H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 1

Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series is dominated by his masterpiece essay “The National Letters.” For readers of the first volume of Prejudices, there is nothing here unexpected. For much of the volume, Mencken sets aside the literary criticism and begins making broader social and political commentary. Mencken rests his analysis of these other subjects on the same general theory: America is a cultural wasteland of conformity and stupidity. However, by moving toward an analysis of democracy (as in his reading of Prohibition) and of institutions (as in his reading on marriage), we start to see a diagnosis that may lead to a cure. This post, however, will focus on the first three essays in the “second series,” considering respectively the history of American letters, Roosevelt’s political career, and the South.


“The National Letters” begins with the vision of Emerson and Whitman of creating a true American literature. Whether inspired by the North American environment and climate or its political distinctions, nineteenth century writers believed that it was possible to break off the burden of Europe. This is dangerous from the beginning. For Mencken, the lack of a national aristocracy was part of the problem facing American culture. This is not praise for wealth of elitism. Mencken tended to think that the American capitalist class led the pack in terms of banality and conformity. What the aristocracy had—for better or for worse—was access to wealth that could lead to an independent life. Unlike American politicians, the aristocrats did not need to care what the majority thought. Unlike the American capitalist class, they did not need to worry about fashion or trends. They could create (or at least support people who could create). Mencken often uses the term “aristocracy.” He does not really seem to mean a landed class of heredity nobility, but rather a class with the capacity of intellectual autonomy. The American artists who come through democracy with a genuine creativity do so with great difficulty and may emerge harder for it, but it is nevertheless a rare thing.

So let us come right out and say it. Mencken’s position, if correct, is the best aesthetic argument for something like a basic income. Oscar Wilde stated it directly in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He argued that under socialism, people will be freed from the mundane emotional burdens from which charity arises. It seems that point is that creative people will not need to spend their time (1) at mundane jobs, (2) producing works that satisfy the demands of the market, (3) get bogged down in political arguments that turn art into polemics, and (4) worry about meeting the needs of spouses, children, parents, and fellow citizens. We could all become aristocrats, each potentially independent. Obviously Mencken does not argue this (at least not in the first two volumes of Prejudices), but I think his essays lead us to a similar position as Wilde’s.

The bulk of “The National Letters” zips through the different strata of American culture. The vision of the prophets is unfulfilled. Puritanism ensured that New England’s soil would be sour for generations. The proclaimed rebel writers of Greenwich Village are trendy and vapid. Little needs to be said of the voluminous nonsense coming out of popular magazines, films, and novels. Of the Saturday Evening Post, Mencken writes: “Appealing primarily to the great masses of right thinking and unintelligent Americans, it must necessarily print a great deal of preposterous tosh.” (169) Anything original (warming my heart he mentioned Frank Norris’ Vandover and the Brute), seems instantly foreign. The problem is that America lacks a class of people who are materially and intellectual capable of being independent (that lacking of an aristocracy stuff). This is not to say that aristocracy is necessarily good, but that democracy, by crushing aristocracy, replaced it with nothing that could sustain a creative class, a cultural creativity and honesty that could match its political vision. The solution is not a return to European social structures, but a raising of “the mob” to “intellectual autonomy.” (He sees some hope in “purging”
the American plutocracy as well, but they are in general as ridiculous as the masses, and perhaps more so because they do not have the excuse of poverty.) In the end, Mencken rejects any solution, but reminds his readers that creativity is born in rebellion against the nation, whatever those values may be. Democracy is not the problem so much as democracy being a national creed and club used to beat down dissent.

Looking at this diagnosis of American arts from the context of collections like The Library of America or even a university anthology, it is hard to sometimes take seriously. What about Twain? What about Norris? These are authors Mencken praises. What is important to remember is that Mencken was not looking at American letters of the period the way we do: as a serious of gems preserved and studied generation upon generation. He was surrounded by piles of garbage. The everyday nonsense published by the press. But when he compares American letters to other countries he is not comparing the gems. He is comparing the highlights of the European tradition with the piles of refuse that cluttered his mental landscape. So, I am not sure Mencken is entirely fair. He uses Beethoven and Wagner as example of the greatness of German art and Nietzsche as evidence of originality of thought without perhaps realizing that for every Beethoven there were dozens of court charlatans. Anyway, enough on “The National Letters.”

In Theodore Roosevelt, Mencken saw the promise of an innovative political thinker corrupted and mislead by democracy. In a sense, Roosevelt was a symptom of the problem facing America culture. He was a believer in good government and had more in common with a turn-of-the-century European statebulider than the other “progressive” of the era, Woodrow Wilson. But he had to embrace the language and style of mob politics.

Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts. He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of a Napoleonic of Ludendorffian pattern—a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. (221–222)


Mencken goes on to describe Roosevelt less as an autocrat and more of a craftsman of governance. But as he had to work with what Mencken called the “third-rate” parts of the American people, there is not much he could do, except win the popular victories and fall just short of greatness. When the other option was the moralism and naivity of Wilson, maybe Mencken was onto something. Has the United States had a president since Johnson that really understood how to use power, not just how to acquire it?

“The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken’s condemnation of the cultural wasteland of the South, if an entertaining read, but ultimately mean-spirited and of not very much use. Of the off-putting characteristics of this essay, the most important is his apparent preference to the pre-Civil War South to the contemporary one. I do not think this is rooted in racism. Mencken was active against lynching and seemed to have nothing but contempt for the white racists who ran the South in his day. Instead he seems to assume that the Old South must have had more culture the “New South.” This is probably due to the same myopia that allows him to see the trash heap of American letters, but just barely make out bright stars across the Atlantic. The post-Civil War South created more talented writers, white and black, than the Old South. Mencken surveys the south and wonders why he cannot see symphony orchestras, operas, writers. I take him on his word that opera houses did not exist in the South (they did not in my hometown either, but we had phonographs). Of course, he does not even consider blues. He is apparently unaware—or disinterred in—black writers. To make matters worse, the entire article is plagued with discussions of tainted blood lines and the like. Maybe he just meant “blood” as a metaphor for creativity. That makes this more difficult to interpret: “It is highly probably that some of the worst blood of western Europe flows in the veins of the southern poor whites, nor poor no longer.”

Oh well, I think he got this one wrong.

Washington Irving, “Salmagundi” (1807–1808)

My friend then proceeded to inform me that for some time before, and during the continuance of an election, there was a most delectable courtship or intrigue, carried on between the great bashaws, and mother mob. That mother mob generally preferred the attentions of the rabble, or of fellows of her own stamp, but would sometimes condescend to be treated to a feasting, or any thing of that kind, at the bashaw’s expense. (208)


Salmagundi was a short-lived periodical written by Washington Irving with the help of his brother. Much like the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, the Salmagundi was a cooperative effort between the Irving brothers. The articles in each issue are extremely varied, including poetry, stories, commentary by the editor “Launcelot Langstaff” or the Captain of a Ketch, “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” or other sketches and stories. Many of these characters are drawn from Irving’s life and social circle. In spirit they remind the reader of the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle in that they are a reflection of a culture coming to know democracy and eager to debate the profound, the serious, and the mundane within the commons. As much as the Federalist Papers, the Salmagundi is a product of the American Revolution, and the emerging unique American political and cultural identity. It should be more commonly studied, in part because reading them is so pleasurable.

The completed Salmagundi consists of twenty issues, published over a little over a year (January 24, 1807 to January 25, 1808). They are all divided into a few parts and each total around 15 pages each (I am not sure how much each issue would have been in the original type). They were meant to be read in short bits, probably in the company of others or in a public space. The “public use of reason” fills up every page. They are essentially political documents, posing as social satire.


Most issues open with commentary by Launcelot Langstaff, introducing the characters that have submitted articles and occasionally talking about his encounters with various denizens of the city, focusing on their conversations about politics and social life. We can notice a few things about these commentaries. First, Langstaff is interested in publicizing private conversations, although they are fictional, they seem to be rooted in real experiences and considerations of the day. In the age of universal surveillance, much has been said about the importance of privacy and the unjust interference into private lives. On the other side of the question is the necessity of a vibrant public life that seems to undermine privacy for the public good. We accept this for public figures. Their affairs and hypocrisy are considered socially relevant in a democratic society. Does this not privilege those leaders? Suggesting that they are more important to a democracy than the average person. I wonder if there is a larger argument to be had about the role of the privacy, the commons, and public discourse. Better to have your private life exposed than to lose the commons of public discourse.

As a piece of evidence that that authors of the Salmagundi hold no private thoughts sacred, consider the February 24, 1807 edition, which has at its core the exposure and publication (without consent it seems) of the private travelogue of one Jeremy Cockloft, the Younger. The only justification for this invasion of his privacy is that the notes “may not prove uninteresting to my readers.” (94) This journal is exposed with the same irreverence as the day-to-day oddities of the New York Assembly Hall. Despite saying later that “whether we write, or not write, to be none of the public’s business,” the authors are shameless in putting nearly everything they can into the public record. (189) Mustapha Rub-a-Dub makes a comment in one of his letters arguing that all people want their place in the sun, if only for a moment. As a text, the Salmagundi suggest that this was possible in a democratic society.

One of the most memorable figures in the Salmagundi is Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who befriended Langstaff while he visited America. He wrote letters back to Tripoli, but they were not sent off before being translated by Will Wizard (another contributor to the Salmagundi), who knows all languages. The early United States was no stranger to European travelers commenting on the new republic and its absurdities. Rub-a-Dub’s comments seem to build on these other Old World observations of the United States. He serves to ridicule American government systems, pomposity, and disorderly society. It is hard for an American not to feel proud at his comments about American women “boxing the ears” of their husbands or the order from below created by the militias. Here is his conclusion on the military: “Such, my friend, is the gigantic genius of this nation, and its faculty of swelling up nothings into importance. Our bashaw of Tripoli, will review his troops of some thousands, by an early hour in the morning. Here a review of six hundred men is made the might work of a day! With us a bashaw of two tails is never appointed to a command of less than ten thousand men; but here we behold every grade from the bashaw, down to the drum-major, in a force of less than one tenth of the number. By the beard of Mahomet, but every thing here is indeed on a great scale.” (120)

Yet for all the mockery and fun and satire of the Salmagundi it a celebration of a young republic and the democracy that was being lived out on the streets and public spaces. It also broached serious political and international questions such as women’s rights, suffrage, impressment at the seas, government corruption, and even social class.

James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.


As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.


What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

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)


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.


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)


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.


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: “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)


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.


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



Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)


Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)


As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.