“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

liberal alienation 3

In the Fourth book of his Principles of Political Economy (1847), John Stuart Mill looked forward to the possible results of the progressive tendency of the free market industrial system, to the vastness of which he had dedicated his book. Among other things, he predicted that the number of servants would go down, and that a fundamental change would occur in the structure of business such that the divide between the owner and the worker would slowly wane. This change would, he hoped, come about by the rise of large scale associations. Perhaps he was sort of hinting at the absentee, stock owned corporations of today, but his words seem more hopeful - perhaps, in the end, capitalism would flow into the utopian scheme of the 1800-1820s, but on a sounder, scientific basis. In any case, the future belonged to large scale heavy industry, as well as larger scale agriculture.

“But, confining ourselves to economical considerations, and notwithstanding the
effect which improved intelligence in the working classes, together with just laws, may have in altering the distribution of the produce to their advantage, I cannot think that they will be permanently contented with the condition of labouring for wages as their ultimate state. They may be willing to pass through the class of servants in their way to that of employers; but not to remain in it all their lives. To begin as hired labourers, then
after a few years to work on their own account, and finally employ others, is the normal condition of labourers in a new country, rapidly increasing in wealth and population, like
America or Australia. But in an old and fully peopled country, those who begin life as labourers for hire, as a general rule, continue such to the end, unless they sink into the still lower grade of recipients of public charity. In the present stage of human progress, when ideas of equality are daily spreading more widely among the poorer classes, and can no longer be checked by anything short of the entire suppression of printed discussion and even of freedom of speech, it is not to be expected that the division of the human race into two hereditary classes, employers and employed, can be permanently maintained. The relation is nearly as unsatisfactory to the payer of wages as to the
receiver. If the rich regard the poor as, by a kind of natural law, their servants and dependents, the rich in their turn are regarded as a mere prey and pasture for the poor; the subject of demands and expectations wholly indefinite, increasing in extent
with every concession made to them. The total absence of regard for justice or fairness in the relations between the two, is as marked on the side of the employed as on that of the employers. We look in vain among the working classes in general for the just
pride which will choose to give good work for good wages; for the most part, their sole endeavour is to receive as much, and return as little in the shape of service, as possible. It will sooner or later become insupportable to the employing classes, to live in
close and hourly contact with persons whose interests and feelings are in hostility to them. Capitalists are almost as much interested as labourers in placing the operations of industry on such a footing, that those who labour for them may feel the same interest in the work, which is felt by those who labour on their own account.”


This was the optimistic side of the 19th century liberal dream. Mill is one of the few classic liberals who foreshadows the course of liberalism in the 20th century, with its comfort with state interference, but its ultimate belief in the social benefit of maintaining a large private sector.

The liberal alienation that Scheler sensed in his 1914 essay on the Bourgeoisie borrowed many of its tropes from the pessimistic tradition, because it was in that tradition that the revulsion against the capitalist order of life was most clearly expressed. Mill, I should say, felt it too – the danger of a certain social flatness. Herzen well understood the object of that revulsion: the first time he entered Europe, he wrote, he immediately saw how things were: it was a society choking on ennui. Tocqueville said the same thing about America: the overwhelming fact, he thought, was the monotony of tone, the sameness.

A certain program was being put together by the liberal critics of the system they had, at least ideologically, helped to create. It went like this. Everywhere, capitalist society produces a deadly sameness. The sameness of goods was the intentional product of the improvement of machinery. The mass use of machinery to produce goods was a dominant feature of the capitalist industrial system. Capitalism dissolved the social distances inscribed in tradition and law that structured the social hierarchy. One infers, then, that the sameness of goods and the leveling of the hierarchy are effects of the same will. Thus, the leveling of unnatural distinctions and the promotion of talent, the utopian liberal hope, produces a monotony of tone and a sameness that eventually covers everything like a pall. The working class, far from being opposed to this sameness, simply want to seize the industrial system and deepen its effects.

These propositions don’t exactly hold together or contain the entire truth of the 19th century social situation. In particular, the dissolution of unnatural distinctions and the leveling of hierarchy is, as one of the political goals of liberalism, contradicted by the economic ideology of liberalism, which supposes that the system works best when all maximize their self advantage – for one of the obvious ways of maximizing an advantage one has gained is to entrench oneself and one’s family in the system in such a way that the social competitor’s costs of entry become prohibitive. The never really realized anarchy of capitalism’s original position, in which all start off at the same place in the race to acquire wealth, contained an obvious flaw that could be deduced by glacing at the real social system in all the capitalist economies. Only the pre-1848 ideologues could naively supposed that all would obey the convention not to jimmy the system from within. So the panic about leveling was, in a sense, misplaced. But it formed a good mythic unity, against which one could weigh an image of some age of aristocratic heros – another pessimistic trope that infiltrated the writing of the alienated liberals.

However, even if equality wasn’t so tightly tied to sameness as in the program I present above, there was a real content to the horror of sameness noted by Herzen. That sameness had a center in the Adam Smith’s fabulous pin factory – lifetimes would bleed out consisting of nothing more than 14 hours a day of repeated, minute gestures. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, a French economist who combined classical liberalism and imperialist, wrote:

“The wisest, borrowing images from the antique fable, have baptized modern civilization with a name that merits keeping, as the concentrated expression of all the griefs: the Sisyphism. We remember the unhappy soul, condemned by Pluto, as a punishment for breaking a promise, to roll a great stone right up to the summit of a mountain from whence it would immediately roll down again, obliging him to again push it up without resting: the sisyphism, that is, impotent and sterile efforts, ungrateful tasks which never diminish. What is meant by the writers who have had recourse to this image is that the more one succeeds in multiplying or perfecting the means of production, the more the duration, the intensity of the work, if not of physical effort than at least of attention, of moral and intellectual effort, increases.” ( Essai sur la répartition des richesses, 1888 411)

Interestingly, besides responding to Proudhon and Marx, Leroy-Beaulieu responded specifically to Mill’s prophecies. But I’ll get to that in my next post.

1 comment:

Brian said...

What is meant by the writers who have had recourse to this image is that the more one succeeds in multiplying or perfecting the means of production, the more the duration, the intensity of the work, if not of physical effort than at least of attention, of moral and intellectual effort, increases.”

He is a violent nut who victimized people who are not "guilty" of the "crimes" he accused them of, but Krazy Ted Kazinsky had a few gems of thought in his "manifesto" that parallel this.