June 22, 2011
The Money-grubbing Class

Buck sends along a 1932 essay in Harpers Magazine by Albert Jay Nock. By “barbarian” he meant something like the British aristocracy, which in his view still possessed a certain residual noblesse oblige. Most likely he was over-generous in this, being something of a snob himself. But a snob who could write. Here’s a passage from the article, titled Our American Upper Class:

In other societies, as a general thing, a member of the upper class is not supposed to make the accumulation of wealth his master-concern, or expected to be particularly good at it. His ancestors are supposed to have stolen enough in the first instance to enable him to rub along, merely taking care of what he has and devoting himself to other pursuits. The hoarding of wealth is not a serious infraction of the upper-class canon, though when it shows itself as a master-concern it is usually regarded with disfavor; but a master-concern with accumulation is not thought to comport with upper-class dignity…

When Mr. Hoover, Mr. Ford, Mr. Rosenwald, Mr. Sloan, Mr. Gifford, Mr. Dawes, Mr. Schwab, Mr. Farrell, Mr. Strawn talk nonsense their words are not referable to any class-criteria, for none exists; their divagations are published widely, accepted complacently, lauded uncritically, and it goes for nothing that the mere passage of time proves them to be nonsense.

The complete bankruptcy of intelligence exhibited in these representative pronouncements from our upper class should make a clean sweep of the notion so often advanced to account for the low level of our general culture, that our best minds nowadays go into business. They do not. They do not go anywhere. There is nowhere for them to go.

Our society has made no place for the individual who is able to think, who is, in the strict sense of the word, intelligent; it merely tosses him into the rubbish-heap; while picking out the stupidest millionaire in sight and placing him in the White House to the accompaniment of a deafening fanfare of adulation for his almost superhuman abilities.

Intelligence is the power and willingness always disinterestedly to see things as they are, an easy accessibility to ideas, and a free play of consciousness upon them, quite regardless of the conclusions to which this play may lead. Intelligence, therefore, while not precisely incompatible with success in accumulating wealth, is unrelated to it; hence it is disallowed by our Philistines.

It is ineffectual among our Populace, on account of that class’s intense preoccupation with the bitter problem of keeping body and soul together from day to day. The only class with which it might be effectual, our Barbarians, is virtually forbidden to transform itself by the cultivation of intelligence because of society’s strong insistence that it shall set up no class-ideals and class-criteria of its own, but shall keep steadfastly to those of the Philistines.

One may see evidence of this in the character of the great and rich educational institutions that our Barbarians have founded, as compared with those founded by the corresponding class in England. They are strictly middleclass institutions; that is to say, they are organized to do everything for the “average student,” for the motor-minded, a great deal for the incompetent, the merely clever, and sagacious, but nothing whatever for the unconsidered minority which gives promise of some day becoming intelligent.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at June 22, 2011 08:03 PM
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I actually hadn't been looking for that essay. It found me so to speak as I was wandering through the Harper's archives from the Great Depression era to see what had been written before Roosevelt arrived upon the scene and with grit and great determination single handedly created our middle class. (note that the essay was from early 1932, before Roosevelt's election, although Nock wasn't as enamored with Roosevelt as I have been in this ditty but that's another story.) I was there to compare some of what appears today in literature with what appeared in those days, those days being so similar to these. (As a great writer recently observed that there's a depression on because "I can see" - and so can I).

But by through sheer luck Nock's was one of the first essays from the 1932 archives, being in the January edition if I remember correctly. Knowing that I had found Doolittle gold, I sent it along. The Harper's archives are full of some of our best writer's work, Twain and London and a host of others from other periods being regular contributors. Well worth the $14.97 yearly admission price and a far better bargain than the NY Times pay wall.

But Nock misses I think by referring to the English who we Americans know something about in the form of the work of Dickens and his Scrooge, who probably personifies the current Republican and I am afraid to say, probably the Democratic American ruling class as we will see when they destroy Social Security and Medicare rather than toy with our military. Not that Scrooge in any way personified the British ruling class but certainly personifies ours. It therefore being likely that no one will recognize the Churchill's of that era, Churchill being always in debt up to his eyeballs but without question being part of the British ruling class - money or lack of it not being a prerequesite for entry or for an exit from that class in those days.

The Democrats will play with the edges of our most admirable Social programs, but the Republicans will surely destroy the programs completely, they being what they are.

We must keep in mind thought, that the period Nock writes about is before WWII which bankrupted Britain and correspondingly filled Fort Knox with British Gold. Were he to write the essay today I think he would have more to say about our militarists, whose ideas seem to be part of the current mindset of our moneyed but otherwise, as always, mindless noblesse Americans . That wasn't so true in Nock's day.

Posted by: Buck on June 23, 2011 7:19 AM
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