Looking Back

One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.

At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.

I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group  were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.

In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?

In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside  those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.

In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.

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The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

The Capitalist Myth

As the wealthy accrue more and more power, the middle class disappears, and the number of poor and homeless increases there are those that still cling to the myth that we live in a capitalistic economy that rewards those with grit and determination. The poor are poor because they lack gumption: they are so by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard and achieve the success that is there for anyone who truly wants it. This is the old “Horatio Alger” fiction that went out with gas lights. But it lingers in the minds of the very wealthy who like to think they live in a free-enterprise system that has made it possible for them to have earned their wealth and position by virtue of their own intelligence, determination and will-power. Some have, of course, but a great many have simply been downright lucky.

In any event, the fiction that we live in an economy that can be described as “free-enterprise capitalism” is just that, a myth. Joseph Schumpeter wrote about it in the 1940s and he pointed out that even back then capitalism in this country was being slowly displaced by socialism (gasp!!). And that was at a time when the middle class had political clout and was a significant part of our economy and there was real competition among a wide variety of businesses.  Schumpeter put this notion forward in his remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy where he also pointed out that today’s politician is a professional whose only qualification for public office  (and only genuine concern) is that he is able to get himself (or herself) elected. Schumpeter also has a number of wonderfully pithy comments about classical political philosophy and the notions of the Common Good and the General Will — the latter of which he insists should more accurately be called the “manufactured will,” constructed by the media in general and advertising in particular. He has a rather low opinion of ordinary citizens and the effort they put into political involvement.

“The ordinary citizen musing over national affairs. . . is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, [on which] he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . .Thus the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own real interest. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

But I digress. To support Schumpeter’s claim about the demise of capitalism, consider that capitalism had devolved to the point that private property — which John Locke and Adam Smith regarded as the cornerstone of capitalism — has disappeared. The banks now own our homes and we lease our cars; we buy things on credit and owe thousands of dollars to merchants as we continue to “buy” things we may never actually pay for and certainly cannot be said to own in any meaningful sense of that term. Consider also that the concept of “family,” another cornerstone of capitalist societies, has become radically altered as many couples do not get married or raise children and many who do get married end in divorce; in general the family has evaporated as the need for children disappeared with the agrarian society of years past which gradually morphed into a commodified culture in which both parents went to work and sent what children they had off to day care. Before farms became highly mechanized farmers needed a large number of children, accountants do not.  As Schumpeter says, many couples now apply a rationalized “utilitarian calculus” to the question of raising children and decide “Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?” Indeed. But bear in mind that both family and private property helped to define capitalism during the Victorian era when capitalism reached its apogee — and came under withering criticism by thinkers as diverse as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Further, open competition among businesses has become a thing of the past as well. It was safely laid to rest by F.D.R. in the 1930s, especially in his “New Deal” which included such acts as the National Industrial Recovery Act designed to end “cutthroat competition” within major industries. In any event, meaningful competition in business is a bit of a joke any more as the corporations have taken over and are busily running small businesses out the economic back door — an estimated 200,000 small businesses went under during the recent recession. With the collusion of obliging legislators, the corporations can withstand years of weak economic times; small businesses cannot. And on the agrarian front the private farms are being taken over by the corporations as well. It is calculated that more than 90% of the corn now produced in this country is produced on corporate farms. One might even argue that the corporations are writing the epitaph of the democratic process as well as the economic one as they continue to buy politicians and commandeer the political process.

In any event, it is time to admit that free-enterprise capitalism, if not Democracy, is a thing of the past. If we can agree that Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, as Marx defined it, and we can agree that the corporations now own our government, we can perhaps conclude that our economic system is socialistic, in a peculiar sense of that term. And to coin an ugly term to describe our ugly political system, we have devolved from a Democratic Republic to become a corporatocracy. The notion that we are no longer a democracy may be debatable; the claim that free-enterprise capitalism is a fiction is not.

Truth In Fiction

I am a firm believer that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Eliot. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels including a valuable ring his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.

The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:

“. . .he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness. . .with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . .he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for.”

This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likeable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what lack of strong character and the disintegration of the self could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-ruin.

The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito may have been an unlikely character in 15th century Florence, but he is a token of a type  — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never learned the meaning of the word “no” — that is becoming more and more familiar in 21st century America.