Sociology Thorstein Veblen
by
Sidney Plotkin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0124

Introduction

Thorstein Veblen (b. 1857–d. 1929) ranks among the most original, controversial, and elusive minds in modern social and economic theory. His many books and essays, published between 1884 and 1923, remain a fertile source of critical ideas on the evolution of industrial capitalist society and its predominant institutions. He profoundly influenced development of institutional economics and was among the first theorists to identify advertising, financial manipulation, and stagnation as essential features of a mature business economy. His central emphasis hinged on the evolution of human institutions that reflect both industrious and aggressive dispositions and habits. Veblen believed human beings manifest a complex and changing confluence of contradictory instincts and habits. These underpin human industriousness, creativity, and altruism as well as proclivities toward predation, power, aggression, and conflict. A slow change from peaceable savagery to the barbaric stage of culture led to the rise of ruling classes that used conspicuous symbols of leisure to display and legitimate claims to power and privilege. Contemporary forms of consumption and financial power represent evolved and modernized forms of these ancient habits. Thus modern business elites, for Veblen, distort and waste the benefits of technology in order to slake chronically dissatisfying quests for ever-increasing power and status, signified by wealth. Democracy, under the control of “substantial citizens,” offers little promise of turning industry to the common good. For Veblen, ordinary people have learned too well to emulate the values and habits of their leaders, much to the underlying population’s continuing disadvantage.

Biography

Veblen’s life has become the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Dorfman 1934 remains the only comprehensive biography—however recent scholarship questions his view of Veblen as a socially marginal man, aloof and alienated from American life. Reisman 1953, an oft-cited and essentially psychological study, follows Dorfman closely. Recent additions to the biographical literature, including Edgell 2001 and Jorgensen and Jorgensen 1999, challenge Dorfman’s work. Bartley and Bartley 2012 disputes a number of Dorfman’s conclusions, offering a view of Veblen as a well-rounded, socially adept and industrious individual. Veblen scholars have delved deeply into his early intellectual development, providing insights into the impact of Veblen’s education on his mature outlook. A good example is Camic 2012, a review of the impact of Veblen’s teachers on the latter’s intellectual development. Viano 2012 illuminates Veblen’s time at Cornell, uncovering its significant impact on Veblen’s ideas about evolutionary and historical change. Raymer 2013 traces comparable influences among Veblen’s scientist colleagues at the University of Chicago. Odner 2012 reveals hitherto ignored aspects of Veblen’s Norwegian influences.

  • Bartley, Russell, and Sylvia Bartley. 2012. The physical world of Thorstein Veblen: Washington Island and other intimate spaces. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 99–130. London: Anthem.

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    A description of the physical world Veblen built for himself and his family on Washington Island, Wisconsin, and how it reflects the man, his workmanship, and his social relationships.

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    • Camic, Charles. 2012. Schooling for heterodoxy: On the foundations of Thorstein Veblen’s institutional economics. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 173–201. London: Anthem.

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      An informative, detailed exploration of classes and teachers that shaped Veblen’s emerging outlook. This essay will be valuable especially to graduate students and specialists in American intellectual history.

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      • Dorfman, Joseph. 1934. Thorstein Veblen and his America. New York: Viking.

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        The most comprehensive biography of Veblen. It is indispensable, readable, and dated. It places Veblen squarely in his historical context, but contemporary scholars have charged that it is flawed by errors and misrepresentations in its account of Veblen’s family background, upbringing, character, and career. Most in dispute is Dorfman’s contention that Veblen exemplified the detached, isolated, socially marginal intellectual.

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        • Edgell, Stephen. 2001. Veblen in perspective: His life and thought. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

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          Well-written overview of Veblen’s career and major works, emphasizing his evolutionary theory. It includes substantial reinterpretations, based on the most recent scholarship, of Veblen’s upbringing and career.

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          • Jorgensen, Elizabeth Watkins, and Henry Irvin Jorgensen. 1999. Thorstein Veblen, Victorian firebrand. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

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            A highly readable and original reassessment of Veblen’s life, this study emphasizes and offers much new information about Veblen’s personal relationships, focusing on his two marriages.

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            • Odner, Kurt. 2012. New perspectives on Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 89–98. London: Anthem.

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              An important effort by a Norwegian sociologist to uncover hitherto ignored influences that may have shaped Veblen through his family and ethnic background; especially important in this respect is recovery of the Veblen family’s Quaker roots, a suggestive clue to Veblen’s pacifist attitudes and aversion to conflict.

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              • Raymer, Emilie J. 2013. A man of his time: Thorstein Veblen and the University of Chicago Darwinists. Journal of the History of Biology 46.4: 669–698.

                DOI: 10.1007/s10739-012-9342-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                Outlines the strong Darwinian current among natural scientists, especially biologists, at the University of Chicago, with whose researchers Veblen had extensive and in some cases, such as Jacques Loeb, close friendships. Skeptical of the social marginality thesis, Raymer stresses that Veblen was actively involved in the intellectual life of the university.

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                • Reisman, David. 1953. Thorstein Veblen: A critical interpretation. New York: Scribner.

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                  Includes many rewarding sociological insights into Veblen’s theory, including a psychological account of Veblen’s distant relation with his father, which depends heavily on Dorfman’s work.

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                  • Viano, Francesca Lidia. 2012. Ithaca transfer: Veblen and the historical profession. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for An Age of Crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 133–171. London: Anthem.

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                    An important and original study, which discloses the largely ignored and/or understated influence of Veblen’s brief time of study at Cornell University. Makes the point that Veblen’s education at Cornell included considerable work in history and constitutional law. Technical, but important for graduate students and specialists.

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                    General Theoretical Overviews

                    Many scholars have provided overviews of Veblen’s thought. General introductions to Veblen range from generally sympathetic early studies by Hobson 1936 and Rosenberg 1956 to Dobriansky 1957, a considerably more critical mid-20th century perspective. Daugert 1950 reveals the philosophical moorings of Veblen’s thought. Dowd 1958 is a compilation of essays by many scholars on the diverse strands of Veblen’s theory. Among the more recent studies, Diggins 1999 compares Veblen with Marx and Weber, while Mestrovic 1993 offers a Veblen whose concept of barbarism furnishes a key to understandings of contemporary postmodernity. Spindler 2002 places Veblen in the context of American culture. Among contemporary Veblen scholars, Tilman 1991 and Tilman 2011 provide the most informed examinations of Veblen and his critics, American and European.

                    • Daugert, Stanley M. 1950. The philosophy of Thorstein Veblen. New York: King’s Crown.

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                      Indispensable scholarship that carefully explores the Kantian and broader philosophical foundations of Veblen’s thought. Without Veblen’s long-lost doctoral thesis on Kant, it remains an invaluable guide. But it is a difficult technical study and best advised for specialists in the field.

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                      • Diggins, John Patrick. 1999. Thorstein Veblen, theorist of the leisure class. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                        Originally published as The bard of savagery (New York: Seabury, 1978), this is an influential, valuable, and well-written examination of Veblen in relation to the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber. An especially illuminating study and accessible to undergraduates.

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                        • Dobriansky, Lev E. 1957. Veblenism: A new critique. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

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                          Among the most important critical studies of Veblen, it tackles its subject from a rigorous Catholic theological perspective, finding Veblen’s atheism and naturalism wanting. Reflects a deeply felt and close reading of its subject, but will be of use mainly to advanced undergraduates, graduates, and specialists. Not easy reading. With an introduction by James Burnham.

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                          • Dowd, Douglas. 1958. Thorstein Veblen: A critical reappraisal; Lectures and essays commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Veblen’s birth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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                            A still useful and illuminating collection of essays, suitable for newcomers to Veblen.

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                            • Hobson, John A. 1936. Veblen. London: Chapman Hall.

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                              Among the earliest studies of Veblen’s work, Hobson’s book remains valuable for underscoring Veblen’s distinctive form of economic determinism, the uneasy marriage of instinctive and cultural factors that shape material and social life. Readable and worthwhile for undergraduates as well as specialists.

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                              • Mestrovic, Stejepan G. 1993. The barbarian temperament: Toward a postmodern critical theory. New York: Routledge.

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                                Mestrovic writes acutely and often sardonically of Veblen’s concept of barbarism, insisting that postmodern critical theory needs to be informed by Veblen’s concept. Suitable for advanced undergraduates.

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                                • Rosenberg, Bernard. 1956. The values of Veblen: A critical appraisal. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

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                                  Rosenberg remains worth reading for his view of Veblen’s stress on bureaucratic domination. Suitable for undergraduate and graduate students. With a foreword by Max Lerner.

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                                  • Spindler, Michael. 2002. Veblen and modern America: Revolutionary iconoclast. London: Pluto.

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                                    This volume is an excellent, straightforward introduction to Veblen’s life and work, suitable especially for undergraduates and general readers.

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                                    • Tilman, Rick. 1991. Thorstein Veblen and his critics, 1891–1963: Conservative, liberal, and radical perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                      A comprehensive review of Veblen’s most articulate and influential American critics, emphasizing their tendency to use Veblen as a leverage point for advancing their own ideological claims. Required reading for an understanding of Veblen’s place in the canon of American social thought.

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                                      • Tilman, Rick. 2011. Thorstein Veblen and his European contemporaries, 1880–1940: A study of comparative sociologies. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.

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                                        A series of careful contrasts of Veblen with the titans of late 19th and early 20th century European thought, including Durkheim, Keynes, Sombart, Tonnies, Simmel, and Mannheim, among others. The volume is written clearly and is replete with Tilman’s sweeping knowledge of the literature.

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                                        Evolution and Institutional Change

                                        Veblen insisted that human experience reflects slow, cumulative processes of evolutionary change, change that is organized through institutions and shaped by habit. Hodgson 1998, Hodgson 2008, and Hodgson 2012 all discuss Veblen’s application of Darwinian principles to the study of economic institutions and social change. Similarly, Tilman 2007 describes Veblen’s general approach as “evolutionary naturalism.” Dente 1977 provides a detailed, comprehensive account of Veblen’s theory of institutional change. Some scholars deny that Veblen’s understanding of biological evolution applies directly to human experience. Cordes 2006 and Cordes 2007 insist that Veblen treated evolution metaphorically, using evolution as a linguistic tool for understanding processes of change that reflect distinctively human cultural features. Another focus of controversy concerns the relation between Veblen’s evolutionary framework and his radical critique of dominant classes.

                                        • Cordes, Christian. 2006. Darwinism in economics: From analogy to continuity. Journal of Evolutionary Economics 16.5: 529–541.

                                          DOI: 10.1007/s00191-006-0027-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          A critique of Hodgson’s position, insisting that Veblen used Darwinian evolution as a metaphor for processes of human change that developed not via genetic inheritance but as a distinctively social process. Processes and patterns of selection in social evolution are unlike those of biological selection.

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                                          • Cordes, Christian. 2007. Can a generalized Darwinism be criticized? A rejoinder to Geoffrey Hodgson. Journal of Economic Issues 41.1: 277–281.

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                                            A response that reasserts the claim that human cultural evolution lacks direct analogy to the human gene. Highly technical material; graduate student level.

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                                            • Dente, Leonard. 1977. Veblen’s theory of social change. New York: Arno.

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                                              Detailed and accessible discussion of Veblen’s approach to the study of social change that stresses that the concept of change is a major clue to the unity of Veblen’s theory.

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                                              • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 1998. On the evolution of Thorstein Veblen’s evolutionary economics. Cambridge Journal of Economics 22.4: 415–432.

                                                DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.cje.a013726Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                An important statement by the leading scholar in the field about Veblen’s gradual assimilation of Darwinian theory, particularly in light of Veblen’s dissatisfaction with both biological and Marxist determinism. Technical but accessible to advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2008. How Veblen generalized Darwinism. Journal of Economic Issues 42.2: 399–405.

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                                                  A key article on Veblen’s use of Darwinian method: it stresses that Veblen’s engagement with Darwinian principles of inheritance and selection applies to individuals through habits and institutions. Technical but accessible to advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                  • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2012. Thorstein Veblen: The father of evolutionary and institutional economics. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 283–295. London: Anthem.

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                                                    A clear statement of Hodgson’s vital assessment of Darwin’s importance for Veblen not only as a source of biologically relevant theory, but as foundation for a new philosophical system that explains the salience of competition for resources in all complex systems.

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                                                    • Tilman, Rick. 2007. Thorstein Veblen and the enrichment of evolutionary naturalism. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

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                                                      An important collection of Tilman’s essays on the biological and anthropological aspects of Veblen’s theory. Readable, especially for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                      Evolution and Political Critique

                                                      Dugger 2006, and Dugger and Sherman 2000 stress that Veblen’s theory of evolution was anything but objective or politically neutral. His idea of institutional change reflects not only an archaic past and cultural lag, but embodies a politically charged process of changing forms of economic exploitation by ruling classes. Eby 1998 agrees, homing in on Veblen’s analysis of misrepresentations of time to identify a chief source of conservative political dominance. In contrast, Dobriansky 1957 argues that Veblen’s institutional theory negates human individuality and is therefore alien to faith and to liberal values. Bartley and Bartley 2004 defends Veblen as a writer for whom moral values lie at the crux of his theory of the regressive aspects of social evolution.

                                                      • Bartley, Russell H., and Sylvia E. Bartley. Confessional and pecuniary codes of conduct in the life and work of Thorstein Veblen. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Thorstein Veblen Association, Carleton College, Northfield, MN, June 2004, 1–12.

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                                                        A carefully researched study of interconnections between Veblen’s thought and the patterns of his everyday life. It documents the essentially moral outlook that underpinned both. A sharp rejoinder to conventional views of Veblen as an eccentric and estranged intellectual.

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                                                        • Dobriansky, Lev E. 1957. Veblenism: A new critique. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

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                                                          With an introduction by James Burnham, this is an acute but demanding critique of Veblen’s theory of social evolution from a Catholic natural law perspective; an indispensable critical study of Veblen.

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                                                          • Dugger, William M. 2006. Veblen’s radical theory of social evolution. Journal of Economic Issues 40.3: 651–671.

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                                                            Insists that students of Veblen’s evolutionary theory should not ignore the “red threads” that make the work an insistent critique of power and exploitation. Well written and accessible to undergraduates.

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                                                            • Dugger, William M., and Howard J. Sherman. 2000. Reclaiming evolution: A dialog between Marxism and institutionalism on social change. London: Routledge.

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                                                              A valuable introductory guide to the evolutionary dimensions of Veblen’s and Marx’s theories. Very well written and well suited to undergraduates.

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                                                              • Eby, Clare Virginia. 1998. Veblen’s assault on time. Journal of Economic Issues 32.3: 689–707.

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                                                                A revealing interpretation of Veblen’s critique of ideological misrepresentations of time that marks a sharp contrast with his theory of evolutionary time as the material reality of slow growth and change.

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                                                                Instinct, Human Nature, and Agency

                                                                Veblen rejects the notion of an immutable human nature, insisting instead that human beings slowly change and imperfectly adapt to their environment, reflecting a complex set of evolving relationships among instincts, habits, and institutions. Tilman 2007 explains the intellectual sources of this “evolutionary naturalism,” especially as it reflected the influence of, among others, the psychologist Jacque Loeb, Veblen’s colleague at the University of Chicago. Hodgson 2001 explains that Veblen treated institutions as the main expression of Darwinian transmission and selection, but adds that Veblen also carved out theoretical space for subjective human purpose and agency. Similarly, Kilpinen 2004 describes Veblen’s theory of agency as superior to Max Weber’s less dynamic conception. Seckler 1975 is skeptical of claims for Veblen’s belief in freedom, describing Veblen as a theorist pulled between an insistent materialism on the one hand and a commitment to free will on the other, a contradiction that Veblen never finally resolved. Hill 1958 also questions how Veblen’s theory of instincts can be both biological and open to cultural influence. In Mayberry 1969, such questions clarify that Veblen was in fact less a scientist than a social philosopher, a thinker who used his instinct theory to establish, but also to mask, normative standards and values that opposed the exploitation and waste of capitalist institutions.

                                                                • Hill, Forest. 1958. Veblen and Marx. In Thorstein Veblen: A critical reappraisal; Lectures and essays commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Veblen’s birth. Edited by Douglas Dowd, 129–149. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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                                                                  A Marxist critique of Veblen’s instinct theory; clearly explained and accessible to undergraduates.

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                                                                  • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2001. Darwin, Veblen and the problem of causality in economics. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 23.3–4: 385–423.

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                                                                    Indispensable discussion of Veblen’s theory of agency. Technical, but essential reading on the subject.

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                                                                    • Kilpinen, Erkki. 2004. How to fight the “Methodenstreit”? Veblen and Weber on economics, psychology, and action. International Review of Sociology: Revue Internationale de Sociologie 14.3: 413–432.

                                                                      DOI: 10.1080/0390670042000318278Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                      A sophisticated and important analysis of Veblen’s theory of action in contrast with Max Weber’s less dynamic view. Suitable for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                                      • Mayberry, Thomas C. 1969. Thorstein Veblen on human nature. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 28.3: 315–323.

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                                                                        Makes the case for Veblen as a social philosopher and social critic as against the claim that he deserves to be recognized as a scientist. Clearly written and accessible to undergraduates.

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                                                                        • Seckler, David. 1975. Thorstein Veblen and the institutionalists: A study in the social philosophy of economics. Boulder: Univ. of Colorado Press.

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                                                                          Thoughtful, useful, and informed discussion of Veblen’s economic theory and its influence on later institutional economists. For undergraduates and graduates, this volume is a helpful introduction to the main contours of the field. With a foreword by Lord Robbins.

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                                                                          • Tilman, Rick. 2007. Thorstein Veblen and the enrichment of evolutionary naturalism. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

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                                                                            A collection of Tilman’s carefully argued essays, several of which focus on the subtle interconnections between the biological and cultural dimensions of Veblen’s theory of human nature, especially in chapters 2, 8, and 11.

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                                                                            Technology and Social Control

                                                                            The instincts of workmanship and technology are the locus for Veblen’s image of the human species at its most creative. To what degree Veblen anticipated or ignored darker cultural and environmental effects of technological change is a theme that has generated debate among scholars. Ayres 1944 and Ayres 1958 influenced much of the evolving discussion with the claim that Veblen’s theory rests on sharp distinctions between “ceremonial”—or ideological and exploitative—practices as against “industrial” or technological inventiveness that favors generic human interests. Bush 1987 develops Ayres’ distinction in the light of criticisms it aroused. Swaney 1989 argues that humans survive, according to Veblen, through biological as well as technological evolution, a distinction that he claims permits understanding of the harm to ecology inflicted by technology. Veblen also held that in its most developed form, technology enhances the role and rationality of workers, technicians, engineers, and experts. Indeed, Marcuse 1941 credits Veblen with being among the first social thinkers to explain how the machine process influences the general tenor of social consciousness. Bell 1983 is in agreement on Veblen’s importance in this respect, but criticizes Veblen for his proposal—in The Engineers and the Price System—that technicians might someday govern economic activity rationally on the basis of their expertise. For Rutherford 1992 the imperatives of technical domination imply that whatever Veblen might have hoped, control by technicians would not soon yield to popular control. From a different angle Stabile 1982 explores the influence of Veblen’s ideas on American socialists who failed to understand weaknesses in Veblen’s idea that laboring amidst the machine process might loosen the conservative views of American workers. Tilman 1996 answers critics of Veblen’s ideas on the potentially liberating impact of technological development, and in a similar vein Rosenberg 1956 suggests Veblen’s writings indicate a strongly anti-authoritarian, anti-bureaucratic bent at odds with Bell’s argument that Veblen’s proposal reflected an incipient authoritarianism.

                                                                            • Ayres, Clarence E. 1944. The theory of economic progress. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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                                                                              Foundational text for understanding Ayres’ influential distinction between ceremonial and instrumental activity. Clear, readable. For undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                                              • Ayres, Clarence E. 1958. Veblen’s theory of instincts. In Thorstein Veblen: A critical reappraisal; Lectures and essays commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Veblen’s birth. Edited by Douglas Dowd, 25–39. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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                                                                                A brief, highly readable summary statement of Ayres’ thesis.

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                                                                                • Bell, Daniel. 1983. Introduction: Thorstein Veblen. In The engineers and the price system. By Thorstein Veblen, 2–35. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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                                                                                  An important statement of the potentially authoritarian implications of Veblen’s proposal for a “soviet of technicians.”

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                                                                                  • Bush, Paul D. 1987. The theory of institutional change. Journal of Economic Issues 21.3: 1075–1116.

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                                                                                    A detailed and careful effort to defend and develop the ceremonial/instrumental distinction for the purposes of explaining the complex interaction of social and technological change. Occasionally technical, but mainly accessible to undergraduates.

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                                                                                    • Marcuse, Herbert. 1941. Some social implications of modern technology. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9:414–439.

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                                                                                      Notable validation by a major philosopher of the Frankfurt school for Veblen’s thesis concerning the increasing political and social significance of technological rationality. Advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

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                                                                                      • Rosenberg, Bernard. 1956. The values of Veblen: A critical appraisal. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

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                                                                                        Rosenberg invokes Veblen’s critique of the administrative distortion of American universities in The Higher Learning to underscore the latter’s similar critique of bureaucratic domination and irresponsible hierarchy, reflective of Veblen’s preferences for nonbureaucratic forms of communal and self-governance. With a foreword by Max Lerner.

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                                                                                        • Rutherford, Malcolm. 1992. Thorstein Veblen and the problem of the engineers. International Review of Sociology 3.3: 125–150.

                                                                                          DOI: 10.1080/03906701.1992.9971125Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                          A vigorous statement of the view that, given the imperatives of technology, an engineers’ takeover would not evolve into a form of popular or democratic control.

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                                                                                          • Stabile, Donald. 1982. Thorstein Veblen and his socialist contemporaries: A critical comparison. Journal of Economic Issues 16.1: 1–28.

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                                                                                            A detailed study of relationships at the beginning of the 20th century between the American labor movement, socialists, and the ideas of Veblen; suggests Veblen’s influence confused socialists about the mechanisms and politics of class conflict, weakening their impact on social change. Clearly and strongly argued.

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                                                                                            • Swaney, James A. 1989. Our obsolete technological mentality. Journal of Economic Issues 23.2: 569–578.

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                                                                                              A critique of assumptions favoring instrumental, technical development as inherently conducive to social welfare. Only an obsolete technological mentality remains blind to the species-endangering ecological effects of technology.

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                                                                                              • Tilman, Rick. 1996. Veblen and the industrial republic: The path to the future. In The intellectual legacy of Thorstein Veblen: Unresolved issues. By Rick Tilman, 165–197. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

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                                                                                                Tilman insists that Veblen carefully qualified his belief in the liberating power of the machine process, first on workers and then in respect to engineers. In regard to labor, Veblen became increasingly pessimistic, while his view of a takeover by engineers was more likely intended as satire than serious political thought. Clearly argued and deserves study in relation to works cited in this article by Marcuse, Bell, Rutherford, and Stabile.

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                                                                                                Conspicuous Consumption

                                                                                                Veblen’s most famous, celebrated, and influential contribution to social theory is the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” the idea that people use purchased goods to signify status and power. But the concept has received sharp criticism too. Adorno 1983 is among the most acute critics, insisting that Veblen’s stress on the wastefulness of “conspicuous consumption” revealed an inability to think beyond pragmatic industrial values. Tilman 1996 and Tilman 2007 responded to Adorno and other likeminded critics with the claim that Veblen brought more to his sense of aesthetics and taste than utilitarian values. In a different vein, historians of consumption have greatly enriched understandings of Veblen’s thesis. Vichert 1971 favorably compares Veblen’s satirical critique to Bernard Mandeville’s controversial The Fable of the Bees. McKendrick, et al. 1982 documents commercialization and expansion of conspicuous consumption in 18th-century England. In a different but equally important sense, Reinert and Viano 2012 explores the intellectual roots of Veblen’s critique of leisure-class consumption, revealing connections between the logic of that critique and Veblen’s analysis of corporate finance. The idea of “conspicuous consumption” has enjoyed a lasting influence in studies of consumer habits. Leibenstein 1950, for example, first showed how “the Veblen effect” of spending more for status advantage could be analyzed within formal models of demand formation.

                                                                                                • Adorno, Theodore W. 1983. Veblen’s attack on culture. In Prisms. By Theodore Adorno, 73–94. Translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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                                                                                                  Adorno’s complaint that Veblen uncritically embraced instrumental values is among the most influential critical works in the Veblen literature. Not easy reading, but indispensable. With a foreword by the author.

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                                                                                                  • Leibenstein, Harvey. 1950. Bandwagon, snob and Veblen effects in the theory of consumers’ demand. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 64.2: 183–207.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.2307/1882692Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    Classic article and the starting point for later neoclassical studies of the “Veblen effect,” the willingness of consumers to pay more for expensive goods that promise differential status. Technical, but students of economics will find it accessible.

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                                                                                                    • McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. 1982. The birth of a consumer society: The commercialization of eighteenth-century England. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                      An indispensable historical account of the early modern emergence of expanding consumption. McKendrick surveys connections between entrepreneurial salesmanship and the urge to spend; Brewer suggests how such changes gradually enhanced the political standing and influence of middle-class merchants, craftsmen, and traders; Plumb explores the commercialization of leisure. An outstanding primer on the early historical development of mass consumption and leisure.

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                                                                                                      • Reinert, Sophus A., and Francesca Lidia Viano. 2012. Capitalizing expectations: Veblen on consumption, crises and the utility of waste. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 329–351. London: Anthem.

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                                                                                                        Original, carefully documented, and important argument that highlights neglected parallels between Veblen’s critique of upper-class consumption and his critique of corporate finance and business crisis. Demanding, but worth close study.

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                                                                                                        • Tilman, Rick. 1996. Kant, Veblen and the aesthetics of heterodox economics. In The intellectual legacy of Thorstein Veblen: Unresolved issues. By Rick Tilman, 143–165. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

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                                                                                                          Veblen, Tilman contends, offered an aesthetic that celebrated serviceability but also an idea of intrinsic, generic beauty, derived from Kant. Besides advancing its own argument, the essay contains an extensive list of sources. A helpful starting point for research on this topic.

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                                                                                                          • Tilman, Rick. 2007. Aesthetician of the commoners. In Thorstein Veblen and the enrichment of evolutionary naturalism. By Rick Tilman, 140–160. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

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                                                                                                            Tilman argues that Veblen’s sense of beauty is essentially naturalistic, in opposition to high artistic standards declared as a means of expressing social superiority.

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                                                                                                            • Vichert, Gordon. 1971. The theory of conspicuous consumption in the 18th century. In The varied pattern: Studies in the eighteenth century. Edited by Peter Hughes and David Williams, 253–267. Toronto: A. M. Hakkert.

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                                                                                                              Building on favorable comparison of Veblen’s thesis with controversy surrounding the reception of Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, Vichert describes both writers as bold and cutting satirists. Just as important, he shows how emerging consumer habits in the 18th century undermined traditional norms that discouraged pursuit of luxury and commerce. Such changes accelerated growth of an expanding market society in England and beyond.

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                                                                                                              Contemporary Views and Applications of “Conspicuous Consumption”

                                                                                                              Among contemporary theorists of consumption, none is more influential than Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu 1984, like the works of Veblen, emphasizes concealment of class motives and interests by claims to manifest the proper tastes and manners of high culture, especially in fields such as art, design, and fashion. Trigg 2001 explores continuities and differences between Veblen and Bourdieu. Contemporary sociologists of consumption typically credit Veblen with valuable insight, but some insist that aspects of his thinking are confused, dated, or insufficiently attentive to variations of status pursuit in different settings and cultures. Campbell 1995 delivers an incisive logical critique of Veblen’s approach. Daloz 2013 provides a rich comparative analysis of status and consumption across cultures. Frank 2012 describes how consumers willingly pay higher prices for some goods, albeit perhaps less out of envy than in relation to social context and conceptions of quality. Schor 1998 examines how advertisers and mass media encourage working-class consumers to pursue a standard of living many cannot afford. Patsiaouras and Fitchett 2012 reviews the extensive literature on changes in patterns of Conspicuous Consumption since Veblen’s era.

                                                                                                              • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                More than Veblen, Bourdieu contrasts ostentatious display with the refined high aestheticism of the upper class. But like Veblen, Bourdieu underscores the social imperative that claims to elegance and taste must expunge any taint of labor or consideration of cost.

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                                                                                                                • Campbell, Colin. 1995. Conspicuous confusion? A critique of Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption. Sociological Theory 13.1: 37–47.

                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2307/202004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                  A careful, logical deconstruction and critique of Veblen’s concept. Campbell argues that Veblen was excessively vague about both the degree of conscious awareness required for conspicuous consumption and about the social goals and functions it is supposed to achieve. The concept is thus poorly suited to guide empirical investigation. Closely argued, necessary reading.

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                                                                                                                  • Daloz, Jean-Pascal. 2013. Rethinking social distinction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1057/9781137316417Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    While acknowledging the contributions of Veblen and Bourdieu to a social theory of status distinction, Daloz argues that the quest to establish distinction and status does not conform to any single sociological generalization or practice. Emphasizing cross-cultural inquiry, Daloz suggests that under some circumstances elites may pursue distinction by seeking to remain “unconspicuous.” An important and readable source.

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                                                                                                                    • Frank, Robert. 2012. Thorstein Veblen: Still misunderstood, but more important now than ever. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 353–359. London: Anthem.

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                                                                                                                      A clearly and wittily written explanation of how social factors shape consumer decisions.

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                                                                                                                      • Patsiaouras, Georgios, and James A. Fitchett. 2012. The evolution of conspicuous consumption. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing 4.1: 154–176.

                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1108/17557501211195109Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                        Detailed review of the literature of changing views and patterns of Conspicuous Consumption in the 20th century. Very useful and accessible.

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                                                                                                                        • Schor, Juliet B. 1998. The overspent American: Why we want what we don’t need. New York: HarperPerennial.

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                                                                                                                          Well-written and accessible account of contemporary consumer behavior, with Veblen’s influence hovering in the background throughout.

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                                                                                                                          • Trigg, Andrew B. 2001. Veblen, Bourdieu, and conspicuous consumption. Journal of Economic Issues 35.1: 99–115.

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                                                                                                                            Synthesizing Veblen’s analysis with Bourdieu, Trigg claims that a fusion of their approaches can explain changes in consumption patterns in a postmodern age. Clear and accessible.

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                                                                                                                            Economics, Business, and Finance

                                                                                                                            For Veblen, insists Dugger 2006, economic development draws upon accumulating stocks of social and industrial knowledge that constitute community knowledge, which business engrosses and thwarts. As corporations grow larger, with the help of investment bankers’ credit and government’s lax rules, so does their power to limit production, elevate profits, and drive stock prices dangerously higher. As O’Hara 1993 notes, Veblen believed that business enterprise thrives through its ability to both capture and sabotage the growing technical promise of industrial development. Writing from a Marxist perspective, Sweezy 1957 concluded that Veblen offered rich insights into centralized corporate capitalism, corporate connections with the state, and the importance of ideology to the system’s ability to maintain mass support. Proponents of capitalism, such as Knight 1920 and Knight 1941, deny Veblen’s assertions, insisting that Veblen made erroneous comparisons between primitive and mature economic institutions, failed to explain his terms in analytically precise ways, and regularly conceals his personal values by false pretensions to science. Waller 2007 provides a rejoinder to such arguments, explaining the anthropological, cultural, and symbolic functions of economic activity in Veblen’s theory. Along with conservatives, many Marxists espouse equally strong criticism of Veblen’s economics (e.g., Baran 1957, who insists that Veblen lacks a lucid, historically informed theory of capitalist exploitation). Ganley 2004 and Hake 2007 reflect efforts among many institutional economists to revive and apply Veblen’s criticism of finance to the 2007–2009 financial crisis. For Raines and Leathers 1992, Veblen forecasts that financial instability stimulates countertendencies toward corporate and governmental regulation in search of an elusive stability.

                                                                                                                            • Baran, Paul. 1957. The theory of the leisure class. Monthly Review 9.3: 83–91.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.14452/MR-009-03-04-1957-07-08_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              A despairing view of Veblen’s failure to explain adequately how and why forms of economic exploitation change from one economic system to another.

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                                                                                                                              • Dugger, William M. 2006. Veblen’s radical theory of social evolution. Journal of Economic Issues 40.3: 651–671.

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                                                                                                                                Well-written explanation of the radical thrust of Veblen’s economic theory; emphasizes the claim that for Veblen finance capitalists are parasitic elements in the economy.

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                                                                                                                                • Ganley, William T. 2004. The Theory of Business Enterprise and Veblen’s neglected theory of corporation finance. Journal of Economic Issues 38.2: 397–403.

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                                                                                                                                  Informative effort to resurrect the crucial role of financial considerations in the operations of corporate management; technical but understandable.

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                                                                                                                                  • Hake, Eric R. 2007. Capital and the modern corporation. In Thorstein Veblen and the revival of free market capitalism. Edited by Janet T. Knoedler, Robert E. Prasch, and Dell P. Champlin, 31–68. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.4337/9781847207074Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                    Detailed, understandable examination of corporate ascendancy as an expression of business and banking efforts to regulate production in the interest of rising profits and appreciation of capital asset values.

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                                                                                                                                    • Knight, Frank. 1920. Book review: The place of science in modern civilization. Journal of Political Economy 28.6: 518–520.

                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1086/253277Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                      A brief but pungent review of Veblen’s book as well as a criticism of Veblen as a scholar who presumes to offer economic science, but who in fact provides satire without benefit of clarity or precision in his use of terms.

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                                                                                                                                      • Knight, Frank. 1941. Anthropology and economics. Journal of Political Economy 49.2: 247–268.

                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1086/255698Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                        A stinging critique of efforts, inspired by Veblen, to analyze contemporary market capitalism in light of anthropological studies of primitive peoples. Lucidly written.

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                                                                                                                                        • O’Hara, Philip. 1993. Veblen’s analysis of business, industry and the limits of capital: An interpretation and sympathetic critique. History of Economics Review 20.1: 95–119.

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                                                                                                                                          A technical but literate explanation of the importance of Veblen’s idea of social wealth to his critique of business enterprise, insisting that this idea is better spelled out in The Theory of the Leisure Class than in the later, more explicitly business-centered studies.

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                                                                                                                                          • Raines, J. Patrick, and Charles G. Leathers. 1992. Financial innovations and Veblen’s theory of financial markets. Journal of Economic Issues 26.2: 433–440.

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                                                                                                                                            Brief, clear, prescient analysis of Veblen’s idea that excessive financial innovation not only leads to crises, but that crises prompt investment bankers and government agencies to seek imperfect stabilizing policies. Veblen predicts that government will do more than stand by in the wake of financial collapse.

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                                                                                                                                            • Sweezy, Paul M. 1957. The theory of business enterprise and absentee ownership. Monthly Review 9.3: 105–112.

                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.14452/MR-009-03-04-1957-07-08_6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                              A brief, important, and well-written essay by a prominent independent Marxist scholar on the enduring value of Veblen’s economic analysis; notably, befitting its mid-20th century moment, Sweezy emphasizes corporate and state power, not Veblen’s theory of finance, a principal focus of recent studies.

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                                                                                                                                              • Waller, William T. 2007. Veblen’s missing theory of markets and exchange. In Thorstein Veblen and the revival of free market capitalism. Edited by Janet T. Knoedler, Robert E. Prasch, and Dell P. Champlin, 87–126. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.4337/9781847207074Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                Clearly written, detailed analysis of orthodox economic assumptions and their external relation to Veblen’s anthropological, cultural, symbolic analysis of exchange relations.

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                                                                                                                                                Politics, Exploitation, and Power

                                                                                                                                                Veblen wrote virtually nothing about the daily workings of conventional politics and government. Nonetheless his theory possesses a sharp political thrust through its insistent critique of corporate and government exploitation of ordinary people. Gambs 1946 was among the earliest scholars to see Veblen’s critique of power in his economic analysis, insisting that Veblen regarded supply and demand not as free exchange of equivalent values, but as reflections of unequal group power. Likewise, Prasch 2007 explains Veblen’s idea that private property does not derive from natural rights, as liberals believe, but from entrenched hierarchies of power and status, which are masked and legitimized by government protections and rules. Tool and Samuels 1989 offers essays that carefully apply Veblen’s institutional power model to problems of contemporary political economy. In contrast, Hook 1936 typifies an early, still familiar view that Veblen treated politics as a superficial expression of social and economic forces. Yet Hobson 1936 devoted the longest chapter of his book-length study of Veblen to politics, highlighting analysis of “the country town” as a chief source of America’s self-seeking political habits and values (see “Absentee Ownership,” chapter 7, section iii). Hodder 1956 argues that Veblen’s own political values were anarchistic and libertarian. Similarly, Tilman 1996 claims that critiques of Veblen, such as Bell 1983, which blame Veblen for harboring authoritarian attitudes, fail to understand his deep hostility to the state and exploitative power.

                                                                                                                                                • Bell, Daniel. 1983. Introduction. In The Engineers and the Price System. By Thorstein Veblen, 2–35. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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                                                                                                                                                  A classic statement of the potentially authoritarian implications of Veblen’s proposal for a “soviet of technicians.” Clearly, forthrightly written.

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                                                                                                                                                  • Gambs, John S. 1946. Beyond supply and demand: A reappraisal of institutional economics. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                                                    A still relevant and understandable analysis of how coercion and power figure as main emphases within institutionalist critiques of orthodox economics; the roots of the idea lie heavily in Veblen’s work.

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                                                                                                                                                    • Hobson, John A. 1936. Veblen. London: Chapman Hall.

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                                                                                                                                                      Though critical of Veblen’s theory of imperialism, the author credits Veblen with an original analysis of the influence of “country town” habits on the loose political ethics of American elites. For Hobson, Veblen was a sharp student of the town’s role as a powerful anachronistic force shaping American political culture and habits into the present day.

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                                                                                                                                                      • Hodder, H. J. 1956. The political ideas of Thorstein Veblen. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 22.3: 347–357.

                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.2307/138439Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                        The first effort to treat Veblen’s political thought seriously, claiming that Veblen’s political outlook is best understood as philosophical anarchism. Clearly written and accessible.

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                                                                                                                                                        • Hook, Sidney. 1936. On reading Veblen. The New Republic 87:182.

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                                                                                                                                                          A brief, lucid summary, which typifies an orthodox view of Veblen’s treatment of politics as a secondary factor in social life, a reflection of deeper seated economic and social forces.

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                                                                                                                                                          • Prasch, Robert E. 2007. Thorstein Veblen on the origins and meaning of private property. In Thorstein Veblen and the Revival of Free Market Capitalism. Edited by Janet T. Knoedler, Robert E. Prasch, and Dell P. Champlin, 17–30. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.4337/9781847207074Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                            An explication of Veblen’s theory of the role of power and predation in Veblen’s theory of private property, underscoring Veblen’s departure from orthodox views of property as an expression of natural rights and economic scarcity. Well-written and accessible.

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                                                                                                                                                            • Tilman, Rick. 1996. Veblen and the industrial republic: The path to the future. In The intellectual legacy of Thorstein Veblen: Unresolved issues. By Rick Tilman, 165–197. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

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                                                                                                                                                              Tilman responds to critics of Veblen’s call for a “soviet of technicans,” insisting that the idea was meant as satire, and, more importantly, that Veblen’s political outlook was antiauthoritarian and anarchistic.

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                                                                                                                                                              • Tool, Marc R., and Warren J. Samuels, eds. 1989. The economy as a system of power. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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                                                                                                                                                                This collection is an excellent primer on the study of institutional power as a principal shaping factor in the functioning of advanced corporate capitalism. Includes theoretical, historical, and contemporary work on institutionalized economic power.

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                                                                                                                                                                The State, War, and Capitalism

                                                                                                                                                                Much recent work on Veblen’s political ideas stresses his view of the state as an engine of war. Plotkin and Tilman 2011 analyzes Veblen’s theory of predatory exploit as a pivotal concept of his work, concluding that Veblen’s war-based theory of the state is a central idea of his political thought. Williams 1957 highlights Veblen’s treatment of foreign policy and war as an expression of both international and domestic forces, a central theme of Veblen’s World War I studies. Capozzola 1999 examines the American reception of Veblen’s controversial World War I publications and concludes that the passions of war led critics to place Veblen in pro- or antiwar pigeonholes that belie his complex, ambiguous position. Edgell 2012 disagrees, insisting that Veblen’s pacifism logically reflects his evolutionary critique of predation and his hostility to the state. Much of the writing on Veblen’s view of government justifiably centers on his treatment of government as a source of protections and justifications for big business exploitation. But here too there is debate about just what Veblen meant. Sweezy 1957 (see Economics, Business and Finance) underscores the roles of patriotism, nationalism, and military spending in Veblen’s analysis of mature capitalism. O’Hara and Sherman 2004 compares Sweezy and Veblen and sees much similarity in their conceptions of the political economy of monopoly capitalism. Leathers 1989 suggests that Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise took seriously the self-interested political behavior of government officials, but that this valuable insight fell by the wayside in later Veblen works. Raines and Leathers 1992 makes the case that Veblen’s theory of financial crisis anticipated the importance of state intervention.

                                                                                                                                                                • Capozzola, Christopher. 1999. Thorstein Veblen and the politics of war, 1914–1920. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 13.2: 255–271.

                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1023/A:1022984330046Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                  A well-informed historical account of contradictory responses to Veblen’s publications and activities during and after WWI. Useful for understanding both the elusiveness of Veblen’s political thinking and the reasons for his willingness to work briefly for the federal government during the war.

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                                                                                                                                                                  • Edgell, Stephen. 2012. Veblen, war and peace. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 239–256. London: Anthem.

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                                                                                                                                                                    Edgell takes issue with Capozzola: Veblen’s political thought, he claims, was not ambiguous on matters of war and peace, but Veblen was decidedly pacifist in his political views.

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                                                                                                                                                                    • Leathers, Charles G. 1989. Thorstein Veblen’s theories of government failure: The critic of capitalism and democracy neglected some useful insights, hindsight shows. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 48.3: 293–306.

                                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/j.1536-7150.1989.tb03179.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                      A relatively rare effort to examine closely Veblen’s ideas about government’s relation to business, suggesting that Veblen tended to ignore or downplay in later studies some early insights into political parties and self-interested behavior by public officials. Clear and understandable.

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                                                                                                                                                                      • O’Hara, Phillip, and Howard Sherman. 2004. Veblen and Sweezy on monopoly capital, crises, conflict, and the state. Journal of Economic Issues 38.4: 969–987.

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                                                                                                                                                                        An important and lucid effort to indicate connections and parallels between Marxists and Veblen on the role of the state in capitalist society.

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                                                                                                                                                                        • Plotkin, Sidney, and Rick Tilman. 2011. The Political ideas of Thorstein Veblen. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                                                                          The only book-length study of Veblen’s political ideas; stresses that Veblen conceived of the state as an essentially pre-capitalist warlike institution that retains its aggressive habits even after political institutions become more modern and pro-capitalist. Accessible to undergraduates.

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                                                                                                                                                                          • Raines, J. Patrick, and Charles G. Leathers. 1992. Financial innovations and Veblen’s theory of financial markets. Journal of Economic Issues 26.2: 433–440.

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                                                                                                                                                                            Veblen predicts that in the wake of financial crisis, government will intervene in markets to restore a semblance of stability. Clear and accessible.

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                                                                                                                                                                            • Sweezy, Paul. 1957. The theory of business enterprise and absentee ownership. Monthly Review 9.3: 105–112.

                                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.14452/MR-009-03-04-1957-07-08_6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                              A Marxist statement of Veblen’s contribution to radical state theory, emphasizing the importance of patriotism, nationalism, and military spending to an understanding of the ideological and surplus absorption functions of the state in capitalist society. Clear and accessible.

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                                                                                                                                                                              • Williams, William Appleman. 1957. The nature of peace. Monthly Review 9.3: 113–117.

                                                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.14452/MR-009-03-04-1957-07-08_7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                An historian of American imperialism credits Veblen with a sophisticated treatment of the multiplicity of factors shaping an imperialistic, aggressive foreign policy.

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