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Veblen's theory of social change is essentially a technological theory of history. He believed that in the last analysis the"state of the industrial arts," that is, the technology available to a society, determines the character of its culture. Invention was the mother of necessity. Yet this influence of technology, while crucial, was to Veblen by no means immediate and direct. A new technology does not automatically bring forth new systems of laws, new moral attitudes, or new types of education. Rather, it challenges old institutions and evokes their resistance. "Institutions are products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present." Those who have a "vested interest" in the old order will bend every effort to maintain old institutions even when they are no longer in tune with technological developments. The characteristic attitude of those advocates of the status quo "may be summed up in the maxim: 'Whatever is, is right;' whereas the law of natural selection as applied to human institutions, gives the axiom: 'Whatever is, is wrong." In the end, Veblen believed, a new technology erodes vested ideas, overcomes vested interests, and reshapes institutions in accord with its own needs. But this process may take considerable time, and in that time lag - when, for example, an industrial society is still governed by legal and moral rules dating from the handicraft era - society suffers from the waste that is brought about by the lack of correspondence between its institutions and its technology.
In periods of transition between an old order and one about to be born, social conflicts are likely to be accentuated. In contrast to Marx, Veblen did not conceive of the class struggle as the motor of history. He saw as the shaping force of history the clash between advancing technology and retarding institutions. Only during periods when this clash was particularly acute did he expect an exacerbation of class antagonisms between those engaged in the pecuniary employments, who had vested interest in things as they were, and those in industrial employments who were in tune with the technological demands of the hour.
Although he was beholden to a general evolutionary doctrine, Veblen did not believe in unilinear evolution. He was acutely aware of what later theorists called "the skipping of evolutionary stages"; hence he focused attention on "the advantage of borrowing the technological arts rather than developing them by home growth." When technologies are borrowed from another society, Veblen argued, they "do not carry over the fringe of other cultural elements that have grown up about them in the course of their development and use." Technological elements can therefore be acquired ready-made and they do not carry the institutional ballast with which they were freighted in the country of origin. Thus the Germans took over British machine technology "without the fault of its qualities." While in England older institutions still hampered and impeded this technology and older and newer technological techniques and processes existed side by side, the Germans took over the more advanced technologies and applied them to the fullest in an environment unimpeded by vested interests. These observations seem especially pertinent today in the light of the problems faced by developing societies.
While borrowing may help to accelerate the evolutionary growth of the borrowing country, it leads to relative decline in the competitive position of the country of origin. This is "the penalty of taking the lead." An industrial system like that of England, which "has been long engaged in a course of improvement, extension, innovation and specialization, will in the past have committed itself to what was at the time an adequate scale of appliances and schedule of processes." But such established equipment will be out of date as the industrial process proceeds. Hence obsolescent technologies are likely to exist alongside new equipment. There will be improvements, adaptations, and repairs but also a "fatal reluctance or inability to overcome this all-pervading depreciation by obsolescence." The railroads of Great Britain, for example, were built with too narrow a gauge and the "terminal facilities, tracks, shunting facilities, and all the means of handling freight ... are all adapted to the bobtailed car." From the point of view of the community at large all this equipment should be discarded, but since it is still profitable the captains of the railroad industry have a vested interest in maintaining it, thereby contributing to the industrial decadence of England. "All this does not mean that the British have sinned against the canons of technology. It is only that they are paying the penalty for having been thrown into the lead and so having shown the way."
Veblen wrote this when England was governed by Lloyd George, and Germany was ruled by the Kaiser. But fifty years later, the England of Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Germany of Chancellor Willy Brandt still seem subject to the same forces; and the contemporary development of Japan furnishes even stronger evidence for Veblen's far-reaching prescience.
The preceding pages have not touched upon a number of Veblenian notions, in particular his theory of "instincts." This omission is deliberate. "The instinct of workmanship," "the parental bent," or "the instinct of idle curiosity" - concepts Veblen used to "explain" the concern for a job well done, the solicitude for one's offspring, and the motive force for scientific curiosity respectively - are vague and unsatisfactory. Veblen introduced them as a kind of deus ex machina when he wished to defend a practice or behavior pattern he liked to see maintained, even though his "instincts" are not meant to denote unchangeable biological impulses but rather prepotent propensities subject to cultural conditioning and modification. Veblen, like all instinct theorists, was prone to infer the operation of instincts from observed behavior - which these instincts were then supposed to explain. This device has little scientific utility.
What is likely to endure in Veblen's sociological work is not the theory of instincts but his theory of the socially induced motivations for competitive behavior, his acute ferreting out of latent functions, and certain elements of his technological interpretation of history and of his theory of the lag between technological and institutional development. It is likely that analysts of the process of "modernization" will still be making use of his notions about the "advantage of borrowing" and the "penalty of taking the lead" when his doctrine of instinct will long have been forgotten.
From Coser, 1977: 272-274.