The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblen

The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblen

Sidney Plotkin
Rick Tilman
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npjrj
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  • Book Info
    The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblen
    Book Description:

    Thorstein Veblen is best known for his authorship ofThe Theory of the Leisure ClassandThe Theory of Business Enterprise, which made him a celebrated figure in the fields of economics and sociology at the turn of the twentieth century. In this book, Sidney Plotkin and Rick Tilman argue that in addition to his well-known work in these fields Veblen also made important-and until now overlooked-statements about politics.

    While Veblen's writings seldom mention politics, they are saturated with political ideas: about the relationship among war, executive power, and democracy; about the similarities between modern executive positions and monarchy; about the political influence of corporate power; about the symbolism of politics; and about many other issues. By demonstrating the deep relevance of Veblen's writings to today's political troubles,The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblenoffers an important reconsideration of a major American thinker.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16338-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Economics, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. A NOTE ON CITATION
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 INTRODUCTION: POWER AND POLITICS IN VEBLEN
    (pp. 1-23)

    This is a study of the political ideas of Thorstein Veblen. It may be hard to imagine a less provocative sentence. But Veblen is not a thinker to whom political scientists routinely turn for insight. A political theory canon that includes such familiar European names as Marx, Weber, Tocqueville, Foucault, or Habermas generally ignores the American mind of Thorstein Veblen. Conventional scholarly wisdom casts Veblen outside the class of important political writers. The popular view runs something like this: Veblen earned his reputation for impressive contributions to sociology and economics, but politics did not interest him, and so he has...

  6. 2 SOCIAL SCIENCE AND POLITICS
    (pp. 24-43)

    That Thorstein’s Veblen’s ideas inspire political criticism from all quarters suggests the political significance at their core. His writings are so enmeshed in criticism of American society, that “it is,” as David Riesman once said, “a measure of Veblen’s strength as a social critic that no rounded judgment of his work can be made that is not also a judgment of American society, now as well as then.”¹ As Riesman suggests, scholars may have trouble separating their thoughts on Veblen’s critique of America from their own ideas about the society and its prospects for change. So, liberals and conservatives charge...

  7. 3 THE ASSORTED POLITICS OF VEBLEN CRITICISM
    (pp. 44-79)

    Among writers who have important things to say about politics, Thorstein Veblen enjoys what may be charitably defined as an ambiguous status. Given his critical reception by thinkers who embraced political goals more confidently than he did, this situation is understandable. Most political writers connect their working notion of politics with values they believe it should serve. John Stuart Mill, for example, bound liberal democracy and personal autonomy, just as Karl Marx tied dialectical materialism to the ultimate triumph of communism. In contrast, Veblen’s analysis of institutions conflicts with his most cherished social and political values. An unmistakable divide separates...

  8. 4 THE POLITICS OF POWER AND PREDATION
    (pp. 80-102)

    Among Thorstein Veblen’s most influential essays, one posed the question, “Why is economics not an evolutionary science?”¹ Veblen, of course, believed that economics should be “an evolutionary science.” He struggled to make the discipline sensitive to the influence of social change on economic life. This was not an easy job. Orthodox economics resists the idea of institutional or cultural change. Most conventional economists take markets to be natural, ahistorical institutions, after all. Moreover, markets supposedly operate independently of cultural values, as long as those values support free markets. Markets reflect eternal and universal principles. Rational self-interest and exchange work anywhere....

  9. 5 SAVAGERY AND ITS ANARCHISTIC LEGACIES
    (pp. 103-133)

    Peaceable, quasi-anarchistic institutions flourish, suggested Veblen, when circumstances allow people relatively easily to follow their instinctive bents toward workmanship, curiosity, and altruism. Such conditions probably exist to some extent in all social orders, so everything depends on just how freely savage habits can develop without major contamination or distortion by predatory institutions. Savagery will have its best chances, therefore, in communities that distribute control of resources, tools, and technical knowledge widely and directly among the population. Veblen believed that left alone, without political direction from on high, people tend to work, unobtrusively, with and for one another. They routinely perform...

  10. 6 ILLIBERAL HABITS, WAR, AND STATE FORMATION
    (pp. 134-165)

    The handicraft era sparked truly remarkable political changes. It furnished technological and economic foundations for self-governing cities in Western Europe. Liberal expectations and democratic hopes sprouted. Indeed, long after the machine process, large-scale corporate enterprise, and centralized states changed capitalism, handicraft habits endure. But their legacy was not all positive. Europeans experienced the handicraft era at different times, in different ways. In some places—Prussia, for example—feudal institutions held on long after England nurtured petty industry.¹ Among variant societies developing at different tempos, chances for mutual envy and rivalry multiplied. Dynastic interests added fuel to a competitive mix, as...

  11. 7 OSTENSIBLE DEMOCRACY
    (pp. 166-195)

    For over two centuries democracy has been entangled with war, especially in the United States. Warfare and its threat have enlarged executive powers of military command, legitimated secrecy, spurred surveillance, distorted the economy, and militarized technological development. War making justified conscription, demanded loyalty, and exacted repression. Recent wars in Southeast Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan eroded popular trust in government. The draft, for example, is now politically out-of-bounds. But the professionalized military that followed served only to loosen already tenuous controls on presidential war powers.¹

    None of this history would have shocked Veblen; he anticipated its main outlines. Still, he was...

  12. 8 VEBLEN AND POLITICS: AN OVERVIEW
    (pp. 196-210)

    Thorstein Veblen will never be a popular thinker, not even among intellectuals, perhaps especially among politically motivated intellectuals. His refusal to offer program or ideology leaves him few friends among those anxious to defend, reform, or attack the status quo. Conservatives, who might otherwise appreciate his assessment of tradition, find little to celebrate in his critique of pecuniary culture. Liberals may welcome his criticism of corporations, but they take little comfort from his skepticism of reform. Veblen’s hatred of exploit makes him a natural ally of Marxists, but his analysis of political consciousness offers few hopes for proletarian radicalism. His...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 211-240)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 241-264)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 265-275)