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John G. Wright

Thorstein Veblen, Sociologist

(January 1935)

Source: New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.20-23.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Veblen cannot be indiscriminately lumped with the common run of American academicians. Compared to the academic fossils of his time he was indeed one of the few outstanding original thinkers in America.

He introduced the heresy of liberalism and objectivism into those spheres where dogma had previously ruled unchallenged. Some forty years ago John Bates Clark and William Graham Sumner were the infallible popes who decreed that “rugged individualism” was the immutable law of socio-economic development; they sanctioned private profit as a natural right; capital, they said, was the reward of abstinence, and labor was its next and dearest of kin enjoying the same freedom of contract and having illimitable fields for advancement provided only it could measure up to the superior standards of ruggedness.

This body of dogma was crowned by Clark’s bull that “each man is paid an amount that equals the total product he personally creates”. Into this massive optimism Veblen introduced a very discordant – and somewhat pessimistic – note. He riddled the logical subtleties and the fatuous apologetics of American “classical” economy; he ran roughshod over its methods: he rejected the economics of the past as a taxonomic science, reasoning from the premise that social institutions must be approached dynamically and not statically; he declared the economics of the past untenable in the face of evolutionary science. In a number of books, particularly The Theory of Business Enterprise, he laid low the natural right of private property by analyzing the social “serviceability of business” and by attempting to elucidate the inner logic and the actual development of capitalism.

He was a rebel in the liberal sense. He paid for it by becoming the black sheep of the academic world. He was dismissed from one university after another. He sealed his excommunication by publishing his analysis of the influence of business upon The Higher Learning in America, which book from the standpoint of critical analysis marks the peak of liberal social thought in America.

Veblen unquestionably accepted his own approach as scientific. It is equally incontestable that he attempted to analyze economic life as a process. His attempts, however, did not pass beyond criticism. He thought himself that his own generalizations were in part novel – and in so far as American thought of his day was concerned this is correct. For this reason he is reputed by many to be a modern iconoclast. By imputation Veblen’s views have been interpreted as an attack upon existing institutions. However, while there is much in Veblen that runs counter to convention, essentially his work can serve only as a basis for liberalism because his theoretic approach is founded on pre-conceptions and not laws. Many of his views are novel only in so far as they are far-fetched. Many of his seemingly iconoclastic postulates are in reality conformist.

Veblen’s theoretic approach derives not from Marx whom he rejected as unscientific but from Herbert Spencer. His “scientific” approach to society is based on Spencer’s assertion that sociology is an evolutionary science in the Darwinian sense. It is self-evident that to assert that sociology is an evolutionary science is a different thing from establishing it as such. Comte also made this assertion, but Comte’s contribution to sociology bears the same relation to science as astrology does to astronomy. Veblen not only failed to pass beyond the stage of mere assertion but he was more than circumspect about his avowed manner of approach. Why should an avowed disciple of Spencer and a Darwinian discriminate against using the term “evolution” prominently? Yet Veblen, who originally presented his most popular book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, as an “economic study in the evolution of institution”, omitted the term “evolution” in subsequent editions, and changed the subtitle to read: “an economic study of institutions”.

His attempt to establish sociology as a science sums up to the extension of Darwinism to sociology in a manner which departs factually but not methodologically from that of Spencer.

Herbert Spencer sought to synthesize Darwinian biology with sociology. He saw no profound distinction between the laws that governed biologic evolution, and those governing social evolution. He viewed the social organism as corresponding at all points with the physical organism. Accordingly, Spencer decreed that the same laws operated in the evolution of man in society as in the evolution of the psycho-physical man in nature. In society, just as in nature, the life of the species is a struggle for existence; in both spheres the process of selective adaptation takes place; and just as the biologically fittest survive in nature, so the socially best survive in society through natural selection.

Veblen likewise confounded the development of the organic species with the development of society. He wrote that “the life of man in society, just like the life of other species, is a struggle for existence, and therefore it is a process of selective adaptation. The evolution of social structure has been a process of natural selection of institutions”.

Veblen differs from Spencer on two points: on the general definition of Darwinism (evolution), and upon the terms in which social institutions must be defined. Neither of these differences is so decisive or scientific as might appear off-hand.

Spencer subscribed to the concept of progress both in natural and social evolution; to him the modern system of free contract was both beneficent and an ideal of nature. Veblen, however, discarded the concept of progress as non-scientific, recognizing only development through cumulative change, only movement without trend. He defined evolution (Darwinism) as follows: “A scheme of thought, a scheme of blindly cumulative causation in which there is no trend, no final term, no consummation.” Spencer, on the other hand, did recognize trend in evolution – the trend from a “relatively indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite coherent heterogeneity”.

To estimate the significance of this point of divergence between Veblen and Spencer, one need only recall that Veblen’s viewpoint translated into the language of economic theory coincides with that of the revisionist, Bernstein, who said that, “Movement is everything, the goal nothing.” Veblen was aware that the views of the revisionists were akin to his own. He rejected Marx as unscientific. In his opinion, the position of Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt, Tugan-Baranovski, Labriola, Ferri, etc., was one “tending to bring them abreast of the standpoint of modern science, essentially Darwinist”. His own definition of the Darwinian standpoint did not, however, prevent Veblen from referring illogically in his writings to progress, as for example: “the progress which has been and is being made in human institutions and in human character”. Veblen’s “iconoclasm” flows in part from this coincidence between his views and those of the revisionists. But, it should be added that there is no foundation for the opinion that Veblen’s thought was deeply indebted to Marx, as is sometimes inferred. Whatever should be debited against Veblen on this score must be credited entirely to the revisionists.

As regards the second point of divergence, Veblen sidestepped Spencer’s ingenious correlation of biology with sociology only to construct an equally fanciful synthesis of later-day psychology (instinct-habit) with sociology. Instead of defining social institutions and biological terms, he defined them in terms of psychology: “The institutions are, in substance, prevalent habits of thought with respect to particular relations and functions of the individual and of the community.” In the last analysis, therefore, Veblen’s views only superficially diverge from Spencer’s. Without keeping this definition in mind, one may easily read into Veblen, an outright idealist, a standpoint – i.e., Marxism – altogether alien to him. Thus, when Veblen asserts that “the cornerstone of the modern industrial system is the institution of private property”, he does not at all subscribe to the Marxian standpoint. To him the substance of this cornerstone is psychological. It is made of mind-stuff because all institutions, including private property are in substance only habits of thought.

Again, one meets with the assertion that according to Veblen the primary motive force in social change is the advance of industrial arts and the growth of science. This is an error; to Veblen this advance is derivative and not primary. His position on this point is in all respects similar to Spencer’s who also wrote that “the development of the arts of life, consequent upon the advance of science, which has already in so many ways profoundly affected social organization (instance the factory system) is likely hereafter to affect it as profoundly or more profoundly”.

To Veblen the primary motive force is the human mind. “Social evolution is a process of selective adaptation of temperament and habits of thought under the stress of the circumstances of associated life.” When Veblen says that the development of societies is the development of institutions he implies that the development of institutions is the development of human motives. He does not at all imply what Marx maintained – that the development of the institutions and therefore of society is governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. Veblen accepts no such laws; he derives the development of institutions from human nature. In his definition he merely repeats what Plato said, to wit, that “the states are as the men are, they grow out of human characters”; a dictum which was rehashed by Spencer to read: “the forms of social organization are determined by men’s natures”.

But just how do the social forms evolve? And why? Spencer accounted for social change in terms of improvement, or progress: “only as their [men’s] nature improve can the forms of life become better”. Veblen recognized only cumulative and correlative changes in nature, and in human nature. But his attempt to explain the causes that underlie the variation of human nature is as age-worn as the mummies of the Pharaohs. Far from being scientific, it boils down to the animistic formula of explaining a phenomenon in terms of the spirit. Human nature varies because it is the nature to vary; or, more exactly, the variability of human nature is due to the stability of human nature. In Veblen’s own words, “this variation of human nature ... is a process of selection between several relatively stable and persistent ethnic types or ethnic elements”.

No doctrine in sociology is more reactionary than the doctrine which seeks to interpret human history and culture in terms of the racial equation. The logic of his theoretical standpoint, or rather the lack of logic, forces Veblen to align himself with the assumers of the White Man’s Burden, and of White Supremacy. To subscribe to the existence of certain stable types of human nature is to believe in the existence of specific and distinct races. How many races are there in the blood? Virey said two; Jacquinot claimed three; Kant found four; Blumenbach – five; Buff on – six; Hunter – seven; Aggassiz – eight; Pickering insisted on – 11; Bory St. Vincent – 15; Desmoulins – 16; Morton – 22; Crawfurd – 60; Burke – 63 ... and the latest ethnologist, the supreme specialist in blood, Hitler, recognizes the One and Only Race, the rest of mankind being sub-humans. Veblen does not compute the number of races the world over; he is concerned only with those races that have created the modern industrial community, that is, the Europeans, including the Scandinavians. His authority on European races is Ripley. Their number is odd, being three: the Nordic, the Alpine, and the Mediterranean races; or, in terms of the shape of the skull, and the color of the hair: the dolico-blonds, the brachy-brunettes, and the dolico-brunettes.

This is the history of mankind according to Veblen. In our industrial communities, man tends to breed true to one or another of these three main ethnic types. In their turn, these three stable and persistent types tend to breed in two main directions of variation: variant A and B; variant A, or savage human nature, the peaceable or ante-predatory man with industrial virtues; and variant B, or barbarian human nature, the predatory man with acquisitive virtues.

In the beginning there was savage human nature, primitive and peaceable; and the forms of social organization which grew up conformed to this human nature, all deviations from the norm being repressed by natural selection. During this primitive and peaceable epoch of savagery, man tended to breed true to type A of human nature. Society evolved, without trend, without consummation. Savagery passed from low into high and then into higher. And when the high times passed, society entered into the epoch of barbarism, the period of predation and exploit, the epoch of the system of status. All this came to pass because slowly but surely variant B of human nature began to predominate, and the forms of social consciousness that grew up conformed to this human nature, all deviations from the norm being repressed by natural selection. Society kept on evolving, without trend, with no final term. From low, barbarism shifted into high. And the higher stage of barbarism was feudalism, both European and Asiatic! Imperceptibly, the struggle for existence passed into the struggle to keep up appearances. There ensued the quasi-peaceable stage. And presently came the dawn of the peaceable epoch proper, which is the epoch of the modern industrial community, popularly misunderstood as the capitalist system. And throughout the epoch of barbarism, and the quasi-peaceable epoch, and the era of peace, man still continued to breed true to variant B of human nature.

To recapitulate. There are two types of human nature, though the skulls may be dolico, or brachy, though the hair be blond or brunette. The savage type A, in each case, is nearer to the generic human type, being the reversional representative of the type that prevailed at the earliest stage of associated life; and representing the ancestors of modern man at the peaceable savage phase of human development which preceded the predatory culture with its regime of status and so forth. This atavistic type is characterized by honesty, diligence, peacefulness, good will, absence of self-seeking, and suchlike prosy humanitarian traits. The barbarian type B, in each case, is the survival of a more recent modification of the main ethnic types and their hybrids, as they were modified, mainly by selective adaptation under the discipline of the predatory culture and the later emulative cultures. An individual of this type is characterized chiefly by ferocity and astuteness.

The history of society has been the history of the natural selection of these two types of human nature. Two social systems have prevailed in history: the system of status, and the system of contract. The type of the system of status is the military organization, or also a hierarchy, or a bureaucracy. The other type is the modern industrial community. The author of this method of classification is Sir Henry Maine. And Veblen borrowed it from Maine as did Spencer who also said that “societies may be grouped as militant and industrial; of which one type is organized on the principle of compulsory cooperation; the other on the principle of voluntary cooperation”.

Both of these systems were hard on type A of human nature. So much so that modern man still breeds true to variant B, particularly the Nordics (the dolico-blonds) who are “possessed of a greater facility to barbarism than the other ethnic elements with which that type is associated in the Western culture”. All this is according to Veblen.

And according to Veblen, should the type persist, so would the system, since the social institutions must conform with human nature. Is mankind perhaps sentenced forever to the ascendancy of human nature type B, with its prime exemplar the Nordic, and the institutions suitable to its temperament and habits of thought? Or, may society continue to evolve? According to Veblen, the answer is No to the Nordic and Yes to evolution. From this flows a goodly share of his repute as iconoclast.

But why is the persistent barbarian not dominant eternally? First, because variations occur with some frequency at all times, the proneness of men to revert to the past being proverbial. Secondly because “this barbarian variant has not attained the highest degree of homogeneity or stability. The period of barbarian culture, though of great absolute duration, has been neither protracted enough nor invariable enough to give an extreme fixity of type”. And finally, because there is a New Deal in store. Hitherto conditions have been ideal for the breeding of variant B; and by natural selection those stray orphans of type A that did manage to sift through were repressed. The trend, however, is becoming favorable for variant A to reassert itself, become dominant and suppress variant B, with God’s help, or, rather, by natural selection. In our time the reversions to type A “are becoming noticeable because the conditions of modern life no longer act consistently to consistently repress departures from the barbarian normal”.

Veblen’s saga of the struggle that has been going on the historical arena between the two types of human nature suffers because it must be submitted to examination not as the work of a poet but that of a scientist. Allowing Veblen his flights of fancy, his races, his human variants, social systems and epochs, he must still explain what it is that operates to suppress the Nordic ascendancy so prevalent in modern life, and what made it possible for the barbarian variant to emerge on so universal a scale.

According to Veblen himself, the latter type is neither stable nor homogeneous. It is further removed from the generic human type. On the other hand, its relative by blood, but its antagonist by nature, type A, is not only closer, but it had persisted over a period much more protracted. The social forms which had been generated to meet its own requirements must have tended to repress all departures from the norm. Yet the gifts of “good nature, equity and indiscriminate sympathy” (the characteristic traits of savage nature) did come to be repressed by natural selection in favor of the barbarian type with its “freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty and regard for life”. How come? Veblen’s answer is nothing if not inspired. To put it prosaically, at the root of social evolution, as well as of all evil, is human nature again, but this time in a skirt. Just as the original male, Adam, was ejected from paradise because of Eve, so women are responsible for the entire course of history to date. Or, to put it in the language of poetry:

“Who was’t betrayed the Capitol? A woman!
“Who lost Mark Antony the world? A woman!
“Who was the cause of a long ten years’ war,
“And laid at last old Troy in ashes? Woman!
“Destructive, damnable, deceitful woman.”

Veblen’s version is equally masterful, due no doubt to his Viking ancestry. Long, long ago, women, being feminine, applied themselves to peaceable pursuits and industry; while men, by virtue of their masculinity, resorted to predatory pursuits and exploit. Women drudged, expending energy to create new things out of passive brute material, while men converted to their own ends the creations of nature and of mankind. “Virtually the whole range of industrial employment is an outgrowth of what is classed as woman’s work in the primitive community.” As a consequence, an early discrimination arose between the employments of men and women: the men tending naturally to look down upon feminine employments; the women sullenly submitting as objects of contempt. From this original invidious distinction between the occupations of men and women – whose occupations coincide with the difference between the sexes – there sprang up those institutions which tended to repress variant A in favor of variant B. For obviously, under the regime of exploitation, emulation and competition, the individual fared better in proportion as he had less of the gifts of human nature A. In his appraisal of women, Veblen agreed not only with the poets but with the patriarchs, among them Spencer who held that “the slave class in a primitive society consists of women”. Worse yet, women are directly responsible for the institution of private property: “the earliest form of ownership is the ownership of women by the able bodied men of the community.” Destructive, damnable, deceitful woman!

Are women, perhaps, also responsible for the pending resurgence of type A of human nature? Not quite. This time, it is entirely due to evolution. With the dawn of modern enterprise social evolution enters a stage unknown to natural evolution, or anyone else save Veblen. He shares with no one the honor of formulating this discovery: “Under modern conditions, the struggle for existence has in very appreciable degree been transformed into a struggle to keep up appearances.” As a consequence, the evolution of economic life “takes such a turn that the interests of the community no longer coincide with the emulative interests of the individual”. To millions in the world today who are being forced to keep up the appearances of being alive while unemployed this might sound like satire, but no satire was intended. The formulation is a logical one, the logic pertaining to what Kant called psychologic logic.

Veblen agreed not only with Spencer but with the revisionists that under the modern regime “life is generally occupied in peaceful intercourse with fellow citizens”. Peaceful intercourse and the struggle for existence are mutually incompatible.

And this is how peace came to man. Originally type B had to specialize in both force and fraud, mostly force. With the passage of time, and the gradual improvement of industrial efficiency, predation turned more and more in the direction of fraud. From being ferocious, the barbarian by natural selection tended to become a specialist in perfidy. Thus the era of rapine passed into the quasi-peaceable stages, until finally the modern peaceful epoch of fraud was attained. So peaceful that wars had become implausible. Spencer, too, was sure that “the vast increase of manufacturing and commercial activity must lead to a long peace”. All this is pure psychology.

Veblen brings the argument from psychology for every aspect of social life. Thus, the ground for social unrest and the resulting movement for socialism is “very largely jealousy – envy, if you choose”. To Mill’s question, why has machinery not lightened the day’s toil of any human being? – Veblen replies consistently enough,

“Because the increment of the output is turned to use to meet the demand of conspicuous consumption, and this want is indefinitely expansible.”

To sum up. In order to provide his Spencerian synthesis of sociology with psychology, with logical consistency, Veblen had to invent not only polar types of human nature but such human wants as the indefinitely expansible human want of conspicuous consumption; not only unheard-of instincts but also mystic broad principles or laws, such as the Law of Conspicuous Waste. This law together with another Law of Industrial Exemption affects “the cultural development both by guiding men’s habits of thought and so controlling the growth of institutions and by selectively conserving certain traits of human nature that conduce to facility of life under the leisure class scheme, and so controlling the affective temper of the community”.

These wants or principles or laws are Veblen’s embroideries upon conventional economics; and they are as fraudulent (in a non-invidious sense) as his Instinct of Workmanship. No such wants, laws, and instincts are known to science as yet.

Veblen’s capacity for embroidering pre-conceptions is perhaps best illustrated by his literary style. Let us take, for example, the sentence just quoted above. Since the laws Veblen speaks of are nothing but habits of thought: and since he defines institutions also as habits of thought, this complex sentence merely sums up to the assertion that habits of thought are engendered, controlled, selectively conserved and so forth by habits of thought. Striving for precision, he achieves a formality and massiveness so hypnotic as to put his readers into a trance. Many critics have conceived of his writings as satiric, and when they do not revile him, they speak of him as a ruthless analyst. This opinion is largely unwarranted. Veblen was Spencer’s disciple even in the sphere of style; what he strives for is not satire but detachment, in the best scientific manner. He attempts to achieve in his writings “an almost passionless consciousness”. For, as Spencer held, “trustworthy interpretations of social arrangements imply an almost passionless consciousness”. Without much difficulty one could extract from Spencer’s writings as many “ruthless analyses” as may be located in Veblen; and as like a close parallel could be drawn between them. There is no more conscious satire in Veblen than in Spencer. Veblen was no more of an iconoclast than Spencer.

It may be argued that Veblen was no supporter of the existing system since he forecasted that the social engineers would build an industrial structure “on a system different from either status or contract”. One may just as well argue that neither was Spencer, since he also forecasted that the future type of society would be a type differing as much from the industrial as this does from the militant.

Those who insist on the contrary must begin by explaining Veblen’s obvious lack of enthusiasm over the prospect of the future society, and over the type of human nature that would be naturally selected under the press of institutions:

“Not much is to be said for the beauty, moral excellence, or general worthiness and reputability of such a prosy human nature as these traits imply; and there is little ground of enthusiasm for the manner of collective life that would result from the prevalence of these traits in unmitigated dominance.”

Last updated: 31.5.2005