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Matters of Character

2014 June 19
by Ian Welsh

Over the past year I’ve written a large number of pieces on ideology, and quite a few have been about character: how it is created by experience, and how specific types of character (like sociopathy) are selected for amongst our leadership classes.

Let’s parse this out:

1) Character (personality), determines how people act.

2) While part of character is clearly genetic, much of it forms out of our experiences. Different experiences create different types of character. As a simple thought exercise, you would be a very different person if you had been born five hundred years ago in, say, Central Africa, than you are today.

3) As children, our primary experience is of school. We are a very schooled society, with the upper classes starting school at age 5 or so, and continuing into their mid twenties. Twenty years of schooling is not uncommon.  Fifteen to sixteen is completely normal.

4) This schooling takes place when we are forming much of our character, when we are most susceptible to having our character changed.

5) In addition to this, we are influenced by media of various kinds (including books), our parents, and our peer group.

6) Different time periods form different characters, as do different nations, because people born in those times and places have different experiences. The more synchronized events are, as Newberry has noted, the stronger this is.  In a mass media society, with relatively fast technological and social change, it makes sense to speak of generations. The character of people born 20 or 30 years apart in modern societies will be different, and within cohorts similar experiences will tend to create somewhat similar patterns of character.

7) Society is nothing except people and their creations and interactions over time. Walk around an old neighbourhood one day, and look at the buildings, the road, the trees and think about all the people who made everything you see, and all the people behind those people. Read the laws, and know that people made those, and enforce those.

8 ) Because society is just people, past and present, the nature of society is formed by our character.

9) If we want a different society, we must deal with matters of character.

10) Because we should be leery of engaging in eugenics, for reasons which should be obvious, changing society involves changing character through changing our lived experiences.

11) Everyone’s character matters, but some people’s character matters more than others. The more power someone has, whether that power comes from political position, charisma, force, or money, the more their character matters.

12) Leaders inform the character of people. People tend to act up, or down, to their leadership.

13) Money is permission. The more money you have, the more you get to decide what other people do. This can be directly through hiring them, or indirectly by buying the products of other people’s time. As the market society has spread to more and more of our lives, what we do is what gets paid for.

14) Who we give money to, and be clear that what banks, government and financial institutions do is decide who gets money, and what they get to spend it on, determines much of the lived experience of adults, and indeed of children outside school, and with the rise of for-profit schooling, inside school.

15) Money positions are of three main types. Elected (taxes); officers (CEOs and so on who control a lot of money that isn’t theirs); actually rich (the money is their own).

16) In all three cases who gets that money is a social choice. Billionaires are a social choice, created by government policy including tax policy, and the entire structure of how profits are booked. Multi-millionaire CEOs are a social choice, created by tax and other laws as well as social norms. And politicians are a social choice, especially in a democracy, but even in autocracies, though in such societies few people’s active and passive consent is needed.

17) If we select for positions of power, whether monetary, political, or charismatic, people whose character is such that they do not insist on good outcomes for the majority of people, then those outcomes will occur only by chance, if the happenstance of technology and environment aligns in what amounts to random fashion. Having not been planned, having not been understood, any such prosperity and freedom will not last.

18) If society is just us, and is a matter of our character combined with environment and technology, then we must consciously choose what we want our character to be. If we look at how we raise children and see that it is not creating the sort of people required for a happy, free, healthy, and prosperous society, then we need to change how we rear children. This is a social decision, not an individual one: we can choose a different type of learning (not necessarily schooling), we can choose a different type of media, we can choose to encourage different types of parenting (parenting styles have changed massively over the last 100 years, more than once).

19) We can also change how we select our leaders, both political and economic, to whom we give money, and for what purpose. We already do: Who makes money is a social choice, embedded in our tax code, laws (like “IP”), and monetary system. We can make other choices and create a system where people make money because they do good, not because they do evil (see “bankers”).

20) We can change our adult experience of the world, and when we change how goods and services are distributed (note that I did not use the word “money”), we will change our experience of the world, and in so doing we will change our character.

21) We can do so even if our current character is flawed. The politicians who ended Jim Crow were themselves mostly racists. They were racists who knew that racism was wrong. It is possible to look at one’s own character and know that it is simply a product of experience: to say “I am racist and sexist but I still know that is wrong.” It is possible to be involved in corruption (Kennedy Sr., the first SEC chairman) and decide to help clean it up, to end it. It is possible to have all the accoutrements of privilege (FDR) and turn around and change society mostly for the better.

We are all products of our time and place. We are all products of our parents and our experiences; millions of small events which shaped our character, for good, for ill, for kicks.

All of us (except maybe a few enlightened sages).

The full realization of how shaped we are is one of the watersheds of any voyage worth having. If you cannot look at yourself, and see how shaped you were, then you are trapped by those experiences, an even more limited and finite being than  you need to be.

Once, however, you see the shaping, feel it, know it, and acknowledge it, then you are not free, but you have the potential to be more free, to change what you are and who you are, both individually, and as a group.

Character matters. It is destiny. Change your character, change your destiny. Change the character of nations; change their destiny.

Change the character of humanity; change our destiny.

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28 Responses
  1. June 19, 2014

    In keeping with positive character, one should be open to intellectual and psychical growth. Too many who claim high character are not, but they hide behind the leverage of popularity. That’s poor character masquerading as positive character — something in plenitude these days — maybe always.

    Now Was That, Then Is This

  2. thepanzer permalink
    June 19, 2014

    The west hit an inflection point in the 80’s and chose to commence the “double-down” on vices and bad character traits that’s been a staple of western society ever since. Greed is good. The best time to kick a man is when he’s down. Climb the ladder then kick it out from beneath you so no one can follow. Yada, yada.

    We’ve also seen the birth of a new societal format that’s a sick reflection of our current society, the democratic police state. Those two should be mutually exclusive but we’re seeing in modern America that they aren’t. We still hold elections, with political parties that respect upsets in primaries and such (Cantor as an example), the people who get the most votes win the elections (mostly), we have other side parties that aren’t persecuted and thrown in jail, etc. etc. on a whole range of factors that make up a democratic nation we still conform to democratic processes.

    Simultaneously we’ve morphed into a full blow police state over the last 15 years. The president can legally assassinate American citizens, at will, based on secret evidence, which isn’t releasable to the public, and no one seems to care very much. Torture was normalized in American society in less than a decade. The Intel community has gone completely off the reservation and is now collecting on American citizens as well as the rest of the planet and are apparently accountable to no one. Police accountability for abuse continues to drop while overt militarization of the police rapidly increases. Plus the old police role of de-escalating situations out of conflict has been turned upside down with police acting as conflict escalators. Likewise the Intel community can now pass secret data to police forces who can then launder it for use in criminal trials without reporting the true source. Etc.

    Growing up I never thought that a democracy and a police state could coexist and peacefully reinforce each other in the same nation. (It’s an open question on whether they can co-habitate and if one will eventually eat the other.) It’s a win-win for the elites if so, consent can be manufactured under the democratic process while threats to the system coming from the evil “other”, outside the parameters of democratic system, get the stick. IE the green party can exist, win elections, etc. but if it ever tries to subvert the current democratic processes and “mainstream” power relations via civil resistance it gets to experience the police state part of the system, and likely with tacit approval from “mainstream” America thus reinforcing the democratic processes side of the equation. (Compare how OWS is treated versus the Tea Party.) Thus these two contradictory systems can successfully reinforce each other.

    A democratic police state… Who knew?

  3. Trixie permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Ian, you vex me. Too much to unpack.


  4. Tony Wikrent permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Point 17, “people whose character is such that they do not insist on good outcomes for the majority of people, then those outcomes will occur only by chance,” reminded me of what Sara Robinson wrote in January 2008, Stealing Our Future: Conservatives, Foresight, and Why Nothing Works Anymore:

    ….America’s legendary facility with foresight and planning has all but vanished under 30 years of conservative rule. From the very beginning, we’ve been some of the biggest dreamers and most effective planners the world has ever seen. For better or worse, we settled up a continent, crossed it with railroads and interstates, dammed the West, dominated the skies, got water and power and phone lines into the most remote towns, fought a war in two theaters, and put men on the moon. Say what you will about the consequences of these endeavors; but they are not the achievements of a people who were afraid to look far ahead and imagine big things, who were unable to see all the possibilities, or who were ineffective at bringing those dreams into reality.

    Most Americans are so deeply marinated in this culture of planning that we don’t realize just how unique it makes us. We take it as a given that almost every county and region, and every state and government agency involved in land use and infrastructure, has a regional master plan on file somewhere. Planning commissions large and small are already working 20 years out, penciling in where the major roads will go, where the water will come from, where the houses and shopping centers will be, how many schools and firehouses and sewer plants they’re going to need, and how they’re going to finance it all. We have emergency plans for evacuations, disasters, epidemics, floods. When’s your road up to be re-paved again? Odds are that City Hall can tell you, up to 10 years out.

    Most of these institutions have been doing planning at this range since shortly after World War II, which was when the American culture of planning came into full bloom.

    Robinson points out that this penchant for planning is what organized Allied victory over the Nazis and Japanese imperialists, and which created the unprecedented post-war economic boom, which lasted three decades. I urge people to read the full article.

    Just to drive home the point of how the interplay of belief, culture and character impacts everyday life, I will call attention to something more recent, from Naked Capitalism, in February 2014: James Surowiecki Promotes Myth of Consumer Empowerment in the Face of the Crapification of Almost Everything

  5. Spinoza permalink
    June 19, 2014

    You may have mentioned this before but one of greatest weaknesses of socialism and also Marxism was the lack of a coherent ethical model. Many radical thinkers proposed certain systems and theories but most denied the value of ethics at all. At least, as far as I know. Really it’s what separates the religions of the world from the more secular, activist philosophies. If there was a way of combining radical politics with an intense spiritual life you would have dynamite. Certain strains of the 60s counterculture attempted this but ultimately failed. I suspect it was because their politics were ultimately selfish and the religions were pure self-realization or pure hedonism.

    Humans are social creatures. Salvation is not only personal. It can never be solely personal. Cain was wrong. We are our brothers’ keeper. And if we kill our fellows we will be driven out from the world we know.

    People crave liberation. From sin, or suffering, or the chains that the rulers of the world have placed around them.

  6. ArtS permalink
    June 19, 2014

    I wonder how many of the people who support capital punishment would support “financial capital punishment?”

    Individuals or companies (including corporations) found guilty of sufficiently heinous financial crimes would be financially executed: stripped of all wealth and property. If as many Wall Street bankers were financially executed as others are physically executed it might affect their behavior.

  7. June 20, 2014

    In connection with what thepanther and Tony Wikrent are suggesting, it would be interesting to see why some characters develop that want to punish people, whether they are actually bad or just perceived to be, and why others seek to prevent bad behavior in more humane ways.

    There may be a place and time when coercive behavior is all that’s left to correct truly deviant behavior, or at least inhibit it but I would think that would be a measure of last resort.

    Sustained early intervention on the other hand is likely to prevent deviant behavior and thus eliminate its harmful behavior to society.

    Is there a correlation between those who want concentrate on punishment and those who support building more prisons and a converse relationship where those who want to do early childhood intervention also focus much more on programs nutrition and education programs for low income families? Are those who support the first character type a victim of this practice?

  8. June 20, 2014

    “12) Leaders inform the character of people. People tend to act up, or down, to their leadership.”

    Assuming that it is leadership, which in this country it seldom is. What we have in this country is people who wait for a parade to form and then get in front of it. They look like leaders because they are in front of the parade, but they are followers because they have an eye on the parade to be sure of which way it is going so they can stay in front of it.

    In such a scenario it is the leadership acting up, or down, to the character of the people.

  9. someofparts permalink
    June 20, 2014

    People tried that in the 70s. The idea behind alternative communities of the time was precisely what you described above – changing our character and the way children were raised

    I suppose here and there versions of those communities must have survived in some fashion. Mainly, however, making those changes in our character turned out to be something most of us couldn’t figure out how to do, and I’m talking about households where the graffiti in the restroom included conversations in four languages. Most of us defaulted back to living in the kind of communities we grew up in and understood.

    One of the first things that happens in a community where people change each other (and we can, you know, at any age), is that there stops being any way to talk to the rest of you.

  10. June 20, 2014

    Excellent piece of writing. You do a great job of summarizing the major strain of problems in the American psyche. Upon finishing it was I was struck with an overwhelming sense of “how do we fix this – how do we create this character?” and found myself lacking an answer.

    Part of it has to do with education. Children learn the most basic social skills in this environment (or how to become accustomed to being an outcast, as I and many others have discovered) but also start learning about the world and how it works. How can we make sure this environment is creating people who have the character to lead, and not to just take advantage of others?

    Part of it has to do with our society, which you deftly exhume in each successive piece of writing for this site. As a “Millennial” or whatever, I feel the need to complain about the Baby Boomers and how they’ve basically ruined everything in the last forty years, but my generation is complicit as well. We are the ones who will be taking over and I don’t feel any great confidence that we know what we are doing any more than another generation. I think we have a great understanding of privacy and technology, as well as understanding what a giant waste our national security state has become. But are we full of good character, as you describe it? I don’t know. The latest PEW survey didn’t have very encouraging numbers for people in my age cohort who care enough about climate change to do something, either.

    By the way, Ian, if this is an outline of that book you said to hope to write, sign me up. If you can adequately explain the need for character in the context of these major societal points (I especially liked “money is permission”) you will have crafted a book our country desperately needs.

    Keep up the great work.


  11. Ian Welsh permalink
    June 20, 2014

    I’m not suggesting it be done by small renunciate groups, though in some cases that may allow some people to opt out in a congenial way (See Quakers, who are healthier and happier than most Americans.)

  12. steeleweed permalink
    June 20, 2014

    1) I would differentiate between personality and character.

    Note that ‘self-improvement’ literature of the 19th & early 20th century dealt with building character: honesty, hard work, fairness, communal behavior, perseverance. With ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’. it changed to building personality in order to manipulate others. Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie are poles apart.

    My own guess is that the post-WWII boom was a disaster in disguise. Rather than suffer a post-war recession, Corporate America switched from military materiel to consumer goods, with a subsequent tsunami of goodies never before widely available. With a public one generation (or less) removed from the Great Depression and generally extremely frugal as a result, bigbiz had to do a hard sell, leading to the golden age of Madison Avenue. Unfortunately, they were successful, and the Baby Boomers enjoyed a huge improvement in lifestyle, probably the biggest jump in human history. The upside was a generation that believed anything was possible and gave us people who could put a man on the moon. The downside was the focus on material goods and circumstances without considering the cost to the environment or to other people or society. Because one could (at least in theory) Have It All, that became a goal without much thought behind it. Since then, it’s only gotten worse, as each generation improves the mechanisms of denial, greed and sociopathy.

    The problem is that we were corrupted by material plenty and this corruption was planned and well-orchestrated. Basically, we were taught different – and to my mind false – values.

    I agree we need to recognize and transcend our own screwed-up state instead of passing it on the the next generation – with interest. I have spent at least 60 of the last 75 years working to clear the bullshit from my own head and have had successes and failures. I would say that I’ve been reasonably successful with some of my kids, unsuccessful with others. I’m blessed with some grandchildren with their heads of straight, so I have hope for the future.

  13. Tony Wikrent permalink
    June 20, 2014

    In reply to steelweede:

    I cannot agree that “the post-WWII boom was a disaster in disguise…” Rather – and I have often pondered how the “greatest generation” that defeated the Nazis, the Japanese imperialists, then the Soviets, ended up with things going so wrong. Ian wrote something a number of months ago that I think is a large part of the answer. He wrote that the Soviet Union collapsed because the feedback mechanisms of the society were corrupted and / or broke down. In the same article, Ian then put forward what I thought was an extraordinary insight – that when histories of our time are written a half or full century from now, what analysts will conclude is that the American empire also collapsed because neo-liberalism and financialization had corrupted and destroyed the feedback mechanisms. I don’t remember if Ian also explored this path: that the feedback mechanisms are what facilitates the economy and the polity reforming themselves. I would remind people of what Chris Hedges has written about the death of the liberal class making reform impossible, and some sort of social convulsion inevitable.

    More particularly, I would argue that it was not really that “the post-WWII boom was a disaster in disguise,” but that the post-WWII boom was not shared with the developing world, and that it was allowed to be “bought out” by the wrong people.

    One of the most important shifts caused by World War Two was that the traditional American suspicion and hostility to England was replaced by the “special relationship.” I do not think any scholar has yet looked at the issue of how this shift affected the American conception of what it means to be a republic. Recall that among the war plans drawn up in the early 1930s was one for war with Great Britain. Of course, the US alliance with the UK in World War One got the ball rolling, so to speak. Again, Chris Hedges has some terrific writing on how the anti-German fever of World War One crippled – one could almost say demolished – what was left of the populist movement. So perhaps it was inevitable by the time the US entered the second war, but I think that fully squelching our dislike for England as a monarchy and as an oligarchy, went a long way to facilitating the US assuming the full mantle of an imperial power itself. “World policeman” and all that, and certainly not forgetting the long history of imperial actions by the US in Central America, Cuba, Philippines, and elsewhere. You really need to be versed in early American history to understand the whole idea of “perfidious Albion” and what a radical shift it was to embark on a military alliance with Britain. (As a sidenote, back in the 1980s, I looked closely at the origins of the National Security Act of 1947. The pawprints of the British lion were all over the place. Part and parcel of it was the role British intelligence had in mentoring and teaching Bill Donovan and the OSS, which of course is the seed of the CIA.)

    The most tragic consequence of the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the, was that the United States slipped into a acquiescence to the re-establishment of the European colonial powers. This was not pre-ordained: Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, wrote that his father had some very nasty confrontations with Churchill in the war time summits, with Roosevelt telling Churchill to his face that the US was not fighting the war so that Britain could regain its empire. Interestingly, Churchill would later, in his memoirs, dismiss Elliott Roosevelt’s account as “rubbish” and most historians and scholars have fallen in line with Churchill. And, of course, the American right wing adores Churchill, but hates Roosevelt and the New Deal.

    As to the second point, I contend that the post-war boom was essentially destroyed by the process of financialization, and the re-imposition of usury. What no one seems willing to discuss or even acknowledge is the crucial role played in the this process by organized crime. The plain fact is that the first few waves of mergers and acquisitions, then leveraged buy outs, were financed by huge sums of dirty money. And another fact that no one seems willing to discuss or even acknowledge is that when you look at foreign acquisitions of US companies, all through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, by far the biggest players were subjects of Her Majesty. One example: Rupert Murdoch. Another, and one you can look up and be amazed at because most people are not aware of this one: James Edward, Baron Hanson. After his death, the Financial Times finally came out and admitted Hanson had been connected to the Gambino and Genovese crime families.

    The point is, Japan, and now China, have never been anywhere near as important as Britain and the British empire in buying control of American companies. And compared to the Japanese, who typically actually operate an industrial concern, British buyers tend to be asset strippers.

    One last thing I would point out is how extremely difficult it has been to change human nature. The “new Soviet man” never really made his appearance. The Great Cultural Revolution of China was an epic bloodbath, and a complete disaster. In the United States, there was great hope at the beginning that the weight of citizenship in a republic would produce what we today would call a new consciousness. There was a great deal of dismay and disgust among the revolutionaries by the time they came to accept they would have to create a new Constitution. They were literally heartbroken that the sacrifice and selflessness which had attended the war, had so easily and so quickly been replaced by the avarice and selfishness of commerce.

  14. Tony Wikrent permalink
    June 21, 2014

    Stumbled on this, this morning, in my e-archived notes on republicanism:
    …. progressivism as a public philosophy hewed closely to what political scientist Michael Sandel has described as “civic republicanism.” Central to this theory of civic republicanism, writes Sandel, “is the idea that liberty depends on sharing in self-government:

    “It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community. But to deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect other’s rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs and also a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake. To share in self-rule, therefore requires that citizens possess, or come to acquire, certain qualities of character, or civic virtues. But this means that republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse. The republican conception of freedom, unlike the liberal conception, requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires.” 5

    5. Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent : America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).

  15. Ian Welsh permalink
    June 21, 2014

    Changing human nature is impossible. Changing its expression within its limits is very possible. But it’s hard to get what you’re aiming for.

  16. Adorno permalink
    June 21, 2014

    Sorry if I came to this post late, but I think a lot about this. I can’t help but notice that I live in a notably small, mean society compared to the one I grew up in, and I grew up in a blue-collar family in the Reagan ’80s. Fucking with Social Security used to be beyond the pale even for right-wing pols; now Obama is looking for an excuse. The heroes of our TV shows used to be the fuckups, the good-hearted outlaws; now we cheer for the cops. We weren’t always authoritarians. It’s actually a pretty recent development.

    I find Corey Robin pretty compelling on the general character traits behind conservative political tendencies, but he’s painting in very broad strokes and doesn’t address generational character and how it changes over time.

    On so many issues, the common refrain is that “something changed in the 1980s.” Is it just that the mass of Boomers passed a certain age threshold and we were mathematically condemned to a few bad decades? Will a mathematical sociologist show this is what always happens when a generation large enough to dominate a nation’s politics and culture ages? Or was it the fucking Powell memo? It can’t just be that. But members of the upper class generally do decide, because they have the money, what books we read, what movies we see, what arguments are made in court. It is their fault we approach life as supposedly economically rational individualists in competition with our neighbors. They’ve been throwing money at academic approaches pushing that ideology for decades (see “law and economics,” the idea that the purpose of the law is to maximize “economic efficiency,” which is now unthinkingly accepted in legal academia and the courts). It is their fault our society is pathological.

    So what’s the best way to change the national character? Sharp, incisive writing and film that (without preaching) reminds us that we’re all in this together (and, dare I say, that we have a common enemy in the rentier class)?

    Sorry if that was disorganized. Just thinking aloud in the presence of other people who care about such things.

  17. Adorno permalink
    June 21, 2014

    Ah, should add comedy to the list of useful arts. I mean, Colbert might just save net neutrality where the DC brain trust can’t or won’t.

  18. Celsius 233 permalink
    June 21, 2014

    Ian Welsh PERMALINK*
    June 21, 2014
    Changing human nature is impossible. Changing its expression within its limits is very possible. But it’s hard to get what you’re aiming for.

    Yes to all of the above.
    Understanding human nature is a task in itself.
    But if one can, then the possibilities become interesting…

  19. June 21, 2014

    What is human nature? It’s whatever we want it to be. Just because we’re stuck in this do loop it appears as though it’s a fixed nature. It’s not. We’re infinitely malleable. To preach otherwise, and for people to accept that preaching and run with it, is self-fulfilling prophecy — you never change because of the false limits imposed. It’s a very powerful force to overcome, hence our predicament.

  20. Tony Wikrent permalink
    June 22, 2014

    Well, then, the obvious question would be: What is the difference between human nature, and character? And if human nature is immutable, how can we mold character? This is precisely the question that the framers of the US Constitution addressed. As Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and a handful of others have written, what concerned the framers above all else was power, and how it could be constrained. What they devised was a two-tier system of national and state governments with checks and balances.

    I have never found convincing, or even plausible, the marxist, or even Beardian, interpretation of the US Constitution. Perhaps because in the din of debate, it is easy to pick and choose arguments and writings that support my views. Hence, I have concluded that both Jefferson and Hamilton are correct, even though they have come to represent the antipodes of USA political economy.

    Much of what we think we know about the framing of the US Constitution is probably wrong. For example, much of what the wrong-wing in USA believes is based in the ideas of the anti-Federalists who opposed adoption of the Constitution, and were soundly defeated in the campaign, and vote, for ratification. Yet, the anti-Federalist arguments today have much greater weight than they merit. The entire argument of “enumerated powers” is dismantled by Justice Story in his “Commentaries.”

    Another example is the Robert Rubin’s Hamilton Project. How can a bunch of free traders honestly use as their symbol the man who who literally wrote, implemented and adminstered, the USA’s first tariff laws and schedules?

    What I realized this past year – thanks to the discussions I’ve been involved in here and elsewhere on the tubez – is that the development of “capitalism” does not necessarily occur in accordance with the founding principles of American republicanism. “Capitalism” as the conception we have today, did not exist in the 1780s. It is simply inaccurate to assert that the framers were “capitalists” whose intent was to secure their position at the top of a capitalist economy, because a capitalist economy had yet to fully emerge. So, the question is, how was the development of “capitalism” effected by the stormy contest between the republican nation makers, their anti-federalist opponents, and the oligarchs of Europe who desired to extirpate the American experiment in self-government?

    In the republic, power – whether it is political or economic – must not be allowed to accumulate, and subvert the character of the citizenry. Jefferson’s critique of Hamilton’s economic program was precisely that it would erode and eventually destroy the republican character of the American people; that they would be a mob of money-hungry stock jobbers and speculators, instead of the plain, solid agrarian yeomanry Jefferson idealized. So. what concerned the framers above all else was power, how it was acquired, how it was used, how it was misused, and how it could be constrained.

  21. June 22, 2014

    Fascinating essay that I have forwarded to a few friends. But the shame is that the very people in society that should read the essay will never do so.

  22. JustPlainDave permalink
    June 22, 2014

    A couple of observations / opinions / comments:

    1) Character isn’t a precise synonym for personality. Character is strongly influenced by personality, but one of the things that I’ve noted over years of watching people talk about it is that it is predominantly observed in, and measured against, others. It’s etic and there’s not a small element of projection here.

    2) Personality does not *determine* how people act. It has strong influences, but it is not causally determinative. Different personality types make particular ranges of reactions in response to stimuli more or less probable. Take the same subject and run them through the same situations repeatedly, they’re not always going to act the same. Take different subjects with the same personality make ups, run them through the same scenarios, they don’t all act the same.

    3) Jumping directly from individual personality to the actions (or even beliefs and attitudes) of large social groupings is missing most of the behaviour and most of the things that one can shift, influence, etc. to get to different policies and different outcomes. Trying to change policy by changing the personality of a significant part of almost any social grouping is to make the task vastly more difficult and time consuming than it need be.

  23. Spinoza permalink
    June 22, 2014

    If the framers were really concerned with limiting national power they never would’ve proposed a Constitution in the first place. Jefferson had very little to do, directly, with the Constitution as he was in France at the time, leaving it to his able and budding lieutenant James Madison. Hamilton and his allies were concerned with all the challenges from below that the Articles of Confederation couldn’t contain and the specter of France’s upheaval rebounding on the US: intensifying our own Revolution in a kind of loop. Shay’s rebellion and the events in Pennsylvania, such as their ’76 constitution, mortified most of them. Maybe Beard’s analysis is simplistic, sure, but to ignore the fact that protecting their own privilege and power was a major, if not the decisive, factor is equally imprecise.

    They’re writings are full of paranoia about the “mob” and the “levelers”. The power they were trying to constrain were the people’s and not their own.

  24. Jeff W permalink
    June 22, 2014


    I’m really glad you wrote that. I wrote something that is consistent with a lot of that to Ian offline.

    The gist here seems to be

    influences (schooling, parents, media, etc.) → character → behavior (what people do individually)

    but it could just as easily be

    influences (schooling, parents, media, etc.) → behavior (what people do in large groups, probabilistically)

    leaving out “character” as an intermediary, without any loss of meaning and with maybe fewer questions.

  25. eddie sacrobosco permalink
    June 22, 2014

    I saw a documentary once in which a buddhist monk says in relation to mental discipline:

    Thoughts become words

    Words become actions

    Actions become habits

    Habits make character

  26. someofparts permalink
    June 23, 2014

    from steelweed – “bigbiz had to do a hard sell, leading to the golden age of Madison Avenue”

    Just to add a point of possible interest here, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, the concept of teenager was created by Madison Avenue in the 40s.

  27. Nathanael permalink
    June 24, 2014

    If you’re working on creating THE BOOK, you need to make this even shorter.

    If you do succeed in creating THE BOOK (and you aren’t the only one trying), it’ll become the rallying cry and the agenda for a revolution, just like The Communist Manifesto, just like the “Chart” of the Chartalists.

    People are hungry for such a manifesto/chart/agenda.

  28. Ian Welsh permalink
    June 24, 2014

    The Communist Manifesto, absent the other writing, doesn’t work.

    In any case, this sort of outline isn’t in the book, it’s implicit in parts of the argument however. Some of what I give people on my blog is sausage making, which is, perhaps, a mistake. Fortunately the most important stuff and dangerous stuff (like the theory of ideology) most people think is unimportant.

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