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Veblen's Concept of Leisure
by Jonathan Larson

It is difficult to understand why folks would have any problem understanding Veblen's concept of leisure once they have read his books. If leisure is defined as the process of relaxation and recovery from the exertions of work, it is clear Veblen had no trouble with such activity. This is a man who had a summer home on Washington Island for precisely that purpose, after all. To be against this form of leisure would be akin to being against sleep and Veblen was not that irrational.

Veblen's Leisure Class is another matter entirely. For him, a person was a member of the leisure class if he or she elevated the practices of being totally useless to the ultimate end in life, and further, viewed with disdain any activity that materially benefited the community.

NOTE: There is absolutely NO contradiction between these two positions. Further, one can certainly celebrate the first while sneering at the second.

I strongly suspect that any "confusion" about these two positions in the academic world has little or nothing to do with any lack of clarity in Veblen's writing.

(NOTE: I come to the ITVA, not as an academic, but as a city planner with an extensive background in the historical preservation of buildings combined with an intense personal interest in the history of the settlement of Nordic people in Minnesota. I was a self-designated "head cheerleader" for the restoration of the Veblen farm because it fulfilled both interests. I defend Veblen because when I do, I defend my culture. )

As someone outside of academe, I find myself on occasion getting quite defensive about the often absurd pointlessness of the process of academic inquiry in the discussion of Veblen's ideas. I am a member of the ITVA because folks like Marc Tool, Stephen Edgell, and Rick Tilman describe a probable Veblen that was possible within the cultural realities of a Norwegian immigrant upbringing a necessary and refreshing antidote to the ignorant and dishonest drivel of the Joseph Dorfmans and David Reismans of the world. Not everyone in the ITVA understands the possible Veblen, but the important figures really "get it."

My guess is that the "confusion" over Veblen's conception of leisure has little to do with any obscurity in his writing, but rather because Veblen is hitting a little too close to home. If one takes Veblen seriously, he tells us in the Higher Learning that American institutions of advanced studies are usually little more than finishing schools where one goes to learn the myths and rituals of the idle rich. This is most certainly true of the liberal arts colleges, seminaries, etc. while less true of engineering schools, vocational schools, etc. He claims that with a possible exception of the clergy, academics spend a larger percentage of their time and money on the trappings and practices of the leisure class than any other occupational group. Of course, it only makes sense that this should be so if one's job is to teach the children of the rich how to be honorably idle at the expense of someone else, then it is necessary for that person to prove (s)he is expert on the subject.

When I gave my speech at the ITVA convention in 1996, I chose to resurrect the old Minnesota Populist concept of producers versus predators as the forerunner of Veblen's more genteel dichotomy between the industrial and leisure classes. That speech was met with some hostility by those who thought I was talking about them and I suppose I was, because I take Veblen's critique of the Higher Learning seriously and true to my own experience.

One simple example. A guy by the name of E. D. Hirsch wrote a best-selling book called Cultural Literacy. It had a list of about 6000 factiods one should know to be able to converse intelligently with one's fellow citizens. Naturally, the list was heavily criticized by feminists and non-whites as being a collection of the history of dead white males. Fair enough. But I saw the list differently. Veblen divided learning into esoteric subjects--the useless knowledge that has high status; and exoteric subjects--the useful knowledge that has no, or even negative status, in the leisure class scheme of things. Note that both esoteric and exoteric knowledge can be about dead white males so those two variables could be eliminated.

Of Hirsch's complete list, only the term "Vulcanization" could be remotely construed as exoteric. A year or so later, Hirsch published a "dictionary" of his now-famous list. I turn immediately to "vulcanization." Does Hirsch think we should know why the process is important to modern transportation? Does he describe why vulcanization affects North-South international resource relationships? Or any other remotely interesting question about a vital process in everyone's life? No! E.D. Hirsch wants us to know that vulcanization is an industrial process named for the Roman god of fire. He has one exoteric term and he gives it an esoteric definition.

Yes indeed, the canons and practices of the leisure class are alive and well in academe at least in the English Literature Department of the University of Virginia.

Therein lies your problem. If you define leisure as the necessary process one needs to recharge one's batteries, then you and Veblen have no quarrel. It is damn difficult to argue with the existence of a summer home. If, however, you are attempting to redefine Veblen's concept of a leisure class so that there are not so many hurt feelings in the groves of academe, your task is really quite hopeless. If you change the meaning of Veblen's leisure class to something that does not include the practices of the typical liberal arts faculty, then you are talking about something else, not Veblen.

I must also warn you from experience, it is not possible to merely sidestep the issue by re-naming the leisure class, the Predator class. Whatever one calls it (and "elites" will not do,) the leisure class is usually bright enough to know when they are being ridiculed.


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