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Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857–1929) may no longer feature on the curricula of most economics students, but in terms of editions of his books published and doctoral work dedicated to his work and legacy he remains America's most famous economist. Veblen is the intellectual father of the two most influential economic schools to offer an alternative to today's mainstream economics: evolutionary economics and institutional economics. He vivisected modern capitalism and redrew the very framework of social science, and his renown goes well beyond the Ivory Tower. His name, alongside his signature concepts such as ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘vested interests’, appears in scholarly studies as well as novels and popular media, from the works of novelist John Dos Passos to Fortune Magazine. Other great economists may be cited in academic articles, but theatrical plays are rarely dedicated to their persons and their names are seldom invoked in comedy films as is Veblen's. His international reach extended far beyond the Atlantic communities: six of Veblen's books have been translated into Japanese, and at least two into Chinese.4 But who was he?
In a 1924 letter – written on the stationary of the New School for Social Research where he was employed at the time – Veblen describes himself to a certain ‘Mr. Pritchard’ as ‘an average person with few and slight ties of family or country, being born of Norwegian parents in America and educated at various American schools, and having never been hard at work or very busy‘.
Thorstein Bunde Veblen has passed into the annals of history as an academic enfant terrible: a womanising economist, atheist and iconoclast who mercilessly dissected the vices of the American leisure class, denounced the speculative vocations of their captains of industry and dismissed the entire corpus of contemporary economics and jurisprudence as empty theologies. Born to a Norwegian immigrant family on a Wisconsin farm in 1857, he grew up in a settlement inhabited by Irish and German settlers, from whom he learned both English and German early on. His foreign origins and segregated childhood, along with the autarkic principles and Lutheran morals of his parents, have often been invoked to explain Veblen's harsh denunciation of the American system. Indeed, he has been described as an ‘unacclimated alien’, an intellectual ‘wanderer’, and even an ‘interned immigrant’; a marauder on the border between the old world and the new who, like Peder Victorious in Rølvåg's epic saga about Norwegian-American immigration, nonetheless identified himself fully with neither of them.
I see enormous conglomerates replace the individual capitalists. I see the stock markets fall prey to the same curse that now claims the casinos.
The doctrines which Adam Smith maintained with so much ability, never took so deep hold in this country as in England, and they have been more strongly opposed.
Few authors are so perennially in the process of being rediscovered as Thorstein Veblen. Most recently, his authority has been summoned to combat the climate crisis, to uncover the meaning of life generally and what it means to be American particularly, and by those seeking to make sense of financial scandals such as those of Enron, Worldcom and Parmalat, not to mention the current global economic turmoil. His theories regarding the moral and material costs of conspicuous consumption are today echoed for wider audiences in works such as Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety and Oliver James's Affluenza, and the phrase ‘Gilded Age’ again enjoys cultural and analytical currency. This chapter contributes to this Veblen Renaissance, but neither by dwelling on the structural and cultural similarities between the crises of his time and ours, nor by using his writings to shed light on the technical origins of modern financial misdemeanours.
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