The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Part 2

Part 2: “Swapping” as an Entrepreneurial Response to Poverty

(Read Part 1 here.)

The central response to poverty observed by Carol Stack in All Our Kin was the formation of kin networks based on de facto acts of motherhood and the willingness of fathers to take responsibility for their children, whether in or out of wedlock. These kin networks formed the basis for the use of reciprocal exchange to extend the effective size of the household in “The Flats.” An interesting exercise for EconLib readers while reading this book is to find the ways that Stack might have better understood those exchanges if she had a background in basic microeconomics.

Stack devotes an entire chapter to what she terms “swapping.” Faced with deep deprivation, nothing can go to waste or sit idly, whether a physical object or the time of residents. The solution is what Stack terms an “intricately interwoven” system of exchange through which resources, including time, are given to others in the community with the expectation that they will reciprocate at some point in the future. It is tempting to see this as mutual gifting or barter, but the swapping of The Flats is better understood as a sophisticated form of credit. If you received resources from other members of the community, the expectation was that you would reciprocate. Stack defines the swapping process as the exchange of “any object or service offered with the intent of obligating” (1974, 34). These exchanges could involve anything from household objects like a TV or coffee pot, to things like clothing or cash, but also to services such as childcare and housing. Most strikingly, children were frequently moved from house to house over the course of their childhood as it became easier for one or another relative to care for them. Note how this challenges the standard idea that a family exists within one household.

The economic function of swapping is that it became a way to reallocate resources to those who needed them most at any particular time. Stack sometimes implies that this swapping wasn’t “productive,” but from a subjectivist perspective, all of these exchanges were mutually beneficial and utility-enhancing. Economically, this sort of exchange behavior can be seen in three complementary ways. First, it is a form of credit, as Stack’s use of the phrase “with the intent of obligating” suggests. Those who have objects or time or space that is greater than their current needs can “save” by providing those resources to others with the expectation of being able to draw on that saving later in the form of resources from the recipient. Second, swapping can be seen as a way of minimizing the “idleness” of resources. A typical middle-class family might think nothing of having a closet full of clothes that are there in case we want them. In a poor community, unworn clothes would be seen as wastefully idle. They could be put to a more valuable use by being worn by other members of the community. Clothing not currently being used was fair game for swapping. One can extend this analysis to other household objects as well as household space and the time of community members. If some kin find themselves with the time to care for the child of other kin who are struggling, they will do so with the expectation of reciprocation down the road.

Finally, swapping’s main economic effect was extending the effective size of a household to the entire network of kin. What swapping does is to enable people to draw on a larger range of other people and resources as inputs into household production. Whether taking the form of financial resources, objects like a couch or clothing, or time devoted to child care, swapping enables residents of “The Flats” to not be limited to what is available within the four walls of their homes for household production. Living space, childcare, and other resources can come from anyone or anywhere within their personal kindred. The combination of large personal kindreds and swapping enabled families to have access to more resources, both human and material, than a superficial approach might suggest.

The message of All Our Kin was not that the Black family was “just fine.” Rather it was that in order to understand how social institutions actually operate, we need to be willing to challenge our pre-existing categories, and try to understand how the people themselves see their situation and what sorts of steps they are taking to ameliorate it. The synoptic, statistical data-driven perspective of governments, often combined with an uncritical acceptance of their own experiences of institutions like the family as both descriptively and prescriptively “normal,” can hide the myriad ways that entrepreneurial humans respond to the challenges of poverty. The result in the 1960s was an overstatement of the dysfunctionality of Black families, creating a problematic cultural meme that would persist and negatively affect policy making for decades.

 

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The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Some Observations on Carol Stack’s All Our Kin

Part I: The Household, The Family, and the State

Carol Stack’s All Our Kin is a classic ethnography from the late 1960s. The context for the book was the Moynihan Report on the state of the Black family produced by the U.S. government in 1965. The report’s conclusion was that the Black family was dysfunctional and in disarray. Stack and others explored the validity of that conclusion and examined the question of whether the official data used in the report had missed aspects of the lived lives of Black families, particularly poor ones. Stack’s strategy adopted a radical approach: she engaged in participant-observer research by living in a poor, urban, Black community in the American Midwest, which she refers to as “The Flats.” She spent several years there, integrating herself into the community to the extent possible. This enabled her to see the workings of family structure from the inside in a way not possible when one looks only at the statistical data and similar forms of evidence. The conclusion of All Our Kin is that even though poor Black families were not functioning ideally, they were not nearly as dysfunctional as portrayed in the Moynihan Report.

I first read All Our Kin in the context of teaching about the family. One of the key insights of the book is that we have to disentangle function and form when we analyze the family, as well as other social institutions. Too often we assume that only one kind of form can provide the function we expect from an institution. With the family, we tend to treat the two-parent nuclear family this way. But we also see this with various structures of property rights, as Elinor Ostrom’s work on community responses to commons problems has shown us. If we treat one particular form as a proxy for function, we can miss the creative ways in which humans develop other practices and norms that can perform the same function. Understanding how particular social structures attempt to solve specific problems will require the kind of up close work that Stack did in this book, and that Ostrom did in her research as well. If we base policy on the assumption that there’s only one set of social practices that can solve a particular problem, we are highly likely to overlook the invisible order-generating processes that both Stack and Ostrom observed. Even if these alternative institutions do not perform ideally, they may be the comparatively best option we have, or they may point us in a different direction in the search for changes in policy or other institutions that would improve outcomes. Stack’s book shows that family policy needs to take account of the actual bottom-up sources of social order, particularly in the context of families of color or immigrant families, where histories of poverty, current discrimination, and the legacy of slavery have produced a wider variety of functional family structures.

Stack’s book is of interest to Econlib readers in particular for several reasons. (I have a more extensive treatment of Stack in my chapter “Reciprocity, Calculation, and Non-Market Exchange,” in  Commerce and Community: Ecologies of Social Cooperation, Robert F. Garnett Jr., Paul Lewis, and Lenore T. Ealy, eds., New York: Routledge, 2015.) The first reason is that it represents a challenge to the way governments collect data and use them to make policy. In that way, Stack’s book anticipates some of the themes in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, written three decades later. The Moynihan report approached its subject matter with a framework that was based on a particular view of the family and that wanted to organize what it found in ways that were amenable to public policy, particularly the policies from the era of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. In choosing that approach, it could not see the way people “on the ground” actually organized their family life and how that structure enabled them to respond to poverty and discrimination in reasonably effective ways. All Our Kin is a great story about human adaptability and the importance of bottom-up social coordination, both of which are frequently overlooked by the state.

The specific ways in which families in “The Flats” responded to poverty are also relevant to classical liberals. The Moynihan Report noted the frequency of fatherless families and portrayed them as evidence of the black family’s dysfunctionality. Many non-resident fathers did take on varying degrees of responsibility for their children, but this did not always, or even often, involve legal marriage. Unlike the standard model of the family held up as the ideal by the Moynihan Report, the families of “The Flats” (like other poor families, both historically and globally today) relied on persons outside the nuclear family and physical household to provide income and various forms of household production such as child care. For poor, Black families of this era, the “family” and the “household” were not coterminous in the way they tended to be for white observers.

What observers term as “extended family” was crucial to this adaptability. Mothers relied on their relatives, especially other women, to provide both physical resources and time. In addition, if the father stepped up and took responsibility for his child, even outside of a legal marriage, his extended family was brought into the kin network of the mother and child and could be drawn upon for various kinds of resources. Of additional importance is that the biological mother need not be the de facto mother for purposes of identifying whose extended family will be drawn upon. Motherhood, as well as a variety of other familial relationships, were defined within the community through a long-standing system of evolved norms. Stack argues: “The system of rights and duties should not be confused with the official, written statutory law of the state,” and that these rights and duties are “enforced only by sanctions within the community” (1974, 46). The evolution of norms and the social coordination that results, though pressed upon these families by poverty, are very much a Hayekian spontaneous order process, and one that was hidden from the official view of the state.

 

Part II coming next week.


*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s libertarianism.org. He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.

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Baseball, Black History, and Bottom-Up Integration

In early 1964, in the immediate aftermath of Jackie Robinson’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robinson put together a rather triumphalist book with dozens of friends and colleagues from across the world of baseball entitled Baseball Has Done It. In a series of interviews, Robinson occasionally interjects his thoughts on the years before, during and immediately after his entry into Major League Baseball in 1947. The interviews are with management, coaches, and players, including those who were for breaking the “color barrier,” those willing to let it happen, and even a few who were against it at the time. For those interested in history as it happened, discussed by the people who made it, it is a singular and valuable document.

 

That makes the publication history of this book surprising. The 1964 edition published by J. B. Lippincott appears to be the only version of this book available until Ig Publishing put together a paperback edition in 2005 with a short introduction by Spike Lee. Copies of the original appear to be rare online, which is a shame as the 2005 edition (the version I have) is filled with printer errors and formatting problems. Why would this book, which represents the first draft of an important moment in baseball and social history, get such shoddy treatment and so few copies?

The answer to that question, I believe, has something to do with both the content and the timing of the book itself. The very title of the book has a finality to it. As it was published shortly before the final passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this makes sense. But of course, the assassination of JFK hangs over the general optimism of the book, and is not mentioned anywhere in the text. By the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the book may have seemed antiquated, or at least naïve.

Language is also an issue of note throughout the book that could possibly turn off readers in later years. Robinson and all his interviewees use the word Negro, and occasionally colored people, to refer to themselves and African-Americans generally. Almost all of the people in this book played in the Negro Leagues and grew up in the Jim Crow South, so this makes complete historical sense. But the book, again, had the unfortunate timing to be published at the very end of the acceptability of that language. By the end of the 1960s, Black was the more common term, and Negro had been labeled as insulting and demeaning.

Besides word choice, the language of how Robinson and others express the defeat of racial prejudice in baseball changes significantly during the 1960s. For example, in Robinson’s introductory chapter he writes about his experience being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

I was welcomed to beautiful Cooperstown, New York, where high officials of baseball did everything in their power to make that day the happiest of my life. No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. (24-25)

That language of color-blindness and a world that had purged prejudice so completely that it did not even need to be recognized is not something that survived the 1960s. Robinson expresses here as a positive experience something that many today would see as a serious omission.

Despite these issues, this book is valuable in showing the thoughts and strategy behind breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Branch Rickey, Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team that brought Jackie Robinson in during the 1947 season, spoke about the lesser known second black player in baseball:

I was alone in the majors in 1947 as the sponsor of a Negro player until Bill Veeck [owner of the Indians] signed [Larry] Doby that July. I do not know Veeck’s opinion about Negroes at that time, as I never had any conversation with him on the subject. But I can give you my opinion on Veeck’s position: he would be the first one in baseball to embrace any innovation, and therefore I would accept him as the one to hire a Negro quicker than anyone I can think of, not because of race, not because he was grappling with a social problem. That would be completely foreign to him. He would not let any tradition interfere with his policy of winning a pennant for his Indians.

After he signed Doby I did advise him to follow the same procedure that I had devised [with Robinson]. “Don’t allow incidents to happen,” I told him. “Control the boy!” (68-69)

While Branch Rickey and few others were forthright about their desire to integrate baseball, Rickey claims he had no desire throughout the process to convince anyone of the moral correctness of it. Instead, he was convinced that Negro League talent would speak for itself and force every team to integrate in order to compete. Time and competition would do the work of integration.

Ford Frick was National League President from 1934 to 1951 and then MLB Commissioner from 1951 to 1965. He provided a chapter in Robinson’s book:

It’s not baseball’s function to crusade or to point the finger at state laws. Our theory is that Negroes want to play in baseball and we want the very best players available anywhere. Baseball will go anywhere where we’re wanted. If we can’t take our Negro players into certain cities, our policy is to stay away … If this policy has been effective in desegregating these towns … it’s because they want baseball. (113)

Baseball Has Done It provides a powerful record of a particular moment in time. It is a moment when a largely private institution, such as baseball, could integrate not through top-down fiat or law but through wise and forward-looking business decisions. The success of those decisions created a short-lived optimism about the prospects for long-term racial harmony in America. Unfortunately, history, politics, assassination, and resistance interfered with this model and Jackie Robinson’s optimistic title looks naïve in retrospect. 

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Amity Shlaes and the challenges for free market scholars

In 2018, Amity Shlaes had an impressive essay in the City Journal. I’ve read it only now because it was published on the City Journal’s website. That is quite apropos, given the controversy surrounding US history at the moment.

Shlaes’s thesis is outlined in the very first lines:

Free marketeers may sometimes win elections, but they are not winning U.S. history. In recent years, the consensus regarding the American past has slipped leftward, and then leftward again.” Freedom is under appreciated in academia, equality is over appreciated: this is building a narrative that emphasizes political fights for equality at the expense of the springs of economic opportunity.

Shlaes focuses on top political figures. Her hero, to whom she devoted a splendid biography, is Calvin Coolidge, Coolidge is described in the article as a staunch fighter for economic freedom, who put “markets first,” understanding their power in creating prosperity. He reversed the quite inauspicious beginning of the 1920s through tax cuts which worked as they are supposed to, according to the supply-side playbook. A sort of anti-hero is Herbert Hoover (“Hoover thoroughly intimidated business and markets, blaming them for hogging too much of the money”) and an even bigger anti-hero is Lyndon Johnson, who simply “assumed growth”, thinking that free enterprise would produce its marvels whatever the incentives.

The essay finishes with a plea to “fostering of new institutions that will, in turn, nurture economics thinkers who dare to acknowledge the merits of markets.” I’d be interested in Shlaes’s view, two years after her piece, about how we are doing toady. Has the pandemic weakened or strengthened those institutions? Can the intellectual movement for free enterprise flourish after Covid19? Or is it substantially more feeble and less cogent now, both in the fields of history and economics?

 


Editor’s Note: Shlaes recorded a podcast with Law & Liberty focused on her Coolidge biography.

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David Hume on Ancient Revolutions

The longest essay in the modern edition of David Hume’s Essays  is “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” first published in 1752. The essay aims to discomfort those who lionize the ancients of Greece and Rome, by arguing, in effect, that neither had succeeded in establishing a political order that truly achieved what we today would call the rule of law. That is a mark of “every wise, just, and mild government” (382). The moderns have succeeded better, somehow.

The establishment of the rule of law in an extensive territory would bring prosperity, and prosperity would be reflected in populousness. Thus, Hume uses populousness to assess the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece and Rome were much less populous than many like to think, and, thus, less prosperous, and less glorious.

Hume proceeds through a number of major aspects of the empirical question of populousness, highlighting the violence, capriciousness, and brutality of ancient society. The first is slavery. He explains why it is wholly detrimental to populousness, and, indeed, this section of the essay (pp. 383-397) is nothing short of an excoriation of slavery.

Next, Hume writes about infanticide and of the “great” families, which he presents as a sort of cult (398), with practices by no means conducive to the raising up of large families.

Next he turns to the “political customs” (400) and “political maxims and institutions” (404), treating a number of facets, including war and revolution. These too, he says, should make us skeptical about claims of ancient prosperity and populousness. About ancient revolutions, Hume writes:

In ancient history, we may always observe, where one party prevailed, whether the nobles or people (for I can observe no difference in this respect) that they immediately butchered all of the opposite party who fell into their hands, and banished such as had been so fortunate as to escape their fury. No form of process, no law, no trial, no pardon. A fourth, a third, perhaps near half of the city was slaughtered, or expelled, every revolution; and the exiles always joined foreign enemies, and did all the mischief possible to their fellow-citizens; till fortune put it in their power to take full revenge by a new revolution. And as these were frequent in such violent governments, the disorder, diffidence, jealousy, enmity, which must prevail, are not easy for us to imagine in this age of the world.

There are only two revolutions I can recollect in ancient history, which passed without great severity, and great effusion of blood in massacres and assassinations, namely, the restoration of the Athenian Democracy by Thrasybulus, and the subduing of the Roman republic by Cæsar. We learn from ancient history, that Thrasybulus passed a general amnesty for all past offences; and first introduced that word, as well as practice, into Greece. It appears, however, from many orations of Lysias, that the chief, and even some of the subaltern offenders, in the preceding tyranny, were tried, and capitally punished. And as to Cæsar’s clemency, though much celebrated, it would not gain great applause in the present age. He butchered, for instance, all Cato’s senate, when he became master of Utica; and these, we may readily believe, were not the most worthless of the party. All those who had borne arms against that usurper, were attainted; and, by Hirtius’s law, declared incapable of all public offices.

These people were extremely fond of liberty; but seem not to have understood it very well. When the thirty tyrants [a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC] first established their dominion at Athens, they began with seizing all the sycophants and informers, who had been so troublesome during the Democracy, and putting them to death by an arbitrary sentence and execution. Every man, says Sallust and Lysias, was rejoiced at these punishments; not considering, that liberty was from that moment annihilated. (407-408)

Hume goes on to address the security of life and property and the attitudes toward and extent of commerce and trade. He throws salt on ancient accounts that have suggested great populousness, and highlights other ancient remarks suggesting otherwise.

Happiness, prosperity, and populousness depend on the rule of law. Let us hope that it will be there for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.

 

 

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Daniel Layman and the forgotten Lockeans

For the Independent Review, I’ve reviewed Locke Among the Radicals by Daniel Layman. It is a splendid book, which rediscovers “a coterie of nineteenth-century radical Lockeans with a penchant for anarchy and anti-capitalism”: Thomas Hodgskin (1797–1869), Lysander Spooner (1808–1887), John Bray (1809–1897) and Henry George (1839–1897). This is an unlikely lot, as these thinkers do not particularly resemble each other and are hardly considered in conjunction. But they are, in different ways, radicals who were strongly influenced by John Locke. Layman suggests that, in our usual understanding of the history of ideas, we tend to believe that Locke was unimportant in the 19th century and that he emerged again as an influence over political thinking in the second half of the 20th century.

It is quite interesting that Locke became central again for liberal thinkers after WWII. Those who fueled this Lockean renaissance were not necessarily friends or advocates of liberalism, but scholars who, like Peter Laslett or C.B. Macpherson, contributed substantially in placing Locke again at the center of the history of liberalism. Then Robert Nozick came and the influence of Anarchy, State and Utopia made the sort of natural rights classical liberalism that Locke embodied again a matter of discussion for political philosophers, and not exclusively for those more versed in the history of ideas.

I suppose it is relatively commonplace to say that Locke was not so important to understand 19th century liberalism; most such champions were Utilitarians. Layman looks for “Lockean influences” in the 19th century and finds them in radicals that foreshadowed developments that we can also acknowledge in the post-Nozick debate.

The book thus aims at correcting the view of the irrelevance of Locke in the 19th century, and it does so persuasively. Layman’s treatment of Spooner’s work is particularly noteworthy. The review is critical of the conclusions of the book when it comes to the actuality of Locke. But I cannot recommend it highly enough and I’ve learned a lot from it.

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Five Books for Shakespeare Lovers, or Those Who Want to Be: Doorways In

If you’re enjoying this week’s EconTalk episode with Scott Newstok, you might be ready to jump in and read more about The Bard. There is an almost unlimited supply of books on Shakespeare. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the onslaught of critical literature, popular treatments, retellings, revisionings, and performances. It’s glorious.

It also makes creating a list of five recommended books about Shakespeare an almost impossible task. Do we recommend the classic works? The newest? The most popular? The most fun? Do we focus on the writer or the writing? How do we find a way into the grand edifice we have made of the poet, the playwright, the glove-maker’s son? 

I’ve decided to suggest 5 books (and a few extra) that I think provide a variety of useful and interesting doorways into Shakespeare. They’re older works, not cutting edge scholarship, primarily because older works tend to be written for a more general audience. And there are no biographies, primarily because my own personal interest is much more focused on Shakespeare’s work rather than on his life.

Think of each of these suggestions as a different doorway through which you can walk. They all take you into the same building, but through slightly different paths. Pick the doorway you think sounds the most interesting. 

 

Holinshed’s Chronicles: This is the great chronicle history of England that Shakespeare used as source material for his history plays as well as for plays like King Lear and Macbeth. There’s something really wonderful about reading what Shakespeare was reading while he was writing. If you’re so inclined, it’s also a fine way to think about the artistic changes he made to the accepted history of his day as he turned it into theater.  I have an ancient copy of the Everyman Library collection of excerpts from Holinshed titled Holinshed’s Chronicles as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays. It’s out of print, but you can find it used fairly easily, and at a wide range of prices. You can also get the full text of Holinshed online at The Holinshed Project

 

Shakespeare’s Bawdy: Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like, and he never met a raunchy pun he didn’t like even better. Slang has changed so much since he wrote, however, that his best bits of blue humor often slip right past the modern reader. Eric Partridge’s classic study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, is the key to uncoding Shakespeare’s naughtiest, and often funniest jokes. You won’t believe what you missed in high school. (This book may also be the key to getting your own reluctant high school Shakespeare student to do the assigned reading.)

 

Theater History: The Elizabethan theatrical world was vibrant, rapidly changing, and politically and economically fascinating. Andrew Gurr’s Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London and Bart Van Es’s Shakespeare in Company usher you into Shakespeare’s theater as a physical space and as a company of actors and community of playwrights. Combine them with a virtual tour of London’s reconstruction of the Globe theater for a fuller understanding of what it would have been like to be in Shakespeare’s audience, or in his cast. 

 

Lectures on Shakespeare: There are few things more glorious than the experience of reading a great writer writing about another great writer. W.H. Auden’s set of essays titled “The Shakespearean City” from his book The Dyer’s Hand is a stunning literary project in its own right, but it is also good, deep, and thoughtful writing on Shakespeare’s plays. Paired with Lectures on Shakespeare, the series of lectures Auden delivered at the New School in the 1940s, you’ll have a private course on Shakespeare taught by one of the great modern poets. What could be better? 

 

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Before Shakespeare was a wildly popular playwright, he was a wildly popular writer of sonnets. Sir Patrick Stewart read one a day for 154 days at the beginning of the Covid quarantines, bringing new life and new attention to these often sadly neglected works. Those recordings, and Helen Vendler’s unequalled The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which analyzes each sonnet in its own tight 3-4 page essay, will give any reader a deeper appreciation for the rich and varied poetic technique that undergirds the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s language. 

 

P.S. You can read the complete works of Shakespeare for free online at our sister site, the OLL.

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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 2

The TPOC Book Club continues its march through Chapter 1, “Ignorance Is Strength.” Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

After the revolutionary period of the fifties and sixties, society regrouped itself, as always, into High, Middle, and Low. But the new High group, unlike all its forerunners, did not act upon instinct but knew what was needed to safeguard its position. It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly.

Coming from a socialist like Orwell, this is a major concession.  Why, you may ask, does collective ownership defuse complaints about wealth and privilege?  Social Desirability Bias, of course.  “This is mine” sounds bad; “This is ours” sounds good.  But aren’t corporations also joint property?  Indeed.  To cash in on the psychological appeal of collective ownership, you desperately need a clear-cut “non-profit” label.  Government, organized religion, and charity all get a pass, but rich people pooling their resources definitely does not.

The so-called ‘abolition of private property’ which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before: but with this difference, that the new owners were a group instead of a mass of individuals. Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything in Oceania, because it controls everything, and disposes of the products as it thinks fit.

Great!  I wish that economists who do international comparisons of inequality had the same insight.

In the years following the Revolution it was able to step into this commanding position almost unopposed, because the whole process was represented as an act of collectivization. It had always been assumed that if the capitalist class were expropriated, Socialism must follow: and unquestionably the capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport — everything had been taken away from them: and since these things were no longer private property, it followed that they must be public property. Ingsoc, which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist programme; with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.

If you read 1984 closely, it’s clear that measured economic inequality would be quite low.  What’s distinctive about Orwell’s dystopia is the immense inequality of power.

But the problems of perpetuating a hierarchical society go deeper than this. There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern. These causes do not operate singly, and as a rule all four of them are present in some degree. A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently. Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.

Indeed.  I’ve long maintained that the Soviet Union would still be around today if Gorbachev had been a self-confident Stalinist instead of a weak-kneed reformer.

After the middle of the present century, the first danger had in reality disappeared. Each of the three powers which now divide the world is in fact unconquerable, and could only become conquerable through slow demographic changes which a government with wide powers can easily avert.

All-out nuclear war could probably do the trick.  Orwell elsewhere posits that a major nuclear war leads to a common realization of the necessity of avoiding further use of nuclear weapons.  But once countries start mutually nuking each other, it’s easy to see how things could spiral out of control.

The second danger, also, is only a theoretical one. The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.

The recurrent economic crises of past times were totally unnecessary and are not now permitted to happen, but other and equally large dislocations can and do happen without having political results, because there is no way in which discontent can become articulate.

Well-said.  Remember: The Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s when conditions were, by Soviet standards, excellent.  During the 30s, millions of Soviet citizens starved, but the regime was never in danger of internal revolt.

As for the problem of overproduction, which has been latent in our society since the development of machine technique, it is solved by the device of continuous warfare (see Chapter III), which is also useful in keying up public morale to the necessary pitch.

Actually, this problem of “overproduction” was never anything more than a problem of sticky wages and bad monetary policy.  If you can’t profitably employ all of the resources that exist, you simply need to cut input prices.  If that’s off the table, you can just print more money.  This isn’t idle theory.  Since Orwell’s time, many First World countries have had low unemployment even though production continues to rise.  And some of them – like Japan – have virtually no military to speak of.  And look what happened to the U.S. when the Cold War ended.  Military spending as a share of GDP crashed – and the economy boomed.

From the point of view of our present rulers, therefore, the only genuine dangers are the splitting-off of a new group of able, under-employed, power-hungry people, and the growth of liberalism and scepticism in their own ranks. The problem, that is to say, is educational. It is a problem of continuously moulding the consciousness both of the directing group and of the larger executive group that lies immediately below it. The consciousness of the masses needs only to be influenced in a negative way.

Brilliant.

Given this background, one could infer, if one did not know it already, the general structure of Oceanic society. At the apex of the pyramid comes Big Brother. Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful… His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organization.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Politics is the religion of modernity.

Below Big Brother comes the Inner Party, its numbers limited to six millions, or something less than 2 per cent of the population of Oceania. Below the Inner Party comes the Outer Party, which, if the Inner Party is described as the brain of the State, may be justly likened to the hands. Below that come the dumb masses whom we habitually refer to as ‘the proles’, numbering perhaps 85 per cent of the population.

Orwell neglects the possibility of a power struggle within the Inner Party.  If Oceania existed, this alone would create the instability necessary for regime change.

In principle, membership of these three groups is not hereditary. The child of Inner Party parents is in theory not born into the Inner Party. Admission to either branch of the Party is by examination, taken at the age of sixteen. Nor is there any racial discrimination, or any marked domination of one province by another. Jews, Negroes, South Americans of pure Indian blood are to be found in the highest ranks of the Party, and the administrators of any area are always drawn from the inhabitants of that area.

This is one of the least plausible features of Orwell’s dystopia.  There is always demographic imbalance of power, and these imbalances are easy for power-hungry politicians to demagogue.  The kind of cultural homogeneity Orwell pictures would take centuries for even the most totalitarian regime to engineer.  Witness the breakup of the Soviet Union after seen decades of “We’re all Soviet citizens” propaganda.

 It is true that our society is stratified, and very rigidly stratified, on what at first sight appear to be hereditary lines. There is far less to-and-fro movement between the different groups than happened under capitalism or even in the pre-industrial age. Between the two branches of the Party there is a certain amount of interchange, but only so much as will ensure that weaklings are excluded from the Inner Party and that ambitious members of the Outer Party are made harmless by allowing them to rise.

Very consistent with Clark’s The Son Also Rises.  Though strikingly, Orwell suggests no role for politically-powerful families to grow rich by corruption.  For Orwell, kin relations are strangely fragile; the government’s effort to turn children against their parents is almost totally successful.  In contrast, the Party continuously persecutes romance because it recognizes the power of the pair-bonding instinct.  In the real world, however, kin relations seem much more resilient than romantic bonds – and a much firmer basis for organized graft.

Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. The most gifted among them, who might possibly become nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated. But this state of affairs is not necessarily permanent, nor is it a matter of principle.

A strange situation.  You’d expect the Party to constantly recruit from the proles, and eliminate only the talented proles who resist recruitment.

In the crucial years, the fact that the Party was not a hereditary body did a great deal to neutralize opposition. The older kind of Socialist, who had been trained to fight against something called ‘class privilege’ assumed that what is not hereditary cannot be permanent. He did not see that the continuity of an oligarchy need not be physical, nor did he pause to reflect that hereditary aristocracies have always been shortlived, whereas adoptive organizations such as the Catholic Church have sometimes lasted for hundreds or thousands of years.

Again, brilliant.

All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived. Physical rebellion, or any preliminary move towards rebellion, is at present not possible. From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is.

This bleak picture is close to literally true.  Consider: Haiti appears to be the sole durably successful slave revolt in history.  Contra Orwell, slaves often feel the desire to rebel.  But that impulse rarely leads to a blueprint for social reform.  And even if it did, the coordination problem is crushing.

They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly; but, since military and commercial rivalry are no longer important, the level of popular education is actually declining.

Orwell seems to assume absurdly high Transfer of Learning.  Once a prole learns how to program a computer, he’ll soon figure out how to reform society.  In practice, however, learning is highly compartmentalized.  So Orwell’s dystopia is even more stable than it looks.  Even if the proles were trained for high-tech jobs, few would spontaneously grasp that the social order “could be other than it is.”

What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect. In a Party member, on the other hand, not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated.

If you’re getting a sense of deja vu, ask yourself: “How afraid are minimum wage workers of being ‘cancelled’ for their social media posts?”

A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected. Nothing that he does is indifferent… A Party member is required to have not only the right opinions, but the right instincts.

Many of the beliefs and attitudes demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be stated without laying bare the contradictions inherent in Ingsoc. If he is a person naturally orthodox (in Newspeak a goodthinker), he will in all circumstances know, without taking thought, what is the true belief or the desirable emotion.

Indeed.

But in any case an elaborate mental training, undergone in childhood and grouping itself round the Newspeak words crimestopblackwhite, and doublethink, makes him unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatever.

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate, and the speculations which might possibly induce a sceptical or rebellious attitude are killed in advance by his early acquired inner discipline. The first and simplest stage in the discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called, in Newspeak, crimestopCrimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts… This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.

These words seem more relevant than ever, as I’ve been saying lately.  The big difference, of course, is that contemporary Western Thought Police are soft and disorganized.  A few crazies aside, what I call the “uniformity and exclusion movement” advocates no punishment harsher than blacklist from high-skilled employment and ostracism from high-status society.  Scary, but a far cry from jail, slave labor, or death.  And most of their wrath focuses on emotionally-charged incidents.  There’s no master plan, just a kaleidoscope of rage.

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John Kay on Mariana Mazzucato’s Capitalism

In the Financial Times John Kay reviews the new book by Mariana Mazzucato. The book is called Mission Economy. A Moonshot Guide to Change Capitalism.

Mazzucato, like she did before, argues for governments “creating market” and “steering” capitalism in one direction or another. Ambitious goals should fuel mission-oriented capitalism, with government at the helm.

Kay has many excellent points but I particularly commend these:

But Apollo was a success because the objective was specific and limited; the basic science was well understood, even if many subsidiary technological developments were needed to make the mission feasible; and the political commitment to the project was sufficiently strong to make budget overruns almost irrelevant. Centrally directed missions have sometimes succeeded when these conditions are in place; Apollo was a response to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a human into space, and the greatest achievement of the USSR was the mobilisation of resources to defeat Nazi Germany. Nixon’s war on cancer, explicitly modelled on the Apollo programme, was a failure because cancer is not a single illness and too little was then — or now — understood about the science of cell mutation. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a vain bid to create an industrial society within five years, proved to be one of the greatest economic and humanitarian disasters in human history. At least 30m people died. The ‘new frontier’ of the late 1960s turned out to be, not space, but IT — characterised by a striking absence of centralised vision and direction Democratic societies have more checks and balances to protect them from visionary leaders driven by missions and enthused by moonshots, but the characteristics which made the Great Leap Forward a catastrophe are nevertheless still evident in attenuated version. With political direction of innovation we regularly encounter grandiosity of ambition and scale; the belief that strength of commitment overcomes practical problems; an absence of honest feedback; the suppression of sceptical comment and marginalisation of sceptical commentators.

Read the whole thing.

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“Shakespeare in Love” and the Humanity of Business.

I’m reading Tom Stoppard’s biography by Hermione Lee. I never thought I could read 900 pages on a subject previously  unimportant to me with such delight. It is a marvelous book. Stoppard’s life is interesting and eventful, it provides a good glimpse into the world of culture and entertainment in the last quarter of the 20th century. Plus, Lee’s analyses of Stoppard’s plays are masterful.

One thing that comes out of Lee’s biography of Stoppard is how independent-minded he was, and how—as opposed to many of his colleagues—he never conceived of himself as a guru, nor a “joiner” of good causes. For example, when some of his fellow playwrights signed a letter to endorse a ban on all performances to segregated audiences, so as to signal their support for the anti-apartheid fight, he chose not to. “His instinct was against ‘isolationism’. He preferred to give his royalties to an anti-apartheid organization” but allow people to see his work.

Lee reports this comment from Stoppard to the campaigner who wanted him to join: “Of course the idea of a segregated audience is abhorrent. So too is the idea of a playwright being imprisoned or otherwise victimized for his work—but did any of your signatories, I wonder, ban productions of their plays in this time last year in Czechoslovakia, or in Poland?”. Stoppard was shocked at the hypocrisy at the invasion of Prague in 1968 and was critical of the simultaneous disdain for Western institutions and total blindness to what was happening behind the Iron curtain so common in those years among intellectuals in the “free world”.

Stoppard is hardly an “unphilosophical” writer. His work is filled with profound philosophical riddles. I never saw a performance of “Jumpers”, perhaps his most philosophical play, but after reading Lee’s book I know that, as soon as theaters come to life again, I’ll search for it. Nor did Stoppard stay away from political engagement. Quite the opposite. But his politics were quite different than many others’. See this intriguing piece by the late Norman Barry. On politics, he had a great line, used more than once in his plays: political opinions are often, and perhaps entirely, a function of temperament.

Moreover, Stoppard was not convinced that good theatre is only an occasion for a writer to show off as a good person – or an erudite one. He maintained that “a theatre’s job is to prevent people from leaving their seats before the entertainment is over”.

My acquaintance with Stoppard’s work is limited (I am not much of a theatre-goer), but the book leaves you thirsty for more. So I ended up watching and re-watching a few films to which he contributed his writing (though he preferred theatre to the cinema). I was struck by Shakespeare in Love, which I watched as a kid and found amusing, and found amusing again today. It is a constant stream of wit and jokes and deals lightly with some very important subjects, beginning with: can theatre, and art more generally, show us the nature of love?

Lee points out that “the most joyous parts of the film are the challenges of getting a play funded, cast, written into rehearsal and onto the stage. It’s a loving, comic tribute to the theatre”. There is an element in the plot that I think can be considered as subtly McCloskeyan. It hasn’t to do with Shakespeare per se, but rather with “the challenges of getting a play funded”. Most of the works of the bard “sing of honorable aristocrats or comical peasants or sweet shepherds” in spite of the fact “his audience included a big promotion of the merchants and apprentices of businesslike London” (McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity).

In “Shakespeare in Love”, impresario Philip Henslowe is in debt to the ruthless moneylender Fennyman. At the beginning of the movie, the latter is hardly a commendable person. But he is struck by the magic of theatre. He profoundly connects with the beauty of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than Henslowe, for whom the theatre is routine. Fennyman becomes a committed investor, a friend of actors, and, for a brief and hardly memorable moment, an actor himself. I suppose some people may consider his story a sort of redemption via art. I consider it quite differently. I think it is great for Shakespeare in Love to show us that business people are not blind to art and can actually grasp it better than others. It emphasizes their humanity. On the contrary, the most dislikable character in Shakespeare in Love is Lord Wessex, who marries for money, is both aristocratic and quite dishonorable in his actions, and is totally oblivious to artistic expression. In the movie, Stoppard of course celebrates those who understand art and beauty whatever class they belong to, as if they were members of a fraternity that includes usurers, apprentices, nurses, and Queen Elizabeth herself. A great celebration for art but also an indirect appreciation of the profound humanity of those who work with money and yet can be sensitive souls too.

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