts society. He suggests these ideas are essential for forming a productive society and culture. Furthermore, Veblen ideas of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption are elated to Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism, where Marx argued that capitalists manipulate the production means even though workers are responsible for production (Marx, 2020). Following Marx and Veblen’s ideas, society differentiation manipulates the producers, who are the low class, at the advantage of the superior class. They tire and labor in the industries while the rich earn more than them and oppress them. In the capitalism theory, Marx explains how the rich oppress the poor and how capitalism has led to differentiation in society leading to social classes.

Following the facts presented, it is evident that Veblen, in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” discusses the idea of pecuniary emulation and analyzes the concept of conspicuous consumption in society. Having read Veblen’s facts and demonstrations, I have linked the two concepts and offered background information on why they are related. In addition, this research paper has introduced the concept of capitalism by Karl Marx, which is also essential in understanding societal differentiation. Lastly, both pecuniary emulation, conspicuous consumption, and capitalism are related as their concept rotates around the social classes, production, and the distinction between them. The superior class has power over the inferior class, responsible for production as they offer their labor in the industries.


Marx, K. (2020). Theories of Surplus Value: Volume 2 (Vol. 31). Pattern Books.

Veblen, T. (2005). The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. Aakar Books.


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