Saturday, December 16, 2006

Emerson on English Wealth and Class

This week Emerson writes about English Wealth and Aristocracy. Where some of his previous lecture/chapters have been rather casual and humorous, in these two Emerson becomes more, well, Emersonian. He reverts to his old tricks of talking up how great something is, gets you excited and buying in on it or angry about how he could be so blind to other factors, and then he rips off his disguise with an implied, "fooled you!" (or, if you are a Simpsons fan, an ironic Nelson, "Ha! Ha!") and reveals how what he just said is not as perfect and wonderful as he had led you to believe. This is his M.O. in both the essays. In wealth he begins on a familiar refrain of praising the wealth of the English. But this time he takes it farther by talking about attitudes toward wealth:

There is no country in which so absolute a homage is paid to wealth. In America there is a touch of shame when a man exhibits the evidences of large property, as if after all it needed apology. But the Englishman has pure pride in his wealth, and esteems it a final certificate. A coarse logic rules throughout all English souls--if you have merit, can you not show it by your good clothes and coach and horses?
It is a disgrace to be born poor, and if you can't take care of yourself, it is your own fault. To their already existing wealth the English have accumulated even more by the advent of the machine and the industrial revolution. Now manufacturers can have machines do the work of thousands of unruly workers, producing more at a fraction of the cost. This has added to the wealth of not only the proprietary classes, but creates an intelligent middle class that proves the match of the land-owner: "the mill buys out the castle." The English are so rich because they are a "constitutionally fertile and creative people." But look out for the servants. The "machine unmans the user" and the incessant repetition of the same work robs people of their strength, intelligence and versatility so you end up with a large number of poor and ruined people who end up sucking up the solvency of the upper classes. Emerson says England has made an effort at compensation by returning part of the nation's wealth to schools and libraries and museums, "but the antidotes are frightfully inadequate, and the evil requires a deeper cure, which time and a simpler social organization must supply." As for the aristocracy, who doesn't want a title and wealth? The people are loyal and the nobility flatter their fancy. "Every man who becomes rich buys land and does what he can to fortify the nobility, into which he hopes to rise." Emerson praises the nobility for they are the warring class and have led the country to war and created the foundation for the wealth of the nation. They have built great estates, exude good manners, give to charities, gather and protect works of art from all over the world. They are poets and scientists, explorers, and great thinkers. But many of them have now grown fat, idle and corrupt. They have lost their fortunes in gaming, racing and drinking. Once great names have pawned all their silver (and we know already how much the English love their silver) and great lords now hide themselves while tours are given of his estate for money. And now, at last, in the industrial revolution, the advantages that were once confined to the nobility are available to a growing middle class. "Who now will work and dare, shall rule," is the new code and every day a "multitude of English" are "confronting the peers on a footing of equality, and outstripping them, as often, in the race of honor and influence." As an American I have heard much about the English class system and it is always disparaging. We operate here as though there is no such thing as class and pat ourselves on the backs. All a person needs is to work hard and the American Dream can be reality. For quite a lot of people this is a lie. More often than not, if you are born poor you die poor. And these days the middle class seems on the verge of collapse with declining wages and growing personal debt. We are like the English Emerson describes, a people who support the rich (tax cuts for the wealthy, repeal of the "death" tax) because we hope to be rich someday too. So we build football stadiums for multi-millionaires and close public libraries because there is no money. We give businesses property-tax breaks and make up the difference by taxing homeowners even more. Class is the elephant in the room nobody wants to address. But as Emerson said, look out for the servants. Next week's Emerson: English Universities and Religion