Literature hates capitalism. And the hating started while capitalism was still being invented – before “capitalist” was even a word – in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with its nasty portrayal of Shylock, the only worthwhile person in the play.
All the other main characters are rich lay-abouts, except for the titular merchant, Antonio, and he’s a fool. He’s going to loan his profligate friend Bassanio 3,000 ducats (something like half-a-million dollars) so that Bassanio can afford to date Portia. Meanwhile, Antonio’s business affairs are a mess. He’s cash poor because all his capital is tied up in high-risk ventures. He’s counting on huge returns from emerging market trading ventures.
Shylock, a keen-eyed financial analyst, sums up Antonio’s investment portfolio: “He hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies… a third at Mexico, a fourth for England.”
Libya, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and… England? What, exactly, is this Merchant of Venice merchandizing? Looks to me like he’s trading in boat people, smuggled ivory, drugs, and… kippered herring?
Anyway, it’s left to the sensible, hard-working, put-upon Shylock to do the banking for these idiots, and, if he gets carried away with his loan default penalty clause, who can blame him?
Wide is the gate and broad is the way from Shakespeare’s Shylock to the Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The charge against Scrooge is merely that he’s a lonely old man who works too hard, pays the going wage, and is skeptical about the merits of private philanthropy. We hear nothing about the glories performed by his accumulated capital – financing highways, canals, railroads, workshops, factories, business establishments, dwelling houses, and, perhaps, medical research into what ails Tiny Tim.
In return for Scrooge’s beneficence to society, Dickens inflicts dreadful nightmares on him. (Although I’m not sure the apparition of Marley is as scary to Scrooge as Dickens wants it to be. Marley’s ghost is, after all, chained to Marley’s moneyboxes – so maybe you can take it with you.)
Then, at the end of the story, Dickens still isn’t done torturing his innocent victim. He has Scrooge suffer a mental breakdown, a terrifying manic episode where Scrooge “… walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.”
Poor Bob Cratchit doubtless had to have Ebenezer confined to Bedlam.
And off to the loony bin of anti-capitalism with you, too, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In The Great Gatsby, a successful businessman is shown to be a howitzer among cap pistols, especially compared to the dribbling squirt gun of a narrator, Nick Carraway. Tom and Daisy Buchanan are trust-fund twits. Everyone else is a nonentity.
It’s Jay Gatsby who throws the fabulous parties, has the great love affair, and spends piles of money so everybody else can have fun.
That money came from somewhere. Probably from Gatsby’s intelligence and hard work. As to the money coming from bootlegging, we have only the worthless Tom Buchanan’s word to go on about that. And bootlegging requires intelligence and hard work too. Also, Fitzgerald would have been writing about the “Boring Twenties” if it hadn’t been for bathtub gin.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule of literature hating capitalism. There are novels, plays, and even poems about the blessings of individual liberty, the duties of personal responsibility, and the fact that private property is the foundation of human freedom. But these works are rarely taught in school. Maybe the teachers are afraid they’ll be accused of “selling out.” What the teachers should be afraid of is hearing, “Nobody’s buying what you’re teaching.”
My college-age daughter managed to find a pro-capitalist work of literature on her own. I got a text from her: “I love this paperback I’m reading cause I got bored with my homework and it was laying around in the dorm lounge and it’s called The Fountainhead by somebody named Ayn (sp?) Rand and have you ever heard of her?”
By Ayn Rand
Personally, I find Ayn Rand somewhat heavy going, with a tendency to over-argue social, economic, and political ideas I’ve already got. But I’m not 20. What a perfect book for a youngster during her sophomore year in the boring groupthink liberal-quibble, dull, squishy world of academia.
The Fountainhead is wildly romantic. Genius architect Howard Roark – a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright with a libertarian hair up his ass – would rather pull the world down around his head than submit to the diktat of collectivist architectural mediocrity.
In fact, given the fiery romance between Roark and Dominique Francon (Ayn in thin disguise), The Fountainhead is even a bit of a bodice-ripper. But what really gets torn to pieces is the communitarian socialized soft-headedness of the very kind my daughter is being exposed to.
So she’ll also love…
By Ayn Rand
It’s a little long-winded but has what’s probably the best plot premise ever – the geniuses of capitalist creativity all go on strike.
Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across the former Soviet Union. The country hadn’t recovered from communism. (And much of it hasn’t yet.) The cities, towns, and farms were a gloomy, depressing mess.
My wife grew up conservative. But until then she hadn’t been particularly interested in politics or economics. She took Atlas Shrugged along to read on the trip. And she kept glancing up from the book and looking out the train window and saying, “So that’s what happened to this country!”
But if you prefer your dystopias set in the dank past, rather than the ghastly present or grim future, there’s…
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
By Mark Twain
The manager of a New England factory, with all his mechanical and entrepreneurial skills, time travels to the Middle Ages where ignorance, superstition, and a violent aristocracy rule. Also, everything turns out to be filthy dirty back then. The Connecticut Yankee shows the Knights of the Round Table how to keep their table from wobbling and another thing or two besides.
Twain reminds his readers how much the world owes to free enterprise, ingenuity, reason, scientific inquiry, and all the other wonderful things that have happened since people escaped serfdom and slavery and became self-actuated and self-interested individuals.
Twain’s fantasy makes progress a reality.
However, if you insist upon realism, I recommend…
By Rudyard Kipling
A spoiled young brat, scion of a railroad magnate (and, it so happens, about the age of my own son), is out on the fantail of a luxury liner puffing on an illicit cigar. He gets dizzy and sick, falls overboard, and is rescued by a fishing boat.
The fishermen could care less who the brat’s father is. They’ve got fishing to do. And they won’t be back to port for months. If the brat wants a bunk and three meals a day he’d better learn how to fish.
Capitalism is a coin with two sides. The brat knew about “heads” – capital. Now he learns about “tails” – labor.
In the end, the successful dad rewards the fishing boat crew for saving his son. And the son is rewarded with an education in the kind of hard work that made his dad a success.
I’m not saying my son is a spoiled brat. But after he reads Captains Courageous, if he does act like a spoiled brat, I can tell him, “Go fish.”
Or I can recite a nursery rhyme to him.
I said there was pro-capitalist poetry, and I can prove it by quoting Ogden Nash (1902-1971), perhaps the greatest author of light verse in the English language. Nash wrote the poem “One From One Leaves Two” in response to the New Deal:
Abracadabra, thus we learn
The more you create, the less you earn.
The less you earn, the more you’re given,
The less you lead, the more you’re driven,
The more destroyed, the more they feed,
The more you pay, the more they need,
The more you earn, the less you keep,
And now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to take
If the tax-collector hasn’t got it
before I wake.