My Anti-Heroes Have Always Been Capitalists! Or, Why Everyone Hated Bill Gates Before He Started Giving Away His $$$


Anthropologist, blogger, and way-too-occasional Reason contributor Grant McCracken is absolutely one of the most interesting characters around and I heartily recommend checking out his blog, "which sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics," and latest book, Chief Culture Officer. Here's McCracken musing on why pro-capitalism stories are so few and far apart in a society that depends on the system for its wealth and comfort:

Capitalism doesn't have heroes. It doesn't have people called to higher motives. It doesn't have noble sacrifices for the good of others. It doesn't, usually, have daring action on a public stage.

No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire. He works hard, supplies a service, pays off his loans, coaches Little League, goes to church, gets his kids through college, and spends his very few disposable hours on the golf course.

Script! Casting! Some one call the studio! This is appalling. It doesn't matter that out of these mundane activities in lots of towns big and small, played out by millions of people across the US, something remarkable will come. This just isn't a story anyone wants to listen to. So no one much wants to tell it. Not Hollywood. Not our mythmakers. Not our story tellers.

The economist has spoken. It is a little clearer why we do not tell the story of capitalism. It just doesn't tell very well. But if the anthropologist may join in here. Can we at least acknowledge that there is something fabulously odd about a culture that depends on capitalism but that will not ever acknowledge it in the stories it tells itself about itself.

More here.

An interesting companion piece to this is David Levy's awesome book How The Dismal Science Got Its Name, which charts the anti-capitalist mentality in 19th-century England. Both in that book and more recent work with Sandra Peart, Levy underscores that it is precisely capitalism's lack of an epic narrative that works against its widespread valorization, as fetishizers of greatness, sacrifice, and what have you from Napoleon Bonaparte to Thomas Carlyle diminish what they take to be the feminization of martial virtue and the undercutting of a rigidly ordered, hierarchical society.

Those same attacks on capitalism and what Joseph Schumpeter identified as "creative destruction" followed through into the 20th century, where aristocrats and socialists (whether nationalist or internationalist) heaped scorn on capitalism for its alchemical ability to create and destroy exchange value, social distinctions, and "natural order." As Schumpeter put it, the main achievement of a capitalist society was not in creating more silk stockings for queens, but in making those goods available to the people who produced them for diminishing amounts of labor.

Here's another great work on the anti-capitalist mentality: Klaus Theweleit's magisterial Male Fantasies, a path-breaking cultural studies analysis of the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-capitalist mentality of the Freikorps in pre-Nazi Germany. These proto-Nazis obsessions with unpredictable flows (both menstrual and capital!) and the supposedly feminine nature of commercial society helps to explain why left-wing and right-wing Romantics dislike capitalism and its seemingly mysterious ability to create something out of nothing. Which helps explain the absolute intertwining of anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism: The "Jew" and the capitalist, typically figured as identical, are similar in that they possess secret knowledge of transmuting lead to gold and base goods to profit.

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  1. Nice post by The Jacket. John Mackey immediately came to mind. Except that he was loved then hated.

  2. In defense of the French, that poster is several weeks old.

  3. It’s just taking the current mania for inventing “externalities” out of thin air to its logical conclusion, really. If one of those externalities is that the worldview of the cultural/political elite is upended, then that elite will do what it can to compel those individuals to cease their activity, no matter how much others want it to continue.

  4. Shorter version: most people in the western world have the worldview of an overly-emotional teenager. As such, they’re easily seduced by romantic ideas of brotherhood, shared struggle, and a greater glory. Capitalist values of hard work, independence, and personal responsibility don’t resonate with them the same way.

  5. The dearth of good capitalism stories helps to illustrate why Atlas Shrugged has been both spectacularly successful and vilified. Americans have been taught since Sunday School to feel guilty about their wealth and achievements, that to justify their success they have to “give something back.” You hear that clich? every day.

    1. Also, Ayn Rand is a shitty novelist… so, you know, there’s that.

  6. These proto-Nazis obsessions with unpredictable flows (both menstrual and capital!) and the supposedly feminine nature of commercial society helps to explain why left-wing and right-wing Romantics dislike capitalism and its seemingly mysterious ability to create something out of nothing.

    Interesting take on the deep-seated mistrust of capitalism. Makes me wonder to what extent that has been twisted in modern times here in America, because it seems both left-wingers and right-wingers are confused and don’t know who to hate first.

    Mistrust dem edumicated peoples! The Repubs in particular have mastered the technique, especially over the last three presidential election cycles, of styling their candidate as a regular Joe who ain’t had too much schoolin’: a plaid-clad, chainsaw-wieldin’, virile lumberjack who never gets bogged down in all dem statistics ‘n’ facts ‘n’ foofy-girlie stuff like that. Bespectacled, skinny-jeaned software millionaires, Wall Street hedge fund managers, and other number-crunching, overeducated geeks are reviled as effeminate toadies…by the same blue-collar, Bud-drinkin’, NASCAR-watchin’, ballcap-wearin’ demographic that considers edumacated millionaires like Bushie to be their kinda folks.
    B-b-but at the same time, we lumberjack-loving right-wingers love money, and what we can do with it. We love our giant SUVs and Ford F-150s; our McMansions with garages just for our golf carts. We don’t trust those caviar-eatin’ stuffed shirts who develop and build the McMansionvilles and golf resorts, of course, but we love using their products.
    But far-lefties who revile capitalism do so for opposite reasons, though: capitalism is too masculine, too aggressive. Capitalism is rape! The filthy industrialists rape the planet. They are rapaciously competitive! They are constantly trying to get into your private areas with their insidious advertising and poisonous chemicals. They force our children to watch TV, and force us to buy chicken nuggets! Anecdotally, wander on down to some organic vegan fair-trade coffee shop in the U-District here in Seattle, and see whether you’d call any of the waifish, bespectacled men in there “masculine.” It’s not even acceptable to look like you might be masculine, if you’re an extreme lefty.
    Then, there’s the peculiar view of minorities, decidedly left-wing voters. Yes, we too, love the lifestyle. The bling, the brand names, the Vegas penthouse suites, the cars, the toys. Our music, our movies, even our books (Terry McMillan, et al) show you that we yearn for Vuitton, Gucci, and Armani labels more than anything in the world. We hunger for our moment on Rodeo Drive, South Beach, 5th Avenue. Our kids beat up your kids and steal their iPods. We want it, all right. But the elitist white mofos who make that shit, we hate ’em. But why? Because they’re perceived as effete and unmasculine, because they’re businesspeople? Interesting.

    The idea that’s been lost is that anyone can become a millionaire, and government regulation hasn’t helped. The hatred of the unattainable (possibly effeminate) capitalist ideal would probably dissipate if the people believed that all the benefits of capitalism could be theirs if they wanted them.

    1. I can’t say I know a single mossback that reviles the smart guys and gals that invent new drugs, develop great products or defends Western civilization.

      Unhappily, over the last few dacades, the intelligensia has taken a distinctly different tack, with public intellectuals openly destructive of Western civ and applying their talents in a politicized manner.

    2. Right wingers and left wingers? Sounds more like the precursors to Morlocks and Eloi.

      1. Actually, an updated subversion of the Time Machine would be awesome (where entitlements and the culture war essentially amplified the worst qualities of the stereotypical college hipster lefty and the stereotypical anti-intellectual, gun-toting, troglodyte right winger)

        Shit, when I get some free time, I’m writing that. TTM is public domain now, right?

  7. We can psychoanalyze it to death, but I think the real explanation is still the one given by Ayn Rand: it’s our Judeo-christian heritage which teaches us that profit and wealth are bad. Or as Nietzsche put it, the slave morality. Judaism was a religion for slaves: virtue lies in poverty, wealthy people are evil exploiters, yet obedience to a higher power is a duty, etc. That’s where we get our basic values as a culture. This fucked up mixture of self-abasement and resenment.

    1. Shaddup bitch and step back off our fresh dipped flow. Dems MONEY for us!

    2. Uh huh.

      The Right believes in Original Sin explicitly.

      The Left reincarnates it in the form of Environmentalism.

      Either way you have the same root premise (Man = Bad) and you get roughly the same end results (Bad).

      Okay, so now I want to know what the solution to this problem is. Does this mean we have to go out and shoot everyone who isn’t an Ayn Rand fan? Or is there a way to dry clean them that nobody’s thought of yet?

    3. Wrongity wrong wrong wrong, Ms. Meade.

      There is nothing in Judaism that teaches that profit and wealth are bad. The closest thing to this is the ban on usury, but this only applies to Jews; you can make as much profit as you want from loaning money to gentiles. Furthermore, Judaism is NOT a “religion for slaves.” If you had visited a Jewish household this past Monday or Tuesday, you would have seen a feast celebrating the spiritual and material FREEDOM of the Jews. Lastly, the entire basis for obedience to God in Judaism is based on a voluntary contractual agreement, hardly the epitome of the slave mentality. I suggest you search for those themes in Christianity, and I’d like to see your sources on these alleged themes in Judaism…

  8. Levy underscores that it is precisely capitalism’s lack of an epic narrative that works against its widespread valorization, as fetishizers of greatness, sacrifice

    I thought capitalism’s epic narrative was Atlas Shrugged.

    1. don’t confuse capitalism for objectivism. One is about free exchange and meshing value systems (whether or not they are altruistic) the other one is about the virtue of selfishness.

  9. Horatio Alger was popular at one point in time.

    Unfortunately, that was about a hundred years ago.

  10. “No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire. He works hard, supplies a service, pays off his loans, coaches Little League, goes to church, gets his kids through college, and spends his very few disposable hours on the golf course. ”

    I disagree that in the right hands the above couldn’t be made into a novel or movie that is interesting. It’s perfectly interesting.

    I think it has more to do with the fact that many artists are not interested in such topics or capitalism. BakedPenguin mentions Horatio Alger. I was thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald and The Bookshop – whatever Fitzgerald’s politics, it’s a lovely novel and the main character struggles valiantly to make the bookstore run profitably, only to have mucking around by local officials and local busybodies ruin things.

    There are about a million amazing potential stories embedded in the quoted anecdote above.

    I mean, if Proust could wrangle so much out of dipping a cookie in tea, come on….the lack is in the artistic community, not the alleged boringness of capitalism, which is not boring at all.

    – Madhu

    PS: How’s this for EPIC narrative – the hero’s rise and fall. If you can’t build that into a novel or short story or painting about capitalism, then maybe you ought to forget about art. Of course, I’m hopeless as an artist myself, so who am I to complain?

    1. Yeah, but if Hollywood made it, it would be a story about his despair, or boredom, or the way his pursuit of material well-being harmed everyone around him. Best not to even give them ideas.

      1. True, true.

        But the lack is in the Hollywood “artist,” isn’t it? How is it people dedicated to creativity can be so dull when it comes to political philosophy, or whatever they call that drivel that Hollywood sometimes peddles with its stock characters of rogues: businessmen, corporate types, etc.


        You know what this means, too: The editors of Reason need to man up and sponsor some short short story or fiction contest, like NPR does or Smith Magazine, or the myriad of online art collective projects that somehow always leave out what might be good about a free-market or capitalism or whatever….

        – Madhu

    2. This is just one of the things I like about the new Dr. Who.

      He can see just how important these “mundane” people are.

      Newsflash: being boring is a good thing.

  11. Is Grant McCracken related to Voros?

  12. Release the McCracken!

  13. Capitalist heroes are few and far between in cinema, but I will take Stringer Bell over hippie space elf communist* any day of the week.

    * you inhabit less than 2% of the land mass of the planet, and make productive use out of none of it, where do you get the idea you own all of it?

    1. Reminds me, was there any chance in the least that these cliched creatures would NOT have an apostrophe in their names? Orson Scott Card complained about that pretense over twenty years ago, Samuel Delaney probably even much longer ago than that. Idiocy thrives.

      1. Delany, not the more common Delaney. Meant to correct that. Even one of his publishers once made that mistake on copy that went out.

  14. I think it has to do with two main factors: (1) Eric Hoffer’s book Te True Believer gets into the mentality of those folks attracted to mass movements and how these people are basically destructive in nature. (2) Western society has a long tradition of educating people who have no real purpose behind their education. They are educated but don’t really contribute much to society. As a result they like to tear down those people who are successful in society. I suspect the nobility back in Europe originally sponsored this as a way of keeping the university set busy without interferring in their ability to run things, but that is just a guess. It may have also been a reaction against the merchant classes, and later industrialists, that provided the first real checks against the power of the monarchies. Again, just a theory.

    I use the example of Donald Trump. He is a bit of a gassbag, but he is also made it on his own. The educated classes, who all work for other people if they work at all, hate this guy. But the bottom line is, he is far more successful than any of the Ivy educated PhD holders complaining about him.

    1. That could be it. Regression to the mean probably strikes too close to home for too many people for it to be the basis of an entertaining story.

      Perhaps a horror franchise could do something with it. Mediocrity can be as ugly a mortality for people to face down. So long as it avoids the sanctimony and moral incoherence of Saw.

  15. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Rand, Gillespie. She was both a fanatical capitalist and a Romantic, which is readily apparent in her writing.

  16. Capitalism doesn’t have heroes. It doesn’t have people called to higher motives. It doesn’t have noble sacrifices for the good of others. It doesn’t, usually, have daring action on a public stage.

    Good stories can and have been made out of capitalist themes. But in the West, it somehow seems to demand a higher level of abstraction than the mainstream is capable of. Not that there’s been any lack of abstraction in justifying collectivism over the ages.

    In fact, it would be far easier to vilify the collectivists than the genuine capitalists. But I see at least three big problems that aren’t mentioned here:

    1) Only rarely in history have circumstances existed such that a genuine capitalist type person could do what capitalists do. Sans cartels and other forms of government interference. There just aren’t enough decent historical settings in the books that provide good fodder for the free market case.

    2) Real capitalists are a small minority even today. How many people go out and start their own businesses? Or really, actually work their asses off to get ahead in life? Seems that most people end up at about the level of their parents before them, or maybe (because of economic gains) they come out a little better.

    Rand was right. If you want to defend capitalism, you have to be clear about the fact that the people who will matter most in the system, are what — maybe 10% of the overall population?

    Seems to be a harder sell versus the teeming masses of poverty stricken peasants.

    3) Politically, any thug can run a collectivist operation. We still haven’t figured out who should be running the country in a capitalist order.

    One of the first things Adam Smith tells us is that whenever they meet together, capitalists will collude to rip off the public if they can find a way to do it. So you can’t trust them by themselves to run the country.

    The rest of the people (vast majority) lack the motivations of the capitalists and as already mentioned above, will have little to no sympathy for them.

    The economic movers and shakers are the rare flowers in society and must be protected. But they must be seen as a force for good, not the “necessary evil” that they get painted as, at best.

  17. Hazel,

    I think Heller is right about Judaism, it’s just that in this country the “Judo-Christian” ethic is what’s been drummed into our heads from birth.

    But the “self-sacrifice for the good of the many” theme can be found all around the world. The Christians have no monopoly on it. Though you might make the case that Christianity has brought the theme into much sharper definition than anybody else did. A feat that we might first credit to Augustine.

    I for one have always found the similarities in the life story of Augustine, and the supposed life story of Jesus, to be just a tad curious. But then I was railing against the Baptist upbringing my parents gave me, by the time I was 12.

  18. Okay Nick, you got this whole idea floating around in the back of my mind all day now. Good thread!

    There is another fundamental problem here, in the matter of finding balance along the spectrum. As Aristotle said (roughly) at the beginning of _The Politics_:

    “…the people of the State may share everything in common, or nothing in common…” He then goes on to show that neither extreme can be the right answer, and the problem amounts to finding the right balance point between them.

    Nothing has changed since Aristotle wrote this. The socialist-collectivists would have us share everything in common, and we’d become inter-changable cogs. The anarchists would have us share essentially nothing in common, beyond what (in their view) would “spontaneously” errupt. [note I am a classical liberal and not an anarchist]. This is how we define the extremes today.

    Central problem: idealogically it is easier to give hard and fast definitions at the end points of the spectrum, than it is to establish an “ideal” anywhere in between them. The Republicans have consistently lost their footing against the socialists (Democrats) for decades on end, and I believe this is a major part of that problem. The socialists have a much clearer picture of what they want.

    The Republicans (nominally, at least once upon a time) were more like classical liberals, trying desperately to define precisely where along the continuum they think the operating point should be. It’s hard to hold your ground when small changes along the spectrum don’t seem like such a big deal. So you move in response to your critics, and gradually over the generations you get pushed way far off the point you’d originally chosen. It’s so hard to figure out exactly where/when/how you dig in and just say “no, we don’t move from this spot”.

    Combine this with the other problems discussed above, and it’s easy to see why free markets have never lasted long historically.

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