H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part Two

Very few, even among the most intelligent Negroes, could find a tenable position on which to base a stand for social among the other equalities demanded. When confronted by the question, they were forced by what they felt to be self-respect, to refrain from taking such a stand. As a matter of truth, self-respect demands that no mad admit, even tacitly, that he is unfit to associate with any of his fellow men (and that is aside from whether he wishes to associate with them or not). In the South, policy exacts that any pleas made by a Negro—or by a white man, for that matter—for fair treatment to the race, shall be predicated upon a disavowal of “social equality.” (475)

In the second half of James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, we are first introduced to his work as United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He got these positions through the aid of Booker T. Washington, to whom he reported on the conditions of blacks in Latin America. He is not too happy with this position due to health problems and anxiety about the US involvement in Latin America. Johnson does document the revolution in Nicaragua, which the US government supported. These were actually good times. The port he was stationed at was small and uninteresting, except when the US naval ships arrived in port, which created a “social flurry” for Johnson and his wife. As a diligent consul, he worked hard to defend and expand US commercial interests as well. He had become an agent of empire.

At the end of this section of the autobiography, Johnson tries to come to terms with the US role in Latin America. He argues that empire was about more than simply defending investments, concessions, or securing debt obligations, but is rather part of a larger strategy (going back to the early nineteenth century) to protect and secure order and commerce through Central America and the Caribbean. To me these sounds to be true enough, except that the goal of smooth and peaceful trade through Central America seems to imply the access necessary to collect on those debts and obligations. I will generally agree that the major goal of empire in the modern world is the imposition of order on the fundamental “anarchy” of everyday life. This battle has been waged by governments, missionaries, capital and the other agents of empire. By 1915, he is clearly on the anti-imperialist side of things, arguing that: “For the seizure of an independence nation [Haiti], we offered the stock justifications: protection of American lives and American interests, and the establishment and maintenance of internal order. Had all these reasons been well founded, they would not have constituted justification for the seizure of a sovereign state at peace with us.” (515)

The final part of Along This Way picks up with Johnson’s return to full-time residency in the United States and his growing involvement in the civil rights movement of the day. He joined the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People and began writing editorials for the New York Age. He also took the time to continue his writing as a lyricist and develop his slowly emerging fame as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (a novel he wrote while Johnson was a US consul). His politics involved the dilemma addressed in the quote opening this post. How to move toward arguments for social equality, and indeed even defining what that might mean. Much of this work involved breaking away from the “Tuskegee Idea” of Booker T. Washington, which set social equality as an unachievable or nebulous goal. But he did take one important idea from Washington, namely that “hammering away at white America” was not enough. “I felt convinced that it would be necessary to awaken black America, awaken it to a sense of its rights and to a determination to hold fast to such as it possessed and to seek in every orderly way possible to secure all others to which it was entitled. I realized that, regardless of what might be done for black America, the ultimate and vital part of the work would have to be done by black America itself; and that to do that work black America needed an intelligent program.” (479) This seems to be an important principle predicated on direct action.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)

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I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.

John Kenneth Galbraith: “The New Industrial State” (1967)

Found in The Affluent Society and Other Writings, 1952–1967. New York: The Library of America, 2010.

The individual has far more standing in our culture than the group. An individual has a presumption of accomplishment; a committee had a presumption of inaction. We react sympathetically to the individual who seeks to safeguard his personality from engulfment by the mass. We call for proof, at least in principle, before curbing his aggressions. Individuals have souls; corporations are notably soulless. The entrepreneur—individualistic, restless, with vision, guile and courage—has been the economist’s only hero. The great business organization arouses no similar admiration. Admission to heave is individually and by families; the top management, even of an enterprise with an excellent corporate image, cannot yet go in as a group. To have, in pursuit of truth, to assert the superiority of the organization over the individual for important social tasks is a taxing prospect. (682)

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This lengthy quote from an early chapter of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State, suggests not only the major theme of his life’s work, but also one of the central dilemmas of American life. It is with this work, therefore, that I will complete this short series on Galbraith’s writings documenting the affluent generation of American life. It was conceived after Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society and was largely written down in the early 1960s. But Galbraith was delayed in publication because he was sent as an ambassador to India. This work, like many others he wrote, underwent revisions. Therefore while this was published in 1967, in the Library of America version we read of many facts from the 1970s. This is because the editor (Galbraith’s son) gave us a later edition. This may be useful for those reading this for the most up to date analysis, but may undermine its historical use. Galbraith insists that his major thesis is unchanged.

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He is simply arguing—in both opposition and in agreement with the central anarchist tenant that that individual must struggle against the institution—that the basic fact of American life is the power of the institution. For those who looked at the Soviet Union in fear of “central planning,” Galbraith points out with ease that the American economy is no less planned. The planning which took place in Soviet Russia in the offices of government bureaucrats, takes place in the American economy in the offices of corporate bureaucrats. (“The enemy of the market is not ideology but the engineer.”) Virtually every aspect of American economic life—employment figures, union vibrancy, markets, production levels, prices, research and development, education and training—is planned. As the historian Alfred Chandler pointed out later, the invisible hand of the market has been replaced with the “visible hand” of the industrial bureaucracy. So much for Adam Smith, the entrepreneur, and free consumer choice. If you want the blow by blow you had only read the book. It is quite convincing, if not obvious to those who pay attention to how our world works (perhaps that is why it is so convincing). I am only amazed that Galbraith was so original in this thesis. This perhaps only shows how powerful the legacy of the free market was in 20th century America.

Galbraith coins the term “technostructure” as the modern corporate planning system. An important consequence of this is that those who make the important decisions in the economy are largely invisible. Sure a handful of individual corporate leaders are highlighted in the media, but in most cases their individual influence is entire overstated or exceptional. The entrepreneur disappears into the technostructure.

As I see it, a very important part of his argument deals with how individual motivations are transformed by participation in a corporate organization. How is it we all become “organization men”? This was a central fear of the 1950s counter-cultural. This remains a question in an era where increased attention is paid to the problems caused by global capitalism. What is it that makes good people, working for corporations, do such vile thing such as polluting the planet, committing human rights abuses, union busting, or devastating communities? Galbraith’s answer is that the technostructure works to reframe our motivations. As he sees it, one’s motivation is increasingly tied to the motivations of the structure the closer to the center one gets to it. For the rest, there are a massive number of “sub-universes” within the corporate structure that people can align their motivation toward.

These sub-universes in the mature corporation are numerous and come, for their members, to be similarly large in life. For those concerned with hiring, nothing is so important as personnel policy; for those concerned with information, data control and the computer, all other activities are secondary; for those teamed for the development of a new product, nothing is so central. For the lawyers, the general counsel’s office the brain of the enterprise. For the accountants, it is accounting. For the sales staff, it is sales. All this enhanced the role of adaptation. (777)

This is important to keep in mind if we choose to remain committed to individualism over the institution. It is not so easy to thrown off identification with an organization, especially if it is large. In academia, it is easy to see that the student loan system is corrupt or that the administrators may be running the place into the ground, or that a million other things are wrong. Still, a professor may feel their department or their classroom is a space that they identify with. As nice as this is, it does mean accepting their place in the organization.

For those of us who are able to stand outside of the corporate organization, for whatever reason, planning is still central to our lives through the technostructure’s manipulation of both specific and aggregate demand. As we have saw in The Affluent Society, in a post-scarcity situation more and more of the production is devoted to meeting manufactured demand. The ones doing that manufacturing are part of the corporate planning apparatus.

It is possible that people need to believe that they are unmanaged if they are to be managed effectively. We have been taught to set store by our freedom of economic choice; were it recognized that this is subject to management, we might be at pains to assert our independence. Thus we could become less manageable. Were instruction in economics, supported by the formidable wisdom of the economics textbooks, to proclaim that people are partly in the service of those who supply them, this might cause those so educated to desert that service. (836–837)

Well, I reckon people have known this for a while, but have not deserted in great numbers yet.

An explanation for the weakening of union power is given in this book as well. Galbraith sees unions are a countervailing power to corporations as described in American Capitalism. We see here that unions played a role of organizing production. They were engaged, in the good old days, in some of the planning. As that role got taken up by the corporate technostructure, unions could either play a vital role in their planning efforts (managing employment, training, or production in their service) or be set aside. In his view, it was not simply the ideological or political assault against unions (he talks nothing about these things), but rather the place of unions in the technostructure itself.

What I wondered when reading The New Industrial State was about the location of the countervailing power. Galbraith is not largely concerned with that in this book, but we can assume he holds to his thesis of his earlier work. If every hegemonic economic force (such as a monopoly or oligopoly) nurtures its own enemies, what will rise to challenge the corporate technostructure? Galbraith may not find such an opposition wise. He is not entirely critical of corporate planning. He seems to thinking this planning is necessary for a modern industrial economy. Perhaps he does not explore these forces much because they are potentially quite dangerous.

An interview with Galbraith.

You may be interested in the documentary on economics called “The Age of Uncertainty” written and hosted by Galbraith. I will only post the first episode.

John Kenneth Galbraith: “The Affluent Society” (1958)

In a community where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption, things are very different. Here, in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway. Schools do not compete with television and the movies. The dubious heroes of the latter, not Ms. Jones, become the idols of the young. Violence replaced the more sedentary recreation for which there are inadequate facilities or provision. Comic books, alcohol, narcotics and switchblade knives are, as noted, part of the increased flow of goods, and there is nothing to dispute their enjoyment. There is an ample supply of private wealth to be appropriated and not much to be feared from the police. An austere community is free from temptation. It can be austere in its public services. Not so a rich one. (535)

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The Affluent Society is a wonderful introduction to post-scarcity economics. John Kenneth Galbraith never (as far as I could tell) used the term in the book, but as I understand it “post-scarcity” and “affluence” are synonymous. He wrote the book over a decade after the Second World War ended and when the United States had come as close as it ever had to eliminating poverty thanks to government spending (outpacing many at the times openly socialist nations) and powerful labor unions raising the demand in the economy. Although Galbraith had initially began working on a book about poverty in 1950s America, he ended up writing about the mainstream prosperity. In way of summary, we can identify three major arguments that Galbraith makes in the book.

First, the classical models of economics are all wrong for the modern era. A major fault of economists is that they hold onto theories as scientific truth, but economics is not like physics. Knowledge does not change because we identify a deeper truth that complements and builds on earlier models. Economics laws actually change, and they change quite often. The major transition that Galbraith discovered was from economics of scarcity to economics of affluence. The classical theories—the conventional wisdom—was rooted essentially in a world in which there was not enough food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities to go around. The iron law of wages of Ricardo and the Malthusian trap are all rooted in this age of pessimism. The idea that there must be inequality, that the working poor must live miserable lives, that governments must save every penny, or that consumer demand is invariable an immoral drive are all rooted in these classical theories. These very theories made it difficult for economists to objectively see the way the affluent society worked.

To comment on this, I think Galbraith is essentially right about the inapplicability of the classical theory to the 1950s or to our world. The first 100 pages of the book works as a wonderful introduction to the history of economic through from Adam Smith until Keynes. I am also glad to see Galbraith takes on the moral question. Much of American history involved moral anxiety about spending. This may have had its origin as early as the American Revolution.

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The second argument is that when affluence is reached in a society, production will no longer be serving objective needs. Instead it will increasingly serve manufactured needs, or desires transformed into needs. Galbraith does not want to be moralistic about. He knows very well, a need can easily change over time. A cellular phone may be a need now, but no one would really see it as an objective need. Most of us can remember a world without them. We could have just as easily created different needs, but they would be no less essential. More difficult to avoid is the filling in that extra productive capacity with additional goods. A reduction in the work week, or pulling people out of the labor force, was not seriously considered (although Galbraith takes on these potentialities as a response to post-scarcity). I will deal with this a bit more below. In the main, what happens is that the extra productivity gets filled in with an entire ensemble of manufactured goods for while a market must be created through advertising.

The third argument is relevant to something that we experience all the time in the squeezing and starving of the commons, while there is a great exuberance of private, commercial space. Notice that Galbraith was writing at a time when public spending on the military, roads, and public works was still quite high, coming out of the New Deal and during the Cold War. Tax rates on the wealthy were very high and in some Western states (as I recall) public spending accounted for almost ½ of all income. Yet even when he was writing this at a time of heavy public sector spending, Galbraith noticed an imbalance between the public and the private. Roads crumble, schools decay, police forces are fractured and underfunded, and public space evaporates. At the same time, the private sector provide the sleekest, newest, forms of frippery. A good example of this may be the poor conditions of public libraries alongside a new Barnes and Noble. The availability of public gathering places decline when Starbucks opens up new branches, offering a crude simulacra of community. It is like we are awash in placed (commercial, private, the domain of capital) yet we have no spaces (communities, public space, political forums). I can understand that for many leftist, liberals like Galbraith may seem not relevant or worse (it is hard to read his praise for police without making note), but he does get right to one of the central points of modern anarchist struggle, the recreation of public space and the commons.

I think The Affluent Society still has much to teach us and it is striking in how it holds up, even though he would be the first to acknowledge that his “conventional wisdom” will soon pass when new facts present themselves on the ground. I do want to make a major criticism, however. Galbraith is largely writing from within the gated community of the United States. The US itself had pockets of extreme poverty (something he mentions in passing a few times), but was also sustaining a global system that enforced scarcity on much of the world. This is still the case. We may be in a post-scarcity world, even at a global level. I have no doubt our productive capacity could easily provide enough food, clothing, shelter, and the basic needs of a meaningful life to all people, but this does not happen because of the walls that have been built up by empire. Galbraith is not interested in the global situation. He is writing about the affluent society from within its borders. Today we have a potentially global affluent society, but in practice it is only local, existing in pockets around the world.

Galbraith gets fairly close to making a case for a universal basic income as one solution to the inequality in an affluent society. There is no longer any reasonable reason to expect everyone to work for their daily bread, if what most of what is being produced (again within the boundaries of the affluent society) is nonsense. He starts with the modest proposal to eliminate all juvenile labor, filling it in with publically-funded higher education.

In addition to releasing the old and young, it may be that we need not use all the labor force at all times. [. . .] If the marginal urgency of goods is low, then so is the urgency of employing the last man or the last million men in the labor force. By allowing ourselves such a margin, in turn, we reduce the standards of economic performance to a level more nearly consonant with the controls available for its management. Such a step requires that there be a substitute for production as a source of income—and that it be ample.” (589)

With the universal basic income being one of the more interesting and potentially liberating ideas coming out of the left these days, I think it is important to point out that Galbraith was there in the 1950s. He gets there by the simple step of realizing that a great aggregate leisure in society is not necessarily worth less than a few thousand more new automobiles or a few million more paper weights.

John Kenneth Galbraith: “The Great Crash” (1955)

As the market came to be considered less and less a long-run register of corporate prospects and more and more a product of manipulative artifice, the speculator was required to give it his closest, and preferably his undivided attention. Signs of incipient pool activity had to be detected at the earliest possible moment, which meant that one needed to have his eyes on the tape. However, even the person who was relying on hunches, incantations, or simple faith, as distinct from the effort to assess the intentions of the professionals, found it hard to be out of touch. (250)

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One of the clear lessons of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash—his blow-by-blow recounting of the 1929 stock market crash—is that an unstable, bubble economy is actually closely examined. The fact that so many eyes on the missed what was happening is not a surprise, not some mysterious contradiction in economics. In fact, it is because so many people looked narrowly at the workings of the stock market that no one was looking long-term. More eyes did not make for better analysis any more than more students make for a better classroom or more dishes on a menu make for a better restaurant.

This short work is not theoretically sophisticated and lacks the original insights of the three other ground-breaking texts in this Library of America volume, but it happened to be his most consistently popular text, even a favorite of Fidel Castro. I suppose it was readers love of the drama of the late 1920s stock market bubble and crash that made it so popular. What Galbraith is careful not to do is make the stock market crash a morality tale. As a good economist, he understands that there is a logic to even an irrational bubble. What is irrational in the macro makes perfect sense for the individual or the firm. As a narrative, however, it is not the easiest to summarize. Thankfully, for people who want to cut to the chase, there is a final chapter called “Cause and Consequence” about the root causes of the Great Depression, which followed the stock market crash. The same conditions that created the crash feed into the depression. This final chapter also makes Galbraith’s book so important to revisit in times like this, for most of these conditions are with us now, hanging over us ominously.

These causes were (1) inequality, (2) a poor corporate structure and illegality, (3) a weak and overleveraged banking system, (4) low foreign demand for US goods, and (5) myopia among economists. Galbraith studied all of this in other texts. An ideal corporate structure is, for instance, his major focus on The New Industrial State. Inequality and its consequences are studied at length in The Affluent Society. The tendency of economists to look at the world through the window of obsolete theories is also laid out in The Affluent Society. I only mention this because either it means that Galbraith knew what he was talking about, or that he looked at the Great Depression through his own theories.

I will leave my review of The Great Crash at that, because I am planning on some extended reviews of Galbraith’s ideas in the next two or three posts. This book is worth reading, especially for people who want to dig up dirt on corporate corruption and excesses. If the daily newspaper was not giving you enough already.

John Kenneth Galbraith: “American Capitalism” (1952)

The notion that there are aspects of monopoly tin a large proportion of American industries was bound to bring a major change in liberal attitudes. In fact, it dealt the ancient liberal formula a far more serious blow than has even yet been realized. It is possible to prosecute a few evil-doers; it is evidently not so practical to indict a whole economy. (49)

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The above comes from the chapter “The Ogre of Economic Power,” from John Kenneth Galbraith’s breakout text American Capitalism. This is one of the four texts included in the Library of American collection of Galbraith’s writings from the 1950s and 1960s. (I am not sure if another volume is in the works). What strikes a radical about reading a liberal like Galbraith is how late he came to a basic understanding about the economy, and how amazing the discovery is. There is actually not so much in American Capitalism (the specific examples aside) that cannot be deduced from Marx or even Adam Smith. But we welcome his realization that the US economy was dominated by a small elite. He even has some interesting things to say in the way of possible solutions to the problem of economic centralization in the hands of an oligarchy.

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Galbraith was a Canadian by birth. He had a traditional academic career, completing his Ph.D. dissertation in his mid-twenties. His formative years were in the Great Depression, where he was exposed to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who influenced not just his ideas on the economy, but practically a generation of economists, trying to come to terms with the Great Depression. The Depression is on Galbraith’s mind when writing American Capitalism. It was not ancient history for him. It was integral to his world view. In this sense, it is hard to blame him for his insistence that the state stand in to oppose the centralization of capital. Galbraith was living in an era where libertarian ideas (especially anarchism) were fading. The lessons of the Depression and the World Wars and post-war “prosperity” was for many that the state could create a compromise economy that could save capitalism without expanding its excesses. I suspect I will come back to this plenty while reading these four early works of Galbraith.

Library of America volume cover

Library of America volume cover

American Capitalism is a slim volume. Its title suggest a general history of American economic history, or even a picture of the overall economic situation. It is neither of these things. Instead, the book is a focused study of the problem of monopoly. Why, in contrast to classical theories, was the American economy becoming more, not less, centralized? That is the narrative of power. For the other side of the dialectic, Galbraith presents his theory of “countervailing power.” This is often, but not always the state. It can also take the form of insurgent businesses, labor unions, communities, or co-operatives. Why anarchists may find something of value in this text is in his theory that the power of monopoly always inspires resistance in the form of these “countervailing” forces. While most will look upon his belief that the state is one of the most effective institutional means to formalize this resistance, it is hard to deny that the state did significantly tame capitalism in a handful of countries in the middle of the 20th century. We now know it was an unstable situation and quickly undone as soon as the global capitalist class reformed itself economically and politically.

One important point he makes about oligopoly is that it does not really require collaboration by all the members, as in the classical conspiratorial vision of monopoly. Traditionally, proving collaboration required direct evidence so that is what regulators looked for. But this was rarely required. Galbraith writes of the tobacco companies:

There was no proof that these firms had entered into any overt agreement on prices. This had been the old test of guilt. Rather, each had merely behaved as though it fully understood and respected the welfare of the group. The leadership of one of their number had been accepted when it was evidence that a price decrease would be to the profit of all, and again when it was evidence that a price increase would be to the common benefit. (50)

This does not mean employers’ associations did not regularly meet and cooperation, however, just that it was not necessary for market manipulation.

He points out that one reason oligopoly emerged from the Second World War so powerful in America was that the policies of the government in the New Deal and the war were not interested in any regulation of collaboration. The New Deal was more concerned with employment and rising wages (big firms could do that as well as small firms, it was believed). During the war, it was much the same. As the economy recovered, businesses were more centralized than ever and this worked well for the needs of an interventionist state.

Galbraith’s most innovative idea in American Capitalism is countervailing power. This was not competition, something that is—naturally—suppressed in a monopoly or oligopoly. He turns toward the state in the end as part of this effort, but he does not really need to. He has plenty of historical examples of unions, farmers associations, and cooperative challenging capital effectively without much state support. (Although he sticks in at the end that these movements sort of need the state, even if the evidence does not fully support this.)

In short, the less of American Capitalism is that no matter how strong the capitalist elite may seem, their hegemony is not uncontested or passively accepted. What this resistance will look like willed pend much on the nature of the economic hegemon and the local economic situation, so there is no model to work from. After all, Galbraith was an economist not an activist.

In parts of the American economy where proprietary mass buyers have not made their appearance, notably in the purchase of farm supplies, individuals (who are also individualists) have shown as much capacity to organize as the Scandinavians and the British and have similarly obtained the protection and rewards of countervailing power. The Grange League Federation, the Eastern States Farmers’ Exchange and the Illinois Farm Supply Company, cooperatives with annual sales running to multi-million-dollar figures, are among the illustrations of the point. (113)

farmer's alliance