Sunday, December 30, 2007

Public Consciousness of Mid-1840s



In the past two weeks, I have been reading a couple of books written during the mid-1840s. Either one taken alone tells you what one author was thinking. Taken together, however, you start to get a sense of the public zeitgeist, if you will.

Take one sentiment on profit for the sake of profit.

Writing in Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
"I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched" (p. 28).
Compare that with what Karl Marx said in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
"The the advance made by human labor in converting the product of nature into the manufactured product of nature increases, not the wages of labor, but in part the number of profitable capitals, and in part the size of every subsequent capital in comparison with the foregoing" (p. 39).
These two authors have been widely read throughout history. If you read both works, you will find a number of similarities between them. For Thoreau, he wanted to "simplify" his life, and this individual simplification was the suggestion. For Marx, societal simplification was the path to equality.

It interests me that the public consciousness -- on both sides of the Atlantic -- included a frustration with runaway profit motives. Yet in America this seems to have fallen by the wayside. No profit is big enough.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commi. Commi. Pinko Commi! :)

H.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

God, I hated reading Walden, although I supported what he was trying to do.

:-)

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

2008 is the year I will read Walden. It's been on my list of things to read forever. My thoughts on simplifying these last years have been gaining momentum. And your post has been a good reminder for me to finally read Walden in its entirety.

12:40 PM  

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