Friday, 27 November 2009

Russell Kirk on Brooks Adams

From Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953).

Kirk on Henry Adams here.

Just how far the acceleration of the human movement may go it is impossible to determine; but it seems certain that, sooner or later, consolidation, having reached its limit, will necessarily stop. There is nothing stationary in the universe. Not to advance is to go backward, and when a highly centralized society disintegrates under the pressure of economic competition, it is because the energy of the race has been exhausted.
-- Brooks Adams, preface to the French edition of The Law of Civilization and Decay

Brooks Adams confessed himself to be an eccentric; and so he was; but he belonged to the grand tradition of eccentricity, and published his novel and gloomy doctrines with the old Adams fearlessness. Whether he ought to be called a conservative is more debatable. He was disgusted with American society in his day; his books were calculated to win the attention of the free-silver men and the socialists; he thought inertia was social death, and that the only chance for survival


lay in acceptance of progress and adjustment to change; he denounced the capitalists and bankers nearly as vehemently as Marx had done-and in several particulars, notably his economic determinism, Brooks Adams' ideas ran parallel with Marx's. All the same, he detested the very process of change which he urged society to accept, longed hopelessly for the republic of Washington and John Adams, condemned democracy as symptom and cause of social decay, and toward the end of his days professed his faith in the church of his ancestors. His detestation of capitalism resulted from his abhorrence of turbulent competition; he seems to have been desperately hungry for stability and order; but by the logic of his own economic and historical theories, permanence never is found in this universe.

In this crisis of my fate [the panic of 1893] I learned, as a lawyer and a student of history and of economics, to look on man, as a pure automaton, who is moved along the paths of least resistance by forces over which he has no control. In short, I reverted to the pure Calvinistic philosophy. As I perceived that the strongest of human passions are fear and greed, I inferred that so much and no more might be expected from a pure democracy as might be expected from any automaton so actuated. As a forecast I suggested that the first great social movement we might expect, should be the advent of something resembling an usurer's paradise, to be presently followed by some such convulsion as has always formed a part of such conditions since the beginning of time.

This is the general theme of his four books, The Law of Civilization and Decay, America's Economic Supremacy, The New Empire, and The Theory of Social Revolutions; they expound his cyclical theory of history and his conviction that man is the prisoner of economic force. Civilization is the product of centralization, and grows up about the centers of exchange; as the agents of central political and economic organization subdue the men of simpler rural economies-the Romans conquering their provinces, the middle classes accomplishing the Reformation, the proprietors evicting the yeomen, Spain crushing the Indians-civilization grows richer and richer. The highest product of this civilization, ironically enough, is the usurer; he extirpates the military classes which once predominated; but the usurer and his gross culture seem to infect the race with morbid afflictions, quite as they stifle the spirit of art. Social vitality dwindles, the great centralized economy no longer can operate efficiently, decay and collapse follow,


and decentralized, barbarous life is triumphant once more--to be succeeded, in the course of centuries, by a repetition of the same bloody and purposeless history.

The economic center of the civilized world--which determines the social equilibrium--has shifted westward throughout history: Babylon to Rome, Rome to Constantinople, Constantinople to Venice, Venice to Antwerp. It flourished in Holland as late as 1760, but by 1815 it was in London; the tide has been running since toward America, and that transfer of economic and political power now is nearly complete - so Brooks Adams wrote in 1900. The Spanish-American War was a token of American economic supremacy. England is faced with a long and dreadful decay, and America must take precautions to avoid participating in the ultimate collapse of Britain. A tremendous contest begins to loom between the power of Asia, possibly dominated by Russia, and the American power; the question will be decided in China and Korea, and in years to come, the mineral resources of China will produce a new economic phase. To win in this competition will require intense centralization: "If expansion and concentration are necessary, because the administration of the largest mass is the least costly, then America must expand and concentrate until the limit of the possible is attained; for Governments are simply huge corporations in competition, in which the most economical, in proportion to its energy, survives, and in which the wasteful and slow are undersold and eliminated."

Cheapness of production and distribution is the source of success in economic life, and therefore in civilization. Centralization probably is proportionate to velocity, and the most vertiginous nation triumphs over its neighbors. These contentions are sustained by an examination of Syrian, Persian, Hellenic, Roman, Central Asian, Flemish, Spanish, and Russian civilizations.

Although the immediate consequence of competition and centralization is success, its ultimate effect is degradation. The usurer, whose whole view is economic, is at once the most complete product of civilization and the most limited and ignoble type of man. "To this money-making attribute all else has been sacrificed, and the modern capitalist thinks in terms of money more exclusively than the French aristocrat or lawyer before the French Revolution ever thought in terms of caste." Too stupid even to realize the necessity for reverencing and obeying the law that shelters him from social revolution, the


capitalist lacks capacity sufficient for the administration of the society he has made his own. Woman and the producer and the man of thought already have been debased by the rule of capitalism or state socialism -- two sides of a coin -- so that no vitality remains in society to prevent a sickening decay. Democracy, simultaneously the ally and the dupe of this soulless material civilization, proves unable to fulfill the duties of sacrifice and leadership; so the structure of social organization collapses, and the dreary cycle of endeavor commences afresh.

Yet despite his contempt for capitalistic society, despite his hereditary antipathy toward centralization, despite his abhorrence of socialism, despite his wholehearted rejection of cheapness as the real standard of achievement, still Brooks Adams accepted the triumph of consolidation as inevitable. He urged co-operation in the process as a counterpoise to the insatiable capitalist, as homage to the instinct for self-preservation. Conservatism, social inertia, obedience to tradition - these courses of action are doomed to destruction by the impersonal processes of economic destiny. Conservatism, he writes, "resists change instinctively and not intelligently, and it is this conservatism which largely causes those violent explosions of pent-up energy which we term revolutions. . . . With conservative populations slaughter is nature's remedy." Our educational institutions should adjust themselves to this tremendous process of change, that they may make its progress less violent. We should dismiss the emotional instinct to keep things as they are, and regard government dispassionately, as we would any other business, accepting moral change, too, like all other alteration; for nothing can be done to prevent its ultimate overwhelming victory. "In American industry friction will infallibly exist between capital and labor; but that necessary friction may be indefinitely increased by conservatism. History teems with examples of civilizations which have been destroyed through an unreasoning inertia like that of Brutus, or the French privileged classes, or Patrick Henry." We must hold every judgment in suspense, subject to new evidence. "There is but one great boon which the passing generation can confer upon its successors: it can aid them to ameliorate that servitude to tradition which has so often retarded submission to the inevitable until too late."

The trouble with this injunction is that Brooks Adams neither obeyed nor believed it. No man was less likely to submit in silence to a future régime of centralization and stifling grossness; no man was less likely to abandon the moral rigidity of the Adams family for a suspension of


certitude. The conclusions of Brooks Adams rub his every prejudice the wrong way. If he had really believed in resigned co-operation with the coming order, of course he would not have written his books. The Adams family--Henry most of all--had a way of expressing themselves in sardonic paradox or grim exaggeration which has led, frequently, to misinterpretation; yet one hardly can maintain that Brooks Adams' whole philosophy was an exercise in irony. It appears rather to be a half-perverse growl of protest: Adams had been taken captive by the determinists, and was endeavoring to wear his chains with dignity. In fact, the hideous uniformity which he foresaw, and compliance with which he counselled, made up the vision of terror that John Adams and all his seed had fought against for nearly a century and a half. Expansion, consolidation, and dispassionate reception of change, which he pretended to recommend, he really knew to be the poison of everything he honored, and this half-suppressed groan of torment persisted in escaping from him, giving the lie to his theories.

For the process of competition and consolidation had caused the war of 1914-1918, he wrote; and the degradation of leadership which that process entailed had made the establishment of a wise peace impossible. Even more horrifying was the unsexing of women by the industrial capitalistic movement. The sexual instinct had been suppressed in our thought, ignored in our education, and converted in woman to a shameful and shamefaced imitation of man. "The woman, as the cement of society, the head of the family, and the centre of cohesion, has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. She has become a wandering isolated unit, rather a dispersive than a collective force." The family principle decays so that the whole structure of life is in peril. Our system of law, too, is corrupted by the poison. Taxation is making social diversity and inheritance of property negligible. The democratic proclivity for levelling downward, which we see in the trade union, conflicts with nature's system of competition, and a gigantic explosion must be the consequence. "Social war, or massacre, would seem to be the natural ending of the democratic philosophy." If this is the probable future after we submit to resistless change, it seems curious to recommend abandonment of tradition for the sake of tranquil adjustment. Brooks Adams never attained consistency in his argument with himself; his erudite and picturesque books are full of brilliant generalizations and curious deductions, but empty of orderly affirmation.

He was certain only of dissolution. "Hardly had Washington gone


to his grave when the levelling work of the system of averages, on which democracy rests, began. . . . Democracy is an infinite mass of conflicting minds and of conflicting interests which, by the persistent action of such a solvent as the modern or competitive industrial system, becomes resolved into what it is, in substance, a vapor, which loses in collective intellectual energy in proportion to the perfection of its expansion." The new American empire, the coming American economic supremacy, must therefore be accompanied by a loss in intelligence and freedom which would efface the American system of Washington or Adams or Jefferson. We must face this expansive vista of material triumph and spiritual extirpation; indeed, we must embrace it: "Americans in former generations led a simple agricultural life. Possibly such a life was happier than ours. Very probably keen competition is not a blessing. We cannot alter our environment. Nature has cast the United States into the vortex of the fiercest struggle which the world has ever known. She has become the heart of the economic system of the age, and she must maintain her supremacy by wit and by force, or share the fate of the discarded."

There is a ring of Huxley and Spencer in this, the echo of "competitive evolution" and aggressive positivism; the chains of Brooks Adams' captivity to the scientific determinists clank. After all, might not "sharing the fate of the discarded" be preferable to sharing the fate of the victors, in a contest of this description, where the sacrifices seem to exceed the prizes? This is imperialism without the assurance of Roosevelt or Chamberlain, without the hope and consecration of Kipling. From the viewpoint of orthodox Christianity, it would be better far to join the discarded, rather than enter voluntarily upon the next phase of degradation; but Brooks Adams' religious convictions, like his brother's, were hardly more than vestiginal. Marxism's ravages upon traditional society have not been inflicted chiefly by revolutionary proselytizing: the corrosive influences of Marxist deterministic theories, instead, have sapped the resolution of men who despise the Marxist creed as a whole. The prophecies of Marxism are of the order which accomplish their own fulfillment, if they are given initial credence. Comte, Marx, and the exponents of scientific positivism destroyed in Henry and Brooks Adams the belief that had made the Adams family great: the idea of Providence and Purpose.

Such were the fortunes of American conservative belief in a swaggering half-century. Insatiable expansion was the passion of that age,


and the forces of aggrandizement pressed their assault upon the broken walls of prescription and convention. The ruin of the South deprived the nation of that region's conservative influence. It opened the way for protective tariffs undreamed of before, for exploitation of the empty West, for the triumph of urban interests over the rural population, for a system of life in which culture was wholly subordinated to economic appetite. The immigration this age demanded to satisfy its booming industries changed the character of the American population, so that Lowell's "New Ireland" soon was engulfed by the deluge of Italians, Poles, Portuguese, and Central Europeans whose bewilderment secured the urban bosses in their mastery of public life. The cake of custom was more than broken: it was ground underfoot. The American educational system, relied upon to discipline this rough age and assimilate these alien masses, was itself confused and lowered in tone by the inundation of change. And, appetite whetting yet newer appetite, the nation blundered with McKinley into an unblushing rapacity, with Theodore Roosevelt into a rubicund belligerence. Genuine conservatives found no chance to catch their breath.

Even had conservatives been able to command any substantial body of public opinion, they scarcely would have known what way to lead the nation. Unsettled in their first principles by the claims of nineteenth-century science, doubting their old metaphysical values, they shrank before the Positivists, the Darwinians, and the astronomers. Lowell endeavored to ignore the new science; Brooks Adams was reduced to nihilism by his deductions from it. By the time the First World War ended, true conservatism was nearly extinct in the United States-existing only in little circles of stubborn men who refused to be caught up in the expansive lust of their epoch, or in the vague resistance to change still prevalent among the rural population, or, in a muddled and half-hearted fashion, within certain churches and colleges. Everywhere else, change was preferred to continuity.

The automobile, practical since 1906, was proceeding to disintegrate and stamp anew the pattern of communication, manners, and city-life in the United States, by 1918; before long, men would begin to see that the automobile, and the mass-production techniques which made it possible, could alter national character and morality more thoroughly than could the most absolute of tyrants. As a mechanical Jacobin, it rivalled the dynamo. The productive process which made these vehicles cheap was still more subversive of old ways than was the gasoline engine


itself. Henry Ford, the Midas of velocity, swept out of memory the simplicities of his boyhood; and, growing old, he sought a refuge within the brick walls of his gigantic open-air museum of antiquities, a man of physical forms confounded by the influence of gadgets on ideas. The mass-production methods of which he was the most eminent exploiter were accomplishing more to alter human nature than even the steam-engine had done, dissolving pride of station and family. "It destroys the social prestige of traditional occupations and skills and with it the satisfaction of the individual in his traditional work," Mr. Peter Drucker says of the assembly-line and the new-style industrialism. "It uproots-quite literally-the individual from the social soil in which he has grown. It devaluates his traditional values, and paralyzes his traditional behavior."

Government was doing its best to equal the velocity of the industrial world. The federal income-tax amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1913, was accepted as a painful expedient in emergency, as it had been in England after Corn Law repeal; and, as in England, neither political party could manage to abolish income tax when the emergency was past. As an instrument for deliberate social alteration, the income tax soon would supplement that unconscious force, the second industrial revolution. Buffeted by these innovations and others nearly as formidable, their very principles confounded with apologies for "free enterprise" and the self-made man, it is no wonder that the conservatives were routed; it is a matter for surprise that they did not surrender incontinently. "The various horizons which you and I have passed through since the '40's are now as remote as though we had existed in the time of Marcus Aurelius," Henry Adams wrote, in the last month of his life, to his friend Gaskell; "and, in fact, I rather think that we should have been more at home among the Stoics, than we could ever hope to be in the legislative bodies of the future." It was 1918, and America was the greatest power of the world, and if the old values of life were to be conserved at all, probably America must take up the cause.


America didn’t.

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