Law in Contemporary Society

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption and Marx’s commodity fetishism: two theories of value

-- By ThaliaJulme - 03 Apr 2008


According to Veblen biographer Joseph Dorfman, while Veblen seemed “kindly disposed towards Karl Marx,” he left precious few “clue[s] as to his judgment of Marx’s arguments” (Dorfman 247).

  • Joseph Dorfman was a Professor of Economics at Columbia; his papers are in the Butler Ms Collection. Anyone wanting to go behind the coyness of the published biography--whose intentionally anodyne conclusion you quote--to Dorfman's actual material on Veblen's relation to Marx can do so, if they're lucky enough to be across the street from the actual notebooks.

There are, however, many facial similarities between the two men’s work.

  • I don't think it's the facial similarities that matter, and despite your comment here, I think you agree with that. As you sort of show below, but don't focus on as much as you might, Veblen is purposefully trying to clear up some of Marx's mysteries. He has great sympathy for Marx--another independent researcher unrecognized in his time. But what you call below his "florid" language is actually--in his mind--an attempt to render precise what Marx makes mystical.

Both Capital and The Theory of the Leisure Class mock their object of study. Marx derides the capitalistic value system by using the language of mysticism and religion. He states that in order to describe the process whereby an object becomes a commodity, he only had recourse in the language of religion, thus the term “Fetish” (Marx-Engel Reader 321). That Marx feels compelled to evoke the most religious or mystical aspect of religion as a descriptor, reveals the extent of his disdain for the seemingly illogical phenomenon of commodity fetishism. Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class is similarly mocking due to his purposeful use of florid language. Veblen’s analysis traces an evolution from “primitive societies” to societies in which power is demonstrated through conspicuous leisure, to the modern-day demonstration of power: conspicuous consumption. Although this paper will not be discussing Marx’s theory of history, it should be noted that both Marx and Veblen share the project of creating historiographies.

  • Yes, and Veblen believes he is the better able to do that by having more fully understood how the Darwinian project (in which Marx was also of course much interested) transfers to the analysis of social evolution.

II. Commodity Fetishism as theory of value

According to Marx, in “those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails” wealth is demonstrated though the “accumulation” of commodities (Marx Engel Reader 302-3). A commodity is not simply an object or a product; something must occur to transform an object into a commodity. Primarily, a commodity is meant to “satisfy” a human want (303). A commodity is more than its “utility” or “use-value” (303). In order to become a commodity, an object must be “transferred to another.” It must be “exchanged” (308). Yet exchange value is more than the exchange of one commodity of X use-value for another commodity of X use-value, thus the mystifying nature of commodities. The eventual value of a commodity seems to bear little to no relation to its “intrinsic value”— a somewhat bizarre proposition for one not versed in the realities of modern consumerism (306).

In his essay “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Marx states that “the mystical character of commodities does not originate […] in their use-value” (320). The fetishism of commodities originates from “the peculiar social character of the labour that produces [the commodities]” (321). He states that products become commodities because “they are products of the labour of private individuals who carry on their work independently of each other” (321).

While this theory of value roughly depicts some of the oddities of consumption, it leaves one with many questions. For instance, if a commodity’s value was simply an aggregation of its use-value and the capitalist’s profit, it would hardly be mystifying or deserving of the modifier “fetish.” Why do products of equal use-value vary in cost? Marx concedes that the additional costs do not derive from the cost of production. Where then do they arise? If one can get the same use-value from two differently priced objects, why would any actor purchase the more expensive object? A plain reading of Capital does not answer these questions. Marx’s text does, however, provide a powerful starting point for any scholar seeking to answer such questions.

  • And Veblen takes the opportunity in the course of his work to do so, as well as showing why "intrinsic" value is irrelevant in real social life. Here he achieves the aim of clarifying Marx. Which is why I am not sure that I believe the "distinct" in your conclusion.

III. Conspicuous consumption as theory of value

According to Veblen, “the emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership” (15). Within Veblen’s framework, for much of human history conspicuous leisure was the best way to display power. Conspicuous consumption has replaced conspicuous leisure as “a basis of repute,” because consumption has become a more effective way to display wealth. He contends that conspicuous consumption has worked in conjunction with conspicuous waste to supplant conspicuous leisure as a display of wealth because purposeless leisure is no longer respected (57 and 59). Veblen defines waste rather strangely. It is not the waste of common parlance. Any purchase that does not serve to sustain life and that is “incurred on the ground of an invidious pecuniary comparison” can be termed waste (61). Veblen argues that this shift is in part due to the “plebian origin” of some members of the leisure class. Why is the display of wealth so important? According to Veblen, it is necessary to “gain and to hold the esteem of men.” Wealth and power are essentially meaningless or non-existent if they are not evidenced in some way (24).

Like Marx, Veblen finds that the value of an object is derived not from use-value (or the consumption of goods accumulated). For Veblen, “the motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation (17). While Capital states that the mystical aspect of commodities arises from the oddities of the capitalistic mode of production, the work does not explain consumer behavior. It is interesting though that the term “commodity fetishism” has an alternative meaning. While Marx mockingly considers a commodity an object imbued with magical powers, “commodity fetishism” could be used to describe the worship of commodities. Veblen’s work accounts for this other aspect of capitalist culture. His work explains the worship of objects, grounding it in the strong impulse to emulate.


Together, Marx and Veblen account for many of the peculiarities of modern capitalism. It is pointless and unproductive to attempt to determine which theory of value is superior. As previously stated, Veblen and Marx are studying two distinct, albeit interrelated, aspects of capitalism. Neither theory provides a complete explanation of consumer behavior. It is unlikely that any one theory could do such work.

  • I'm not sure that the questions asked by Marx and Veblen are as "distinct" as you seem to be claiming. But we are certainly not a seminar in choosing the best single theory of value, so you can't possibly be worried about refusing to do so as a ground of criticism.

  • I think you did a perfectly fine job clearing away the brush, establishing the relationship between Marx's thought and Veblen's, on at least one key issue. Rather than explaining why you shouldn't have to choose between them, however, I think you could take the discussion a little further forward. You could, for example, point out more briefly another area where Veblen in his own view answers questions raised by Marx, and leave the exposition for the reader to make on his own.


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r9 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:18:34 - IanSullivan
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