Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Thorstein Bunde Veblen
Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Thorstein Bunde Veblen, the American economist and social theorist, is perhaps best known for his ironic style, a style that was at one with his life. Although he is still thought of abroad as the most influential American social scientist, among social scientists in America his influence has almost vanished.

He is virtually unknown to college students, even if a scattered lot of Veblen’s concepts—most obviously, “conspicuous consumption”—are unwittingly part of their speech and analyses.

Born on a Wisconsin farm, Veblen developed the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of American industrial society in the early twentieth century. He emphasized qualitative relationships in the historical process, and his aim was an inclusive theory of social change.

antitheoretical investigations
antitheoretical investigations

However, the largest number of those who have walked in Veblen’s footsteps are known for quantitative, essentially unhistorical, often antitheoretical investigations.

Where his followers have not deviated from his work in these ways, they have in another: Veblen called for, if he did not usually practice, dispassionate social analysis; many of his most fervent disciples are also quite fervent in their social analyses.

Like his contemporary, Charles S. Peirce, Veblen was a scholar of great intellectual achievement whose academic career was, at best, undistinguished. He took his doctorate in philosophy at Yale, whence he moved to Cornell to study economics.

University of Chicago
University of Chicago

In a year he moved to the new University of Chicago, where he taught, and he also edited the Journal of Political Economy. Before long acrimony between Veblen and the administration over his academic and social nonconformity developed to a point where the happiest step for all concerned was for Veblen to leave Chicago.

That experience, added to by similar ones at his next teaching post at Stanford, prompted Veblen to write one of his most scathing, if also very useful and sound, books: The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen (New York, 1918). The original subtitle, abandoned for one reason or another, was “A Study in Total Depravity.”

Stanford and Veblen failed to cement relations, and Veblen drifted to the University of Missouri, where he was sheltered by the eminent economist Herbert Davenport. Lectures at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and a brief interlude with the federal government, for which he wrote memoranda connected with World War I, ended Veblen’s professional career.

Stanford hills
Stanford hills

The department of economics at Cornell chose to add him to its faculty but that wish was denied by the university administration.Veblen spent his last few years unproductively, in a cabin in the Stanford hills, where he died, embittered against society.

The prime influences on Veblen appear to have been David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx—although the influence of each was much transmuted by the mind and the circumstances of Veblen.

The skepticism of Hume and the evolutionary approach of Darwin combined with the American scene to impel Veblen to launch a barrage of telling criticism at what he took to be the metaphysical, teleological, and optimistic qualities of Marxian analysis. But Veblen was not so much a critic as an adaptor of Marx, and his own works may be looked at most usefully in that light.

Darwinian concepts
Darwinian concepts

Darwinian concepts aside, the starting point of Veblen’s analysis of society and of social change was fundamentally Marxian. The relationship of tension and change that Marx attributed to the conflict between “the forces of production” and “the mode of production” are present in Veblen’s close equivalents, technology and institutions.

For both men this relationship deserves and requires investigation within a framework of history (for Marx) or the genetic process (for Veblen).

But if the starting point for Veblen was the same as that of Marx, it was also there that basic similarities ended. For Marx the nineteenth-century assumptions of rationality went unquestioned, but for Veblen those assumptions were high on the list of matters to be investigated.

social change
social change

As a consequence Veblen believed that a theory of social change required the integration of social psychology (and the psychology of related matters, such as nationalism and patriotism) with economics, politics, and history.

Stemming from this is another difference: For Marx there were “general laws of motion of capitalist society” discoverable by the investigator; for Veblen those general laws had to be so qualified by national and cultural differences that it was not only plausible but also probable that capitalism would work out differently in different nations.

Thus the very general quality of the conclusions to be found in Capital, when compared with Veblen’s differing expectations for capitalism in Great Britain and Germany and in the United States.

social irrationality
social irrationality

The point is illustrated by Veblen’s findings about Japan and Germany, which (with much prescience) he saw as facing very much the same future despite their very different economic histories. For Veblen the decisive factors for the two nations were those making for extreme nationalism and social irrationality, moving them in much the same direction at much the same speed.

There is a final and striking difference between Marx and Veblen. In addition to his role as a social scientist, Marx was a political activist and propagandist, and his scientific writings were integrally connected with his political aims, concerning which Marx was optimistic.

Veblen was politically aloof, except for a few periods such as his wartime propagandistic activity, and his role was that of Cassandra. Marx saw the class struggle as the means by which the contradictions between the forces and the mode of production would one day necessarily bring about the desired socialist society.

capitalist society
capitalist society

Although Veblen would have found that socialist society less repulsive than the capitalist society he analyzed, his mood was gloomy and his vision apocalyptic, as suggested in one of his better-known but by no means unrepresentative observations in The Instinct of Workmanship: “history records more frequent and more spectacular instances of the triumph of imbecile institutions over life and culture than of peoples who have saved themselves alive out of a desperately precarious institutional situation, such, for instance, as now faces the people of Christendom.”

Veblen’s critical energies were spent most persistently in attacking the business system and nationalism, in that order. But he reserved his most savage wit for organized religion, which he considered a special—and the most successful—form of salesmanship, manned by mental defectives whose business it is “to promise everything and deliver nothing.”
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