Poor Plenum: Veblen and The Economics of Philosophy


Thorstein Veblen’s genealogy of leisure, echoing a method perfected by both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, works to continually pull back into the domain of “vulgar” conditions and impulses–a general economy of bodies, forces and classes–all things high-flown, decent, and untouchable (vi, 1994). The ambit of Veblen’s theory is such that it allows him to economically determine or “vulgarize” a whole series of seemingly disparate hegemonic practices now suddenly clustered and nameable along the axis separating leisure from labour. War, marriage, priestly service, governance, manners, sport are all absorbed into the debasing mill of emulation, the putative nobility or highness of each revealed as one long extended variation on power, avarice, and “exploit”(12). The state, the rich, the church, to say nothing of inherited bourgeois mores and conventions, all discover their beginnings in a shared history of repressed status and envy. Like all creatively designed systems, this is a project as ingenious as it is limiting and clumsy. That which stands to be lost in terms of sociological nuance returns in the form of a certain satiric elegance and universality, a critical breadth and incisiveness that we have not seen since the likes of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie, but which once characterized fully the rich power and sloppiness of the entire surrealist moment. It has not since been as easy as we might think to defrock pope, banker, bureaucrat and general all at once.

What strikes one as apposite or odd depending on one’s definition of and relation to the word “philosophy” is Veblen’s implicit decision to include the latter among those practices scheduled for demotion by his critical genealogy.  “Learning”, from this angle, appears alongside statecraft and sport as yet another instrument of honour, dead languages or perfect syntax worn like dangling testaments to all of the time saved from labour in a life (45). Scholarship, and therefore knowledge itself, collapses into booty; at the same time the socio-historical distance separating the philosopher from the priest thins, revealing a common origin in the abhorrence of work and a tendency to consistently privilege the uselessness of ideas over the drudgery of things. Is the philosopher nothing more than a shadow of the priest (itself a shabby, little general)? Veblen was certainly not the first or the last to make this argument. So much of twentieth century thought—from the Heideggerian critique of metaphysics to Jean-Paul Sartre’s dialectical ontology, to the whole terrain linking semiotics, discourse analysis and Cultural Studies—falls within the relatively stable gesture of this philosopher taken for a priest.

Behind it, of course, lies a distinction as useful and necessary as it is fragile and obfuscating. I mean, here, that often lazy and predictable border separating something called “idealism” from another vague entity named “materialism”. According to contemporary theoretical doxa, the first stands entranced by a hypostasized good, venerates contemplation over action, and grounds itself in a never wholly articulated contempt of the body and its forces. It is moralistic, politically despotic, and inherently solipsistic. The second, meanwhile, finally broken or liberated, discovers history, contingency, and perception, replaces essence with existence, and arrives–at its furthest edge–at the disenchantment and superfluity of philosophy itself. Sociology, laughter, theory, cynicism, politics, identity: the names for the transmuted remains of philosophy are many. Of course, there is no small measure of truth in this narrative and its history: to dispense with it entirely would, no doubt, be politically and theoretically ruinous. Certainly any attempt to re-invigorate Platonism–whether through some secularized return to transcendent norms or via some new spiritualist ethics–is bound to fail miserably. But what should cause us to pause and think a little is the ease with which the rich, subversive frugality of philosophy–its existence as an historical practice–is absorbed into and annulled by the same gesture which simultaneously invents and disempowers the noun “idealism”. There is an elision, here, that I will argue our time–caught between the twin pincers of mercantile banality and ecological catastrophe–cannot afford to make.

To flesh out this argument I want to return to Veblen’s cultural economics. Arguably, the tension most pertinent to the status of knowledge in his work occurs within the implicit continuity he establishes between philosophy and “learning”. Certainly, there is a plausible case to be made for their resemblance, at least in so far as the category which mediates their sameness is defined in opposition to “whatever has to do with the everyday activity of gaining a livelihood”. In this sense, philosophy shares with scholarship, but also ecclesiastical activity a certain constitutive dependency on productive labour and on an organizational structure amenable to the production of an economic surplus. Furthermore, this dependency expresses itself in part as a revulsion coordinated precisely along the seam separating the two regimes of activity: Aristotle’s hierarchical distinction between the productive and the theoretical sciences, with contemplative metaphysics located at the summit of being and even identified as the very actualization of the human certainly casts a long historical shadow here. Both philosophy and learning, then, equally participate in an immateriality or sedentariness which can be framed in opposition to the brute, “uneventful[ness]” of industrial activity (14). Philosophy characterized as an art of contemplation, as eschewal of the body and its pleasures, as a certain remoteness taken vis-à-vis worldly matters–Platonism, in other words, as it comes to be imagined after Plotinus–can no longer really be distinguished from religion. In this, Veblen certainly captures a significant structural parallelism between the two traditions.

It remains the case, however, that the genuine satiric force of Veblen’s work–certainly untimely and prescient in its own historical context–retains its sharpness today only at the expense of what we might call a broader dialectical precision. The binary between industrial work and leisure remains too stable and his taste for wicked inversions too global and reaching. This disproportion, then, seems to suffer from two basic oversights. In the first instance, we might say that Veblen fails to recognize the work in the Idea, the exacting, engrossed, often nearly-industrial properties of philosophy itself. No doubt, a strong case can and should be made for the link between philosophical culture and what Veblen calls the predatory energies of “exploit”. No casual reader of Plato can miss his many allusions to the chase and hunt of dialectics, a game of aggressions and alliances which continually runs along a line distinguished at one end by flirtation, friendship and love and at the other by hatred, danger and even simmering violence. Thrasymachus–in whose mouth Plato places (two thousand years before Marx!) a sense for the fundamental link between might and right, class and power–“coiled himself up at like a wild beast about to spring…and hurled himself at us as if to tear us into pieces” (1992, 12).  The production of concepts has never been separable from the difference between winning and losing: the scene of philosophy is always clearly caught up in and claimed by the domain of the invidious. In addition to this, there is no lack of unequivocally misogynist references to the quietude and nothingness of women’s work in Plato’s oeuvre. What I want to point to here, however, is that precise point where the meniality of work and the tedium of philosophy meet in a state of rare indistinction–that place, in other words, where the philosopher is not so much an athlete as a grave-digger or helot.

Anyone gripped by the necessity of philosophy knows well this place where understanding joins hands with an almost quantitative, utterly procedural, process of exposition. What was once the scintillating combat of dialectics, what Veblen calls “prowess”, is here a quiet, otherless intensity, a being-occupied which wholly absorbs the subject in the simple immediacy of something difficult (12). It is mere “diligence”, that quality associated by Veblen precisely with the drudgery of the industrial.  Though we should be clear to insist on the difference between the brutal history of physical internment and its persistence as a figure within philosophical life, it nevertheless is the case that slavery, labour at its most abject and forced, often comes to be identified by Plato with the philosophical life itself. In Book VI of The Republic Socrates makes it very clear to Adeimantus that it is precisely this figure of the philosopher as slave, a certain captive, laboriousness of the Idea, which is the primary obstacle to the diffusion of the philosophical habit. This motif will echo throughout Plato’s entire moral philosophy. The choice in Plato is never between freedom and obedience, as it is for example in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, but always between two species of subjection, two general ways of being enslaved. One is enslaved to the body, to pleasure, to the domain of appearances, and to that which just happens to be; or one is enslaved to truth–to its sight–caught up and suspended in the endless work of being an expedient lover and friend to knowledge. This is a notion extended deep into Christianity: freedom is precisely that of a being-bound or occupied. Throughout Plato’s dialogues we discover continual invocations of the physically and mentally exhausting nature of the dialectic along with enjoinders to fortitude and perseverance that we cannot simply brush aside cynically as mere performance.

What matters here is not just the fact of coerced labour, a kind of enthrallment to thought which cannot be sworn off or renounced, but the very meniality of the labour itself. To do philosophy, says Socrates, is to live the life of the poor itinerant: it is to be despised, misunderstood, to live out being on the margins of wealth, comfort, and reputation. It is, in other words, to necessarily risk expulsion from the customary safety of life in the polis. To simply bracket philosophy’s historical marginality, the fact that it has always been in some very real way utterly powerless, but also the many flights and persecutions of a Spinoza or Rousseau, is a very typical contemporary amnesia, one which encourages the reductive conflation of philosophy with metaphysics (or science) and metaphysics (or science) with a kind of monolithic historical supremacy (as if, for example, Spinoza’s naturalism was not in some very significant way “minor”, underground, and deeply subversive of period norms). The historical animus between philosophy and many of Veblen’s own targets—“consumerism”, the pomp of scholarship and religious rite, the whole enervated life of aristocratic taste and ostentatious display—should cause us to pause before throwing Rousseau or Kant into the same bonfires set aside for  all of the generals, bishops and magnates.

At the same time, so intent is Veblen on accenting thought’s distance from itself, its purely emulative dimensions, that he empties ideas of their historical distinctness and potency; we are left with a monotonous impression of avidity, one paradoxically resonant with Hobbes psychological egoism and the liberal/utilitarian/pragmatist sequence it came to feed (a sequence, indeed, consistently critiqued by Veblen). “Nonsense on stilts” said Jeremy Bentham with respect to natural rights; however, what other option remains available to readers of Veblen than to extend this apothegm to the entire world-historical destiny of the Idea. A gap, then, appears between Veblen’s “ought” and his “is”, between his normative, political imaginary–a socialism grounded in finally efficient production–and the descriptive sociology which anchors it. If philosophy–the production and sustenance of concepts–dissolves tout court into the invidious bickering of scholars, and if politics fares no better, conflated with a statesmanship which looks suspiciously like sport, what transformation needs to take place in the assemblage linking ideas and things such that political imagination can escape its own emulative cynicism and impotence? It is precisely this deposition of philosophy and of the political saliency of the idea which conditions Veblen’s emphasis on the engineer (or “technician”) and technological development as the fundamental agent of (non-revolutionary) social change (1982, 63).

What is missing entirely from this schema is the category of truth itself. This is not because Veblen exchanges a transcendent referent–God or the Good–for some bad relativism of forces and partial viewpoints, but because he fails to recognize that truth itself is never merely a game played between selves, but an energy of disjunction capable of entirely recombining the plane on which words and things cohere. Certainly, he has a sense for something like an episteme or a “spirit of the age”, one probably traceable to Durkheim’s notion of collective representation, but what he appears to repress or forget are the antagonisms at work between the regimes of truth subsumed by a time, to say nothing of the disruptive, subjective, relationless truth procedures described so precisely by Alain Badiou.  This last conception of truth as abyssal rupture is wholly proscribed by Veblen’s image of thought as inherently invidious: though Badiou’s subject of truth is certainly combative, she is never reducible to the usual funny games, all of the codes or logics which frame a self’s pursuit of distinction and belonging. Truth, for Badiou, breaks wholly with the particularity of selves transfixed by booty or interest. The very possibility of actual negation, then, would appear to be absent from Veblen’s generalized agonism, but also anything in the way of a contingent, political universality, the power of the Idea to function as a site of shared subjective identification and possibility lost to endless micro-circuits of interest and desire.

There are, then, at least two ways in which we can begin to speak of an economics of philosophy. The first, broadly in line with Veblen’s own method, but also owing debts to Rousseau and Marx, decomposes philosophy by forcing contact between its own subjectivity and an outside it represses to remain stable. Returned from its own rules of engagement to a naked domain of force, interest and oppression philosophy receives a subpoena flush with foreign criteria and unexpected indictments. This is, of course, the purview of Marx’s eleventh thesis and Nietzsche’s infamous down-going, of Foucault’s genealogies and Bourdieuian sociology, but also all of the great, canonical feminist and postcolonial critiques of philosophical pretension and truth. Philosophy’s distance from the world, already fully coded as a motif in the classical rumours surrounding Thales’s clumsiness; its fetish of autonomy, discernible in Plato as much as it is in Descartes’s self-uncovering cogito or Spinoza’s rational (slightly stoical) egoism; the predilection of at least one of its dominant strains for the eternal and immutable: all of this is submitted, and should be, to the humiliating economy of interests. Confronted with this outside philosophy, like economics itself or every religion, either defensively struggles to preserve the rights and pleasures of its game, the prerogatives of any self-reproducing tradition or practice, or learns from the persuasive force of the social. That is, it stubbornly remains in its own skin or riskily mutates and learns how to live dialectically.

If then one possible effect of taking seriously the economics of philosophy is to find oneself asking questions about the conditions which undergird the philosopher’s rarity, the second fantasizes her universality and commonness. This latter option departs from the skeptical, disjunctive tendencies of the first and instead begins with an affirmative, even utopian gesture very much within the horizon of Veblen’s own commitment to thinking a radically new politico-economic order. Rather than dismantling the repetition of philosophy it instead delights in the structural monotony of the philosophical meme. It notices that apart from the actual content of any given philosophy there remains the bare mechanism of the thinking body itself, a habit and its space, despite all of the exceptions, which is morphologically stable across a remarkable spread of times, places and ideologies. It notices the frugality of philosophy. Speech, argument, absorbed thought;  sometimes friendship, peregrination, books written and read: the task is to see in these classical figures of the philosophical life not merely cleft binaries in need of amendment or inversion, but economic behaviour itself, a habitus that shares with a handful of other rare (but also somehow common) practices a truly unique ecological weightlessness.  To conceive of philosophy in this manner is to echo, yet vary the structure of Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative; it is to extrapolate speculatively the material and ecological costs of the becoming-universal of a given act, practice or pleasure. What kind of potentialities exist embedded in the “atomic fact” of a practice such that to unfold them would be to unpack and spread out an entirely different life-world?  In other words, what are if philosophy were as common as cigarettes?

Conceding the indispensability of the critiques made above, it must nevertheless be admitted that there is something exceedingly curious about the philosophical life and its imaginary, this walking, hungry poverty that is also a plenum of the rarest sort. At its best, philosophy is kind of sublime needlessness, a pleasure which comes as close to sustaining itself as any one can imagine. The trick is to envision this needlessness not from the angle of existing conditions, but from the perspective of a future in which its autonomy would cease to index not an unjust absorption, a bad secession from the real, but a life lived realistically. This is the properly political question: how do we get from one regime of addictions to another? And: are there habits that make us freer than we might otherwise be, addictions that can liberate us? To pose the question in this way is to subtly displace the problem away from the coordinates of Kant–away from duty’s deposition of self-interest and delight–to those of philosophical pleasure and of a superabundance equated with the cogitating body itself.

The only credible economy of the future is one in which infrastructurally “empty” or “naked” practices arithmetically outnumber those reliant for their utility on equipment. Friendship, love, sport, speech; remembering something, wandering, falling asleep on the beach: these are the only “growth industries” of our planetary long durée. This is neither to naively invoke a future economy shorn of technological progress, infrastructure, or “stuff” nor to rehearse Rousseau’s fantasy of a squalid modern individual no longer adequately “inside” itself: no such economy is imaginable, logical or desirable. Rather, it is enough to accent the scope of the difference between the systemic options which now present themselves: either expansion “forever”, which is to say, until the wheels fall off, or managed, democratic, intelligent constriction on a planetary scale. An economy grounded in the instantaneity and blindness of price or one which can divert an eye to millennial time without falling into the temptations of political indecency. This frugality, this needless absorption, on a planet needy for less as more; severed from every trace of historical destiny, this is perhaps what remains for us today of what was once spoken of as finally  actualizing philosophy. In its classical content this formula invoked the final adequation between the idea and its real; phenomenology, perhaps too abstractly, transformed it into a return to the body and to the rich immediacy of perception. What can this actualization allow us to hope for today? Not a reality finally in line with a complete Idea (a conception too total for us today), nor a body freed to its forces, but a frank admission of the political and ecological beauty of an old, problematic habit called philosophy.


Works Cited

Plato. The Republic. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1992.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Collected Works of Thorstein Veblen.  Volume 1. London: Routledge, 1994.

Veblen, Thorstein.  The Engineers and the Price System. Transaction Publishers, 1982.


Andrew Pendakis teaches at the University of Alberta

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