Principles Of Business Enterprises Part 8: Conclusion

The general plan of The Principles of Business Enterprises by Thorstein Veblen is to state several ideas about the way business operated in the Gilded Age, with explanation and examples, and then to examine the logical outcomes of the operation of these principles. There is no grand theory, just observation, description and discussion. Two of the principles are that businessmen operate solely to generate a profit, and that to achieve efficiency, the entire social life of working people had to be remade in the image of the ideal production worker.

Veblen identified the basis for the operation of business as the concept of property as applied to industrial production. The idea is that just as the products of the blacksmith and the cooper belonged to them to do with as they saw fit, factory owners were entitled to all of the production of the factory to do with as they saw fit. The entire system of the US is devoted to the protection of property, so naturally businessmen dictate government policies in all areas that affect their profits.

These ideas manifest themselves in our society. Businesses cooperate to insure efficient operation, and in the process help make sure they all profit. Education is focused on preparing the human capital to find a job, because the alternative is to starve. The press devotes itself to the maintenance of the illusion of democracy, while the actual practice is that federal and state legislatures and courts protect the property claims of capitalists and pave the way for increased profits from operations both in the US and around the world. Businesses charge whatever they can get away with, free from interference by government or enforcement of antitrust laws. If it creates more profit, businesses stop producing, and stop hiring, regardless of the impact on the community.

What Veblen saw in 1904, we see today. The debts of corporate persons are easily discharged in bankruptcy, but the debts of human beings are pursued by armies of lawyers and government officials. Banks are bailed out, but homeowners are ruined. Private schools cheat people, but those people have to pay student debt till they die. No one goes to jail for wrecking the economy or any other elite crime, but heaven help the guy caught with a bit of pot.

This is all the logical outcome of an understanding of the idea of property. Locke said that when artisans mixed their labor with physical things, they were entitled to own the finished product. In exactly the same way, Veblen says, the factory owner is said to be entitled to own the goods produced by the factory. But Veblen is quite clear that Locke’s theory doesn’t explain why this should be, because the industrial age requires most people to work in a coordinated system and a supporting social structure; and the amount produced in this system is orders of magnitude larger than any individual artisan could produce.

His line of thinking leads naturally to questions about distribution of the profits of production. Why exactly is the owner of a factory entitled to all the profits? Why exactly is the owner entitled to pay the workers as little as possible? After all, the owner of a steel mill can’t produce anything without coordinating with many other manufacturers, miners, farmers, transportation companies, and an army of workers all of whom show up and work cooperatively in each of these enterprises, and a social structure that supports all of this action. The owner cannot produce anything unless society is organized for industrial production. In today’s terms, app developers have nothing to do if there is no electricity or no city wired for cable. This is what Elizabeth Warren was talking about when she said

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Neither Warren nor Veblen pushes forward into talking about ownership of property. But that isn’t true of everyone. One of the things that confounds the defenders of the neoliberal consensus of pundits and mainstream economists it the apparent willingness of younger voters to consider socialism as a logical alternative to unregulated capitalism. Most explanations are based on the experience of the young with neoliberal capitalism. Here is Anis Shivani via Salon:

But millennials, in the most positive turn of events since the economic collapse, intuitively understand better. Circumstances not of their choosing have forced them to think outside the capitalist paradigm, which reduces human beings to figures of sales and productivity, and to consider if in their immediate lives, and in the organization of larger collectivities, there might not be more cooperative, nonviolent, mutually beneficial arrangements with better measures of human happiness than GDP growth or other statistics that benefit the financial class…

The idea is to move beyond money, interpreted in particular ways by capitalism, as the sole means of determining what is valued in human activity. Just because the means of production can be owned collectively does not mean—and indeed should not mean—that the state should be the owner.

Well, maybe. Cities own water systems and the pipes and sewage systems that provide us with water and sewage disposal. No one really believes it would be good to let the private sector suck profits out of us for something as important to staying alive as water. Why shouldn’t cities own other necessary and useful things, like electrical and cable lines? When you think about the willingness of private businesses to squeeze more money out of us in their relentless pursuit of profits at any cost, it’s easy to see why public ownership of specific companies might be a good idea.

Locke and his adherents, including the Founding Fathers, claimed that Locke’s idea of property rights was a Natural Law, a Natural Right. It was designed by the Almighty to direct humans along the path of righteousness. Today we don’t think like that. Veblen called Locke’s theory metaphysical, by which I think he meant philosophical as opposed to practical. Many of us demand certainty about such things and find it in bibles of one kind or another, including Locke, but many of us are more open to other ways of thinking. Veblen has a much more worldly manner, and I think he had a strong touch of the American philosophy of pragmatism, the school exemplified by John Dewey.

I don’t think I fully understand this book, not just because the language is sometimes difficult, but because I don’t think I understand the tone correctly. For example, he seems dismissive of socialism, but accepting of the trade union movement, and of the attitude of the workers whose acceptance of unbridled property rights was weakening. He notes several times that businessmen with their archaic natural law ideas control the nature of social life for workers, and exercise outsize influence on government, and their utter amorality. He mentions the bad effects each of these has on the community. Some books are like that; you have to read several works by the author and scholarly commentary to understand them fully.

Nevertheless, I plan to soldier on to the next book, Security, Territory and Population, a group of lectures by Michel Foucault. I’ve already read some of his works, including Discipline and Punish and The Birth of Biopolitics, so I at least have a running start.

The Theory of Business Enterprises Part 7: Cultural Changes

In the early chapters of the book, Thorstein Veblen describes industrial productive methods and the changes they require of workers. In Chapter 9, he describes the effect of those changes on the workers and on businessmen who own the factories. In general, the businessmen become more attached to a system of thought based on natural rights. Natural rights law, especially as related to ownership and property, is the basis for their control of the productive sector; and it gives them the tools they use to continue that domination. Natural rights ideas were formulated in a much earlier era, when the dominant mode of production was the individual fabricator, the individual handicraft worker. Natural law was embedded in the entire social fabric, Church, State, and community. These institutions remained strong in the early part of the industrial age, up to 1904 when Veblen wrote.

Veblen says that factory workers were moving away from the natural law ideas, which, after all, were a metaphysical formulation, grounded in the social structures of an earlier day and an earlier system of production. Their lives were now ruled by gauges and measurements, by cause and effect. This is the form of inquiry behind the development of the sciences which drove the technology of the machine age. It tends to undercut the traditional forms of thought that underlie the conventional thinking of the businessmen, forms which Veblen calls metaphysical.

Veblen says that this newer kind of thinking led the working classes to lose respect the natural rights forms of thinking, and specifically for property rights and the individual ownership of industrial property. In turn, this helped the working class to see itself differently, as expressed in the trade union movement, and in socialist and even anarchist thinking. For the most part, he thought that the trade union movement would reinforce the business interests by making only those demands necessitated by the changes that the industrial process made in the lives of the workers. They sought standardized wages and regular hours and other accommodations necessary to make their lives more pleasant, and did not carry the ideas of cause and effect or the indifference to property rights to their logical extreme as socialist theory would. He adds a long and unfriendly discussion of socialism.

When he gets back to the cultural changes, one of the issues he identifies is changes in domestic relations. The traditional family becomes a less spiritually important institution.

What appears to be in jeopardy, should the socialistic defection gain ground, is the headship of the male in the household economy. The family, as it has come down from the medieval past, under the shelter of the church, is of a patriarchal constitution, at least in theory. The man has been vested with discretionary control in domestic affairs.

As the discussion continues, it becomes apparent that the driving force isn’t socialist theory, but real changes in the possible ways to live created by the machine age. It isn’t just the family, it’s the Church, and even patriotism that are called into question. Mere formal or conventional justifications do not suffice for people of any class whose thought processes are governed by theories grounded in cause and effect.

The machine technology is a mechanical or material process, and requires the attention to be centred upon this process and the exigencies of the process. In such a process no one factor stands out as unequivocally the efficient cause in the case, whose personal character, so to speak, is transfused into the product, and to whose workings the rest of the complex of causes are related only as subsidiary or conditioning circumstances. … The process is always complex; always a delicately balanced interplay of forces that work blindly, insensibly, heedlessly; in which any appreciable deviation may forthwith count in a cumulative manner, the further consequences of which stand in no organic relation to the purpose for which the process has been set going. The prime efficient cause falls, relatively, into the background and yields precedence to the process as the point of technological interest.

Veblen said that this was happening to the greatest extent in the large industrial towns, and less so in the smaller towns and the countryside. Veblen is obviously interested in the culture of the workers; he ignores the conventional thinking of the businessman, and focuses on cultural changes in the vastly larger class of working people. Veblen thought that cultural growth in the machine age would be “… of a skeptical, matter-of-fact complexion, materialistic, unmoral, unpatriotic, undevout.”

In Chapter 10, Veblen takes up the future of the businesses. He thinks they will collapse because they become “fiscal ways and means”, subservient to a militaristic state which itself will collapse under the pressures of war. That didn’t happen.

As it turned out Veblen was more or less right that there were changes in the working classes in the larger industrial towns, and less so in the rest of the country. He ignored the Grange Movement and a good bit of the populist revolution on the farms, though. Even so, that was enough change to produce the New Deal and a highly efficient war machine in WWII, and a strong working class throughout the 50s and early 60s. By that time, socialism was wiped out in the US, and the union movement began to deteriorate. The war industry picked up strength first under Kennedy and LBJ, and then at higher levels beginning with Reagan, the second of his predictions began to seem more plausible. But it won’t be counteracted by an organized and strong working class, because there isn’t one.

We seem to be lurching from one crisis created by the elites to the next crisis created by the elites. We could use some ballast.

The Theory of Business Enterprises Part 6: Government as an Arm of Business

The international policies of the US government are organized around the needs of businessmen, according to Thorstein Veblen, in the same way the legal system was organized to protect their interests and not those of the common people.

… [W]ith the sanction of the great body of the people, even including those who have no pecuniary interests to serve in the matter, constitutional government has, in the main, become a department of the business organization and is guided by the advice of the business men. Chapter 8.

He explains that in the US and elsewhere, protecting business interests meant the use of force to enable businessmen to make profits safely in foreign lands. It meant using the military to obtain favorable terms of trade, at least as favorable as those awarded to other nations. Diplomacy, says Veblen, must be backed up by displays of force, especially among the “outlying regions of the earth”, where the uncivilized people live. They like their own ways aren’t used to doing business like the civilized nations. They must be forced to follow the rules. And the outcome is unusually high profits. We now think of this as the bad old age of imperialism.

The problem is that if US businessmen can make extraordinary profits, then so can those of other “civilizing powers”, and therefore armaments are also useful in fending off other nations that want to civilize the barbarians. That leads to massive increases in armaments, what we would call an arms race.

He concludes that as military power increases, it shifts from its role in protecting the interests of businessmen and becomes a driver of national purpose. The initial impetus of militarization was business interests, but Veblen predicts that it will turn into something else:

The objective end of protracted warlike endeavor necessarily shifts from business advantage to dynastic ascendancy and courtly honor.

Military armaments become instruments of national purpose, and businessmen see that as an opportunity for profit. They are equally happy to serve any of the potential warring nations, as long as it’s profitable, “… whereby an equable and comprehensive exhaustion of the several communities … is greatly facilitated.” That sounds a lot like World War I.

Reflections on Chapter 8

The idea that voters routinely elect businessmen to lead government and expect business representatives to play a major role in formulating policy is as true today as it was when Veblen wrote. A number of businessmen hold governorships, including Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Bruce Rauner of Illinois. Each of them preaches that government should be run like a business, and that means poisoning the water of Flint to save money, ignoring climate change as Miami sinks, and refusing to negotiate with the legislature at the risk of wrecking the entire state. State legislatures are full of car dealers, funeral home directors and other small businessmen, and they are notoriously responsive to the arguments and cash of the business class including such representative groups as ALEC and the US Chamber of Commerce. There are plenty of these wreckers in Congress as well. Respect for businessmen has reached the Presidency with the the nomination of Trump, who isn’t really a businessman but plays one on TV.

The idea that the role of government is the protection of business interests at home and abroad is still applicable today. There is an unbroken chain of politicians and judges devoted to protecting the interests of businesses at preposterous levels, as in the Lochner case, and efforts to return to that level of harshness towards workers. The Republican party generally stands for cutting taxes on the rich, destroying the regulatory structure and cutting social spending while increasing privatization of government services.

Here’s how the Green Party leader Jill Stein described US foreign policy in an interview by Brad Friedman of Bradblog, posted at Salon.

Or foreign policy. The guys running the show in the Democratic Party are basically the funders, and that’s predatory banks and fossil fuel bandits and war profiteers and the insurance companies, and that’s what we get.

That’s even more true of the Republicans. It sure seems like a good explanation of US overt and covert intrusions in the South and Latin America and many other places around the globe. Veblen shows that this policy has been followed since the late 1800s.

And finally, there are plenty of examples of US companies doing business with our putative enemies, such as Halliburton with Iran and the Koch family with the Nazis.

The neoliberal program is the political project of both parties. There is the economics side and the national security side. The point of the economics stuff is to confuse people about the nature of the economy, and to use that confusion to make maximum profits. The goal of the national security side is to support businesses and to keep US citizens under control. There is bipartisan support for our interventions all over the globe, and for use of military power to control other nations. There is bipartisan support for use of market solutions to social problems instead of direct intervention with strict legislation and enforement. There is bipartisan support for government spying on people, and for use of a wide range of punishments including incarceration, drug tests for aid recipients, and for economic insecurity, hunger and fear of job loss to control the populace and keep the workers disciplined. Veblen describes the way this program looked in his day, and whatever progress has been made on these issues is under assault.