America's Elite: The Theory of the Leisure Class

By dramaturg Shepsu Aakhu for the 2014 world premiere production at American Blues Theater & Court Theatre, Chicago

In 1899, American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, pub-lished The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. The theorist argued that beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a division of labor system along certain lines. The “higher status” group monopolized war and hunting, while farming and cooking were considered inferior means of labor. Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in order to identify the habit of buying costly items that serve no other purpose than to demonstrate vast amounts of wealth and social status that were unnecessary to the social-ist labor party. He established that this sort of consumption could only be accomplished by the American elite – the upper class of the period.

There was essentially only one leisure class—born of the industrial revolution– this class or more accurately their offspring– did not work for a living– not even in the family businesses that sustained them. They were on permanent vacation.   For these Americans– indulgence of every variety was witnessed—but most disturbing to their parents and the businesses that they ran– this new breed of American had a small but vocal minority.  That minority, though largely naïve regarding the nation’s so-cial ills, none– the—less became– vocal, active and in many cases a detriment both to their families and causes that they supported.

Tragically, many of the Leisure Class came crashing to earth along with the markets as their family fortunes evaporated in 1929.  Now essentially penniless and absolutely devoid of any skills save vacationing– they were left defenseless as the new reality known as the Great Depression descended upon them and the nation.  

Dramaturg's note: The full text of the sociological study can be found here.