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.

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)

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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.

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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.

Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

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: “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.

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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)

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Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.

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The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, and they know whether they are well employed or not—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters. (335)

walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.

waldenpond

I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)

cabin

He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.