chapter  11
14 Pages

The Acquisitive Machine: Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and the Culture of Consumptive Individualism

At first, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen appear to be scientific adversaries. On

the one hand, at several points in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, Weber endorses some of the notions found in Veblen’s The Theory of Business Enterprise; and in his discussion of classes and status groups, Weber may well have had The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) in mind when he wrote, ‘one might … say that “classes” are stratified according to their relations to production

and acquisition of goods; whereas “status groups” are stratified according to the

principles of their consumption of goods.’ (Weber 1946, 193) On the other hand, Weber’s knowledge of Veblen’s work appears to be limited to the latter’s early

writings and Weber would hardly have approved Veblen’s subsequent appeals to

and for the so-called ‘common man.’ At the same time, while it does not seem

that Veblen knew Weber’s work, the Peircean-pragmatist would probably have

little use for Weberian methodological norms. Nonetheless, in their narratives

concerning the construction and fate of the ‘bourgeois subject,’ Veblen and Weber

arrive at remarkably similar conclusions; leading these political adversaries to

corresponding calculations of the probable arc of modern pecuniary culture, and

to commensurate theories about its consequence for the structures of the self. For

both Veblen and Weber, the cloak of the bourgeois subject became the cage of the

acquisitive machine. Capitalism’s last conquest was the self.