[As promised, the participants of the “Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism” panel at the just completed 2014 S-USIH conference will be posting their papers on the blog. Mine was the first paper given and will be followed by papers by Robin Marie Averbeck and Kurt Newman.]
“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets,” says Marx in the first volume of Capital. And, while we are well aware of Marx’s fraught relationship with his own Jewish heritage, we are nonetheless left wondering, if accumulation is Moses and the prophets, is there a New Testament?
The easy answer is that Marx’s idea of the gospel is simply socialism, but “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill”—the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—would not sound like very good news for the class struggle.
Another answer suggests itself in the title of a recent biography—the first scholarly biography, in fact—of Dale Carnegie, the motivational speaker extraordinaire and author of one of the great bestsellers of the twentieth century, 1936’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Self-Help Messiah this biography is called, and although the author, Steven Watts, emphasizes “self-help” far more than messianism, I want to suggest here that he has struck upon something profound, for in Carnegie, we actually do find what amounts to a New Testament of capitalism, one that certainly did come not to destroy, but that is nevertheless a very strange fulfillment, if fulfillment it is.
Carnegie, where he has appeared in US cultural or intellectual historiography, has been seen as a notable but not particularly complicated avatar of the transformation of US society from character to personality (in Warren Susman’s terms) and from the Protestant work ethic to the therapeutic ethic of self-fulfillment and self-esteem (to use a language familiar from Jackson Lears, among others). Carnegie is also one of a number of figures from the cultural side of business history, such as Bruce Barton or the residents of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown or the fictional George F. Babbitt, who provide for us a rich but thin record of often naïve responses to an emerging redefinition of the citizen no longer as primarily a producer, but as a consumer.
Yet these more culturally focused lenses have obscured Carnegie’s significance and usefulness in either or both of two ways. First, historians have emphasized his role within the more or less religious discourse of character and the self, a discourse that particularly in the United States since the introduction of Weber’s writings has tended to cleave off from or simply take for granted the role of capitalism (for instance in David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd). Secondly, critics have simply dismissed Carnegie as a trite and uninventive apologist for capitalism, a sort of petty philosopher for the benighted petit-bourgeoisie.
Yet these dismissals risk burying a vital if generally intuitive diagnostician of US capitalism during some of its most economically volatile and intellectually confounding years. Carnegie was in fact a highly attuned register of major transformations occurring throughout the span of his career, from the 1910s through the 1950s. Rather than a vague shift from producerism to consumerism, we can see in his work close, if disorganized, awareness of more precise transformations both in the material base of capitalism as well as in the superstructural realms of public relations and business ethics. True, these analyses were expressed in relatively vernacular or “homely” aphorisms and didactic truisms, what Kenneth Burke called “folk criticism,” but I hope at least to provoke you to wondering if Carnegie should not turn out to be a key figure in the intellectual history of capitalism in the US, much like Thorstein Veblen or Peter Drucker or Adolph Berle. I ask you, in other words, to help me resurrect this “Self-Help Messiah.”
The shortest way into Carnegie’s work is through the concept of sincerity—it is in fact, the customary way. As one historian has written about previous attempts to get the measure of Carnegie, “Every reporter, historian, or social commentator who has tried to write about Carnegie has in the end felt called upon to vote: yes, I think he was perfectly sincere, or no, I think he was a hypocrite. The more subtle have attempted a composite interpretation held together by the idea that he really did not know what he was doing.”
But I think sincerity is more important than what it tells us about the character or morals of Carnegie. It, or rather its inverse insincerity might be seen in retrospect as a characteristic vice of the whole mode or stage of capitalism that was then heaving into view, what Martin Sklar has referred to as disaccumulation.
We’ll return to disaccumulation in a moment, but I want to back up in time to present two other vices for your consideration. Our panel topic is greed, and we might accurately see greed, or avarice, as the paradigmatic vice of the capitalist stage or mode of classical accumulation—defined as the continuous saving and reinvestment of profits into the further enlargement or improvement of production—in order, of course, to generate larger profits. Thrift and self-control are the positive traits that buttress this process, but they can easily transform into miserliness and relentless expansion. Greed is the vice that allows these opposing principles—saving and expansion—to keep running in the same harness: by reducing human relations to naked exchanges of money, one can exert ever wider control by concentrating more and more money into one’s personal possession.
But before there was accumulation there was primitive accumulation: the simple seizure or forced forfeiture of the property or labor of others, such as in the conquest of the Americas. The paradigmatic vice here is covetousness. Writers have long contrasted these two vices, even before the advent of capitalism: Chaucer distinguished them in the Parson’s Tale thusly: “Coveitise is for to coveit swiche thinges as thou has not; and avarice is to witholde and kepe swiche things as thou hast, without rightful nede.” Covetousness is about taking, avarice is about hoarding.
What then, is insincerity? We can see the beginnings of a progression here in these first two stages: greed is the exacerbation or compounding of covetousness in that it seeks not only to consolidate and protect the gains of an initial act of seizure, but to use the momentum of that original act to set in motion ever-expanding relations of extraction—accumulation is not by any means the terminus of primitive accumulation, but the establishment of ordinary means for its legitimacy as an elongated and routine series of small seizures.
Insincerity, we might expect then, continues this progression—it must be a sort of exacerbation or compounding of greed. But in order to understand how that works, we need to understand the concept of disaccumulation. Martin Sklar coined the term in a 1969 essay “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political Economic Society” (pdf), which was re-edited and republished in 1992 as “Some Political Consequences of the Disaccumulation of Capital: Origins of Postindustrial Development in the 1920s.” In that essay, Sklar defined disaccumulation as, to put it in very basic terms, a state in which the same or more goods can be produced despite a decline in the amount of workers involved in the process of production. The reason this is called disaccumulation is because it is a state in which the ordinary rules of classical accumulation seem to be suspended entirely. Disaccumulation is a condition in which the plowing back of profits—the reinvestment of surplus in expanding production by hiring new workers and/or enlarging or improving the physical plant—is no longer required. Instead there is, as Sklar writes, an “ongoing net release of labor-power, measured in aggregate social labor-time, from goods-production.”
Sklar is very interested in where that released labor-power goes—what happens when, he asks, “the labor of increasing numbers of young men and women was no longer required in the production process, nor claimed by market demand, and that accordingly rising numbers of people found themselves released from the sheer necessities of producing the primary material means of life, to choose and try to fashion other kinds of careers and life-styles.” Sklar importantly sees this new superfluity as a problem of both labor and capital: he notes that fewer “men and women [were] required as either laborers, or as entrepreneurs or capitalists” under disaccumulation, thus driving these young people into the expanding but unpredictable world of making a living by one’s pen or one’s tongue. And though Sklar focuses on a cohort of young intellectuals—such as Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank—he acknowledges that this problem of “trying to fashion other kinds of careers and life-styles” expanded far beyond Greenwich Village.
This, I think, is where insincerity comes in. Covetousness is treating people as if they don’t exist but their property or commodities do; avarice is treating people as if they were commodities; and insincerity is treating people as if they are not now commodities but may become so—people are futures or options, values that may be realized at a later date. “I will smile at you and treat you well not because you deserve it, nor because I want something from you now, but because you may be of use to me in the future.” This is the perfect vice for a society in which very large numbers of people are trying to figure out if these “other kinds of careers and life-styles” will pan out, or if they have panned out, will they continue to do so—will advertising still be a growth field in ten years? Will there be a demand for graphic artists? For free verse poets? For anthropologists? Compound that with the constant creation and obsolescence of new fields dedicated to servicing new consumer technologies and the still quite malleable and mysterious patterns of advancement within corporate and government bureaucracies, and you have an ideal set of conditions in which treating almost anyone as if they might be worth something to you down the road is very sound policy. It was, in fact, Carnegie’s policy.
Consider, for a moment, the title of Carnegie’s most famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. How do we parse “How to Win Friends?” The recent Carnegie biography tells us that the title was originally intended to be instead “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” and it came from a talk that Carnegie often gave titled “How to Get the Welcoming-In Response.” “How to win friends” on its own could either be “how to gain friends—i.e., how to accumulate a list of friends” or “how to become friends—i.e., how to turn a stranger into a friend.” The latter option seems more plausible—Carnegie was thinking about “winning friends” not as an aggregating activity, like accumulating followers on Twitter, but as a serial and constant process of discrete interpersonal interactions that created a sort of bond with a single other person that might cause you to be remembered later as a friend. And Carnegie actually lived his life this way, even with lifelong friends. For instance, Carnegie knew Lowell Thomas, the world-famous and globetrotting newsman, back from the late Teens when Carnegie assisted Thomas with his traveling show on Lawrence of Arabia—Thomas truly “discovered” Lawrence—and Thomas later returned the favor by writing the foreword to How to Win Friends and Influence People. Thomas was one of Carnegie’s closest lifelong friends, but nonetheless I found that in Thomas’s papers every few years there would be a new and rather stiff, but clearly personalized letter from Carnegie petitioning Thomas to use his name on promotional materials. There was no standing agreement between the two, evidently: Carnegie’s policy was that despite their long history and close ties, he needed to win Thomas’s friendship over again, as if they had just met.
This endemic transience is also the meaning of influence for Carnegie. His chapter subheadings reveal the makeshift, contingent nature of the “influence” you are to gain: “Do This and You’ll be Welcome Anywhere.” “A Simple Way to Make a Good First Impression.” “An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist.” “How to Make People Like You Instantly.” “How to Criticize—and Not Be Hated for It.” The content behind these subheadings promise techniques that allow for a skillful—but not masterful—first interaction with someone you don’t know well, and will promise you a warm reception the next time you call (if you call a next time). They are not tools for locking down a sale or an agreement: they are tools for opening an account in the good graces of another, for establishing a good name. Making friends, like closing a deal, is signified by the handclasp, but here the handclasp is subjunctive rather than imperative: not “you must do this as per our deal,” but “if we were to meet again, let’s still be friends.”
So winning friends is not about accumulation: this is not about a double-entry book-keeping of the soul, but about acquiring an option on the possibility that someone may be worth knowing in the future, that the friend you won without the thought of immediate value will appreciate—in both senses of the word—the gesture.
But winning friends is also not about accumulation in another way: to do it well, you must be unafraid of making, even eager to make, friends who do not make good for you, whose value consists in a few pleasant minutes of conversation every once in awhile. Just as one must, in order to sustain the demands of greed, be thrifty and self-disciplined, so one must truly be earnest in order to reap the rewards of insincerity. As Carnegie writes, “Flattery is counterfeit, and like counterfeit money, it will eventually get you into trouble if you pass it to someone else. The difference between appreciation and flattery? That is simple. One is sincere and the other insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out.” And later, “nobody wants insincerity. Nobody wants flattery. Let me repeat: The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.”
For Carnegie, that messianic promise of a new way of life is not a mystification but what was referred to at the time as “horse sense.” He argues that it is not difficult to be sincere in one’s appreciation of another even while hoping that earnest praise will make the other person like you well enough to do what you want some day—to make an order, to broker an introduction, to give you more time to pay a debt. That looks like a self-contradiction, to be sure, but the reasoning is simple: Carnegie is saying that one must always approach another person with the first thought of winning them as a friend, regardless of their immediate or future utility. That is the gamble, one made blindly and continuously, like a Rotarian’s version of Pascal’s Wager: make yourself likable by all, and who knows whom you might have befriended. But you cannot stand calculating a person’s future worth before you make your move: to do so ruins the spontaneity and earnestness required to win friends in the first place.
But Carnegie takes this principle further. He tells a story of waiting in line at a post office. He sees that the clerk is bored, clearly tired of the monotonous tasks before him, and Carnegie decides, “I am going to try to make that clerk like me.” He looks the man over and alights on what seems to be his best trait: he tells the clerk that he admires his fine head of hair. The clerk demurs modestly, and they exchange a few pleasantries, ending with the man beaming, “Many people have admired my hair.” Carnegie relates in his book that he told this story during a talk and was challenged by an audience member: “What did you want to get out of him?” Carnegie thunders (in three exclamation points), “What was I trying to get out of him!!! If we are so contemptibly selfish that we can’t radiate a little happiness and pass on a bit of honest appreciation without trying to get something out of the other person in return— if our souls are no bigger than sour crab apples, we shall meet with the failure we so richly deserve.”
What can we take from this little parable? First, we should register the paternalism inherent in Carnegie’s target: the clerk is white-collar but also clearly subordinate and potentially surly. How to Win Friends and Influence People is full of anecdotes about the avoidance of conflict between labor and capital made possible by executive humility, friendliness, and partial recognition of the validity of workers’ rights and grievances. In that way, How to Win Friends was a very punctual book, published the year after the Wagner Act took effect. Yet Carnegie was also responding to a much broader and longer-term process in which the extension of the employer-employee relation over many more middle class and former agricultural workers fundamentally altered the ways in which working for a wage differed from everything else. And again, this massive increase in salaried workers in both the private and public sectors from the turn of the century through the 1930s was a critical consequence of the modal shift to disaccumulation.
Taking into consideration the sometimes porous distinctions between a salary and a wage, as well as the increasing power and still-awkward respectability of labor union representatives, Carnegie was perhaps not that far off: by 1936 it was far less strange to think about an executive approaching a picket line of machinists and approaching a performance review with a bank teller or engineer with some of the same basic tools of human relations. While Carnegie was often tone-deaf in seeming not to understand why the workers in his anecdotes are upset, he was less naïve about these trends of convergence between blue and white-collar employees, and more acute on the ways in which persistent antagonism, whether among the clerks or the riveters, could be more destructive than an outright work stoppage.
Also in this anecdote about the postal clerk, arriving at the end is the specter of failure: “we shall meet with the failure we so richly deserve.” Carnegie has been incorrectly remembered as a “positive thinker” or “self-help guru,” both of which often carry the connotation of someone who helps people drown their troubles in an ocean of self-affirmation. Carnegie is sometimes compared with Émile Coué, the originator of the infamous phrase, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” and his biographer explicitly argues that Oprah Winfrey is his most direct contemporary heir. Yet Carnegie is consistently much more morose—not necessarily more realistic, but far more willing to recognize in a visceral, unvarnished manner the depths to which a man or woman can sink when faced with failure. There is almost a Dreiserian touch to some of his parables of businessmen sitting in the ruins of their enterprises.
Because How to Win Friends and Influence People came out during the Depression, it is often thought of as a response to the jitters of those years: at least, it is assumed, people bought it looking for relief (and a leg up) from the hard times. Yet Carnegie had been delivering much of the same material in his public lectures and courses for more than two decades before that, and the book has continued to sell steadily in good times and bad ever since 1936. What Carnegie was responding to was not the event of the Depression, but the plague-like uncertainty of a disaccumulationist economy in which, as labor was steadily being removed from direct involvement in goods-production, whole sectors of jobs seemed to appear overnight with enigmatic and unpredictable chances for advance and for failure. Furthermore, particularly with the rapidly increasing enrollments during these years in high schools, colleges, vocational programs, and numerous other educational tracks purporting to pass on to the student a specialized set of skills and knowledges for a specialized career, there was often a sizable lag between the act of selecting a career—which may have been casual to begin with—and the eventual realization of its true prospects. Much could even change while one was in school, both macroeconomically and sectorally.
Carnegie’s books and courses addressed this reality directly, and by reading back through his recommendations for how to navigate these uncertainties, we can get a better sense of their origins and dynamics. Because this world of pre-World War II white collar work is still not one we know a great deal about, especially not in these intimate terms, I think it is worth resurrecting Dale Carnegie.