Friday, 2 November 2012

Part XII - Vicarious Leisure

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is Conspicuous Leisure.


The forms of work which are without economic merit, performed on behalf of the master in his leisure, are classed by Veblen as vicarious leisure.  Those persons ‘enjoying’ vicarious leisure include wives and the upper ranks of servants, ie valets and butlers.

Where competition for reputability is close and strenuous , ie the race to keep up with the Joneses is fast,  this vicarious leisure may frequently develop into drudgery.  Veblen says in modern life (his book was published in 1899) much of the domestic service provided by women might be called ‘wasted effort’ instead of vicarious leisure (but then he was known to be a slob).

However, wasted effort is not to be despised:  the main point of vicarious leisure is that these occupations ‘shed a glow of pecuniary reputability’ onto the master or even to the household, given that wasted effort costs money.  In this way, Veblen claims, there arises a subsidiary or derivative leisure class, whose job is the performance of vicarious leisure for the ‘behoof’ of the primary or legitimate leisure class.  Of course, the leisure of the servant is not his/her own leisure;  s/he is at the call of the master, his/her “leisure” passes under the guise of “specialised service directed to the furtherance of his/her master’s fullness of life.”

Along with shedding a glow and furthering fullness, those engaged in vicarious leisure must also display conspicuous subservience.  According to Veblen,

“Even today it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the formal manifestation of the servile relation that constitutes the chief element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife. The first requisite of a good servant is that he should conspicuously know his place.”

A well-trained servant is also evidence of wealth because the training itself is not productive and therefore expensive; also, ‘well-trained’ signals a long history of ‘employment in vicarious leisure’ and suggests a history of the master’s wealth. 

“The possession and maintenance of slaves employed in the production of goods argues wealth and prowess, but the maintenance of servants who produce nothing argues still higher wealth and position.”

Veblen said that the need of vicarious leisure, or conspicuous consumption of service, was a dominant incentive to the keeping of servants.   

“…while one group produces goods for him, another group, usually headed by the wife, or chief, consumes for him in conspicuous leisure; thereby putting in evidence his ability to sustain large pecuniary damage without impairing his superior opulence.”

Veblen says that another term for the quasi-peaceable stage of barbarian life might be the Stage of Status, which best describes the prevailing attitudes of the time.  At that writing, he acknowledges that this economic phase is probably in the past except for a small but ‘very conspicuous fraction of the community’. 

Even so, he says we owe to this class much of our traditions, usages and general views.  

In the next post, I’ll talk about Veblen’s views about domestic servants.


Anonymous said...

I found myself pondering my own "wasted efforts" as I read--all those papers and errors I correct so painstakingly! I also found myself wondering if Veblen would have had a category for modern-day retirement.

Shelley said...

Terri - Teaching must be one of the toughest jobs around. Growing up, I adored many of my teachers and I also admired many of my undergraduate professors. I didn't see much of that attitude around as I got older. Watching the lady across the street sit in her front window grading papers night after night made me wonder why anyone would do it. It's obviously a labour of love.

Susan Partlan said...

Yes, teaching, a labor of love I'm pursuing, with Terri's help actually (she recommended me for the program I'm in) and despite her stories about all of the work involved!

This latest Veblen chapter seems a bit incomprehensible. I bet the servants didn't think of their effort as wasted.

Carolyn said...

"wasted efforts" sounds so unbelievably patronising. Having said that, I guess a lot of us modern day folks who have to keep clean and tidy a house with teenagers in residence feel that way a lot of the time.

Beryl said...

How peculiar the concept of conspicuous consumption when it comes to goods - and here it's applied to the employment of highly paid servants as well. Pretty interesting.

Shelley said...

Susan - I struggled to understand Veblen's concept of vicarious leisure, because I think of servants as being employed, not leisurely. I think I've figured it out, but I may not have conveyed the ideas very coherently.

I had no idea that you and Terri knew each other! Isn't the blog world amazing.

Carolyn - That's one of the things that made ready Veblen so compelling for me. He says the most awful things in putting forth his theory, but in some ways they seem true and it all mostly hangs together to explain a lot of what we do today.

Beryl - I'm glad you find these posts interesting. Not everyone does! However, I love writing them regardless.