Regular commenter and blogger, Magpie, has brought to my attention the third chapter of Ludwig von Mises’ The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, which delivers an amusing diatribe under the heading Literature Under Capitalism. The sections entitled “Remarks About the Detective Stories” and, especially, “The ‘Social’ Novels and Plays” caught my attention. It is the anti-capitalist strain in the work of many writers that is the cause of Mises’ ire. Having once authored an obscure anti-capitalist novel, now long out of print, I feel entitled (just call me a “taker”) to comment.
Mises’ sophisticated reading of the anti-capitalist can perhaps best be summed up as “they are frustrated by a lack of worldly success”. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems awfully tactless to say in Polite Society.
It is thwarted ambition and jealousy that underlies the “bigotry of the literati” and explains left-wing opposition to systematic exploitation, starvation amidst plenty, war, environmental destruction, and adoption of the “fundamental dogma” that “poverty is an outcome of iniquitous social institutions”.
As a result, progressives advocate policies “they pretend” would alleviate suffering such as “increasing the amount of money in circulation” and “minimum wage rates” as well as “control of commodity prices and rents and other interventionist measures”. However, “the economists have demonstrated that all such nostrums fail to bring about those results which their advocates want to attain”.
Without wishing to get in the way of a good wheeze, “the economists” have shown no such thing. Newer readers may wish to consult some older posts on this point concerning the Cambridge Capital Controversies (here, here and here).
The jealousy of anti-capitalists comes out very clearly, for Mises, in detective stories, which are read by “the frustrated man who did not attain the position which his ambition impelled him to aim at” and who “is prepared to console himself by blaming the injustice of the capitalist system”.
When it comes to the social novel, “authors who deal with the lives of the poverty‑stricken can be divided into two classes. The first class are those who themselves did not experience poverty, who were born and brought up in a ‘bourgeois’ milieu … to whom the environment in which they place the characters of their plays and novels is strange”.
And then there is “the second class of authors … those who were born in the proletarian milieu they describe in their books. These men … can draw from their own experience”, which teaches them that “gifted and hard-working sons of parents living in modest conditions are not barred from access to more satisfactory positions”. If any of these writers are “prosocialist … they are insincere”. Their works are “nothing but trash”. At least the bourgeois authors “believe in what they are writing”.
So Mises has offered a twofold insight. Rags-to-riches authors who criticize capitalism are hypocrites, while those born into wealth who do the same lack the necessary personal experience.
I have no idea what kind of anti-capitalist Mises could have in mind:
Mises, however, forgets a category of writer that has not only personally experienced poverty but can criticize capitalism without a hint of insincerity. I refer here to the “downwardly socially mobile” anti-capitalist. Whether due to voluntary poverty or blithering incompetence, there has undoubtedly been a long line of well known and not-so-well-known writers through the centuries who have fallen into this honorable category, though I am not inclined to do a google search to uncover the list. They are not wealthy, quite sincere, and, above all, never had a trace of ambition, thwarted or otherwise.
Readers will be reassured to learn that knowledge of this downwardly socially mobile category was not gleaned from a film or book. It is knowledge hard won through real-life experience. You only ever get the good stuff here at heteconomist.