Though a radical critic of capitalist society, Thorstein Veblen was a political quietist. His ideas of social evolution, cultural lag, and predatory power help to explain why. Veblen saw the need for deep-seated social change but despaired of its chances. He was in crucial ways a tragic writer, a radical realist who refused to yield to the temptations of political life. Veblen's quietism also helps to explain the hesitant, often unwelcome reception more ideologically minded scholars have given to his work. Attributing Veblen's quietism to timidity or confusion, they have frequently avoided coming to grips with his distinctions between theory and pragmatism, science and politics, which lie at the heart of his political refusal. Theory and science push toward reasonable explanations and accounts of things; pragmatic and predatory political actors apply “worldly wisdom” to the exploit of others. Scientists cannot change institutions; political actors cannot dispense with the operations of power. Veblen asks much of us: for he struggled to undrape the veils of power while puncturing false hopes in the prospects of democracy. His quietism situates itself within this awful contradiction. Above all, Veblen's work serves the purpose of reminding us that neither science nor democracy constitutes a self-evident ground for belief in the inherent reasonableness or justice of action per se. For these reasons alone, an acquaintance with his work should be part of any solidly grounded education in the possibilities and limits of democratic political life in a scientific age.
Sidney Plotkin; The Critic as Quietist: Thorstein Veblen's Radical Realism. Common Knowledge 1 January 2010; 16 (1): 79–94. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-2009-062
Download citation file: