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A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen
Veblen’s ideas on the effect of wealth on behavior were penetrating, original and, to the dismay of his contemporaries, highly uninhibited.
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
This protection was necessary at the time. And there is a wealth of evidence that Veblen was fully conscious of it. During the years when he was working on The Leisure Class, liberal professors at the University of Chicago were under frequent attack from the adjacent plutocracy. The latter expected economics and the other social sciences to provide the doctrine that graced its privileges. In the mid nineties Chauncey Depew, the notable political windbag, told the Chicago students that “this institution, which owes its existence to the beneficence of Rockefeller, is in itself a monument of the proper use of wealth accumulated by a man of genius. So is Cornell, so is Vanderbilt, and so are the older colleges, as they have received the benefactions of generous, appreciative and patriotic wealth.” In 1895 one Edward W. Bemis, an associate professor of political economy in the extension, i.e., outpatient, department of the university, attacked the traction monopoly in Chicago, which, assisted by wholesale bribery, had fastened itself on the backs of Chicago streetcar patrons. His appointment was not renewed. The university authorities, like many godly men, especially in universities, believed that they had a special license to lie. So they compounded their crime in dismissing Bemis by denying that their action was an overture to the traction monopoly or reflected the slightest abridgment of academic freedom. The local press was not misled; it saw this as a concession to sound business interest and applauded. In a fine sentence on scholarly responsibility, the Chicago Journal said: “The duty of a professor who accepts the money of a university for his work is to teach the established truth, not to engage in the ‘pursuit of truth.’” A forthright sentiment.
The last chapter of The Leisure Class is “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” It anticipates a later, much longer, and much more pungent disquisition by Veblen on the influence of the pecuniary civilization on the university (The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen, published in 1918). In this chapter Veblen—though also concerned with other matters—stresses the conservative and protective role of the universities in relation to the pecuniary culture: “New views, new departures in scientific theory, especially new departures which touch the theory of human relations at any point, have found a place in the scheme of the university tardily and by a reluctant tolerance, rather than by cordial welcome; and the men who have occupied themselves with such efforts to widen the scope of human knowledge have not commonly been well received by their learned contemporaries.” No one will be in doubt as to whom, in the last clause, Veblen had in mind. Elsewhere he notes that “as further evidence of the close relation between the educational system and the cultural standards of the community, it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain of industry in place of the priest, as head of seminaries of the higher learning.”
Given such an environment and given also his subject, Veblen, it will be evident, needed the protection of his art. On the whole it served him well. In the course of his academic career he was often in trouble with academic administrators—but mostly on personal and idiosyncratic rather than political or ideological grounds. He was not understood or appreciated by his more pedestrian, if often more fashionable, academic colleagues. A man like Veblen creates problems for such people. They accept the established view, rejoice in the favor of the Establishment. Anyone who does not share their values is a threat to their position and self-esteem, for he makes them seem sycophantic and pedestrian, as indeed they are. Veblen was such a threat. But the rich, to whom ultimately he addressed himself, never penetrated his defenses.
Veblen also enjoyed a measure of political immunity in a hostile world because he was not a reformer. His heart did not beat for the proletariat or even for the downtrodden and poor. He was a man of animus and not of revolution.
The source of Veblen’s animus has regularly been related to his origin. He was the son of immigrant parents; he had experienced the harsh life of the frontier; he did so at a time when the Scandinavians were, by any social standard, second-class citizens. They were saved, if at all, only because they could not be readily distinguished by their color. What was more natural than that someone from such a background should turn on his oppressors? The Theory of the Leisure Class is Veblen’s revenge for the abuse to which he and his parents were subjected.
This, I am persuaded, misunderstands Veblen. His animus was based not on anger and resentment but on derision. I must here cite an experience of my own. Some ten years ago, to fill in the idle moments of one of the more idle occupations, that of the modern ambassador, I wrote a small book about the clansmen among whom I was reared on the north shore of Lake Erie in Canada. The Scotch (as with exceptional etymological correctness we call ourselves), like the Scandinavians, inhabited the farms; the people of the towns were English. From Toronto in the nineteenth century other Englishmen, in conjunction with the Church of England as a kind of holding company for political and economic interest, dominated the economic, political, religious, and social life of Upper Canada to their own unquestioned advantage.