Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Against Decadence: The Work of Robert A. Brady (1901-63)

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Against Decadence: The Work of Robert A. Brady (1901-63)

Article excerpt

In the early years of the twentieth century, Thorstein Veblen described social evolution as a race between the life-giving and the life-destroying, between the cooperative and the predatory elements in human nature and society. He was essentially pessimistic, expecting that "force and fraud" rather than solidarity and reason would win out: economic progress had been so spectacular that human beings would self-destructively "play fast and loose" with the fundamental conditions of survival as a species in nature, instead of living and working constructively with its imperatives and possibilities.(1)

This memoir concerns the economist Robert A. Brady. He knew Veblen and took as his own point of departure Veblen's principal work: especially The Theory of Business Enterprise, Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, The Instinct of Workmanship, and Absentee Ownership. Always consistent with, and always going beyond Veblen, Brady organized and pursued his own analyses around the main themes emphasized by Veblen: technology, social - especially business - power, the nature of our species, irrationality and the grip of the past upon the present, and both more gloomily and more hopefully than Veblen, the lingering bases for a future less calamitous than our past.

What follows seeks to honor and to revive interest in the work of this virtually forgotten economist - at the same time that, in his spirit, it is also a call for a renovation of what has too long been and is increasingly becoming a decadent profession.

By 1929 (the year he received his Ph.D. at Columbia), Brady had begun to illuminate the whys and wherefores of the ruinous path the most "civilized" nations were trodding. He was expressing his own deepest belief in 1937 when, using Lear as his voice, he warned (on the title page of his The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism):

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences

It will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.(2)

The Elements of Brady's Personal and Professional History

Brady was born on the social, as well as the geographic, outer edge of the United States (in Marysville, Washington) as the century began, and, like Veblen, he was born and grew up on a farm. That was only one of the many similarities between the two men; however, the differences in their personal backgrounds were considerably more important. Veblen's father was on the frontier of scientific farming and a cultivated person; and the peculiarities of the Veblen family weighed in on the positive side.(3)

Brady's father, in sharp contrast, was in fact enslaved, purchased by a brutalizing farmer in the Midwest as a "boughten boy" for $15 when he was four. He was in captivity - often beaten and chained, always badly mistreated - until, at the age of 16, he escaped.(4) Because Brady's father had been forcibly kept from education as a child but subsequently managed to become educated, education was an important standard in the Brady family - whatever else in the way of familial or material well-being may have been lacking.

Because of and despite his harsh childhood, Brady became unusually strong and disciplined, both mentally and physically. He was a hard taskmaster - first for himself, and then (helpfully and often generously) for those who worked with him. Brady worked his way into and through college. He did his undergraduate studies in Oregon at Reed College - then as now seen as among the most liberal of liberal arts colleges. It will not have escaped the readers of this journal that Brady, like Veblen, was an "outsider"; both men were noticeably influenced by the populism and rural radicalism of their times and places, at the same time that each developed sophisticated analyses that went well beyond the roots of their inspiration.

It is also noteworthy that both Veblen and Brady were well acquainted with and friendly critics of the corpus of Marxism; but neither Marxian accumulation theory nor its implications were incorporated into their own analyses. …

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