Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Graded Blog Entry #1: Option 1 (Marx/Twain)

In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court there is much political and social insight provided that can be compared with Marx’s quote on the place of industrial workers in the bigger machine. The passage I would like to examine is centered more on the political worth of the individual, but much of what Twain writes can be applied to the industrial workers of a capitalist society. Twain writes:

“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags – that is loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares ‘that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient.” (Twain, 128-129)

It is easy to see the differences between Twain and Marx. Marx believes that “In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism which is independent of the workers, who are incorporated into it as its living appendages”. In Twain’s passage, he sees the situation from an opposite perspective – that, while the institution is independent, it is solely for the benefit of the workers and can be replaced – that the people are not cogs in the machine, but instead lead the machine in a capitalistic society like America. When Twain writes of such institutions in a political sense, they can easily be seen as the factories and workers that Marx described. From reading Marx’s statement it appears that the factory is the essential component in the factory/worker dynamic and that the individual is minimized under capitalistic systems. This is much different from Twain’s statement that “all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit” (Twain, 128). Again, much of this passage is a discussion of government rather than factory workers specifically, but one could infer that the individuals are the important components of a factory and that the factory is only there because of the workers’ desire to be a part of such a system and through innovation and improvements, the system can be upgraded and changed.

The main character, Hank Morgan, is himself an example of an individual’s ability to bring about change in a society. In his case, he has focused on social improvements like education but Twain shows the power of the individual to change such deeply ingrained institutions like the ones in medieval England. An extension of that is that the individual can be powerful in a capitalistic society because they are in charge of the institutions and government, not the other way around. As a result, if I were to alter Marx’s statements to comply more with Twain’s beliefs, I would simply append that the individual is both a part of the system as well as the director of the system and it is because of the individuals that the system exists in the first place.

Not everything that Marx states is in conflict from what Twain writes in the novel. Many of the people whom Hank Morgan encounters could easily be seen as a part of the capitalistic machine that Marx writes about. They are uneducated, follow the institutions blindly (hence Morgan’s explanation of American government) and are not in control of their own power. Perhaps Morgan’s ability to bring about change is more a reflection of his power of knowledge, rather than the power of an individual who is a part of the capitalist system that Marx describes. Still, it is the optimism and positivity with which Twain describes the American system of government that leads me to believe that his beliefs on government, society and more specifically, the role of the industrial worker differs from Marx.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. London. Penguin Books. 1986.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

This is a nice, detailed post; it's a detailed and plausible analysis, especially from a particular perspective. What I'm going to do is point out some of the assumptions of your post, including unconscious ones - assumptions which, in all fairness, my assignment didn't prevent you from holding and which also, in all fairness, aren't necessarily wrong. Not all assumptions are bad - but it's healthy to recognize them.

First, you make the assumption that Hank speaks for Twain. Probably the greatest challenge in this novel is dealing with precisely that problem: where does Twain stand in relationship to Hank? The book is clearly a satire - but is Twain satirizing through Hank, or is he satirizing Hank himself, among other objects of his satire? I'd argue that both are the case, which is both the challenge and the joy of this book for me -- Hank is smart, funny, and very often wrong.

If we recognize that Hank and Twain aren't quite the same, then we might view your passage with a different eye - the things which Hank believes might be tongue in cheek for Twain.

We'll talk about some of these issues in class, but let me point out in brief another assumption you make - which is also, in fact, Hank's assumption (but not, I would argue, Twain's, and certainly not Marx's).

You ellide "capitalism" and "free government" -- the actual subject of the passage -- together. Now, in our current historical moment most of us do that a lot, for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. But it's dangerous to combine economic and political categories (Singapore and China, for instance, are very unfree countries in most respects, but are probably as capitalist as we are; some would argue, conversely, that some European nations, e.g., Sweden, are more free in some ways than the U.S. but also less capitalist).

So you are combining lots of things here: Twain and Hank blur together, as do capitalism and "free government." You might justify both of these moves, but they require at least some justification, because they are highly consequential: you assume that Twain is an optimist about capitalism, a conclusion that opening up these categories would, at the least, challenge.