Thorstein Bunde Veblen
July 30, 1857
Cato, Wisconsin, U.S.
|Died||August 3, 1929 (aged 72)|
Menlo Park, California, U.S.
|Influences||Herbert Spencer, Thomas Paine, William Graham Sumner, Lester F. Ward, William James, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Edward Bellamy, John Dewey, Gustav von Schmoller, John Bates Clark, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier|
|Contributions||Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, trained incapacity, Veblenian dichotomy|
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Thorstein Bunde Veblen (July 30, 1857 – August 3, 1929) was a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist who, during his lifetime, emerged as a well-known critic of capitalism.
In his best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen coined the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Historians of economics regard Veblen as the founding father of the institutional economics school. Contemporary economists still theorize Veblen's distinction between "institutions" and "technology", known as the Veblenian dichotomy.
As a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era in the US, Veblen attacked production for profit. His emphasis on conspicuous consumption greatly influenced economists who engaged in non-Marxist critiques of fascism, capitalism, and of technological determinism.
Veblen was born on July 30, 1857, in Cato, Wisconsin, to Norwegian-American immigrant parents, Thomas Veblen and Kari Bunde. He was the sixth of twelve children.
His parents had emigrated from Norway to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 16, 1847, with few funds and no knowledge of English. Despite their limited circumstances as immigrants, Thomas Veblen's knowledge in carpentry and construction, paired with his wife's supportive perseverance, allowed them to establish a family farm in Rice County, Minnesota, where they moved in 1864. (The Veblen farmstead, located near the town of Nerstrand, became a National Historic Landmark in 1981.)
Veblen began his schooling at age 5. Although Norwegian was his first language, he learned English from neighbors and at school. His parents also learned to speak English fluently, though they continued to read predominantly Norwegian literature with and around their family on the farmstead. The family farm eventually grew more prosperous, allowing Veblen's parents to provide their children with formal education. Unlike most immigrant families of the time, Veblen and all of his siblings received training in lower schools and went on to receive higher education at the nearby Carleton College. Veblen's sister, Emily, was reputedly the first daughter of Norwegian immigrants to graduate from an American college. The eldest Veblen child, Andrew Veblen, ultimately became a professor of physics at Iowa State University and the father of one of America's leading mathematicians, Oswald Veblen of Princeton University.
Cold War commentators saw Veblen's ethnic-Norwegian background and his relative "isolation from American society" in Minnesota as essential to the understanding of his writings. Repurposing the Simmelian perspective introduced to US Sociology with the Cold War founding of Sociology departments at Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia, Harvard Sociologist David Riesman maintained that Veblen's background as a child of immigrants meant that Veblen was alienated from his parents' original culture, but that his "living in a Norwegian society within America" (Minnesota) made him unable to completely "assimilate and accept the available forms of Americanism." According to Stanford historian George M. Fredrickson (1959), the "Norwegian society" that Veblen lived in (Minnesota) was so "isolated" that when he left it "he was, in a sense, emigrating to America." These Cold War assessments reveal less about Veblen and far more about the aggressive Postwar rise of militarization, along with the central tension between (anxiety over) the US's extension of global Anglo imperialism and immigration's role in that political economy. To the extent that "Americanism" is not simply Cold War militarized commercial ideology but as well an assertion that Northern and Southern Atlantic ruling class networks are exclusively essential to the US identity (a tendentious claim that will remain an instrument of political party machinations to this day), both Carleton College and the encompassing state of Minnesota (1858 statehood) were and continue to be intimately networked with the US East Coast, both in governance and commercial institutions. Carleton has a long tradition of selectively educating some of the most meritorious sons and daughters of East Coast families, and along with Chicago, Minnesota's cities have long served as a managerial staging ground for U.S. Western (the Northwest Territory) economic development. Not only has it maintained strong westward connections and a strong relationship with the Atlantic ruling class via the US East Coast, Minnesota is quite distinguished by an evolving relationship with the land's Indigenous peoples, target of genocidal belligerence after the Atlantic ruling class civil war. In a tradition of radically othering non-Anglo immigration heightened by Cold War "vital center" politics, the speculations of the 1950s stand in piquant juxtaposition to the US's concerted, long-term reliance on immigration for its leading role in first economic production and then consumption and financial and military hegemony. One could just as well say that Veblen, and his critical perspective on capitalism, are as American as apple pie. However, the point is taken that Scandinavian immigration has brought to the US reinforcement for the egalitarian perspective that, as with African-American and other democratic-Enlightenment struggles, undoubtably contributed to, alongside and in conflict with inegalitarian banking, slavery, and military interests, the country's founding and subsequent development.
At age 17, in 1874, Veblen was sent to attend nearby Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Early in his schooling he demonstrated both the bitterness and the sense of humor that would characterize his later works. Veblen studied economics and philosophy under the guidance of the young John Bates Clark (1847–1938), who went on to become a leader in the new field of neoclassical economics. Clark influenced Veblen greatly, and as Clark initiated him into the formal study of economics, Veblen came to recognize the nature and limitations of hypothetical economics that would begin to shape his theories. Veblen later developed an interest in the social sciences, taking courses within the fields of philosophy, natural history, and classical philology. Within the realm of philosophy, the works of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) were of greatest interest to him, inspiring several preconceptions of socio-economics. In contrast, his studies in natural history and classical philology shaped his formal use of the disciplines of science and language respectively.
After Veblen graduated from Carleton in 1880 he traveled east to study philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. While at Johns Hopkins he studied under Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). When he failed to obtain a scholarship there he moved on to Yale University, where he found economic support for his studies, obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy in 1884, with a major in philosophy and a minor in social studies. His dissertation was titled "Ethical Grounds of a Doctrine of Retribution." At Yale he studied under renowned academics such as philosopher Noah Porter (1811–1892) and sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910).
The two primary relationships that Veblen had were with his two wives. Despite a reputation to the contrary, there is little evidence that he had sexual liaisons with other women.
During his time at Carleton College, Veblen met his first wife, Ellen Rolfe, the niece of the college president. They married in 1888. While some scholars have blamed alleged womanizing tendencies for the couple's numerous separations and eventual divorce in 1911, others have speculated that the relationship's demise was rooted in Ellen's inability to bear children. Following her death in 1926, it was revealed that she had asked for her autopsy to be sent to Veblen, her ex-husband. The autopsy showed that Ellen's reproductive organs had not developed normally, and she had been unable to bear children. A book written by Veblen's stepdaughter asserted that "this explained her disinterest in a normal wifely relationship with Thorstein" and that he "treated her more like a sister, a loving sister, than a wife".
Veblen married Ann Bradley Bevans, a former student, in 1914 and became stepfather to her two girls, Becky and Ann. For the most part, it appears that they had a happy marriage. Ann was described by her daughter as a suffragette, a socialist, and a staunch advocate of unions and workers' rights. A year after he married Ann, they were expecting a child together, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Veblen never had any children of his own.
After his wife Ann's premature death in 1920, Veblen became active in the care of his stepdaughters. Becky went with him when he moved to California, looked after him there, and was with him at his death in August 1929. Prior to his death, Veblen had earned a comparatively high salary from the New School. Since he lived frugally, Veblen invested his money in California raisin vineyards and the stock market. Unfortunately, after returning to northern California, Veblen lost the money he had invested and lived in a house on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park (that once belonged to his first wife). Earning $500 to $600 a year from royalties and a yearly sum of $500 sent by a former Chicago student, he lived there until his death in 1929.
After graduation from Yale in 1884, Veblen was essentially unemployed for seven years. Despite having strong letters of recommendation, he was unable to obtain a university position. It is possible that his dissertation research on "Ethical Grounds of a Doctrine of Retribution" (1884) was considered undesirable. However, this possibility can no longer be researched because Veblen's dissertation has been missing from Yale since 1935. Apparently the only scholar who ever studied the dissertation was Joseph Dorfman, for his 1934 book Thorstein Veblen and His America. Dorfman says only that the dissertation, advised by evolutionary sociologist William Graham Sumner, studies such evolutionary thought as that of Herbert Spencer, as well as the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Some historians have also speculated that this failure to obtain employment was partially due to prejudice against Norwegians, while others attribute this to the fact that most universities and administrators considered him insufficiently educated in Christianity. Most academics at the time held divinity degrees, which Veblen did not have. Also, it did not help that Veblen openly identified as an agnostic, which was highly uncommon for the time. As a result, Veblen returned to his family farm, a stay during which he had claimed to be recovering from malaria. He spent those years recovering and reading voraciously. It is suspected that these difficulties in beginning his academic career later inspired portions of his book The Higher Learning in America (1918), in which he claimed that true academic values were sacrificed by universities in favor of their own self-interest and profitability.
In 1891, Veblen left the farm to return to graduate school to study economics at Cornell University under the guidance of economics professor James Laurence Laughlin. With the help of Professor Laughlin, who was moving to the University of Chicago, Veblen became a fellow at that university in 1892. Throughout his stay, he did much of the editorial work associated with the Journal of Political Economy, one of the many academic journals created during this time at the University of Chicago. Veblen used the journal as an outlet for his writings. His writings also began to appear in other journals, such as the American Journal of Sociology, another journal at the university. While he was mostly a marginal figure at the University of Chicago, Veblen taught a number of classes there.
In 1899, Veblen published his first and best-known book, titled The Theory of the Leisure Class. This did not immediately improve Veblen's position at the University of Chicago. He requested a raise after the completion of his first book, but this was denied.
Veblen's students at Chicago considered his teaching "dreadful". Stanford students considered his teaching style "boring". But this was more excusable than some of Veblen's personal affairs. He offended Victorian sentiments with extramarital affairs while at the University of Chicago. At Stanford in 1909, Veblen was ridiculed again for being a womanizer and an unfaithful husband. As a result, he was forced to resign from his position, which made it very difficult for him to find another academic position. One story claims that he was fired from Stanford after Jane Stanford sent him a telegram from Paris, having disapproved of Veblen's support of Chinese coolie workers in California. (Note that Jane Stanford was already dead by 1905 and Veblen appointed in 1906, which casts doubt on this story.)
With the help of Herbert J. Davenport, a friend who was the head of the economics department at the University of Missouri, Veblen accepted a position there in 1911. Veblen, however, did not enjoy his stay at Missouri. This was in part due to his position as a lecturer being of lower rank than his previous positions and for lower pay. Veblen also strongly disliked the town of Columbia, Missouri, where the university was located. Although he may not have enjoyed his stay at Missouri, in 1914 he did publish another of his best-known books, The Instincts of Worksmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1914). After World War I began, Veblen published Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915). He considered warfare a threat to economic productivity and contrasted the authoritarian politics of Germany with the democratic tradition of Britain, noting that industrialization in Germany had not produced a progressive political culture.
By 1917, Veblen moved to Washington, D.C. to work with a group that had been commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to analyze possible peace settlements for World War I, culminating in his book An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (1917). This marked a series of distinct changes in his career path. Following that, Veblen worked for the United States Food Administration for a period of time. Shortly thereafter, Veblen moved to New York City to work as an editor for a magazine, The Dial. Within the next year, the magazine shifted its orientation and he lost his editorial position.
In the meantime, Veblen had made contacts with several other academics, such as Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson, and John Dewey. The group of university professors and intellectuals eventually founded The New School for Social Research. Known today as The New School, in 1919 it emerged from American modernism, progressivism, the democratic education. The group was open to students and aimed for a "an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth, and present working". From 1919 to 1926, Veblen continued to write and maintain a role in The New School's development. It was during this time that he wrote The Engineers and the Price System. In it, Veblen proposed a soviet of engineers. According to Yngve Ramstad, the view that engineers, not workers, would overthrow capitalism was a "novel view". Veblen invited Guido Marx to the New School to teach and to help organize a movement of engineers with others such as Morris Cooke; Henry Gantt, who had died shortly before; and Howard Scott. Cooke and Gantt were followers of Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management theory. Scott, who listed Veblen as being on the temporary organizing committee of the Technical Alliance, perhaps without consulting Veblen or other listed members, later helped found the technocracy movement.
American pragmatism distrusted the notion of the absolute, and instead recognized the notion of free will. Rather than God's divine intervention taking control of the happenings of the universe, pragmatism believed that people, using their free will, shape the institutions of society. Veblen also recognized this as an element of causes and effects, upon which he based many of his theories. This pragmatist belief was pertinent to the shaping of Veblen's critique of natural law and the establishment of his evolutionary economics, which recognized the purpose of man throughout. The skepticism of the German Historical School regarding laissez-faire economics was also adopted by Veblen.
From 1896 to 1926, he spent summers at his study cabin on Washington Island in Wisconsin. On the island he learned Icelandic, which allowed him to write articles accepted by an Icelandic newspaper and translate the Laxdæla saga into English.
Veblen and other American institutionalists were indebted to the German Historical School, especially Gustav von Schmoller, for the emphasis on historical fact, their empiricism and especially a broad, evolutionary framework of study. Veblen admired Schmoller, but criticized some other leaders of the German school because of their over-reliance on descriptions, long displays of numerical data, and narratives of industrial development that rested on no underlying economic theory. Veblen tried to use the same approach with his own theory added.
Veblen developed a 20th-century evolutionary economics based upon Darwinian principles and new ideas emerging from anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Unlike the neoclassical economics that emerged at the same time, Veblen described economic behavior as socially determined and saw economic organization as a process of ongoing evolution. Veblen rejected any theory based on individual action or any theory highlighting any factor of an inner personal motivation. According to him, such theories were "unscientific". This evolution was driven by the human instincts of emulation, predation, workmanship, parental bent, and idle curiosity. Veblen wanted economists to grasp the effects of social and cultural change on economic changes. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, the instincts of emulation and predation play a major role. People, rich and poor alike, attempt to impress others and seek to gain advantage through what Veblen termed "conspicuous consumption" and the ability to engage in "conspicuous leisure." In this work Veblen argued that consumption is used as a way to gain and signal status. Through "conspicuous consumption" often came "conspicuous waste," which Veblen detested. He further spoke of a "predatory phase" of culture in the sense of the predatory attitude having become the habitual spiritual attitude of the individual.
Politically, Veblen was sympathetic to state ownership. Scholars mostly disagree about the extent to which Veblen's views are compatible with Marxism, socialism, or anarchism.
The Veblenian dichotomy is a concept that Veblen first suggested in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and made fully into an analytical principle in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). To Veblen, institutions determine how technologies are used. Some institutions are more "ceremonial" than others. A project for Veblen's idealized economist is to be identifying institutions that are too wasteful, and pursuing institutional "adjustment" to make instituted uses of technology more "instrumental".
Veblen defines "ceremonial" as related to the past, supportive of "tribal legends" or traditional conserving attitudes and conduct; while the "instrumental" orients itself toward the technological imperative, judging value by the ability to control future consequences.
The theory suggests that, although every society depends on tools and skills to support the life process, every society also appears to have a "ceremonial" stratified structure of status that runs contrary to the needs of the "instrumental" (technological) aspects of group life. The Veblen Dichotomy is still very relevant today and can be applied to thinking around digital transformation.
Veblen is regarded as one of the co-founders of the American school of institutional economics, alongside John R. Commons and Wesley Clair Mitchell. Economists who adhere to this school organize themselves in the Association for Institutional Economics (AFIT). The Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) gives an annual Veblen-Commons award for work in Institutional Economics and publishes the Journal of Economic Issues. Some unaligned practitioners include theorists of the concept of "differential accumulation".
Veblen's work has remained relevant, and not simply for the phrase "conspicuous consumption". His evolutionary approach to the study of economic systems is again gaining traction and his model of recurring conflict between the existing order and new ways can be of value in understanding the new global economy. In this sense some authors have recently compared the Gilded Age, studied by Veblen, with the New Gilded Age and the contemporary processes of refeudalization, arguing for a new global leisure class and distinctive luxury consumption.
Veblen has been cited in the writings of feminist economists. Veblen believed that women had no endowments, believing instead that the behavior of women reflects the social norms of their time and place. Veblen theorized that women in the industrial age remained victims of their "barbarian status". This has, in hindsight, made Veblen a forerunner of modern feminism.
Veblen's work has also often been cited in American literary works. He is featured in The Big Money by John Dos Passos, and mentioned in Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. One of Veblen's PhD students was George W. Stocking, Sr., a pioneer in the emerging field of industrial organization economics. Another was Canadian academic and author Stephen Leacock, who went on to become the head of Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University. The influence of Theory of the Leisure Class can be seen in Leacock's 1914 satire, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich.
To this day, Veblen is little known in Norway. President Clinton honored Veblen as a great American thinker when addressing King Harald V of Norway.