gall and gumption

Monday, October 11, 2010

Take the Money and Run

Total indulgence in the purchase of the Library of America's new John Kenneth Galbraith. I read The Great Crash in the months leading up to the Financial Crisis (it really needs a name, this one, and I'd supply one if I could think of one that wasn't R-rated). I'm looking forward to reading it again, but now I'm reading The Affluent Society, a book that was very influential once upon a time. He coined the phrase "the conventional wisdom" and in his introduction to the edition that's included in the Library of America volume he jokes that he should have taken out a patent. The irony of course now is that people who use the phrase "the conventional wisdom" are either a) totally innocent of even the remotest acquaintance with any other kind or b) savagely hostile to any other kind of wisdom when they do run into it.

Reading Galbraith is a bit like reading Edmund Burke. Most people who claim Burke as a conservative hero are usually referring only to what amounts to a few pages of his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They misunderstand his theory about tradition, too, thinking it is a defense of their view of tradition. And then liberals who haven't read Burke think, oh, if the conservatives like him he must be a wingnut too. Why conservatives like David Brooks or William F. Buckley should be trusted to be accurate in their representation of Burke when they can't be trusted to be honest intellectual brokers on anything they touch I don't know.

If I were to give the shortest possible summary of what Burke meant by tradition in the relations between the ruler and the ruled, it would be this: he believed that this relation should be founded in love, the kind of love that makes you love the dignity of the other. This is in a sense a sort of a formality, a fiction that becomes true because people commit themselves to acting as if it is true. They are loyal to the principle. It is only paternalistic in the sense that liberals are accustomed to speak scornfully of if you are prepared to deny the possibility that love can be based on respect for the dignity and rights of the person whatever their social standing or their means.

But Burke spent most of his long parliamentary career trying to raise the alarm about unfettered, unregulated multinational capitalism and the dangers of corporate lawlessness. He was fighting against the management of the East India Company that was basically running a vast, vicious extortion racket in India, using the power of law, and violence, to extract immense wealth from the small regional governments all over the subcontinent. Remember Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair, with the awesome title "The Collector of Bogley Wallah"? What do you suppose he was collecting? You need to remember that colonialism was not established in places like the Caribbean or India for the sake of spreading democracy or Christianity. The religious and historical and moral justifications came later. Adventurers, desperate characters, speculators, people with no better prospects at home, went there and got as much loot out of them as they could or died trying; they set up just enough government to help you do it. Preferably, as in India, the looting business was the government. Government, in the sense in which people think of it now, a set of institutional and organizational arrangements for the support and management of society and community, came much later. In the Caribbean you had the plantation owners working the land for sugar, and you had garrisons to protect them from other colonial powers who wanted to steal the islands back and then also protecting the plantations from the slaves too. Only after it became a matter of financial interest--only after there was clearly something to lose, was there any need seen for government. And if you found something there already, like in India, a whole civilization and a culture that had been managing its own affairs at least as well as, say, France 150 years before, these arrangements meant nothing, you could tear them to pieces at your convenience in the service of the great wealth-making project and the irresistible destiny-like glorious advance of capitalism. Individually, the plan was childishly simple; you extorted as much wealth out of the Pasha in India so you could go and live like one in England. And Burke saw it for what it was, saw the destructive potential.

BP in Iran, Texaco in Nigeria, the United Fruit Company in Central America; the conflation of national interest with corporate profit, at the expense of any other basis of value. That was what Burke saw coming, and he fought it, for twenty-odd years, mostly alone and not at all understood by reasonable moderate centrist people who couldn't see what the problem was when everybody was getting so rich. He lost friends over it. But the danger was so clear to him that he could not compromise on the seemingly narrow point at issue which was the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the East India Company's man in India. Hastings had connections and resources and influence to keep himself out of the hot seat for so long that the whole affair began to seem like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. But Burke never let up because he never lost sight of the point.

Burke's prose is harsh, as if it was hacked into shape with a rusty axe. And then in the middle of it you find something said that could never be said better, things that can move you to tears. Because although it is rough and harsh it is truthful, it is the sound of a mind that is discovering things.

The interesting thing about Galbraith as a writer is that he was just about the last living practitioner of the Grand Style of formal English prose. The only other great one I can think of in the twentieth century is Bertrand Russell, and Russell died of course years before Galbraith stopped producing. In writing, too, Galbraith sounds original. That is, he took this very literary and artificial style and somehow made it into his own voice, on first acquaintance a somewhat stilted voice, that warms up into this wonderful lucidity, sparkling with humor--this was a man, you can tell, who could probably reduce you to helpless giggles at the breakfast table by just reading out loud from the newspaper--and the narrative drive of a good storyteller.

There are a zillion cheap imitations of formal English, to say nothing of the ghastly failed attempts at it that you find in academic prose. Mutant monstrosities, really. And don't even get me started on the kind that takes its tone from the French. I imagine that in 30 years or so no one will claim responsibility for ever having written those horrors: "I wasn't there, I was out bowling with my friends, I was in a coma, I was rescuing small children from abandoned wells, I was sitting at home quietly reading Ernest Hemingway, I don't remember anything about it and I never met the lady."