Monday, October 17, 2011

Business and the Literati

Algis Valiunas has a thoughtful piece of literary criticism in National Affairs examining the treatment American writers have given commerce and businessmen over the years. He provides a broad survey of works by Lincoln Stevens, Upton Sinclair, Thorstein Veblen, Ida Tarbell, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Joe Keller, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Saul Bellow, Tom Wolfe, and Ayn Rand. Valiunas is unsatisfied with the efforts of all of the above, because they fail, in his eyes, to move beyond a mere caricature "portraying corporations large and small, and the people who run them, as heartless, soulless agents of greed." If these were only so many men and women's opinion, such caricatures would be unremarkable, however, as Valinuas also notes, "These caricatures have shaped our implicit understanding of the nature of the business world, so much that they have come to pass for conventional wisdom."

This same point was not lost on Ludwig von Mises in his The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.
In this vein dozens and dozens of novels and plays report the transactions of the villain of their plot, the businessman. The tycoons became rich by selling cracked steel and rotten food, shoes with cardboard sales and cotton goods for silk. They bribed the senators and the governors, the judges and the police. They cheated their customers and their workers. It is a very simple story. It never occurred to these authors that their narration implicitly describes all other Americans as perfect idiots whom every rascal can easily dupe (p. 71).
In the same book, Mises also offered up a reason why the anti-capitalistic mentality is more prominent in American literature than in its European counterpart.
In Europe "society" includes all those eminent in any sphere of activity. Statesmen and parliamentary leaders, the heads of the various departments of the civil service, publishers and editors of the main newspapers and magazines, prominent writers, scientists, artists, actors, musicians, engineers, lawyers and physicians form together with outstanding businessmen and scions of aristocratic and patrician families what is considered the good society. They come into contact with one another at dinner and tea parties, charity balls and bazaars, at first-nights, and varnishing days; they frequent the same restaurants, hotels and resorts. When they meet, they take their pleasure in conversation about intellectual matters, a mode of social intercourse first developed in Italy of the Renaissance, perfected in the Parisian salons and later imitated by the "society" of all important cities of Western and Central Europe. New ideas and ideologies find their response in these social gatherings before they begin to influence broader circles. One cannot deal with the history of the fine arts and literature in the nineteenth century without analyzing the role "society" played in encouraging or discouraging their protagonists (pp. 18-19).
In the United States, however, the intelligentsia do not socialize with real businessmen as much and, hence, find it easier to caricature that of which they are ignorant.

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