Friday, January 27, 2012

Culture and Rhetoric Matter

The WSJ has a nice piece on Dierdre McCloskey. She of course points out that culture and rhetoric were central to the rapid economic development of the West shortly after the Renaissance. In other words, a

shift in perceptions was central to the economic take-off of the West. "A bourgeois deal was agreed upon," she says. "You let me engage in innovation and creative destruction, and I will make you rich." A commercial class that was not ostracized or sneered at was thus able to activate the engine of modern economic growth.
Of course, now we see the commercial class ostracized and sneered at. What are the consequences of this? What will be the long-term consequences if it continues? Perhaps, as I suggested recently, we need to see a change in how the commercial class is represented in literature (broadly defined, including T.V. and film). In other words, we need to see a shift in our culture and rhetoric.


  1. Do you really think the commercial class are ostracized and sneered at in this society?

    I think this meme is overwraught. Their are bad guys depicted in cultural outlets, but usually they're bad because they're malicious or more concerned with privation than entrepreneurship. We celebrate the rich, we want to emulate them, and we lionize our entrepreneurs.

    We just have a certain ethical orientation to these people. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I certainly wouldn't call it "sneering" at them or "ostracizing" them. We decry people like Madoff or Goldman Sachs execs or Republican candidates that say they like firing people.

    But we absolutely adore Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, to say nothing of the fabulously wealthy cultural icons that enrich our lives.

    I think you're barking up the wrong tree here - I think you want capitalism to be embattled, which leads to some confirmation bias.

  2. I do think they are ostracized and sneered at in our literature and by many of our academics, who in turn teach college students to think of businessmen as inherently corrupt. One of the consequences is that those who go to college then go into business think that one has to be corrupt to be successful.

    We do celebrate the rich, but which rich do we celebrate? Sports figures, musicians, and movie and T.V. stars. People who make their money entertaining us -- not those who make money, employ lots of people, etc. As you say, it's the cultural icons. Just being in some industries -- the oil industry comes to mind -- immediately damns you in many people's eyes.

    We do adore Jobs -- because he's an iconoclast. Zuckerberg falls into that to some degree as well. Most people I have ever met hate Gates, and have only softened on him the more money he has given away.

    I don't want capitalism to be embattled. It is embattled. It is blamed for the economic situation we are in, when it was government action that caused it. We allow the government to regulate more and more and more the less and less we trust capitalism. That is cultural. I would prefer for capitalism to not be embattled, for people to accept good economics, for there to be a separation of state and economy so the economy can proliferate like religion and the arts have done in the U.S. with their separations from the state. I would prefer to be able to write my plays and not have to fight for a better world, because that world is already here.

    In any case, anyone who does not think the culture industry and cultural critics aren't vehemently anti-market haven't been paying the least bit of attention to what is going on there. I do. Seriously, what is the ratio of pro-market to anti-market films? T.V. shows? plays? novels? How many have businessmen antagonists vs. government protagonists? How about the other way around?

  3. I listed a three non-entertainers, and your argument is that we like them because... they're likable? I'm not sure how to respond to that Troy! Doesn't that prove my point?

    As for oilmen - what about T. Boone Pickens or Ross Perot. America loves a good oilman. John D. Rockefeller is in the American pantheon! It's true - we get fussy when you spill a bunch of oil on our beaches. But yet again - it seems quite reasonable to me to get fussy about that sort of thing. There's no sense in which the general outcry is an outcry against businessmen.

    When you ask about pro-market art, I think what you're looking for is libertarian art. It's true, there might not be a lot of that. But I'm not sure that really matters.

    I've linked this on my blog, btw - if you're interested there may be some discussion of these issues by my commenters too.

  4. That's not what I said. I said we like them for reasons other than their being businessmen. For qualities other than being successful businessmen. We like T. Boone Pickens because he's publicly for green energy (he would be less liked if people understood him for being the rent-seeker he actually is on this issue). People like Ross Perot because he's eccentric. People like Rockefeller because he gave so much of his money away. They are liked not for being businessmen, but for traits other than their being businessmen.

    As for "libertarian art" -- not to split hairs, but I would classify what I'm after as "classical liberal" art in a sense (it's really much more complex than that, but that's almost a book's worth of explaining what I mean). And if I am right that the arts act as one of the major realms of immanent criticism on our various spontaneous orders and culture, it does matter.

    Thanks for the link! The more discussion, the better. That's how ideas are formulated and refined.

  5. The ways businessmen and capitalism are presented are not typically as blatant as "All businessmen are corrupt and capitalism is the root of all evil," but are rather more subtle than that. How are certain characters portrayed vs. others? What novels are chosen? What theories are used to interpret texts?

    In the case of the latter, pretty much the only economic analysis used in literary analysis is Marxism. The New Critics were mostly anti-market Southerners, and the postmodernists are primarily anti-market (even if they are wary of Marxism too as a totalizing ideology). This is why the Canto & Cox book is so groundbreaking.

    If you haven't encountered such in your undergrad humanities classes, it is because (I am guessing) they were required classes, and thus were mostly overviews merely designed to expose you to some humanities. In such classes you are going to experience the far more subtle versions than you would get in upper level and certainly grad level humanities classes. In lower level classes, it is more choices of reading material than anything. Who, after all, questions the way that government and the economy and businessmen are portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath when it's taught? Few, if any. I was one of those few. But I had learned enough economics, including the economics of the Great Depression, to understand what really happened (the unseen) vs. what appeared to be happening (the seen).

    1. I'm guessing we might have different views on the economics of the Great Depression.

      I recall liking Grapes of Wrath a great deal, but I confess it's been years since I read it and I don't remember much talk about government or businessmen.

      My guilty pleasure movie is Armageddon. That's got a very healthy view of businessmen - and offshore oilmen of all businessmen!

  6. Part of the thing to keep in mind is that people should gripe about things they don't like. We should see criticism of business, just as there should be criticism of government, religious institutions, our elders, the arts, etc. This criticism is the engine of emergent order, after all - it's a feedback that corrects the system. Recently I watched The Impressionists, a BBC miniseries about - you guessed it - the Impressionists. It was fascinating, and one of the interesting things was that not only were these guys critical of the established artistic order (some of which was state-dictated, but some of which wasn't) - they were highly critical of each other in a lot of cases. I think it's important to keep in mind that just because someone is portrayed critically, it doesn't mean that the institution itself is held in disrepute. There's cause to have villain businessmen. Businessmen can be villainous! But that's really a statement about what we value and don't value in a businessman, not a demonization of that class of people. It's precisely because we value these things that we take the time to criticize them. I love a good root-out-government-corruption movie, but that's because I like good government, not because I think "all government is corrupt".

    The other thing to keep in mind is that art about corrupt government or corrupt businessmen or corrupt families may also seem common because corruption is often more interesting than uprightness.

    1. I am hardly arguing against the critical role of literature -- I did argue it acts as immanent criticism, after all! And there is no story without a problem. But if the solution is almost always some government official riding in on his white horse, there is a certain lack of critical insight there as well. Why can't the protagonist be another businessman? Or the antagonist government bureaucrats? Or rent-seekers? One of the great pro-market scenes in film was in The Aviator, where he was fighting the rent-seekers in his testimony in Congress. But that is the exception, not the rule.

      I am merely arguing for an immanent criticism that doesn't assume the government to be the hero more often than not. The criticism needs to be more widespread. More, we need more tragic art -- in which people trying to do the right thing end up doing the wrong thing because of their ignorance, institutions, etc. Not all problems stem from corruption. It can come from arrogance from believing you know, or can know, more than you do.

      Also, the root out government corruption stories inevitably make the case that the problem is with the people, not the institutions -- and that if we only had the right people in charge, everything would be fine. There is no institutional questioning. But, again, that would be tragic art.

  7. Steinbeck argues in the book that the orange growers were spraying the picked oranges with kerosine to drive up orange prices. However, it was the federal government which had passed a law requiring farmers to destroy much of their crops in order to drive up prices in order to protect farmers from low prices. Thus, what appeared to be happening was not what was really happening.

    Well, in Armageddon, they needed drillers. They recruited workers (almost always heroes), not CEO's. Of course, CEO's wouldn't have done anyone the least good up there, either! :-)