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III: The Loose Individual - Robert A. Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America 
The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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The Loose Individual
Repeatedly in history the combination of war and political centralization leads to a fraying effect upon the social fabric. Threads are loosened by the tightening of power at the center. Dr. Johnson once told Boswell of a man in London he knew who “hung loose upon society.” Loose in the sense of the loose cannon, the ship that slips its hawser, the dog its leash, the individual his accustomed moral restraints.
Without doubt there are a great many loose individuals in American society at the present time: loose from marriage and the family, from the school, the church, the nation, job, and moral responsibility. What sociologists are prone to call social disintegration is really nothing more than the spectacle of a rising number of individuals playing fast and loose with other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility. From the right level, it could all look like what physicists call a Brownian movement, one in which molecules fly about in no discernible patterns. It is not entropy, as Henry and Brooks Adams thought, but Brownian. The cause may not lie within the group but in some distant magnet, such as the centralized state or capitalism become seductive, which loosens the individual’s relationships with family and other ascribed institutions.
Tocqueville put his finger on political centralization, upon “despotism,” in his word, as the principal cause of the waves of egoism, selfishness, and self-seeking which from time to time roll over societies—as has been the case in the West at least since post-Peloponnesian Athens, the age that dismayed Plato and led to The Republic. Tocqueville’s own France of the early nineteenth century—the France, too, of Balzac and his brilliant landscapes and portraits of the French social and economic scene in The Human Comedy—was in many respects like our own at the present time in America.
The chief aspect of the society around him was, for Tocqueville, the eroding away of traditional associations like family, social class, and “craft fraternities” of economic life. With the disappearance of such associations the individual is left freer and freer of the restraints which normally establish checks upon behavior. The government, Tocqueville argues, far from trying to impede this erosion of limits, encourages it in the interest of its own power.
Money becomes the common denominator of human life. It acquires an “extreme mobility” and “everybody is feverishly intent on making money. . . . Love of gain, a fondness for business careers, the desire to get rich at all costs . . . quickly become ruling passions under a despotic government.”* Government is the primary force in it all; such government weakens where it strengthens: weakens normal social authority as it strengthens itself through laws, prohibitions, and taxes. As the blood rushes to the head of society, it leaves anemic the local and regional extremities.
Others, however, including Burke, Carlyle, and Marx, have made the economic factor central in the process of loosening ties and multiplying loose individuals. It was the vast debt of France, Burke insisted, that formed the background against which “a great monied interest had insensibly grown up, and with it, a great power. . . . The monied power was long looked on with rather an evil eye by the people. They saw it connected with their distresses, and aggravating them. . . . The monied interest is in its nature more ready for any adventure, and its possessors more disposed to new enterprises. Being of recent acquisition, it falls in more naturally with any novelties. It is therefore the kind of wealth which will be resorted to by all who wish for change.”**
Burke gives the label “new dealers” to the members of this monied class. Later Carlyle, responding to what seemed to him a “spiritual emptiness” of his age, called in the “cash nexus” as the main force. Cash payment, he wrote, is “the sole nexus between man and man.” Relationships of kin and neighborhood which had been fundamental in human society for countless ages were of a sudden, as it seemed, transposing themselves into relationships of money alone. Not long after, Marx and Engels in the Manifesto wrote of the bourgeoisie that “wherever it has got the upper hand, [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”
Two ideal types come to mind which give emphasis as well as perspective to the kind of society that Carlyle and Marx sought to limn. In the first, possibly the kind that Marx called primitive communism, all relationships in a community are formed solely of the trust, allegiance, fealty, and responsibility which emanate from the kinship roles of the members of the community. No monetary or other denominator exists to dilute the directness of the social bond.
In the second ideal type, there are no such personal, role-determined relationships at all in society. Every act of service, responsibility, protection, and aid to others is an act presupposing or calling for monetary exchange, for cash payment. What individuals do for their spouses, for their children and kinsmen, for neighbors and all other common partners in the business of maintaining family, job, citizenship, and even personal identity itself, rests upon the cash nexus and nothing else.
Most Americans, if asked which of the two ideal types just described most resembles American society at the present time, would doubtless choose the second, and who is to say they are wrong? It is evident that while ancient personal values of trust, loyalty, and selfless service to others have by no means disappeared, they do not count as much in the marketplace as they once did. And “marketplace” as a setting has come to include more and more relationships once declared utterly alien to it. When Balzac said that “the power of a five-franc note has become sovereign,” he was referring to the France of the post-Napoleonic age. The power of the five-dollar bill, sufficiently exerted, is enough to open all doors in America today.
The loose individual is a familiar figure in our age. Whether in the role of the deviant, delinquent, alienated, anomic, bored, narcissistic, as the case may be, he displaces a good deal of social atmosphere. Beginning with the economy, I want to suggest in this chapter some of the haunts of our ubiquitous nonhero.
The economy is rich in such figures. I take “economy” in its proper, large sense to include in our day evangelists of the television ministries, who alone form an economic system of profit and loss running into the billions; the baseball, football, and basketball stars; the university, once as noneconomic in function as a monastery, but no longer; and the now thick crowd of ex-generals, ex-admirals, ex-ambassadors, and ex-presidents who, whether in lecture fee, corporate directorship, book authorship, or consulting business, demonstrate how often and quickly the revolving door turns.
I shall come back to these individuals; but let us first look at the economy proper, site of property and profit in the old sense. Almost half a century ago, the distinguished Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, laid out clearly the essential processes leading to the business and financial scene of the present. Schumpeter referred to an “evaporation” of property; more particularly, an “Evaporation of Industrial Property” and an “Evaporation of Consumer Property,” both reflecting a historical trend of tidal proportions that had been going on in the West and especially in America over the past century. The effect of Schumpeter’s evaporation of industrial property—looking at the matter solely from the property-holder’s viewpoint—was the substitution of the “soft” property of shares of stock and bonds for the “hard” property of land, buildings, and machines that the property-holder had once managed as well as owned in the passive sense and had been very much a part of in its operation. Independently of volition such a property-holder had a distinct stake in society, a role of social responsibility based upon day-to-day mingling with managers, workers, and consumers.
Very different is the “evaporated” property owner, typically possessing shares of stock existing in their own seemingly detached, stock market world, independent of their owner’s will beyond the buying and selling of the shares. There is far less stake in society in this kind of property. After all, a single safe-deposit box can hold many millions of dollars of property, the whole requiring little of the attention and responsibility that are mandatory when property exists in the forms of land, buildings, and machinery. An atmosphere of not only impersonality but irresponsibility is created by evaporated property. The fabled miser hoarding his gold must be changed as metaphor to something like the man-about-town enjoying his debentures, if we are to do justice to the present age. Less and less seems to depend upon the traditional virtues of prudence and social responsibility in the husbanding of one’s wealth, and more and more depends upon Fortuna. Thus the atmosphere of the gambling casino begins to permeate not only one’s economic but also one’s familial and community life.
The evaporation of hard property makes for a liquefied atmosphere that alternates in individual lives from trickle to cloudburst. We learn to travel lightly on the principle that he who does so can eat up vaster distances in a lifetime. Above all, travel alone so far as possible; friends, relatives, wards are all hostages to fortune. A house as compared with a condominium or rental is a drag on one’s existence. Ecrasez l’infamie!
It is evident that as the result of the two evaporations, we have the foundation prepared for a very different kind of capitalism from that of a century ago. More and more capitalism tends to “exalt the monetary unit” over the type of property that theoretically alone gives the monetary unit its value.
Central to this process of evaporation of the two kinds of property, producer and consumer, is the profoundly changed character of the family. Despite the myth of economic man, of the “individual enterpriser,” the chief dynamism of capitalism was for a long time provided by the middle-class family—a family that until recently considered itself as inseparable from the future as from present and past. The typical capitalist did not work for himself; he was not a creature of atomistic self-interest. He worked for his family, meaning chiefly his children and their children, and thereby for the future—so vital to long-run investment. Schumpeter writes:
In order to realize what all this means for the efficiency of the capitalist engine of production we need only recall that the family and the family home used to be the typically bourgeois kind of profit motive. Economists have not always given due weight to this fact. When we look more closely at their idea of the self-interest of entrepreneurs and capitalists, we cannot fail to discover that the results it was supposed to produce are really not at all what one would expect from the rational self-interest of the detached individual or the childless couple who no longer look at the world through the windows of a family home. Consciously or unconsciously they analyzed the behavior of a man whose views and motives are shaped by such a home and who means to work and to save primarily for wife and children.*
From devotion to family, not from ineluctable, imperishable “instinct to truck and barter,” to advance oneself solely in the interest of power and status—thus came the dynamic of capitalism as the West knew it prior to the present day. Thus comes the dynamic of the capitalism of the Western Pacific Rim nations today. From consecration to, and willingness to sacrifice for, the family, then—rather than from religion—came the entrepreneur’s motivation and discipline, his willingness to sacrifice for the future. No abstract, amorphous future was involved; it was literally the future as embodied in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that seems to have mattered most to the entrepreneur of old. To work for family—the family-in-time—necessitated forbearance and sacrifice. You chose between spending annual income on self and its desires or on future generations who would carry your name proudly for all posterity. If you chose the first, you were Dr. Johnson’s individual “hanging loose upon society”; if the second, you were Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks of first and founding generation. But forbearance and prudence and an eye to future generations of family did not at all crowd out a certain type of spending: the type manifest in stately town house, perhaps in a house on the seashore for summer use, in a staff, however small, of servants, preferably those living in. As Schumpeter observes, all these and like attributes attested to the stake one had in society, the success with which a possible family dynasty in commerce was being met at an early stage. Even so, ultimate grace was the product of saving and investing, sacrificing in the present for the future. Schumpeter writes:
The capitalist process, by substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls of and machines in a factory, takes the life out of property. . . . And this evaporation of what we may term the material substance of property—its visible and touchable reality—affects not only the attitudes of holders but also of the workmen and of the public generally. Dematerialized, defunctionalized and absentee ownership does not impress and call forth moral allegiance as the vital form of property did. Eventually there will be nobody left who really cares to stand for it—nobody within and nobody without the precincts of the big concerns.*
Morals inevitably suffer, meaning particularly the morals of honesty and loyalty to others. Morals are no emanations from heaven; everywhere, from the beginning of conscience in the human race, from the time when the human mind first made the astounding leap from “is” to “ought,” what we call morals are firmly set in what the Romans called the mores, customs, and habits of age and sanctity. As a result of the disappearance or sharp reduction of the disciplines upon the self which went inescapably with older kinds of property, and of the rise of the present widely spread monetary unit of property—that is, of liquidity, of cash nexus—morality becomes expendable. Who needs it?
The evaporation of property Schumpeter describes had its effective beginning in World War I in America. The war introduced Americans to money in a bulk and an ostensible ease of creation they had never known before. The decision by Wilson to finance the war, not by taxes on the spot but by bonds, reaching several billions in amount, in itself had a measurable effect on the American mind. For the great majority such matters as stocks, bonds, and other debentures were arcane in the highest degree. The stock and bond markets were for the few, not the many, for the classes, not the masses. One made money as one’s father and grandfather had, by saving and investing in hard, tangible property. There was never a great deal of cash around in the economy, and credit was for most Americans something to be avoided like the plague. Jobs were hard to get and when one got one, he stayed with it to the end; he didn’t persistently shop around for better jobs and wages. Land, of course, rural or urban, was clutched by its owners as though life itself depended upon it. It was the supreme form of capital; one lived off his capital through interest and rent; only fools ever dipped into their capital.
The vast excitement of 1917–1919 changed or began the change in this style of living. Of a sudden money, spendable money, increased immensely as the result of almost total employment and generally at high-wage jobs. Profits were generous; several thousand millionaires were created by World War I. Under Wilson’s indulgent regulations, none of the appointed czars of business and commerce were likely to look too hard at undue wage increases; they kept the workers happy and productive, didn’t they? The whole effect of the economic spasm that went with the war was to enlarge the average middle-class American’s proclivity to spend instead of save and put by.
There were, of course, those whose immediate thought was expenditure of war-made money to buy the kind of property, industrial or consumer or both, their fathers had known, to fit into and perpetuate the older pattern of living—town house, country house, servants, and so on—to save, invest in growth industries, and in general sink comfortably into the old middle-class comfort and propriety. But there were others who, beginning in the 1920s, made it evident that the old style of business, finance, and living was not for them. The result was a substantial contribution to what became known as the “Roaring Twenties,” a decade of escalating stock market values such as the world had never seen, and the birth of dreams in which the old-fashioned ways of making money—hard work, saving, investment, production of needed and wanted goods—were scattered to the past, with the new ways of slickly managed buy-outs, mergers, inside deals, and the like taking over. The Depression and New Deal reform stopped but did not kill the new ways of making money which had been breaking records on Wall Street.
World War II, of course, did exactly what the First War had done to America, but on an immensely greater scale. And the postwar of the late 1940s and early 1950s proved to be a business and financial saturnalia without precedent. No real depression interrupted things this time. Schumpeter’s principles of evaporation of property—of conversion of the hard to the soft, of tangible ownership and management of plant to parcels of highly negotiable shares, of commodity to service, and withal an ever-growing liquidity of the financial world, with oceans of cash and instant credit lying around for quick use—all these new forces moved like a single great avalanche across the financial terrain. Clearly the cash nexus was diffusing and deepening its mesmeric impact upon people to a degree that neither Marxian nor classical economists had foreseen. If cash is the real thing instead of land development, factories, manufacturing, and the creation of products and services important to society, then certain other things will automatically assume importance too: frenzied buying and selling in the multitude of markets available in this country and throughout the world, a pronounced turning from product creation to simple ordinary money creation, and, as the record makes plain, leveraged buy-outs, networks of mergers, takeovers, insider tradings legal and illegal, poison pills, golden parachutes, and much else.
In such circumstances the loose individual flourishes. For in an epoch of high liquidity, incessant turnover of shares, and fast-moving takeovers, mobility on the part of the operator is imperative. Those who are mired in tradition, in ancient concepts of trust, honor, and loyalty to house will be losers. Looseness of economic muscle is indispensable. “Conservative” was once an accolade to a bank or brokerage house. Today it is anathema. Black Monday of October 1987 may have set in motion opposite impulses here, to be sure. We shall see.
The worst part of it perhaps is the inevitable flouting of the basic conditions of economic growth over the long term. When leverage is suddenly created to pay out shareholders today, that is, right now and be damned to the future, the American economy loses not only the spurs to real development but much of the cutting edge in foreign competition. Some of the most dubious sectors of the economy receive an inflation of ostensible value through infusions of money which shortly worsen the actual condition of the companies so infused. The role of banks, savings and loans, and all other manufacturers of credit, of money, is today vast and therefore, given the fiduciary essence of such institutions, increasingly precarious.
The pretentious and sometimes duplicitous assurances of the raiders would be the stuff of comedy if it weren’t approaching tragedy. For they seem actually to believe—some of them, at least—that by raiding a decently run corporation, artificially jacking up its price on the stock market through the use of high-yield credit, including junk bonds, they are in consequence improving the management of the corporation. Those who in the old days solemnly defended horse racing and its heavy gambling profits by assurance that they were “improving the breed” have been vastly outdone by the T. Boone Pickenses of our day who assure us with equal solemnity that arbitragers and raiders of all kinds are “improving the management” of corporate America.
The cash nexus is the thing! Why build an industry when you can, if you are slick and agile enough, take one over—with junk bonds, if necessary—and then sell it off at the very second the value of the shares reaches a proper point on the market. Such slick agility doesn’t help posterity but, as the congressman once asked, what has posterity done for me? What is astounding is the relative ease of the operation. If there is resolute opposition on the part of the management of the corporation being raided, it will almost certainly pay greenmail to the raider, thus ending the threat of takeover and paying off with profits even more easily accumulated than the raider had thought. At all times, of course, looseness is vital to survival.
American industry badly needs investment, which in turn requires savings, but neither is likely in an age of quick, fluid profits and instant availability of cash or immediately negotiable shares and debentures. America has very low savings and investment rates compared with other industrial nations. Not nearly enough of the enormous liquidity of our current economy is transferred into the forces which govern economic growth.
As the economic and legal consultant Benjamin J. Stein points out, management in the larger corporations—once regarded as the very backbone of the system—is frequently in a position these days that is scarcely less than subversive. The chief executive officer of a corporation “buys” that corporation at, say, forty dollars a share, a price he himself is largely responsible for setting and one that receives the endorsement of investment analysts. Lo and behold, the corporation almost immediately proves to be worth three hundred dollars a share, with billions in profit going to the CEO who has added literally nothing to the corporation or the economy. Stein says:
Management sees that it has operations which are overstaffed. Management sees that it has pension funds which are overfunded, management sees that it can lay off employees temporarily, generate higher quarterly cash flow, and thereby make the outside world think that once the LBO is completed, they’re making more money.
I think that Wall Street and the LBO industry have turned corporate America into a vast junkyard of corporate spare parts, and this is not what America needs in a competitive world economy. I think LBOs have been a tragedy, and management LBOs have been a severe violation of the law and an infringement of the rights of ordinary people.*
There is not the slightest real evidence that through such shenanigans, which in the aggregate account for many billions of dollars a year, economic growth of America is helped. The pertinent facts lead indeed to the opposite conclusion. Edward F. Denison of Brookings Institution asserts that the evidence he has studied indicates leveraged buy-outs of whatever kind—investment bank instigated, management controlled, whatever—tend to lead to a decline of productivity. This is not hard to believe. Rearrangement of the deck chairs, irrespective of whether the Titanic is sinking or not, has nothing to do with the strength of the ship.
The huge federal budget—a trillion a year now, with its current budgetary deficits reaching three hundred billions a year, and our trade deficits making us a debtor nation in all important respects—necessarily carries with it a staggering interest charge; that is, an utterly nonproductive, sterile, but hugely burdensome lien against growth and stability. President Reagan, all the while caterwauling at Congress and fate, has not yet, in the six years of his office, submitted a balanced budget for Congress to ponder. Strange superstitions float in the atmosphere, beliefs in fiscal magic abound, leading to the proposal of such miracle-worshiping panaceas as continuing cuts in taxes and continuing fattenings of defense and Social Security budgets. Gibbon says that Rome in the fourth century so abounded in myth and awaited miracle.
Everyone wants to be rich but, equally important, loose in his relationship to anything—equities, family, church, lodge, whatever. In such a scene even the rich don’t feel rich. Money becomes its own end, thus leading to a kind of contempt that lies uneasily inside the narcoticlike fascination of money. It is a reasonable guess that agonized reflections of this kind were rife on Wall Street on Black Monday, October 19, 1987. For nearly a decade, as back in the 1920s, it had all been such fun; easy, relaxed fun. LBOs, insider tradings, loose margin, oceans of liquidity, consumer ecstasy, all this and much more, seemingly forever. Came the Great Crash and Never-Never Land turned into black nightmare. The loose individual has, by choice, little to hang on.
In an economy as awash in liquidity as ours is today, with Hollywood entertainers like Eddie Murphy and Wall Street specialists like Ivan Boesky netting anywhere from twenty-five to fifty millions a year, with the Haft family making perhaps twice that for takeovers that fail, and with the stock, bond, commodities, and options markets dealing with amounts of money that reach astronomical heights on any given day, it would be strange—it would be sociologically absurd—if unethical and, as we have learned, outrightly criminal behavior were not constantly on the rise. When the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he persisted in robbing banks, his answer was, “That’s where the money is.” Not today do our Harvard-educated, elegantly attired Willie Suttons bother with banks, unless it is to merge a few; the money, the real money is not in banks but in leveraged buy-outs, in quick applications of junk bonds to buy whole corporations, and to sell immediately, and in insider trading, to cite a tiny few of the approved modi operandi on Wall Street.
We mustn’t overlook in this richly laden scene the golden parachute, as it is cutely labeled on Wall Street. The golden parachute as an escape hatch grievously wounds the old piety that for one to be well paid, he must work hard and be a success. Not today. There is the recent story, widely publicized, of the CBS chief executive who was fired; repeat, fired. One can only assume that his work and presence were found unsatisfactory by the board of directors. If so, the act of firing him turned instantly into one of the greater success stories in the corporate world. The happy miscreant was given several million dollars outright as a bonus, a life income of several hundred thousand dollars a year, and a possible bonanza in the form of valuable stock options. Where now, we are obliged to ask, the ancient proverb of the hardworking and frugal ant and the insouciant, lazy grasshopper? In a golden parachute, that’s where.
One more note on loose individuals and the cash nexus. Even treason has lately moved from ideology to cash. Recall that when the physicist Klaus Fuchs stole almost the entirety of the atom bomb secrets from Britain and America, he did so for love of Communism and the Soviet Union alone. Today, as the recent Walker case demonstrates, treason and treachery are strictly cash on the barrelhead. How loose can you get?
The loose individual prowls the halls of academe as well as Wall Street these days. What is wrong with the contemporary university will not be made right by encounter sessions on Aristotle and Rousseau under the banner of Great Books; nor will it be improved by general smatterings courses aiming to produce the well-informed mind. (The merely well-informed mind is the greatest bore on God’s earth, said the late Alfred North Whitehead.)
The university was damaged well before the Student Mania broke out in the 1960s (about which I shall speak in the next section). Universities, like churches, states, and other major institutions, are to be seen in the light of their major functions; when functions change without warning, without the tacit assent of their communities, revolutionary change is almost always in the near offing. The function of the American university had been from its inception teaching; research, yes, but strictly subordinated to teaching. For the last forty years the function has been organized research; teaching on the side, as it were, but only so long as it doesn’t distract the research mind from its appointed, bureaucratized duties in laboratory and computer hall.
The transformation of the university began with World War II, perhaps a shade earlier. In the First World War, although scholars and scientists were drafted for high-level war duty, the campus itself was left alone. Few were the instances in which the War and Navy Departments actually moved onto a campus, taking it over for exclusively military instruction. But in World War II there was a great deal of taking over, of militarization of the halls of ivy. Within months of Pearl Harbor campuses rang to the sound of uniformed recruits hup-hupping their marched and ordered way from class to class, building to building. Dormitories overnight became military barracks.
More significant by far was the militarization of research in the universities. This could involve structural change in the university. For centuries research was individual, self-chosen, and responsible only to the audience for which it was done. But of a sudden in early World War II the Project came into being, to transform university research forever. The Project was financed by the government, labeled and code-numbered by the government, and usually declared secret by the government. The Manhattan Project, which yielded up the atom bomb, is perhaps the most celebrated, but there were—and are to this day—thousands of others. Today they are typically known as institutes, bureaus, and centers. They net lots of dollars.
A new academic bourgeoisie appeared on the American campus after the war, with the new, higher academic capitalism. The short term in research replaced the old, once unique, long-term pattern of research and scholarship. The reason was manifest. Funds of institutes and for projects tended to be annual, subject to one or two renewals perhaps, but not likely to be renewed for long unless results were quickly evident. Short-term profits, short-term research, and, increasingly, short-term teaching became the rule. Faculty began to be lauded for their fund-raising activities for their research; and such activity soon tended to become an expectation on the part of administrations, even a criterion of promotion.
With the infusion of ever-enlarging capital from the government and the big foundations, every infusion, of course, requiring a contract, the idea of piece-rates began to penetrate the once austere halls of learning. “Contact hours” began to be specified, especially for teaching, and the increase or decrease in these contact hours affected what was increasingly known as one’s “teaching load.” The power of money to influence a social organization lies in its capacity to permeate social roles. Once the big money, in the form of project and institute research, invaded the campus, two nations tended to form in every faculty: the first, institute- and project-linked, arrogant in its possession of money that required no sense of obligation to the academic community; and the second, older nation, still committed to the ideal of teaching as well as research and to the hoary concept of service. The new nation easily subjugated the old everywhere.
The first million dollars of extramural grants to individuals on campuses was far, far too much. Today a hundred billion dollars a year would not be enough to meet the swollen expectations and demands of the institutes, bureaus, and projects which crowd out traditional communities of academic life. Huge amounts of money, from war-enriched foundations as well as from government, and from constantly rising appropriations for the public universities from compliant legislatures, all combined to change the character of the university from service to cash nexus. It is possible today—not only possible but increasingly common—for a professor to become actually rich by virtue of his aristocratic position in contemporary society. Salaries of over a hundred thousand a year (for essentially an eight-month academic year) are becoming visible, in the humanities as well as the sciences. But salary is only the beginning. There are consultantships, substantial fees for attending conferences, textbooks and trade books carrying royalty rates that with a little luck in the book market can make a professor of art or physics look like a real swinger on Wall Street. At the present time, and I do not exaggerate, it is possible for a Mr. Chips, so called, to earn at least two hundred thousand dollars a year from salary, from book royalties, consulting fees, television appearances, and rewards for attending posh conferences and directors’ meetings of big corporations. We reach the figure of two hundred thousand without bringing in likely stock and bond market extras.
Nor are these bonanzas limited to physical scientists—where, it is true, they began—and business-school wizards. Economists, even political scientists and sociologists, even humanists, especially of the genus that comports in what is solemnly called literary theory, do very well. To be a “deconstructionist,” a “structuralist,” or a “minimalist” today is like being a nuclear physicist right after World War II.
For centuries in the Western world, universities were primarily institutions for teaching and scholarship, in that order. Students comprised the largest single group at any given time in a university; next was the faculty; well down in number and significance was the support staff—janitors, purchasers, accountants, and so on. I have not made a rigorous count, but I would be astounded if today in any large university in the United States the support staff does not rival, even possibly exceed, faculty in number. By entering the Higher Capitalism after World War II, the university soon found itself with a bewildering corporate infrastructure, better known as bureaucracy, made necessary by the onset of the era of high finance.
In the atmosphere of competitive finance in today’s university world, of big bureaucracy and incessant fund raising, of subordination of teaching to large-scale research, it is hardly surprising that the loose individual thrives. To hang loose upon the university today, fiercely competitive as the academic world has become, makes at least as much sense as in the corporate and financial world. It is not likely that additional courses in the humanities will reduce the number of loose individuals in today’s university.
Before leaving the contemporary university in America, I must say something about the so-called student revolution of the late 1960s. As I shall shortly indicate, this revolution was much more like one of the manias of history, crowd crazes, or mental epidemics, than it was a revolution in the ordinary sense of that word.
The first point is that the student mania of the 1960s was not so much a revolt against academic authority as it was the almost inevitable issue of a prior breakdown in university authority—a breakdown almost implicit in the changes in the university after World War II which I have just described. The natural authority of the teacher, scholar, and dean had fallen between the cracks opened up by the new academic bourgeoisie and the higher capitalism. It had become apparent by the early 1960s, approximately two decades after the war, that the teacher-scholar, the academic department, the academic school or college, mattered very little in the new order. What mattered was the institute, the bureau, the center, each by nature a practitioner of grantsmanship, of the attracting of large sums of money, in which the university as a whole would share.
As the center of gravity passed ever more surely from the old authorities to the new, from department, school, faculty, college—each primarily an organization directed at teaching and at students—to the institute, center, and bureau—each anchored in subsidized, contract, large-scale research alone—something of an earthquake took place in the historic university. It was too far down in the earth’s bowels, too subterranean to be felt at first by more than a small number of perhaps preternatural minds, but when it was unmistakably felt, by the end of the 1950s, it was felt with a bang—nothing less than the Great Student Mania of the 1960s. It was not a revolution. Revolutions are hard work, demand discipline and some kind of agenda. The students, from Berkeley to Columbia, couldn’t abide work, they had no agenda—save what an eager television news team might quickly thrust at them to make the stories of vandalism spicier—and they couldn’t keep their minds on what they had done and said from one day to the next.
The earthquake which followed the titanic struggle for authority between the old and the new powers in the university opened up crevices and then whole crevasses and chasms. Students—at most, it is well to remember, a small minority—made restless anyhow by the war in Vietnam, the civil rights thrusts of blacks at racial barriers rarely if ever challenged on a wide front in America, and the whole heady brew of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Battalions abroad—were hardly to be expected to remain blind to what was unfolding before them; they therefore acted, beginning in late 1964. Their action, from San Francisco State to Harvard, during the next five years consisted of a large-scale dramatization of counsel said to be Nietzschean: “If you see something slipping, push it.” This the Mario Savios and Mark Rudds did—precisely, shatteringly, and, in terms of impact upon the credulous and rapt American media, very successfully, between 1965 and about 1972.
As I say, it is difficult to descry anything of the nature of a revolution in the student seizure. Revolution there surely was in what the largely black civil rights movement was accomplishing—a movement that was clearly evident from the late 1950s on—and also in what the anti-Vietnam protesters were accomplishing from about 1963 on. But these two movements are clearly distinguishable, if not always physically separable, from the campus rebellions and insurrections, which were, as I have suggested, far more in the nature of manias, religious, moral, and even economic rather than revolts.
Manias seem to be connected with suddenly perceived breakdowns in the accustomed practices and guidelines of a social order. The religious manias of the late Middle Ages and early modern times in the West sprang up in the cracks of the church, which was being slowly twisted and distorted by the power of the secular state. The Reformation was quite as much a political as a religious happening, and when vacuums were created in power, there were restless and often potent groups ready to move in. Puritan manias were common and often tumultuous in England in the seventeenth century. In their diversity and division they were scarcely a revolutionary force, though the effect of organized Puritanism under Cromwell had revolutionary character. But Puritan manias like the Levelers, Shakers, Quakers, and Fifth Monarchy were just that: manias, with a common antinomianism—a nihilistic assault on the spirit and letter of all the dogmas, liturgies, rituals, even morals and ethics, which could be associated with the hated Establishment, Roman or Anglican. Hence the exhibitions in public sometimes of fornication and defecation, the use of insulting language and gestures toward the aristocracy. It was a means of achieving blessedness with the true God: that is, the calculated flouting of laws and morals which had grown up under the false god of the Establishment.
At its height the student mania of the 1960s came close to the practices of the Puritan zealots in the English seventeenth century. Obscenities flourished, chiefly of language in public places, but also obscenities of the act, the performance, as at Chicago in the summer of 1968. Puritan acts of occupation, even desecration and destruction, of churches—favored means of demonstrating blessedness being the smashing of stained-glass windows in the great cathedrals and the destruction of coffins containing the bones of early kings and prelates—were faithfully emulated by students in administration offices, classroom buildings, and even libraries, demonstrating their purity of academic faith, their liberation from the false gods of the faculty and administration.
“What Do We Want? Everything. When Do We Want It? Now.” That, one of the most favored emblazonments of the so-called revolution on the campus, illustrates sufficiently, I believe, the lack of any genuinely revolutionary message. Comparing themselves to “IBM cards,” “niggers,” and “peons” was about as far from reality in the postwar American university as anyone could conceivably reach.
Two French phrases, both old but both used with reference to the almost equally mania-seized students in the University of Paris at the time, illustrate something important about the student mania in America. Retour à las bas and nostalgie de la boue—“return to the down under” and “longing for the gutter”—describe with equal pertinence the occasional spasms of behavior to be seen at Berkeley, Harvard, Smith, and Radcliffe. There was a conscious, almost fanatic desire on the part of many students to wallow in the most elemental, the least intellectual, practices, flaunting them at the public, including parents; to wallow in the pit of primitivism or the mud of obscenity—and in just plain physical dirt. Middle-class children, those caught up in the mania, at least, learned for the first time in their lives what it was to go unbathed, unwashed, clad in filthy garments, for days at a time.
To both liberal applauders and conservative critics, the student mania was an exercise in romanticism, in demonstrating how human beings are when stripped of the habits and customs of their civilized existence. Liberals on and off the campus thought—and think to this day—that the antinomianism of the students showed them to be, beneath all the tyrannizing patterns of middle-class behavior which they were now sloughing off, Rousseauian children of nature, happy little savages. Conservatives, presumably not liking either the Pit or the Mud, were confirmed in their belief that once the social fundament is allowed to crack and to open up fissures, the very foundations of reason and moral decency begin to erode away, pushing human beings ever closer to the void.
Faculty members, it must be said here, participated in substantial numbers: not of course in the more egregious acts of destruction and vandalism, but in the tender, loving care bestowed upon the Filthy Speech Movement and its analogues of the mania. New depths of innocence were discovered, and with these, new depths of the sadistic cruelty done these children of God by vengeful, hate-inspired, tyrannical middle-class American parents. To heal these twisted victims of middle-class conformity, courses were given without assignments or even lectures, in which the entire class would be guaranteed A’s; votes were taken at faculty meetings in which majorities would endorse amnesty in advance for whatever depredations might be wreaked upon libraries and laboratories; and, never to be forgotten, newspaper columnists and editorialists and especially television sages, all of whom persisted in regarding “the kids” as innocuous and lovable young idealists. It was no less a personage than Archibald Cox who, after being hired by the Columbia University Board of Trustees to make a thorough investigation of the student turmoil at Columbia, began his report by declaring that the participant students were from the “most idealistic” generation in the history of American education. With dispassionate experts like Cox, what need had the antinomian rebels for even the best of faculty friends?
The mania ended almost as abruptly as it had begun, in that respect too like the apocalyptic, millenarian crowd seizures of old in Western history. It was almost like going to bed on a given night listening to radio news of “the kids” in their obscenity hurling and window-smashing and then waking up the next morning and being told that the Age of the Yuppies had just dawned. The mania lasted about seven years on the campuses, with no particular educational demands or suggestions made, and clearly no significant educational results of their activities, but, as Southey wrote in “The Battle of Blenheim,” “things like that . . . must be/After a famous victory.” Perhaps Bishop Butler’s words, out of the English eighteenth century, are the aptest epitaph: “Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why, then, should we desire to be deceived?”
During World War II and after a new breed came onto the campuses of the major universities: individuals who were like but not quite like teachers and scholars and academic types generally. So far as teaching was concerned, it was something of an irritant but tolerable when necessary and not too demanding; scholarship appeared to them as would have the bustle on women faculty members. Research was the thing, not individual scholarship; research involving dozens at its best, organized like a military platoon to hunt down its prey—facts and more facts.
These were the new bourgeoisie engaged in the new and higher capitalism that had grown out of the war. Such was the damage they managed to do to traditional academic community and traditional academic authority, both rooted in the teaching vocation, that when the mania-seized “kids” came along in the sixties, there was nothing much more to be done than to mop up with brickbats—not a few of which managed to strike even the members of the new bourgeoisie, much to their consternation, ideological anguish, and incredulity. Why me?, asked one beleaguered institute titan after another. They rarely waited for an answer.
The cash nexus and loose individual have many haunts beyond Wall Street and the Multiversity. It is not easy to think of a major pursuit in America in which monetary units have not yet triumphed over the motivations and discipline of old. Three, eminently diverse, areas come to mind: sports, religion, and government service.
In sports a significant evolution of power has taken place since World War I: We have seen the original amateur—once a term of honor in our society—succeeded by the professional, the respectable professional, it should be said; then by the agent, ever solicitous of his client’s income and investments and, of course, his own percentage. Sports have become as conspicuous and flagrant an example of the profit motive and the bottom line as any commercial operation known. But sports are something else: a secular religion in America, one that ranks only just behind education, which is by now a civil religion.
It is good that sports are so important. They—and especially the contact or “violent” ones like football, hockey, and boxing—play a role of reliving pressures in human beings which once had no other outlets but wars, Bedlams, and public hangings. If by some major accident we ever lose the mayhem of the hockey rink, gridiron, and prize ring, if we are limited, say, to track and field, heaven help the ordinary American who wants only law and order and peace.
The question is, how long can professional sports serve this important function—or any other function beyond their own preservation for profit? The cash nexus threatens to outstrip anything found in corporate America and on Wall Street. We honor the free agent who, having had the chains of serfdom struck off, is now at liberty to run from one team to another as fancy and financial reward determine. We are glad to see him reach the position of hanging loosely on the sport. But fans identify powerfully with teams, and the greatest of individual heroes from Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb down to Walter Payton and Lawrence Taylor are linked with given teams as closely as with their own names. We all know that money is important in the form of salaries, bonuses, and other forms of remuneration, but we also know that, just as it is impossible to glean genuine heroes from the ranks of stockbrokers, bankers, salesmen, and vice-presidents for production, it becomes more and more difficult to keep one’s mind on the performance of a Dave Winfield on the baseball diamond when rivaling it are the lush details of his latest contract—in the millions naturally, and made a little more interesting perhaps by the division into present income, deferred income, options, a special trust, and even, so help us, a foundation in his name. What confounds some of us is that all this is printed on the once-sacrosanct sports page, not the financial.
The celebrated bottom line is the sole reason we have so many teams in baseball, football, and basketball that East-West, North-South divisions are necessary, themselves perhaps cut into sections, with play-offs today calculated to give anyone a rough notion of infinity. Further adding to the possibility of present bewilderment and future boredom, and also a product of the cash nexus and a lubricant to looseness of the individual, is the relentless specialization of play. The player who is paid for but one activity—field goal kicking, kickoff return, or whatever—obviously is hanging more loosely on the game than his predecessors who, if they played at all, played sixty minutes, on offense and defense. It is really impossible to compare current with past stars in any of the major sports. No matter how we may thrill to a Jim McMahon and a Joe Montana at quarterback today, we are getting a good deal less from them than we did from quarterbacks who once upon a time played sixty minutes, on defense as well as offense, who themselves called the plays, ran with the ball, and often punted and drop-kicked. Tocqueville, speaking of the damaging effect upon the worker’s mind of the extreme specialization that went with division of labor, said that under such specialization “the art advances but the artisan recedes.” Today the fan as well as the player is receding, in Tocqueville’s sense.
It will be more and more difficult for most of us to keep balanced in our minds the dual role of the player: on the one hand, the high-salaried, expert worker in a basically machine effort; and on the other, the warrior jousting as did warriors of old for victory, sweet victory, on the field of battle, and the devil take all else.
Turning to religion, more particularly to the large and extremely important part of it that exists on the airwaves, radio and television alike, we are also confronted by a passion for gold and a looseness of ethics that have little to do with religion as it was once understood, and is still understood by a large number of Americans. Churches become gaudier; their ancillary activities, ranging from elaborate hostelries for unwed mothers all the way to Disneyland types of entertainment facilities—income tax–exempt, of course—more numerous and generally profit-making; and their campaigns for gifts of money more fevered all the time. When you turn the televangelist on, you find yourself making mental bets as to just how long he will be able to restrain the plea, demand, threat, as the case may be, for money and more money the while he discourses on God and love of fellow man.
Seemingly there is nothing too crass, vulgar, and avaricious for some parts of the Christian ministry today. Anything, anything, is allowable if it can be counted on to yield cash and profit: whether an Oral Roberts threatening his television audience with his own death for want of eight million dollars—which, for good or ill, he got in time—or Jim and Tammy Bakker lolling in the luxury of the garden of one of their several homes, now preaching but only a little, now weeping just a little, now kissing a little, all the while beseeching their television congregation to send more money in—to add yet another thrill to their Heritage USA Theme Park in North Carolina, which is something less than Disneyland but something a great deal more than your garden-variety carnival. We switch to another televangelist and find him in the process of describing plaques that will be sent to donors if they contribute the right amounts: Blessed Shepherd will be conferred on the donor of five thousand dollars; Innkeeper, for one hundred. We switch to still another and find him reminding his congregation of not only all the regular needs for and uses of donations but the new, fresh funds required to aid him in his possible presidential pursuit.
As H. L. Mencken put it many years ago, no one has ever gone bankrupt through underestimating the intelligence of Americans. But there is still the nagging question, who in fact does support the Crystal Cathedrals and the Theme Parks? In some measure, we gather, the extremely well-dressed and prosperous-appearing folk who fill the enormous churches for television. But, in a great deal larger measure, we learn, the millions of Americans who can’t afford to attend and wouldn’t have proper clothes if they could.
It was once thought that government service as a career, whether military or nonmilitary, was its own reward: in stability, security, and ultimate pension. One did not go into government service if his life’s aim was that of making money. That too was once thought—but no longer. True, it is still impossible to earn or otherwise make sizable sums of money while actually in service, but for almost any admiral or general or civilian equivalent in the nonmilitary areas of government, there is a great deal of money to be had by cannily biding one’s time. To see the government career not as a service or calling but rather as a necessary preface to the real career in business, books, lectures, articles, etc., with very high rewards almost guaranteed, that is the way to have one’s cake and eat it too.
There seems to be no end to the public’s fascination with book writing by ex–White House aides, ex-ambassadors, and ex-marines or their equivalent. Advances of up to a couple of million dollars are becoming known. For the same ex-aide, lecture fees of up to twenty-five thousand dollars are also to be had. Even so, however, books and lectures don’t command the really awesome heights of the cash nexus; these are inseparable from the corporate and financial headquarters of America. The “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned of has never been more prosperous and fertile than it is today. Rare indeed the high military officer or the secretary of navy, army, or air force who has not discovered before stepping down, as it is always delicately referred to, the world of business and finance out there waiting for his rank and whatever else he may have to offer. His rank, of course, doesn’t carry over functionally to the new world of high salary, stock options, pension, and the like, but it is usually not intended to. Name and influence will do quite nicely.
The revolving door between government and corporate America works overtime in the present age, in this late part of the age. Occasionally, greed becomes so imperious that a decent wait of a year or so between status of secretary or White House aide and that of entrepreneur becomes mentally and physically impossible to endure. Then, with a mighty huffing and puffing, the wheels of justice begin turning; special prosecutors may be appointed, subcommittees of Congress set up, and so forth. Rarely, though, is anyone seriously impeded as he rushes through the revolving door. The word unethical has become, in our loose society, quite possibly the single most difficult word to define in the American language.
Heroes in all their familiar categories may be the greatest casualties of an age such as ours. Only with the greatest difficulty have the two entities “hero” and “businessman” been fused into one in Western history. Church; field of war; university or monastery; culture, particularly art and literature; in modern times, sports and science—these have been the nurturing grounds of heroes. But never business and finance, unless one wishes to do some stretching and bending to work in the Fuggers and Rothschilds. By dint of living a long life and giving away a great deal of money in philanthropy, it is possible that John D. Rockefeller became a hero, and also Henry Ford; if so, however, heroism sprang from charitable and educational works. The relationship between the qualities necessary to heroism and those embedded in the commercial/business/trade world is chemically poisonous.
That is why in the present age, with its surfeit of money and preoccupation with schemes to make money everywhere, in sports and government, in the university and the church, the difficulties of yielding heroes mount remorselessly. We continue to honor sports heroes of the past—Red Grange, Knute Rockne, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Bill Tilden, Helen Wills, Gertrude Ederle, Bobby Jones, among others—and oftentimes can’t even think of the names of living greats, no matter how keen and resilient their instincts and muscles. Part of the reason is that there are too many of them. Through science and technology we have learned how to develop bodies far superior on the field, in the technical sense, at any rate, to those of the Age of Heroes in the 1920s. But that’s part of the problem: Are they living beings or human machines designed by Dr. Frankenstein’s students? When we read about steriods and then about cocaine and the powers of each to induce sheer mindless recklessness, the potential for actual heroes went down abysmally. But above all there is the inseparability of the successful athlete today—the Dave Winfield, the Carl Lewis, the Larry Bird—and the cash nexus, the bottom line, the complex contract covering years and many millions of dollars.
Anyone for heroes today in politics? Lord Bryce was struck a hundred years ago by the paucity of great men in American politics, as compared with his own Britain. In The American Commonwealth, he titled a chapter with the intriguing words “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents” and another with the words “Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics.” The common denominator of both chapters was the greater appeal in America of endeavors in which the cash nexus operated, in which considerable money could be made. But, as I have suggested, that need no longer be a reason, given the revolving door and, once through the door, the golden parachute. We shall see. Despite the fact that the good citizens of a Midwest state not long ago voted John F. Kennedy greatest of American presidents, it is still unlikely that any but Wilson and the two Roosevelts will rank as possible heroes at the end of the century.
The vast abundance of liquidity, of money, of cash and painless credit makes the genuinely heroic, like genuine honor, trust, and fidelity, improbable to say the least. Monetarism is a major theory in economics; it holds that when there is too little money available, growth suffers, and when there is too much, it suffers also. As a theory, monetarism might be expanded to go beyond the economy and economic growth to culture and cultural growth. Too little liquidity, and money will be hard to find for the minimum condition of any art, literature, or science at all: that is, a surplus after survival needs have been met. But too much liquidity, and there is an inundation, a flood before which cultural values begin to erode.
It is very hard to find a sacred in culture at this stage of the twentieth century. Everything in science, philosophy, art, literature, and drama has seemingly been reduced to the profane. The great sociologist of religion Émile Durkheim called the contrast between the sacred and the profane the widest and deepest of all contrasts the human mind is capable of making. Everything above the level of the instinctual, Durkheim concluded, began in human veneration, awe, reverence of the sacred—be it a god, spirit, grove of trees, or lake or stream. Religion in the sense of gods, churches, liturgies, and bibles emerged in due time from the primitive sacred essence. So did the rest of human culture, its signs, symbols, words, drawings, and acts.
There was one reason alone that books and songs and dramas and then philosophy and science became as important as they did at the dawn of civilization: the sacred. Because all early art and literature and philosophy were limited to explication and interpretation of the sacred, these pursuits imbibed some of the essence of the very sacred force that they were contemplating. As Durkheim pointed out, the most basic categories of human thinking—cause, force, time, space, and so forth—all had their origins in religious reflections and ruminations. So did morals and ethics, more particularly in the care given to the sacred essence, be it the perpetual flame at the Greek and Roman hearth or a protecting god. Honor, trust, loyalty, and fidelity were important not because they advanced one in life—though they generally did—but because these were qualities vital to the sacred core of all human life.
In the contrast between the sacred and the profane, nothing more perfectly epitomized the profane than commerce and the money by which commerce began to be conducted at an early point in civilization. No greater impiety, act of desecration and dishonor, could be imagined than commercializing the sacred, putting it up for sale, making money from it. Throughout most of history, in every civilization known to us, the individual of mere wealth, that is, monetary wealth, was on the defensive so far as honor and dignity were concerned. Hence the eagerness of the newly rich manufacturing circles in the last century to buy old wealth—landed estates, paintings and sculptures, titles when possible for daughters, and the social privilege of giving philanthropic money under high auspices. Art came close to superseding Christianity as the religion of the established and wealthy at the coincidental time when a great deal of new money was available to buy and thus be able to worship art.
Always the ultimate distinguishing mark of the gentleman, the individual of honor, was his relative separation from moneymaking as the primary vocation in life. In the beginning only the aristocracy, royalty, and the clergy could be men of honor, then one by one, slowly, almost grudgingly, lawyers, judges, doctors, bankers, professors, novelists, poets, dramatists, and others. Some of these acquired honor, or the capacity for honor, early in the modern age, as lawyers and scholars did; others like writers, publishers, engineers, and dentists relatively late. But always where honor and dignity existed there had to exist also the presumption of the nonmonetary as the raison d’être of one’s life. Money and the spiritual or esthetic were and still are in some degree deemed incommensurable, alien. To tip a menial with money was fully accepted as a custom; there was no possibility of honor between the gentleman and the menial. But to tip someone of one’s own general rank in society—a professor tipping a professor, for example—was unthinkable. One did not buy the trust and honor and service which were expected to exist in the world of teachers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and scientists. One assumed honesty in a colleague; it wasn’t something that could be bought, or quantified. That, at least, was the omnipotent myth society lived by.
There is still honor, still trust, obligation, loyalty, and the like in American society. We should be hard put if there weren’t. Perhaps we shall never know what life would be like in which literally every social act was subject to cash payment, never the bond of love, mutual aid, friendship, trust, and honor. There may well be a point beyond which chaos must reign in an evolution toward a total monetary regime.
But our society and culture today are manifestly closer to the complete cash nexus, the total monetary regime, than they were at the beginning of the century. Sharp, unethical, self-serving practices are, or so the vast bulk of ongoing journalism and social criticism tells us, no longer limited to the ranks of those living on the margins of society. Such once-common and respected exclamations as “You have my word on it,” “It’s a matter of honor for me,” “No contract is needed between friends” would today invite derision for the most part. Honor was once the essence of the officer corps in the military. Officers, by dint of commissioning by king or president, had honor; enlisted men did not. That is why for the same offense an enlisted man could be jailed for years, an officer merely demoted or possibly forced out of the corps. The unspoken premise was that nothing could be more punitive to the individual with honor than to be stripped of it.
It all comes from the primeval sacred. The sacred can suffuse parts of nature, books and documents, social classes, some men and not others, some relationships with women and not others, occupations and professions, given acts, and so on. It is the historical and continuing core of culture, including high culture. Without the sacred, all is cash value. As a final note, the beggar had a modicum of honor in the Middle Ages. The tradesman did not.
We hang loosely upon the once-honored, once-cherished, once-explored past. What T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, refers to as “disowning the past” is not uncommon practice. Concern with the past seemed to the Greeks of the Age of Pericles concern with the very reservoirs of creativity. We cannot read the future. Where else but the past can we repair to when the present seems barren of inspiration? The past, correctly approached, is a dynamic composition of myriad human experiences in all kinds of settings. We came out of it, but such is the time-binding capacity of the human species that we never completely get away from it. Nor should we. Present and past are, or should be, fused, not separate worlds.
Antiquarianism is not the same as genuine study and understanding of the past; it places a value on old things simply because they are old. But there is dross as well as gold in the past, and mere age won’t make up the difference. We don’t turn to the past as a narcotic but as a unique treasury of other human experiences, in different time frames, and also as the setting of the roots of our own civilization. The modern idea of progress directs our minds just as much to the past from which we derive as to the unchartable future. With loss of the real past, in our search for meaning, we unfortunately turn to idle nostalgia. Nostalgia has become epidemic in contemporary American culture. Even decades as recent as the 1950s are made the subject of nostalgia by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Nostalgia is very different from respect for or genuine intellectual interest in the past; it is really the rust of memory. One form that has become particularly rampant, not least on Broadway, is nostalgia for one’s roots in poverty, primitivism, whatever, the essential point being one’s rise out of all that. One recreates an early Brownsville, Hell’s Kitchen, Salt Flats, or Brighton Beach, inundating readers or theater audiences with the idiosyncrasies of Dad, Mom, Uncle Oscar, and assorted family types. This is nostalgie de la boue and also a good opportunity to sentimentalize and to dramatize an author’s Shakespearean rise in the world.
Nostalgia, we must make no mistake, is good politics as well as good retail sales. For want of a real and used past, politicians blandish us with sentimentalizations of past presidents and events. The Depression and World War II have become staples of nostalgia in our time. But there is little that is safe from nostalgic use. We are barely out of the 1970s, but they are already nostalgia food.
The great danger of nostalgia is that it narcotizes us and helps prevent a proper sense of the past—which is closely woven into the present and helps us guard against destabilizing fads, fashions, and foibles in important areas of thought and allegiance. Quite rightly did Orwell make the calculated destruction, and remaking, of the historical past the foundation of the totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Utopianism is one of the major passions of the Western, especially American, mind in our age, and also a favored refuge of those hanging loose upon the present. B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two demonstrated the mesmeric appeal utopia has for the college generation, just as the numberless variations of Star Wars and Star Trek demonstrate the utopianism that lies in the minds of children.
But the really important utopianism of our age, the type that gives a cast to much philosophical and historical thought, is the eudaemonizing, the making into a happiness frolic, of the great philosophies of man and nature of the past century: Darwinian evolution, Marxism, and Freudianism. Even Einstein’s austere theory of relativity has been invoked in the name of man’s liberation from ancient dogmas. Examples are legion. The twists given by the otherwise eminent scientists J. B. S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal to Darwinian natural selection reflect the triumph of political ideology over science. Man, it is declared, will become ever more rational, liberal, kind, and tolerant through indefinite perpetuation of current processes. Teilhard de Chardin, eminent Jesuit and paleontologist, sees evolution as a process inevitably reaching a spiritual stage, with the sacred being of Jesus Christ central to the saga.
Marxism and Freudianism have both, under the spell of contemporary utopianism and progressivism, been transformed. The grim Marx of the 1930s in America, the Marx of the Marx-Lenin Institute in the Soviet Union, is no more; at least not in America, not since World War II. He has been replaced by the humanistic Marx, the Marx of the Paris essays, of alienation, and of all-round jolly fellowship, the toast of the New Left and its Greening of America in the 1960s. I shall come back to this Marx later in the chapter, for he far outstrips the mere uses of utopianism. Let me turn to the comic-opera surgery performed on one of the greatest, most dour, and most profoundly pessimistic of prophets in the twentieth century: Freud.
Freud saw man as the eternal embodiment of two sharply contrasting drives: sex and aggressiveness; the first capable of generating relationships of love, friendship, and trust, the second of conflict, hate, and perennial war. Apart from occasional, brief, and minor liberations from this biological determinism, liberations effected by mental therapy, human beings were effectively condemned by Freud to an eternity of war within themselves, war between sex and aggression, between the id and the superego, between a primal barbarism and the sporadic vision of a heaven. In his Civilization and Its Discontents Freud paid melancholy tribute to the future of man: a future of unhappiness, of incarceration within biological bars which would never be broken down, and of permanent pain stemming from the absolute incapacity of man to come to terms with himself or with his fellow creatures.
This Freud, the authentic Freud, exists in America, but only in tiny, therapeutic manifestations. The authentic Freud is far outweighed by the bogus Freuds created by those such as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and their like who have, with wanton strokes of the scalpel and needle, liberated Freudianism from its natural body and fused it with a similar liberation of Marxism from its natural body. The deadly serious Marxism of Capital and The Gotha Program joins in extermination the deadly serious Freudianism of The Interpretation of Dreams and Of Civilization and Its Discontents.
What emerges from cosmetic surgery is something that might be called a Freudomarx or a Marxofreud. It was probably the incredible Wilhelm Reich who started it all, with his tortured twisting of Freud into a prophet of sexual liberation and thence happiness. For Reich there was a magic alternative to the future of struggle and pain foreseen by Darwin, Marx, and Freud; this alternative was, or could be with slightest effort, the free, spontaneous, and persistent orgasm.
From Reich and his Promised Orgasm it is but a few steps to the Freudomarx of Brown, Fromm, Marcuse, and other “scientific” purveyors of the millennium. What Frank and Fritzie Manuel write in their magisterial study of utopianism in history is sufficient here: The successors of Reich
represent a characteristic resurgence of the Adamite utopia in a mechanized society where relationships are endangered by an atrophy of love. They negate the Freudian negation of the eudaemonist utopia. They reject the underlying dualism of his system and admit no intrinsic reason that the libido cannot enjoy free expression, once mankind has been emancipated from the economic and sexual repressions that may have been necessary for culture-building in lower states of civilization.*
Utopianism takes many forms in the American twentieth century: those I have just touched upon; that of Woodrow Wilson and his dream of a world safe for democracy; that of Franklin Roosevelt in which he, in happy fellowship with Stalin, would banish war forever; those of the New Left and Consciousness I, II, and III; and, current now, the utopianism of Ronald Reagan and a Strategic Defense Initiative that will negate all future danger of nuclear weapons just as the dome of a stadium negates all raindrops. If one can believe Reagan, I can’t resist thinking, one can believe anything—even Wilhelm Reich.
For the largest of all manifestations of utopianism in the present age, we are obliged to return once more to evangelical religion—with or without television cathedrals. It is a mistake—it always has been—to suppose that the Christian fundamentalist or charismatic or Pentecostalist is interested solely in future, eternal heaven. He is so interested, to be sure, but under the doctrine of Christian millenarianism there is a preheavenly, earthly, period of paradise—that is, for the saved, the holy ones, those who kept up their commitments. This period is the millennium, to last roughly a thousand years, though it could be longer. Jesus Christ will return to the earth to rule personally over mankind from a golden throne sited at or near the center of mankind. The millennium will be a sacred age, steeped in spiritual being, but it will have its due share of the more earthly pleasures; there will be gold for those who knew only poverty, rich foods for the hungry, and earthly delights of other kinds, too, including perhaps perpetual recreation and relaxation—and without danger of becoming bored by such affluence.
However, the precondition of this golden millennium is a time of troubles, an Armageddon in which the good and the evil forces in the present world become engaged in a fearful war, one that will not end until the evil have been vanquished from life on earth. Then and only then will Jesus descend to his golden throne and announce the beginning of the millennium. Armageddon is a fascinating, almost obsessing concept. We have to imagine a war on a scale vast enough to engage all humanity and to rid the world of all the evil people. Whatever may have been the picturizations of Armageddon before 1945, they have inevitably taken on some of the flavor of the atom bomb and, today, the enormous numbers of nuclear missiles in the world, nearly all—but not quite all!—in the hands of the Russians and Americans. Could Armageddon and then the blessed millennium possibly hinge upon nuclear wars, with a denouement in so mighty a holocaust? Who knows? But we do know that among those who have expressed great interest in Armageddon is the current president of the United States. Good citizens will hope, pray, and assume that Ronald Reagan’s interest is solely academic; that is, in Armageddon and the consequent millennium.
A conservatively estimated sixty million Americans, born again, individually convinced of a state of blessedness connected directly to Christ, and confident of reaching the millennium with its endless fountains of delights, fall in the aggregate of utopians I have just described. It is the utopian imperative that allows so many millions to be seemingly indifferent to the scandals of monetary enrichment and the occasional indulgences in embezzlement, fornication, and other peccancies which now and then come over the great world of televangelism, with its Bakkers, Robertses, Copelands, Swaggarts, Falwells, et al., presiding. After all, it could be thought, and correctly too in terms of revelation, that such sins are simply the faint beginning of what will shortly be the welcome Armageddon and its promised issue, the millennium.
The death of socialism in the West opened the field of ideology, of “isms,” to a number of entries which had not been especially noticeable before the Second World War. Egalitarianism is by all odds the most powerful of ideologies in postwar America—and in Great Britain and many parts of Europe as well. The struggles for equality between the genders, between age groups, and between races and ethnic minorities tell the story of a great deal of postwar American history.
As long as socialism was the serious dream of American intellectuals, and of large numbers of blue-collar workers at one time, its own relative cohesiveness as doctrine kept any possible disjecta membra from flying about social space. Today these disjecta membra are everywhere, most commonly perhaps in the form of “issues” courses in the grade and the high schools. Behind the whole miscellany of women’s studies, black studies, Hispanic studies, Jewish studies, consciousness studies, et al., lies the ideal of an equality in the social order that cannot now be easily found, for all the staggering number of laws passed, actions made affirmative, and entitlements given.
Socialism held these vagaries—to the extent that they even existed as ideals in the minds of most intellectuals—together or kept them down as mere latencies—for exfoliation perhaps in the very distant future. But when socialism ceased to be the energizing faith of the Left in the West—primarily because of the repulsiveness of the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, one and all founded by lifelong socialists, but also because of the indisputable fact that the Third World nations that took up capitalism—as in the Pacific Rim countries to the west—were faring immeasurably better than were those that took up socialism—when the socialist dream passed, the result was a mess of new idols in the marketplace.
One has stood out: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We considered this extraordinary thinker above under the rubric of political power, more pointedly his theory of the General Will and its absolute authority over the individual. But along with Rousseau’s theory of authority is to be seen the veritable elegy in his political writings to equality and to the revolutionary potential that lies in his combination of the General Will and absolute equality. Conservatives who have somehow become enchanted by Rousseau simply have failed to see the overpowering mien of the revolutionist in Rousseau, the egalitarian revolutionist. His is the theory of permanent revolution, which is not the case with Marx; at least the orthodox Marx. Rousseau ceaselessly talks about freedom, which is lulling, even beguiling to present-day readers; but what he means by freedom is not freedom from power but the “freedom” that allegedly emerges from participation in power. He is quite blunt about this. Very early in The Social Contract we are told that the “social compact” that brings about the good state
will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate . . . in which each while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone and remain as free as before.
(Bk. 1, Ch. 6)
A little later on in the same work, Rousseau adduces what he calls The Legislator, a kind of composite of all the legendary lawgivers of the ancient world. It will be the task of the Legislator to transform human nature.
He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual, who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being. . . . He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men.
(Bk. 2, Ch. 7)
This is revolution carried to the very marrow of human nature. The new political man! In Lenin’s imagination at the beginning of the Bolshevik regime the new political man of Rousseau became the New Soviet Man, courtesy of Marx and Lenin himself. It is the kind of revolution that has special appeal to the present age in America; one carried to the laws and customs that are barriers to equality but that then goes on to the recesses of the human psychology. Equality, Rousseau tirelessly enjoined, requires revolutionary destruction of the infinity of inequalities contained in human history. It also requires a corporate community based on absolute power. The social compact that marks our progress to the new and just state demands
that instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes . . . an equality that is moral and legitimate and that men . . . become every one equal by convention and legal right.
(Bk. 1, Ch. 9)
The great merit of Rousseau today is that unlike Marx his ideal is very far from the “withering away” of the state. The goal is nothing less for Rousseau than the creation through a social compact of the absolute, permanent state—a state, however, grounded in the general will of the people. That grounding in Rousseauian, and much contemporary political thought, makes it totally impossible for any tyranny to arise since no one already sharing power could have any interest in usurping someone else’s. That at least is the theory of equality-as-freedom. To a generation of intellectuals in our time wedded to the ethical theory of John Rawls, the fresh study of Rousseau can be highly recommended. For unlike Rawls and Christopher Jencks and others who seek to make equality simply and effortlessly accomplished, Rousseau deals frankly and fully with the role of political power in the achieving of greater equality in society. His chapter on the Legislator in The Social Contract is about nothing else but the absolute and relentless power necessary to remake human nature in order to achieve equality.
In Rousseau there are three themes which have a great deal of relevance to contemporary egalitarianism. The first is the virtually nihilistic attitude toward the whole network of social relationships that lie intermediate to the individual and the state. Such relationships, Rousseau tells us in Discourse on Inequality, are the very sources of the inequality we suffer under. The second theme is the perfectibility of the individual once he has broken loose from the corrupting influences of the social relationships just referred to. Third is the theme of power: of the necessity of power in the process of extermination of evil traditions and of the moral development of the individual. “If it is good to know how to deal with men as they are, it is much better to make them what there is need that they should be.” To which Rousseau adds the words, in his Discourse on Political Economy, “It is certain that all peoples become in the long run what government makes them.”
The appositeness of Rousseau’s philosophy to public policy in the United States during the past forty years is immediately evident. Equality has been the most admired moral end of our philosophers, legislators, and jurists alike. Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Jencks’s Inequality have had immense influence on the intellectual mind and, in a filtered way, the politician’s. The major contributions of the Supreme Court and the Congress have been in the direction of equality—for women, for ethnic minorities, for workers, and other groups. There is not the slightest question that even as late as the end of World War II there was much work in this direction that badly needed doing. Women, for one, had won the vote at the end of the First World War, but little of an economic character followed from that needed reform. In many states, married women were still virtually barred from control, or even voice in, the finances they may have brought to their marriage. Discrimination in the marketplace, in the office and the factory, was notorious. There was much to do, and in the egalitarian climate of opinion that has prevailed, a fair amount has been done. To compare the status of gender, race, religion, and social class today with what was commonplace at the beginning of the present age is to envisage some very large social changes. It is not too much to say that in the respects just cited, most of the grosser forms of political and economic inequality have been met if not actually remedied in detail. And I know of no polling evidence to suggest that the vast majority of Americans do not accept and approve.
We are entering now, though, a potentially critical time in the development of egalitarianism in America. Two forces of uncommon power in human relationships have entered the scene. The first is the inevitable dynamic of rising expectations in nearly all matters of reform. The second is the passage of the egalitarian ethic from the large political and economic areas, the areas of institutions it has occupied for over a hundred years in this country, to the smaller, more intimate and subjective areas of family, marriage, and other close personal relationships.
On the first, rising expectations, Tocqueville wrote some prophetic words in Democracy in America:
It is easy to conceive of men arrived at a degree of freedom that should sufficiently content them. . . . But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented. . . . When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.
(Vol. II, Bk. 2, Ch. 13)
Without the slightest question the grosser inequalities that bound women and minorities in 1914 have been eradicated. But in the very process of eradication, the spirit of egalitarianism has grown and spread, become almost obsessive, in the American political mind. During the past two decades we have seen feminism and ethnicism both pass well beyond the marks of simple reform, of correction of old legal and customary injustices, to reach existential status in many spheres: sufficiently illustrated by “the feminine mystique” and “the black soul” in cultural areas. And why not? For countless centuries masculine gender and Anglo-Saxon mystique played a heavily dominant role in the West. In literature, the arts, philosophy, and religion there is ample room for mystiques and existential essences.
Our age may be reaching a crisis, however, with respect to feminism as philosophy and thrust of mind, in its demonstrable impact upon the family. The family remains in our age of high-tech and middle-class affluence just what it has been for hundreds of thousands of years: utterly vital in socialization of the young and in meeting the social and psychological tensions that go with difference of gender and generation. All of the easy, rationalist, and clever dialogue of a half-century ago—most of it based on Americanized Freudianism and Marxism—about the “bankruptcy” of the family and its imminent, unlamented disappearance rings hollow today.
We are learning just how vital has been the middle-class family, the kind of family that began to be evident in Western society in the seventeenth century and that has had extraordinary effect upon the motivations—economic, political, social, architectural, educational, and recreational—which have transformed the West since the Middle Ages. Almost all of what we are prone to call middle-class ways of behavior are in fact middle-class family ways of behavior. The difference is very large. We are witnessing today the maintenance of middle-class levels in income distribution and in housing construction; but we are also witnessing the near collapse of the kind of household that for several centuries was inseparable from economic level.
We see the collapse chiefly perhaps in the loose relationship between children and parents. What optimists call the new freedom of children under the contemporary ethos of “permissiveness” takes a variety of forms. Some we applaud: earlier onset of mental and physical strengths, as the result of improved diet. But some we don’t like: the constantly increasing rate of teenage suicides, teenage thrill crimes, ranging from robbery to murder, teenage pregnancies, narcotics and alcohol use, prostitution, runaways, and the like.
One of the more interesting ideological changes of the postwar period has been the status of the middle-class family in liberal and radical thought. During the earlier part of the century, under both Marxian and Freudian influences, the trend among intellectuals was denigratory toward the family; there was much vague talk about the greater liberty and opportunity for full-scale development under nonfamily circumstances—such as the compound in traditional China or the kibbutz in Israel. The family, it was said solemnly by the Marxist Frankfurt group, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, et al., tended to create an “authoritarian” personality—given to ugly racism, even fascism. Family discipline was the preparatory process for the kind of discipline one saw in the Nazi corps.
For the last quarter-century, though, a profamily sentiment has grown up on the Left, one primarily concerned with the affectional and other psychological traits rather than the structural relationships of family to society and the host of functions they perform for other institutions and groups—for education, public and private; law and order; cleanliness—beginning at home and reaching the city streets; ambition in career; respect for the woman in her role of mother and domestic manager; and for a few other related ends and purposes.
There are certainly wraiths present today to suggest the middle class I have just epitomized, but it would be very difficult to describe without extensive qualification and disclaimer the middle class of present-day, post–World War II America. Single-parent families abound and grow in number by the day, a condition which virtually all studies unite in deploring—for psychological as well as social and economic reasons. As for the value set on chastity and on cohabitation before or outside marriage, on morality, dress, ambition, respect for the social bond, and so on, the less said the better. Statistically, divorce is almost predestined.
So too has a genuine upper class just about disappeared, with only patches left to suggest its nature and reality prior to this century: family obligation and loyalty; wealth; high status; virtually its own system of education from nursery to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; great houses in town and country; a highly distinct, if secluded, style of living that brooked few outsiders; a noblesse oblige of sorts (think of the Roosevelts, Hyde Park, and Oyster Bay); and, for the most part, a bearing and an authority that really became noticeable in a few novels and essays of manners only when they were skidding down the slopes of popular egalitarianism. Never having had proximity to, much less membership in, the upper class I have briefly noted, I cannot speak of its intrinsic worth to American culture and morality. But I suspect that such a class was, in subtle but puissant ways, necessary to a real middle class. We lost the upper class and are now in the painful process of losing the middle class, leaving—what? Primarily, I would suppose, a great sense of vacuum even among the most ardent of the new individualists, the most consecrated of yuppies, rebels, and escapists. Otherwise why the craving for “community” wherever it might be found?
Even the nomenclature of social hierarchy seems to be absent from our society today. For a long time, beginning perhaps in the last century, the consciousness of being upper class—when in all necessary attributes one actually was—has been seemingly unbearable to Americans. It is interesting to read in the biographies of the early great millionaires, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, et al., that the wealthier and more powerful they became, the more closely they adhered to working middle-class rhetoric and plumage. It is hard to believe any ideological radical ever outdid the first Henry Ford in the ardency of his egalitarianism. It is hardly to be wondered at that during the first half of this century, when socialist parties were accumulating in Europe, there was little serious interest in socialism by American workers. With such revered financial titans as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie preaching at least the psychological and social aspects of socialism and with all three plainly oriented toward immense largesse to their fellow citizens, not much was left to be said by socialist voices. “Classless” is too strong a description; but it comes closer than the Marxian image of class to describing America.
Class ties, such as they were in this country, are plainly eroding away at heightened rates in our century. This does not mean, however, that there is an eroding desire for status, visible status, in elites, cliques, and fashionable minorities. The often frenzied efforts of parents today to get their children into the most prestigious of schools and colleges are, when compared with the behavior of identically situated parents at the turn of the century, clear signs of a loss of the assured, institutionalized status enjoyed by grandparents and of a desperate desire to compensate with school ties. The Groton-Harvard connection is even more valuable today in our supposed egalitarian culture than it was when FDR attended.
Individuals are looser upon society now, measured solely in status terms, than they were when there was a recognized class system—one that was built around the families of Hyde Park and Oyster Bay. Descent, heredity, kind of property, and the like were securer foundations for anyone’s status than are the often treacherous and self-defeating criteria of membership in the elites and jet sets which stretch from San Francisco to New York. Scientists, academics, and intellectuals also know the precariousness and ephemerality of elites. There are real elites in the worlds of letters and art, of scholarship and publishing, journalism and think tanks. Conflict within elites and between elites can be as sharp and lethal as the kind of class conflict the Marxists once postulated. Social class, in any genuinely cognizable sense, is of all affiliations the weakest in capitalist-democratic society. But elites, self-serving minorities, and other status groups would appear to become stronger all the time. Hence the paradox of the bitter struggles and animosities on the political left and, more recently, on the political right, having to do with pecking order. Darwin noted that the struggle for survival is greater within the species than between species. The passionately religious in our age do not waste time hating nonbelievers, atheists, but rather others who also believe in God and religious grace. The Iranian Shiite Moslem under fanatic mullahs does not hate the great atheist bear to the north nearly as much as he does the other Moslems who do not choose to see exactly the right light. It’s that way in somewhat moderated intensity among radicals, conservatives, and liberals in present-day society. Each category is the setting of ferocious fighting for fame and glory.
It is in the smaller, more intimate areas of life that equality as doctrine seems to create the most tension and unhappiness. And it is necessarily within the family or other comparable male-female relationships that the pains of equality are most often felt. It is one thing for continuing inequality of gender statuses to be confronted in the office or factory. It is something else for it to be confronted in the intimacy of love. The tensions of ordinary appraisal and self-appraisal between the male and the female worker are transmitted to the bedroom and, hardly less important, to the kitchen and its responsibilities. The wisdom of our ancestors argued that the woman in career or preparing for career becomes desexed, in subtle but powerful ways less capable of attracting a mate and then of holding him. How much evidence there is for this hoary belief, real evidence, is highly questionable. Suffice it to say that today, indeed for just about all of the present age, that particular bromide does not have much conviction.
And yet, as more and more women are discovering—and writing about in novel and essay—the new equality, such as it is, creates perturbations in marriage and in relationships which are very difficult to handle. No doubt mediating processes will evolve, but millions of young women and young men are discovering that the old, now obsolete, worker-homemaker partnership between husband and wife was the sturdy foundation of many interpersonal relationships which today are difficult to create.
The biology of sex being what it ineradicably is, the surrounding culture was for centuries and millennia one in which initiative and dominance were also masculine. That superstructure of culture is today being ravaged by more sophisticated views of equality. Physicians, mental therapists, and the confessionally-minded writers of fiction, documentary, essay, and drama, tell us in a vertible chorus of disclosure that a mutually enjoyable sexual relationship is not nearly as common as one might have predicted when the bars of prudery and male chauvinism were first being broken down. Sexual freedom—that is, the kind of spontaneous, zestful freedom that accompanies a successful romance—seems to elude a considerable number of males and females who are most earnest about equality of the sexes and most solicitous about pleasure for the female at least equal to that of the male.
It is a worthy ideal, and when it fails it is by no means the sole fault of the ethic of equality. The great difficulty with equality as a driving force is that it too easily moves from the worthy objective of smiting Philistine inequality, which is tyrannous and discriminatory, to the different objective of smiting mere differentiation of role and function. There is, abstractly viewed, no good reason why the commendable objective of economic equality, at home and in the market, wherever, must become a fevered desire to reduce all that differentiates male and female. But it too often does. And sexual differentiation sacrificed to the gods of equality in the marketplace is not exactly what the great pioneering feminists sought.
For countless millions of years the dominance of the male was upheld by both natural selection and social selection. Among human beings, once the species was emergent, social selection doubtless took precedence in importance over natural selection. But it was not the less potent in effect. In the extraordinarily complex union of heredity and culture that is the essence of every human personality, it would be astonishing if the fingers of the past didn’t constantly intrude upon ideas of the present and for the future. It is “all our yesterdays” more than “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” that rise the oftenest to challenge our dreams.
If, as seems to be the case, there are many more homosexuals, male and female, among us today, some of the reason surely lies in retreat to masculine and feminine company respectively by a rising number for whom the boy-girl relationship has become just as difficult and sensitive as the man-woman relationship under the new equality and with it the prescription inherent for the new man and the new woman. Inequality, Rousseau to the contrary, comes more easily and more naturally, alas, than does equality—which, the evidence suggests, is hard work at diminishing wages.
The loose individual is as prominent in high culture, in literature and art, as he is on Wall Street and in the university. Minimalism, deconstruction, literary theory, narcissism, all reflect a hanging loose on culture. Each is an analogue of what arbitragers and golden parachutists get away with in high finance, not to forget grantsmen in the universities and free agents in professional sports.
In culture a blanket of subjectivism dropped on American writers and artists shortly after World War II. It is largely under this blanket that such egocentric activities as minimalism and deconstruction operate today. Once free fall, stream of consciousness, and narcissism were declared the Right Stuff for novelists, poets, and painters, with the author’s or artist’s God-given self the true hero or protagonist, replete with endless cataloging of feelings about feelings, the way was open for a new chapter in modernism.
World War II yielded no cultural efflorescence to match that of the twenties. We might have foreseen that from the difference in the two wars, from the viewpoint of Americans. There was little of the ecstasy, the sacred crusade, and the ardent “it is good to die for country” that had developed in the First War. Perhaps it was the lack of a George Creel. On the record Hitler was much more a Beast of Berlin than the well-meaning, simple kaiser, but alongside that fact was another, starting June 1941, and that was alliance perforce with the Beast of Moscow, as many Americans saw Stalin and the Soviets. There was strong opposition toward Lend-Lease for the Russians during the early months, and any thought of working toward an alliance with the Soviets comparable to what we had with the British and French was a trigger to discord in Congress and in the public. It is interesting to speculate on whether, after Pearl Harbor, Congress would have reached agreement on a declaration of war on Germany. Fortunately, Hitler, in an act of strategic bravado, saved Americans the further furor by declaring war on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor.
Even so, and not forgetting the major contribution America made to the winning of the war in Europe as well as the Pacific, we tended, both as civilian public and as fighting force overseas to hang rather loose upon war and cause. The most pathetic individuals in the army were the Information and Education (I & E) officers, charged with responsibility for whetting Our Boys’ appetite for crusade. It was hopeless. If you volunteered, as a few did, you were well advised, once in the service, to keep it to yourself or else you would be jeered. Best to beat the draft; second best to wangle stateside service throughout; third, rear echelon strictly if you were sent overseas; after that, earliest possible discharge so long as it wasn’t a dishonorable one. In many a Pacific unit I discovered more resentment, more actual hate by enlisted men for their own officers than for the Japanese, though I make haste to explain that that particular feeling was very much less evident in the combat sphere than in the rear echelons.
As we hung loose on the war and its crusade from 1941 to 1945, so did the millions of returning veterans seem to hang loose on the home front that had been so impatiently awaited all through the war. It is unlikely, I have always thought, that America would not have escaped something like the bitterness and internecine civilian-political strife of Germany and France and Great Britain after the First World War, had not the vast cornucopia of the Veterans benefits been opened immediately after VJ Day. The intelligent, ambitious young who otherwise might have exploded, were of course welcomed to the universities, colleges, and vocational institutes, many expenses paid by the government, thus ensuring a significant and honorable chapter in the history of American higher education. There were many other benefits, including low-interest mortgage loans for homes and new businesses. Finally there was the great gift of economic prosperity that, despite the dour forecasts of nearly all economists, lifted almost all boats in its ever-rising tides.
It is not too much to say that Our Boys were bought off, wisely, shrewdly, and humanely from what could well have happened in different circumstances. It is interesting to note that whereas out of the First World War came quasi-military organizations like the American Legion—a distinct force in American politics until after World War II—none such appeared, though a few were attempted, after 1945. The spirit of war was dead, to the extent that it had ever been alive, after that date.
There is a good deal of cultural character to reinforce that judgment. Earlier I stressed the almost instantaneous effect of the Great War on American culture—the Roaring Twenties. Except in eminently welcome economic and political respects, the forties did not roar, nor did the fifties. There is simply nothing in the literature, art, music, and film of these latter decades to compare with the already described cultural efflorescence that filled the twenties—well into the thirties. Instead of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos in the postwar novel, this time we got not much more than Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, after which it was pretty much downhill with James Mitchener and Herman Wouk. World War II itself had been singularly sterile of song, verse, and film, and so was its immediate aftermath. Compare the movies, starting with the appalling The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, of the second war with the first. There was no Big Parade, no All Quiet on the Western Front. In music there were Rodgers and Hammerstein waiting with Oklahoma! and shortly after some highly affected classical jazz, but nothing after World War II to compete seriously with the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson earlier.
It is no wonder that subjectivism has been the overwhelming mood and mode of literature since World War II. There was a manifest incapacity among American writers to deal with the objective phenomenon of the war—as the Hemingway generation had dealt with the First War—and to do the Second War justice in novel, poem, drama, or song. Add to that the early beginning in America of the spirit of egalitarianism (substitute, as I have said, for dying socialism); and with that the inevitable juices of envy and resentment which begin to be felt when the dogma of equality penetrates the intimate and personal recesses of life, beginning with the family; and add still further and finally the enormous wave of affluence that rolled over America starting in the fifties and that seemingly still rolls in the consumers’ paradise that is America (unless there are more Black Mondays ahead); add all of this, and we have the most fertile possible soil for the excretion of subjectivism. When the personalities of other human beings and their events, accomplishments, joys, tragedies, and accidents become impenetrable to whatever literary and artistic talents lie around, then, by all means, turn to the subjective; to one’s own little ego and assembled feelings. Explore it and them unceasingly, laying before readers every little detail of what one did, thought, felt, loved, hated, throughout one’s life; that is, from hateful toilet training to all the sturm und drang of middle-class life in the United States.
Goethe said to Eckermann:
Epochs which are regressive, and in the process of dissolution are always subjective, whereas the trend in all progressive epochs is objective. . . . Every truly excellent endeavor . . . turns from within toward the world, as you see in all the great epochs which were truly in progression and aspiration, and which were all objective in nature.
What one may add to Goethe’s words, in large measure drawn from Tocqueville, is the reciprocal relation that obtains between subjectivism and egalitarianism. In ages of accepted differences in rank, one does not feel beaten or humiliated by life when stark reality forces one to awareness of one’s individual limitations and weaknesses. These of course are cultural as well as biological, but perceived inequalities are just that, and in no way moderated by either the cultural or the biological factor. All that matters is the sense of isolation, of vulnerability, of alienation, that attacks the individual as the waters of egalitarianism commence to flow. And from this sense it is an easy, an almost inevitable step to subjectivism, to retreat to the warm and welcome recesses of one’s own little inner reality.
The postwar has mostly been a vast pumping plant for subjectivism. It became evident in the fifties, symbolized by The Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist, Holden Caulfield, seems to have caught the mind of every high school and college undergraduate in the country. Under the guise of motivational studies, subjectivism entered the social sciences and the humanities, to come to volcanic intensity in the sixties. Feeling was the lingua franca of seminar as well as novel or poem. In high school during these years, how a pupil personally felt upon first learning about, say, the First World War and World War II was deemed more important than either of the events.
The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, in a recent review of a not untypical novel, mused briefly on the significance of the ever-widening preoccupation with the self and its inner recesses, so often at the expense of the great outside, the real world of diverse, behaving, acting, doing people. “What it does mean,” wrote Kakutani of the characters in the novel she was reviewing, “is that they’re constantly assessing their happiness, monitoring their emotional damage, and charting their ability to take spiritual and sexual risks. And perhaps as a consequence they spend most of their time being miserable—lonely, isolated, and pretty much paralyzed when it comes to making decisions.” In Swann’s Way Proust describes the neurasthenics of a certain genteel asylum in Paris; they were able to discourse endlessly and happily about the recesses and convolutions of their respective selves; but any task as complicated as deciding which shoes to wear for the day, or actually tying their laces, plunged them into fear and uncertainty.
Feeling often seems the sovereign state of the human nervous system when we examine the pufferies of liberal arts education and, not least, of Great Books programs. The vocabulary of hype for these, written by college deans and publishers’ assistants, is meticulous, of course, about the improvement, the stimulation, the arousal of the mind. But not much is required in the way of research to see that what the average college of liberal arts, and the Great Books program, are appealing to are students’ and readers’ feelings. Thus the celebration of discussion groups, of college classes in which all pretense of the dispensation of scholarly knowledge about the liberal arts is dropped in order to make students comfortable in, one by one, retailing how they felt about the Crito, The Social Contract, Origin of the Species.
The reading of Great Books as such—that is, simply because they have been thought of and catalogued as such for centuries—is as sterile as anything I can think of where serious education is involved. Religious meditation may be advanced by the devout’s reading of the Bible. But it is hard to see what is accomplished in the stimulation and nurturing of ordinary, eager, ambitious minds by spending weeks, months, on the reading, followed by group discussion, of a book certified as Great by discussion leader and publisher.
Can we suppose that any of the minds of the authors of the Great Books, from Aristotle to Schweitzer, were ever prepared, and then shaped, by the reading of the Great Books of their own respective ages? Hardly. Aristotle read Plato as Plato had listened to Socrates, not to masticate and digest a great book or discourse but to pursue truth or knowledge through the best available means—all the available means, not just a preselected list of classics. No doubt there is a pleasure in reading Darwin, but would any sane person use Origin of the Species as the required foundation stone for becoming a biologist today? Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is also a great book, but it is unlikely that it by itself has stimulated and energized any mind destined to become a serious economist in the present age.
Great Books programs confuse the education of the mind with the catechization of the mind in seminary. The most important thing in the world, whether in comparative literature, philosophy, and social studies or in biology, chemistry, and physics, is the induction of the tyro into the living world of problems, not the world of books which have the imprimatur of Great on them.
Given the intoxication produced by the idols of consciousness and subjectivism it is only natural that psychobabble threatens to inundate us at the present time. Psychobabble is the pidgin version of crossings of psychoanalysis, sociology, and liberation theology. R. D. Laing won renown for his work with schizophrenics; not his therapy as such so much as his riveting demonstrations of how much wiser and far-seeing schizophrenics can be than are those of us who waste time with reason, logic, and science. He praised the kinds of consciousness which come from “our looking at ourselves, but also by our looking at others looking at us and our reconstitution and alteration of these views of others looking at us.” The social sciences have been markedly touched by the rage to the subjective. The ultimate goal of sociology, declared the late Alvin Gouldner in a book proclaimed by its eager reviewers to be a “soaring achievement,” is “the deepening of the sociologist’s own awareness of who and what he is in a specific society at a given time.” Such a goal would not have electrified the Mermaid Tavern or later the haunts of Marx, Darwin, and Freud, but it is a true reflection of the subjectivist state of mind that dominates culture at the present time.
Ages of subjectivism such as our own and that of the ancient world in which Christianity and a myriad of other religions grew up are invariably ages too of the occult, the irrational or transrational, the magical, and the mystic. The pictures historians have given us of the Mediterranean world, especially the Greek world, as it was during the two centuries leading up to the dawn of Christianity, or of the Renaissance world in Europe of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are necessarily pictures of the occult and irrational as well as of mystic intuition and self-exploration.
It comes as a surprise, though, no matter how accustomed we believe we are to the subjectivism of our day, when we read, as we did in The New York Times, September 29, 1986, of the uses which are being made today of subjectivism and the alchemy of altered states of consciousness by corporations of the stature of IBM, AT&T, and General Motors. The thought of individuals hanging loose in the offices of the legendary fourteenth floor of the General Motors headquarters does have its touches of humor.
The great fallacy, ultimately the evil, of subjectivism is that from it one comes to be convinced that what lies within consciousness, within one person’s consciousness, has more reality, more value, perhaps even more truth, than what lies outside the person in the world of external event and change. The objective, the dispassionate, even as ideals, are derided by the subjectivist, who even bends the school to belief that what pupils know, or think they know, about their feelings, natural impulses, likes and dislikes, is more important than what might be taught them about the external world.
Descartes, master of intellectual terror, really started it. Rousseau would be his greatest, most powerful pupil. “I think; therefore I am,” announced Descartes in 1637. With this as his axiom, Descartes quickly proved, too, the existence of universe and God. Above all, he said, were the beauties and satisfactions of the new subjective, deductive, and absolute method of inquiry he was proposing. The senses will henceforth lie in oblivion. The profoundly self-conscious mind will go far beyond the chameleonic data of the senses. There is instant terror in Descartes’ injunction to burn libraries—because their contents are ultimately duplicitous. Not from books and their ridiculously sensory, experiential, and transitory methods of accumulation, but from pure introspective reason comes the only knowledge that is worthwhile. Scholars, Descartes added, are learned cretins who spend a lifetime trying to recover about Greece or Rome what every “serving girl” of that time knew. Cartesianism is even more deadly a force of destruction of the traditional and revealed than is the general will philosophy of Rousseau, whose method is strictly Cartesian.
There is a distinct and clearly influential climate of Cartesianism in the humanities at the present time. It has been growing ever since World War II and its manufacture of the Loose Horde in America after the war. Neither scholarship nor its indispensable ways of working and thinking have the appeal and strength today in the humanities that they had up until the war. More and more the Cartesian adjuration to banish everything from the mind ever learned, and then think intuitively and geometrically by oneself, is the sacred writ of our time. With his usual genius, Tocqueville pronounced Cartesianism the basic religion of democracy, for no democrat has ever been known—and this Descartes himself pointed out—to wish for more common sense, more natural insight, wisdom, and judgment than he already has. Everyman need look up to No Man!
Looseness of individuals, factions, and ideas is conspicuous in the whole area commonly lumped in the label “humanities.” Whether inside or outside the walls of academe doesn’t seem to make much difference. In want of any organic in the way of ties, anything even as real and constitutive as existed in the Marxist thirties in America, humanists find themselves forsaking books and authentic scholarship and turning to what are clinically called texts and to a kind of scholastic dogma for guidance. The names of Georg Lukacs of Hungary and Antonio Gramsci of Italy, both ardent Marxists in their day who counseled a storming of culture instead of the economy when the Revolution broke, are heard almost everywhere in the humanities. But at the present time the French philosopher Jacques Derrida leads all others in humanistic authority. What Cynthia Ozick has written is very much to the point:
In the literary academy, Jacques Derrida has the authority that Duns Scotus had for medieval scholastics—and it is authority, not literature, that mainly engages faculties. In the guise of maverick or rebel, professors kowtow to dogma. English departments have set off after theory, and use culture as an instrument to illustrate doctrinal principles, whether Marxist or “French Freud.” The play of the mind gives way to signing up and lining up.
The prominence and surpassing attractiveness in humanities faculties of what are called literary theorists is a sign of the times, of the widespread efforts of the loose in the humanities to find some kind of dogmatic underpinnings. What precisely “literary theory” is, what could possibly make it cognizable by the great poets, dramatists, essayists, and novelists of the Western tradition, we do not know—any of us, I would judge from examining some of the literature of theory in the humanities.
Doubtless “deconstruction” and “minimalism,” currently two humanist idols, derive in some way from literary theory—surely not from impulses born of genuine literature and art. Each is a textbook, clinical example of individuals hanging loose on culture. Deconstruction, so called, is, as the supreme pontiff Derrida conceives it from Paris, the technique of reducing the great to the merely subjective, the solipsistic. Every War and Peace is in reality a text resembling a Rorschach inkblot test. There is no “there” there in the purported book or event in history, institution, culture; only an almost infinitely diverse possibility of images formed by the reader or student of the “text.” Objectively viewed, deconstruction, which is currently the most fashionable school of literary theory in the humanities, is a sustained assault upon the great tradition in literature, philosophy, and history. If it hangs loose on this tradition, it is a veritable scholastic Summa Theologiae for those today enjoying the fruits of literary theory, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-Freudianism, and other lucubrations of the Loose Horde.
The mien of minimalism is one of innocence, and surprise when questioned. Am I not, asks the injured minimalist, but following humbly in the footsteps of Flaubert and of Hemingway, still seeking the right word, the right economy of style, and liberation from the maximalism of the Thomas Wolfes of the world? The answer is an emphatic no. It is not the maximalism of the Wolfe that the minimalist is opposed to, but the maximalism of the great tradition in Western thought and art. These lean, spare, constipated little novels of the minimalist creative-writing-school graduates are as self-conscious as any manifesto of the subjectivist in philosophy and criticism. Their mannered, often prissy style suggests bloodlessness, sweatlessness. We see all too clearly the restraints, blocks, stoppages, but little else; very little indeed in the way of plot, character, and event. “They use the snaffle and the bit all right,” wrote Roy Fuller many years ago, “but where’s the bloody horse?” We need Fuller today, or the child in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who blurted out, “The emperor has no clothes on.”
There is minimalism in art and music as well as in letters. The triumph of minimalist art seems to be a canvas on which either nothing or as absolutely little as possible is emblazoned. A great event was recorded when a collection of blank sheets of white paper was exhibited in New York. There is a musical composition called “Silence” in which the pianist sits playing nothing for some three and a half minutes. Presumably applause consists of silence and motionlessness.
The eminent zoologist V. G. Dethier, in a recent article on minimalism in the arts, points to some of the neurological-psychological effects possible when in the presence of extreme and prolonged minimalism: “The ultimate in unchanging stimulation is a reduction to zero. . . . The subjective result is a sense of extreme discomfort . . . images originating higher in the central nervous system; that is, hallucinations.” Rock gardens consisting of a few rocks positioned on a bed of white, even sand can, if looked at intently long enough, yield either a hypnotic state of mind or, if the viewer is lucky, a passionate desire for maximalism, to restore sensory stimulation.
Charles Newman, in a cool-eyed study of minimalists, suggests: “If we are to take our recent ‘minimal’ fiction seriously, we are in the presence of a new class, one Max Weber anticipated. . . . ‘Specialists without spirit, libertines without heart,’ this nothingness imagines itself to be elevated to a level of humanity never before attained.” Precisely; as I said, without blood, toil, sweat, and tears; only technique twisting in the wind. Newman adds to the above: “But this fiction does not clear the air so much as it sucks it out, so that the prose is stripped not only of rational content but also of formal awareness of itself.” In the end, minimalism is as nihilistic, as dedicated to the destruction of the sacred, traditional, human heart of civilization as is the deconstruction of Derrida and his predecessors back through Gramsci in Italy and Lukacs in Hungary, Marxians both, but gifted with the post-Marxian cunning that makes culture rather than economy the prime object of revolutionary assault.
[* ]Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955, Foreword, xiii.
[** ]Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1959, p. 133f.
[* ]Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1942, p. 160.
[* ]Schumpeter, p. 142.
[* ]Spoken on Adam Smith’s Money World, October 5, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Educational Broadcasting Companies.
[* ]Utopian Thought in the Western World, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 793.