Layman Looks at the Government, A

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1933

As 1933 draws to its close, there is sonorously audible in the United States that very familiar and sometimes well-justified murmur of criticism which always besets the government in power. It is well that a government should be accountable to the more thoughtful of its people, and consequently well that the right of free criticism should be upheld so long as it remains untranslated into obstructive action during crises. At the same time, it is equally important, that criticism itself be criticised, in order that what is wise and relevant and unbiassed may be distinguished from the prejudiced, irresponsible, or self-interested utterances of obsolete thinkers, dogmatic theorists, and seekers after special advantage rather than general welfare.

Criticism of the present political administration comes very largely from elders of comfortable circumstances and conservative tendencies who distrust all methods un-based on empirical rules, and who recognise no difference in conditions—either material or psychological—between the present socially transitional age and the settled age of temporary equilibrium in which their instinctive mental reactions and emotional prejudices were formed. They condemn the President and his advisers as dangerously given to vision and experiment, and accuse him of overriding certain principles of American statecraft which date from the eighteenth-century age of rural political economy. Clearly, these critical elders regard the transient goals and rule-of-thumb methods of yesterday as still valid—as if these abstractions were permanent ends in themselves, irrespective of the different needs of actual people in the wholly trans. formed machine world of today.

Mr. Roosevelt, in the view of our Catonian censors, has “failed” because he has not reproduced the lost world which they regard as the best and perhaps the only possible one. They do not concede the existence of anything unprecedented in the current crisis, and accordingly do not admit the need of any search for remedies outside those prescribed by antique ritual. In their opinion, any departure from habitual economic policy means an overturn of all our familiar civilisation; so that one who doubts the necessity or wisdom of an orthodox campaign for an orthodox business prosperity is a “dangerous bolshevik”—either a low foreigner or a convert to the impious ideas of low foreigners. The mental world in which these smug and venerable critics dwell is a gratifyingly simple one, and it is with regret that we have to concede its lack of correspondence with any phase of 1933’s realities.

Yet this concession is, after all, quite inevitable. The disinterested minds of today cannot escape a recognition of the major changes now occurring in western civilisation’s economic fabric—changes probably deeper than any since our evolution from a pastoral-nomadic to a settled agricultural-handicraft state—and a corresponding recognition of the need for new methods to meet new times. Such recognitions, based as they are upon sheer observation and reasoning, involve nothing of the radical spirit; and are not to be confused with the simultaneous emotional movements of certain youthful and restless groups of rebels against civilisation. Rather do they represent that fundamental conservatism which springs from cool perception and calculation instead of from mere feeling; and which forms a sane central position between that of the past-hypnotised elders and that of the dream-addled iconoclasts. For be it known that the sober recogniser of the new economic age is no friend to the artificial new values, crazy interpretations of science, bull-headed modern orthodoxies, and hysterical repudiations of tradition which form the contemporary radical’s naively swallowed “ideology”.

Not less than the old-time banker, merchant, and manufacturer does he despise and repudiate these unmotivated emotional fashions of the moment, and seek to preserve as an unbroken stream that overwhelming bulk of the old European cultural tradition which will continue to be valid under any conceivable regime of normal evolution.

I who offer these frankly unscholarly layman’s comments on the changing order and the American manner of meeting it believe that I am—despite a total departure from the plutocratic orthodoxies of self-styled “solid men”—an almost complete antithesis of the youthful, exotic, and emotionally excitable type whose designs on civilisation the elders may well fear. The views here given are those of a native Anglo-Saxon American in his forty-fourth year; the product of an unmixed Protestant-Republican-conservative heritage, and a legatee of New-England’s sensitive respect for unbroken tradition and for the fruits of European thought, scholarship, and cultivation. Though of literary rather than mercantile interests, I am as strongly opposed as any oil baron or retired grocer to any upheaval of the basis of American life and ways; and am an utter foe of the new and artificial values of bolshevism. Indeed, it is my opinion that the psychology best fitting man to extract the maximum value from life is the leisurely, individual, non-calculative, non-quantitative, non-mechanical, unmercenary psychology of modest living, disinterested thought, keen appreciation of intrinsic excellence, and unbroken folkways which characterises certain materially simple stages of agrarian aristocracy more than any other social order. Not, of course, that I consider agrarian aristocracy as a workable or even desirable order at the present stage of human development.

The point is that my economic views are entirely disinterested—evidence being received and appraised as evidence irrespective of its social bearing or of whether I like it or not. This, I believe, is equally true of most other conservative recognisers of a changing financial structure—both my fellow-laymen and those whose greater knowledge and experience qualify them to accomplish things as well as to hold opinions. The attitude in question is a perfectly open one, free from capricious orthodoxies at either end. On the one hand it ignores the irrelevant supernatural assumptions of the elders, whilst on the other hand it rejects the intricate Marxian mythology of modern radicals. It takes mankind and the universe as a set of natural phenomena, and tries to interpret trends and values on a purely rational is-or-isn’t basis.

What, then, shall I say of the American administration and of those who assail it as tending toward the socialisation of national resources? Just how effective or ineffective the remedial measures at Washington are, is something a layman of my economic ignorance can scarcely appraise; but when I hear criticisms I am always curious to know what angle they proceed from—that is, exactly what is expected in view of the unprecedented nature of the problems concerned, and the obvious impossibility of surmounting them except through a process of experiment, trial, and error. I tend to wonder what standards and objects the critics have in mind—whether they do not, perhaps, yearn for a restoration of something which never can be restored, and which it is not even desirable, from a broad human standpoint, to restore. Blind reaching after something which has benefited one personally (even though it may have caused endless harm to others, and may now be wholly unworkable in view of changed conditions and public attitudes) is characteristic of human nature; hence the constant objections of the bewildered capitalist element to any measures designed to change the system under which they secured their inordinate profits and intoxicating power. But we must take their outcries with a grain of salt; remembering that what they call “dangerous to American liberty”, “fatal to the recovery of our great and glorious prosperity and prestige”, and so on, may in truth be exactly what is needed to guarantee a certain amount of real liberty to those who never had it before, and to give a decent prosperity to those whom the showy surplus prosperity of capital kept in penury.

I am one for whom the spectre of “socialisation” has no terrors. Indeed, the older I grow and the more I reflect, the more am I convinced that no industrial civilisation can continue to exist except through the artificial government control and distribution of resources. Mechanisation has so completely altered the relation of the individual to the industrial fabric, that laissez-faire production and distribution now means nothing more than a rapid concentration of resources in the hands of fewer and fewer pet-sons—with a growing mass left wholly without a means of existence. The revolutionary implications are unmistakable unless a plan can be found to guarantee a certain proportion of resources to everyone—and this can be done in no way other than the artificial spreading of chances to earn. Private business will not undertake this spreading, because the sole object of such business is inordinate profit—therefore it must be undertaken by some force not primarily interested in profit. Government regulation of private business might work if the capitalists would be satisfied with the lesser profits secured. If, on the other hand, private business will not carry on with such curtailed profits, then business must be taken over by the community as a whole—that is, the government—and operated for motives other than profit. Thus socialisation is not a bogey which obtrudes itself into an idyllic paradise of happy individualism and makes trouble. It is, rather, a very likely and probably necessary way out of a very bad situation—an inevitable rescuer from the chaos of a communist revolution and the ruthless destruction of cultural values which such an upheaval would bring.

It seems to me that the fear and aversion with which some persons (these, of course, not self-interested capitalists) regard the coming evolution toward managed economics is based on the wholly groundless belief that such a change involves a tragic social and aesthetic cataclysm like Russia’s. This is a typical example of loose thinking—thinking by casual association rather than by analysis. Because one nation had a change accompanied by a cataclysm, these people fancy that all changes in all nations must carry cataclysms in their wake. Actually, of course, the very reverse is true. Indeed, those most anxious for successful evolution are eager above all things to avoid the cruel suffering and cultural waste inherent in a literal application of idealistic equalitarianism and of the orthodox Marx-Lenin “ideology” formulated, codified, and applied by the Russian bolsheviki.

The overturn in Russia was a product of special causes involving intense hatreds (hence savage repudiations of the past) and being conditioned by the extreme illiteracy of the people, the popular habituation to arbitrary rule under the Czars, the primitive condition of manufacturing industry, and the peculiar operations of the Slavonic mind. None of these conditions exists in America—where virtually nobody save a handful of foreigners wants any radical change in arts and folkways and perspectives. The problem in America is a practical financial and industrial one—how to ensure every inhabitant a decent living in exchange for a reasonable amount of his labour—and only an extremist would claim that its solution (a very possible thing after several years of patient experimentation) will demand any wholesale tradition-scrapping.

The one thing which will have to perish is the existing business system—the present concepts of large-scale, unsupervised private property and individual profits—but only a very narrow thinker could make the mistake of identifying this overturn of one isolated phase of our civilisation with a general overturn of the whole civilisation itself. The prevalence of this misconception shews how deplorably bourgeois-minded the capitalistic classes have become. They have taken a purely utilitarian and essentially temporary detail of civilisation—the manner of apportioning resources—as bound up with the whole body of national and racial folkways . . . as if mere money-making and property-holding were the pivot on which personal habits, artistic impulses, intellectual trends, emotional reactions, and traditional associations are all hung! Ironically enough, they are unconsciously reproducing the attitude of belief in a complete economic determinism which originated with the very Karl Marx whose theories they hate and fear!

To my mind this is sheer nonsense. Of course certain details of social life are economically influenced, but there are vast areas quite untouched by the conditions of industry and finance. The way a man spends his evenings—what he reads and thinks and talks about and does—is only fragmentarily affected by the way he gets his money during working hours. A change in his relationship to industry will not give him a whole new set of interests and attributes over night. Even under full communism, Boston and Chicago would be a great deal more like the traditional Boston and Chicago than like Moscow and “Leningrad”. I have never been at all interested in the way people get their money, or in how much they have. What interests me is the personality—the mental and aesthetic activities—of the people I know; things wholly independent of their economic status as property-owners, employers, tenants, employes, or whatever they may happen to be. I have many delightful casual acquaintances whose manner of livelihood is absolutely unknown to me. They know and talk about interesting things—and what more is necessary? As a matter of fact, the whole aristocratic tradition of art and thought has habitually ignored economic factors and concentrated on a treatment of people—their intrinsic emotions and situations purely as people, without reference to their manner of obtaining food and shelter. There is no reason why the future main stream of aesthetics and philosophy should not continue this tradition under any normal system of economic distribution.

It does not matter what happens to property so long as individuals are guaranteed an ability to live dignifiedly and personally independently, with enough resources to continue the proper (not luxurious) amenities and refinements of civilised life on a modest scale as we know it today . . . and there is no reason to assume that the Anglo-Saxon people would even for a moment consider any system jeopardising the existence of this kind of life. The only things in America slated for change (except in case of a violent revolution such as a year more of Hooverism would have precipitated) are economic things which will not disturb the foundations of life and traditions at all if people will keep their heads and remember that excess property and specific business methods are only trifling details. Nothing of any value is imperilled. When pompous financiers and constitutionalists like the Honourable James Madison Beck whimper about the “undermining of Americanism” and the “loss of freedom” they are merely staging a meaningless demonstration about trifles. The “Americanism” and “freedom” they whine about mean nothing more than certain technical business principles of the last century which enable 2% of the population to corral 80% of the national resources and condemn an ever-increasing minority to unemployment and starvation.

One fundamental error of the bewildered reactionaries is to consider the now-passing economic order a good one. It may by chance have been good to them, but for the race as a whole it was nothing which need be lamented. It was a makeshift—the best that could be devised for the time being—but it involved a frightful amount of waste and savage cruelty. The sufferings of oppressed and impoverished classes have always been carefully hushed up in polite circles, but they have long been dangerously acute. All our smug “solid men” and “best citizens” have habitually condemned thousands to slow starvation and hundreds to actual death through industrial policies designed to give a few luxurious stockholders the added profits enabling them to keep three motor cars instead of two. This sort of thing was possible as long as the masses were kept in awe by religion and other vestigial atmospheric reliques of the feudal period, and as long as they were not pushed too far. It could not, however, be expected to last for ever . . . and now the masses are being pushed too far. Today the “solid men” whose technical position under capitalism enables them to starve others at will must either step down voluntarily or be pushed down (for the masses have the physical power to do it if sufficiently aroused and desperate)—and it is very probable that reluctant common sense will cause them to choose the former and milder alternative.

We must remember that the present crisis involves far more than the specific cyclic depression which brought it to a visible head and which is now probably beginning a slow and imperfect abatement. Superadded to the temporary depression are two factors of vastly greater significance and permanence—the steady displacement of human beings from remunerative positions by machinery, and the growth of articulate leaders outside the pale of capitalistic thought who can direct the dull masses in their hitherto vain fight for life.

These two factors are of crucial importance today. We now realise that no matter how much “business” may “recover” under a laissez-faire system (thus benefiting the relatively small number of persons who own it, and the more and more limited majority who are employed by it), the conditions of thousands if not millions of unemployed will not be improved a whit thereby, or have any chance of becoming improved. Let us not be misled. The kind of “normal business recovery” which the oratorical Mr. Beck and Associations of American Tories wish to see established “under the constitution” is not ma relief of the mass-starvation which is driving millions toward revolution. What these narrow, purse-proud fellows call “recovery” is merely a system which will let them get back their extra yachts and surplus bond values—not anything which will help the millions whom their system reduces to degradation and want. It is comical to hear these corpulent oracles talking as if they and the starving unemployed were equal fellow-sufferers in the depression; so that their recovery of their extra yachts, and the unemployed’s recovery of three meals a day, must be matters of equal importance! This naive and ghoulish mockery runs all through their habitual complaints. They fume more over the loss of profits on paper (while still in not the least peril of losing food, shelter, warmth, and a decent scale of living) than the unemployed fume over their loss of home and security! And they talk of “fair” and “equitable” schemes of “recovery” which shall not “waste” money on relieving suffering until “business has had its just share” and “budgets are balanced”. The complete loss of a sense of proportion manifest in such an attitude is worthy of the psychologist’s and historian’s attention. Meanwhile these senescent sophists continue to try to overawe the public through a glib confusion of terms. They talk of what is “good for business” as if what is good for business were necessarily good for the people as a whole (as it might possibly have been in 1880) or good for our civilisation. As a matter of fact, they are probably not only somewhat wrong, but even wholly inverted in their values. It is very likely that the benefiting of private business has become, in a fully mechanised industrial order, a positive evil to the general population.

So the point is—as Walter Lippmann acutely pointed out not long ago—that mere recovery from the 1929 depression is not what the people are now desperately seeking. That recovery would not help more than a comparative few, for all the necessary operations of a new “prosperity” (prosperity for the sharp grabbers and lucky souls who hold the bonds and businesses) could be carried on without the aid of a vast section of the present unemployed. Even in 1929 and before there were about a million unemployed in America—perhaps more. The people do not want any “recovery” which will merely restore this imperfect balance (and even this balance could not be fully restored because of the advance automatic, man-displacing machinery since 1929). They did not revolt before 1929 because there was no spark to set them off—but the depression, by swelling their numbers with fellow-victims of higher intelligence-level, and by aggravating their plight and opening the eyes of impartial students and philosophic historians to it, has given them a leadership which will never rest till the thieving injustices of unsupervised capitalism are eliminated. Thus we may see that any “upward curve of business” which may be noted in nations where remedial measures have not been adopted is actually irrelevant to the major issue. What the people are determined to have is a new system which will remove industry and economics from the field of chance and private greed, and which will prevent any fluctuations in production and consumption from having direct and disastrous effects upon the whole nation, as in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, and 1929. A new system in which the social good will come before private good, and in which no one will be permitted to starve whilst enormous resources lie by unused or selfishly guarded, or are wantonly destroyed in an effort to raise prices under the capitalistic system. It is inconceivable that the physically influential masses, led by the impartial intellectuals who now appreciate the tragic hopelessness of their plight under unsupervised capitalism, will tolerate any permanent economic policy less favourable to them.

Thus the present administration is not merely trying to pull the country out of a temporary depression. It is trying—honestly and desperately, with a spirit of intelligent experimentation and in spite of all the back-stabbing of the recalcitrants—to effect a reconstruction of the whole fabric which shall prevent future depressions, save millions from starving, and forestall an otherwise inevitable social revolution. It is doing the only thing a sane and enlightened administration could possibly do in the given nation at the given time—that is, as to objects. (As I said before, I am not enough of an economist to judge how well or how clumsily these objects are being pursued.) One might venture to say that if it has any basic fault, it is that it has not gone far enough toward fascism and toward the probably inevitable socialisation of large-scale industry and finance. But this deliberateness is very easy to excuse, especially in view of the prodigious reactionary pressure exerted against the government.

What the people must get used to is a world with material luxury—the luxury of superfluities—cut down. The resources of the nation, as a whole, logically belong to the nation itself, and not to any single member. It must be for the nation to say when individual holdings (loans rather than possessions) must be reduced in order to spread resources thickly enough to banish starvation. Industry must be primarily a government function conducted for service and not for profit. The starving of millions while others flaunt superfluous wealth is something which no realistic government can be expected to tolerate.

However—if the changes can come gradually, there is no reason to fear the rise of a system of universal squalor and personal tyranny like Russia’s. America has plenty of resources to permit of the artificial allocation of a decent living-basis to every inhabitant without having to drag down the scale of living of refined persons. Some things—like summer palaces and private yachts and dozens of servants—will probably have to go; but it will be perfectly possible for the modestly refined people of today—the college-professor and general professional type of $5000-a-year people—to keep right along in their comfortable private home just as they have been doing. This is because the process of rectified distribution does not necessarily—and certainly will not if it comes through gradual evolution—involve the abstract principle of equalisation. There will be no attempt to equalise resources, but simply an effort to see that no one’s resources get below a certain level. With America’s unlimited productive capacity, this will be relatively easy to ensure without any universal sacrifice and rationing as in meagre-resourced Russia.

As for sources of the needed change—it is my opinion that, as in other historic instances of economic upheaval and transition, the academic classes and the old aristocracy (eager for the avoidance of a revolution destructive of cultural values, and relatively indifferent to the welfare of exaggerated private fortunes and business enterprises) will ultimately align themselves with the policy of reconstruction and fascism, leaving only the moneyed bourgeois element to defend reactionary laissez-faire capitalism. Even now we can see the tendency—it is the university element, and gentlemen of family and heritage like Sir Oswald Moseley in England and F. D. Roosevelt in the United States, who actively lead the quest for a workable social order. Indeed, the salvation of society really depends on the faithful and diligent services of disinterested gentlemen—since the inflamed masses without leaders can only tear down without building up. The people as a whole are densely and hopelessly ignorant—mere blind forces either cowed to silent suffering or bursting into resistless fury under too much goading—hence democracy is and always has been and will be a joke . . . or a tragedy. Salvation rests wholly with the trained man of vision and cultivation without the profit motive—namely, the fascistic leader.

It impresses me that the popular distrust of what may be called “isms” proceeds from a fundamental misconception of the existing situation. By “isms” people generally mean consciously devised plans for the regulation of social factors hitherto left to blind drift. They dislike such things because they believe that blind drift is always better than human intelligence—or that drift is so powerful that intelligence cannot affect it. But they would not hold this attitude if they did not consider blind drift as somehow satisfactory. Behind their position is a tacit assumption that drift always has worked and always will work. Hence today they are lost—because blind drift will no longer work. The laissez-faire economics of Hoover are as dead as Tyre and Carthage—there is no “natural” system of economics left to range against the “isms”. The world of agriculture and handicraft industry in which orthodox laissez-faire economics worked has vanished for ever. Today the choice is merely between one “ism” and another “ism”.

And what about the way private property and laissez-faire economics “worked” in the past? Let us survey the subject from the beginning, and see if we can form a clearer and less artificial idea of what “property” truly is.

Obviously, man and the various natural objects useful to him—land, iron, cattle, salt, wheat, water, wood, and the like—are merely equal chance products of nature. Cosmically, there is no such thing as “owning”. In practice, each living organism such as a human being has a certain mental and physical strength which enables him to control a certain proportion of the objects he finds useful. Those which he can grasp and hold despite the efforts of others to seize them are his “property”. Property, then, is simply what any individual can grab and hold under a given set of environmental conditions. There is no “right of property” beyond the strength of the individual who seizes something and keeps others from getting it.

Now just what collective society can sensibly allow any individual to grab and without taking it away from him by massed effort depends wholly on momentary conditions. It has in the past been useful to delegate to the individual an unlimited control of whatever he has acquired in certain arbitrary ways (gift, inheritance, seizure from outside the group, exchange, legal trickery, etc.) as distinguished from certain other arbitrary ways (overt seizure—without an excuse—from within the group, illegal trickery, etc.); calling these delegated resources his “property” and using the collective pressure to confirm him in his control. But this is only a temporary expedient—a concession of society, and no cosmic arrangement which gives the individual a “right” to “property”. No man holds “property” except on sufferance from the group—which could readily take it away from him, and which will take it away from him when it becomes advisable and feasible to do so.

Since some men are stronger and brighter than others, it was natural that in a primitive society a few capable individuals should seize the choicest resources and privileges and make the weaker majority take the meagre leavings. When formal social institutions began to appear, they recognised and enforced this crude but natural system of resource-tenure; thus giving birth to the legal concept of “property” as we know it. Through the processes of exchange, transfer, and inheritance made possible by this system of ownership-protection, “property” soon came into the hands of persons less capable than those who had held it through force alone; yet the principle of recognising and upholding “personal ownership” persisted as a stabilising influence. Soon society became economically divided into two new major elements—the powerful and propertied (through chance, inheritance, acumen, etc.), and the helpless and unpropertied—in place of the old division into the physically (or physico-mentally) strong (and therefore propertied) and the physically (or physico-mentally) weak (and therefore unpropertied). In order to prevent the resultant element of physically (or physico-mentally) strong but unpropertied individuals from seizing resources by force, the ruling propertied group succeeded in engrafting the idea of the “sacredness of property” upon whatever system of religious superstition happened to be in vogue—thus creating a servile psychology which held the unpropertied in check as long as superstition continued to operate potently and universally.

And how did the property system work out down the ages? Well—it gave certain strong, shrewd, and lucky individuals a chance to live and express themselves freely to a degree they could not have attained had tenure been less legally secure, or had sentiments of humanity prompted a greater evenness of distribution. And meanwhile it gave the majority of average, less-lucky individuals a legacy of poverty, subjection, oppression, suffering, and death.

Naturally, the traditions and religious formulae favourable to unrestricted property-holding often clashed with the opposite traditions and religious formulae founded on ethics and humanity. Hence the constant philosophic controversy and material warfare connected with the maintenance of the economic order. Obviously, no ethics found on the idea of justice, non-encroachment, or human kindness could for a moment tolerate property-holding—whence the uncompromising opposition of real Christianity as distinguished from the nominal “Christianity” of the capitalistic churches.

But of course the principle of property-holding won over all ethical, humane, and religious opposition because it was more natural—more adapted to the selfish acquisitive instincts of our species than any other system could have been under the given conditions. All that could have overthrown it would have been the massed efforts of the underprivileged majority; and these, for at least three reasons, were not exerted. The reasons were: (1) The timid awe imparted to the oppressed classes by religious doctrines upholding property and stratification, (2) the natural inertia of ignorant masses when leaderless, and (3) the fact that in a state close to nature the sufferings of the oppressed (largely a rural peasantry with only a microscopic urban proletariat and virtually no unemployment) were not nearly as desperate as in that later state of factory-and-mine peonage, with its frequent and increasing unemployment, which has finally roused the victims almost to the bursting-point. Even had the institution of private property been overthrown in the past, the results of the change to a system of just rewards and humane relief would not have been likely to remain permanent. The more intelligent and enterprising of the equitably-endowed mass—themselves greedy—would soon have secured special rewards for themselves in the absence of an advanced and complicated checking technique—taking advantage of the natural trend in this direction, the lack of that utterly desperate resistance which the acutest suffering brings, and the virtually insuperable difficulty of maintaining a regime of justly proportioned rewards and relief for all on a civilised level at a period when administrative science was crude and resources so limited (owing to the absence of quantity production) that any approach to a wide distribution would have reduced even the most useful (and thus most highly rewarded) individual’s share to an unsatisfying minimum. Lack of psychological knowledge—as affecting the selection of men for tasks, and the determination of equitable wage equivalents for services rendered—would also have tended to wreck a system based on justice or humanity. And too, it would have taken a full generation to provide leaders well-trained enough to conduct industrial processes effectively.

In short, private property inequitably and capriciously allotted was a virtual necessity in the agricultural-handicraft age now closed. There were not enough resources in existence to go around humanely to everyone and yet to leave anybody with a decent share, and too little was known of varying human capacities and administrative science to maintain any equitable system of rewards. Equalisation—or any sort of rational evening up—would have meant merely chaos; a destruction of anybody’s chance to rise above a level of hard labour and inadequate resources, and the eventual birth of a fresh system of practical, effective injustice as dictated by human greed.

It is this circumstance which caused honourable and ordinarily humane men to uphold the system of inequitable and arbitrary private property in the past, despite the perennial protests of idealists. They knew that unless some individuals were emancipated from want and hardship—as could be done only through giving them a plenitude of resources whilst others starved, and letting them enjoy a leisure based on the slavery of others—the race could never utilise its maximum mental and aesthetic potentialities or evolve concepts, folkways, and traditions in any way appropriate to the biological status of the species; concepts, folkways, and traditions eventually colouring even the lives of the masses unable to create or fully share them. It was a question of either letting the race forge slowly ahead through the sending out of small detachments ahead of the main mass, or blocking all development through an idealistic suppression of the one process capable of effecting it.

Thus the aristocratic attitude needs no apology. It was the only sensible perspective of its period, and made possible the evolution or refinements which colour the lives of increasing numbers of people today. It was the great civiliser and standard-setter—the one influence which started the disinterested, non-economic quest of excellence for its own sake. If some people had not been allowed to rise on the bent backs and corpses of slaves and famine-victims, the race as a whole would never have gone far from the primitive state. That is the inherent cruelty and wastefulness of stark nature—a nature which knows nothing of the ethics and sentiments and values and efficiencies that chance vicissitudes have suggested to the human brain. Whatever richly rewarding quality human life has in our civilisation, it owes to the past existence of a system of individual privilege based on injustice, cruelty, and (in view of the outward claim to Christianity) hypocrisy. But we must remember, of course, that the “justice” and “humanity” contravened by grossly unequal resource-and-privilege-distribution are not cosmic realities. They are simply aesthetic conceptions which certain mythologies have invested with “divine” significance. Actually, there was no reason why the many should not be stamped down in the interest of the few. The masses have no “right” to fair and humane treatment until they are physically able to demand and secure it.

Such was the mediaeval, feudal, or strictly aristocratic alignment. Its strong point was that it gave a small percentage of individuals the carefree leisure and limitless resources which they needed in order to evolve a system of disinterested human values and to develop objects and refinements based on the sheer, uncalculative ideal of intrinsic beauty and innate merit. Just as the earlier barbaric period of physical struggle developed courage, unbrokenness, and those virtues which spring from pride in strength (truthfulness, honour, etc.); so did the feudal-aristocratic period (in which physical strength still played a great part) both confirm these earlier virtues and create additional graces based on logic, beauty, knowledge, and expanded and sensitised human faculties.

Its weak point was that its rewards were not connected in any way with services rendered or with personal merit—either strength or intelligence. Inheritance and favour had caused the seats of influence and wealth to be filled by those who had not personally won a “right” to them, so that only by chance (and through the relatively slight influence of heredity—plus the still rarer cases of strong men who forced their way up to privilege from obscure oppression) were the right men ever in the right places. Of course—so vast is the transforming and developing effect of cultivation on the individual—the privileged classes were infinitely more capable than the non-privileged—that everyone knew that this added capability came from superior education-chances, not from superior personality. With the growth of logical reflection and the decline of superstition, it was felt vaguely and subtly ridiculous that some men—arbitrarily chosen—should have privilege, whilst many obviously better men were choked down. Awe and confidence in the system wore off. It had become too artificial to last—and nature, using the same method as when society was first founded and stratified, staged an overturn.

Once more the naturally strong and shrewd and enterprising forged to the top and seized the bulk of existing resources whilst others slaved and starved—but this time the seizure was less statically and superstitiously perpetuated. Arbitrary privilege was declared void, and a criterion of privilege based on acquisitive power operating under equal opportunity was established. The field was to be made nominally equal for all men to grab and hold according to their natural endowments, so that there would no longer be a static aristocracy (although of course the successful grabbers would do their best to found one through their children) but simply an open arena in which the shrewdest men would hog the resources until knocked down or knifed in the back by still shrewder men. Dog eat dog, and devil take the hindmost. This was the bourgeois commercialism of the phase of civilisation just ending.

And how did this new phase compare with the old aristocratic phase which it displaced? Its primary advantage was that it was closer to nature. The men hogging the bulk of resources were generally more representative of the race’s naturally capable element than had formerly been the case. This not only enabled them to be more efficient planners, but removed the feeling of ridiculousness and extreme injustice associated with aristocracy. The masses tolerated the plutocrats more freely because they felt closer to them than they had felt to the aristocrats. They felt that any naturally capable man might work upward into the resource-grabbing class. Thus for a time every force in society was bent toward the endorsement of unlimited private property as a thing to be guaranteed by the pressure of the group. The masses approved the safeguarding of the huge personal booty seized by the astute traders and financiers because each mass-member had—despite the actual restriction of opportunity to those having certain advantages of early education and business openings, or having an almost irresistible acquisitive shrewdness—some vague hope of seizing a tidy bit for himself some day. Considering all the forces operative in the bourgeois age—which includes the final phase of the agricultural-handicraft period and the earlier part of the machine period (when expanding tastes created new industries fast enough to absorb a good deal of the labour displaced by the slow mechanisation of the old industries)—we may reasonably say that a plutocratic society was inevitable during that era. Culturally there was of course a decadence; but this was at first neither rapid nor radical, since the plutocrats generally respected and envied the aristocrats they displaced—always imitating their manners and outlook as best they could, and often assisting in the survival of old aristocratic groups as such.

As for the drawbacks—the most marked was the subtle decay in ideals and goals which set in despite the simultaneous external aristocrat-aping. The novi homines, with their shifting personnel and absence of traditions, cared nothing for intrinsic excellence; but evolved new working standards (even while sometimes feigning lip-service to the old standards of honour, worth, and beauty) based on material acquisition and all the processes and conditions associated with material acquisition. The human values built up by aristocracy were degraded to a single meaningless value—success in corralling resources. Not high human qualities, but mere acquisitive shrewdness, became the determinant of favour in the new society. Human potentialities and sensitivenesses were lost amidst a worship of such success-attributes as empty speed and quantity, whilst a respect for refined and dignified living gave place to a feverish scramble for more material luxury and the ostentatious symbols of material possession . . . “conspicuous waste”, as the late Thorstein Veblen called it. Needless consumption and waste were preached as a cardinal economic policy—in order to take up the products of unnecessary, profit motivated manufacturing—and all the emphasis of life was shifted from actual living to the mere feverish mechanics of acquiring . . . not only necessary acquiring, but superfluous acquiring . . . business for business’s sake. Business, indeed, became mawkishly idealised as a beneficient force in an amusingly hypocritical way.

One by one the advantages of aristocracy were lost, till at length the plutocrats became so naively chrysolatrous and uncivilised that they ceased to command the respect of civilised thinkers. No longer did the usurpers of the bulk of human resources present enough reasons for existence to justify the starving and enslavement of others in their favour. From this period onward the hitherto inarticulate masses began to have sympathisers among the intelligent and educated—sympathisers who deemed mass oppression too high a price to pay for the upholding of a privileged class less and less worth its salt. But of course as long as resources remained limited, and as long as the condition of the masses remained in any way endurable, any break in the system was still unlikely and hazardous. The inertia of the herd was enormous, and even had revolution occurred, its fruits would have been nearly as hard to perpetuate as in early times. Without quantity production, there were so few resources in existence that the weak could not have been given a decent share even through the impoverishment of rich and the absolute equalistion of personal allotment (cf. early Soviet Russia). The rich and capable remained masters of the field by default. They were almost the only persons executively trained, and their shrewd subterraneous hold on government (all nominally democratic government is merely a cloak for the almost absolute reign of greedy manufacturing and financial interests) cut off any temperate experimentation toward juster and more humane conditions.

But the plutocrats were, by the second decade of the twentieth century, manifestly in decadence. Greed had become utterly paramount, and the sense of responsibility toward weak dependents which the aristocrats had possessed was largely atrophied save for sporadic cases of capricious and often well-advertised philanthropy. Callousness and oppression toward the masses became exaggerated to the point of murderous grotesqueness—egged on by a steadily increasing mechanisation which made the resource-holders more and more independent of their slaves and victims. All the ability of the competent class became canalised in the one sterile channel of grabbing increased material resources for those already holding them, and inventing new material luxuries for the trivial and meaningless pleasure of the few resource-holders and their larger but still limited penumbra of essential higher employes. Meanwhile the natural growth of mechanisation made more and more persons become permanently unemployable and dependent on grudging and capricious charity to save them from starvation, whilst the suffering from cyclic depressions became acuter and acuter. This caused the plutocrats no worry, so that they were still ready to defend their booty to the limit and turn off all protests with Menenius Agrippa’s fable of the belly and the members—when at last their topheavy system began to react against themselves.

Their seizure of all resources and their creation of a growing pauper class gradually impaired their consuming public, so that their corralled resources became less and less negotiable for profit. The most they could do was to keep necessities hoarded away from those who were perishing for lack of them—or to destroy necessities outright to increase their price. Depressions became deeper and more frequent, and recovery from each one became less and less complete so far as the whole people were concerned. Meanwhile the desperation of the masses grew, till revolution became their only hope of survival. Even without leaders they were ready to burst into savage flame and annihilate all civilisation—a civilisation which had done so little for them, and to which they consequently owed so little real allegiance—but now they began to have leaders . . . recruits from the capable class who had become disgusted with its callous arrogance and distrustful of its right to preserve its status at so barbaric a cost. Of course, in an impersonal cosmos the weak have no “rights”—hence the arguments of the old-time idealistic and Christian socialists were wrong. As before remarked, the masses had no right to fair and humane treatment—or even to survival—until they were physically able to demand and secure it. Now, however, it looked as though desperation and outside leadership were about to give the masses this physical ability—hence for the first time in history the weak common man had a right to claim a share in the resources of the group which he either worked for or would have worked for if not deprived of the opportunity. Simultaneously came the realisation that quantity production was so increasing resources that at last (also for the first time in history) a fair and humane distributive system could be established without reducing each individual’s share to neglibility. With this realisation, the practical case of the masses became infinitely stronger . . . and by 1932 the actual achievements of Russia (despite the handicap of initial non-mechanisation) had made it clear that such an equitable managed distribution was no mere vision but a workable reality. The old sophistry of the capitalist ‘that effective production and distribution could not exist without the profit motive’ was silenced once and for all.

The unrestricted property system was getting shaky. Some new course was clearly needed, or else a rising of the oppressed would put an end to the whole regime. But what could be done? Could the masses be partly killed off, deprived of leadership through arrests for sedition, and allowed to starve? Could a war be engineered to wipe out a troublesome surplus of them? Could they be pacified by a slight dole? Could philanthropic agencies be persuaded to support them? Anything to save the sacred cultural principle of “sound business”, “rugged individualism”, and bigger profits for people who do not need them!

Or—terrible thought!—would hours, wages, and conditions of employment have to be artificially regulated (and supplemented by old-age pensions and unemployment insurance) in such a way as to spread the chances for self-respecting labour and restore the power of self-support to the dispossessed herd even though this would reduce the sacred profits of the resource-holders? This was the tragedy of the poor harassed plutocrat in his final phase of power. As an unregulated acquisitive force his course was run. After a little more resource-grabbing, the deluge! He had only three alternatives before him: to sit tight and get blown to pieces (Messrs. Hoover and Mellon’s programme), to regulate his own affairs and voluntarily spread employment and resources among the masses (Messrs. Ford and Swope’s preferred programme), or to relax his subterraneous pressure on government and allow disinterested planners to devise a sane system of social regulation and redistribution of resources (Mr. Roosevelt’s programme). That he seems, on the whole, to be choosing the third of these alternatives (since the second demands too much of human nature to ask, whilst the first has still more obvious disadvantages), is certainly to the credit of his good sense. After all, his compartment mind can grasp a few facts and relationships beyond the immediate technical processes of material acquisition! And so I believe he will gradually abdicate to a regime of planned social control of wealth as peacefully as the aristocrat once abdicated to him. After all, the plutocrat is no monster of a special breed—he is merely the average man acting as any average man would act under the conditions of his special position. The fault is not in him, but in the obsolete social system which allows this special position to continue its existence. Hatred of the plutocrat—after the fashion of proletarian radicals—is a silly and illogical emotion. He was a natural product of his age and its accidental conditions, and we wish him a peaceful abdication—both for his own sake and for the sake of civilisation.

A while ago it seemed as if Sir Croesus might redeem himself quasi-voluntarily and restore a condition of aristocracy based on financial control as the old aristocrat’s status was based on agrarian control. It was clear that herd pressure was about to make him disgorge in one way or another—but he had a magnificent chance of disgorging willingly whilst retaining his title to a good share of resources and continuing his control of society. By cutting down his profits and spreading work, he could become a lord in a new feudalism—with the masses at his command, and with still enough profit left to enjoy the modest luxuries and mental, social, and artistic advantages of an aristocrat as distinguished from the ostentatious and cerebrally barren lavishness of a parvenu plutocrat. The conditions of the new social order would kill the old competitive scramble (for coordination of industry, whether governmental or spontaneous, is a necessary and inevitable step) and insistent profit-emphasis, and leave a few sharp leaders permanently at the head of all-powerful and all-embracing monopolies. These men’s descendants, in all probability, would form an element of hereditary funded proprietors soon developing into a leisurely aristocracy of trained political rulers, with business affairs largely managed by a steward class. And it would be only natural to expect this future aristocracy to discard the speed-and-quantity worship and low standards of today, and to redevelop the richer standards of gentlemen—once more justifying the seizure of disproportionate resources by a few. It was a great dream while it lasted—and several signs really seemed to point that way. I was wholly in favour of such an evolution, and consequently endorsed the ancestrally inherited Republican programme which sacrificed everything else to business dominance and tried to confirm the absolute autocracy of money and property. It was my idea that a culturally rich feudalism, preservative of the oldest aristocratic traditions yet (under the threat of revolution) not insensible of the needs of the unprivileged majority, could be secured by throwing everything frankly into the hands of greedy plutocracy and letting the wealth-grabbers take open control of the government in place of the backstairs control habitually exerted behind the false facade of an unworkable democracy. Despising the plutocratic ideal itself, I pinned my hopes on the future grandsons of the present plutocrats; and with such an attitude I was (grotesque thought!) a Hoover man in 1928!

But the plutocrats were not wise enough to take the steps—and the intervening years have told their own story. Now I believe that the only key to civilisation’s survival is the social control of resources, administered by a fascistic dictatorial government of highly trained men chosen by, an electorate of new and special qualifications. I would have the ballot given only to persons qualified to wield it—persons passing an exacting intelligence-test and able to come through rigid examinations in such economic, political, and general cultural subjects as will enable them to understand something of the nation’s problems and to form some idea of the issues they are voting on. There would, of course, be corruption and mistakes—but with a sounder aim the range and extent of such flaws could not be quite as disastrous as it is under our present regime of slipshold obsolescence. Just how far toward the complete socialisation of property society must go, remains to be seen; but it does not greatly matter, after all, just where the nominal title of resources may rest, so long as all people are fed, housed, clothed, and made reasonably comfortable, whilst sensitive people are given the ability to enjoy a life of normal intellectual and aesthetic richness based on their own hereditary traditions. The problem is to remove money from its present position of supremacy in determining the status of the individual. In a realm of unlimited resources, it is absurd that the scramble for a livelihood should occupy the paramount place in human life that it now occupies.

Future society under a rational fascistic system might well be not only non-proletarian but even aristocratic. With the competitive material struggle subordinated as an interest, it is likely that no opposition would be made to the setting of intellectual and aesthetic standards by those most naturally active in the given fields, and to the administration of government by those most obviously qualified. The population would tend to become stratified according to natural intelligence, tastes, and education; and both individual endowments and hereditary associations (not financial or industrial status) would probably play a part in determining social position. A complete continuation of the best features of European tradition might be looked for in a fascistic state whose members would reject the special system of absurd artificial concepts fostered by Marxio-Leninism—the system of distorted science and freakish aesthetics which exalts instead of subordinating economics and industrial mechanism; which does not recognise the existence of disinterested art or knowledge, or indeed any sort of disinterested excellence; and which bases a whole way of life on a totally false concept of society as a biological organism in which the individual is merely a negligible cell.

One of my great grudges against plutocracy is that it drives so many of the younger generation into an orthodox bolshevistic position of infinite menace to true civilisation and the enjoyment of human potentialities. Those who oppose liberalisation and uphold unrestricted capitalism through fear of cultural change are probably doing even more than the avowed communists to precipitate just the change they wish to avoid. The more recalcitrant plutocracy shews itself to be, the more dangerous will be the tendency for the younger generation of potential mass-leaders to adopt, through sheer reaction, extremes of cultural iconoclasm likely to prove influential in coming years. The way to stop this unfortunate and irresponsible drift is to offer some hope that a decent and feasible social order can be achieved under the continuous traditions of Western civilisation. All violent revolutions tend toward disastrous extremes, even when these are not desired by the masses involved. The herd is the tool of the leaders it submits to, and in America the only probable leaders of a violent break are foreigners and their disciples who would steer a radical course wished by none but themselves. It is impossible to exaggerate the danger which lies ahead if moderate liberal thinkers are not allowed to ease the country legally and traditionally into a fairer, more humane, and more workable system of a truly American kind.

As for what President Roosevelt and his associates are doing—all I can ask is (as previously suggested) what does anybody expect? In a field where no paths exist—a world whose determinant conditions have only lately come into being—it is the job of the present administration to discover applicable laws and invent workable techniques amidst all the handicaps that myopic, arthritic rule-of-thumb reactionaries on the one hand, and irresponsibly venturesome theorists on the other hand, constantly interpose. To fancy that an immediate anodyne could be worked out in the very first year is a piece of naiveté which only a time of bewildering stress could possibly make general! Any sensible person knows that trial and error must go side by side with desperate and intelligent planning based on the known material and psychological elements concerned; and that even when a general principle is undoubtedly correct (as that of the N.R.A. certainly is), a dozen honestly inept applications may have to be attempted before a practical and effective channel of operation is found.

The all-important things about an administration at this confusing juncture are its goal, its rational, flexible willingness to experiment with astute caution in the face of new and baffling conditions, and the massed ability and experience of its personnel; and on none of these points do I think the Roosevelt group falls below any other group now available. Of all the candidates obtainable in 1932, the Democratic ones were alone in offering any programme not beyond adoption on the one hand; and on the other hand not absolutely suicidal in its ignoring of realities and putrid in its slavery to obsolete principles now become sources of danger and disaster.

I am, as I took pains to admit and emphasise at the outset, no economist—hence have absolutely no right to pass an opinion on any specific measure of the administration. But I can only ask whether many of the objectors feel really sure that they, or their chosen political representatives, could do any better in that vital task of social reconstruction which means so much more than the stimulation of the very doubtfully futured single element known as private business. Personally, I think the existing government has moved uniformly in the right direction, and that no other would have done as much. We cannot predict what lies ahead. It may be that the unimpaired maintenance of Western civilisation is an impossible task—that bolshevism or utter chaos is inevitable—but that does not affect our present duty to experiment constantly toward ways of preserving what is best in our existing heritage.

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Olvasás

Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
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