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America and Business

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

“In America,” says Lucien Romier in his recently published study on the United States, “economic forces are supreme. They take the place of politics, determine morals, create the collective ideal, even fashion a certain type of beauty. They, and they alone, make possible that effective welding of this vast mass of individuals and families so extraordinarily diverse in origin.” (“Qui Sera le Maître—Europe ou Amérique?”) In these words of one of the foremost social philosophers and economists in France today, we have, I believe, as clear and simple a statement of the American scene as can be found anywhere.


It would be difficult to identify America with the creative arts. The truth is that nowhere else in the Western World to-day has the creative artist less real standing in the community, or is regarded with such lukewarmness, if not utter indifference. Visionary, high-brow, “cracked”—these, in mounting scorn, are often the reactions of the man in the street. The reason is not far to seek. The average man is preoccupied with one form or another of industrial activity or trade, and what leisure he has he spends on the movies, radio or automobile—his daily sheet not excepted. In such an industrial environment art seems quite a useless thing to him; he cannot bring it into sympathetic relation with anything real or vital in his own life.

It has almost become a habit with a certain school of thought to maintain that the average man in any age is not interested in art. I think it is quite the other way, round. Not every age is interested in art. If the Roman preferred his circus and gladiatorial show, there is no doubt that a presentation of Sophocles, for instance, in Athens, was a national event, comparable, in the popular interest and enthusiasm it aroused, only to our own World Series. Nor have we any reason to believe that the plain man of medieval times failed to respond to the spiritual beauty of the Gothic cathedral or to the songs of the troubadours. Poetry leaves our average citizen cold, because evidently this is no time for poetry.

Nor do the arts and letters by their virile, independent attitude, initiative spirit, or high moral tone command a more earnest audience. Plainly, they are not equal to the task of leadership. Take the case of literature, for example.

By and large, contemporary writing is either the kind of photography and reporting such as our Main Street sagas, or the esoteric nights of our “escape” literature. I am well aware of the safe middle-ground where some of our best and most secure work has been done. But this work, as is well known, is characterized by a detachment from, rather than a participation in the contemporary scene or the forces of contemporary life which give American civilization its peculiar complexion and character. Thus it is precluded at once from exercising the sort of concrete moral influence which commands leadership. We remain, then, on the one hand, with the so-called realist who is all reporting, and on the other, with the literary, insurgent who, more often than not, simply, loses himself in an emotional morass.

The purpose of the former is quite clear. He is plainly out for as close a transcript of average life and the average citizen as possible. He makes no effort to rise above the point of view implicit in the scene itself. Throughout his work you will not find a single constructive criticism, or the suggestion of any kind of idealism lifting it above the drab reality which he has pledged himself to transcribe so faithfully. Those who chuckle over the resulting photography with such evident satisfaction often stand in the most uncomfortable relation to it. They know on whose toe the shoe is, and would divert suspicion. Indeed, the two men who have thrown up so much dust in recent years, one in the critical, the other in the creative field, are as near much-abused, sorely-tried Babbitt as any two men in the writing guild. Contemporary realistic letters simply, marks time with an industrial milieu. It has nothing to offer of its own.

But how far literature is withdrawn from active life may be seen from the revolt of the younger school against the older traditions. Let’s have done with this reporting! Enough of the humdrum and drabness of the contemporary scene! Turn inward—to the reality within! But alas! the result. Our “stream of consciousness” novels and “escape” literature degenerate into nothing more than auto-eroticism or obscurantism. For a literature to be real and authentic must have its roots deep in life. Having set aside the painful reality, our literary insurgents have nothing to put in its place. The depth and originality attributed to them in certain quarters have, in most cases, no more basis in fact than a certain knowledge of human nature possessed by Quintil-ian’s teacher of rhetoric, whose constant admonition to his pupils was “Darken, darken!” as the readiest mode of gaining admiration.

In each case, however, the lack of authority and leadership springs from the fact that the artist or intellectual no longer stands in an important and vital relation to the really significant problems of our day. What contact has he with the important men in the important walks of life? What part does he play in any large undertaking himself? The realist immured in his study reports what he has seen with varying degrees of ability, acumen, and understanding; but beget or create, in the deeper sense of these words, he cannot, because he has not partaken of the inspiration at the source. And the literary “Left,” having made an ingenious retreat, has withdrawn into a smug self-sufficiency, “in a fine frenzy rolling.” Place by their side the men of another time, and what a contrast! Dante was a soldier, having fought in the battle of Campaldino in 1289, an ambassador and chief magistrate of Florence. Bacon was respectively parliamentarian, solicitor-general and Lord High Chancellor. Grotius was advocate-general of Holland and Zealand, a member of the States General and envoy to England. Goethe was a privy councillor. These men had their roots deep in the life of their time and played an important role in shaping it. But our intellectuals have, for the most part, no larger contact with the world of men and affairs than the chic garden-lobby of the mid-town publisher, New York, or the cafe du Dome, Montparnasse.

In the final analysis, literature, consciously or unconsciously, is gravitating toward business. It is gradually acquiring its aim, technique, and standards. Mass production was never so high—the 1927 market fairly groaned under the load. The average fellow goes in for writing as for any one of a hundred other specialties. Literature is another specialty, then, and the literary, man a specialist. The notion of personal development, of letters not so much as a means of success but as a way of life, which was so characteristic of men like Goethe, is rapidly disappearing. In that characteristic story of his, “Prince Roman,” Conrad, speaking about the old Polish aristocracy, says that it was one of those distinctive classes “for which even ambition itself does not exist among the usual incentives to activity.” There was a time when an author was able to say that about his art. To most authors today such an attitude, however, would appear as altogether adolescent and puerile. Mass appeal, mass production, popular success—the newer ideals are emerging clearly enough. The typewriter and “copy” have supplanted the quill and manuscript.


Nor does the pure scientist exercise a larger or more vital influence. In an age when practical application dominates everywhere, he finds himself in the position of a recluse, often thousands of miles from the scene of actual fighting. Only his more practical brother, the inventor, the “worker” in science, has a place in modern enterprise. But it is at best a humble place—that of means to end. The initiative and direction come from the men at the top, the promoter and business executive. The practical scientist to all intents and purposes is another cog in a gigantic industrial machine.

Our educators and schoolmen fare no better. Let us be quite frank. Whether they will or no, they are swept on by the mighty current, and all their innovations and newfangled programs are inspired purely by industrial needs. The specialization and piece work system obtaining on the outside have been brought over bodily into the schoolroom. All such notions as the mentally-minded or manually-minded student, sense training, and sense specialization, efficiency tests, and so on, have their counterpart in a vast economic structure where constant division and sub-division of labor demands specialized ability and competence. The individual no longer functions as a whole, but as a part of a vast social unit. The whole trend of modern education is thoroughly utilitarian—away from the humanities, and more and more toward “preparation for life.” And by “preparation for life” is meant preparation for office and office routine, factory and factory management—that whole intricate network of production and consumption.


Nor is the American scene characterized by any deep religious consciousness. The constant division which is taking place even among members of the same communion—the differences between the Anglo-Catholic and the evangelical in the Episcopal Church and between the fundamentalist and modernist in the non-liturgical churches—is a sad reminder that inward certainty is yielding to outward form. Religion for most people has ceased to exercise authority as individual experience. “To be religious,” as one churchman has put it recently, “has come to mean . . . going to church or being active in some form of social service, or sometimes simply being a decent citizen who does not depart too widely from accepted standards and does nothing to offend the sensibility of his neighbors. Not often does it mean having the kind of God-consciousness that characterized St. Augustine or George Fox.” Contemporary religion has degenerated into formula and dogma, with no higher purpose at best than social service and reform. One of our university presidents in a recent article even goes as far as seeking to prove that religion is still an active, vital force, because it is attacking, somewhat belatedly, he admits, problems of social justice, child labor and alcoholism. As if religion began and ended there! But in this, significantly enough, we are only responding to the demands of a time whose motive force lies elsewhere.

To attribute this change in man’s faith to the failure of the church to translate religion into modern terms, to give the essence of religion—the crustacean, as Fosdick calls it—a new shell, is to lose sight of the natural regenerative powers of religion. Religion like any other organic process renews itself spontaneously, throwing off old tissue and grafting on new by an inner law of its own. If the source and root of spiritual consciousness are there, it will soon enough mold the outer life in its own image, translate it into its own symbols. In the medieval age, when religion was a living force, all of men’s activities were impressed into an organic spiritual unity. Dante’s Inferno and the paintings of the great masters, the astronomy, physics, law of the day, the medieval peasant in his devotions, all stood in the same vital relation to the same center of spiritual consciousness. The reason why it is growing increasingly difficult to shape our lives after the abiding convictions and experiences of religion is because the spirit is quite lacking—the shell is well-nigh empty. Somehow, I cannot help but feel that every effort to “modernize” religion, and bring it on more intimate terms with our industrial environment, results in nothing more than confusion. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” said Paul, “but have not love, I am become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.”

Churchmen may contend, then, that all that is necessary for a renaissance of religion is for the church to throw off its medieval outlook, but the fact remains that life in America is inimical to faith. For the ideal is no longer inner development, but outward attainment; no longer spiritual strength, but material security. In a machine world, it is not the heart that answers the eternal questions, but the mind. The blinding pace, deafening tempo, and intensely practical and material mood of American life is opposed to religious inwardness.

Every effort to bring religion up-to-date and make of it a “going concern” can only serve as fresh evidence of the powerful hold business has gained over all our thinking. Revive religion, however, it distinctly cannot, for the very means it would employ for the purpose are prejudicial to its very existence. Advertising, gross popular appeal, high-pressure sales methods only amuse the populace, and revolt men of sensibilities and inherent refinement. It is a far cry, indeed, from the profound simplicity of the Sermon on the Mount to making of the parables “the greatest advertisements of all time,” and of the humble Man of Nazareth “a born executive,” “the founder of modern business.” We hear the click of ticker, typewriter, and adding machine. We are far from the quiet peasant landscape of Galilee.


We should deceive ourselves gravely if we still attribute an active, aggressive leadership in America to politics and government. The age of politics is past, we are told on good authority, and “big business” rules. The statesman in top hat and frock coat, with flowing speech, has given way to the business executive in sack suit, with facts and figures. The whole spirit and technique of business has thoroughly infiltrated every department of state. Characteristically, the average citizen does not trouble his head about the government—he minds his own business. He is sure it can manage without him.

But to the extent that the majority identifies itself with those interests having the largest claim upon the government, government and national will are one. I do not believe you can frighten the average American by telling him that “big business” rules. Quite the contrary: he takes it as a matter of course. Isn’t it something he is reaching out to himself? “Let the big fellows make their millions, if we are free to make our thousands and perhaps to become big fellows ourselves in the end”—the psychology is unmistakable. Far from disapproval or contempt, such figures in the American pantheon as Henry Clay, Frick, Carnegie and Morgan arouse respect and admiration. They symbolize for the rank and file the kind of practical genius and achievement distinctly in the American grain. We see here that real and deep-rooted identification of the average man with the dominating interests and personalities of the time which is so significant of American civilization.

To the extent also that politics falls more and more under the influence of business, as business continues to gain in prestige, the incentive to strong men in political life grows less. The important men turn more and more to industrial enterprise; they cannot be bothered with public office. Nor is there very much need of them there. The capable, alert executive, who is both sensitive and responsive to the national will, is quite sufficient.

The change that has taken place even within the last decade is extraordinary. One need only place the present administration by the side of Roosevelt’s or Wilson’s to see what is happening. Coolidge’s policy has been from the very start clearly one of laissez faire—don’t interfere with business, and expect no changes whatsoever from the government. What a contrast, this “silent” man of state, to his Democratic predecessor who still talked about “special interests,” or to Roosevelt with his “big stick” and perpetual “trust-busting”! But maybe in this the former is unconsciously motivated by a deep wisdom which realizes that not only, is it altogether beyond the power of any individual in office to move back the hands of the clock, but unwise to do so, even were it possible. What is required, then, is skill in running the machinery of government, and this can come with training and experience of quite an elementary order. The man in public life need not have large social vision, or initiative, or large personal gifts.

Even the famous Volstead Law, which appears to many as an undue exercise of governmental authority, is no exception to a defunct political leadership. To regard it as a high-handed piece of legislation put over an unprepared public is to fail to understand American psychology at the source. Prohibition was one of those compulsive acts whose roots lie deep in the tradition and mind of the American people. In those critical days of 1917, economic necessity and psychological determinism met. The whole economic and social structure had to be swung toward the one objective—allied success. Efficiency became a civic virtue. Prohibition meant tackling the day’s job with will and nerve of steel, taut, on edge—sobriety with a fine edge. It meant more production—larger output. Spirituous drinks have long been known to make man more critical of the immediate and transitory. Under the aspect of eternity., punching holes in leather eight hours per day, or feeding a turning lathe, is pretty, drab business—and fraught with danger to the employee. Add to this the fact that in the American mind efficiency is most generally associated with abstinence and a sort of hard, thoroughly sterilized sense of fitness and well-being, and the picture is quite complete. Prohibition was implicit in the American psychology. It simply needed some such strong stimulus as the War to bring it to the surface.


If we were to weld, say, the one hundred outstanding figures in our national life, regardless of profession or business, according to importance and rank only, the composite person would represent our national type. In such an individual what interests would dominate, those of the artist or the intellectual, of the man in science, or art, or those of the man in finance and industry? I believe there can be only one answer to this question. Clearly, those of the practical man, the business man. In other words, we should have no difficulty in recognizing in this composite person the industrialist, financier, or business executive.

Here, then, is the man who, standing, as he does, at the very head of American enterprise, represents American leadership.

Regard him well. There is no doubt he is of the time. There is a certain strength, poise and self-confidence he radiates that leaves no doubt the man is at home with all the large and momentous issues of the day. There is that clarity and precision, that netteté, as the French would say, about his very physical person that stamps him as having “arrived”—in no personal sense merely, but in the deepest sense of his age. The man is evidently in his own element: he is at one with his environment.

Our average citizen identifies himself with him because he spells success. And success does not mean attaining to inner wisdom, or even happiness. It means wealth, and the power that goes with it. The clerk covets the place of the department head; the department head has the same vigilant eye on the second vice-president; and so up the line. The ambition that inspires them all is the same. Here, then, is the common bond that, whatever the otherwise conflicting interests, or differences, welds our vast population into the characteristic entity known as America.

There is a most illuminating social phenomenon occurring in the United States to-day which should leave no doubt as to how the wind is blowing. I am referring to the business aristocracy that is in the process of forming, if indeed it has not already done so. I do not have to go into the matter at length: the salient features are sufficient to enable us to recognize the phenomenon. Nowhere in the world are wealth and the prestige of wealth so thoroughly identified with social position as in America. One glance at the social register is sufficient. But more—wealth is rapidly developing an esprit de corps of its own, a new kind of free-masonry. Of two young men entering the employ of an important business house, both equally equipped as regard training and ability, the fellow from the better—the moneyed—family will have the better chance. The other may fill an important place in the statistics department, but the door of the director’s room will be closed to him. And finally, there is the significant phenomenon of wealth-concentration. It is estimated that the wealth of the country is in the hands of no more than about 15% of the total population. In a country where, as we have seen, the motive force is business, this can point to but one thing—a business aristocracy.

The function of such an aristocracy, as that of any aristocracy, is to develop unhindered and to the highest possible point the deepest values inherent in the social organization. Thus, a certain tradition and way of life once established among the Greeks, Athenian aristocracy under Pericles proceeded to develop what was most expressive of Greek temper and life. Likewise, the frontier won, and the formative period in American life practically over, American aristocracy will proceed to give expression to what is most characteristic of American life and manners. To be sure, such an expression will have nothing of the aesthetic refinement of the Greek, or the mysticism of the Medieval Age. For the representative men of our time have not occupied themselves with artistic ideals or inner values. They have worked with machines, directed men in a new and complex social activity, drawn their inspiration from business. American aristocracy will express itself in terms of these things.


America’s destiny, then, is in economics, and I feel it is only the sentimental idealist or intellectual pedant who would identify America with the creative arts. Quite clearly her contribution is in another field. Consider. America began, as it were, with the Industrial Revolution: she was not hampered by older traditions and other ideals, as was Europe. Hers has been a steady, uniform industrial growth—the only country in the world, as Carnegie once significantly remarked, that has had a purely industrial origin and development. To this enterprise it brings the same passionate interest and earnestness that the Greeks lavished on the quest of beauty or other people on spiritual power. It develops, as a result, a unique sense of individual and social values, a unique mode of life—a new standard of living. Where is it more natural to find its essential meaning, its contribution, if you will, than in just these things?

Simple and natural as is this conclusion, though, we are extremely reluctant to accept it. We seem to insist on coupling a nation’s destiny invariably with some form of artistic or moral attainment. We apparently forget that only that is a real contribution which flows from the deepest life of a people, and that we cannot superimpose upon it some ideal of our own, simply because, for one reason or another, it happens to appeal to our vanity.

What is more, we hesitate to identify American civilization with the condition of well-being and prosperity such as exists among us. We would, for example, turn to such older ideals as simplicity or even poverty. In this we are only playing, however, the traditional ostrich. For on the one hand, we throw the best of ourselves into the standard of living, and on the other we despise it as an unworthy ambition. “Lay ye not up treasures on earth,” we repeat with humble, contrite hearts, and proceed to round off our stock with the latest radio set or automobile model. But what is there in this that we need be ashamed of? No one can hope to realize what is not in him, and the highest attainment is to realize what is essentially one’s own. If business is the deepest expression of our age, as it seems to be, it is no less significant than the Greek quest of beauty. No doubt when we begin to regard it as such, as a natural and necessary expression of our time, as historically determined, so to speak, it will become the warmer, fuller, and more human thing for it.


American business absorption cannot be intelligently understood or properly interpreted except in terms of one thing—the standard of living. American activity has one aim—”make money.” And to make money is nothing more nor less than to make a living, which in a country where social standing means nothing apart from money, is also to make a better living—to make more money—than the next fellow. To have a better home, live on a better street, ride in a better car. We recognize here that keen social competition which keeps us all so much on the qui vive, and which, whatever its undesirable aspects, has made, undoubtedly, for everything significant in American life.

This universal obligation to make money may seem revolting to many of us, but it has a deeper import than we generally suppose. In contrasting the American’s attitude toward money with that of the European, Romier puts his fingers on it with characteristic directness. “The European,” he says, “craves for money, no less than the American. The European seeks gain as a private venture. This venture will bring him pleasures and satisfactions other than money, but private nevertheless. . . . The American, on the contrary, conceives the gain of money as the end and aim of all social relations; he doesn’t suppose his gain to be independent of society, or that society can have any object more immediate than to encourage the gain of its citizens.”

From which proceeds a fact of the highest importance. In America, wealth—capital—is in sympathy with society, and society with wealth. In no other civilization has each individual citizen been the object of such universal concern, or commanded so high a price. He was cheap in the older civilizations. The privileged class battened upon him in ease and luxury. The vestiges of it still remain with the ruins. The remains of the Roman Amphitheatre at Carthage are no more indicative of the past than the foul beggar who accosts you on the way. Walk through the sooks at Tunis, for instance, or the streets of any Eastern city, and the deep essential meaning of American civilization will be brought home to you with startling cogency. Thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children squatting through life, degraded, diseased, and blinded with trachoma, foul and ill-smelling. There is nothing in the East Side of New York, or in the most degraded negro quarters anywhere in the United States to compare with it. For at least among us it is segregated and apart, and we feel that it is not an essential part of the larger canvas. But there, it is woven into the entire picture, and seems to draw all its significance from it.

But, it may be objected, the fact that the social motive in America is also an aristocracy, and that the wealth of the country is in a comparatively few hands, presents no better prospects for the individual citizen over here. This is to miss the point of our civilization. For once we understand that the whole force and meaning of American life is in the standard of living, and that American business supremacy itself is only an expression of it, the individual citizen takes on value because of, and not despite this fact. The standard of living functions only as each individual functions—it has no validity without him; neglect the one and you neglect the other. An impoverished public cannot buy; and a business aristocracy cannot long exist, if it does not sell. So that it is as much in the interest of “big business” to encourage and promote the standard of living as for each individual to maintain it. Marx, right as he was about the concentration of wealth, was too close to the older aristocracies with their one-sided, private point of view to foresee that capitalism ultimately reaches a point where, ipso facto, from its own interests, it acquires a social point of view. What particular harm is there in the concentration of wealth, if the standard of living is not adversely affected by it? Wealth is more diffused in France, yet who would say that the average Frenchman lives better than his American brother?

Business—the standard of living—it has its significant counterpart in American stress on public service and the social point of view. Child welfare, workers’ or farmers’ relief, legal aid, community and settlement houses, public hospitals and clinics, institutions for the aged or disabled, laboratories for social study and research—the list is endless. (For a more impressive list, I refer the reader to any current number of the “Survey-Graphic” under “Directory of Social Agencies.”) The social motive saturates the whole American scene. It transforms philanthropy into something of a science. It dominates every social activity, from the Young Woman’s Literary Club, Main Street, to the fashionable New York salon. It is at the basis of statistics. “Statistics show”—here is all weight and authority—the court of last appeal. It dominates the whole modus operandi of American business. The “service talk” that flows in such profusion among us, from the glib door-canvasser to the railroad director, is not all palaver and buncombe, as the cynical think. Much of it is the culture spirit speaking. As the standard of living continues to gain in prestige, the average citizen realizes more and more that the other fellow’s welfare bears materially on his own—that service pays. Thus, in more than the familiar figurative sense is the average man in America becoming his brother’s keeper.

Greek civilization has its concrete, tangible expression in plastic art and drama; Roman in a vast military system; American in that complex chain of comforts and improvements which go to make up our daily life and environment. We do not have sufficient perspective in America to see the latter, en bloc—the thing is too immense. And the perspective of time is not vouchsafed us. But concentrate on it from the larger perspective of another continent, say, in Paris or Rome, and it rises on the mind’s eye in all its strength and originality. You feel deeply that this towering architecture of home and office, this ease with which people move on the material plane, able to command the resources of the world within the radius of a half-stretched arm, this efficiency in the organization and control of vast masses of men and machines—that it is all something new, and different, and fraught even with a beauty all its own, a kind of “lyrisme matériel.”

We should err greatly, then, if we lay the stress on the felicitous line, or the spiritual experience. The whole force of life is rather in the direction of material comfort and universal well-being, and the refinements and graces that flow from it. No doubt, some of us whose vision is turned with a kind of historical nostalgia toward the past may be disappointed, or even aggrieved. But what else may we expect from a civilization where progress is measured by the standard of living and the symbol is the machine?


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