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John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society,” from Afghanistan to Oxford to Libertopia

October 10, 2011

In this post, part of an ongoing discussion on Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, I hope to take things in a slightly different direction. I want to try to synthesize some of the content that we’ve been getting from Galbraith in the last few chapters (the middle chapters of the book) with my own academic reading, John’s thoughts on an Anglo-American scholarly consensus, and a recent lecture at Oxford that I had the chance to attend. It might be a bit over-ambitious. But if it works, I think I can pull together a lot of what I find compelling about the book thus far.

Of course, I want to start by talking about me. Along with getting back into the rhythm of my coursework at Oxford (some Persian courses, just what I need as I begin to dig into some legitimately difficult Dari texts by, among others, Afghan clerics who preached both for and against the Soviet Union), I’ve been spending quite a bit of my time recently reading through the diaries of Arthur Paul, an American WASP who spent several years working as a consultant to the Asia Foundation in Afghanistan in the early 1960s. He fell in love with the place, kept copious notes on his travels around the world while based in Kabul, and eventually donated a seriously huge collection of books to the library at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where I worked this summer. I’m still trying to come to terms with the argument, or, more modestly, observations that I hope to draw from Paul’s diaries. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say.

زبان فارسی مرگم خواهد بود

For example, I was surprised by how really international many educated Afghans were in their outlook even in the 1950s. The geopolitics of the day, and Paul’s goading them as an American adviser, forced them to. Even in the 1950s, Afghanistan, while poor, had plenty it could export to world markets: fresh and dried fruits, cotton, carpets, and karakul lambskins, the latter of which retailed for high prices on European markets. The country, while it had dozens of industrial plants, was far from competing with West Germany and Japan in high-value products, but in order to finance the import of more technology, it was crucial for Afghan merchants and exporters to be selling to parties – like Japan, like Germany, like the USA – with easily convertible currencies. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been such a problem: merchants could ship their goods down through Pakistan to the port of Karachi, whence it would float to Asian or European markets. A route through the Soviet Union was also a possibility: up to the border on new Soviet-built roads to Uzbekistan, and thence to Odessa or Soviet domestic markets. Soviet rubles, however, were difficult to exchange, and more often than not the Soviet government and its buying agencies would just credit Afghanistan against its large debt to the USSR. The situation, from an American point of view, was less than desirable, but so long as Pakistan let the goods through, things worked.

Part of Paul’s challenge in Afghanistan during the early 1960s was the Pashtunistan debate. Pashtun nationalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan regarded the Durand Line as an illegitimate division of the Pashtun nation, and demands on the part of the Afghan government towards Pakistan led both to more Pashtunization of the Pakistani government (i.e. more Pashtuns promoted to higher leadership positions in an effort to quell charges of Punjabi chauvinism) as well as frequent closures of the borders. This meant that the only route for Afghan goods was through the USSR, which would only increase Afghanistan’s dependency on the Soviet Union (rail lines existed in Iran, but connecting them to merchant centers in Afghansitan was beyond the reach of USAID or the Asia Society). For much of the early 1960s, as Soviet agents tried to buy as many Afghan goods as possible (i.e. airlifting tens of thousands of tons of raisins to Siberia) to strengthen relations, Paul found himself trying to convince State and Foreign Service Officers around the region to press for stronger Iran-Afghanistan ties. Paul also realized that only by developing stronger trade links with merchant communities in, say, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Brussels, and London, could Afghans find a place in a global economy (remember, this was the 1950s) that left them less dependent on their (relatively) powerful neighbors.

So much for one-nation theory ...

Along the way, Paul met with people like the US Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, whose work we’ve been looking at over the last week. Paul and “Ken,” as Arthur Paul called Galbraith, got along swimmingly when Paul would visit in Delhi. As John identifies in his most recent post on The Affluent Society, the fact that both of them belonged to what he calls an “Anglo-American consensus” might be part of the reason. What does John mean here? (N.B. The notion of an Anglo-American consensus in the late 1950s and 1960s is something that John and I have discussed together often.) Both men, Paul and Galbraith, represented élite accomplishment and privilege in 1950s America to one extent or another. Sure, Galbraith grew up in rural Canada and first attended a modest ag college for his bachelor’s degree. But like Paul, who came from a WASP background in Philadelphia and married a cousin of the Roosevelt family after attending Princeton, Galbraith came to be affiliated with both the New Deal. He worked in the Office of Price Administration with many of Paul’s Ivy League friends, before eventually becoming a professor at Harvard himself. Both men were, of course, white males, it bears noticing. Paul was no racist, having read his journals (unlike George Kennan), but when we look back on this generation of Americans – a Greatest Generation of intellectual Americans who were exposed to privilege but also turned it into service – what rings common among these texts to us? What unifies the prose, the outlook, or sensibility of figures as disparate as Kennan, D.W. Robertson, Galbraith or C. Wright Mills? These figures sound, it seems to me, different and unique, even from an only slightly younger generation of American intellectuals like Daniel Boorstin, James Billington, or Christopher Lasch.

John argues that clarity and a lack of pretension is a major part of what characterizes this tradition. Indeed, when we compare the work of these writers to some of our most-lauded professors today, the clarity and simple presentation of these texts jumps out. People like Galbraith, or, later, Billington, wrote for a general well-educated American audience that has morphed or changed since the 1950s and 1960s. I grab, for example, my copy of Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and I turn to the back to find an impressive selection of mail-order works one could purchase through Vintage Books in September 1970 when this edition came out: Lawrence Cremin’s The Genius of American Education, Jacques Ellul’s (“think globally, act locally”) The Technological Society, William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sanchez, Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University, et cetera, et cetera. It’s am embarrassment of riches that could provide ample noshing for future Tandem Reading projects. More to the point, however, while it would be myopic and trite to assert that we live in a cultural wasteland today (good books about American higher ed’s problems abound), maybe the issue is that it’s hard to describe both the equivalent culture producers and culture consumers for America in the 2010s as compared to this world. True, graduate students aplenty are hard at work around the world investigating social problems in the places that Lewis went to: but even the inspired work of Mike Davis is probably less popular, less explosive, and less read than The Children of Sanchez was when it came out. As the recent death of Steve Jobs underlines, America still has creative inventors, but whether we have a public reading culture to match (or counterveil) our technological glee remains unclear to me. Figures like Timothy Ferriss, Malcolm Gladwell, and Thomas Friedman prosper, but quite a shift seems to have taken place if in place of people like Boorstin or Galbraith (who commented directly on morality and norms in society), we now have the Brooks and Friedman (who hesitate to make claims without social science data that they have distilled, or frame their case for national excellence or decline in much more economic, MBA language). The broader story has, I suspect, to do with the rise of Theory, the relative decline of WASPs’ monopoly on tenured jobs in the universities, the rise of data-driven social science as the primary mode of argument about social policy, and probably the disappearance of a generation of writers and scholars who had served in war, and developed a certain moral seriousness that can be hard to cultivate living, as I do, a privileged existence in college towns.

Timothy Ferriss, proud Princeton man and public intellectual for 21st century America

Let’s return closer to Galbraith himself. As I read a chapter of The Affluent Society concerning inequality, competition, and the bizarre figure of Herbert Spencer, I found myself thinking back to a lecture of Avner Offer’s that I attended in Oxford this previous week. In his talk, “Market Liberalism: A Warrant for Pain,” Offer made a couple of points. He brought up the notion of “just world” theories in which everyone gets their just desserts. More notorious varieties of just world theories might include the Spanish Inquisition, Nazism, or Communism. These theories pronounced that certain people were good and had the right to live, and that others were evil, or superfluous, or racially subhuman, and hence had to disappear. Just world theories, regardless of how brutal they are, make a claim about how fairness works (religion, class, race), and, in many cases, then impose policy solutions on reality to make that claim about fairness work. Typically, the more divorced from reality the claim about fairness is (see: Nazism and Communism), the more violence and coercion has to be applied to make the desired “fair” solution come out in the way social planners said it would. What’s horrifying about all of these kinds of visions, of course, is that the “fair” world they seek to create in the long run is often so repugnant itself that there is no way it could be justified, even on the bodies of tens of millions of victims.

Market liberalism, Offer argued, is also a form of a just world theory. Obviously less repugnant than the above ideologies, it nonetheless proclaims that humans are motivated by private interest, and that this private interest aggregated leads to an optimal public good (aka “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith). According to this ideology, institutions have to be modified to fit as closely as possible an idealized free market scenario, so that the invisible hand scenario plays out and welfare is maximized. Where the idea of a “warrant for pain,” as in the title to the talk, comes in is that market liberalism, like other just world theories, provides an argument for why it’s OK for people to suffer under market systems. Perhaps the individual suffering of an individual – a loved one, a family member, etc. – can never be totally lined up against the pros or cons of a particular market liberal policy reform, but actuarially, we might feel more comfortable with accepting a certain number of deaths per year due to problems in the private health insurance industry, if we feel comfortable that in the long run market solutions will lead to greater welfare. Similarly to Marxist theories of class struggle, extremist Catholic theology, or Nazi racial ideology, no one has ever proven that the theory of the invisible hand as a model of the way humans behave and prosper is actually true or not. It’s something people accept as true about humans, then seek to mold reality to to make theory correspond with reality.

Herbert Spencer

The connection here with Galbraith is the latter’s discussion of Herbert Spencer early in the book. I find the juxtaposition of Spencer with Offer’s discussion of just world theories interesting. Spencer, Galbraith argued, was a proponent of just world theories bar none. He opposed almost all forms of government intervention into the marketplace, including welfare and public education, and wedded his free-market fundamentalism to a Social Darwinist belief in the fitness of races. Society, he argued, had an obligation to not support those at the bottom. Those who were temporarily out of luck and had their competitive drive kick in could, perhaps, make their way back to the top of the heap, and reproduce their kind, thus perpetuating virile traits within the population as a whole. But to support the breeding of less fit individuals – individuals less able of coping with the brutal reality of the marketplace – would only set the race back in the long run. The warrant for pain, for Spencer, was the perpetual strengthening and perfection of the (white) race, in other words.

Raimo argues, I think persuasively, that one big difference between the Right and the Left in contemporary America is that the Left felt compelled to throw out “all or nothing” ideologies as Marxism discredited itself, by and large, to most intelligent individuals in the 1950s, 1968 at the latest. As a result, he argues, quoting Galbraith, the best liberals retain core beliefs (never yielding on issues benefitting the wealthy) while also rejecting utopianism. Liberals, in other words, have few utopias. The Marxist one lies shattered, intellectually in the 1950s (or earlier) and more obviously from 1989-1991.

Without turning a discussion of Galbraith into contemporary political commentary, I find it interesting to combine Offer’s ruminations on market liberalism with Galbraith’s and John’s thoughts on Spencer and contemporary American conservatism. In spite of the manifest failure of tax cuts as a panacea, and in spite of the role that a lack of financial and mortgage regulation played in the buildup to the present financial crisis, I am struck by the extent to which contemporary American conservatives still hold true to (what seems to me) like a utopian vision, one of a country in which taxes are almost entirely abolished, regulation is gone, and the welfare state is completely dismantled. Structurally, in other words, there seems to be something different going on intellectually in conservative thought than in 1950s / 1960s post-New Deal liberal thought.

Still, what I find perpetually curious about the thought of some American libertarians today, and with reference to Offer’s ideas and Galbraith’s mention of Herbert Spencer, is what the ultimate purpose of the anti-tax, anti-regulation movement really is. I mean on an emotional or psychic level. Many of my friends who do subscribe to this ideology in one form or another do appear to genuinely believe that, were their policies imposed, eventually humankind could reach an end state, perhaps even within our lifetime, in which states as such, nationality, ethno-religious identity, etc. would be gone; only rational individuals roaming the earth and engaging in relations via the means of the market would remain. In their minds, this would be a world with no taxes, no regulation, no interference into private commerce. Via the mechanism of the invisible hand, welfare under this regime of total freedom would be higher than what we experience in most countries today. True, individuals less willing to work or less capable of thriving in the new economic order would be disadvantaged or perhaps even unable to provide for themselves, but this would be a just punishment for their inherent inability, and worth it in any event for the overall thriving of society.

Of course, thousands of years of human experience suggest to the contrary of most of the assumptions libertarians put forward about human nature. The fact that in thousands of years of human civilization few human beings, up until the last 50 years, have thought it desirable to voluntarily switch to the arrangements that the libertarians suggest, is for me indicative of the broader misdiagnosis these conservatives make about human nature. And while Spencer’s arguments for less government intervention into a brutal market were themselves repugnant, I am nostalgic for Spencer’s ideology in the face of contemporary conservatism if only because Spencer, as Galbraith emphasizes, did not view the market itself as a utopia. Spencer’s obsession with the strength of the race and the unrestricted market as the best institution to ensure that aim were insane enough; but in Galbraith’s reading of Spencer I do not get the impression that the Englishman viewed turbocapitalism as the solution to virtually all of society’s problems. In Spencer’s mind, solving the race question would have been the start of a broad program of societal reform. A biologically rejuvenated Britain could more effectively cope with its problems by being able (with its superior stock) to engage in debate, participate in ordered institutions other than the market to reach decisions (aka Parliament), and reform itself. The market was radical for Spencer, but only to reform the race; contemporary libertarians, while they (fortunately) totally lack the racism of a Spencer, have a far greater faith – one that is utterly ungrounded in the human experience – in the ability of markets to remake human society for the better. As many Americans subjected to this ideology for, at the least, the last ten years have found, it carries a mighty warrant for pain.

Libertopia: a warrant for pain?

… and so we push ahead with Galbraith. I’m finding these middle chapters to the book a bit of a slog, but hopefully soon we’ll be across Galbraith’s concrete proposals for infrastructure and welfare. I’m not totally sure if this post succeeding in tying themes together the way I wanted to, but here’s hoping it provides us with more food for thought as we continue a discussion I’ve enjoyed greatly thus far.

From → Books

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