There is a meme that’s made the rounds on Facebook and other social media. There are in fact a lot of them, but the one I’m talking about has a quote about how socialism never caught on in America because the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
The quote is attributed to John Steinbeck and is accompanied with a picture of the author to clear up any confusion over what Steinbeck looked like. You have probably seen this meme and may have even shared it with an enthusiastic credulity common among meme sharers.
It’s a nice quote. I’ll grant you that. The only problem is that John Steinbeck never said it. Ronald White did. Not Ron “Tater Salad” White, another guy. Something similar happened with Martin Luther King Jr. with a quote about never rejoicing in anyone’s death. It’s a sentiment King might well have shared, but the actual quote belongs to one Jessica Dovey, a nonfamous American teaching in Japan. Steinbeck did have something to say about “temporarily embarrassed capitalists,” but it was part of a longer bit about how armchair communists seldom accomplish jack shit.
I was discussing this at Iron & Gold with my friend Ken, a semi-retired academic. Ken eschews most social media and is not very meme-savvy, but makes up for it by being knowledgeable about stuff that people actually said. I told him about the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” quote and he said it reminded him of what a German sociologist and economist named Werner Sombart had to say on the matter.
I had never heard of this Sombart character because I drank away my college years, but I made note of his name for future reference. The conversation then drifted to what famous people we each shared birthdays with. His claim to fame was HP Lovecraft and mine was Mink Stole, making us dead even when it came to bragging rights.
So the following Monday morning on the bus ride to work, I was googling Werner Sombart to find out what he had to say about why socialism has been a non-starter in the USA. I’m a Wikipedia scholar at best who’s had a short attention span before it became ubiquitous, so I was hoping to find something glib and pithy as an easily digested takeaway.
Alas, German scholars are not big on being either glib or pithy. They would much rather verbally beat the shit out of a topic from every possible angle. Sombart was no exception and in his 1906 motherfucker Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus, he dedicates over 150 pages to the subject.
I didn’t want to read all that, nor did I want to pay to download the PDF in its entirety, so I gleaned what I could by perusing the publicly available previews to each section. Sombart’s description of the American workers’ level of optimism falls in line with the Ronald White quote, but he also includes such points as the tendency of America’s most ambitious people to go into private business rather than public service and how two major parties dominate our political system.
From what I could see, Sombart’s arguments are valid and I can offer few objective criticisms of the work. On a personal level, it doesn’t all ring true. Part of that is because over a century has passed and his assertion that American workers are better off than their German counterparts is not as true now as it was then. It’s more than that though. My biggest objection is that I’m not nearly as optimistic as Sombart and White’s perception of the American worker bee.
I’m also kind of a socialist myself, but only kind of. I think laws to make sure workers are treated decently, and this includes a respect for work-life balance that goes beyond lip service, are both beneficial and necessary. I like single-payer healthcare and access to higher education that doesn’t cost a fuckton of money. There are some things the public sector is better at providing and since those things cost money, I’m OK with kicking in my fair share in taxes to pay for them.
It’s the nanny-state bullshit I have a problem with. If your ideal society is devoid of enjoyment of vices and unpleasant thoughts or words, I want no part of it. I’m kind of a libertarian because of this, but again only kind of. I believe that my life is essentially my own and no one else’s, but I don’t buy into the notion that unfettered capitalism makes the world a better place. Left libertarian is a fairly accurate description of my leanings, but that doesn’t seem to be an option in America these days. You’re given a choice to side with either the Pollyanna statists or the plutocrats with a selective appreciation of personal freedom. I choose to drink.
So what’s left? What possible light can be found at the end of this long, dark, and ugly tunnel? For me, the answer is fuck-you money.
I first heard the term “fuck-you money” from comedian Doug Stanhope, but I’ve been acquainted with the concept as long as I can remember. It’s that amount of cash you need to spend the rest of your life doing what you want.
The fuck-you part of it doesn’t even have to be hostile. You don’t have to say those words to your boss when you quit and you certainly don’t have to take a shit on his or her desk as a parting gift. If your situation merits that, do what you have do, but it’s hardly a requirement. In fact, you don’t have to quit your job at all if you enjoy it enough. Fuck-you money is about your own happiness, not obligatory rebellion. Personally, I’d make my exit and do it on friendly terms because I don’t want to be remembered as a complete asshole.
How does the dream of fuck-you money differ from being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire? For one thing, FYM may be a figure considerably less than a million dollars. It all depends on your definition of a comfortable existence. There are places on the planet I can afford retiring to right now. Unfortunately, they tend to be in areas where the local water supply comes from muddy tire tracks and paramilitaries periodically roll into town for their festival of rape.
The good news is that if I keep working for another ten years, I can retire in a place a little more civilized, like Oregon. I’ll also be 65 then so I’ll be eligible for Social Security, that is if people can keep a muzzle on Paul Ryan and his ilk.
What does this dream of attaining fuck-you money have to do with cockblocking socialism in America? Not a whole lot. It’s a lot more pessimistic than being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire so you don’t have the same enabler relationship with capitalism. You’re under no illusion that the corporate world that backhands you really loves you deep down.
On the other hand, diehard pessimists are less likely to work for positive social change. Nihilists like me are good at brooding, but we can’t be counted for much else. Viva la revolution. Tell me when you’ve won.
With people like me pretty much a wash as far as socialism goes, what is the impediment exactly? Werner Sombart might have had the answer and if I were a more diligent reader, I would have picked up on it. I must therefore look to Sombart’s contemporary and bestie, Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. OK, I didn’t read this either, but I’m willing to guess it discusses how the two things in the title have something to do with each other.
This is certainly true from my own experience. Sharing the religious aspects of puritanism may not be required in this day and age, but the nose-to-the-grindstone, killjoy element from those Mayflower buckleheads is still alive and well with the company you work for serving as a sort of surrogate god. You must stay busy and productive, but more than that, you must never shut up about how busy and productive you are. Part of this is self-preservation as you want to be spared when there is a round of layoffs because the shareholders (your god’s gods, in case you’re keeping score) get hungry and demand a blood sacrifice. It’s more than that though. I see this song and dance done far more than is necessary and through sheer repetition, it becomes second nature.
What’s even more pathological is the expectation of team spirit beyond what’s required to get your work done and not be a dick to your colleagues. This exists throughout a company, but is concentrated in areas where the accomplishments are less tangible (people in marketing and HR are particularly known for their pep). Critics of socialism are quick to point out its odious forced collectivism while conveniently forgetting how rampant that shit is in capitalism as well.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s the only viable game for me. Trying to change the world is not my nature. Creating my own little world is. For now, I’ll carve out a little one as time permits and keep checking my bank balance. Someday my money will hit the fuck-you threshold and I can retreat full time into my own little nook of resistance. I won’t need much, just the basic creature comforts. I neither need nor want a trophy room of possessions. I just need enough so the failings of the world are no longer my problem. Where I can live each day on my own terms. Where no one will take it all away from me.
Until someone does.