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.

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with Galbraith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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