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The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen - 1899

Chapter I

The institution of a leisure class is found in its best
development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture; as,
for instance, in feudal Europe or feudal Japan. In such
communities the distinction between classes is very rigorously
observed; and the feature of 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 or excluded from industrial occupations, and
are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour
attaches. Chief among the honourable employments in any feudal
community is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to
warfare. If the barbarian community is not notably warlike, the
priestly office may take the precedence, with that of the warrior
second. But the rule holds with but slight exceptions that,
whether warriors or priests, the upper classes are exempt from
industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic
expression of their superior rank. Brahmin India affords a fair
illustration of the industrial exemption of both these classes.
In the communities belonging to the higher barbarian culture
there is a considerable differentiation of sub-classes within
what may be comprehensively called the leisure class; and there
is a corresponding differentiation of employments between these
sub-classes. The leisure class as a whole comprises the noble and
the priestly classes, together with much of their retinue. The
occupations of the class are correspondingly diversified; but
they have the common economic characteristic of being
nonªindustrial. These non-industrial upper-class occupations may
be roughly comprised under government, warfare, religious
observances, and sports.
At an earlier, but not the earliest, stage of barbarism, the
leisure class is found in a less differentiated form. Neither the
class distinctions nor the distinctions between leisure-class
occupations are so minute and intricate. The Polynesian islanders
generally show this stage of the development in good form, with
the exception that, owing to the absence of large game, hunting
does not hold the usual place of honour in their scheme of life.
The Icelandic community in the time of the Sagas also affords a
fair instance. In such a community there is a rigorous
distinction between classes and between the occupations peculiar
to each class. Manual labour, industry, whatever has 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. If there are several grades of aristocracy, the women of
high rank are commonly exempt from industrial employment, or at
least from the more vulgar kinds of manual labour. The men of the
upper classes are not only exempt, but by prescriptive custom
they are debarred, from all industrial occupations. The range of
employments open to them is rigidly defined. As on the higher
plane already spoken of, these employments are government,
warfare, religious observances, and sports. These four lines of
activity govern the scheme of life of the upper classes, and for
the highest rank -- the kings or chieftains these are the only
kinds of activity that custom or the common sense of the
community will allow. Indeed, where the scheme is well developed
even sports are accounted doubtfully legitimate for the members
of the highest rank. To the lower grades of the leisure class
certain other employments are open, but they are employments that
are subsidiary to one or another of these typical leisure-class
occupations. Such are, for instance, the manufacture and care of
arms and accoutrements and of war canoes, the dressing and
handling of horses, dogs, and hawks, the preparation of sacred
apparatus, etc. The lower classes are excluded from these
secondary honourable employments, except from such as are plainly
of an industrial character and are only remotely related to the
typical leisure-class occupations.
If we go a step back of this exemplary barbarian culture,
into the lower stages of barbarism, we no longer find the leisure
class in fully developed form. But this lower barbarism shows the
usages, motives, and circumstances out of which the institution
of a leisure class has arisen, and indicates the steps of its
early growth. Nomadic hunting tribes in various parts of the
world illustrate these more primitive phases of the
differentiation. Any one of the North American hunting tribes may
be taken as a convenient illustration. These tribes can scarcely
be said to have a defined leisure class. There is a
differentiation of function, and there is a distinction between
classes on the basis of this difference of function, but the
exemption of the superior class from work has not gone far enough
to make the designation "leisure class" altogether applicable.
The tribes belonging on this economic level have carried the
economic differentiation to the point at which a marked
distinction is made between the occupations of men and women, and
this distinction is of an invidious character. In nearly all
these tribes the women are, by prescriptive custom, held to those
employments out of which the industrial occupations proper
develop at the next advance. The men are exempt from these vulgar
employments and are reserved for war, hunting, sports, and devout
observances. A very nice discrimination is ordinarily shown in
this matter.
This division of labour coincides with the distinction
between the working and the leisure class as it appears in the
higher barbarian culture. As the diversification and
specialisation of employments proceed, the line of demarcation so
drawn comes to divide the industrial from the non-industrial
employments. The man's occupation as it stands at the earlier
barbarian stage is not the original out of which any appreciable
portion of later industry has developed. In the later development
it survives only in employments that are not classed as
industrial, -- war, politics, sports, learning, and the priestly
office. The only notable exceptions are a portion of the fishery
industry and certain slight employments that are doubtfully to be
classed as industry; such as the manufacture of arms, toys, and
sporting goods. Virtually the whole range of industrial
employments is an outgrowth of what is classed as woman's work in
the primitive barbarian community.
The work of the men in the lower barbarian culture is no
less indispensable to the life of the group than the work done by
the women. It may even be that the men's work contributes as much
to the food supply and the other necessary consumption of the
group. Indeed, so obvious is this "productive" character of the
men's work that in the conventional economic writings the
hunter's work is taken as the type of primitive industry. But
such is not the barbarian's sense of the matter. In his own eyes
he is not a labourer, and he is not to be classed with the women
in this respect; nor is his effort to be classed with the women's
drudgery, as labour or industry, in such a sense as to admit of
its being confounded with the latter. There is in all barbarian
communities a profound sense of the disparity between man's and
woman's work. His work may conduce to the maintenance of the
group, but it is felt that it does so through an excellence and
an efficacy of a kind that cannot without derogation be compared
with the uneventful diligence of the women.
At a farther step backward in the cultural scale -- among
savage groups -- the differentiation of employments is still less
elaborate and the invidious distinction between classes and
employments is less consistent and less rigorous. Unequivocal
instances of a primitive savage culture are hard to find. Few of
these groups or communities that are classed as "savage" show no
traces of regression from a more advanced cultural stage. But
there are groups -- some of them apparently not the result of
retrogression -- which show the traits of primitive savagery with
some fidelity. Their culture differs from that of the barbarian
communities in the absence of a leisure class and the absence, in
great measure, of the animus or spiritual attitude on which the
institution of a leisure class rests. These communities of
primitive savages in which there is no hierarchy of economic
classes make up but a small and inconspicuous fraction of the
human race. As good an instance of this phase of culture as may
be had is afforded by the tribes of the Andamans, or by the Todas
of the Nilgiri Hills. The scheme of life of these groups at the
time of their earliest contact with Europeans seems to have been
nearly typical, so far as regards the absence of a leisure class.
As a further instance might be cited the Ainu of Yezo, and, more
doubtfully, also some Bushman and Eskimo groups. Some Pueblo
communities are less confidently to be included in the same
class. Most, if not all, of the communities here cited may well
be cases of degeneration from a higher barbarism, rather than
bearers of a culture that has never risen above its present
level. If so, they are for the present purpose to be taken with
the allowance, but they may serve none the less as evidence to
the same effect as if they were really "primitive" populations.
These communities that are without a defined leisure class
resemble one another also in certain other features of their
social structure and manner of life. They are small groups and of
a simple (archaic) structure; they are commonly peaceable and
sedentary; they are poor; and individual ownership is not a
dominant feature of their economic system. At the same time it
does not follow that these are the smallest of existing
communities, or that their social structure is in all respects
the least differentiated; nor does the class necessarily include
all primitive communities which have no defined system of
individual ownership. But it is to be noted that the class seems
to include the most peaceable -- perhaps all the
characteristically peaceable -- primitive groups of men. Indeed,
the most notable trait common to members of such communities is a
certain amiable inefficiency when confronted with force or fraud.
The evidence afforded by the usages and cultural traits of
communities at a low stage of development indicates that the
institution of a leisure class has emerged gradually during the
transition from primitive savagery to barbarism; or more
precisely, during the transition from a peaceable to a
consistently warlike habit of life. The conditions apparently
necessary to its emergence in a consistent form are: (1) the
community must be of a predatory habit of life (war or the
hunting of large game or both); that is to say, the men, who
constitute the inchoate leisure class in these cases, must be
habituated to the infliction of injury by force and stratagem;
(2) subsistence must be obtainable on sufficiently easy terms to
admit of the exemption of a considerable portion of the community
from steady application to a routine of labour. The institution
of 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 may be classed as exploit;
unworthy are those necessary everyday employments into which no
appreciable element of exploit enters.
This distinction has but little obvious significance in a
modern industrial community, and it has, therefore, received but
slight attention at the hands of economic writers. When viewed in
the light of that modern common sense which has guided economic
discussion, it seems formal and insubstantial. But it persists
with great tenacity as a commonplace preconception even in modern
life, as is shown, for instance, by our habitual aversion to
menial employments. It is a distinction of a personal kind -- of
superiority and inferiority. In the earlier stages of culture,
when the personal force of the individual counted more
immediately and obviously in shaping the course of events, the
element of exploit counted for more in the everyday scheme of
life. Interest centred about this fact to a greater degree.
Consequently a distinction proceeding on this ground seemed more
imperative and more definitive then than is the case to-day. As a
fact in the sequence of development, therefore, the distinction
is a substantial one and rests on sufficiently valid and cogent
The ground on which a discrimination between facts is
habitually made changes as the interest from which the facts are
habitually viewed changes. Those features of the facts at hand
are salient and substantial upon which the dominant interest of
the time throws its light. Any given ground of distinction will
seem insubstantial to any one who habitually apprehends the facts
in question from a different point of view and values them for a
different purpose. The habit of distinguishing and classifying
the various purposes and directions of activity prevails of
necessity always and everywhere; for it is indispensable in
reaching a working theory or scheme of life. The particular point
of view, or the particular characteristic that is pitched upon as
definitive in the classification of the facts of life depends
upon the interest from which a discrimination of the facts is
sought. The grounds of discrimination, and the norm of procedure
in classifying the facts, therefore, progressively change as the
growth of culture proceeds; for the end for which the facts of
life are apprehended changes, and the point of view consequently
changes also. So that what are recognised as the salient and
decisive features of a class of activities or of a social class
at one stage of culture will not retain the same relative
importance for the purposes of classification at any subsequent
But the change of standards and points of view is gradual
only, and it seldom results in the subversion of entire
suppression of a standpoint once accepted. A distinction is still
habitually made between industrial and non-industrial
occupations; and this modern distinction is a transmuted form of
the barbarian distinction between exploit and drudgery. Such
employments as warfare, politics, public worship, and public
merrymaking, are felt, in the popular apprehension, to differ
intrinsically from the labour 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.
The tacit, common-sense distinction to-day is, in effect,
that any effort is to be accounted industrial only so far as its
ultimate purpose is the utilisation of non-human things. The
coercive utilisation of man by man is not felt to be an
industrial function; but all effort directed to enhance human
life by taking advantage of the non-human environment is classed
together as industrial activity. By the economists who have best
retained and adapted the classical tradition, man's "power over
nature" is currently postulated as the characteristic fact of
industrial productivity. This industrial power over nature is
taken to include man's power over the life of the beasts and over
all the elemental forces. A line is in this way drawn between
mankind and brute creation.
In other times and among men imbued with a different body
of preconceptions this line is not drawn precisely as we draw it
to-day. In the savage or the barbarian scheme of life it is drawn
in a different place and in another way. In all communities under
the barbarian culture there is an alert and pervading sense of
antithesis between two comprehensive groups of phenomena, in one
of which barbarian man includes himself, and in the other, his
victual. There is a felt antithesis between economic and
non-economic phenomena, but it is not conceived in the modern
fashion; it lies not between man and brute creation, but between
animate and inert things.
It may be an excess of caution at this day to explain that
the barbarian notion which it is here intended to convey by the
term "animate" is not the same as would be conveyed by the word
"living". The term does not cover all living things, and it does
cover a great many others. Such a striking natural phenomenon as
a storm, a disease, a waterfall, are recognised as "animate";
while fruits and herbs, and even inconspicuous animals, such as
house-flies, maggots, lemmings, sheep, are not ordinarily
apprehended as "animate" except when taken collectively. As here
used the term does not necessarily imply an indwelling soul or
spirit. The concept includes such things as in the apprehension
of the animistic savage or barbarian are formidable by virtue of
a real or imputed habit of initiating action. This category
comprises a large number and range of natural objects and
phenomena. Such a distinction between the inert and the active is
still present in the habits of thought of unreflecting persons,
and it still profoundly affects the prevalent theory of human
life and of natural processes; but it does not pervade our daily
life to the extent or with the far-reaching practical
consequences that are apparent at earlier stages of culture and
To the mind of the barbarian, the elaboration and
utilisation of what is afforded by inert nature is activity on
quite a different plane from his dealings with "animate" things
and forces. The line of demarcation may be vague and shifting,
but the broad distinction is sufficiently real and cogent to
influence the barbarian scheme of life. To the class of things
apprehended as animate, the barbarian fancy imputes an unfolding
of activity directed to some end. It is this teleological
unfolding of activity that constitutes any object or phenomenon
an "animate" fact. Wherever the unsophisticated savage or
barbarian meets with activity that is at all obtrusive, he
construes it in the only terms that are ready to hand -- the
terms immediately given in his consciousness of his own actions.
Activity is, therefore, assimilated to human action, and active
objects are in so far assimilated to the human agent. Phenomena
of this character -- especially those whose behaviour is notably
formidable or baffling -- have to be met in a different spirit
and with proficiency of a different kind from what is required in
dealing with inert things. To deal successfully with such
phenomena is a work of exploit rather than of industry. It is an
assertion of prowess, not of diligence.
Under the guidance of this naive discrimination between the
inert and the animate, the activities of the primitive social
group tend to fall into two classes, which would in modern phrase
be called 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 an other agent. We still speak of "brute
matter" which something of the barbarian's realisation of a
profound significance in the term.
The distinction between exploit and drudgery coincides with
a difference between the sexes. The sexes differ, not only in
stature and muscular force, but perhaps even more decisively in
temperament, and this must early have given rise to a
corresponding division of labour. The general range of activities
that come under the head of exploit falls to the males as being
the stouter, more massive, better capable of a sudden and violent
strain, and more readily inclined to self assertion, active
emulation, and aggression. The difference in mass, in
physiological character, and in temperament may be slight among
the members of the primitive group; it appears, in fact, to be
relatively slight and inconsequential in some of the more archaic
communities with which we are acquainted -- as for instance the
tribes of the Andamans. But so soon as a differentiation of
function has well begun on the lines marked out by this
difference in physique and animus, the original difference
between the sexes will itself widen. A cumulative process of
selective adaptation to the new distribution of employments will
set in, especially if the habitat or the fauna with which the
group is in contact is such as to call for a considerable
exercise of the sturdier virtues. The habitual pursuit of large
game requires more of the manly qualities of massiveness,
agility, and ferocity, and it can therefore scarcely fail to
hasten and widen the differentiation of functions between the
sexes. And so soon as the group comes into hostile contact with
other groups, the divergence of function will take on the
developed form of a distinction between exploit and industry.
In such a predatory group of hunters it comes to be the
able-bodied men's office to fight and hunt. The women do what
other work there is to do -- other members who are unfit for
man's work being for this purpose classed with women. But the
men's hunting and fighting are both of the same general
character. Both are of a predatory nature; the warrior and the
hunter alike reap where they have not strewn. Their aggressive
assertion of force and sagacity differs obviously from the
women's assiduous and uneventful shaping of materials; it is not
to be accounted productive labour but rather an acquisition of
substance by seizure. Such being the barbarian man's work, in its
best development and widest divergence from women's work, any
effort that does not involve an assertion of prowess comes to be
unworthy of the man. As the tradition gains consistency, the
common sense of the community erects it into a canon of conduct;
so that no employment and no acquisition is morally possible to
the self respecting man at this cultural stage, except such as
proceeds on the basis of prowess -- force or fraud. When the
predatory habit of life has been settled upon the group by long
habituation, it becomes the able-bodied man's accredited office
in the social economy to kill, to destroy such competitors in the
struggle for existence as attempt to resist or elude him, to
overcome and reduce to subservience those alien forces that
assert themselves refractorily in the environment. So tenaciously
and with such nicety is this theoretical distinction between
exploit and drudgery adhered to that in many hunting tribes the
man must not bring home the game which he has killed, but must
send his woman to perform that baser office.
As has already been indicated, the distinction between
exploit and drudgery is an invidious distinction between
employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit, and especially those which imply
subservience or submission, are unworthy, debasing, ignoble. The
concept of dignity, worth, or honour, as applied either to
persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and of class distinctions, and it is therefore necessary to say something of its derivation and meaning. Its psychological ground may be indicated in outline as follows.
As a matter of selective necessity, man is an agent. He is,
in his own apprehension, a centre of unfolding impulsive activity
-- "teleological" activity. He is an agent seeking in every act
the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end.
By force of his being such an agent he is possessed of a taste
for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a
sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the
demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or
propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship. Wherever
the circumstances or traditions of life lead to an habitual
comparison of one person with another in point of efficiency, the
instinct of workmanship works out in an emulative or invidious
comparison of persons. The extent to which this result follows
depends in some considerable degree on the temperament of the
population. In any community where such an invidious comparison
of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end
sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. Esteem is gained
and dispraise is avoided by putting one's efficiency in evidence.
The result is that the instinct of workmanship works out in an
emulative demonstration of force.
During that primitive phase of social development, when the
community is still habitually peaceable, perhaps sedentary, and
without a developed system of individual ownership, the
efficiency of the individual can be shown chiefly and most
consistently in some employment that goes to further the life of
the group. What emulation of an economic kind there is between
the members of such a group will be chiefly emulation in
industrial serviceability. At the same time the incentive to
emulation is not strong, nor is the scope for emulation large.
When the community passes from peaceable savagery to a
predatory phase of life, the conditions of emulation change. The
opportunity and the incentive to emulate increase greatly in
scope and urgency. The activity of the men more and more takes on
the character of exploit; and an invidious comparison of one
hunter or warrior with another grows continually easier and more
habitual. Tangible evidences of prowess -- trophies -- find a
place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature of the
paraphernalia of life. Booty, trophies of the chase or of the
raid, come to be prized as evidence of pre-eminent force.
Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty
serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggression. As
accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of
self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services
obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional
evidence of successful contest. Therefore, by contrast, the
obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be
accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. The performance of
productive work, or employment in personal service, falls under
the same odium for the same reason. An invidious distinction in
this way arises between exploit and acquisition on the other
hand. Labour acquires a character of irksomeness by virtue of the
indignity imputed to it.
With the primitive barbarian, before the simple content of
the notion has been obscured by its own ramifications and by a
secondary growth of cognate ideas, "honourable" seems to connote
nothing else that assertion of superior force. "Honourable" is
"formidable"; "worthy" is "prepotent". A honorific act is in the
last analysis little if anything else than a recognised
successful act of aggression; and where aggression means conflict
with men and beasts, the activity which comes to be especially
and primarily honourable is the assertion of the strong hand. The
naive, archaic habit of construing all manifestations of force in
terms of personality or "will power" greatly fortifies this
conventional exaltation of the strong hand. Honorific epithets,
in vogue among barbarian tribes as well as among peoples of a
more advance culture, commonly bear the stamp of this
unsophisticated sense of honour. Epithets and titles used in
addressing chieftains, and in the propitiation of kings and gods,
very commonly impute a propensity for overbearing violence and an
irresistible devastating force to the person who is to be
propitiated. This holds true to an extent also in the more
civilised communities of the present day. The predilection shown
in heraldic devices for the more rapacious beasts and birds of
prey goes to enforce the same view.
Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or
honour, the taking of life -- the killing of formidable
competitors, whether brute or human -- is honourable in the
highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an
expression of the slayer's prepotence, casts a glamour of worth
over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and
accessories of the act. Arms are honourable, and the use of them,
even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the fields,
becomes a honorific employment. At the same time, employment in
industry becomes correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense
apprehension, the handling of the tools and implements of
industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Labour
becomes irksome.
It is here assumed that in the sequence of cultural
evolution primitive groups of men have passed from an initial
peaceable stage to a subsequent stage at which fighting is the
avowed and characteristic employment of the group. But it is not
implied that there has been an abrupt transition from unbroken
peace and good-will to a later or higher phase of life in which
the fact of combat occurs for the first time. Neither is it
implied that all peaceful industry disappears on the transition
to the predatory phase of culture. Some fighting, it is safe to
say, would be met with at any early stage of social development.
Fights would occur with more or less frequency through sexual
competition. The known habits of primitive groups, as well as the
habits of the anthropoid apes, argue to that effect, and the
evidence from the well-known promptings of human nature enforces
the same view.
It may therefore be objected that there can have been no
such initial stage of peaceable life as is here assumed. There is
no point in cultural evolution prior to which fighting does not
occur. But the point in question is not as to the occurrence of
combat, occasional or sporadic, or even more or less frequent and
habitual; it is a question as to the occurrence of an habitual;
it is a question as to the occurrence of an habitual bellicose
from of mind -- a prevalent habit of judging facts and events
from the point of view of the fight. The predatory phase of
culture is attained only when the predatory attitude has become
the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude for the members of
the group; when the fight has become the dominant note in the
current theory of life; when the common-sense appreciation of men
and things has come to be an appreciation with a view to combat.
The substantial difference between the peaceable and the
predatory phase of culture, therefore, is a spiritual difference,
not a mechanical one. The change in spiritual attitude is the
outgrowth of a change in the material facts of the life of the
group, and it comes on gradually as the material circumstances
favourable to a predatory attitude supervene. The inferior limit
of the predatory culture is an industrial limit. Predation can
not become the habitual, conventional resource of any group or
any class until industrial methods have been developed to such a
degree of efficiency as to leave a margin worth fighting for,
above the subsistence of those engaged in getting a living. The
transition from peace to predation therefore depends on the
growth of technical knowledge and the use of tools. A predatory
culture is similarly impracticable in early times, until weapons
have been developed to such a point as to make man a formidable
animal. The early development of tools and of weapons is of
course the same fact seen from two different points of view.
The life of a given group would be characterised as
peaceable so long as habitual recourse to combat has not brought
the fight into the foreground in men's every day thoughts, as a
dominant feature of the life of man. A group may evidently attain
such a predatory attitude with a greater or less degree of
completeness, so that its scheme of life and canons of conduct
may be controlled to a greater or less extent by the predatory
animus. The predatory phase of culture is therefore conceived to
come on gradually, through a cumulative growth of predatory
aptitudes habits, and traditions this growth being due to a
change in the circumstances of the group's life, of such a kind
as to develop and conserve those traits of human nature and those
traditions and norms of conduct that make for a predatory rather
than a peaceable life.
The evidence for the hypothesis that there has been such a
peaceable stage of primitive culture is in great part drawn from
psychology rather than from ethnology, and cannot be detailed
here. It will be recited in part in a later chapter, in
discussing the survival of archaic traits of human nature under
the modern culture.

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