Thursday, July 25, 2013

Goethe, commerce, and world literature, part 3

"The Drunkard's Progress," by Nathaniel Currier (ca. 1846)
The word "progress" has always bothered me, in particular its application to the realm of morals. Its original connotations indicated nothing more than moving, as in going from one place to another, as in the sense of journeying or traveling. As anyone knows who has traveled, one can be worse off after a journey, say, after a 15-hour flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. One has, however, progressed. My compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary also notes "a state journey made by a royal or noble personage, or by a church dignitary." The notion of betterment can be seen in metaphorical usage, e.g., from Joseph Addison in 1713: "I am ashamed that I am not able to make further progress through the French tongue."

The original connotation of physical movement is nowadays rarely used in connection with progress. Instead, the word is applied to continuous "evolution" in morals or ethics. Thus, certain changes in human practices, e.g, the abolition of slavery or the extension of the suffrage to all citizens, including women, are always regarded as advances in our thinking: we correct our earlier mental errors. I am certainly not one to object to emancipation. After all, I have been a beneficiary of it.

What I object to is the self-congratulatory attitude of moderns and postmoderns, our belief that we are more enlightened than people in the past. My objection derives from our failure to recognize that all of our so-called moral achievements have been made possible by material progress, by the development of commerce and of capitalism. It has been the accumulating material enrichment of the West, beginning after the discovery of the New World, that has made us "open-minded." A world of paucity and scarcity made past generations less generous than we are in an age of affluence.

The one thing our tolerance does not extend to is the past, which also reflects the effects of capitalism: the market demands that we constantly abandon what we loved yesterday in favor of the "new" and "advanced." Our demand for novelty keeps the economy going and spreading "emancipation," but it also erodes our allegiance to what, from the point of view of a divine observer, might be considered truly worthwhile in human life. Joseph Schumpeter termed this process "the creative destruction of capitalism."

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781),
by Houdon (MFA, Boston)
Turgot, "the 18th-century Adam Smith," based his philosophy of progress on early 18th-century sensationalist theory of knowledge, which he adapted to posit as the basic human drive the desire "to innovate, to create novelty, to bring into being new combinations of sensations." This quote is from Frank Manuel's book The Prophets of Paris. Ignoring the paucity and scarcity of earlier ages, Turgot believed that traditional society had accepted "a changeless state of being as the greatest good," but that history showed, as Manuel writes, a battle between the spirit of novelty and the spirit of routine. In a wonderfully oxymoronic turn of phrase, Manuel writes that Turgot saw in human events the creation of "real, lasting, and enduring novelty." In his defense, Turgot was of course influenced by the discoveries in the natural sciences in the preceding decades, which represented an "accretion of scientific truth." His error was in applying scientific progress to the human moral and religious nature.

Here is where I get to my point about the blind spot of modern "progressive" thinkers. Turgot himself, the mentor of Condorcet, was a proponent of free trade and free commerce among men and nations. As Louis XVI's finance minister, he tried, but in vain, to eliminate traditional economic restrictions (guilds, royal protections of industries, monopolies, and so on), because they were barriers to the free movement of people into new occupations, and they also had the effect of determining prices of goods artificially. Economic freedom would lead to freedom as such. But people were already becoming free via commerce. As I mentioned in my last post, ordinary Dutch and the Englishmen were already enjoying new products.

Robe a la francaise, 1780,
by Isabelle de Borchgrave
I just read a fascinating article in this connection, by William H. Sewell Jr., which appeared in the February 2010 issue of the journal Past and Present. It is entitled "The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in 18th-Century France." Though Professor Sewell's focus is the textile trade, he draws on many studies of the rise of fashion, consumption, and luxury in the 18th century. Sewell's seeks to modify Marx's theory of labor value. He has the interesting (though, in my opinion, somewhat of a stretch) idea that "sartorial competition" in France, especially in silk garments, was actually a component of labor. The profits of silk producers were enhanced by what Sewell calls "the subsumption of consumer desire under capital," i.e., consumers were induced "to engage in unpaid labor that increased the value of their goods." Thus, unpaid "desire-generating labor," as much as the actual labor of producers, contributed to profits, as "elegantly turned-out consumers served ... as voluntary living advertisements for fashion goods and thus as spurs to further consumption by those who noticed and envied them."

The more interesting part for me concerns the effect of this trade on "progress": after all, the constant demand for novelty in the fashion market, at first on the part of noble patrons, led to a "steady expansion geographically outward and socially downward." In other words, people of the lower orders began wearing silks. "What was new in the late 17th and 18th century was the pronounced taste for novelty itself and the gradual democratization of status competition through consumption." People no longer wore what their parents and grandparents wore. "By the mid 18th century it was becoming difficult to read position in the social hierarchy from public bodily adornment." In the course of the 18th century cotton displaced linen among the poor, and consumption of silk increased among Frenchmen of all classes.

Detail of dress of Marie Antoinette,
paper creation by Isabelle de Borchgrave
Importantly, "the spread of fashion ... had potentially unsettling social and moral implications."

Turgot, so it seems to me, was correct in believing that the constant desire for novelty was a basic human passion. His mistake, however, was to believe that this was a mental or intellectual attitude that, absent the dead weight of the past, would continuously lead to the transformation of the human mind. While the acquisition of new scientific information has indeed led to a body of knowledge that is unlikely to be destroyed, this inheritance is not preserved in our genes or laid down in our arteries like cholesterol. As Turgot pointed out, and as Iran and North Korea today prove, even dictatorships (the Nazis perhaps excepted) are happy to make use of advances in technology and science.

As Manuel writes, Turgot the apostle of progress believed that mankind acquired knowledge in the same way as a newborn child. Each of us is aware of progress in one's individual life. It involves the accumulation of knowledge and experience, a process that is often halting and occasionally reversed. Doing well in school, saving money for later pleasures or retirement, and so on. Can such progress, however, be applied to the entire species? Isn't such progress something that has be re-created by each person and that is dependent to a great extent on how willing we are to avoid novelty (avoid getting tattoos) and, instead, to make use of the lessons of the past.

Well, I see I have gone on too long and have not yet got to Goethe and world literature. That is coming, however: there is a connection. Stay tuned.

Picture credits: Ludwig von Mises InstitutePenniless Press;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying these posts. The deregulation of printing in England beginning with the lapse of the licensing act in 1698, and the subsequent rise in literacy rates that resulted as the price of printed material decreased with competition is another good example you could tie in with this I think.