Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption and Recognition

Now published in European Journal of Social Theory‘Waste, Industry and Romantic Leisure: Veblen’s Theory of Recognition’ (Vol.9, no.1, pp.103-117)


Veblen’s work contains a neglected, since for the most part implicit, theory of recognition centred on his concepts of waste and workmanship. This article tries to develop this theory in order to shed new light on the theorem of conspicuous leisure and consumption. The legitimacy of violence at the ‘predatory stage’ of culture has been partly superseded by a legitimacy of industrial efficiency, so that the leisure classes need to disguise their conspicuous waste as socially useful productive endeavours. At the same time waste remains a powerful symbol of legitimate status, so that even the industrial classes turn to it in order to assert their social worth and demand social recognition. Waste – which is far more central in Veblen’s theory than is emulation – becomes an ambiguous symbol which can stand for both unproductive privilege and industrial efficiency. The utilitarian urge for efficiency and the meaninglessness of a struggle for recognition through conspicuous waste produce a desire for a romantic escape, also acknowledged by Veblen, but often overlooked in his sharp criticism of consumerism.

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