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American Dreams

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

Who Owns America? Edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00. The Coming American Fascism. By Lawrence Dennis. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

Who Owns America?” a symposium edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, is propaganda for a “distributist” or Property State, an America in which once more the bulk of Americans would own and manage the farm or small business by which they made their livings, as against an America largely owned by giant corporations which, as Messrs. Berle and Means have brilliantly demonstrated, nobody “owns.” “The Coming American Fascism,” by Lawrence Dennis, is propaganda for a fascist America, “a fully rationalized national State.” Both books will be widely condemned, first because they are propaganda (which is silly) and secondly because the schemes they offer will be considered Utopian. To bring about either scheme would necessitate another American Revolution, perhaps less bloody than the two we have had, and most readers are either too frightened or too lethargic to contemplate revolutions rationally. Nevertheless, revolutions do occur, and successful ones are usually “prepared,” as witness eighteenth-century French rationalism. If the present economic condition of some ten million Americans should long continue, these two books will be only two out of many hundreds like them. For Mr. Sinclair Lewis has not told the half of it: in such a case, not fascism alone but a number of other things could happen here.

Of the two books, “Who Owns America?” is both the more interesting and the less convincing. Its authors urge Americans to recapture what Mr. James Truslow Adams christened the American dream, a free commonwealth in the Jef-fersonian sense. A number of its authors are Southern Agrarians who in an earlier symposium, “I’ll Take My Stand,” urged their fellow-Southerners to eschew industrialism for the traditional agricultural life of the South. Since both of these positions represent an appeal to tradition against modernity and progress, the group is rapidly earning an undeserved notoriety as potential fascists, and “Who Owns America?” has itself been branded a fascist tract. This is pure nonsense, and springs from the average reader’s determination—and, worse luck, the average reviewer’s too— to deal in cliches. If you don’t like what you’ve got, you must be trying to go forward with the communists or backward with the fascists. If you want to go forward to anything, you are a communist; and if you want to recapture anything, you are a fascist.

“Who Owns America?” is extremely uneven, as is to be expected in a symposium. Mr. David Cushman Coyle, Mr. Allen Tate, and Mr. Herbert Agar contribute, each in his own fashion, extremely good papers. Some of the others do not rise far above declamation. The value of the book lies chiefly in the mirror it holds up to American life, in the light of concentrated corporate ownership and finance-capitalism. The spread between what Americans suppose America is and what it really is, has not often been more tragically portrayed. Such a success is due at least in part to the wisdom of the editors in permitting such various aspects of American life to be discussed. Their wisdom has even permitted inconsistencies. The book is a conversation, generally a good one, between persons of various interests but with one common assumption, that private property is in contemporary America largely an affair of absentee landlordism, and as such, is vicious and demoralizing, and degrades American life. The writers, facing the tragic denouement of our history, as analyzed in this issue of the Virginia Quarterly by Dr. Beard, recognize that only a wider distribution of property can make our generation of yes-men into the free citizens their forefathers were. They insist that finance-capitalism has tricked and bullied Americans out of their heritage. They invite us to reclaim that heritage.

I shall be charged with defeatism if I assert here that, in my opinion—and this is essentially a matter of opinion where the rational judgment is up against contingency—Americans will not reclaim that heritage of economic, and therefore political, freedom. Years ago an Irish immigrant defined egalitarian America as a country where every man was as good as any other man and a damsight better. For the average American has not shown a peasant’s, or a yeoman’s, determination to hold his land and through it his freedom. He has held his land against rising real estate values. This was called building the West. In any case, the accent has been on getting ahead rather than in retaining one’s independence. As a corollary, we did not mind other people getting rich provided there was a chance we might get rich too.

It was the tragedy of liberalism that, while men like Jefferson were fighting for freedom, freedom from economic hindrances to leading the good life as virtuous citizens, thousands of the virtuous citizens were fighting for freedom to get ahead of the other virtuous citizens. In such a situation, the event was foreordained: Jeffersonian catchwords and Hamiltonian economics.

Jefferson knew what the good life was. In fact he lived a good life. He thought others knew, and would lead one, if their economic chains were struck from them. One gathers now that they didn’t and wouldn’t. For if the ruthless j warfare of Standard Oil reminds us of the violence the Enclosure Acts sometimes involved in England, for the most part the citizens, perhaps mistakenly, merely sold out and moved to town, hoping to get a cut. If the writers of “Who Owns America?” can rehabilitate these dispossessed, with or without Rex Tugwell’s help, abolish the great corporations, and set farmers up with forty acres and a mule, there will soon be a glutted mule market and a lively business in farm mortgages. I do not dispute the fact that, conspicuously since 1865, finance-capitalism has raped American agriculture. I merely contend that, when one observes the history of more than one European peasantry, one must sadly conclude that American agriculture proved awfully easy to rape. The American farmer dearly loves a mortgage.

I have been discussing what in the good old days would have been called a corrupt citizenship; and no liberal, least of all Thomas Jefferson, assumed that corrupt citizens could operate a liberal state. On the contrary, they expected such corruption to be followed by dictatorship. So does Mr. Dennis, the author of “The Coming American Fascism.” He agrees with the Distributists that the present economy and the present degraded form of liberalism are essentially irresponsible. A few vast corporations own a good chunk of the country’s wealth, and their directors are less responsible to the country than even a rotten government would have to be. In short, we already live under a bureaucracy, and had better live under a good one. Mr. Dennis points out clearly how liberalism, as practised, has been hopelessly involved with a get-rich-quick psychosis and an expanding frontier economy, and gives his reasons for assuming that the laissez-faire economy is neither asleep nor ill, but dead. He punctures various hopes: another colonial expansion, consumption financed by private bankers, a permanent dole, a reduction of debts. He punctures Hoover fact-finding; the hypocrisy of lobbies running the country through Congressional puppets; the hypocrisy of equal justice before the law, when the use of the law requires big money; the hy-pocrisy of a government of laws not men, when some men somewhere, if not in the Supreme Court, must say what the law means; the hypocrisy of a free press largely owned by Hearsts and Northcliffes; the hypocrisy of a League of Nations operated by haves against have-nots. In general, Mr, Dennis paints a society in the hands of rackets of one kind or another. Having no faith in our ability to abolish our rackets, he wants a super-racket set up (that is, a fascist dic-tatorship) with power to legalize and hold responsible all other rackets. This is the formula Augustan Rome had to swallow, and it is the formula Thomas Jefferson predicted we should have to swallow if we should make the choices, po-litical and economic, which we have since made. Personally I find Augustus, Jefferson, and Mr, Dennis more convincing prophets than the Distributists.

But one can never tell. And there is a fine courage in “Who Owns America?” that doubtless makes Mr. Dennis smile, although it ought to make the rest of us weep. If the Distributists rally us, I shall rejoice: there are unquestionably many Americans who could still lead a good life if they could find an economic basis for it. And they are more in-teresting people than those who will sooner or later welcome or swallow Mr. Dennis’s fascist recipe. Both Mr. Dennis and the Distributists recognize that we are heading for fa cism. Mr. Dennis wishes we would get it over with, and the Distributists wish we would reassert our lost manhood. No man now can pretend to know which we will choose to do The Distributists have furnished us with an excellent diag nosis of our disease. Mr. Dennis’ therapy states forcefully and pithily what he thinks is bound to happen here. His doc-trine will make familiar reading to students of Fascismo and Hitlerism, but his application to the American scene is ingenious and illuminating.


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