Lionel G. Fawkes, "The Board-Room" (illustration from The Way We Live Now) (ca. 1874)

What We Can Learn from The Way We Live Now

Lionel G. Fawkes, "The Board-Room" (illustration from <em>The Way We Live Now</em>) (ca. 1874)
Lionel G. Fawkes, “The Board-Room” (illustration from The Way We Live Now) (ca. 1874)

When the American market crashed between 2007 and 2008, many people around my age—I am 25—asked ourselves a sober question. If we lived in one of the supposedly most economically sound countries in the world, and moreover one in which economic science had been perfected over the last digital decades through numerous individual genii and computer forecasts, how could our futures suddenly be wrecked at the one place where, since 1939, far-reaching economic collapse was supposed to be impossible? In other words, could the opportunities in a smart, rich country really flip so fast? As things turned out, they could, and so my generation has been demoted from merely continuing the excesses of the Baby Boomers to pursuing modester goals, such as feeding a family or putting viable skills to work. This trade-in has made some content with little, others angry, still others asking, in the vein of the above question, what we did to enter this disappointing state of affairs, and how we might ensure it never happens again.

Any attempt to completely safeguard ourselves from human greed, and the consequences therefrom, must end futilely. But knowing is half the battle. If we are aware that it is simply vice, and not errors of calculation, that leads to the massive ruin of innocent people, then we can begin to live in a way that  protects ourselves from succumbing to temptations of the market. This is, from an ethical standpoint, our most important consideration; but then also through our efforts, we can either inspire others to imitate our example, or we can fend off potential swindlers, whose best device has always been the avarice of their victims.

Warnings about financial speculation have been available to the industrialized world for at least 150 years, so even those like myself who have only been in the “work force” a short time cannot claim surprise in a way that is fully justified. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope (the “other Dickens” of Victorian litterateurs) contains one such early alarm. The title of the book refers mainly to how modernity causes irreparable breaks with the past, as exemplified in August Melmotte, the book’s villain, a brutal, manipulating, stock market con-artist. The even more conservative strength of the story, though, is its recognition that “the way we live now” is a product of human desires—for love, money, power, war, fame—that are part of our lives in a place that time cannot eradicate. Therefore, too, any event in our society that seems like a cataclysm, however disastrous it may actually be, can be traced back not to anything new and inscrutable, but just to the old predictable behavior of men and women.

Trollope steers through the long plot smoothly, and without much deviation from what most readers would consider the standard course of the 19th century novel. When a rich, foreign speculator (Melmotte) comes to London, his apparently invincible financial success makes him a candidate for high society. He manages to swindle and prevaricate his way into Parliament itself, but once there his crimes catch him up, until he locks himself in his study and offs himself with prussic acid. In addition to this central story, there is a mother looking to marry off her daughter; two friends in pursuit of the same girl; a gambling club for spendthrifts; the pressures, sensible and not, of life in high society; these then set against the better plainness of country folk.

The work is not one of genius, but Trollope is a genial stylist. He can spread a two-sentence-worth thought over several paragraphs like a pat of jelly on bread, without chafing the reader’s patience. (That said, his aversion to Shakespeare’s dictum, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” starts to wear hard by page 1400 or so – to the point that, when he announces that he is foregoing a few chapters on minor characters because “the reader will hardly expect to have [this] told to him in detail in this chronicle,” the reader asks himself why he wouldn’t expect exactly the reverse.) Instead, the genius of The Way We Live Now proceeds from its co-opting the 19th century’s rise-and-fall motif for a story in which fluctuating reputations are mirrored by the stock market. The putative value of railway shares tracks almost identically with the good-standing of Melmotte, the railway’s chairman: first moderately successful, then riding sky-high on a wave of good faith, halting mid-air, declining due to unlucky exigencies, and at last crashing. The inflationary character of stocks even attaches to the pun in Melmotte’s name. Augustus, of course, refers us to the Caesars. But the adjacent “Melmotte” very likely means “bad hill” —a picture of any speculation—or far less likely, “better hill,” which would be a subtle nudge towards Voltaire’s caution: Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien, “The better is the enemy of the good.”

As the story takes time in the 1870s, the stock market has a new prominence, which among the denizens of high society distracts them from a question that would be asked if the rewards of the work were not so glamorous: What does Melmotte really do? Early on, we are told: “He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased.” This seems too good to be true, which explains the ironic presence of “make” at two points, in both cases meaning other than the commonplace idea of “produce, manufacture, create.” Melmotte makes a company’s reputation, or simply, he makes faith; on the other hand, he makes money, although in reality, since he is no counterfeiter (though no less a swindler) he takes money by manipulating the faith of others. Speaking of the directors of the railway company, Trollope says: “they who were so to say indoors were to have the privilege of manufacturing the shares” (emphasis mine). At no other point in the book is the difference between real work and idle speculation better illumined, or more harshly punned.

However, the book, declining to offer any kind of salt-of-the-earth manifesto, does not pit Melmottean intangibility against rural craftsmanship. A few admirable characters are authors, who but for the limitations of ink and leather trade, for the most part, in ideas. In particular, one Jewish banker stands for a whole array of virtues. So Trollope at least implies that things that are “worth” money do not always need to change hands or, what is the same thing, be made by them.* The fundamental moral understanding of the book divides honesty from fraud. This division carries with it the affirmation that people who can get property, adulatory respect, and clout, when they “haven’t got the tin,” undoubtedly answer to the latter.

*An actual subtlety of the text. In practice most of Trollope’s “implications” would be considered assertions coming from Dickens or Tolstoi, in his early period.

From a vantage point to the very basic, one could rationally decide that The Way We Live Now has a single piece of wisdom from which Americans can profit today: men are greedy, greed is gullible. But to read the book only for what it says can keep us from ascertaining the questions that arise from it if we examine what it does not say. Beyond time and an intervening ocean, Trollope’s England and our America are separated by distinct political visions of financial possibility. In the former, a few (in Melmotte’s case, sometimes just one) hold insight into financial know-how that other people, even intelligent people, cannot grasp; therefore these few become known as “Napoleons,” to take one American character’s appraisal: “Such a man rises above honesty . . . as a great general rises above humanity when he sacrifices an army to conquer a nation.” (424) America, the country of “fruited plains” both naturally and socially, is one in which all citizens ideally have equal access to the data requisite to make informed decisions about money. However since not everyone wants to spend time weighing that information, an industry of “eggheads” has grown up; these people, we believe, are only different from us through a few points of natural talent and a great deal of time for research.

I believe our situation is more dangerous than that described by Trollope, because we impress ourselves that we know more about the markets through these “eggheads” than we actually, or could ever, know. We farm out the tedious work of combing stock histories and crunching numbers to quicker agents—people, machines—, for we assume that speed is the only differentiating factor when all information is equally available. The breathtaking evolution of computers in the last 30 years has, on this level, perhaps most contributed to America becoming, in Trollope’s words, part of “a newer and worse sort of world.” (126) And this predisposition towards information stems from the one principle foundational to democratic republics, or to democracy more broadly, as we understand it now: every person has such a nature that he or she is as much able to make reasonable political decisions as anyone else. Everyone can acquire political knowledge and dispense it in democratic venues with equal authority, and thus everyone, by correlation, should be able to learn basic knowledge in any sphere to a degree of using it in a similarly rational manner. One could truthfully say that, from a theorist’s position, this argument is backwards, and that inceptive ideas about “man” as a whole filter secondarily to narrower political verities; but in terms of common experience, Americans accept beliefs about equality because of prior exposure to social forms.

In acknowledging this attitude in democracies we must invariably turn to education, and decide how far this realm of society, under a democracy, pushes toward or escapes from the kind of financial crisis to which we have become witnesses in the last five years. I am not now trying to lash an obscure Victorian book about swindling to the outworking of education in a democracy as a ploy to lengthen a review: in my opinion the question of education and that of the economic success of the common weal need to be considered in tandem, because it is based on how we view information in general that we approach information in the more specific area of finance. As mentioned before, whether or not collapse is most basically caused by greed, the expressions of that greed change under different ideological paradigms for society.

Aristocracy and democracy produce two educational systems: respectively, one in which a few learn “higher” knowledge while the rest gain industrial skill, and one in which all learn the same knowledge and separate on aptitude and perseverance. We can see the fruits of the first model in Trollope: the higher classes only pursue vocations of clean hands (to appropriate a Tolstoian image). This way of life can engender in good characters a profounder, more delicate appreciation of the human condition, but among the bad it creates a culture of idleness and debt, which, for example, Trollope skewers to great effect in describing the exploits of the Beargarden Club. The lower classes, the meat-and-pollard salesman John Crumb among them, cannot aspire to the same intellectual heights, but neither does their situation allow them to hit the lows with the same cushioned indifference. Crumb, in fact, receives a great deal of praise in a book that never disavows a chance to snipe at human folly.

The American system is the second, democratic variety, distributing knowledge impartially. Although at no point in its history can we point to America as a country of phenomenal literacy, nonetheless the country has a tradition of trying to expand educational opportunities for as many children —that is, young citizens—as possible. Lately, a spectrum of divergent, at times opposed, philosophies of education has jeopardized the American democratic project, striking both at its theoretical core, since there no longer remains consensus, and at philanthropic efforts. Certainly homeschooling has done its part to revivify the idea of democratic education. Yet even it has caused many to view the commonwealth as something to be resisted from outside, rather than tempered from within. In this way, it has deprived America of people who might bring vigor and intelligence to areas where homeschooling is not economically viable.

Of these two educational systems, American conservatives must decide which to favor, for the results have dire ramifications. To avoid another spectacle of imploding banks and industries on federal life support, the next generations must be educated in modes tending to financial stability. Assuming, as I do, that American conservatives believe firmly in the merit and adequacy of democratic education—at least at the primary level—the question then becomes twofold: what about our system has led to our current misfortune, and how can we substantially amend it while maintaining the legitimacy of the democratic view? To the second question, lip service to “democratic values” does not count. The fact is that an aggressive version of “cut and run” has been a cornerstone of conservative discourse on education for the past three decades, which, whatever its justification may have been in the 1980s, has led many conservatives to neglect the still pressing responsibility, as American citizens, to work for the best standard of education available to all. Although public schools may be a bugbear that we would like to see swept into a closet, they are still our bugbear, and we are not excused from taking care of it simply because it is ugly.

It is now ever more important that we take the matter of education in hand since the financial crisis. We cannot indulge lack of interest, or worse, profit at the expense of our neighbors. At an early point in The Way We Live Now, one of the characters says: “Men say openly that [Melmotte] is an adventurer and a swindler . . . But because he has learned the art of making money, we not only put up with him, but settle upon his carcase as so many birds of prey.” Often among conservatives the well-being of our own children is advanced as reason enough for exiling ourselves from corrupted national agencies; but how often do we ask whether or not that decision is as much based on social comfort as it is on concern for the family? Are we willing to turn a blind eye to underprivileged children in other quarters because our own are safely circumstanced? Can we take advantage of an educational system that is democratic in name but which for our purposes is aristocratic in nature? Once we answer this question, we can continue toward a clearer vision of the reformation of our schools, private or public.

The issue of education as it pertains to financial stability is a difficult one. Neither the right answers, nor the right questions, come by easily. We must find our way through this area with caution, knowing that we make our choices as stewards of coming generations of citizens, and so we cannot demand solutions too quickly, via ideology, nor too slowly for being overtimid. The path forward is not completely dark. For instance, the notoriety of Wikipedia in the last half-decade demonstrates the rise of an all-access model for information that makes democratic education one more step removed from financial constraints, which have, in the past, worked better in the service of an aristocratic model. Moreover, although homeschooling can work against a common weal of united citizens, it can also guide us closer to an ideal of smaller, cheaper, and more effective education for most of the country.

There is a resulting question from all of this, although it is really the question I have been considering all along. If democratic political strictures and a democratically informed populace could create a national environment that incubated, and then hatched, the economic meltdown of 2007—2008, what steps can a conservative take? Since a conservative votes for past forms in principle, in order to maintain tradition, democracy cannot be overturned, or if so, not immediately. And since a conservative wants the best of the past in the hands of the most people, even if that comes at the cost of the worst of the past being also available, he or she cannot want to destroy the mindset in a democracy of each person pursuing knowledge for individual good. There must be a third leg of the stool which has rotted. I believe that leg is culture. Specifically, I think the present American drive to split families across hundreds of miles in the name of collegiate experience and later independence creates a feeling of weightlessness in young people. Anyone can be greedy. But if, say, a man believes he is not restrictively tied to his family, his neighbors, or his land, he will also feel himself less bound by ordinary consequences than he might if his actions directly led to social embarrassment or less food. This critique has fallen under a few closely related names recently—localism, agrarianism, etc.

At no point, of course, in a conservative enterprise should we give in to a splenetic abuse of the novelties that have upended our old, pleasant, spiritual comfort: for deep down our problems are what they have always been and will always be, namely, the problems of being human with everyone else. With Trollope, we must accept that we have come from “a world which, though slow, [has] been good in its way, but which, whether bad or good, [has] now passed away.” (489)

In The Way We Live Now, Trollope also gives a trenchant description of the conservatives then in London. “The Conservative party at this particular period was putting its shoulder to the wheel, – not to push the coach up any hill, but to prevent its being hurried along at a pace which was not only dangerous, but manifestly destructive.” (869) As conservatives—should we still wish to call ourselves by that name—we so often become engaged in this kind of preventive behavior that we forget to go forward in any direction, spending our energy on stopping the wagon when we ought to be climbing into the driver’s seat. Let that not be taken as my support for governmental takeover— exactly the contrary! We must encourage ways of life in ourselves and others that are devoted to the common good. To escape the vicious cycle of overinflation and crash, we must maintain a democratic government with democratic principles of education while also maintaining and restoring the preeminence of local forms. I enumerate these as the family, work, church, and township.

If I may revert to the preventive metaphor: too much attention has been paid to the positive contributions of local forms, and not enough to the negative. One of these important negative contributions is to limit the scope, aim, and intensity of the financial aspirations of a democratically educated populace. Obviously, the financial hopes of the higher classes in an aristocracy become bloated and unrealistic without a virtuous spirit—any of the victims of Melmotte are a good enough picture of that. But how much worse for a postmodern democracy, where the “average” person can be taken in by swindlers with laser pointers and percentage-point charts, precisely because this person believes in the saving power of common, diffuse intellectual energy, and moreover in the lightness of any problems the economy of such energy might kick up. The local forms abovesaid, I stress, are not guarantors of public good. They are vital checks on the imagination of the democratic student.

Post-script: I hope to say more about these local forms in the future. For now, in the face of a growing authorship and readership of articles for neo-agrarianism, we younger conservatives ought to recognize that the inescapable ubiquity of the internet arena has made even more difficult that movement’s ability to avoid as its maxim, “do as I say, not as I do.” Melmotte swindled his way to the top because the people in his trajectory did not have the courage to ignore him; perhaps the best way to really begin to disinter the priority of local forms is to do so in our own lives, by ourselves, without seeking academic validation, and therefore to exercise towards all rocking-chair academics that antique Athenian mode of political peacemaking: ostracization.

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