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.

Mark Twain: “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger”: Labor and Automation

This final novel of Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, was left unpublished when he died and existed in a handful of radically different manuscript forms. The version collected by the Library of America is the most complete of the manuscripts and the only one with an ending, with the title No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. At its most overt philosophical moments, the novel is in line with Twain’s later writings on human nature: human beings are automata who receive their knowledge from the outside. At times the writing is even more nihilistic than this. Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no exitence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you! (984) As I have already address my feelings on this cynical approach to human nature and the meaning of life in my last post and elsewhere in this blog, I wanted to focus on an aspect of the manuscript that, as far as I can tell, has been neglected. The settings for No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is in print shop in an Austrian castle, just a few decades after the inventing of printing.


The characters are the various apprentices and journeymen of the print shop along with the master and his family. A deep conflict given at the beginning of the novel is between the mystical, superstitious vernacular culture of rural central Europe and the role of printing in promoting a culture of reason and progress. The members of the printer’s guild are not immune from these superstitions but are aware of the historical importance of their discipline, which they treat with appropriate reverence. The master is closer to a Renaissance figure than a backwoods laborer.

He was a scholar, and a dreamer or a thinker, and loved learning and study, and would have submerged his mind all the days and nights in his books and been pleasantly and peacefully unconscious of his surroundings, if God had been willing.

His wife also reflected a religious temperament but was very much materialistic, interested above all in making money. All members of the community believed strongly in the craft, which is why they were taken aback by the sudden rise of Number 44, New Series 864,962—the title’s “mysterious stranger.” It is his quick rise, made possible by clearly supernatural forces that led to one of the breakdown of this community of worker-scholars. When No. 44 was promoted from working for room and board to an apprentice, he was asked about his studies. The response of the other workers again reflects the importance of knowledge, languages, sciences, and philosophy to the guild. Their value and their pride rested on their knowledge. From their perspective, No. 44 was a scab. He became much more than that when the workers go on strike over No. 44’s rapid elevation in the guild. His presence is directly connected to the supernatural events taking place. The most dramatic is that during the strike, invisible workers and later duplicates of the guild workers complete the contract, much more efficiently than normal. The fate of the guild, being replaced by what is in essence machines and automata parallels the history of industrializing America, which is referenced several times through the novel as No. 44 has some sort of trans-temporal consciousness. As they are economically sidelined, they are also phased out of relevance to the novel. Twain writes on length at the replacement of human labor with the labor of the “invisibles,” and in the process described a post-industrial horror where human labor is unnecessary, absent, and discarded.

We were paralyzed; we couldn’t move a limb to get away, we couldn’t even cross ourselves, we were so nerveless. And we couldn’t look away, the spectacle of those familiar objects drifting about in the air unsupported, and doing their complex and beautiful work without visible help, was so terrifyingly fascinating that we had to look and keep on looking, we couldn’t help it. (866)

This situation is acceptable to the master who can have his contracts met, but works to slowly anger and alienate the skilled workers who stood at the heart of the guild. Another way to look at this is through the theme of a divided self, which Twain plays with throughout the novel. According to 44, everyone had a material and a dream self.

You know, of course, that you are not one person, but two. One is your Workaday-Self, and ‘tends to business, the other is your Dream-Self, and has no responsibilities, and cares only for romance and excursions and adventure. It sleeps when your other self is awake; when your other self sleeps, your Dream-Self has full control, and does as he pleases. It has far more imagination than has the Workaday-Self. (898)

This puts a more positive spin on the end of work that the guild members are facing. If we are truthful, 44 is correct. Work is boring, tedious, and damaging to our imagination. We should hope for (and struggle for) a time when our Workaday-Self can be abolished through technology. The Luddites were misguided in their struggle. While the new automated looms certainly were designed to expand the profits of their employers, by destroying them they destroyed the means to post-scarcity and the end of labor all together. This is the promising and uplifting message in this otherwise dark tale.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

I am not quite done with Twain. More to come.

Philip K. Dick, “We Can Build You” (1962): We Are All Mentally Ill

We Can Build You links many of Philip K. Dick’s most common themes.  The border between human and artificial is considered in a very straightforward and upfront way here, via conversations with the characters.  The growing insanity of everyday life is the surprising major theme of the text, which is ostensibly about androids.  The setting provides a clear picture of Dick’s ambivalence about post-scarcity, if it is based on technological or corporate dominance over humanity.  Finally, through the protagonist’s treatment, we are even given a brief look at an alternative reality.  Is it too much?  Maybe.  The systematic reader of Philip K. Dick might find that the way he throws ideas on the canvas and fails to develop those ideas adequately before moving on an irritation.  He may not have known it, but he is actually foreshadowing the intellectual anxiety and restlessness of late capitalism.


There are actually three stories in We Can Build You.  The first is the story of a company fighting against a corporate behemoth.  The little man is Multiplex Acoustical System of America (MASA Associates), specializing in mood organs and musical instruments.  The principals in the company are the protagonist Louis Rosen, his partner Maury Rock, Rock’s daughter Pris Frauenzimmer, and the mechanic Bob Bundy.  They (Pris is the real engineer) develop a simulacrum, that is able to be programed with the memories and knowledge of another.  Their prototype is Edwin M. Stanton.  Their original plan is to refight the Civil War with robots who are not play-acting but really think they are the participants.  They later build an Abraham Lincoln robot but Lincoln’s real-life mental illness makes him a different type, but as we will see mental illness is as commonplace as automobiles in this world.  The land developer Sam K. Barrows wants to steal this technology.  He uses Stanton’s autonomy and Pris’s idealization of Barrows to help acquire it, although his effort (a crude John Wilkes Booth) is inferior.  Barrows wants to use these androids to settle the moon.  The corporate shenanigans take up much of the novel.  The second plot line involved Louis Rosen falling in love with Pris.  Pris is a schizoid (an anti-social personality disorder that would – interestingly – turn someone into an emotional robot) and schizophrenic and has spent most of her life in institutions or as a ward of the government.  Rosen is conflicted, since Pris is clearly incapable of emotion.  The Abraham Lincoln robot seems more capable of emotional expression and empathy.  His anxiety over this leads him to even question if he is not an android.  When Pris leaves MASA for Barrows, Rosen becomes unhinged, planning to assassinate Barrows if he does not “release” Pris.  The third plot line explores Rosen’s descent into insanity.  The last quarter of We Can Build You sets aside the androids and considers Rosen’s treatment.  His treatment involves the creation of alternative realities (the equivalent of a Rorschach test since the world is created from the patient’s subconscious).  These mental realms tend to involve Rosen living a peaceful middle-class life with Pris, an utter impossibility in real life, considering Pris’ manipulative, anti-social, and cruel tendencies.  Pris’ final return to the asylum after earlier being successfully treated and Rosen’s final realization that his mental illness may have been simply a rouse or too minor to waste the institution’s time.

Like many of Dick’s novels, We Can Build You is set in a world of corporate dominated post-scarcity.  Rosen and Rock are worried about the labor market glut and are desperate to save the company, which is why they turn to building androids.  Despite an overabundance of labor, there seems to be no shortage in the consuming potential of America.  The original plan was to re-fight the Civil War with anrdoids.  This is only possible in an economy well past scarcity.  We are, however, given two models of post-scarcity.  One reflected by Pris and the MASA Associates which takes post-scarcity and uses it to invest in craft.  The androids they create are works of art.  They are fully realized individuals and indistinguishable from the originals.  They do not even realize the difference until it is explained.  Barrows, looking for chattel to populate the solar system, wants to work in planned obsolescence for long-term profits.  The Booth simulacra is not even capable of reciting Shakespeare.  Rosen asks how long it took him to build that inferior product.  “Where’s any painstaking fidelity to detail?  Where’s craftsmanship gone?  All that’s left is schlock, the killer-instinct planted in this contraption.”

Rosen is well aware that Barrow’s model is winning.  He talks with Pris about how to destroy a yellowjacket nest.  Pris tells him that the best way is to cover it in sand.  The yellowjackets will work to clear the entrance but forced to bring the sand into the nest, they will gradually suffocate themselves.  Pris says in conclusion: “We wake up.  Why is there no light?  We heard fo rthe entrance.  All those particles, they block it.  We’re frightened.  What’s going on?  We all pitch in; we try not to get panicked.  We don’t use up all the oxygen;  we’re organized into teams.  We work silently.  Efficiently.  We never see daylight, Louis.  No matter how many grains of sand we haul away.  We work and we wait, but it never comes.  Never.”  We decorate our prisons.

While for many advocates of post-scarcity economics, including many anarchists, productivity is a path to human liberation.  For Dick, the production/consumption cycle is simply one most chain enslaving people.  Yet, Dick does provide the potential of resistance.  They are able to prevent Barrows from stealing the simulacra technology.

Human-Technology Divide, An Asylum on Every Corner
Dick places the theme of the universality of insanity alongside the troubled human-technology divide. This works for me on a couple of levels.  On one, does mental illness make us more like machines?  In the case of Pris, her schizoid personality disorder does make her incapable of normal human empathy and interaction.  Stanton and Lincoln are capable of strong emotion and empathy based on their emotional history, placed in as part of their programming.   Dick also introduces the question of slavery.  (Using Lincoln as a character makes it clear that Dick did not want us to miss the significance of this.)  When approaching Barrows, MASA Associates makes the case that they cannot own Stanton because of the laws against forced labor and slavery.  Barrows sees machines and non-human and therefore his ownership of Stanton is not affected by those laws.  In contrast to this, Pris and Louis feel like slaves within an endless consumption-production cycle.  Both were placed in an authoritarian institution.  Internally, the asylum is not significantly different from the prison (Erving Goffman, Asylums).

In the world of We Can Build You, mental illness is not a rarity.  One in four spent time in an asylum.  Later, a psychiatrist points out that 1 in 9 is actively mentally ill.  Mental illness is the primary public health concern of the state.  We are not far from this now.  As soon as the ADHD epidemic seemed to be moved to the back-burner we now have an epidemic of Asbergers.  All the while, millions of sex addicts are living their sorrowful lives (Shame, Black Snake Moan).  I suspect we will have a new personality disorder in a few years that will require another generation to be medicated or institutionalized.  I am not an expert on this stuff.  Just an observer but I have real concerns about the potential of human freedom when mental illness becomes indistinguishable from yearly fashion trends.  At least our passion for consumption can be contained by a simple purchase and does not require dependence on an institution or mind-altering medication.

Note on the Project
I am preparing to move to Taiwan, probably permanently.  I need to have all my books boxed by the end of April.  If I am skipping some major works for now (Ubik, VALIS, Scanner Darkly) it is because I have those on my Kindle and can work on them while I deal with the transition.  It may not be until the end of June that my library follows me to Taiwan.  I also took some works off the my master list.  This is because neither I nor my library system own a copy.  I may get back to them later.  At this pace, I will finish up with PKD around mid-May and return to my work on The Library of America.  What I work on will depend on the library situation in Taiwan.  I know I can get some of the LOA in Taiwan via libraries but I never saw them in stores there.  I will probably need to have them shipped.  As long as there is not a shipwreck, I should have enough volumes to last me a couple years before it comes to that.  By then the People’s Liberation Army may very well have made this blog moot.

Philip K. Dick, “The Crack in Space” (1966) – The World We Live In

The Crack in Space provides for us a very familiar world.  Dick begins the novel with what Zygmunt Baumann identified as “Wasted Lives” – the people surplus to the requirements of global capitalism.  In this case, it is a dark-skinned couple (most of the “wasted lives” in this novel are dark skinned), unable to find work in an over-populated world volunteer to become “bibs.”  “Bibs” are people placed in cryogenic freezing until the labor market improves, an unlikely proposition.  The woman’s pregnancy and insistence on having the child, despite policy and social pressure encouraging abortion to solve the population crisis lead to a bureaucrat sending them away for “abort-consulting.”  They are simply one couple among the millions who have gambled their present on a dubious future.  This is essentially the world of late capitalism. We simply lack the ability to freeze people.   Instead we use slums, prisons, and debt slavery, but the situation is the same.


In the hand of another science fiction writer, we could have been given a model of post-scarcity.  One reason there is so little work for underclass is that machines have made much work unnecessary.  Edward Bellamy imagined this would lead to prosperity for all.  Dick, the eternal pessimist, see the “end of work” as just another means to crush the poor.  For example, cooks are rare because food is produced by “Automatic food-processing systems.”

The necessity to separate sexuality from reproduction, leads to the rise of “Golden Door Moments of Bliss” satellite, which advertised sexual services to the men of Earth.  With 5,000 prostitutes, any need could be met safe from the commitment and emotion (and unfortunate children) that goes with standard coupling.

Not all people look to this with happiness.  The first major African-American contender for the presidency is Jim Briskin (of the Republican-Liberal Party).  He is not only opposed to abortion (like Dick), but he wants to see the satellite shut down, creating for himself political enemies with George Walt, some sort of mutant conjoined twin who is one of the world’s wealthiest men by running the brothel.  Briskin reminds us of President Obama in some ways.  At the start of the novel, his election is in doubt not only because of the activism of CLEAR – a racist organization for the competing reactionary party – but also due to a lack of support among “Cols.”  “Incredibly, they were apathetic toward Jim.  Perhaps they believed – and he had heard this said – that Jim had sold out to the White power structure.  That he was not authentically a leader of the Col people as such.  And in a sense this was true.  Because Jim Briskin represented Whites and Cols alike.” (p. 24, Vintage Edition)

Briskin is risking his political career on terraforming as the solution to the population crisis.  The dream of the frontier as not only a place of freedom, but as a solution to the corruption of urban life has a long history in the American mind, from Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Jackson Turner.  Dick, a life-long denzien of suburban misery in California probably saw through this myth but adopted it nonetheless for Briskin.

Dick establishes a few sub-plots in the first part of The Crack in Space.  In one of these, a private detective – Tito Cravelli – is looking for the mistress of Dr. Lurton Sands at the request of Sands’ sister Myra.  She apparently fell off the planet.  None of the well-developed surveillance technology can discover her whereabouts.  In a connected subplot, we learn that the famous Lurton Sands has been harvesting the people in stasis for their organs. He justifies it morally as the saving of someone at the expense of only a potential life.  (The parallel to abortion is not lost on the reader.) Come to think of it, this is one of Dick’s more morally thick works, even though it does a great job articulating late capitalism.

What breaks us out of this tragic situation is the discovery of a portal to another planet, discovered by a repairman fixing a “scutter” tube.  This planet seems uninhabited, is the same size as Earth and shares a similar climate.  Briskin uses this to fulfill his campaign promise to solve the “bib” problem.  He also sees it as the way to solve the population crisis and allow him to embrace his social conservatism, for without the Malthusian crisis traditional family can be restored and the odious orbiting brothel can be shut down.

At the same time that Briskin is solving the world’s problems, researchers at Leon Turpin’s conglomerate Terran Development investigate the planet and learn that it is actually Earth, but on a different timeline.  Whatever their sympathies are toward the plight of the “bibs,” they are there to make money for Terran Development.

In short, the first half of The Crack is Space is an amazingly predictive description of our Malthusian era.  In late capitalism, where the value of labor is less and less.  Millions of educated men and women cannot find meaningful work, the prisons are full, and “surplus population” anxious, angry, or in open opposition to the structures of power.  Politicians, unable to solve these problems propose fanciful dreams.    A corporate oligarchy keeps the politicians in check.  And technology has become not a means to human liberation but chains.  The underclass have literally only their bodies to sell.  As in Lynd Ward’s A Song without Words, Dick envisions one of the few forms of resistance to a horrible world is the claim: “I’m going to have a baby.” (p. 5)

The second half of the novel does not give us any easy answers.  As it turns out, the parallel Earth is populated by early humans (specifically the descendents of Peking Man).  In that Earth, homo sapiens did not rise to be the dominant species.  These “Pekes” do not lack technology but its development is more slow and all based on wood.  They do not have metallurgy or glass making.  Any developments they do have developed slowly over the centuries.  The Pekes do not seem to developed in their intelligence significantly.  Of course, their presence complicated Briskin’s plan to resettle pips on the parallel Earth.  Nevertheless some people move there, including George Walt, the capitalist mutant dual personality.

Dick does fully ponder the potentialities of the restoration of a paleolithic society or the potentials of alternative systems of technology.  They are hinted at for us and available for our brainstorming, however.  We can wonder whether the wood-based technology of the Pekes, based more on inherited knowledge than on an technocracy, would be more libretory.  By the time we get here, Dick has to complete his story and has precious little time to suggest alternatives.

Anyway, in an attempt to grow the rift between worlds to speed up emigration, scientists moved the rift forward in time.  Now the rift connects to the parallel Earth, but 100 years in the future.  This was plenty of time for the ageless George Walt to establish himself as a god (the Pekes “Wind God’).  Also in those 100 years, he shared with the Pekes technology and kills the other early settlers.  When the rift reopens he begins a Peke invasion of Earth (of course only a few days passed in the novel).  Eventually, Brislin saves the day by pointing out to the Pekes that their “Wind God” is just a human.  The invasion stops and Brislin is elected presidency and returns to his original plan of terraforming within the solar system.

Ultimately, the setting we began with, of a late capitalist technocracy, with a growing underclass of “wasted lives” is unchanged.  Briskin indeed becomes the first black president but without the hope provided by a new world, he can only look forward to a frustrated eight years as president.

In The Crack in Space, Dick predicts one possible future that is not so unfamiliar to us today.  We need to, of course, bracket much of the fantastic elements.  The novel is a warning to us that we cannot simply export or forestall the problems of underemployment, inequality, corporate rule, media-controlled politicians, and racism.

Herman Melville “Typee” Part Two

C. L. R. James wrote: “In Typee [Melville] holds up to admiration the civilization of the Typees and makes the most damaging comparisons with Western civilization.  Melville says that during the weeks he lived among the Typees, no one was ever put on trial for any public offense.  As far as he could see there were no courts of law or equity.  No police.  Yet everything went on in the valley with a perfect harmony and smoothness.  He denounces missionaries, white traders and government officials for degrading and corrupting this ideal civilization, cannibalistic as it was.”  (James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, 71).


Most of the second half of the novel Typee amounts to travelogue and ethnography, as Melville tells his readers about the society he lived with for around a month (four months in the time frame of the novel).  There is not much left to tell in respect to plot.  In addition to living among the Typee, Tommo considers leaving at times and attempts to convince the Typee to allow him to leave, but settles in.  When he catches his hosts with three severed heads, Tommo begins to fear for his life, living among cannibals.  Despite resistance and difficulty, Tommo is able to escape by signing onto a whaling vessel.  His adventures will continue in the novel Omoo, where he will take on the name “Typee.”  This novel does have two epilogues.  One examined a British occupation of Hawaii.   The second considered the adventures of Toby after his escape from the Typee.


I want to focus on the world Melville describes.  As I discussed in my last post, he was making a critique of “civilization” by praising the successes of the savages.  He saw the missionaries and whites as a corrupting force.  This theme is even more strongly argued in Omoo.  What is so special about the Typee community?  What can we learn from them?  Perhaps not much, but there remains much that is admirable.  The Typee have achieved a post-scarcity society.  The cultivation of breadfruit and “cocao-nuts” ensured a steady supply of food at the cost of little apparent drudgery.  Abundance of necessities is one half of eliminating scarcity.  The other half is in the elimination of desires.   “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; — the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.” (149-150)By needed little, the Typee did not need to invest much of their energy into production.  The benefits of this post-scarcity situation overflow on almost every page of the second half of the novel.  Let me just mention two: time and governance.

Time: Industrialization created a world defined by the clock.  One sells their labor by the hour.  Tasks in the day are measured by seconds and minutes.  More and more of our conception of reality is defined by the standardized time-keeping.  Melville describes the opposite process.  The Typee would not have been aware of it, but Tommo, coming from 19th century America would have notice how time became less important.  “Gradually I lost all knowledge of the regular recurrence of the days of the week, and sunk insensibly into that kind of apathy which ensures after some violent outbreak of despair.  My limb suddenly healed, the swelling went down, the pain subsided.” (148)  A simple thought experiment would reveal that given liberation from work, whether through a more egalitarian distribution of necessary work, a reduction in living standards, or the mechanization of labor most people would choose to organize their days in accordance to their desires.  Nonnegotiable schedules would quickly vanish.  An afternoon spent on family, drink, or hobbies would no longer be seen as time wasted, better spent on productive labors.  Clocks might remain, but they would be servants of humanity not the masters.

Governance: The system of government among the Typee is described in chapters 25 and 26.   Melville was impressed with its simplicity and its lack of authority.  Deference was seemingly given willingly by the people and was not forced because the chief has no real say over the affairs of the community.  “During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity of manner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to a certain degree, the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general.” (219)  (I cannot help but notice the similar language used by Tocqueville in describing 1830 U.S.A.)  This simplicity was replicated in the marriage system.  Melville describe the use of polyandry and the lack of extended and tedious courtships.  Divorces are common and mostly amicable.  “As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands.” (226)  I wonder how much of this can be explained by the lack of the interference of property in marriage.  With property comes greater concerns about fidelity, paternity certainty, and, of course, divorces become more complicated.  Often what makes divorce so traumatic for individuals and communities is a direct outgrowth of our atomized, unequal, capitalist society. Who will care for the children?  Who will get to keep the marital assets?  These are questions that did not plague the Typee.  The raising of children was as straightforward and simple as everything else in Typee life.  And with no property to divide up, divorce could not threaten any man or woman’s survival.  If we stopped looking at our relationships through windows of ownership and property, perhaps divorce would be less common.  Adultery is a threat only to those who think love, sex, emotion, happiness, and joy are scarce and marketable commodities.  (Only the one who “paid the price”, i.e. got married, should enjoy those things.)  Conflicts amongst the Typee were rare.  Tommo claimed to have seen none.

“Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them.  They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength amongst many barbarous people.  The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendships of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass any thing of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe.  If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees?” (238)