Following his attendance at the Institute of Ideas’ recent event, Tom Paine wrote something on a certain attitude expressed by a number of the speakers, which made me think of the following passage from Mises’ book ‘The Anti-Capitalist Mentality‘ in which he discusses why so many of his contemporaries, especially the intellectual types, rejected capitalism. Some of Tom’s other commenters have recoiled in horror from it. Saith one ‘Moggsy’, directed at me for posting it: “What a dark world and limited horrible soul destroying existence you imagine.” I hadn’t realised! Clearly Mises didn’t mince his words. Here’s the controversial passage:
In a society based on caste and status, the individual can ascribe adverse fate to conditions beyond his own control. He is a slave because the superhuman powers that determine all becoming had assigned him this rank. It is not his doing, and there is no reason for him to be ashamed of his humbleness. His wife cannot find fault with his station. If she were to tell him: “Why are you not a duke? If you were a duke, I would be a duchess,” he would reply: “If I had been born the son of a duke, I would not have married you, a slave girl, but the daughter of another duke; that you are not a duchess is exclusively your own fault; why were you not more clever in the choice of your parents?”
It is quite another thing under capitalism. Here everybody’s station in life depends on his own doing. Everybody whose ambitions have not been fully gratified knows very well that he has missed chances, that he has been tried and found wanting by his fellowman. If his wife upbraids him: “Why do you make only eighty dollars a week? If you were as smart as your former pal, Paul, you would be a foreman and I would enjoy a better life,” he becomes conscious of his own inferiority and feels humiliated.
The much talked about sternness of capitalism consists in the fact that it handles everybody according to his contribution to the well-being of his fellowmen. The sway of the principle, to each according to his accomplishments, does not allow of any excuse for personal shortcomings. Everybody knows very well that there are people like himself who succeeded where he himself failed. Everybody knows that many of those whom he envies are self-made men who started from the same point from which he himself started. And, much worse, he knows that all other people know it too. He reads in the eyes of his wife and his children the silent reproach: “Why have you not been smarter?” He sees how people admire those who have been more successful than he and look with contempt or with pity on his failure.
What makes many feel unhappy under capitalism is the fact that capitalism grants to each the opportunity to attain the most desirable positions which, of course, can only be attained by a few. Whatever a man may have gained for himself, it is mostly a mere fraction of what his ambition has impelled him to win. There are always before his eyes people who have succeeded where he failed. There are fellows who have outstripped him and against whom he nurtures, in his subconsciousness, inferiority complexes. Such is the attitude of the tramp against the man with a regular job, the factory hand against the foreman, the executive against the vice-president, the vice-president against the company’s president, the man who is worth three hundred thousand dollars against the millionaire and so on. Everybody’s self-reliance and moral equilibrium are undermined by the spectacle of those who have given proof of greater abilities and capacities. Everybody is aware of his own defeat and insufficiency.