The Gadfly of American Plutocracy
Far from a marginal outsider, a new biography contends, Thorstein Veblen was the most important economic thinker of the Gilded Age. His critiques of capitalism and economic theory speak to our own era of economic injustice.
December 2, 2020
Dec 2, 2020
26 Min read time
Far from a marginal outsider, a new biography contends, Thorstein Veblen was the most important economic thinker of the Gilded Age.
Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics
Harvard University Press, $39.95 (cloth)
In 1893 financial panic triggered a four-year depression in the United States, then the most severe in the nation’s history. Bank runs, shuttered factories, and plummeting wheat prices put millions out of work. In Chicago alone, as many as 180,000 workers were jobless by the end of the year.
Veblen was perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most original American economist of his era.
An attempt by the Pullman Palace Car Company in the city’s South Side to impose a 30 percent wage cut on its workforce in the spring of 1894 led to a walkout by the newly formed American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs (not yet famous as the socialist firebrand who would later win 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election). It quickly escalated into full-scale boycott of luxury Pullman cars by hundreds of thousands of railroad workers across the country—the infamous Pullman strike, which took place between May and July. With the railways paralyzed, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago, and pitched battles—at times lethal—erupted in working-class neighborhoods. “This is no longer a strike,” the Chicago Tribune thundered: “This is a revolution.” That same spring, hundreds of desperate, unemployed workers, calling themselves the Army of the Commonwealth of Christ, marched from Ohio to the White House, demanding the federal government offer relief in the form of an ambitious public works program to be funded by the unprecedented issuance of fiat money. Another 700 workers from the northwest forcefully commandeered a train to make the trip to D.C., fending off marshals until federal troops intercepted them in Montana.
This was the atmosphere surrounding the campus of the University of Chicago, then only a few years old, which had just hired a young Norwegian-American economist named Thorstein Veblen two years earlier. In June of 1894 Veblen remarked on these events of worker action for the Journal of Political Economy; he was its founding managing editor. Focusing on Army of the Commonwealth, he dismissively observed “a general conviction that society owes every honest man a living.” These men, he suggested, had fallen prey to the “articulate illusion” of “greenbackism,” to “protectionism,” “populism,” or to “any other of the ramifications of the paternalistic tree of life.” Yet his teaching at Chicago and book reviews for the Journal in this moment tell another story, indexing a deep interest in the agenda of “socialism” emerging both from the American working class—in 1893, the AFL Convention adopted a political program with an explicit call for the “collectivization of industry”—and from Marxist theory emanating across the Atlantic. Despite his ridicule of the march’s proposals, Veblen credited it and its direct appeal to the federal government “an expression of the fact latterly emerging into popular consciousness, that the entire community is a single industrial organism, whose integration is advancing day by day, regardless of any traditional or conventional boundary lines or demarcations.”
Veblen’s ideas have a new urgency in what many have called our new Gilded Age.
The ambiguities of this stance were typical of Veblen, perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most original American economist of his era, and subject of a landmark new biography by sociologist Charles Camic. Though a fulsome critic of the flagrant predations of Gilded Age capitalism and biting chronicler of its business aristocracy, he could appear indifferent to the popular movements that drew on similar arguments. Prescient in recognizing the interconnectedness of individual fates within a country rapidly becoming a single industrial whole, he was unremittingly hostile to reform with any shade of “paternalism”—especially from the state. Living through economic convulsion and class conflict unlike any other in U.S. history, he often preferred to retreat into the long view of an evolutionary perspective that reduced the present to a little speck in the passage of millennia. The historian John Patrick Diggins neatly summarized some of these ambiguities in the preface to his 1978 study The Bard of Savagery:
On the left Marxists admire his critique of capitalism but are piqued by his rejection of Hegel and dialectical materialism; liberals value his attack on big business but are disturbed by his skepticism about historical progress; conservatives rejoice in his exposure of the foibles of mass society but are shocked by his disrespect for the rich and the powerful; and feminists esteem his understanding of the archaic basis of masculine domination but are puzzled by his own relationships with women. Veblen seems to delight everyone and satisfy no one.
Yet despite these antinomies, Veblen’s ideas inarguably have a new urgency in what many have called our new Gilded Age, as wealth inequality has soared past mid-twentieth century levels to approach that of its namesake. The objects of Veblen’s notorious critique in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)—“conspicuous consumption,” “wastefulness,” “pecuniary culture,” the “parasitism” of elites—strike a new resonance as stocks soar to record highs while millions are out of work or forced to labor in unsafe conditions, as the ultra-rich helicopter to the Hamptons for the pandemic while everyone else shelters in place, as the billionaire president conducts affairs of state from his many golf resorts. “Real estate,” Veblen once remarked, “is an enterprise in ‘futures,’ designed to get something for nothing from the unwary, of whom it is believed by experienced persons that ‘there is one born every minute.’” Sound familiar?
Practically since his death in 1929, serious attention to Veblen’s thought and the distinctive social and intellectual world in which it developed has been hampered by his portrait as a reclusive outsider, a “marginal man” who translated the ressentiment of his alienation from the country’s elite—as the son of first-generation Norwegian immigrant farmers in the Upper Midwest—into acid critique of American mores. Stories of aloof temperament, lousy teaching, and womanizing have mixed together into a heady reputational cocktail, leaving even his acolytes a little apologetic. Bitter about his mistreatment by the academy, in his later life Veblen seemed at times to relish in his outsider image; his dying wish was “to be cremated . . . as expeditiously and inexpensively as may be, without ritual or ceremony of any kind,” with “no tombstone, slab, epitaph, effigy, tablet, inscription or monument of any name or nature . . . set up in my memory.” This basic narrative was reproduced by his first biographer Joseph Dorfman in Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), a touchstone even for his later admirers. That Veblen left little correspondence and no archive behind has made it all the more difficult to recover an alternative perspective.
The stakes of this new biography are more than reputational: what Charles Camic really uncovers are the resources Veblen drew upon to make sense of his era—one of disquieting echoes with our own.
A sociologist of knowledge and veteran Veblen scholar, Camic’s overriding aim is to demolish this received opinion. Through careful reconstruction and prodigious archival sleuthing, he convincingly presents a Veblen as a “consummate academic insider,” trained at four leading universities of his day by the esteemed thinkers of his generation, well-respected within the economic profession, speaking confidently to its central theoretical debates, and deftly employing the conceptual repertoire of late nineteenth-century American thought. (To boot, Veblen is acquitted on charges of personal coldness, poor teaching ability, and all but one case of extramarital relations.) The stakes of this excavation are more than reputational: what Camic really uncovers are the resources Veblen drew upon to make sense of his era—one of disquieting echoes with our own.
• • •
Born in 1857 to a close-knit Norwegian family in Cato, Wisconsin, Veblen moved as a child to Rice County, Minnesota, as his parents steadily pushed further west to escape the advancing frontier of capitalist integration. (At home the chief language was Valdris, the southern-Norwegian dialect.) Economic historians Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman argue that, in this antebellum period, a fully egalitarian wealth distribution “was more nearly realized in the rural northern United States than elsewhere in human history.” This singular experience of the homestead economy provided Veblen with a nostalgic vision of “self-sufficient” producers that he counterposed throughout his life with those—like the small-town merchants and land speculators of his early life—forever leeching on the “productive labor” of others. Infused with the Lutheran moralism of his upbringing, this distinction between honest labor and wasteful idleness would be one he put to work throughout his career.
Serious attention to Veblen’s thought has been hampered by his portrait as a reclusive outsider—a “marginal man” who translated the ressentiment of his alienation from the elite into acid critique of American mores.
Fortuitously for Veblen, his family farm lay only a few miles from the new Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and the unusual decision of his parents to continue his education set him quite accidentally on an academic path. An encounter with the economist John Bates Clark, then teaching at Carleton at the outset of his own career first kindled his interest in political economy, although it was the more prestigious discipline of philosophy that Veblen initially undertook to study for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins, then the leading model of a modern research university in the United States. Transferring to Yale to complete his doctorate, he became in 1884 one of the first dozen men to earn a doctorate in the subject at an American university.
Veblen subsequently spent six years back in Minnesota recuperating from a mysterious illness, and trying and failing to secure an academic position (the academic job market, then as now, was not great), before taking the extraordinary step—mostly unheard of today, and certainly so in the 1890s—of getting another PhD to enhance his prospects, this time in political economy. He began this work at Cornell but transferred once more when he followed his mentor, the economist James Laurence Laughlin, to Chicago, where he finally took a junior faculty position in 1894.
By the completion of this fairly remarkable trajectory, Veblen had studied under a pantheon of distinguished teachers, including the economists Clark, Laughlin, and Richard T. Ely, the philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, George Sylvester Morris, Noah Porter, and George Trumbull Ladd, the historians Herbert Baxter Adams, Moses Coit Tyler, and Herbert Tuttle, and the proto-sociologist William Graham Sumner. Few of these are familiar names to twenty-first century ears, but they were pivotal figures nineteenth-century American intellectual life. Beyond academic pedigree, Camic suggests that Veblen’s teachers shared a fundamental conceptual repertoire that the economist, through a process of “repetition-with-variation,” imbibed and then reworked to apply to the key theoretical problems of economics at the turn of the century.
Veblen’s ideas were informed by a deep faith in the progressive power of scientific research and the profound influence of an evolutionary perspective on both biological and social life.
This shared repertoire included a deep faith in the progressive power of scientific research (be it in natural history, mental philosophy, or archivally informed biblical criticism), and the profound influence of an evolutionary perspective, taken from both Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, on both biological and social life. In the context of an emergent “social science,” this outlook lent itself to a focus above all on the progressive evolution of “institutions”—social, legal, cultural, economic—through human history.
At Hopkins, the economist Ely and the historian Adams, both influenced by the German historicism they absorbed during their doctorates at the University of Heidelberg, aspired “to place the study of society on a scientific footing” in their shared department “by tracing the course of economic, political, and other institutional developments over the historical period since antiquity.” A student of the German historical economist Karl Knies, Ely excoriated classical political economy (in the style of Adam Smith and David Ricardo) for making “universal self-interest the preponderating cause of economic phenomena,” a message further reinforced by Sumner at Yale. Sumner, for his part, sought in parallel to construct a new science of sociology tracing the “the structure and functions of the organs of society,” accepting that were “no bounds to the scope of the philosophy of evolution” as applied to social life. This philosophy of evolution was likewise reinforced by Peirce, who lionized Darwin for introducing a “probabilistic” account of scientific laws in his On the Origin of Species (1859), in accounting for the contingency of natural variation—an admiration shared by Veblen’s later colleagues in practically every department at Chicago, from the biologist Jacques Loeb to the philosopher John Dewey.
There is no doubt that Veblen drew on this rich intellectual climate. But while Camic’s theme of repetition with variation is argumentatively compelling, it can be narratively unsatisfying. In line with the author’s commitments to the approach of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, over a hundred and fifty pages (some forty percent of the text) are devoted to Veblen’s education: the effect is of a rather encyclopedic bildungsroman, in which our young hero ventures from campus to campus, filling out the lengthening pages of his curriculum vitae. Meanwhile, though Camic describes the momentous political and economic transformations of the period, he rarely discusses Veblen’s own experience or understanding of them, to the extent this can be reconstructed from a fragmentary archive, until we get to the later scholarly output for which he became famous. Still, the biography succeeds in moving Veblen from the margins of fin-de-siècle intellectual life and placing him squarely in the center.
• • •
Shortly after Veblen arrived in Hyde Park, the metropolis around him erupted in open revolt. Not coincidentally, the central debate among American economists at this moment concerned the just compensation of “capital” and “labor”—the same question over which blood was being spilled across the city.
The biography succeeds in moving Veblen from the margins of fin-de-siècle intellectual life and placing him squarely in the center.
A central figure in this debate was Veblen’s old Carleton teacher John Bates Clark. In his early career, when Veblen first encountered him, Clark—himself taught by historicists in Zurich and Heidelberg—had equally taken to task English political economy for its incapacity to accommodate historical change within it its “mazes of logical wandering.” In his early writing Clark was a searing critic of the “latent brutality” of the new corporate capitalism in the United States, which he warned was leading to “socialistic tendencies” and “communistic agitations.” In “How to Deal with Communism,” written in the wake of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, involving some 100,000 workers and violently put down by federal troops, he frankly charged that:
We offer a man a pittance, and tell him to take it and work for us from morning till night or starve; but we do not coerce him. It is at his option to choose whether he will work or not; he is free you observe! . . . We kill men, it is true; but not with cudgels in open fight. We do it slowly, and frequently take the precaution to kill the soul first; and we do it in an orderly and systematic manner. Indeed we have any number of books and learned professors to tell us precisely in accordance with what laws we may kill them, and indeed must kill them, if we will not break with the system of which we are a part.
Over time, however, perhaps due to continuation of major social upheaval throughout the 1880s, Clark’s position on the labor movement hardened. Drawing on the resources of the new “marginalist” theory coming from Europe, he developed in the early 1890s a theory of the “distribution of wealth” that became an object of vigorous contention within the discipline. Proceeding from the assumption that entrepreneurs always employed the “factors” of capital and labor in production to maximize profits, Clark argued that the amount of each factor used, determined by the pull of supply and demand reflected in relative prices, always followed from the precise value each added to final profits. In other words, as he put it in his landmark The Distribution of Wealth (1899), “labor tends to get, as its share, what it separately produces,” and “capital does the same.” The inequities of the Gilded Age, in this account, were merely the natural outcome of the superior productivity of capital: “We get what we produce—such is the dominant rule of life.”
According to Veblen, the value of an object of consumption for the leisure class often derived from its lack of any possible association with work or productivity.
This idea, what we today call “marginal productivity theory,” is still embedded into the assumptions of modern economics. But Camic shows that Veblen used the considerable intellectual arsenal developed in his long apprenticeship to mount a full-scale assault on its presumptions. It is this agenda, Camic suggests, that determined the shape of Veblen’s most famous works, both The Theory of the Leisure Class and its follow-up The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904).
The former book (also Veblen’s first), still by far his most read, is often thought of barbed document of social critique, an ironic “field guide” to the habits and manners of the new American bourgeoisie, in line with journalist contemporaries like Herbert Croly, or literary figures like Henry James and Edith Wharton. But Camic shows Veblen had another purpose: he understood the book as a serious economic theory, taking a “scientific,” even natural-historical perspective on the new and exotic American institution of the leisure class.
The insights afforded by this close observation systematically cut against the assumptions of marginalists like Clark. From this basis, Veblen presented three key arguments. First, the value of an object of consumption for the leisure class often derived from its lack of any possible association with work or productivity. Thus consumer goods were valued precisely for being expensive, and “conspicuous abstention from labor . . . becomes the conventional mark of pecuniary achievement”—resulting in a “leisure-class canon [that] demands strict and comprehensive futility,” even down to modes of the dress whose own inflexible construction displayed their distance from any necessary exertion. Second, marginalist faith in transhistorical “laws” of the market was belied by the perpetual evolution of economic institutions over time, evidenced not least by the novel phenomena of the leisure class itself. Finally, this evolutionary perspective, informed by the findings of archaeology and ethnology, revealed a historical succession of “predatory institutions” and ruling classes that similarly lived on the extracted social surplus produced by their slaves or subjects. (It should be noted that Veblen sometimes resorted to racial-type explanations for why such a divide might be perpetuated.) The leisure class, in other words, was just a dressed-up, modern twist on earlier forms of ruling-class plunder, swapping out chainmail for straw hats and linen suits.
Veblen thought that marginalist faith in transhistorical “laws” of the market was belied by the perpetual evolution of economic institutions over time, evidenced not least by the novel phenomena of the leisure class itself.
“Life in a modern industrial community, or in other word life under the pecuniary culture,” Veblen wrote, thus acts “to conserve the barbarian temperament, but with the substitution of fraud and prudence.” His description of “parasitism,” with the vampiric leisure class “withdrawing from [the lower classes] as much as it may of the means of sustenance, and so reducing their consumption . . . and available energy,” and ultimately acting “to lower the industrial efficiency of the community,” was intended as a mocking, lurid inversion of Clark’s panglossian faith that all received the just fruits of their work, and that free enterprise tended to the most efficient production of wealth.
Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise, less well known but equally powerful, extended this argument to the then-novel corporate structure of the business firm itself. Proceeding from a division between “industrial employments” (scientists, engineers, skilled mechanics, or farmers, for instance) and “pecuniary employments” (business managers, entrepreneurs, bankers, stockbrokers, real estate agents), Veblen argued that the storied separation of “ownership” and “management” in the modern corporate form had put pecuniary interests firmly in the driving seat. Channeling, for once directly, the plaintive appeals of workers’ movements, Veblen asked rhetorically:
Why do we, now and again, have hard times and unemployment in the midst of excellent resources, high efficiency and plenty of unmet wants? Why is one-half our consumable product contrived for consumption that yields no material benefit? . . . . Why are large and increasing portions of the community penniless in spite of a scale of remuneration which is very appreciably above the subsistence minimum?
His answer—once again in contrast to Clark’s productivity theory—was that large profits in a closely integrated industrial economy were primarily earned through “pecuniary transactions” amid times rapid oscillations of boom and bust. Thus “it is, in great part, through or by force of [such] fluctuations . . . that large accumulations of wealth are made.” But “insofar as the gains of these unproductive occupations are of a substantial character, they come out of the aggregate product of other occupations,” that is, from the value-adding “industrial employments” themselves. Ultimately, then, “business” itself had become parasitic on “industry.” The “competitive management of industry becomes incompatible with continued prosperity so soon as the machine process has been developed to its fuller efficiency” and indeed, “further technological advance” would only “act to heighten the impracticability of competitive business.” The modern corporation, in other words, was already an archaic fetter on the full promise of technologically driven prosperity.
Veblen achieved these critiques by reconfiguring the methods of economics. He rejected the rigidity of models within both the old political economy and the new marginalism.
Veblen achieved these critiques by reconfiguring the methods of economics. He rejected the rigidity of models within both the old political economy and the new marginalism, arguing that both were guilty of excessive reductionism of human motives—with its cartoonish figure of homo economicus—and inattention to the historically specific architecture of economic life and behavior in any given period. Lampooning the “hedonistic conception of man” in marginal utility theory as “a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness,” he supplied instead what we might today call a constructivist approach. Drawing on his on training, Veblen articulated an alternative economics understood as an “evolutionary science.” In this conception:
[Man] is not simply a bundle of desires, . . . but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits. . . [These] are the products of his hereditary traits and past experience, cumulatively wrought out under a given body of traditions, conventionalities, and material circumstances. . . In all this flux there is no definitively adequate method of life and no definitive or absolutely worthy end of action, so far as concerns the science which sets out to formulate a theory of the process of economic life. . . What, in specific detail, [humans] seek, is not to be answered except by a scrutiny of the details of their activity; but, so long as we have to do with their life as members of the economic community, there remains the generic fact that their life is an unfolding activity of a teleological kind.
Contrary to Veblen’s current reputation as an outsider, Camic shows that contemporaneous economists, even on the marginalist side, took these arguments seriously—and his theories were hotly debated in the leading journals of his profession. Moreover, Veblenian ideas, especially his historical attention to institutions, exerted a strong pull on a younger generation of scholars who went on to found the “institutionalist” school of economic thought. Institutionalists Adolf Berle, Jr., and Gardiner Means built on Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise to put the modern, publicly traded corporation under the microscope. Their classic work, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932) would suggest that the legal form of the corporation was breaking apart of the “the unity that we commonly call property” given the separation of ownership and management over corporate assets, and that economic concentration entirely undermined the putative ideal of competitive prices. Another institutionalist student of Veblen’s, Wesley Mitchell, began investigations of the business cycle—which could only be conceived of as an anomaly in the static equilibrium theories of the marginalists. Turning to questions of economic measurement, he helped found and lead the National Bureau of Economic Research, which played a key role in the emergence of GDP measurement in the 1930s, which is now second nature in both economic governance and public consciousness. Reaching its apex in the interwar period, several disciples of the institutionalist school, like Berle, John Maurice Clark (son of Veblen’s teacher and adversary), and the young John Kenneth Galbraith, went on to staff key economic policy roles during the New Deal—shaping its willingness to intervene directly into markets.
Today the influence of Veblen is felt less in mainstream economic theory than in the fabric of ideas and institutions that shape economic life, from econometric statistics and regulatory agencies to antitrust and labor law.
It was only during the effective “neoclassical” counterrevolution beginning in the 1930s that Veblen’s suspicion of ahistorical formalism was gradually but firmly exorcised from the modern discipline. A subsequent generation of “new institutionalists,” drawing especially on the work of Ronald Coase, sought instead to rehabilitate neoclassical models—a synthesis that can be seen in the work of Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Williamson, or Daron Acemoglu. Today the influence of Veblen and his students is therefore felt less in mainstream economic theory (with the exception of critics of neoclassicism such as Ha-Joon Chang) than in the fabric of ideas and institutions that shape economic life, from econometric statistics and regulatory agencies to antitrust and labor law.
• • •
The fateful year of 1893 was also the year Veblen met a graduate student in economics named Sarah McLean Hardy. Shared intellectual enthusiasm escalated over several years into infatuation on Veblen’s part, but by the time he confessed his love, Hardy was already engaged to another man. (Camic does not explore their relationship, though he repeatedly draws on their lively correspondence on theory and politics.) This episode led to a permanent break with his wife Ellen Veblen, although she refused him a divorce. Rumors of an affair between Veblen and another graduate student in 1904 (Camic thinks them false) were too much for Chicago’s President William Rainey Harper, already scandalized by Veblen’s scathing opinion of the growing influence of business in universities, a view he later published in The Higher Learning in America (1918). After fourteen years at Chicago, and at the height of Veblen’s academic reputation, he was out.
Although Veblen landed on his feet with a faculty position at Stanford, a discreet love affair between Veblen and yet another former student, Ann Bevans, that began in 1905 (they eventually married in 1914 when he obtained a divorce) compounded the earlier rumors that followed him. Soon enough Veblen was ejected from Stanford too, leaving in 1909. It was a double blow, both to his standing in the profession and to the economic and institutional security that had allowed him to produce his landmark work.
Camic suggests that Veblen retreated from the theoretical battlefield of professional economics in the latter part of his life, but a closer engagement with his output suggests his thinking grew more expansive as a result.
One weakness of Camic’s biography is that Veblen’s twenty years of post-academic life are shunted off to the conclusion. One might get the impression that the work of this period, no longer recognized by his former academic peers, merits little attention—and that about personal scandal, the less said the better. The shape of the narrative thus unconsciously reproduces the snobbery of his erstwhile colleagues, and by the end of the book he has become a pariah. This is a shame, because Veblen’s journalistic writing in later life for outlets like The New Republic and The Dial likely reached a far larger contemporary audience than his scholarly work ever did, and his hand in ventures like the founding of the New School for Social Research in New York had a lasting impact. Camic suggests that Veblen retreated from the theoretical battlefield of professional economics in this period, but a closer engagement with his output suggests his thinking grew more expansive as a result.
This new sense of vision is particularly striking in The Engineers and the Price System (1921), a published collection of essays for The Dial that Veblen wrote in the recession following World War I. The book feels rather current in today’s moment of low global growth rates, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change openly calling for “rapid and systemic changes on unprecedented scales” to prevent catastrophic warming, with mainstream economists exploring the need for a “mission-oriented” state, and with heterodox thinkers behind the Green New Deal drawing on the unprecedented wartime economic mobilization of World War II for resources to think through an alternative order of states and markets. Criticizing the distortions of the “price system,” which “sabotaged” (more than any worker-led stoppages) the rational and efficient organization of productive capacity, Veblen imagined a possible “soviet of technicians” that might take over management of the economy from the “vested interests” in the future.
As in the past, Veblen’s technocratic faith misrecognized the social forces available to bring about such sea change—despite his attempted proselytizing among engineers at the New School. Nevertheless, given the industrial strategy and state coordination needed for the complete decarbonization that the biosphere urgently requires, his critique might be a better starting point than the ritual genuflections of today’s economists toward the altar of market prices and their musty repetitions of the catechism of its high priest, Friedrich Hayek.
Above all, Veblen captured the excesses and inefficiencies that “vested interests” impose on capitalist production. The grounds of his critique were moral, but in our day it is a matter of survival.
We are not today living in a simple repetition of the 1890s, as the evolutionarily minded Veblen would have been the first to admit. Contemporary readers will blush at Veblen’s technocratic confidence; the answers to our manifold economic travails will require a different arrangement of both the conceptual and the political furniture. But as a testament to one of the last and most brilliant representatives of an older tradition of economics that genuinely sought to speak to its time, this new biography comes at an opportune time. Above all, Veblen captured the excesses and inefficiencies that “vested interests” impose on capitalist production, as he put it in a powerful collection of essays published in 1919.
The grounds of his critique of waste were moral, but in our time—when every additional ton of carbon emitted imperils the future—it is a matter of survival. Within mainstream economics today, the most radical critiques of the present amount to modest concessions that contemporary markets can lead to “inequitable” compensation, “inefficient” work-life conflicts, or regional imbalances of investment. Veblen had no such inhibitions. “Is it safe, or sane,” he once wrote, “to go into the future by the light of these same established canons . . . that so have been tried and found wanting?” Like the naturalists he so admired, he saw himself soberly cataloguing the economic life-forms of the teeming jungle that surrounded him, the ecology that connected and sustained them. Beneath the austere exterior and the scowl in his photographs, there was a dimly perceptible reservoir of Victorian faith that convinced him such grisly levels of predation and violence could not possibly last. We should hope he was right.
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December 02, 2020
26 Min read time