Thorstein Veblen's Views on American "Exceptionalism": An Interpretation

By Tilman, Rick | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Thorstein Veblen's Views on American "Exceptionalism": An Interpretation


Tilman, Rick, Journal of Economic Issues


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. …

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