Thursday, January 05, 2012

Word of the Weeks: Babbittry

I will let you look up the word yourself, but you'll need a good dictionary. If you see a reference to Sinclair Lewis, you've got it.

Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality. These standard advertised wares--toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters--were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first sight the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom. -- Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis had the luck of getting to be a great, great cynic and being the first one across the tape when it comes to the stereotypes of America. He wrote bitterly about purchasing the American mind. From the agitated malcontents and racists and dreamers who looked for a frontier, we were losing scope. If there was no more a chance to go West to find gold, the gospel of getting rich hadn't changed: we just began to think the frontier was inside our borders. As the perspective grew narrower, we were selling our minds at wholesale prices. He got to be the first man to write Elmer Gantry. He wasn't the first one to write Main Street. He won the Nobel Prize.

He didn't win the fight, though. In Main Street, Arrowsmith, and Babbitt there is one consistent satirical target: the fatuous, jowl flapping, self-sure, raw faced dullard who nevertheless gets rich and bewildered in America, drunk on belief in platitudes. (That's what "babbittry" is. Pedantry won over writerly instinct, so I had to tell.)

It's a trap!

I will no longer bail water on the Titanic. I get it: the ship's sunk, the horse has fled and died, the party's over, she's gone home with someone else, the ship sailed, the train left the station, Elvis left the building, the sun's gone down, dawn has dawned on a new day, and there is no turning back now. (Is there ever "no turning back" except now? Was there no turning back then?) America belongs to . . . the golfers. America belongs to the Chamber of Commerce, and they don't even want it. It is the inheritance of the Republican Party, the quantifiers, and the people who have home-town spirit and the motivational posters to prove it. The people who think that global warming is "in dispute" because "those scientists" can't be trusted, that "both parties are the same," who believe that they're in the middle class and that they will get rich -- these are the rightful heirs of the land of natural resources, the natural rulers of the nation of the partly educated and lackadaisically free.

There is not a thing I can do about that. Even the "art of a well timed turd" is an useless plastic art when it comes to this tide. I am not young. Young folks shout themselves hoarse over these things and never realize that every generation does the same about the same things because "the bourgeoisie is rising" forever, and it is the nature of the thing to be dull witted and disappointing. Babbitt's SUV radio plays Rush Limbaugh complaining about how They are trying to take his wealth, and Babbitt thinks I'm a complainer.

I just want to help Babbitt be unhappy is all. After all, given the ratings of AM screaming radio, I presume that there are a good many people who want to be angry and unhappy. I'd like to get in on that. I picked up Sinclair Lewis's character because his theology is in improvement. In fact, Lewis wasn't just beating up idiotic rich men; he was satirizing the American religion of self-improvement, dieting, and technology, the belief every American has that he will be rich, that he will rise, that cautionary tales are fiction.

Babbitt himself has an iconography of gadgets. His children are the same. The world improves, as proven by the march of stuff, the never ending song of chrome finishes and carbon fibers and televisions in 3-D with surround sound. This is the empirical evidence of the divine grace of progress. We feel that challenged now, what with the crisis in the one fundamental value, land, but there is still a belief out there, despite all the actual evidence to the contrary, that "I" will make progress, that "people who know what they're doing" will flourish and that tomorrow will have better people in it, and a better surroundings.

Self-improvement is not a matter of faith, but of evidence, once you make one swap. If you agree to this exchange, you, too, can "do lunch" and worry about the size of your riding vaccuum cleaner; if you do not, you will never be comfortable. If empirical and material standards are the only real or knowable things, everything flows after.

How should an economy work? Should it provide maximum capital at the greatest efficiency or the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Is the law that binds society together one of moral obligation or of natural contracts for defense and exchange? What is the value of a man or woman to society? Is it the person's "honor" (marked by birth status and behavior in a code of ethics), or is it the material the person accumulates and contributes?

The questions I am posing are the basic questions that underpin materialist and empiricist value structures and essentialist and metaphysic value structures.

If anyone at all tells you that "capitalism" is the economic system of buying and selling at a profit, then that person is lying to you or completely uninformed. Capitalism is an economic system whereby all moral constraints on sales are removed, where wage and price reflect not cost, but cost and rental on capital. Furthermore, it emerged fitfully, not all at once, and in England for the most part.

People were trading in markets for as far back as we can find. A Phoenician cloth seller and a modern fabric shop operated in much the same way. Both bought their supply and sold with a markup. That's not capitalism. Capitalism, ideally, is a bunch of bankers deciding there ought to be a cloth shop, hiring a shop staff, and then demanding a cut of the profits every month, when their only "work" had been having money. Capitalism is also, though, being able to buy up all the cloth for a season and hold off selling until the price went up enough.

In the 18th century, when Adam Smith argued in favor of capitalism in The Wealth of Nations, what he was describing was already happening. He argued that it should happen more, mind you, and he had brilliant analysis, but he wasn't the king, and no one passed laws because of him. Smith thought that man had a "good nature." See, a lot of folks in the middle of the 18th century thought that was the case. They thought that humans, if schools and laws and churches didn't mess with us, were good. Further, Smith, like Hutcheson and a number of others, thought that we were born with morality in us. We had a "common sense" of what was good or bad. No one would starve a region to get rich! People aren't like that, and saying that they are is "superstition."

Smith also thought that what he was describing was a fact of nature. Leave people alone, without the interference of those nasty and corrupt kings and Popes, and people will operate a more efficient market.

That was it. That was the critical argument.
1. Capitalism is a natural state.
2. People are benign by nature.
3. The natural state is more efficient than any system designed by man.
4. It is best, therefore, to have limits on commerce removed.

Now, I'm sure #2 makes you shake your head. I do not know of too many times in history when intellectuals thought people were basically good other than the middle of the 18th century. However, the arguments against removing the limits on trade were coming from the aristocrats ("we're born with rights and obligations"), the church ("Christ demands that we give to the poor"), and the poor ("You owe us first"). None of these were as persuasive as the idea that man had gotten it wrong with kings and Popes and that "nature" and science would lead us to big money.

Never mind, though. No one did anything because of Smith's argument. They struck down Edward VI's corn laws because it made money for London and for the large land owners and for the corn factors who supported the members of Parliament. Let's be real. However, the argument stuck around. It was an argument that asked everyone to make a clear distinction, to pick a side: do you choose visible measures or moral ones?
It's apple time

Capitalism becomes self-validating.
When you do not have to give the poor first dibs at the wheat harvest, and when you can pre-sell your wheat to a dealer, then dealers ("corn factors") can move massive amounts of wheat from one region of the country to another. London can be fed. Hooray! Also, of course, England can export wheat to France during its revolutionary period. Hooray again! There is wealth 'created.' There is prosperity. The state has money for bigger navies and stuff.

Stuff is showing up.

Of course, during all of this, the poor have gone hungry. Prices have gone way up for the retail customer, but the aggregate customer, the large Market rather than that piddly little market town, is doing great guns. If you need proof of how naturally good it is, simply look at the money involved. If you need further proof, look at the STUFF! Pay no mind to the poor.

Once the real material *stuff* is your measure, improvement is always at hand, and progress is always going to occur. (Look, I'm not going to go into the whole "GDP must grow; capitalist nations are imperialist" and all that stuff. I don't need to.)

Even if an economy or epoch doesn't make any progress at all, an empiricist value system can tell the people that there is continual improvement because there is constant change. All you need to do is say, "Cymbalta is a new drug for treating pain," and you have a major bit of progress, don't you? (Hey, look at Snus!)

If you don't accept material as a sign of progress, then happiness proves elusive. If the .mp3 player that is also a marital aid, pasta maker, car battery starter, and TV remote isn't progress, then progress either vanishes or gets qualified into oblivion. Length of life is progress, but it gets qualified by new diseases. Literacy is progress, but unemployment obviates it. Clean water is very much progress, but it is only on offer for a minority -- the same minority who pretty much had it before.

So, playing golf and driving an SUV and wearing the right color tie or skirt? How about the TV-hat for watching one's iPhone? The rules that govern social ascent and verifiable happiness for the Babbitts are matters of faith, of religion. They worship the works of their own hands, the idols of their own making, and lose, in the process, morality.

Of course, in exchange, they get a sort of ennervated happiness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Meaty, energetic rant, poorly served by its resolution. Worth work to salvage?