Can We Save Veblen and Ayres from Their Saviors?

By Hamilton, David | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Can We Save Veblen and Ayres from Their Saviors?


Hamilton, David, Journal of Economic Issues


Can we save Veblen and Ayres from those currently trying to save them? Philip Klein [1995] argues from a well-established perspective in which social structure is considered to be composed of social institutions. The terms seem almost synonymous. All socially organized behavior is referred to as an expression of institutionally organized behavior. When one uses the term "institution," it is assumed that some specific part of a more general social structure is the referent; it can almost be said that institution is the singular of the plural social structure. And although it is taken for granted that institutions constitute habitual social responses to which we have been conditioned, they are also viewed as a kind of restraint to which we are forced to conform. This way of viewing things leads to a view of society as something outside ourselves and as a restraint to what would otherwise be unrestrained individual human action. The individual and society are seen as being at odds with one another.

Confusion is compounded when we add to this a view of technology perceived as consisting of things that have an inert existence that, somewhat like sticks and stones, may disrupt our passage through the social environment. Obviously, these inert elements must be socially organized and thus removed from their inert state. But even though they may be viewed as inert, somehow or other they expand, accumulate, and change the social environment within which we operate as human beings. And in this process they force consciously created institutions to become out of date. The obsolescence of the institutions is a function of the onward march of the mobilized technology. Although inert, technology does have the capability to grow, expand, and burst out of its institutionally organized confinement. As with human beings, technology must be somehow restrained by social boundaries. Here, too, institutions perform a restraining role.

This perception of social and economic matters has a long history. The philosophes of the French Revolution expressed some such notion. The ancien regime, because of technological change, no longer was fit to reign (function?). In almost any discussion of social matters one takes up, no matter how ancient, such a perception seems to underlie the analysis most prevalent in history and in historical interpretation of social change. Technology is things that defy the best laid efforts to tame. By their resistance to domestication, they cause social problems.

Institutions that once were efficient social organizations become fetters to the attainment of the well-being of the folk. Such a notion runs through everything from analyses of feudalism to the American and French revolutions and to Marx's analysis of capitalism. All of us have been inured to this perception of social matters. And, of course, it has some elemental truth, in the sense that institutions are justified by reference to some immemorial past when ancestral heroes gave us our way of life (status/roles/institutional complex). They are past binding, and since evidence of this fact can be found throughout history, part of the picture is correct.

But this perception of matters seems to endow us with an almost total inability to understand that which we refer to as technology is no less social and socially organized and socially derived than are the myth-derived accounts of the past to which we ascribe what success we have coping with life today.

Human beings are differentiated from other species by an ability to think in abstract symbols and hence to develop tools and the mytheopoeic imagination [White 1949]. Being human means participating in both of these processes - tool-making and myth-making. But the means by which human beings put bread and butter upon the table is by the tool process. V. Gordon Childe [1936] shows how the tool-making dimension essentially defines what is meant by being human from early hunting and gathering societies to the eve of today's industrial society. …

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Can We Save Veblen and Ayres from Their Saviors?
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