The Man Who Saw Trump Coming A Century Ago

Photo: the University of Chicago Centennial Catalogues

Reading Thorstein Veblen again, in America’s second (bigger and better) Gilded Age, a world of staggering inequality

Common Dreams, April 11, 2019

Distracted daily by the bloviating POTUS? Here, then, is a small suggestion. Focus your mind for a moment on one simple (yet deeply complex) truth: we are living in a Veblen Moment.

That’s Thorstein Veblen, the greatest American thinker you probably never heard of (or forgot). His working life -- from 1890 to 1923 -- coincided with America’s first Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain, whose novel of that title lampooned the greedy corruption of the country’s most illustrious gentlemen. Veblen had a similarly dark, sardonic sense of humor.

Now, in America’s second (bigger and better) Gilded Age, in a world of staggering inequality, believe me, it helps to read him again.

In his student days at Johns Hopkins, Yale, and finally Cornell, already a master of many languages, he studied anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and political economy (the old fashioned term for what’s now called economics). That was back when economists were concerned with the real-life conditions of human beings, and wouldn’t have settled for data from an illusory “free market.”

What Veblen Saw

The now commonplace phrase “leisure class” was Veblen’s invention and he was careful to define it: “The term ‘leisure,’ as here used, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness.”

Veblen observed a world in which that leisure class, looking down its collective nose at the laboring masses, was all around him, but he saw evidence of something else as well. His anthropological studies revealed earlier cooperative, peaceable cultures that had supported no such idle class at all. In them, men and women had labored together, motivated by an instinctive pride in workmanship, a natural desire to emulate the best workers, and a deep parental concern -- a parental bent he called it -- for the welfare of future generations. As the child of Norwegian immigrants, Veblen himself had grown up on a Minnesota farm in the midst of a close-knit Norwegian-speaking community. He knew what just such a cooperative culture was like and what was possible, even in a gilded (and deeply impoverished) world.

But anthropology also recorded all too many class-ridden societies that saved upper-class men for the “honourable employments”: governance, warfare, priestly office, or sports.  Veblen noted that such arrangements elicited aggressive, dominant behavior that, over time, caused societies to change for the worse. Indeed, those aggressive upper-class men soon discovered the special pleasure that lay in taking whatever they wanted by “seizure,” as Veblen termed it. Such an aggressive way of living and acting, in turn, became the definition of manly “prowess,” admired even by the working class subjected by it. By contrast, actual work -- the laborious production of the goods needed by society -- was devalued. As Veblen put it, “The obtaining [of goods] by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.” It seems that more than a century ago, the dominant men of the previous Gilded Age were, like our president, already spinning their own publicity.

A scientific Darwinian, Veblen saw that such changes developed gradually from alterations in the material circumstances of life. New technology, he understood, sped up industrialization, which in turn attracted those men of the leisure class, always on the lookout for the next thing of value to seize and make their own. When “industrial methods have been developed to such a degree of efficiency as to leave a margin worth fighting for,” Veblen wrote, the watchful men struck like birds of prey.

Such constant “predation,” he suggested, soon became the “habitual, conventional resource” of the parasitical class. In this way, a more peaceable, communal existence had evolved into the grim, combative industrial age in which he found himself: an age shadowed by predators seeking only profits and power, and putting down any workers who tried to stand up for themselves. To Veblen this change was not merely “mechanical.” It was a spiritual transformation.

The Demolition of Democracy

But how, at the turn of the nineteenth century, had America’s great experiment in democracy come to this? In his 1904 book The Theory of Business Enterprise, Veblen zoomed in for a close up of America’s most influential man: “the Business Man.” To classical economists, this enterprising fellow was a generator of economic progress. To Veblen, he was “the Predator” personified: the man who invests in industry, any industry, simply to extract profits from it. Veblen saw that such predators created nothing, produced nothing, and did nothing of economic significance but seize profits.

Of course, Veblen, who could build a house with his own hands, imagined a working world free of such predators. He envisioned an innovative industrial world in which the labor of producing goods would be performed by machines tended by technicians and engineers. In the advanced factories of his mind’s eye, there was no role, no place at all, for the predatory Business Man. Yet Veblen also knew that the natural-born predator of Gilded Age America was already creating a kind of scaffolding of financial transactions above and beyond the factory floor -- a lattice of loans, credits, capitalizations, and the like -- so that he could then take advantage of the “disruptions” of production caused by such encumbrances to seize yet more profits. In a pinch, the predator was, as Veblen saw it, always ready to go further, to throw a wrench into the works, to move into the role of outright “Saboteur.”

Here Veblen’s image of the predatory characters who dominated his Gilded Age runs up against the far glossier, more gilded image of the entrepreneurial executive hailed by most economists and business boosters of his time and ours. Yet in book after book, he continued to strip the gilded cloaks from America’s tycoons, leaving them naked on the factory floor, with one hand jamming the machinery of American life and the other in the till.

Today, in our Second Even-Glitzier Gilded Age, with a Veblen Moment come round again, his conclusions seem self-evident. In fact, his predators pale beside a single image that he himself might have found incredible, the image of three hallowed multi-billionaires of our own Veblen Moment who hold more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans.

The Rise of the Predatory State

Why, then, when Veblen saw America’s plutocratic bent so clearly, is he now neglected? Better to ask, who among America’s moguls wouldn’t want to suppress such a clear-eyed genius? Economist James K. Galbraith suggests that Veblen was eclipsed by the Cold War, which offered only two alternatives, communism or capitalism -- with America’s largely unfettered capitalist system presenting itself as a “conservative” norm and not what it actually was and remains: the extreme and cruel antithesis of communism.

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, it left only one alternative: the triumphant fantasy of the “free market.” What survived, in other words, was only the post-Veblen economics of John D. Rockefeller’s university: the “free market” doctrines of Milton Friedman, founder of the brand of economics popular among conservatives and businessmen and known as the Chicago School.

Ever since, America has once again been gripped by the heavy hands of the predators and of the legislators they buy. Veblen’s leisure class is now eclipsed by those even richer than rich, the top 1% of the 1%, a celestial crew even more remote from the productive labor of working men and women than were those nineteenth-century robber barons. For decades now, from the ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats in the 1990s to the militarized world of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to the self-proclaimed billionaire con man now in the Oval Office, the plutocrats have continued to shower their dark money on the legislative process. Their only frustration: that the left-over reforms of Veblen’s own “Progressive Era” and those of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal still somehow stand (though for how long no one knows).

As Galbraith pointed out in his 2008 book The Predator State, the frustrated predators of the twenty-first century sneakily changed tactics: they aimed to capture the government themselves, to become the state. And so they have. In the Trump era, they have created a government in which current regulators are former lobbyists for the very predators they are supposed to restrain. Similarly, the members of Trump’s cabinet are now the saboteurs: shrinking the State Department, starving public schools, feeding big Pharma with Medicare funds, handing over national parks and public lands to “developers,” and denying science and climate change altogether, just to start down a long list. Meanwhile, our Predator President, when not golfing, leaps about the deconstruction site, waving his hands and hurling abuse, a baron of distraction, commanding attention while the backroom boys (and girls) demolish the institutions of law and democracy.

Later in life, Veblen, the evolutionary who believed that no one could foresee the future, nonetheless felt sure that the American capitalist system, as it was, could not last. He thought it would eventually fall apart. He went on teaching at Stanford, the University of Missouri, and then the New School for Social Research, and writing a raft of brilliant articles and eight more books. Among them, The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1920) may be the best summation of his once astonishing and now essential views. He died at the age of 72 in August 1929. Two months later, the financial scaffolding collapsed and the whole predatory system came crashing down.

To the end, Veblen had hoped that one day the Predators would be driven from the marketplace and the workers would find their way to socialism. Yet a century ago, it seemed to him more likely that the Predators and Saboteurs, collaborating as they did even then with politicians and government lackeys, would increasingly amass more profits, more power, more adulation from the men of the working class, until one day, when those very plutocrats actually captured the government and owned the state, a Gilded Business Man would arise to become a kind of primitive Warlord and Dictator. He would then preside over a new and more powerful regime and the triumph in America of a system we would eventually recognize and call by its modern name: fascism.

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