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Thorstein Veblen and the American Way of Life – a review, and some thoughts on Veblen

Jura is pleased to publish this article by John August. John reviews "Thorstein Veblen and the American Way of Life", which is published by Black Rose Books Canada, and is available at Jura. From time to time, Jura publishes articles on our blog by guest contributors. Please note that articles by guest contributors do not necessarily the position of the Jura Collective.

Thorstein Veblen and the American Way of Life – a review, and some thoughts on Veblen
By John August

I've long been a fan of Veblen, who had some very interesting things to say; I've also read "Mutual Aid" by Kropotkin, which had some intriguing biological ideas. So, when I saw this book by Louis Patsouras, I thought it would be interesting to get an anarchist perspective.

But what was so fascinating about Veblen, at least, his "Theory of the Leisure Class"? You can look at the ruling ( "Leisure" ) class and their abuses. But Veblen made a quite different attack. While the wealthy justified themselves through their supposed contribution, Veblen took a crack at what it meant to be wealthy.

Rather than being the "enterprising" people they claimed be, they were some sort of hybrid of the "upper class twit" out of the UK, together with the vain superficial elements of the French Royal Court. They were a bunch of inane, superficial, stupidly competitive idiots.

Veblen came up with "conspicuous consumption". The leisure class were consuming for show, not use, in competition with others who were doing the same. Rather than fist waving against the injustice, his analysis was anthropological, with a moderate amount of distance combined with a tone of wry amusement. Because it was not "fist waving", it had all the more impact.

He undermined other ideas about consumption. For example, the more you have of something, the less you want. But, if you're putting together a collection, or you're trying to show off, more is better. Having 10 prestige cars rather than just 9 makes a difference.

The leisure class made a show of distancing themselves from manual labour. Women were ornaments, and it was important that they consume for show, to make the husband worthy. Veblen called it "vicarious consumption". It was also important that women not do anything useful, which might be seen as work.

The effort in selling, not making, undermined the "productive economy". It's an echo of Galbraith, that the economy sells useless stuff people don't need in order to keep people employed. Of course, in the background, there is technological innovation we benefit from, but the "waste" is also clear.

Then there's "planned obsolescence". Things can fail early, prompting replacement. Further, you might replace something before it has stopped working, because the replacement is more "modern" ... or perhaps even, just "more trendy". In using something better, you've thrown the old one away. Have you really progressed that much?

Veblen undermined the idea commodities were useful and worthwhile. When something is only socially appreciated rather than "useful" - why was it so important to make it? The economy making "fairy floss", so to speak? So, the economy does not really provide "useful" goods. Given this underlying waste, there's a certain muddle headedness in trying to make the economy more "productive". You're not generating more happiness - just more stuff to be wasted.

Of course, even with this in the background, people live in poverty, and there's a concentration of wealth. Nevertheless this "underlying waste" does undermine efforts to "reform" the economy in pursuit of "greater productivity". I mean, did our society actually do something useful with the previously existing productivity?

Apart from these issues, Veblen also wrote about labour and other details of the economy. However, for whatever reason, Patsouras does not seem to give much attention to the ideas noted above, for me a significant and intriguing part of Veblen's perspective.

Patsouras looks at Veblen's contemporaries, along with intellectual, political, economic and world developments since. He considers US imperialism, and its pursuit of economic interests with military force. These discursions are interesting in their way, but Patsouras does seem to struggle to link them to Veblen's original ideas.

While the book does consider Veblen, it seems to be an excuse for Patsouras to delve into his favourite passions in US economic history and developments since. There's a review of the "Robber Barons", the hold of financial institutions, the strange way in which these brutal market players were also philanthropists. I don't want to complain too much - I suppose it was going to be an anarchic commentary, that was the whole point. At times these excursions are interesting. In many cases there was something that was new to me, but I could imagine them being boringly familiar for some readers. At other times I was a bit dazed, with a string of one thinker after another.

Considering class and the nature of ownership seems more to Patsouras' liking. For Veblen, absentee ownership and forcing others to labour for you were bad things, though it was reasonable to own land which you directly worked and occupied. This was an important distinction I had not realised.

Coming out of Catholicism, you had "distributivism" - lots of people would own stuff, but it where they worked and lived as a network of artisans, with no concentrations of ownership.

Patsouras notes the worth of Henry George's perspective, where the privilege of ownership would form a tax base, meaning that at least the absentee owners would pay for the privilege.

George considered an "injustice" - of people reaping an undeserved - an unearned - bonus, and the worth of fixing this. But - hopefully - this would mean higher wages so workers could assume cooperative style ownership of industries. Patsouras is skeptical about taxing land, preferring to think that "capital" and "profits" should also be taxed at a similar rate. Still, I side more strongly with the Georgists here. An issue is how much "central" and "different to other capital" land is. Veblen did in fact defend George, in particular against people who claimed that land ownership was "sacred", unions an anathema, and so forth. It is not clear how much he was a "Georgist", as compared to his other concerns with the way the economy worked.

There was the push at the time towards standardisation and mass production, in pursuit of greater profitability, which would eventually be self-defeating. This is to be contrasted with today's emphasis on "customisation". Mass production undermined the worth of individual "artisans" and "guilds". Veblen notes good things: empathy with others; "workmanship", or the worth of being akin to an artisan and making stuff others find useful as an equal partner; idle curiosity, a curiosity about the world which is not just about your own financial and other progress. While "workmanship" can be uplifting, it can be marginalised by a "slave labour" relationship, and there's the "alienation" of work, with work being "drudgery" in the production line, and work more like slavery than a choice.

Depressions were an issue. Apologists claim that the system automatically seeks balance. "Say's Law" claims that production automatically creates its own demand. Challenging this was Keynes idea that net demand can lag behind production, and that government spending is needed to balance out the picture. The Leisure class would be motivated to be apologists, because while the suffering resulting from depressions was mostly borne by the working class, to react to this would be to, perhaps, put a brake on the privileged who are trying to further take advantage of and develop their privilege.

Apart from Keynes, Marx also spoke of the "paradox of production". Overproduction, and insufficient margins to warrant production. And Veblen too, saw that the pursuit of "productivity" - itself a consequence of "selfishness" - would put people out of work and lead to economic crisis. Now, looking at issues of "individualism" as compared to "selfishness", "rights" and "anarchy". Veblen proclaimed anarchism to be "extreme", though Patsouras claims that comes from a misunderstanding of nuances around rights. Patsouras agrees that a strand of anarchism is based on the rights of the individual, but also notes that there are strands of Darwinian mutual aid and the Romantic revolt. He also notes that Veblen goes from "human characteristics" to a broader political conclusion, and endorses activist initiatives and cooperatives that had an anarchist flavour.

Veblen railed against "individualism", and was against "selfishness", whether capitalist or otherwise. Where hedonism was embraced in capitalism, this was because of its notional - supposedly positive - consequences. Into the mix, Herbert Spencer, a "right wing" apologist of the time ( so to speak ), railed against "compulsory cooperation", with capitalism supposedly the only one to provide "voluntary cooperation". Here, Veblen was a socialist.

Spencer claimed poverty was inevitable, an unfolding of a natural principle - social darwinism. Competition would always mean that there would be some people better off and in consequence, the poor would be a natural outcome. However, there was a cooperative emphasis with evolutionary theory. This was much developed by Kropotkin, but Darwin also spoke about cooperation and human moral sentiments reinforcing each other.

Apologists claimed cooperation would only occur within families, with the broader world being dog eat dog rather than cooperative, feeding into a broader discussion about whether mankind was good or evil, and what our early history tells us.

Patsouras reviews the debate over early civilisation and its consequences. I'm more inspired by the mother city of Caral in Peru. This was the first dramatic increase in prosperity in that part of the world, and was the result of cooperation with the coastal community. The city was open plan without defences - suggesting that apart from small tribal skirmishes, large scale conflict resulted after there was something to fight over, larger scale conflict did not precede or develop simultaneously with the development of prosperity.

This all seems to be a part of a greater debate over whether violence, suffering and inequity are "natural" or "unavoidable". One justification for inequity is that the wealthy were genetically destined to, and society is just working through an existing blueprint. Of course, rather than thinking of successive generations being the custodians of wealth because it is something "in the blood", this could result from the fact that wealth can be used to sustain itself. Patsouras considers this, along with intelligence, ability and the nature of class - something which I found most intriguing in the light of my interest in evolution. Patsouras also looks at the reactions people had to the economic injustices around them. One was the formation of utopian separatist communities, which operated with varying degrees of success, and represented one way of "fixing the problem" - "getting out of the kitchen". Patsouras notes Owen's "New Harmony" ( not much on "New Lanark" in the UK) and Brookfarm, with "transcendentalism" being the foundation.

Another reaction was activism around strikes and demanding greater pay. Veblen saw that few workers were motivated around socialistic activity and a broader awareness. There were journalists and writers ( including the so called "muckrakers" ) writing about condition of the working poor. There were theorists, analysing the current system and drawing attention to its problems and shining lights on alternatives, and responding to events in the Soviet Union.

Patsouras considers utopian theories, Marx's approach, and various schools of thought in US history. He also looks at the European influences on socialist and anarchist thought, considering Kropotkin, and the intellectual heritage of some US commentators going back to Europe.

But, what Patsouras failed to consider was "socialism before Marx" in the UK - cooperatives, and also the actions of enlightened capitalists - such as Owen's "New Lanark" ( which demonstrated that, contrary to opinion of the time, you could look after workers well - and make a profit). Going back still further, you had the Chartists, and then the diggers and levellers.

Of course, any synopsis is going to leave stuff out, that's the price you pay. Maybe it's a justifiable and understandable omission. Or maybe he really should have included these items. I don't have enough objectivity to judge.

Patsouras claims the story of Adam and Eve is one of ownership and production. I understand from mainstream biblical scholarship that its origins are in the epic of Gilgamesh, with the original sentiment being that moral awareness comes at a cost. Patsouras here seems to be over-reaching way beyond his competence. Hopefully on matters of more recent economic history and ideas he is on better ground.

Speaking of religion, Patsouras does note the duality - religion was used to justify slavery, but also underpinned revolutionary movements. Some religious utopian colonies had a genuine interest in equality. Veblen however saw religion as a superstition, an odd belief in nonsense. Patsouras did a good job of engaging with the two sides.

But, getting back to anarchism. You do wonder exactly what anarchism is. Can you draw a line around it? Or is it just something you recognise when you see it? For all his meandering around various anarchic ideas and commentators, with Patsouras it seems you can't see the wood for the trees. I have a lot of sympathy for anarchist ideas, and while there's a lot of good stuff in the book, you do wonder if you're more or less confused about anarchy at the end.

Patsouras notes some commonality between Veblen's ideas and anarchism. Perhaps there is, but the separation seems to be a bit clumsy, and he seems to struggle in developing an anarchist perspective on Veblen. There's not a clear sense of "Veblen says this; he was reacting this; in contrast, anarchism would have this position". The author goes into diversions into whole other realms of history and theory, and it is sometimes hard to follow and see how it all relates to Veblen. Was it a commentary on Veblen, or was Veblen just a springboard to talk about a lot of other issues? I'm still not actually sure. But, in spite of its problems, it is still a worthwhile read. But perhaps it's worth knowing what's ahead of you when you open the first page of the book!


John August, Host, Roving Spotlight, 2RSR 88.9FM Tuesdays noon-2pm
Vice-President, NSW Humanists - www.hsnsw.asn.au
Permutations : johnaugust.com.au
Pirate Party Candidate, Bennelong 2016