Thorstein Veblen's views on American "exceptionalism": an interpretation.

Author:Tilman, Rick

A facet of Thorstein Veblen's thought and the intellectual milieu in which he lived remains inadequately explored and explained. (1) It is his "exceptionalism," that is, his analysis of why Europe and the United States are different. Although Veblen is occasionally mentioned by scholars as having an "exceptionalist" view of America, no systematic or detailed analysis of his "exceptionalism" as such exists. For example, even Dorothy Ross has been casual in her claims about his exceptionalism, her illustrations of them, and her citations. Other writers tend to assume away what needs proving or simply fail to focus on the issue of whether or not Veblen held an exceptionalist view of America. The thesis of American exceptionalism takes various forms when articulated by historians and social scientists, several of which are related to each other and thus form a more or less coherent interpretation of our history. (2) In fact, as Ross has argued, there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism. They are (1) supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America as a "city on a hill" for the rest of the world to admire and emulate, (2) genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender, and (3) environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy. (3) For obvious reasons only environmental factors, which are most susceptible to proof or disproof of the claim that America is different not only from Europe but the rest of the world as well, will be used here.

Exceptionalists, who roughly speaking were Veblen's contemporaries, argued that American capitalism, an economic system based on private property, sanctity of contract, and free exchange, was less conducive to class consciousness, class struggle, and ideological politics than Europe. The disharmony and social and civil conflict characteristic of European states was less intense and late in coming to our shores for the following reasons: (1) The existence of a large frontier in the West and the availability of large tracts of rich agricultural land, ready to be taken up by the dispossessed and the discontented, acted as a safety valve in reducing class conflict, social disorder, and ideological politics in cities on the Eastern seaboard. (2) The wealth and the acquisitiveness of American society, that is, rapid economic growth and individual prosperity, caused socialism to founder "on reefs of roast beef and apple pie." A conflict-ridden, class-dominated society thus did not develop because most Americans were satisfied with their share of the economic pie or else aspired to the status of those near the top of the economic ladder and thought a promised "equal opportunity" would ensure those aspirations. (3) The superstructural apparatus of capitalism, that is, its prevailing values and culture and the acquiescent, if not supportive, role of its organic intellectuals gave its upper class and its upper middle class satellites "ideological hegemony" and thus political control. An older and more conventional Marxist variant of exceptionalism stresses the existence of "false consciousness" among the masses, that is, lack of awareness of objective self-interest fostered by the social and cultural apparatus of hegemonic capitalism. In short, people are not necessarily interested in what is to their interest. (4) Status emulation, that is, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, and conspicuous avoidance of useful labor were powerful social bonding agents and processes which greatly mitigated class-conflict and ideological politics. Thus spoke Frederick Jackson Turner, (4) Werner Sombart, (5) Antonio Gramsci, (6) and Veblen. (7) Of course, there are several other variants of these thematic expressions of the exceptionalist thesis and, in fact, other versions of the thesis itself. But because the above variations partly converge with Veblen, or serve to illustrate his thesis, they are emphasized more than other interpretations.

Byron Shafer has defined American exceptionalism as the "notion that the United States was created differently, developed differently, and thus has to be understood differently--essentially on its own terms and within its own context ... a sense of critical distinctiveness in political, economic, religious, or cultural life ... there do appear to be ... three main uses of the notion of 'American exceptionalism' ... the first of these concerns simple distinctiveness." (8) Shafer then turns to the crux of the matter by arguing that the second approach

revolves around the assertion that there is a general model of societal progression for the developed nations of the world--and the United States does not fit this model. Over time, two distinct branches of this argument have appeared. Initially, there was the more positive, even self-congratulatory branch, arguing that American exceptionalism was an important addition to the human possibility. The ability of the nation to create itself--and the right of the individual within it to do the same--was to be the crucial, diagnostic, American contribution. Much later, there appeared a more questioning, even pejorative branch of the same argument, suggesting that the American experience was inherently unilluminating about the fate of other nations. In this, American exceptionalism was at best a sideshow on the way to societal convergence, at worst an obstacle to that (desired) end. (9) Seymour Martin Lipset summarized one important version of exceptionalism that Veblen had to contend with when he interpreted the American past and present. Lipset wrote that

[t]he United States, almost from its start, has had an expanding economic system. The nineteenth-century American economy, as compared to the European ones, was characterized by more market freedom, more individual landownership, and a higher wage income structure--all sustained by the national classical liberal ideology. From the Revolution on, it was the laissez-faire country par excellence. Unlike the situation in many European countries, in which economic materialism was viewed by the traditional aristocracy and the church as conducive to vulgar behavior and immorality, in the United States hard work and economic ambition were perceived as the proper activity of a moral person.... America was able to avoid the remnants of mercantilism, statist regulations, church establishment, aristocracy, and the emphasis on social class that the postfeudal countries inherited. (10) Earlier in the same book, Lipset wrote,

The societal aspects of America's exceptionalism refer mainly to the unique class structure and religious system of the country. The first, the emphasis on egalitarian social relations, the absence of a demand that those lower in the social order give overt deference to their betters, and the stress on meritocracy, on equal opportunity for all to rise economically and socially, stemmed, as we have seen, from the twin facts that America was formed as a new settler society and emphasized equality in formulating its national identity. (11) Are these, then, the main traits of the thesis of American exceptionalism? Despite the suggestive insights of Shafer, Lipset, and Ross, this is not an easy question to answer because exceptionalism itself is complex and there are several variants of it. In fact, it may refer to social reality, existing and obsolete cultural patterns, social instability and order, class structure, and status and power aspirations as well as economic institutions and their performance. Indeed, Veblen himself can plausibly be interpreted as concerned with all these facets of both the similarities and differences between the United States and Europe. However, the meaning of his exceptionalism will become more evident as I present the pros and cons of his exceptionalism on the basis of textual exegesis of his writing and then develop Veblen's theses regarding American exceptionalism in a novel direction. It is to the first of these two objectives that I now turn.

Veblen's Version of American and European Similarity not Exceptionalism

Until recently, the terms "exceptionalism" and "exceptionalist" were mostly used by Marxists and other radicals to designate an aberrant America that had avoided the structural injustices and social evils, or at least perception of them as such, of an older and decadent Europe. At present, the terms denote a similar significance but have ceased to be the peculiar jargon of the far left through adoption by scholars near the center of the politico-ideological spectrum and even on the right. So there will be no misunderstanding of how "exceptionalism" and "exceptionalist" are used here, a caveat is in order. The terms do not merely mean that Veblen or other thinkers were greatly influenced by America, positively or negatively, its traditions, socioeconomic institutions, and culture. Rather, the main point is that in various ways America and Europe are qualitatively different from each other. Diametrically opposed to this is my use of the term "generic" to mean the opposite of "exceptionalism" and "exceptionalist," that is, to indicate that few or no significant differences exist between the United States and Europe. However, most of the literature on Veblen does not fall clearly into one category or the other. Neither "generic" nor "exceptionalist" would adequately describe most of the scholarship cited below. (12)

During the thirty years that he held academic posts at Chicago, Stanford, Missouri, and the New School for Social Research, Veblen became perhaps the most influential and best-known dissenting social scientist in the United States. His heterodoxy was widely recognized by professional economists and sociologists after the publication of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), in which Veblen developed his theory of status...

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