Veblen The Future Of Capitalism

The Future of Capitalism

These examples of sabotage constituted what Veblen called a conscientious with­drawal of efficiency by business. All such withdrawals attempt to subvert the pro­ductive process, i.e., to reduce output to the most profitable levels. This scarcity was, of course, accompanied by business cycles of increasing severity. In Veblen's scheme, the representatives of technological institutions could be expected to resist the imbecile activities of businessmen. But from where would the resistance come, and what sort of institutions would triumph?

In Marx's scheme, propertyless workers developed a class interest to challenge the propertied bourgeosie, but not in Veblen's. Organized labor, in Veblen's view, exercised its own conscientious withdrawal of efficiency in order to keep its returns above the "competitive level" earned by the "common man." The American Feder­ation of Labor (AFL) was a frequent target. Veblen considered American labor or­ganizations, and specifically the AFL, to be one of the vested interests always ready to do battle for its own privilege and profit (Engineers and the Price System, p. 88). The AFL leadership dominated the politics of the organization, but what of the rank-and-file workers? "The rank and file assuredly are not of the kept classes, nor do they visibly come in for a free income. Yet they stand on the defensive in maintaining a vested interest in the prerogatives and perquisites of their organization. They are ap­parently moved by a feeling that so long as the established arrangements are main­tained they will come in for a little something over and above what goes to the com­mon man" (The Vested Interests and the Common Man, p. 165).

Both business and organized labor were in cahoots to subvert the productive process, so how could change representing the ascendance of technological interests develop? For Veblen, engineers and industrial managers were the key. Though these types represented less than 1 percent of the population, Veblen believed they could alter the industrial order of finance capitalism. (Presumably, socialism of some form would result, but just what that order would be is unclear from Veblen's writings.) Engineers and other industrial-production personnel were trained largely at public expense, and they alone would be competent to run the system. Although the nature of the evolutionary (or possibly revolutionary) struggle is unclear, Veblen often hinted that nonaligned workers, the "common man" (and even the rank and file), were becoming more cognizant of the profitable abuse of technology perpetrated by busi­ness and organized labor. Some type of socialism was the likely result, but Veblen was short on definite predictions of the outcome of this process. Marx could predict within his system, but Veblen could not since he consistently maintained an evolu­tionist's outlook on the prospects of capitalism. Thus, the outcome of Veblen's pro­found study of institutional interactions was not clear, and in the end he could only speculate. His intriguing speculation was that capitalism, and specifically American capitalism, was at the turning point:

In effect, the progressive advance of this industrial system towards an all-inclusive mechani­cal balance of interlocking processes appears to be approaching a critical pass, beyond which it will no longer be practicable to leave its control in the hands of businessmen working at cross purposes for private gain, or to entrust its continued administration to others than suitably trained technological experts, production engineers without a commercial interest. What these men may then do with it all is not so plain; the best they can do may not be good enough; but the nega­tive proposition is becoming sufficiently plain, that this mechanical state of the industrial arts will not long tolerate the continued control of production by the vested interests under the cur­rent businesslike rule of incapacity by advisement (Engineers and the Price System, p. 58).