16 Responses

  1. Ian Angus June 14, 2012 at 5:56 pm |

    If anyone would like to comment on the actual subject of this article, Herve Kempf’s book, the thread remains open.

  2. ConsumerTrap June 13, 2012 at 7:05 pm |

    But, Ian, you quote Wright’s ridiculous dismissal of Veblen — one wonders if Wright had read beyond Theory of the Leisure Class — and yourself sum up Veblen as a mere “liberal critic of the excesses and absurdities of American society in his time” who merely “wrote slashing critiques of high society.”  That’s just not an accurate conclusion.

    By the way, Veblen’s theories of “types” were certainly silly, but they played no important role in his powerful institutional explanation of corporate capitalism and its basic logic.  And his social psychology may have lacked citations — as did all of his writing — but they are quite interesting and serious and scholarly.

    Leftists should not allow liberals ownership of Veblen, and should read him often and carefully.  His work is far more important than 99 percent of what avowed Marxists, John G. Wright definitely included, have ever written.  Baran and Sweezy, by the way, would undoubtedly agree with that.

    Theory of the Leisure Class was by far his worst book, too.

    1. Ian Angus June 13, 2012 at 8:31 pm |

      Michael, apparently you think that since Theory of the Leisure Class was “by far his worst book,” I should have ignored it and written a different article about his other books. Perhaps such an article would be useful — but it would not have been relevant to my review of Kempf.

      1. ConsumerTrap June 14, 2012 at 5:05 pm |

        No, I think you should not have reduced Veblen to that book or endorsed the idea that Veblen was a silly liberal who only talked about upper-class fads. But you did both those things. You could easily have explained what Veblen wrote after Theory of the Leisure Class. But you didn’t do that. As it stands, your review would have the effect of suggesting that the sympathetic reader need not bother with Veblen. It’s a pretty important mistake, IMHO.

        1. Ian Angus June 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm |

          Michael, I do not accept that any criticism of Veblen must be offset by a declaration hailing him as a genius. But you’ve made your point. Let’s move on.

  3. ConsumerTrap June 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |

    This is severely unfair to Veblen!  Almost everything he wrote after Theory of the Leisure Class was about corporate capitalism as an institutional order.  Have you read Absentee Ownership, Ian?  I assume not, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to throw Veblen under the bus like this.  Any serious student of Veblen would know that Theory of the Leisure Class is an insland unto itself in the overall body of Veblen’s work.  It was picked up by mainstream academia as a safe way to flirt with radical ideas, and has remained the one and only approved and examined work by this towering thinker.

    Baran’s dismissal of Veblen’s theory of instincts is itself quite debatable.  The Old Left had contempt for social psychology, as if it the changeability of human beings somehow made careful examination of actually existing psychic process mere “bourgeois” error.  I get a strong whiff of that from what Baran says about Veblen there.

    Meanwhile, if you read more of Baran and compare and contrast Absentee Ownership and Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, you will see how very deeply Veblen and Baran/Sweezy overlap.  It isn’t far from true to call Monopoly Capital an update of Absentee Ownership, in fact.

    And Veblen was a technocrat, by the way.  He believed in the replacement of capitalism by a form of industrial society governed by pure engineering considerations.

    1. Ian Angus June 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm |

      Michael, as the title says, my Afterword isn’t a general evaluation of Veblen’s life work, but a comment on one work, The Theory of the Leisure Class. That book may well be, as you say, an “island unto itself” in his writing, but it is also his most famous and most influential work.

      More important for this article, it is the basis of Kempf’s entire argument, so it was appropriate to discuss it, not a book Veblen wrote 24 years later. 

      If Kempf had read Absentee Ownership, maybe How the Rich are Destroying the Earth would be a better book. But he didn’t, so my review focuses on the part of Veblen’s oeuvre he chose to endorse.

      1. George June 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm |

        I see the topic of Veblen has risen again. I’d very much
        like to appreciate him – mainly because of what I’ve read from others e.g. one
        Guido Preparata who almost worships Veblen – see his two books “Conjuring
        Hitler” and “the Ideology of Tyranny”. The trouble is: I read Preparata on
        Veblen and I think “Wow!” and then I turn to Veblen and I think “Jeez?!” The
        latter’s book “On The Nature Of Peace” has some wonderfully astute comments on
        the psychology of patriotism. It also features some of the most indecipherable
        guff I’ve ever waded through.

        H. L. Mencken has a very entertaining dismissal of Veblen
        although it is completely superficial on the whole. Despite the thumbs down
        given on this comment thread to John G. Wright, I think that HIS dismissal is
        more perceptive.

        But – to get back to Preparata – his reverence for Veblen
        never seems to lead to any proposal for what we are supposed to actually DO to
        remedy the situation. Despite some talk of a “Veblenian left” that would be
        impervious to the fissures of a Marxist left, (this from “Ideology of Tyranny”)
        I couldn’t find any coherent alternative that didn’t sound like pure wishful

  4. George McIntyre April 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |

    You seem to give the impression that John G. Wright was a supporter of Veblen but the very essay you link to (“Thorstein Veblen Sociologist”) is hugely critical and, for me, stands as one of the most perceptive essays written about Veblen. Wright points out Veblen’s “capacity for embroidering pre-conceptions” and, after pointing out the fact that a typical excerpt boils down to a tautology, remarks, “Striving for precision, [Veblen] achieves a formality and massiveness so hypnotic as to put his readers into a trance.” As one who has struggled through Veblen, I can certainly testify to this!

    Wright’s conclusion: “Veblen was no more of an iconoclast than [Herbert] Spencer.”

  5. ceti December 17, 2009 at 12:36 am |

    This book just got a recommend from Chavez in Copenhagen.

    I think Kempf is making more of a moral as opposed to an economic argument. In this way, his critique is similar to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and in some ways descends from Che’s “New Man” ideal. The spiritual crisis and the disabling of collective identity and action cannot be overlooked.

    I think both are useful. It’s up to this site and others like it to propose solutions.

  6. Phil Ward December 14, 2008 at 1:55 pm |

    I think that there is a place for a “populist” campaign by socialists against the conspicuous consumption of the super-rich and for a maximum income (from all sources), of, say, 3 times the current median income in any particular country. This could also be part of a campaign for serious action to reduce GHG emissions.

    I think it is also useful to critique “celebrities” and their lifestyles. The celebrity culture has a damaging, “disempowering” effect on those who look up to them, especially young people. You only have to look at the numbers of boys who want to be professional footballers (in the UK) or girls who diet to see this.

    Of course, this will not directly challenge the capitalist system, but encouraging a bit of class hatred can’t do any harm.

  7. Marc Bonhomme October 20, 2008 at 11:58 am |


    On January 6 2007, the Montreal daily Le Devoir published an exclusive interview with Hervé Kempf on page 1. I made a critic of Kempt’s views based on this interview. On August 26 2008, Françoise David, the main speaker of Québec Solidaire, published her ecological views on the first page of Quebec Solidaire website. She very explicitly affirmed herself as a follower of Kempf. This time, my earlier critic was republished in this fall number of the anticapitalist and independantist newspaper “Unité ouvrière”, the only anticapitalist media which dares to critic the fast-forward social-liberalisation of the leadership of Québec solidaire. You will find my text (in French) on :

    1. Ian Angus June 13, 2012 at 6:45 am |

      C&C published a translation of Marc Bonhomme’s review of Kempf’s book at


  8. Bill Burgess October 15, 2008 at 1:11 pm |

    The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’s study, _Size Matters, Canada’s Ecological Footprint, by Income_ (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/Reports/2008/06/ReportsStudies1910/) usefully highlightes the greater environmental impact of rich people.

    The ecological footprint of the richest 10% of Canadian households is several times greater than that of lower and middle-income households in the areas of housing and mobility. The footprints of each income decile rise steadily with income but then jump much higher for the top 10%.

  9. Aaron Aarons October 14, 2008 at 4:43 pm |

    This review seems on target for the most part. But is the choice of scattered data in the following paragraph the author’s or the reviewer’s?

    “Chapter 2 examines the worldwide growth of inequality. In the southern hemisphere, a billion people live in absolute poverty, surviving on less than a dollar a day. One-third of people in France, live in households that earn less than the minimum wage. In the United States, 23% of people earn less than half of the median income. In Japan, 25% of households have no savings and a million depend on social assistance.”

    Does living even with NO money always indicate “absolute poverty”, or do some such people live adequately based on what they produce and what they share with others in their communities? What is the minimum wage in France and how does it compare with what is necessary for a healthy life? Isn’t “less than half of the median income” in the United States still a lot more than the median income of the whole world? Is social assistance in Japan secure and/or adequate? How does each of the different statistics for a single country compare with the same statistics for other countries? Etc..

    In other words, such an impressionistic use of statistics to demonstrate inequality is nearly useless. It is far better, although also far from perfect, to use the Gini coefficient (see WIkipedia article) or similar statistics to measure inequalities in wealth, income (monetary or real), or any other measurable asset or benefit.

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