ABOUT THIS BOOK
A bold new biography of the thinker who demolished accepted economic theories in order to expose how people of economic and social privilege plunder their wealth from society’s productive men and women.
Thorstein Veblen was one of America’s most penetrating analysts of modern capitalist society. But he was not, as is widely assumed, an outsider to the social world he acidly described. Veblen overturns the long-accepted view that Veblen’s ideas, including his insights about conspicuous consumption and the leisure class, derived from his position as a social outsider.
In the hinterlands of America’s Midwest, Veblen’s schooling coincided with the late nineteenth-century revolution in higher education that occurred under the patronage of the titans of the new industrial age. The resulting educational opportunities carried Veblen from local Carleton College to centers of scholarship at Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, and the University of Chicago, where he studied with leading philosophers, historians, and economists. Afterward, he joined the nation’s academic elite as a professional economist, producing his seminal books The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Theory of Business Enterprise. Until late in his career, Veblen was, Charles Camic argues, the consummate academic insider, engaged in debates about wealth distribution raging in the field of economics.
Veblen demonstrates how Veblen’s education and subsequent involvement in those debates gave rise to his original ideas about the social institutions that enable wealthy Americans—a swarm of economically unproductive “parasites”—to amass vast fortunes on the backs of productive men and women. Today, when great wealth inequalities again command national attention, Camic helps us understand the historical roots and continuing reach of Veblen’s searing analysis of this “sclerosis of the American soul.”
Thorstein Veblen may be the most important American thinker most Americans have never heard of…Insightful…Camic’s Veblen is an intellectual flamethrower, torching every school of thought in sight, from the classicism of Adam Smith to the communism of Karl Marx, attempting to clear the ground for a new kind of science…Surrounded as we are by inequality and the flagrant excesses of the super-rich, the power of Veblen’s vision in our own era is obvious.
-- Wall Street Journal
Perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most original American economist of his era, and subject of [this] landmark new biography…Veblen’s ideas inarguably have a new urgency in what many have called our new Gilded Age, as wealth inequality has soared past mid-twentieth century levels to approach that of its namesake…Succeeds in moving Veblen from the margins of fin-de-siècle intellectual life and placing him squarely in the center…This new biography comes at an opportune time.
-- Simon Torracinta Boston Review
Camic has produced a sort of intellectual biography that largely dispenses with the personal life, while directing intense and illuminating attention to the scholarly milieu in which Veblen emerged.
-- Kwame Anthony Appiah New York Review of Books
For decades, Thorstein Veblen has been the greatest American thinker without a good biography. An unsparing critic of our last gilded age, he savaged the upper classes, from their manners to the economic theories that justified their wealth, while also offering an alternative view of how the economy ought to work, and for whom…Veblen’s ideas and life are worth recalling, especially now…As a book about how Veblen fits into the history of American economics, this biography is fantastic.
-- Paul W. Gleason Los Angeles Review of Books
Camic’s intention…is to put an end to a long-standing view of Veblen as an outsider…Invaluable for the information it provides about the curricular specifics of Veblen’s education…What Camic brings into view are inconspicuous but vital parts of the Veblen story.
-- Rachel Bowlby Times Literary Supplement
A really interesting book…I enjoyed reading Veblen—one for anybody interested either in the man himself or in the history and sociology of economics. It certainly succeeds in over-turning the prevailing myth that Veblen was an outsider.
-- Diane Coyle Enlightened Economist
Camic provides an excellent account of how Veblen arrived at [his] contribution to economic theory…A worthy model for historians of the social sciences and sociologists of knowledge.
-- Geoffrey Mead LSE Review of Books
Camic has written an excellent intellectual biography…Not only excellent but also exemplary.
-- Andrew Abbott American Journal of Sociology
An intellectual biography of great depth and superb insight. I have read no other biographical volume, on any thinker, that achieves what Camic does in this volume.
-- Geoffrey Hodgson European Journal of the History of Economic Thought
Camic’s Veblen weaves together narrative, analytic interpretation, and social theory to create a compelling, engaging, and revolutionary account that tells us something new about a familiar and fascinating figure while conveying a powerful sense of melancholy. There is really nothing quite like it.
-- George Steinmetz, University of Michigan
This is a book of profound scholarship produced by a talented sociologist at the height of his intellectual power. Going beyond strict intellectual history to focus on theory, Camic analyzes how Veblen developed a ‘repertoire of knowledge-making practices’ central to his seminal ideas in the first decades of his life as a researcher. The author also locates the concept of conspicuous consumption in Veblen’s broader contribution to the study of nonproductive economic activities. This brilliant book is certainly the definitive contribution to our understanding of Veblen and the context that made his pathbreaking approach possible.
-- Michèle Lamont, past president of the American Sociological Association
Veblen changes our perception of a major figure in American social science, showing that he stood at the heart of the emerging economics discipline. Given the enormous literature on Veblen, by historians, sociologists and economists, that is a remarkable achievement.
-- Roger Backhouse, University of Birmingham and Erasmus University Rotterdam