Queens University at Kingston

Veblen, Torstein Bunde (1857-1929)

Thorstein Veblen is to economics what Jonathan Swift is to English literature: a master of the art of satire. Is is essential to effective satire that its message be ambiguous: the reader should never be sure whether the author is absolutely serious or just pulling his or her leg That quality is certainly present in Swift's Gulliver's Travels and it is also present in Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), The Instinct of Workmanship (1914), Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), TheHigherLearninginAmerica (1918),Absentee Ownership (1923), and his many essays. In fact, it is there in everyt}ung he wrote except The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), WhiCh iS as near as he ever came to writing a conventional academic book.

No matter which of these books we open, we find the idea that life in a modern industrial community is the result of a polar conflict between 'pecuniary employments' and 'industrial employments', between 'business enterprise' and 'the machine process', between 'vendibility' and 'serviceability'-in short, between making money and making goods. There is a class struggle under capitalism, not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but between businessmen and engineers. Pecuniary habits of thought unite bankers, brokers, lawyers and managers in a defence of private acquisition; in contrast, the discipline of the machine unites workers in industry and more especially the technicians and engineers who supervise them.

It is in these terms that Veblen describes modern industrial civilisation. As we read him, we have the feeling that something is being explained. And yet in the end the ambiguity of the message remains. He appears to offer a fundamental critique of the market mechanism and a call for something like a technocratic revolution, but Veblen warns us specifically against the belief that the engineers are capable of taking over and running the system, which leaves us wondering just what he is saying. But perhaps the desire to pin him down precisely misses the point: it is, after all, satire and is designed to open your eyes, not to close your mind.


© Mark Blaug, Great Economists Before Keynes: An Introduction to the Lives and Works of One Hundread Great Economists of the Past , Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1986. In Stauffer Library: HB76 .B62 1986t