Anatomy of Competition

Veblen's work is especially noteworthy when he analyzes and dissects thehabits of thought and modes of conduct that underlie competitive relationsbetween social actors. He advanced a sophisticated theory of the social sourcesof competitiveness in human affairs. Self-esteem, he argued, is only a reflectionof the esteem accorded by one's fellows. Consequently, when such esteem is notforthcoming because a person has failed to excel in prized competitive en-deavors, he suffers from a loss of self-esteem. The drive for ever-renewed exer-tion in a competitive culture is therefore rooted in the fear of loss of self-esteem.

Those members of the community who fall short of [a] somewhat in-definite, normal degree of prowess or of property suffer in the esteem of theirfellow-men; and consequently they also suffer in their own esteem since theusual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one's neighbors. Onlyindividuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain theirself-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows. . . . So soon as thepossession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, it becomes also arequisite to that complacency which we call self-respect.

In a competitive culture, where men judge their worth in comparison withthat of their fellows they are bound to a perpetually revolving Ixion's wheelbecause they constantly aspire to outdo their neighbors.

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed tothe new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford ap-preciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. . . the end soughtby accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the com-munity in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is dis-tinctly unfavorable to himself, the normal, average individual will live inchronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached whatmay be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of hisclass in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a rest-less straining to place a wider and ever widening pecuniary interval betweenhimself and the average standard.

Veblen is at his best when he analyzes the various means by which menattempt to symbolize their high standing in the continuous struggle for com-petitive advantage. Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, conspicuousdisplay of symbols of high standing are to Veblen some of the means by whichmen attempt to excel their neighbors and so attain heightened self-evaluation"High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the normof conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. . . . Conspicuous con-sumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentlemen ofleisure" "With the inheritance of gentility goes the inheritance of obligatoryleisure." Conspicuous consumption or conspicuous leisure need not necessarilybe engaged in directly by those in search of heightened competitive standing. Rather, such characteristic life-styles may be displayed by persons who aredependent on the head of a household--his wife and servants, for example--toenhance the status of the master. In the modern world, the head of the middle-class household has been forced by economic circumstances to gain a livelihoodin an occupation, "but the middle-class wife still carries on the business ofvicarious leisure, for the good name of the household and its master." Theliveried servant displays his multi-colored coat of servitude not to improve hisown image but rather to symbolize that of his master.

In the aristocratic age, "the age of barbarism," such characteristically"wasteful" styles of competitive display were limited to the leisure class, thetop of the social pyramid. Now, Veblen contended, they tend to permeate thewhole social structure. Each class copies the life-styles of its superordinates tothe extent of its ability. "The result is that the members of each stratum acceptas their ideal of decency the scheme of life invoked in the next higher stratum,and bend their energies to live up to that ideal." "The canon of reputability"must adapt itself to the economic circumstances and the traditions of eachparticular class, but it permeates all society to greater or less degrees. Thoughoriginating among the leisure class, it characterizes the total culture and shapesits characteristic life-style. This is why even the poor, though they are physicallybetter off in modern society than their forebears were in their time, suffermore. "The existing system has not made. . . the industrious poor poorer asmeasured absolutely but it does tend to make them relatively poorer, intheir own eyes . . . and . . . that is what seems to count." Clearly, Veblen,like others before and after him, had in effect come upon the idea of "relativedeprivation."

In Veblen's opinion the simplistic notions of human motivation on whichclassical economics rest cannot serve to explain the springs of action of man inmodern pecuniary civilization. It is not the propensity to save or to truck andbarter that animates man in the modern world, but the propensity to excel hisneighbor. The struggle for competitive standing becomes a basic datum if oneis to understand the institutional framework of modern economic behavior.

From Coser, 1977:268-269.


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