Thorstein Veblen: Dementia Praecox

It is evident now, beyond cavil, that no part of Europe is better off for America having taken part in the great war. So also it is evident that the Americans are all the worse off for it. Europe is balancing along the margin of bankruptcy, famine, and pestilence, while America has gone into moral and industrial eclipse. This state of things, in both cases, is traceable directly to America’s having taken part in the war, whatever may have the ulterior determining circumstances that brought European politics to a boil in 1914.

As regards the state of Europe, the immediate effect of American intervention was to bring the war to an inconclusive settlement; to conclude hostilities before they were finished and thereby reinstate the status quo ante out of which the war had arisen; to save the Junkers from conclusive defeat. There is every reason to believe that in the absence of American intervention the hostilities would have been continued until the German nation had been exhausted and the German forces had been broken and pushed back across their frontiers and across their own territory; which would have demoralised and discredited the rule of privilege and property in the Fatherland to such effect that the control of affairs would have passed out of the hands of the kept classes. The outcome should then have been an effectual liquidation of the old order and the installation of something like an industrial democracy resting on other ground than privilege and property, instead of the camouflage of a pro forma liquidation in 1918-19 and the resulting pseudo-republic of the Ebert Government. Noske could not have functioned and the Junkers would not have been war-heroes. It was the apprehension of some such eventuality that brought out the Lansdowne letters, which served warning on the kept classes of the Entente and prepared the way for the inconclusive peace–a compact to preserve the elements of dissension, the vested interests and national ambitions out of which the war arose.

There can be no grounded surmise as to what might have been the ulterior fortunes of any conceivable revolutionary establishments that so might have been set up in the German lands on some other basis than vested interests and national ambition; but it may at least be confidently believed that no such foot-loose establishment or group of establishments could have constituted a warlike menace to the rest of Europe, or even a practicable war-bogy. The outcome would presumably have been a serious peaceful menace to absentee ownership and imperial politics, throughout Christendom, but assuredly not a menace of war–Germany would have ceased to be a Power, in the usual minatory sense of the term. And when Germany, with Austria, had fallen out of like as a Power, the rest of the line of Powers would be in the precarious case for want of something formidable to lean against. A practicable Power has to rest its case on a nerve-shattering popular fear of aggression from without.

The American intervention saved the life of the German Empire as a disturber of the peace, by saving the German forces from conclusive defeat, and so saving the rule of the kept classes in Germany. It will be said, of course, by vainglorious Americans and by obsequious politicians of the Entente, that America’s entrance into the war decided the cases against the Central Powers’ which is sufficiently idle piece of stage-bravery. So also the German war-lords cover their shame with the claim that America turned their assured victory to defeat; but the reason for that claim is the need of it. When the whole adventure is seen in perspective it is evident that the defeat of the Germans was decided at the battle of the Marne in 1914, and the rest of the conflict was a desperate fight for negotiable terms on which the German war-lords hoped to save their face at home; and America’s intervention has helped them save the remnants of their face.

If Imperial German had dropped out of the running, as a practicable war-Power, at the same time that Imperial Russia had gone into collapse, the French Government would have had no practicable war-scare at hand with which to frighten the French people into a policy of increased armament. On the same grounds coercion and submission would have ceased to characterise the administration of their internal affairs; the existing Government of French profiteers would have lost control; and expenditures would have covered in part by taxes on income and capital, instead of the present deficit-financiering and constantly increasing debt. France would have returned to a peace-footing. At the same time the prosecution of hostilities through the winter 1918-19 would have carried the exhaustion of French resources and the inflation of French indebtedness to such a point as to ensure a drastic and speedy liquidation of their fiscal and commercial affairs, with a recapitalisation of assets at a reasonable figure, such as to permit French trade and industry to make a new start within a reasonable time.

What has just been said of the French case will hold true for the other Continental peoples in nearly the same degree, with some allowance for local circumstances. The case of the British is not substantially different, except in degree, and except that the outcome of the war has enabled British imperialism to take on an added degree of jobbery and effrontery. The American intervention brought the war to a close before the exhaustion of resources and the inflation of capital and liabilities in Europe had reached the breaking-point, and thereby it has enabled the vested interests to keep their footing on a nominal capitalisation in excess of the earning-capacity of their assets, to maintain prices and restrict output; from which follows unemployment, privation, and industrial disorder. At the same time the inconclusive peace, with the resulting international intrigue, has enabled the politicians of the old line to retain control and continue the old line of warlike diplomacy and coercive administration–a state of things which could scarcely have come to pass except for the formidable intervention of America during he closing months of the war.

It may be said, of course, that the state of things in Europe was not brought on by the American intervention; that even if the contending Powers had been left to their own devices they might not have carried their emulation of the Kilkenny Cats through to the normal Kilkenny finish. Even if the Americans had not come in and upset the fighting-balance, the European statesmen might have seen their way to much the same sort of negotiated peace, with much the same view to renewed hostilities at a future date. Such an outcome would of course have been possible, though it would not seem probable; and in that event the Europeans would presumably have fallen into much the same evil case in which they now find themselves, under the rule of the statesmen of the kept classes. They would have been no worse off, and presumably no better.

But it still remains true that in such event the Americans would have been spared certain untoward experiences that have followed. Most of the war-debt, much of the increased armament, a good share of the profiteering incident to the war and the peace, and all of the income tax would have been avoided. It is true, American statesmen would still have continued to do the “dirty work” for American bankers in Nicaragua; they might still have seen their way to manhandle the Haitians and put the white man’s burden on the black population of Liberia for the profit of American banks and politicians; it is even conceivable that they could still have backed Polish adventures in Russia and have sent troops and supplies to the Murmansk and Siberia to annoy the horrid Bolsheviki; but there is at least a reasonable chance that, in such event, there would have arisen no “American Legion,” no Ku-Klux-Klan, no Knights of Columbus, and no Lusk Commission. Presumably there would also have been relatively little of the rant and bounce of Red-Cross patriotism; no espionage act, no wholesale sentences or deportations for constructive sedition, and no prosecution of pacifists and conscientious objectors for excessive sanity. In short, there is a reasonable chance that in such event the Americans might have come through the period of the war in a reasonable state of buncombe and intolerance without breaking down into the systematised illusions of dementia praecox.

It will be said, of course, that the American intervention hastened the return of peace and thereby saved much property and very many lives of men, women, and children that would otherwise have been wasted in hostilities carried on to no effect for another four or five months; all of which is not reasonably to be questioned. But it is also not reasonably to be questioned that the past three or four years of dissension, disorder, privation, and disease that have been brought on by the precipitate conclusion of hostilities, have taken twice as heavy a toll in wasted time and substance and in wasted lives–not counting the debauch of waste and confusion which their unselfish participation in the war has brought upon the Americans.

Assuredly, none of these untoward consequences was aimed at or contemplated by the Administration when it shifted from a footing of quasi-neutrality to formal hostilities in 1917. Still less was anything of the kind contemplated in that run of popular sentiment that came to the support of the Administration in its declaration of war. So far as the case can be covered with any general formula, America entered the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” It is only that, instead of what was aimed at, the untoward state of things described above has followed in the chain of consequence. The motives of the AMericans in the case are not to be impugned. They were as nearly blameless as might reasonably be expected under the circumstances. It is only that the unintended and unforeseen ulterior outcome of the adventure has now, after the event, shown that America’s participation in the war was a highly deplorable mistake. In so far, this unhappy turn of events has gone to vindicate the protests of the pacifists and the conscientious objectors. Their arguments may have been unsound, and the conscientious objectors have at least found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and their motives may have been unworthy as often as not. There is no call to argue the legalities or the moralities of the case in this connection. It is only that now, after the event, it has unhappily become evident that the course of public policy against which they contended–perhaps unworthily–was not the wise course to pursue. Their morals may have been bad and their manners worse, and the courts have decided, with great spontaneity, that their aim was criminal in a high degree, and popular sentiment has borne out the sentiment of the courts in this matter, on the whole and for the time being. Yet the turn of events has, unhappily, gone to show that, barring the statutory infirmities of their case, these statutory criminals were in effect contending for the wiser course. And for so having, in some wrongheaded way, spoken for a wiser course of action than that adopted by the constituted authorities, these statutory criminals have been and continue to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. All of which invites reflection on the vagaries of dementia praecox.

The current situation in America is by way of being something of a psychiatrical clinic. In order to come to an understanding of this situation there is doubtless much else to be taken into account, but the case of America is afterall not fairly to be understood without making due allowance for a certain prevalent unbalance and derangement of mentality, presumably transient but sufficiently grave for the time being. Perhaps the commonest and plainest evidence of this unbalanced mentality is to be seen in a certain fearsome and feverish credulity with which a large proportion of the Americans are effected. As contrasted with their state of mind before the war, they are predisposed to believe in footless outrages and odious plots and machinations–”treasons, stratagems, and spoils.” They are readily provoked to a headlong intolerance, and resort to unadvised atrocities as a defense against imaginary evils. There is a visible lack of composure and logical coherence, both in what they will believe and in what they are ready to do about it.

Throughout recent times the advance of exact knowledge in the material sciences has been progressively supplanting the received barbarian beliefs in magical and supernatural agencies. This progressive substitution of matter-of-fact in the place of superstition has gone forward unremittingly and at a constantly accelerated rate, being the most characteristic and most constructive factor engaged in modern civilisation. But during the past six or eight years, since the outbreak of the war, and even more plainly since its conclusion, the churches, high and low, have been gaining both in numbers and in revenues, as well as in pontifical unction. The logical faculty appears to have suffered a notable degree of prostration throughout the American community; and all the while it is the more puerile crudities of superstitious fear that have been making particular and inordinate gains. So, for example, it is since the outbreak of the war that the Rev. Billy Sunday has effectively come into his own, and it is since the peace that he has become such a power of obscurity as to command a price as an agency of intimidation and misrule. So also it is during these last few years of the same period of nervous prostration that the Fundamentalists are effectually making headway in their campaign of obscuration designed to reinstate the Fear of God in place of common-sense. Driven by a nerve-shattering fear that some climax of ghostly atrocities is about to be visited on all persons who are found lacking in bigotry, this grosser sort of devout innocents now impugn certain findings of material science on the ground that these findings are presumed to be distasteful to a certain well-known anthropomorphic divinity, to whom His publicity-agents impute a sadistic temper and an unlimited power of abuse. These evidences of a dilapidated mentality are growing more and more obvious. Meantime even a man of such signal good sense and humanity as Mr. Bryan is joining forces with the Rev. Billy Sunday in a propaganda of intolerance, while the gifts of so engaging a raconteur as Sir Conan Doyle are brought in to cover the flanks of this drive into intellectual twilight.

It may be said, of course, that such-like maggoty conceits are native to the religious fancy and are due to come into the foreground in all times of trouble; but just now the same fearsome credulity is running free and large through secular affairs as well, and its working-out is no more edifying in that department of human conduct. At the date when American formally entered the war, American popular sentiment had already been exposed to a protracted stress of apprehension and perplexity and was ready for alarms and excursions into intolerance. All manner of extravagant rumors met with ready belief, and, indeed, few were able to credit anything that was not extravagant. It was a period dominated by illusions of frightfulness and persecution. It was the peculiar misfortune of the AMerican people that they are called into action only after their mental poise had been shattered by a long run of enervating perplexity and agitation. The measures taken under these circumstances were drawn on such lines of suspicion and intolerance as might be looked for under these circumstances. Differences of opinion were erected into statutory crimes, to which extravagant penalties were attached. Persons charged with these new-found statutory crimes were then convicted on a margin of legal interpretation. In effect, suspected persons were held guilty until proved innocent, with the doubt weighing against them. In one of these episodes of statutory frightfulness, that of the far-famed “Lusk Committee,” some ten thousand persons were arrested on ungrounded suspicion, with extensive destruction of papers and property. The foreign language press was laid under disabilities and the use of the mails was interrupted on general grounds of hysterical consternation. On the same grounds circulation and credence were given to extravagantly impossible fictions of Bolshevik propaganda, with the I.W.W. were by interpretation erected into a menace to the REpublic, while the Secret Service kept faithfully on the job of making two suspicions grow where one grew before. Under cover of it all the AMerican profiteers have diligently gone about their business of getting something for nothing at the cost of all concerned, while popular attention has been taken up with the maudlin duties of civil and religious intolerance.

The Republic has come through this era of spiritual dilapidation with an unbalanced budget and an increased armament by use of which to “safeguard American Interests”–that is to say, negotiate profitable concessions for American oil companies–a system of passports, deportations, and restricted immigration, and a Legion of veterans organised for a draft on the public funds and the cultivation of warlike distemper. Unreflecting patriotic furry has become a civic virtue. Drill in patriotic–that is to say military–ritual has been incorporated in the ordinary routine of the public schools, and it has come to be obligatory to stand uncovered through any rendition of the “National Anthem”–a musical composition of which one could scarcely say that it might have been worse. The State constabularies have been augmented; the right of popular assembly freely interfered with; establishments of mercenary “gunmen,” under the formal name of detective-agencies, have increased their output; the Ku-Klux-Klan has reanimated and reorganised for extra-legal intimidation of citizens; and the American Legion now and again enforces “law and order” on the unfortunate by extra-legal measures. Meantime the profiteers do business as usual and the Federal authorities are busied with a schedule of increased protective duties designed to enhance the profits of their business.

Those traits in this current situation wherein it is different from the relatively sober state of things before the war, have been injected by America’s participation in the war; and it is, in effect, for their failure to join hands and help in working up this state of things that the conscientious objectors, draft-evaders, I.W.W.’s, Communists, have been penalised in a manner unexampled in American history. This is not saying that the pacifists, conscientious objectors, etc., are not statutory criminals or that they foresaw such an outcome of the traffic against which they protested, or that they were moved by peculiarly high-minded or unselfish considerations in making their protest; but only that the subsequent course of events has unhappily brought out the fact that these distasteful persons took a stand for the sounder side of a debatable question. Except for the continued prevalence of a distempered mentality that still runs on illusions of persecution, it might reasonably have been expected that this sort of de facto vindication of the stand taken by these statutory criminals would be allowed to count in extenuation of their de jure fault. But distemper still runs its course. Indeed, it is doubtless the largest, profoundest, and most enduring effect brought upon the Americans by America’s intervention in the great war.

Typically and commonly, dementia praecox is a distemper of adolescence or of early manhood, at least such appears to be the presumption held among psychiatrists. Yet its occurrence is not confined within any assignable age-limits. Typically, if not altogether commonly, it takes the shape of a dementia persecutoria, an illusion of persecution and a derangement of a logical faculty such as to predispose the patient to the belief that he and his folks are victims of plots and systematic atrocities. A fearsome credulity is perhaps the most outstanding symptom, and this credulity may work out in a fear of atrocities to be suffered in the next world or in the present; that is to say a fear of God or of evil men. Prolonged or excessive worry appears to be the most usual predisposing cause. Expert opinions differ as to how far the malady is to be reckoned as a curable disease; the standard treatment being rest, security, and nutrition.The physiological ground of such a failure of mentality appears to be exhaustion and consequent deterioration of nerve-tissue, due to shock or prolonged strain; and recuperation is notoriously slow in the case of nerve-tissue.

No age, sex, or condition is immune, but dementia praecox will affect adolesents more frequently than mature persons, and men more frequently than women; at least so it is said. Adolescent males are peculiarly subject to this malady, apparently because they are–under modern circumstances–in a peculiar degree exposed to worry, dissipation, and consequent nervous exhaustion. The cares and unfamiliar responsibilities of manhood fall upon them at that period, under modern circumstances these cares and responsibilities are notably exacting, complex, and uncertain. Given a situation of widespread apprehension, uncertainty, and agitation, such as the war-experience brought on the Americans, and the consequent derangement of mentality should be of a similarly widespread character–such as has come in evidence.

The peculiar liability of adolescent males carries the open suggestion that a similar degree of liability should also extend to those males of more advanced years in whom a puerile mentality persists, men in whom a boyish temper continues into later life. These boyish traits may be seen in admirably systematised fashion in such organisations as the Boy Scouts. Much the same range of characteristics marks the doings and aspirations, individual and collective, of high-school boys, undergraduate students, and organisations of the type of the Y.M.C.A. In this connection it would perhaps be ungraceful to direct attention to the clergy of all denominations, where self-selection has resulted in a concentration on the lower range of the intellectual spectrum. One is also not unprepared to find a sensible infusion of the same puerile traits among military men. A certain truculent temper is conspicuous among the stigmata. Persons in whom the traits and limitations of the puerile mentality persist in a particularly notable degree are called “morons,” but there are also many persons who approximate more or less closely to the moronic grade of mentality without being fully entitled to the technical designation. Such a degree of arrested spiritual and mental development is, in practical effect, no bar against entrance into public office. Indeed, a degree of puerile exuberance coupled with a certain truculent temper and boying cunning is likely to command something of popular admiration and affection, which is likely to have a certain selective effect in the democratic choice of officials. Men, and perhaps even more particularly the women, will be sympathetically and affectionately disposed toward the standard vagaries of boyhood, and this sentimental inclination is bound to be reflected in the choice of public officials in any democratic community, where such choice is habitually guided by the play of sentiment. America is the most democratic of all nations; at least so they say. A run of persecutory credulity of the nature of dementia praecox should logically run swiftly and with a wide sweep in the case of such a community endowed with such an official machinery, and its effects should be profound and lasting.

The Freeman, vol V, June 21, 1922

Dear Jamie: #2 – It’s the basil

Dear Jamie,.

I figured you would take issue with my overly macabre descriptions and excessive pessimism. Maybe you’re right. The guttural tone of my last letter doesn’t lend itself to persuading you of the seriousness of the problems we face. But, I should add, it would be equally unacceptable to confront these horrors with that calm and repressive style one might find in the pages of the New York Review of Books.

I will address your criticism of my pessimism in a future letter because I feel that it requires a much more thorough response than what I can provide in this one. I am heading to work now, to face the public, to spend hours gently asking people to put on their masks, only for them to get angry at me despite the state seeing a 65% increase of COVID-19 cases over the past week.



P.S. Yes, the sandwich was very good. The secret ingredient was fresh basil.

Dear Jamie: #1 – Animal Sacrifice

Dear Jamie,

The other day I took the highway home from work. I don’t normally take the highway, as I find the route brisk and austere, preferring the relatively slow commute along the back roads amidst the pecan groves. This time around I didn’t have much choice. I was running late and needed to get home to feed the dogs. I merged onto the highway and sped up to my usual 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit. Country music blared from my speakers while I munched on one of those king sized Snickers bars. The drive was long, straight, and uneventful until about a mile from my exit when what appeared to be a yellow feathered bird slammed into my windshield. The loud thunk jolted me up into my seat. Mouth agape and with pieces of Snickers dangling off my tongue, I sat motionless for several seconds as I processed what happened.

The impact of a 3.5 oz bird against a 2.5 ton SUV traveling 85 mph should result in a scattered mess of blood and guts and feathers but there wasn’t any. Rather, what remained can only be described as grayish/brownish feather dust, which left the poor bird’s wing impressions on the windshield as if they had been stenciled there. I don’t mean to sound grim, Jamie. It was a grim experience that lends itself to a grim description.

The bird I killed was but one bird on one stretch of road at one point during the day. In my little region of the world, thousands of automobiles travel in excess of 60mph at any given time on hundreds of miles of road, so it’s reasonable to assume that birds are whacked out of the sky with murderous regularity. Again, another grim thought that lends itself to grim description.

Birds are not the only victims. During my commute to work, I see a small zoo’s worth of dead animals littered along the road–cats, dogs, skunks, coyotes, and the occasional javelina. Vultures and their fellow scavengers pick at their remains, risking their lives against the metal beasts careening down the asphalt buffet.

Road kill is such a common feature of the American landscape that we barely notice it. It would need to be a grotesque configuration of fluids and body parts to reveal its horror and yank us from its invisibility. For the most part, road kill is merely an unfortunate byproduct of material progress, a kind of sacrifice if you’d like.

I know what you’re thinking, Jamie. My horror infused language isn’t helping matters. It will neither convince you nor others to see how the way we live on this planet kills with reckless abandon. Language matters and persuading others requires a delicate touch. Maybe you’re right. Alas…

I am, of course, complicit in this mass slaughter of the non-human world, as I admitted above. I’m not absolving myself of any hypocrisy. Admission isn’t absolution. But it’s a complicity shorn from a less than ideal slate of choices. Either drop out of society or kill yourself or accept things the way they are. At the level of individual initiative, those are your only options. The first is of dubious consequence because living outside society isn’t possible, so in a sense, it’s not a option at all. The second, well, not everyone has the fortitude to cross that threshold. The third is straight complicity, which most of us are OK with. A fourth option, collective action, may provide us a way out of this needless killing. Working together to organize a world in which habitation and material needs don’t take the rest of the world down with us. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, I pulled into my exit and rinsed the bird dust off my windshield. I got home, fed the dogs, and made myself a sandwich. I watched a David Attenborough documentary on Netflix with bated breath.