Full text: Ownership as interpersonal dominance

on the one hand, and a tenure by sufferance at the hands of superiors, on the other hand. 
(Veblen, 1898, p. 360) 
The logic of Veblen's (1899/1912) argument begins with man’s apprehension of himself as 
an agent, a centre of goal-directed activity. An agent seeks to achieve concrete, objective ends, 
and, therefore, has standards of serviceability and efficiency. This might be called an “instinct 
of workmanship”. As the result of comparisons between persons, workmanship becomes 
emulative and invidious: 
In any community where such an invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, 
visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. Esteem is 
gained and dispraise is avoided by putting one’s efficiency in evidence. The result is that 
the instinct of workmanship works out in an emulative demonstration of force. (Veblen, 
1899/1912, p. 16) 
Within aggressive, predatory societies, productive efficiency is conquest and seizure, 
particularly of women and slaves. The prestige and display of prowess first seen in the forceful 
dominance of people come to be represented by the accumulation of goods and by other signs 
of dominance, for example, abstaining from work, being served by others, and wasting 
resources. Property is essentially a trophy representing successful aggression. The motivation 
for the acquisition and consumption of goods is not sustenance or utilitarian pleasure, but 
social status and self respect, success as defined by social evolution: 
..there is reason to believe that the institution of ownership has begun with the ownership 
of persons, primarily women. The incentives to acquiring such property have apparently 
been: (1) a propensity for dominance and coercion; (2) the utility of these persons as 
ea once of the prowess of the owner; (3) the utility of their services. (Veblen, 1899/1912, p. 
Veblen might be charged with creating a romanticized origin to property. But it is interesting to 
note that Carpenter (1942) made a similar point by juxtaposing rhesus monkey social order, 
which has both exclusive possession of females and male dominance hierarchy, with howler 
monkey social order, which has neither. 
Although it appears to have not yet been noticed (e.g. Mason, 1981), most of Veblen's 
theory had appeared earlier in Spencer's (1879/1893) discussion of “Ceremonial Institutions”. 
Veblen’s contribution was to use popular, contemporary sociological illustrations and to argue 
against Spencer's claim that the use of possessions as status symbols would gradually 
disappear as societies advanced toward egalitarian industrialism. Veblen apparently had little 
impact on economic theory, but his analysis was generally accepted holus-bolus within the 
social sciences and soon became common knowledge (Mason, 1981). For example, in Hartley 
and Hartley's 1952 social psychology text, there are sections entitled “Status Symbols” and

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