Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"A track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth":Thoreau and late capitalism

A stretch of the railroad between Fitchburg and Concord. Image found here.

One would think that there'd be no need to write something like a post with the title that this one has: that a fairly attentive reading of Walden or, less directly, "Life Without Principle" would reveal to the reader pretty clearly what the Concord Curmudgeon would have to say about such things.

Just as a refresher, though, here's a bit from Walden's first chapter, "Economy," that should make my point: "I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. . . . [their] principle object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched. In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high." For Thoreau, the essence of capitalism--by which I mean, what drives capitalism--is not to make stuff that people need but to cause people to want stuff enough to pay money for it. That these two dynamics might actually overlap, as in the public's need to be clothed and factories' producing of clothes, is incidental.

But then a few weeks ago, I read Crispen Sartwell's piece, "My Walden, My Walmart"; and, you know, what better do I have to do this summer than respond to dumb arguments about my man Thoreau?

Here's the essence of Sartwell's piece (forgive the length--he rambles a bit, which is actually appropriate to his argument):

We are at a cultural moment when living in close proximity and having many close friends and a ceaseless embracing community are thought to be unalloyed goods. “Bowling alone” is our shorthand for personal despair and social disintegration.

However, as I dare say you — like Jean-Paul Sartre — have noticed, people can be annoying. We need distance from, as much as we need association with, one another. Thoreau tried for both: he would walk from Walden Pond to Concord, hang out with his dear friends the Emersons and the Alcotts, and then retreat to his hovel to be fairly happily alone.

If on such occasions Thoreau was thinking in his reflective way that human beings are animals and that what we do is natural, then he did not consider his stroll into Concord a departure from nature but an exploration of a bit of it. And this is the way I feel about Walmart, which — big-box island in a blacktop sea — is a perfectly natural object, as much an environment as my woods.
Unlike Thoreau, I have cable. Yet Thoreau and I commune, more or less the same way that Greg [an acquaintance Sartwell mentions earlier] and I do, across space and time. And that’s how I can assure you that, if Thoreau were around today, he’d be pushing a cart through a Walmart three miles from Walden Pond with a bag of socks, a gallon of milk and a Blu-ray player, nodding pleasantly at people he sort of recognizes.

Now, keep in mind: Given my job as a professor of English who teaches composition classes, I have seen my fair share of bad arguments. I'm not thin-skinned as far as that is concerned. However, that Sartwell makes such claims and also earns his living as a professor of philosophy is, um, disconcerting. My most charitable reading of this piece is that Sartwell is working from a fading memory of Thoreau. Otherwise, it's very very hard to see how he would have come to these conclusions after a recent and/or attentive reading of Walden. Or, maybe he sees Walmart's ads' current tag-line, "Save money. Live better," as Thoreauvian in quality. To that I'd say, Well, yes; but I think it fair to say that each arrives at very different means by which to accomplish those ends.

No, there were no Walmarts in Concord. But there were railroads. And I think one can argue that in Thoreau's meditation on the Fitchburg railroad--its physical attributes, the work required to build and maintain it, and the physical and socioeconomic work it performs (and performs on us, as well)--we can catch a glimpse of what Thoreau might have to say about Walmart.

The railroad is about a quarter-mile from Thoreau's cabin and he writes that he often uses its roadbed as his route into Concord, so it is a recurring presence in Walden; however, Thoreau discusses it at length in Chapter 4, "Sounds." These several pages are an ambivalently-mixed bag. On the one hand, Thoreau writes, "I am refreshed and expanded when when the freight train rattles past me[. . . ] I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoa-nut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails. This car-load of torn sails is more legible and interesting now than if they should be wrought into paper and printed books. Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these rents have done? They are proof-sheets that need no correction." And so on, in this vein, for a while. Yet even in this ostensibly positive passage, we catch a glimpse of something that Thoreau will say much more directly, both in this chapter and elsewhere: that the railroad facilitates and participates in capitalism's transforming of raw or discarded materials into new goods that as a result hide their materials' origins--and, not coincidentally, their human costs.

In "Economy," Walden's first chapter, Thoreau talks about goods in terms not of their price but of their cost: "the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." For Thoreau, this clearly extends to the labor performed to achieve something that is more likely to benefit people other than those who have built it--and, moreover, this idea of cost extends even to the supposed beneficiaries of these goods or services. Thoreau's chief example of this, throughout Walden, is the railroad. Witness, as just one example (from "Where I Lived, What I lived For," his extended punning on the old name for railroad ties:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. . . . I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

I don't think it takes a great deal of imagination to apply this sort of critique to Walmart: its efforts to reduce prices for its customers serves to hide the costs of those efforts on its own workers and those of the companies who have made those goods, just as the railroad's enormous capacity for hauling goods overwhelms with its power and at the same time makes harder to see that that same capacity makes obsolete the drovers and wagoneers formerly needed to deliver those same goods. Why Sartwell thinks that Thoreau would contentedly push his cart around Walmart, instead of, at the very least, performing a silent cost-benefit analysis of the sort with which Walden is shot through, makes me wonder if Walmart has indeed succeeded in hypnotizing him with the allure of cheap tube socks.


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