Cassandra’s Avatar

September 14, 2015 § 4 Comments

Summary and Brief Personal Comments

First, a word about the title:  I have conflated terms from two unrelated mythologies.  Cassandra, a Greek goddess, was given the power of prophesy, but condemned to be forever disbelieved.  An avatar, in Hindu mythology, is the earthly incarnation of a Hindu god or goddess.

My subject, Thorstein Veblen, was an eccentric intellectual giant who relentlessly exposed the irrationality of the capitalist economic system.  During his lifetime his ideas were embraced by many contemporary scholars; were misunderstood by most of the mainstream intelligentsia; and detested by members of the intellectual power structure who supported the  financial elite who controlled the policies of government.  Within a year after his death in 1929, the American capitalist system collapsed, the Great Depression ensued and Veblen’s many warnings about capitalism’s inherent structural flaws became apparent.

This essay will be my reaction to Joseph Dorfman’s Thorstein Veblen and His America,  A biography and summary of his ideas, liberally annotated with quotations from Veblen’s published books and articles.

This blog has been inactive for the past few weeks because I found Mr. Dorfman’s book and the quotes from Veblen’s work to be the most obtuse and difficult written prose I have ever encountered – a surprising claim because I made a living for over 50 years reading the opinions of judges, most of whom did not excel at carefully crafted language.  Both Doorman and Veblen wrote long sentences with nouns and verbs spaced in unusual configurations, containing words requiring frequent help from the dictionary, often used in unusual ways.

“Usufruct” “superfluity” “sabotage” “vested interests””habitual” – These terms and countless others are either used instead of simpler terms or used in ways different from their familiar meaning.  Reading Veblen’s writing is like learning a new language “on the fly”.  The reward, however, is exposure to an interesting and challenging set of ideas.

My original encounter  with Veblen occurred when, at age 19, I took a six hour course from Clarence Ayres at the University of Texas.  Dr. Ayres used Veblen’s most popular book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, as a text book.  He was a Veblen scholar, having written a book about him snd specialized in studying his writing.  Ayres was a consummate teacher.  His course was a life-changer for me.  I never viewed the culture in which I lived the same way after his course.

I later dabbled in some of Veblen’s other books and articles, but never thoroughly absorbed them.  A Viking Portable Veblen was my roadmap to some of the choice bits and pieces of his ideas.

So, this effort has been another episode in my adventurous  trek into the mind of Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen the Man

Thorstein Veblen was born July 30, 1857, on a farm in Wisconsin.  His parents were Norwegian emigrants.  The family moved to Minnesota when Veblen was a child.  His father was a moderately successful farmer.  He encouraged his children’s quest for education after high school.  Thorstein enrolled in Carlton College, a Lutheran school near his home.  He graduated with a BA degree in 1880.  He then entered Yale College where he received a PhD in 1884.  He stayed at Yale, taking more graduate courses for 2 1/2 years studying Political and Social Science, Philosophy, ethics and psychology.  At Yale, Veblen was a student of William Graham Sumner, a sociologist.  He also became a serious student of Kant’s philosophy.

He became engaged to marry Ellen Rolfe in 1886, but did not marry her until 1888.  She was well educated and a brilliant student.  Both the Veblen and Rolfe families were skeptical about the marriage,  The marriage was, however, a happy one although Veblen was unable to find employment and they often depended on money from Ellen’s family.

During those early years Veblen used a tactic that recurred throughout his life. He would declare he was suffering from some debilitating illness and use that to excuse him from working. During this idle period he pursued his interest in botany, read voraciously and learned other languages.  He translated Icelandic sagas in which he became interested.

In 1891, Veblen enrolled in Cornell University, where he studied economics for over a year.  In 1892, he became a teaching fellow at the University of Chicago. He was 35 years old.  He published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, his most widely read book.  Despite the professional recognition that accompanied that publication, he had a difficult relationship with the administration of the University.  This resulted, in part, from the fact that he was an avowed agnostic and Chicago, like most American colleges and universities at that time, were headed by divinity school graduates and were steeped in Christianity and its doctrines.  Veblen’s notorious extra-marital affairs also complicated his rise in academic ranks.

Finally, in 1906, at the urging of the University President, Veblen resigned his teaching fellowship and accepted an associate professor’s position at Stanford University.  In 1909, because of students’ complaints about his teaching style, his continuing reputation as a womanizer and his public support of Chinese coolies, who were being discriminated against in California at that time, Veblen was forced to resign from his position.

In 1911, after two years of unemployment, assisted by a colleague and friend, Herbert Davenport, a professor at the University of Missouri, Veblen become a professor there.  He did not like the University or the surrounding town, but he stayed there until 1917, when he moved to Washington D.C., where he worked as an advisor concerning the terms of the peace with Germany following WWI.  He also worked for a short time in the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a consultant.

He then moved to New York City, where he worked as an editor of Dial Magazine, a left-wing journal,  for about a year.  In 1919, he joined with Charles Beard, John Dewey and others to establish the New School For Social Research in NY City.  He worked there until 1926.

Veblen lived on small gifts from a former student and royalties from his books until his death in 1929.  At the time of his death he was penniless, living alone in a crude shack in the mountains of California  He had been divorced from Ellen Rolfe for several years; had remarried and became a widower when his second wife died.

John Dos Passos, an admirer, later included a brief sketch of Veblen’s life in The Big Money, one of the books in his USA trilogy.  He entitled the sketch, “The Bitter Drink”.  He likened and contrasted Socrates and Veblen and wrote that, unlike Socretes, who ended his life with a goblet of poisenous hemlock, Veblen sipped his “bitter drink” throughout his life.

Veblen:  The Economist/Sociologist/Philosopher

Isiah Berlin, a philosopher and essayist, began a famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, with the following sentence:

“There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  As I read Dorfman’s account of Veblen’s books and articles, it became clear to me that, although he was plainly a polymath who was interested in many different subjects, evolution, botany, sociology, philosophy, economic theory, history, genetics, and wrote about them with depth and serious scholarship, he was, nevertheless, one of Berlin’s hedgehogs, not a fox.

No matter what subjects Veblen studied or chose to write about, he used them to support his argument that capitalism and the culture and policies accompanying it, were fundamentally flawed because capitalism is designed to distribute its benefits in unproductive ways to undeserving people who occupy undeserved positions of power.  The result, of course, condemned Veblen to a lifetime of conflict with almost every aspect of the culture and society in which he lived.

To Veblen, the only essential components of the economic system surrounding him were the tools used to produce the goods and services available to satisfy the needs of the people in the society and the engineers and craftsmen with the skills and inclination to produce the tools [Veblen’s “instinct of workmanship”] and to extract the necessary raw materials.  This useful pantheon did not include financiers, salesmen, clerics, or lawyers.  It also was not compatible with the private ownership of the physical property required to produce goods and services. [I will elaborate this last statement later in this essay.]

Veblen and Marx

There are many similarities between the objectives and value judgments of Veblen and Marx.  Most prominently, as stated, both attacked the propriety of private property ownership.  Marx based his analysis on the ideas of Ricardo and Hegel.  His labor based theory of value was derived from some of Ricardo’s reasoning, although he reached conclusions not shared by Ricardo.  His projection of a future “dictatorship of the proletariat” borrowed from Hagel’s analysis of history as a series of conflicts followed by a combined resolution:  the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” formulation. Again, Marx took these ideas far afield from the way Hegel applied them.  [With due humility I hasten to admit my scant knowledge of these writers.  I have read some of Marx’s writing but my understanding of its theoretical roots is based on popularized accounts, not personal scholarship.]

Unlike Marx, Veblen based much of his analysis of capitalism on the ideas of Darwin, William Graham Sumner, a sociologist at Yale, and upon his own wide-ranging research and study.  Veblen was a student of Sumner during his graduate study there.  Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in 1859, when Veblen was two years old.  By the time he reached adulthood, it had become a major subject of study by American scholars.  Veblen eagerly embraced its ideas and framed his attack on what he referred to as the “vested interests” by tracing their development back through the history of piracy and savagery to identify the roots of some aspects of capitalism he found objectionable.  For example, he observed that the concept of private property ownership originated when primitive savages raided neighboring tribes, captured women and claimed them as chattels after returning to the home village.  He traced  the idea of “conspicuous consumption”to the practice of some primitive tribes to boast of their successful exploits by ceremoniously burning piles of valuable booty to impress visiting leaders of other tribes.

Unlike Marx, Veblen never made violent revolution a central part of his analysis.  He acknowledged that it might occur because the “vested interests” would be unwilling peacefully to surrender their power and wealth.  More often, he would express his belief that society would eventually realize the irrationality of “sabotaging” the use of available technology and, in response, simply abandon the institutions that were based on “superfluities” like speculative profits and competition between rival producers featuring “sabotage” (interference with efficient operation of the productive process) that accomplished no benefit to those needing the output of the affected industry.

Veblen and Organized Labor

Veblen’s relationship with unions was complex.  He believed those with skills required for designing and using tools should be in charge of the industrial processes dependent on them.  This ,of course, pleased members of the guilds and crafts based on those skills.  When, however, those organizations chose to equate their welfare with the prosperity of the owners, Veblen’s ideas confounded them and their leaders.  The labor organization most consenant with Veblen’s views was the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW.  This union, dedicated to “one big union”, anathema to the craft unions, and, like Veblen, committed to displacing the factory owners with the factory workers, was close to Veblen’s teaching.

Veblen’s sympathetic attitude toward the IWW was inconsistent with his hostility toward the “sabotage” of the industrial process by the tactics of the “vested interests”.  The IWW made no secret of their intent to disrupt the industries they chose to organize.  Veblen’s reaction was to note the hypocrisy of the employers’ outrage at the “sabotage” by the IWW while, as Veblen saw it, engaging in wholesale “sabotage” of the industrial process in furtherance of their own greed and profit.  Here is his description:

“The practice of sabotage is by no means confined to the working classes :

“The word has by usage come to have an altogether un-graceful air of disapproval. Yet it signifies nothing more vicious than a deliberate obstruction or retardation of industry, usually by legitimate means. for the sake of some personal or partisan advantage. This morally colorless meaning is all that is intended in its use here. It is extremely common in all industry that is designed to supply merchantable goods for the market. It is, in fact, the most ordinary and ubiquitous of all expedients in business enterprise that has to do with supplying the market, being always present in the business man’s necessary calculations; being not only a usual and convenient recourse but quite indispensable as an habitual measure of business sagacity. So that no personal blame can attach to its employment by any given business man or business concern. It is only when measures of this nature are resorted to by employees, to gain some end of their own, that such conduct becomes (technically) reprehensible.

Veblen’s hope for ending private ownership of the property required for industrial production led him to be sympathetic with two organized groups who were active during his lifetime:  The IWW and the Bolsheviks following the Russian revolution of 1917.  Neither prevailed.  The IWW succumbed to the armed might of the US government, the Pinkertons and the corporate business community.  The Bolsheviks gave way to Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler and an ice-ax to the back of Trotsky’s head.  Veblen’s hopeful vision was probably best portrayed by Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, a fictional work much admired by both Veblen and his wife, Ellen Rolfe.

Veblen and Ownership

I have asserted that Veblen favored the abandonment of the institution of private property ownership, at least so far as it applied to the tools and raw materials necessary for the production of goods and services needed by the general population.  This is not a universally shared interpretation of his writing.  For example, Dr. Ayres never made such a statement during my hours in his classroom or in any conversation at his office after class.  In 1949 and 1950, it would have been foolhardy for him to have done so.  The hysteria about the “communist menace” was in full cry and the University of Texas already was suspect as a haven for subversives.   And, so far as I know, Veblen never explicitly stated that he favored the disestablishment of the institution of private ownership of the means of production.

I am convinced that Veblen not only favored the abandonment of the institutional system of private ownership of the means of production, he thought it more likely than not that, at some time, the “common man” as he referred to the non-ownership class, would demand it.  The problem is that Veblen’s entire life’s contribution to our understanding of this issue was a very long set of premises without any stated conclusions.  He was like a lawyer who makes a brilliant argument, but stops short of stating what he wants the jury to do:  “Here are the facts.   Here are the pro’s and the con’s.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide what they mean.”  An additional problem is that Veblen had a sense of humor that was so sharp and quick that only after thinking about it later do you realize what was funny.

The best evidence I have found to buttress my belief is a few paragraphs from a book written by Veblen after he was no longer teaching at any college or university.  In 1919, he published a book entitled An Inquiry Into the Nature of Peace and Its Perpetuation.  He was offering advice to President Wilson and the team of negotiators who were designing the terms of peace with Germany after WWI.  There is no sentence or pair of sentences I can quote to support my statement.  The best I can do is to suggest that my readers open their web browser; search for the “Guttenberg Project” ( an online free library).  Then use the internal search feature to search for “Veblen”.  You will find The Theory of the Leisure Class and the above-cited book on The Nature of Peace.  Click to download the book.  Under “Format” choose “Read this book online HTML”.  Then go to page 317 and read the next 9 pages, to page 326.

Veblen traces the history of private ownership of the means of production; explains why, although it made sense when production was done in small shops owned by the shopkeepers, it no longer makes sense because the tools require more workers and cost much more money and the owners of the factories are no longer involved with the actual work of the factory; only with the financing and various schemes and strategies aimed, not at efficient production, but at strategic sabotage of production owned by competitors or at merging with other owners to strengthen the ability to create monopolies.  He also explains why the privileges of ownership are unfair and undeserved.  He ends with this sentence:

“And it is also well within the possibilities of the case that this issue may work into an interruption or disruption of the peace between the nations.”, which, in Veblen-speak, means, “And if you don’t look out, the workers will get tired of being exploited and you’ll have a bloody revolution on your hands!”

Veblen’s Humor

I know this long essay has surpassed the patience of most of my readers, but I  can’t resist concluding with a couple of examples of Veblen’s peculiar sense of humor.

One of his favorite ideas to poke fun at was the classical economists’ claim that people make economic choices based on their reactions to pleasure and pain.  Here is his version of that concept:

“The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area but leave him intact…
He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self-poised in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down on him, whereupon he follows he line of the resultant”

Another of Veblen’s choice targets was the “Captain of Industry”, who was presented by the business-dominated economic theorists of his day, much as John Boehner now speaks of the “Job Creators”.  Here is Veblen’s description of the strategy and behavior of the “Captain of Industry” who was said to be skilled at “watchful waiting”.

“Doubtless this form of words ‘watchful waiting’ will have been employed in the first instance to describe the frame of mind of a toad who has reached the years of discretion and has found his appointed place along some frequented run where many flies and spiders pass and repass on their way to complete that destiny to which it has pleased an all-seeing and merciful providence to call them, but by an easy turn of speech it has also been found suitable to describe the safe and sane strategy of that mature order of captains of industry who are governed by sound business principles.  There is a certain bland sufficiency spread across the face of such a toad so circumstanced, while his comely personal bulk gives assurance of pyramidal principles of stability.”

Veblen was and is without peer as a wielder of humorous sarcasm.

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