Conspiracy Nation -- Vol. 10 Num. 50

("Quid coniuratio est?")


Notes from The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen (1899):

The rule holds with but slight exceptions that the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank. How did this come to be? Veblen traces it to lower barbaric cultures, where women are held to those employments out of which the industrial occupations proper develop at the next advance in culture. Generally, in the lower barbaric cultures, the men hunt and go to war and the women do whatever other labor is required. Because the hunting/war activities of the men are sporadic in their time requirements, this class tends to have leisure time. The male employments of hunting and war also are associated with greater status in the group than are the female employments.

In the higher barbarian cultures, the line of demarcation of employments comes to divide the industrial from the non-industrial employments. Virtually the whole range of industrial employments is an outgrowth of what is classed as woman's work in the primitive barbarian community. The institution of a leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy.

The earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community. (A vestige of this is seen in the traditional wedding ceremony: "Who gives this woman to be wed?") The ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian cultures, apparently with the seizure of female captives as trophies of war. This in turn leads to a form of ownership-marriage. This is followed by an extension of slavery to other captives and inferiors, besides women, and by an extension of ownership-marriage to other women than those seized from the enemy. The root cause for all this is the desire by the successful men to put their exploitive prowess in evidence by exhibiting some durable result of their exploits. Note this well: Proof of the exploitive prowess is required; this exploitive prowess is not demonstrated to the entire tribe when the males are away engaged in hunting/war.

From the ownership of women the concept of ownership extends itself to include the products of the women's, captives' and other "inferiors" industry (the industrial, vulgar employments), and so there arises the ownership of things as well as of persons. Not noted by Veblen in his book is that proof of the exploitive prowess is also demonstrated by so-called "trophies of war," such as (for example) scalps. In this way also the development of ownership of things may have been derived.

"Wealth" comes to serve as honorific evidence of the owner's prepotence. Ownership began and grew into a human institution not for mere subsistence; the dominant incentive was from the outset the invidious distinction attaching to wealth. Wherever the institution of private property is found, the economic process bears the character of a struggle between men for the possession of goods.

The initial phase of ownership, the phase of acquisition by naive seizure and conversion, begins to pass into the subsequent stage of an incipient organization of industry on the basis of private property (in slaves); the horde develops into a more or less self-sufficing industrial community; possessions then come to be valued not so much as evidence of successful foray, but rather as evidence of the prepotence of the possessor of these goods over other individuals within the community. The invidious comparison now becomes primarily a comparison of the owner with the other members of the group. Property becomes a trophy of success scored in the game of ownership. Wealth gains in importance as a customary basis of repute and esteem. And it is even more to the point that property now becomes the most easily recognized evidence of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic or signal achievement. It therefore becomes the conventional basis of esteem. Its possession in some amount becomes necessary in order to any reputable standing in the community. The possession of wealth becomes, in popular apprehension, itself a meritorious act.

Those members of the community who fall short of the normal trophy/wealth ownership suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they suffer in their own esteem, since the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one's neighbors. Only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows. Apparent exceptions to the rule are met with, especially among people with strong religious convictions. (But is the religious exception due merely to the formation of a sub-group of like-minded believers, who offer esteem amongst themselves based on something other than property?)

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase in wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one's self as compared with one's neighbors. A satiation of the average or general desire for wealth is out of the question: the ground of this need is the desire of everyone to excel everyone else in the accumulation of goods (trophies). Since the struggle is substantially a race for reputability on the basis of an invidious comparison, no approach to a definitive attainment is possible.

When the lower barbarian culture emerges into the predatory stage, where self-seeking in the narrower sense becomes the dominant note, this trait shapes the scheme of life. Relative success, tested by an invidious pecuniary comparison with other men, becomes the conventional end of action. Purposeful effort comes to mean, primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth.

The trophy or booty taken by the predatory class is tangible exhibition of its exploits. At a later stage, it is customary to assume some badge or insignia of honor that serves as a conventionally accepted mark of exploit, and which at the same time indicates the quantity or degree of exploit. As the population increases in density, and as human relations grow more complex and numerous, all the details of life undergo a process of elaboration and selection; and in this process of elaboration the use of trophies develops into a system of rank, titles, degrees and insignia.

With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper. In an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation. As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labor, the energies of the industrious members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous expenditure (thus emulating the elite class habits and, by imputation, associating oneself with that class with consequent "reputability"), rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace. It is owing chiefly to this element that J.S. Mill was able to say that "hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being."

The accepted standard of expenditure in the community or in the class to which a person belongs largely determines what his standard of living will be. It does this directly by commending itself to his common sense as right and good, through his habitually contemplating it and assimilating the scheme of life in which it belongs; but it does so also indirectly through popular insistence on conformity to the accepted scale of expenditure as a matter of propriety, under pain of disesteem and ostracism. The standard of living of any class is commonly as high as the earning capacity of the class will permit -- with a constant tendency to go higher. The effect upon the serious activities of men is therefore to direct them with great singleness of purpose to the largest possible acquisition of wealth.

The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance than the small thief of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law. True, the sacredness of property is one of the salient features of the community's code of morals. However due to the implied honorific value associated with great wealth, the big-time crooks normally are less severely punished (if at all) than the common criminal.

Conspicuous and Vicarious Consumption

The utility of consumption as an evidence of wealth is an adaptation of a distinction previously existing and well established in men's habits of thought. In the earlier phases of the predatory culture the only economic differentiation is a broad distinction between an honorable superior caste of the able-bodied men and an inferior class of laboring women. The men consume what the women produce and the women consume only what is incidentally necessary. What the women consume in this phase is only a means to their continued labor and is not a consumption directed to their own comfort and fulness of life. The greater consumption of goods by the superior class, in the earlier predatory culture, becomes honorable in itself.

When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, the general principle is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. Luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the elite class; they consume freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, etc. 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.

At a later stage, further distinctions in class occur. Those who are associated with the higher grades of the elite class (e.g., by marriage, birth, or as servants) gain in repute. Being fed and countenanced by their patron, they are indices of his rank and vicarious consumers of his wealth. This vicarious consumption must be performed in some such manner as shall plainly point to the master from whom it originates, and to whom therefore the resulting increment of good repute inures. The dependant who is first delegated the duty of vicarious consumption is the wife, or the chief wife. In the less wealthy classes a curious inversion occurs. In these classes there is no pretence of leisure on the part of the head of the household. But the middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious consumption, for the good name of the household and its master.

Pecuniary Canons of Taste

As noted, the industrious class is allowed to consume only at a subsistence level in the later phase of the predatory culture. And the elite class consumes the best in food, drink, shelter, apparel, ornaments, amusements, etc. The growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc., presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity of the elite class. It now becomes incumbent on them to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. They become "cultured."

The requirements of pecuniary decency influence the sense of beauty and of utility in articles of use or beauty. The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty. Our higher appreciation of the superior article is an appreciation of its superior honorific character, much more frequently than it is an unsophisticated appreciation of its beauty.

By further habituation to an appreciative perception of the marks of expensiveness in goods, and by habitually identifying beauty with reputability, it comes about that a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful. In this way it has happened, for instance, that some beautiful flowers pass conventionally for offensive weeds; others that can be cultivated with relative ease are accepted and admired by the lower middle class, who can afford no more expensive luxuries of this kind; but these varieties are rejected as vulgar by those people who are better able to pay for expensive flowers and who are educated to a higher schedule of pecuniary beauty in the florist's products; while still other flowers, of no greater intrinsic beauty than these, are cultivated at great cost and call out much admiration from flower-lovers whose tastes have been matured under the critical guidance of a polite environment.

Everyday life offers many curious illustrations of the way in which the code of pecuniary beauty in articles varies from class to class. Such a fact is the lawn, or the close-cropped yard or park, which appears especially to appeal to the tastes of the well-to-do classes. The lawn is a cow pasture without cows, or crop-yielding land left fallow. It presumably begins with one fellow not planting corn on his land, thereby showing that, "You see, I am so well off, I need not grow crops on this land." Soon, not to be left behind, his neighbors do likewise. The next one-upsmanship is to not only let the land lie fallow, but to exquisitely manicure the lawn, showing perhaps that not only does the land lie fallow now, but that it will in the future. Why such a fancy manicure of the lawn if it is soon to be ploughed and seeded? Then all in the neighborhood do likewise; they exquisitely manicure their lawns. And woe to the fellow who does not! Disesteem! Ostracism! We all laugh at the "Beverly Hillbillies" when, upon arriving at their new mansion, they immediately begin ploughing their acres. Yet underneath is a clue to a deeper meaning.


The concept of feminine beauty has evolved in accord with pecuniary canons of taste. In the stage of economic development at which women are valued by the upper class for their service, the ideal of female beauty is a robust, large-limbed woman. In the succeeding phase, when, in the conventional scheme, the office of the high-class wife comes to be a vicarious leisure, this concept of beauty changes. The new ideal dwells on the delicacy of the face, hands, and feet, the slender figure, and especially the slender waist. In modern (ca. 1899) communities which have reached the higher levels of industrial development, the upper leisure class has accumulated so great a mass of wealth as to place its women above all imputation of vulgarly productive labor. The ideal of feminine beauty has therefore shifted from the woman of physical presence, to the lady, and has begun to shift back again to the woman -- and all in obedience to the changing conditions of pecuniary emulation.

How does the recent "women's liberation" movement fit into all this? Writing at the turn of the century, Veblen offers some clues. Before the predatory culture, what Veblen calls an "ante-predatory culture" existed. Because this barbarian community was not notably warlike, aptitudes for peace and good-will were economically supported. In all classes, recurrence of these traits occurs, from time to time, with certain individuals in the predatory culture. However due to harsh economic realities, a sort of natural selection inhibits the survival of these traits in the poorer classes. But the sheltered position of the elite class favors the survival of these traits, even though these aptitudes do not receive the affirmative sanction of the elite's code of proprieties. In other words, while need of physical survival does not kill off the sporadic reversion of traits of good-will, still, such traits are frowned upon by the elite of the predatory culture. By reason of their exemption from the usual process of natural selection, ante-predatory, co-operative impulses survive more in the case of leisure class women. These impulses must seek expression: if the predatory outlet (e.g., invidious distinction) fails, relief is sought elsewhere. The tendency to some other than an invidious purpose in life works out in a multitude of organizations, the purpose of which is some work of charity or of social amelioration. In the late 19th century such social improvement organizations would have been, for example, temperance groups and groups working for women's suffrage. Extending from this can be seen that, after women's suffrage the logical next social improvement is equality for women.

As can be seen, the so-called women's movement originates with the elite class. This editor has noted that today's feminists tend to favor their own class interests above and beyond their push for the interests of women in general. Such, for example, can be seen in the case of Paula Jones who, when she first bravely went public with her accusation of having been sexually harassed by then-Governor Bill Clinton, was laughed at. She was called "trailer park trash." What is more, the ridicule directed at Jones first came at the original press conference, from a press which represents and loosely belongs to the elite class. This same press, when flimsy charges of sexual harassment came from one identified with the upper classes (Anita Hill), was "outraged" -- there was no laughing then. In "Silence of the Beltway Feminists" (New York Times, Jan. 17, 1997), Barbara Ehrenreich calls the class bias in the Jones case "American feminism's darkest hour."

Clothing and the Pecuniary Culture

Expenditures on clothing put one's pecuniary standing in evidence most effectually. Our apparel is always in evidence and gives an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first glance. The greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person. The commercial value of the goods used for clothing is made up to a much larger extent of the fashionableness, the reputability of the goods than of the mechanical service they render in clothing the wearer.

The function of dress as an evidence of ability to pay does not end with simply showing that the wearer consumes valuable goods in excess of what is required for physical comfort. Dress has subtler possibilities: it can also show that the wearer is not of the lower, industrious class. A detailed examination of what passes in popular apprehension for elegant apparel will show that it is contrived at every point to convey the impression that the wearer does not habitually put forth any useful effort. It goes without saying that no apparel can be considered elegant if it shows the effect of manual labor on the part of the wearer, in the way of soil or wear. Much of the charm that invests the patent leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking stick comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired engage in industrial employments. So too with the modern suit and tie: silly clothing that soils and tears easily, but proclaims distance from vulgar employments by its very impracticability.

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer's abstinence from productive employment. The woman's shoe adds the so-called French heel, because this high heel obviously makes any manual work extremely difficult. The like is true of the skirt and the rest of the drapery which characterises woman's dress. The substantial reason for the skirt is that it hampers the wearer and incapacitates her for all useful exertion. The like is true of the feminine custom of wearing the hair excessively long. Women's wear also adds a peculiar feature from that of the men: changing fashions. If each garment serves for only a brief time, that equals consumption in excess of what is required for physical comfort. Purpose? To show, by vicarious consumption, that the wife's owner is well-to-do.

Modern Survivals of Prowess

The elite class lives by the industrial class rather than in it. Admission to the elite class is gained by exercise of the pecuniary aptitudes -- aptitudes for acquisition rather than for serviceability. The scheme of life of the class is in large part a heritage from the past, and embodies much of the habits and ideals of the earlier predatory culture. The enthusiasm for war, and the predatory temper of which it is the index, prevail in the largest measure among the upper classes. Moreover, the ostensible serious occupation of the upper class is that of government, which, in point of origin and developmental content, is also a predatory occupation. Government is an exercise of control and coercion over the population from which the elite class draws its sustenance.

Manifestations of the predatory temperament include sports of all kinds. Sports shade off from the basis of hostile combat, through skill, to cunning and chicanery, without its being possible to draw a line at any point. Addiction to athletic sports, either directly or vicariously, is characteristic of the elite class; and it is a trait which that class shares with the lower-class delinquents, and with such atavistic elements throughout the body of the community as are endowed with a dominant predaceous trend. Of course, few individuals among the populations of Western civilised countries are so far devoid of the predaceous instinct as to find no diversion in contemplating athletic sports and games.

As it finds expression in the life of the barbarian, prowess manifests itself in two main directions: force and fraud. In varying degrees these two forms of expression are similarly present in modern warfare, in the pecuniary occupations, in sports and games, and in politics. In all of these employments strategy tends to develop into finesse and chicane.

The two barbarian traits, ferocity and cunning, go to make up the predaceous temper. Both are highly serviceable for individual expediency in a life looking to invidious success. Both are fostered by the pecuniary culture.

The Town

(Notes from Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America by Thorstein Veblen (1923)).

The location of any given town has commonly been determined by collusion between "interested parties" with a view to speculation in real estate. The town continues basically as a real estate "proposition." Its municipal affairs, its civic pride, its community interest, converge upon its real estate values, which are invariably of a speculative character, and which all its loyal citizens are intent on "booming" and "boosting." Real estate is the one community interest that binds the townsmen with a common bond; and it is highly significant that those inhabitants of the town who have no holdings of real estate and who never hope to have any will commonly also do their little best to inflate the speculative values by adding the clamor of their unpaid chorus to the paid clamor of the professional publicity agents.

Real estate is an enterprise in "futures," designed to get something for nothing from the unwary. Townsmen are pilgrims of hope looking forward to the time when the community's advancing needs will enable them to realize on the inflated values of their real estate, or looking more immediately to the chance that some sucker may be so ill advised as to take them at their word and become their debtors in the amount which they say their real estate is worth.

The town is a retail trading-station, where farm produce is bought and farm supplies are sold, and there are always more traders than are necessary to take care of this retail trade. There is always more or less active competition between traders, often underhanded. But this does not hinder collusion between the competitors with a view to maintain and augment their collective hold on the trade with their farm population.

From an early point in the life-history of such a town collusion habitually becomes the rule, and there is commonly a well recognized ethical code of collusion governing the style and limits of competitive maneuvers. In effect, the competition among business concerns is kept well in hand by a common understanding, and the traders as a body direct their collective efforts to getting what can be got out of the underlying farm population. Harking back to the earlier distinction between the so-called vulgar, industrial employments and the elite class pecuniary employments, it can be seen how the elite, predatory class exploits the industrial class by means of cunning and chicanery.

Toward the close of the 19th century, and increasingly since the turn of the century, the trading community of the small towns has by degrees become tributary to the great vested interests that move in the background of the market. In a way the small towns have fallen into the position of tollgate keepers for the distribution of goods and collection of customs for the large absentee owners of the business. Grocers, hardware dealers, meat-markets, druggists, shoe-shops, are more and more extensively falling into the position of local distributors for jobbing houses and manufacturers. They increasingly handle "package goods" bearing the brand name of some (ostensible) maker, whose chief connection with the goods is that of advertiser of the copyright brand which appears on the label. The bankers work by affiliation with and under surveillance of their correspondents in the sub-centers of credit, who are similarly tied in under the credit routine of the associated banking houses in the great centers.

All this reduction of the retailers to simpler terms has by no means lowered the overhead charges of the retail trade as they bear upon the underlying farm population; rather the reverse. Inasmuch as their principals back in the jungle of Big Business cut into the initiative and the margins of the retailers with "package goods," brands, advertising, and agency contracts, the retailers are provoked to retaliate and recoup where they see an opening -- that is, at the cost of the underlying farm population.

The town and the business of its substantial citizens are and have ever been an enterprise in salesmanship; and the beginning of wisdom in salesmanship is equivocation. The rule of life in the town's salesmanship is summed up in what the older logicians have called suppressio veri et suggestio falsi (suppress truth and suggest the false). One must eschew opinions, or information, which are not acceptable to the common run of those who have or may conceivably come to have any commercial value. The town is reactionary; aggressively and truculently so, since any assertion or denial that runs counter to any appreciable set of respectable prejudices would come in for some degree of disfavor, and any degree of disfavor is intolerable to men whose business would presumably suffer from it. But there is no (business) harm done in assenting to, and so in time coming to believe in, any or all of the commonplaces of the day before yesterday. In this way, the truth eventually does get acknowledged, though it may take decades or centuries. (This principle is seen, for example, when Larry Nichols was going public with information he had on Bill Clinton et al. Nichols was reportedly contacted by Wall Street types who urged him to be quiet for fear that the dollar-yen ratio might suffer.)


"Veblen," (writes Max Lerner in his Editors Introduction to The Portable Veblen) "had been writing not of the social aristocracy but of the business power-group of the middle class which aped the ways of an aristocracy... When he used terms like 'barbarian' and 'predatory,' they were synonyms for 'business' and 'capitalist.' ... when he spoke of the head of the household who dressed his wife and daughters with a conspicuous display of waste consumption, kept his sons at archaic studies, hired servants as vicarious signs of his leisure, kept a large number of people uselessly engaged in devout observances, took part in sports whose principal elements were guile, fraud, and predation, surrounded himself with subservient animals, and organized his whole world to show off his prowess: of all this Veblen might have said to his American era -- de te fabula [of you it is spoken]." Veblen saw conventional economics as a system of apologetics for the going system of economic power. He thought that each new batch of economists merely accepted the preconceptions of the previous economists, built on them, and enabled the idea that wealth and poverty were part of the fitness of things, a sort of natural selection.

Yet what sort of "natural selection" rewards fraud, predation, and chicanery and punishes useful industry? What sort of "natural selection" rewards pecuniary predators and their sycophants?

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