Thorstein Bunde Veblen

The American political economist, sociologist, and social critic Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929) wrote about the evolutionary development and mounting internal tensions of modern Western society.

Thorstein Veblen was born on July 30, 1857, in Valders, Wis. He was the sixth of 12 children of Norwegian immigrant parents. Veblen graduated in 1880 from Carleton College, Minn., and in 1884 he took his doctorate in philosophy at Yale. He was a brilliant student, yet failed to get an academic post—apparently because of his "Norski" background and his skepticism of established institutions. For seven years Veblen read books on the farm in Minnesota, tinkered with farm machinery, and took part in village discussions. In 1888 he married Ellen Rolfe.

In 1891 Veblen revived his academic career by enrolling as a graduate student in economics at Cornell. A year later he moved to the University of Chicago, where he stayed for 14 years. Despite numerous papers and book reviews in learned journals, Veblen's academic advancement on the Chicago faculty was slow. His first and best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), was followed by The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904).

Although he produced eight volumes between 1914 and 1923, Veblen's academic fortune did not prosper. In 1906 he had moved from Chicago to Stanford University for 3 years. His teaching performance was always considered poor: he mumbled inaudibly and consistently flouted the grading system by giving his students "Cs." His domestic difficulties and associations with other women complicated his situation, according to university administrators. Forced to resign from Stanford, Veblen remained without a post for two years. Then, in 1911, he was appointed lecturer at the University of Missouri, where he remained for seven years. He remarried in 1914.

After a short period of government service in World War I, Veblen wrote editorials and essays for magazines and gave occasional lectures at the New School for Social Research. In 1926 he retired to his California shack, "a defeated man, " in the words of his biographer Joseph Dorfman. He died in poverty in Menlo Park on Aug. 3, 1929.


Veblen's Leading Ideas

Veblen made his readers aware that, in his period, American small-scale competitive capitalism was giving way to large-scale monopoly trusts. Among the implications of this trend were: the monopolistic practice of administered prices—charging what the traffic would bear; the limitation on production in order to raise prices and maximize profits; the subordination of the national state and of universities to the role of agents for business; and the emergence of a leisure class devoted to wasteful and conspicuous consumption for the sake of status.

Veblen also rejected the prevailing late-19th-century social philosophy of the "survival of the fittest." Instead, he adopted a perspective of impersonal institutional change and conflict which owed much to Charles Darwin and even more to Karl Marx. Another major influence on Veblen was the utopian socialism of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). Yet Veblen was never a social activist or even an open advocate of social reform. He remained for the most part an academic observer and analyst. Implicitly, however, some of his writings were severely critical of the existing social order, with overtones of agrarian populism and utopian socialism. A number of Veblen's basic concepts and insights have become widely accepted in American sociological analysis: these include the "sense of workmanship, " "culture lag, " "conspicuous consumption, " and "waste."


Leisure Class

In his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Veblen analyzed the status symbolism of modern bourgeois consumption, with interesting historical and anthropological antecedents. Social prestige, he pointed out, is enhanced by wasteful consumption of time and goods. With few changes, this book remains an excellent source work for many present-day social and liberating movements.

On modern America and its economy, two of Veblen's best books are The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) and Absentee Ownership (1923). These works trace the inherent conflict between profit-oriented capitalists and the general welfare—defined by Veblen as maximum productivity of goods and services. The Higher Learning in America (1918), a biting analysis of the consequences of business domination of universities, should be read even today by those interested in contemporary issues and conflicts on North American campuses.

Veblen's Imperial Germany (1915) and The Nature of Peace (1917) are still relevant. His posthumously published Essays on Our Changing Order (1934) throws more light on the cold war than do most interpretations.


Veblen's Legacy

Though he left no disciples, Veblen influenced economists of varied views, political scientists, public administrators and policy makers in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era, and a minor but significant social movement— technocracy. Originating in the early 1920s, technocracy identified the general welfare with maximum engineering productivity. But Veblen's organizational connection with technocracy was temporary and superficial.

Even his most orthodox contemporaries rated Veblen as one of the few really outstanding American social scientists. After his death his stature grew steadily, for his insights have proved both lasting and prophetic. His vision of America was a darkening one. As early as 1904 he wrote of a possible reversion to militarism. The deadpan humor of his literary style only highlighted his conception of America as a system of vested business interests propped up by indispensable canons of waste, artificial scarcity, unproductive salesmanship, war, and conspicuous consumption.


Further Reading on Thorstein Bunde Veblen

The standard biography of Veblen is Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934). A revealing portrait of Veblen in his Stanford years, written by a student who lived in his cottage, is contained in Robert Duffus, The Innocents at Cedro: A Memoir of Thorstein Veblen and Some Others (1944). J. A. Hobson, Veblen (1936), is the best early assessment of Veblen's work. One of the most authoritative evaluations is Douglas Dowd, ed., Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Reappraisal (1958). A good foil to the latter is David Riesman, Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Diggins, John P., The bard of savagery: Thorstein Veblen and modern social theory, New York: Seabury Press, 1978.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), Aldershot, Hants, England: Edward Elgar Pub. Ltd.; Brookfield, Vt., USA: Distributed in the United States by Ashgate Pub. Co., 1992.

Riesman, David, Thorstein Veblen, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1995.

Griffin, Robert A. (Robert Arthur), Thorstein Veblen, seer of American socialism, S.l.: Advocate Press; Hamden, CT: Distributed by Roger Books, 1982.