Home > Uncategorized > Veblen’s insights come back to haunt us.

Veblen’s insights come back to haunt us.

from Ken Zimmerman

Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” is even more relevant for events over the last 100 years. But this and most other Veblen research and writing have been systematically buried. Thorstein Veblen’s working life — from 1890 to 1923 — overlapped with America’s first Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain, whose novel of that title lampooned the greedy corruption of the country’s most leisurely gentlemen (all men). Now, well into America’s second (bigger and better) Gilded Age, in a world of overwhelming inequality, Veblen’s insights come back to haunt us.

A brilliant student and scholar, Veblen studied anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and political economy (out-of-date for what’s now called economics). When Veblen studied economics, he, like most economists was concerned with the actual conditions of ordinary human beings. None would have settled for data from a sham “free market.” Veblen’s first job was at the University of Chicago, the university bought and paid for by John D. Rockefeller the classic robber baron, and leader of the leisure class. Rockefeller called the university “the best investment” he ever made, since he intended to use it to advance the interests of his class and suppress opposition.

Still, from the beginning, Thorstein Veblen was there, prepared to focus his mind on Rockefeller and his cronies, the cream of the upper class and the most ruthless profiteers behind that Gilded Age. Veblen asked the basic questions any anthropologist would ask. Questions once again in the forefront today.

  • How had such a conspicuous lordly class developed in America?
  • What purpose did it serve?
  • What did the members of the leisure class do with their time and money?
  • And why did so many of the ruthlessly over-worked, under-paid lower classes tolerate such a peculiar, lopsided social arrangement in which they were so clearly the losers?

Veblen addressed these questions in “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” published in 1899. Veblen showed no animus for or against a leisure class. It is his affair simply to find out how and why and what it is. If the book leaves the reader angry, upset, or uncertain about how America works, that seems to be solely the effect of the facts Veblen presents. Oh, to have another Veblen today to pull aside the curtain and reveal the world of smug, witless plutocrats like the one now in the White House, bankers and even worse large corporation, hedge fund and private equity fund CEOs paid billions of dollars per year. All busying themselves with nonproductive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively “(1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness.” This “Leisure Class” looking down its collective nose at the laboring masses, was all around Veblen in 1899 as it is once again today.

Veblen revealed many examples of cooperative, peaceable cultures that had supported no such idle class at all. As well as class-ridden cultures that saved upper-class men for the “honourable employments”: governance, warfare, priestly office, or sports. Such arrangements prompted aggressive, dominant behavior that, over time, caused societies to change for the worse. Indeed, those aggressive upper-class men soon discovered the special pleasure that lay in taking whatever they wanted by “seizure,” as Veblen termed it. Such an aggressive way of living and acting, in turn, became the definition of masculine “prowess,” admired even by the working class subjugated by it. By contrast, actual work – the laborious production of the goods needed by society — was devalued. “The obtaining [of goods] by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.” Such constant “predation,” soon became the “habitual, conventional resource” of the parasitical class. This is the history of how a more peaceable, communal existence had evolved into the grim, combative industrial age in which he found himself: an age shadowed by predators seeking only profits and power and putting down any workers who tried to stand up for themselves. This was not merely a “mechanical” change, but a spiritual transformation said Veblen.

Rough as this was on people like Rockefeller, it was probably the 14th and last chapter that got him fired from Rockefeller’s university: “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” And some wonder today why economists and other academics are sometimes reluctant to attack the predators sucking our blood today and paying their salaries!    read more

  1. Craig
    April 21, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    Indeed, ethics has been dropped out of economics for some time, and the most basic factor that insures a leisure class, the paradigm of Debt Only for the sole form and vehicle for the distribution of money/credit, has remain unchanged since the start of human civilization as Michael Hudson and David Graeber remind us. Money, debt and banks as Steve Keen has correctly observed are ignored by neo-classical DSGE. The better to keep the real problem, the deepest factor of the problem unconscious in the minds of both the masses and the intellectual class.

    Focus on and integrate ethics and the intention to resolve the deepest problem, the current monetary, financial and economic paradigm and a Wisdomics will emerge.

  2. Econoclast
    April 21, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    By way of agreeing with everything Ken says here, I will offer something I posted recently on this blog:

    “I have read a terrific essay with an intriguing title, ‘The Man Who Saw Trump Coming A Century Ago” (www.tomdispatch.com/post/176550/tomgram%3A_ann_jones%2C_our_veblen_moment/). My grad school professors, self-described ‘liberals’ all, explicitly dismissed and disrespected Thorstein Veblen and the ideology of Institutional Economics as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘passe’. I find today rereading Veblen’s classic The Theory of the Leisure Class quite refreshing and entirely current and relevant.”

    I recently recommended Veblen to a young friend, who liked the content but found he stumbled a bit on the prose. Yes, it has a bit of the qualities found in much prose written in Victorian times, and I stumble a bit as well. But, as Ken shows here, moving past any such stumble is well worth the effort.

    For those who don’t possess the book, here’s a link to a pdf version: http://moglen.law.columbia.edu/LCS/theoryleisureclass.pdf.

  3. April 21, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    A plain observation of this exists in Massachusetts. Here a Chinese factory in Springfield is making railroad passenger cars for the Boston transit system. The Chinese also brought the management skills to use local labor.

    The leisure class wants to attack Venezuela and steal its resources, probably using Chinese contractors.

  4. Helen Sakho
    April 23, 2019 at 2:49 am

    Leisure tourism turned into genocide tourism some time ago. Let us be honest for a change and declare the “science” of Economics dead. Long live Economics! And the show goes on!

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