The Gadfly of American Plutocracy (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: economics, history of capitalism, Thorstein Veblen, social theory

Simon Torracinta is a PhD candidate in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. His writing has appeared in n+1 and The New Inquiry.

Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics
Charles Camic
Harvard University Press, $39.95 (cloth)

In 1893 financial panic triggered a four-year depression in the United States, then the most severe in the nation’s history. Bank runs, shuttered factories, and plummeting wheat prices put millions out of work. In Chicago alone, as many as 180,000 workers were jobless by the end of the year.

An attempt by the Pullman Palace Car Company in the city’s South Side to impose a 30 percent wage cut on its workforce in the spring of 1894 led to a walkout by the newly formed American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs (not yet famous as the socialist firebrand who would later win 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election). It quickly escalated into full-scale boycott of luxury Pullman cars by hundreds of thousands of railroad workers across the country—the infamous Pullman strike, which took place between May and July. With the railways paralyzed, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago, and pitched battles—at times lethal—erupted in working-class neighborhoods. “This is no longer a strike,” the Chicago Tribune thundered: “This is a revolution.” That same spring, hundreds of desperate, unemployed workers, calling themselves the Army of the Commonwealth of Christ, marched from Ohio to the White House, demanding the federal government offer relief in the form of an ambitious public works program to be funded by the unprecedented issuance of fiat money. Another 700 workers from the northwest forcefully commandeered a train to make the trip to D.C., fending off marshals until federal troops intercepted them in Montana. 

This was the atmosphere surrounding the campus of the University of Chicago, then only a few years old, which had just hired a young Norwegian-American economist named Thorstein Veblen two years earlier. In June of 1894 Veblen remarked on these events of worker action for the Journal of Political Economy; he was its founding managing editor. Focusing on Army of the Commonwealth, he dismissively observed “a general conviction that society owes every honest man a living.” These men, he suggested, had fallen prey to the “articulate illusion” of “greenbackism,” to “protectionism,” “populism,” or to “any other of the ramifications of the paternalistic tree of life.” Yet his teaching at Chicago and book reviews for the Journal in this moment tell another story, indexing a deep interest in the agenda of “socialism” emerging both from the American working class—in 1893, the AFL Convention adopted a political program with an explicit call for the “collectivization of industry”—and from Marxist theory emanating across the Atlantic. Despite his ridicule of the march’s proposals, Veblen credited it and its direct appeal to the federal government “an expression of the fact latterly emerging into popular consciousness, that the entire community is a single industrial organism, whose integration is advancing day by day, regardless of any traditional or conventional boundary lines or demarcations.”

The ambiguities of this stance were typical of Veblen, perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most original American economist of his era, and subject of a landmark new biography by sociologist Charles Camic. Though a fulsome critic of the flagrant predations of Gilded Age capitalism and biting chronicler of its business aristocracy, he could appear indifferent to the popular movements that drew on similar arguments. Prescient in recognizing the interconnectedness of individual fates within a country rapidly becoming a single industrial whole, he was unremittingly hostile to reform with any shade of “paternalism”—especially from the state. Living through economic convulsion and class conflict unlike any other in U.S. history, he often preferred to retreat into the long view of an evolutionary perspective that reduced the present to a little speck in the passage of millennia.

Read entire article at Boston Review

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