I’ll recap Veblen’s view that the effort to amass wealth is not about subsistence or physical comfort. It’s to emulate, to have as much or more that one’s fellows, or to create an invidious distinction, to make others envious. He describes the problem of the ever increasing level of wealth required for satisfaction.
For those who must labor to accumulate, the struggle for ‘pecuniary reputability’ will result in an increase of diligence and parsimony. These lower classes cannot avoid labor and so, within their class, it’s not so derogatory to them. In fact, they take emulative pride in having a ‘reputation for efficiency’, this being their only available line of emulation.
For the superior class, there is also the incentive for diligence and thrift, but the demands of pecuniary emulation override it. The most imperative demand of emulation is the requirement to abstain from productive work. In the predatory culture labor is associated with weakness and subjection to a master, so it is seen as a mark of inferiority, debasement and therefore unworthy of ‘men in their best estate’.
So, in addition to possessing wealth or power – and, in order to gain and hold the esteem of men - one must demonstrate that they are above work. The evidence of wealth is needed not just to impress others with one's importance, but is necessary to 'preserve one’s self-complacency.’ The average man is 'comforted and upheld in his self-respect by decent surroundings and by exemption from menial offices'. Departure from this is felt to be a ‘slight on his human dignity;’ Refined persons feel there is a 'spiritual contamination inseparable from certain offices that are conventionally required of servants'. Vulgar surroundings, mean (that is to say, inexpensive) habitations, and vulgarly productive occupations are condemned as incompatible with life on a satisfactory spiritual plane with 'high thinking'.
“Conspicuous abstention from labor therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since application to productive labor is a mark of poverty and subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community.”
“From this point on, the characteristic feature of leisure class life is a conspicuous exemption from all useful employment.”
The appropriate occupations of the class in this mature phase are much the same as in its earlier days: government, war, sports, and devout observances.
In the next post on this topic, I will share more of Veblen’s ideas about suitable occupations.