25 January 2011

H. L. Mencken as a prophet?

My research on Theodore Roosevelt has been interrupted by the arrival at my local library of the Library of America's two new volumes of writings by H. L. Mencken. I was a big Mencken fan in my adolescent and collegiate years and I'm happy to see him admitted into the Canon of national literature, though he might be alarmed to be let in years after someone like H. P. Lovecraft. Mencken actually does have something critical to say about Roosevelt in his second collection of Prejudices, but I'll save that for another time. What intrigued me more immediately was a notion he advanced in "Das Kapital," an essay from the third collection, that capitalism takes on a reactionary and ruthless political character in a democracy that isn't actually characteristic of capitalism itself.

What I mean, in brief, is that capitalism, under democracy, is constantly under hostile pressure and often has its back to the wall, and that its barbaric manners and morals, at least in large part, are due to that fact -- that they are, in essence, precisely the same manners and morals that are displayed by any other creature or institution so beset. Necessity is not only the mother of invention; it is also the mother of every imaginable excess and infamy.

Mencken's comment requires contextualization; you have to understand what he means by democracy. Mencken was no democrat. He fancied himself a Nietzschean with an objective, realistic view of man and the cosmos. He rejected idealism and utopianism. He considered socialism harmless because it was hopeless, and while he defended socialists' civil liberties during the post-World War I red scare, he also considered them a bunch of quacks. Socialism, for him, was just another expression of the unfortunate democratic impulse.

The essential thing about democracy, as every one must know, is that it is a device for strengthening and heartening the have-nots in their eternal war upon the haves. That war, as every one knows again, has its psychological springs in envy pure and simple -- envy of the more fortunate man's greater wealth, the superior pulchritude of his wife or wives, his larger mobility and freedom, his more protean capacity for and command of happiness -- in brief, his better chance to lead a bearable life in this worst of possible worlds.

There'd be no use telling Mencken that for some people socialism is a movement of moral indignation over the exploitation of labor. As a Nietzschean, he dismissed all moral claims, including those of religion, as wartime propaganda for the envious. Worse yet, in his eyes, socialist critiques of capitalist greed were hypocritical.

All the known species of democratic theory are grounded firmly upon this doctrine that money, and money only, makes the mare go -- that all the conceivable varieties of happiness are possible to the man who has it. Even the Socialists, who profess to scorn money, really worship it. Socialism, indeed, is simply the degenerate capitalism of bankrupt capitalists. Its one genuine object is to get more money for its professors; all its other grandiloquent objects are afterthoughts, and most of them are bogus. The democrats of other schools pursue the same single aim....The average American democrat really cares nothing whatever for liberty, and is always willing to sell it for money. What he actually wants, and strives to get by his politics, is more money....

It is my contention that the constant exposure of capitalism to such primitive lusts and forays is what makes it so lamentably extortionate and unconscionable in democratic countries, and particularly in the United States. The capitalist, warned by experience, collars all he can while the getting is good, regardless of the commonest honesty and decorum, because he is haunted by an uneasy feeling that his season will not be long. His dominating passion is to pile up the largest amount of capital possible, by fair means or foul, so that he will have ample reserves when the next raid comes, and he has to use part of it to bribe one part of the proletariat against the other. In the long run, of course, he wins, for this bribery is invariably feasible; in the United States, indeed, every fresh struggle leaves capital more secure than it was before.

Mencken doesn't restrict the capitalists' arsenal to bribery. The Tea Partiers of his time were none other than the American Legion, which he characterizes throughout the Twenties as a sinister instrument of reaction little better than the Ku Klux Klan. As a German sympathizer, Mencken was extremely sensitive and hostile to U.S. manipulation of public opinion and suppression of dissent during and after World War I. He describes the Legion as something like an American Freikorps, incited and organized by capitalists "with lies about a Bolshevist scheme to make slaves of them (i.e., to cut off forever their hope of getting money), and put them to clubbing [literally?] and butchering their fellow proletarians."

From an essentially nonpartisan if not non-ideological perspective, Mencken found fault with both capitalists as a class and workers as a class. It was his habit to generalize unapologetically -- it has gotten him in trouble with posterity -- but to respect individuals of proven talent indiscriminately. He can never belong to the "left" because of his contempt for democracy, but he can't belong to the "right," either, because of his contempt for religion and tradition. Putting aside any disagreements with his admitted prejudices, is it possible to agree with him that an innate incompatibility between capitalism and democracy actually distorts capitalism into a malignant political force? Did Mencken discover a pattern in the Twenties that has been replicated ninety years later? If so, does he show us a remedy? It depends on your own perspective. He certainly wouldn't favor democracy over capitalism. Of capitalists he wrote, "They are criminals by our democratic law, but their criminality is chiefly artificial and theoretical, like that of a bootlegger." He suggests that capitalists would largely cease to exert a negative influence on politics if politicians would simply leave them alone to do what they do well. He was more respectful of capitalists for their "pride of workmanship" than he was of the actual working man. He believed that modernity could not do without capitalists, even (or especially) if politicians replaced them with bureaucrats. On the other hand, he wrote that the Founders "were chiefly what would be called Bolsheviki to-day," acknowledging that the tension between capitalism and democracy was fundamental. Democracy, in his view, "penalizes ignorantly what is, at bottom, a perfectly natural and legitimate aspiration, and one necessary to society." By doing so, it makes that aspiration "evasive, intemperate, and relentless."

Assuming that Mencken saw the situation clearly, his recommendations remain debatable. We aren't obliged to join his rejection of socio-economic morality, and we can risk his scorn quite easily, given that he's been dead for almost 55 years -- the anniversary is this Saturday. If one man's morality is another's petty resentment or envy, what of it? The Nietzcheans, to my knowledge, have never proven to moralists the necessity of deferring to their skepticism. Mencken was interested only in the flourishing of superior people, particularly artists and scientists, and dismissed most social reform as pipe-dreaming. But if the only legitimate reason for forming a state is to secure the maximum material well-being of everyone -- if any other motivation inevitably exacerbates the oppression of those who started powerless -- we can't be as complacent toward capitalism as Mencken was. And if we shared his contempt for the "stupid" majority of mankind there'd be no point to politics at all, except perhaps the amusement it provided him. If he is right, however, that the tension between capitalism and democratic politics is innate, we might do better going back beyond Mencken to those "Bolsheviki" Founders who apparently tried to give us a warning.

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