thorstein veblen on the business of nations|
Thorstein Veblen Farmstead: National Historic Landmark
16538 Goodhue Avenue, Nerstrand, Minnesota
In the last analysis the nation remains a predatory organism, in practical effect an association of persons moved by a community interest in getting something for nothing by force and fraud. There is, doubtless, also much else of a more genial nature to be said for the nation as an institutional factor in recent times. The voluminous literature of patriotic encomium and apology has already said all that is needed on that head. But the irreducible core of national life, what remains when the non-essentials are deducted, still is of this nature; it continues to be self-determination in war and politics. Such is the institutional pedigree of the nation. It is a residual derivative of the predatory dynastic State, and as such it still continues to be, in the last resort, an establishment for the mobilization of force and fraud against the outside, and for a penalised subservience of its underlying population at home.
In recent times, owing to the latterday state of the industrial arts, this national pursuit of warlike and political ends has come to be a fairly single-minded chase after unearned income to be procured by intimidation and intrigue. It has been called Imperialism; it might also, in a colloquial phrasing, be called national graft. By and large, it takes the two typical forms of graft: official salaries (The White Man’s Burden), as in the British crown colonies and the American dependencies; and of special concessions and advantageous bargains in the way of trade, credits and investments, as, eg, the British interests in Africa and Mesopotamia or the American transactions in Nicaragua and Haiti. The official salaries which are levied by this means on the underlying population in foreign parts inure directly to the nation’s kept classes, in their role of official personnel, being in the nature of perquisites of gentility and of political suction. The special benefits in the way of profitable trade and investment under national tutelage in foreign parts inure to those special Interests which are in close touch with the nation’s official personnel and do business in foreign parts with their advice and consent.
All the while, of course, all this trading on the national integrity is carried on as inconspicuously as may be, quite legally and morally under democratic forms, by night and cloud, and is covered over with such decently voluble prevarication as the case may require, prevarication of a decently statesmanlike sort; such a volume and texture of prevarication as may serve to keep the national left hand from knowing what the right hand is doing, the left hand in these premises being the community at large, as contrasted with the Interests and the official personnel. In all such work of administrative prevarication and democratic camouflage the statesmen are greatly helped out by the newspapers and the approved agencies that gather and purvey such news as is fit to print for the purpose in hand. The pulpit, too, has its expedient uses as a publicity agency in furtherance of this gainful pursuit of national enterprise in foreign parts.
However, the present argument is not concerned with the main facts and material outcome of this imperial statecraft considered as a “gainful pursuit,” but only with the ulterior and residual consequences of the traffic in the way of a heightened sense of national integrity and a closer coalescence of this national integrity with the gainful pursuits of all these dominant business Interests that engage the sympathies of the official personnel. By this means the national integrity becomes ever more closely identified, in the popular apprehension, with the security and continued enlargement of the capitalised overhead charges of those concerns which do business in foreign parts; whereby the principles of business and absentee ownership come in for an added sanction; so that the official personnel which has these matters in charge is enabled to give a more undivided attention and a more headlong support to any manoeuvres of strategic sabotage on industrial production which the exigencies of gainful business may dictate, whether at home or abroad.
Statecraft as a gainful pursuit has always been a furtive enterprise. And in due proportion as the nation’s statecraft is increasingly devoted to the gainful pursuit of international intrigue it will necessarily take on a more furtive character, and will conduct a larger proportion of its ordinary work by night and cloud. Which leads to a substitution of coercion in the place of consultation in the dealings of the official personnel with their underlying population, whether in domestic or foreign policy; and such coercion is increasingly accepted in a complaisant, if not a grateful, spirit by the underlying population, on a growing conviction that the national integrity is best provided for by night and cloud. So therefore it also follows that any overt expression of doubt as to the national expediency of any obscure transaction or line of transactions entered into by the official personnel in the course of this clandestine traffic in gainful politics, whether at home or abroad, will presumptively be seditious; and unseasonable inquiry into the furtive movements of the official personnel is by way of becoming an actionable offense; since it is to be presumed that, for the good of the nation, no one outside of the official personnel and the business Interests in collusion can bear any intelligent part in the management of these delicate negotiations, and any premature intimation of what is going on is likely to be “information which may be useful to the enemy.” Any pronounced degree of skepticism touching the expediency of any of the accomplished facts of political intrigue or administrative control is due to be penalised as obnoxious to the common good. In the upshot of it all, the paramount rights, powers, aims, and immunities of ownership, or at least those of absentee ownership, come in for a closer identification with the foundations of the national establishment and are hedged about with a double conviction of well-doing.
In that strategy of businesslike curtailment of output, debilitation of industry, and capitalisation of overhead charges, which is entailed by the established system of ownership and bargaining, the constituted authorities in all the democratic nations may, therefore, be counted on to lend their unwavering support to all manoeuvres of business-as-usual, and to disallow any transgression of or departure from business principles. Nor should there seem any probability that the effectual run of popular sentiment touching these matters will undergo any appreciable change in the calculable future. The drift of workday discipline, as well as of deliberate instruction, sets in the conservative direction. For the immediate future the prospect appears to offer a fuller confirmation in the faith that business principles answer all things. The outlook should accordingly be that the businesslike control of the industrial system in detail should presently reach, if it has not already reached, and should speedily pass beyond that critical point of chronic derangement in the aggregate beyond which a continued pursuit of the same strategy on the same businesslike principles will result in a progressively widening margin of deficiency in the aggregate material output and a progressive shrinkage of the available means of life.
— Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: the Case of America,
New York, N.Y.: B.W. Huebsch, 1923, pp. 442-445
Tags: america, economics, exceptionalism, politics, veblen