Most cultural commentary comes down to worrying about “where we are as a society.” Let there be some ghastly shooting rampage, some hideous imposture of art, or some political skullduggery more rancid than usual, and our salaried scribes are sure to tell us what it means about “where we are as a society.”
As if “we” are a we.
Our society is, in fact, essentially transactional, which means that it is bound together mostly by what Thomas Carlyle called “the cash nexus.” I have written before about Chesterton’s assertion that America is a nation with the soul of a church, but one could with greater truth say that America is a nation with the soul of an auction barn. That is what people mean when they speak of America as the land of the “almighty dollar.”
This phrase “almighty dollar” was born in Washington Irving’s travel sketch, “The Creole Village,” first published in 1837. Irving had taken a steamboat up the Mississippi from New Orleans, had stopped at one of the “serene and dilapidated villages” that “border the rivers of ancient Louisiana,” and had been there beguiled by the strangely joyous life of the tatterdemalion Creoles. “The inhabitants,” he wrote, “have little community of opinion with their republican [i.e. American] neighbors.”
And Irving goes on to say:
“The inhabitants . . . have none of that eagerness for gain, and rage for improvement, which keeps our people continually on the move, and our country towns incessantly in a state of transition . . . . The residents dwell in the houses built by their forefathers, without thinking of enlarging or modernizing them, or pulling them down . . . . The trees under which they have been born . . . flourish undisturbed; though, by cutting them down, they might open new streets, and put money in their pockets. In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotes in these peculiar villages.”
Irving is telling us that Louisiana Creoles were in those days relatively unmoved by the promise of a dollar. A Creole did not always jump if you dangled a dollar before his nose. He certainly did not pull down his ancestral home or fell the trees by which he was sheltered. If a Creole jumped, it was to the sound of a fiddle at the village dance.
Returning to the steamboat, Irving resumed his journey up the Mississippi.
“As we swept away from the shore, I cast back a wistful eye upon the moss-grown roofs and ancient elms of the village, and prayed that the inhabitants might long retain their happy ignorance, their absence of all enterprise and improvement, their respect for the fiddle, and their contempt for the almighty dollar.”
A short distance upriver, Irving’s steamboat docked at an American town—I will call it River City—where the republican spirit was strong and devotion to the almighty dollar was keen.
“The surrounding forest had been laid out in town lots; frames of wooden buildings were rising from among stumps and burnt trees. The place already boasted a courthouse, a jail, and two banks, all built of pine boards, on the model of Grecian temples.”
The banks are, of course, symbols of the Americans’ transactional society, knit together by the “cash nexus.” The courthouse and jail are symbols of the legal scaffolding that transactional society requires after the decay of tradition. Henry Sumner Maine called this the replacement of status by contract. All three buildings have the form of a temple since they the holy places of the Americans; but they are also, and just as rightly, ersatz temples of unseasoned pine.
Carlyle explained the connection between the cash nexus and legalism in his priceless catechism of “pig philosophy” (Later Day Pamphlets, 1858). This is Carlyle’s name for Manchester Liberalism, and it is all but indistinguishable from Irving’s frontier republicanism. Pig philosophy begins with this axiom:
“The universe, so far as sane conjecture can go, is an immeasurable swine’s trough, consisting of solid and liquid . . . . especially consisting of attainable and unattainable, the latter in immensely greater quantities for most pigs.”
Pig philosophy is, in other words, materialism and hedonism, and from its great axiom it draws this moral imperative:
“Moral evil is unattainability of pig’s wash,” so “it is . . . the duty of all pigs, at all times, to diminish the quantity of unattainable and increase the quantity of attainable.”
This means that it is imperative that pig society maximize the general stock of attainable pig’s wash (or what we call G.D.P.), and that each individual pig maximize his personal portion of this general stock. Pig law exists because, as every man who has swilled pigs can tell you, greedy and jostling pigs will spill their swill. Or, as Carlyle put it:
“Quarrelling is attended with loss of blood, of life, at any rate with frightful effusions of the general stock of hog’s-wash, and ruin to large sections of the universal swine’s-trough,”
It is to avert such disasters in pig society that “laws are necessary, amazing quantities of laws.” Lawyers too. And every last one of these laws and lawyers is there to keep those greedy snouts and trotters from overturning the trough. This is why, in transactional society, the holy trinity is the bank, the courthouse and the jail.
Now let us return to Irving’s River City. Turning his eye inland from the levee, Irving beholds the fractious pandemonium that is natural to transactional society. Unlike the Creole village downriver, the American town is riven by doctrinal disputes, and infested with jackanapes and grifters striving for social distinction with their spurious titles and dubious skills.
“There were rival hotels, rival churches, and rival newspapers; together with the usual number of judges and generals and governors; not to speak of doctors by the dozen, and lawyers by the score.”
Unlike the Creoles, the Americans of River City have pulled down their ancestral homes, laid ax to their sheltering trees, and raised a new town on the naked riverbank in which everything is up for grabs. The patronage of travelers disembarking from the steamboat is up for grabs, just like the souls of worshipers in the churches and the minds of the readers behind their newspapers. Whatever honor might be granted to the titles of judge, general, or governor, that is up for grabs. And so is the trust men must place in quack doctors or shingle-hanging limbs of the law.
When men pull down their ancestral home (political revolution) and lay ax to their sheltering trees (religious revolution), everything is up for grabs, and “the devil take the hindmost.” As Carlyle put it in Past and Present (1843).
“Supply and demand, cash payment as the one nexus of man to man: free trade, competition, and Devil take the hindmost, our latest gospel yet preached.”
And in River City in 1837, this “Mammon-Gospel” was all the go.
“The place, I was told, was in an astonishing career of improvement, with a canal and two railroads in embryo. Lots doubled in price every week; everybody was speculating in land; everybody was rich; and everybody was growing richer.”
River City was paradise, so far as a pig philosopher was concerned. The swine’s trough was large, the pig’s wash was plentiful, and the pigs were happy and fat.
However, viewed from another angle, we see that there will be trouble in River City:
“The community, however, was torn to pieces by new doctrines in religion and political economy; there were camp-meeting, and agrarian meetings; and an election was at hand, which, it was expected, would throw the whole country into a paroxysm.”
* * * * *
There will be transactions in every society, and in most cases these will involve dollars or something very like dollars. Things were bought and sold in Irving’s run-down Creole village, and dollars surely passed from hand to hand. But their society was not transactional because the dollar was not almighty. I have said that it’s power over the Creole was limited, but here will explain that the dollar had limited power over the Creole because the Creole understood that the dollar had limited power over the things that matter most.
Jesus said, “with God all things are possible.” Mammon says the same thing about dollars. “With dollars all things are possible,” says he, “or at least all things that a sensible pig might want.”
Irving’s Creoles laughed and said this is not true. What is more, they understood that there are many good things that become impossible when the dollar is almighty–that there are many good things that are not to be had in River City. Everyone in that transactional society may be rich and getting richer, but since everything is up for grabs, their community will be “torn to pieces.”
They will no longer be a we
* * * * *
Transactional societies flourish for a spell, and then seem to die of acedia. I believe ths is what we are seeing in the melancholy spectacle of the collapsing West. We have pulled down our ancestral houses and felled our sheltering trees. We have raised our holy trinity of banks, courthouses and jails. We have dug our canals, and laid our railroads, and counted our profits, and been overcome, at last and of a sudden, by a terrible weariness.
In Canterbury Tales Chaucer has this to say about the man overcome by acedia
“He doth all things with annoye, and with wrawnesse, slaknesse, and excusation, with idleness and unlust.”
I will end with a comment on that last word, unlust, because this is the trouble that will come to River City, and that has come to our Western World. Lust is appetite, most especially sexual appetite, but also the more general appetite for life. A lusty man desires more life. The unlusty man is sick of it, and this is why he grudges every exertion and performs every task with annoyance, irritation, slackness, malingering and excuses. He is a dying man concerned for nothing but his own comfort, a shriveled raisin of acedia.
The same thing happens to a people when its “community is torn apart.”