Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Ezra Pound and Douglas Rushkoff on Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Economics

I've been re-reading the chronological selection of essays on economics in Pound's Selected Prose, 1909-1965, which I always find thrilling. The book was edited by Pound scholar William Cookson. The section on economics is titled, "Civilisation, Money and History," and Cookson gives us Ez's wonderful pro-cosmopolitan essay "Provincialism the Enemy" from 1917 first. And, as I read each essay in this section, it's like watching one of your favorite horror films once again: you know where it's going, and, if it's really great - and it is - you see new things each time.

Also, things can get pretty dicey, but you know when you should look away, but don't?

To those of you who came in late: Pound at age 15 said he wanted to know more about poetry at the age of 30 than any man alive. I think he carried that off. He made a cultural renaissance of literary modernism. When many of his favorite artist friends were killed in World War I, he wondered what caused the war. He decided to teach himself economics. Why were artists starving when there was plenty to go around? And besides, Pound seems to have long believed that innovative artists were the engines of culture. Their work may seem "weird" now, but when you look back 30 years, you see they were in the avant of what's currently the "new" thing. So why are some who seem to produce nothing of value rich, while the creators of culture languish? This was a scandal to Pound.

                                              Ezra Pound in Venice, 1963

Cut to the chase: eventually the world wide stock market crashes and Pound, possibly driven slightly nuts by his own poverty, possibly because he was manic, or because of some massive character flaw, or combinations of all those things plus other "causes," began to rail against the Jew-bankers. Before he was captured by the Allies in Italy, Pound was making radio broadcasts with Mussolini's imprimatur, telling the US troops that they're fighting for the wrong cause, that FDR - who Pound once called "Stinky Rosenstein" during one broadcast, as if FDR were a "secret Jew" like Obama was a "secret Muslim" - was not the right cause, not the true "Anglo-Saxon" cause. Somehow Pound, between 1917 and 1940, had gone off the mental rails in a major way. Reading his brilliant but "mad" essays you are forced to come to grips with the idea that Pound had somehow - in my main model via maximum naivete - actually believed that Mussolini stood for the same things that Thomas Jefferson did. It's stunning, dramatic, garish, and ultimately tragic.

So, as I read Ez's essays having to do with money, civilization and economics, arranged chronologically by Cookson, I'm now looking for little signs of "crazy" to pop up. Included in this long section of the book (which extends from p.187 to p.355), Pound's 1935 pamphlet, ABC of Economics, shows up. This is Ez trying to tell us that C.H. Douglas's "social credit" ideas are probably more sound than John Maynard Keynes's ideas about economics and how to proceed after the 1914-18 war.

Douglas's ideas about the "increment of association" harmonize well with many of the current worldwide philosophical arguments for Basic Income. But Douglas, a brilliant engineer, had an antisemitic streak, and sadly, so did a lot of those who gathered around the Social Credit movement. In Pound's ABC of Economics he refuses to Jew-bait, argues for the role of the State in getting production for goods going if needed, and distributing them as needed, but not making munitions for for more wars. Work days being cut in half is a oft-repeated idea: if we all worked four hours instead of eight, everyone would have work, and everyone would have time to have a creative life. These too are ideas I've seen increasingly pop up in today's thinking on alternative economics.

Almost all of Pound's ideas about economics are presented as "this is what I've learned from studying economics on my own and you should study the subject too." Which I find refreshing. He makes an interesting point by saying that one reason most people don't have any appreciable understanding of their own economic world is that no one had much thought about it until around 1800. But even more persuasive: economists use a haze of abstract language in order to fake what they're doing. The English novelist John Lanchester came out with a book in 2014 addressing - very well - this problem: How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say and What It Really Means. My current favorite blog on economics is Evonomics. Those writers make me think, and for that I'm grateful.

Many of us, myself included have long suspected that very very few PhDs in Economics have ever spent time in poverty. And that's a problem. Economists have long allied themselves with the owners of capital cee Capital. I don't see it as a conspiracy but simple human nature.

A weird but wonderful idea Pound got from trying to figure out economics is his "animal/vegetable/mineral" riff: bankers and finance capitalists and stock market players are increasing their money from "mineral," which is the only one of this triumvirate that doesn't increase naturally. Animals reproduce and "grow" hides, milk, etc. The vegetable world is the sexy hyper-increasing world. That's where true wealth should be measured: that which increases in nature. I have always found this idea of Pound's very pagan-sexy and poetic, but too simplistic. The best answer to it I've read is a long essay by the erudite Lewis Hyde, in "Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money," found in Hyde's book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Fantastic essay...

Because it's quite good form to quote from your subject at least once, here's a few lines from Pound's ABC that I thought were accurate and funny. Ez is addressing "aristodemocratic" folks and their privilege and the idea of noblesse oblige:

In practice it is claimed that the best get tired or fail to exert themselves to the necessary degree. 

It seems fairly proved that privilege does NOT breed a sense of responsibility. Individuals, let us say exceptional individuals in privileged classes, maintain the sense of responsibility, but the general ruck, namely 95 percent of all privileged classes, seem to believe that the main use of privileges is to be exempt from responsibility, from responsibilities of every possible kind.

This is as true of financial privilege as of political privilege.
-p.247, Selected Prose, 1909-1965

[Donald Trump lecturing all the Americans who don't pay taxes.]

The very next essay in the book is also from 1935, and is where I'd mark where Ez's mind had jumped the tracks. Ostensibly, it's a very short book review of John Buchan's biography of Oliver Cromwell, which had come out the year before. Pound doesn't like the book, because Thomas Cromwell, born in 1485 or so, who became the great international banker for King Henry VIII, isn't addressed adequately. Or so one assumes. That's what Ez read the book for, one assumes: to learn more about indecent grand larceny and its history. Oliver Cromwell isn't really addressed in the review. I haven't read Buchan's book on Cromwell, so who knows, but Pound begins his review by citing usury and sodomy and the medieval Catholic church, which was against both. Sodomy because...well, the Hive King needs more warriors, is my guess. "Doing it" that way isn't about that oh-so "natural increase." Also: charging interest at an unreasonable rate? Unnatural, aye. The way that money increases is manifestly not the way that wheat increases. (Prof. Carlin would like to argue that cancer, spina bifida and even nachos cheese chips are "natural" too, but we don't have time for him right now.)

Well, there's Ez spending his book review attacking "the brutal and savage mythology of the Hebrews," (dog-whistle: Jewish bankers), and the Protestant Calvin doesn't get off easily either.  Oh, also at the beginning of the "review" Ez lays out ideogrammically how beautiful the 11th century church of St. Hilaire in Poitiers is, and juxtaposes this with the Rothschilds (dog-whistle again!) and their "bomb-proof, gas-proof cellar" where they hide the art. Furthermore, Buchan's book should have been a history book that tells us about our lives now.

But it's a biography, Ez. Calm down.

And by the way: the biography is about Oliver Cromwell, not Thomas. Oliver was the great-grandson of Richard Cromwell, who was Thomas Cromwell's nephew.

Nutty!

                                                    Dr. Douglas Rushkoff

A recurring theme in all these essays on civilization, money and economics - and in Pound's poetic life-work Cantos - is that the medieval church was contra usury. They had values. And, over the years, as I've studied Pound's works, I see him grapple with economics throughout. And, despite what he lamented at the end of his life (he died in 1972): his "stupid suburban antisemitism" which hurt everyone he loved and got him put in an insane asylum for 13 years? Most of his economic ideas are sound. Or rather: they seem sound to me. The Jewish banker riffage is rancid, vile, heinous stuff. ("Deploreable"?) And yet: to quote Pound from a 1960 essay: "Every man has the right to have his ideas examined one at a time." I agree. And with Pound, you get a beautiful idea in one paragraph, an obscure idea in the next, and a terrible idea in the next. Allen Ginsberg visited old Pound in Italy and told Pound his ideas had turned out to be right, just look at the Pentagon budget!, but Pound thought he'd botched his life and wasn't much for speaking any more. However, and ironically, I think the public intellectual Douglas Rushkoff - who happens to "be" Jewish - has done all the research Pound missed, and yet they are on the same page.

Rushkoff says medieval peer-to-peer selling in the local "market" (an idea that Crusaders got from the Muslims, who called it a "bazaar"), using local currencies, encouraged goods to be well-made ('cuz local and face-to-face), and lots of people got "rich." That is, until the local king outlawed local currencies and invented the chartered monopoly: you can only use money the King has issued (or they kill ya). And: now you can't work for yourself, you had to become a wage-slave for the King, who's the only one who can tell you whether you can make shoes or not. It wasn't "Jews" who created this; it was European Lords of the Land, and they could get away with it because their monopoly on violence was more extensive than anyone else's. (For those who'd like to see a book, with lots of scholarly citations, see Rushkoff's stellar Life, Inc.)

Rushkoff says this model is still with us, but now it's on "digital steroids." When Wal-Mart moved into a town it took 20 years for that town to have all its shops close and for half of the town to be making sub-minimum wage working at Wal-Mart. Now a digital company can wipe out all competition in 20 months. And Twitter is an abject failure because it can "only" make $2 billion a year, but its investors want it to make $200 billion...for a platform that delivers 140 characters.

If you have 50 minutes, get a load of Rushkoff giving the final talk at the most recent Sibos convention: it's a boffo event for the big players in "the world's financial services" leaders. (Rushkoff's bit starts at about 11 minutes in, but dig the "financial services" gobbledygook uttered by the smug woman at the beginning, then contrast it with Rushkoff's impassioned secular jeremiad against what probably almost everyone in that room deeply believes is true and good. This talk was held in Switzerland very recently, as of this writing. In my opinion, EVERYONE needs to know Rushkoff's narratives about how we got to Trump and Occupy and Brexit and Goldman-Sachs-bought Hillary Clinton, etc.

O! If only Ezra Pound could've had a friend like Douglas Rushkoff to help him in his study of economics!

                                          έργο τέχνης για το blog σας: δείτε Bob Campbell

10 comments:

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting piece. I consider the first and last pieces in Selected Prose my favorites: the intro on avarice and the beautiful piece on Eliot.

michael said...

You are probably the only person I know who's read that book.

That piece on Eliot is something I look forward to re-reading when I get there. I really am re-reading this book cover to cover.

As always, thanks for your thoughtful comments and encouragement, Dr. Wagner.

Eric Wagner said...

In 1984 I visited Portland's legendary Powell's City of Books for the only time in my life. They had a bunch of Pound books, and I exceeded my budget by buying three or so of them, including my first copy of The Cantos and Selected Prose. I felt I had to buy the latter because of the essay titles "Immediate Need of Confucius" and "The Jefferson-Adams Letters as a Shrine".

I like final writings best, from "Drafts and Fragments" on. He wrote very little in the last twelve years of his life, but I think it has a special radiance.

Eric Wagner said...

Oops a, "I like Pound's final writings best".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your writing. Please keep it up. We need voices like yours.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of your site - always enjoy reading it and know of no one else who covers the same topics. I notice there have been no posts for a few months. This is just a note to say that I hope you will be returning to blogging, and I look forward to reading your posts when you do. Best regards, Mike

michael said...

Mike/Anonymous: Thanks for the encouragement. Seriously: I appreciate it.

I'm gearing up to get the OG going again very soon.

Anonymous said...

Great to hear. I look forward to it.
For what it is worth, your last one was one of my favourites (I'm a sucker for Pound, specifically), which made the pause that much more, I dunno, noticeable.
I'm guessing you are a grad student, or a professor, or an author, or some combination/permutation of the aforementioned. If you publish in other fora/channels then let me know as I'll certainly check it out.
Mike

PQ said...

I picked up a worn-out copy of Selected Prose a few months ago but have barely looked at it since. Thanks for this piece, now I'm inspired to dig into it this weekend.

PQ said...

Also wanted to point out:

Zach Leary, son of Timothy, has a great podcast called "It's All Happening" and he recently had Rushkoff on for what was a very fascinating discussion on exactly this kind of stuff.

And one more thing: there's a new book on Ezra Pound's years in the nuthouse, "The Bughouse." Guardian just reviewed it: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/20/the-bughouse-poetry-politics-and-madness-of-ezra-pound-daniel-swift-review