Death of a Salesman

A recent NYT article intrigued me:

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” … is the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature. … [It] has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions. … Mr. Miller later wrote …. that he had hoped the play would expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” … Mr. Miller remembered worrying in 1949 that “there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play’s ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy.” … Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. (more)

I didn’t remember the play offering a critique of capitalism, but looking around I see this view is common:

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy’s commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. … Some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. … Willy’s … penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy’s inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif. (more)

So I just re-read the play. And it does contain critiques of status, ambition for status, and self-delusion to gain status. It is indeed sad to see a success-driven man unwilling to admit his failure, or to accept charity from friends, choose instead to kill himself. But I see no further critiques of materialism or capitalism in the play.

On materialism, Willy Loman and his similar son Happy mainly want to be liked and respected. Sometimes they care about money, but mainly to keep score, and get respect. When they want luxury goods, such as stockings or fancy drinks, it is mainly to get women to sleep with them. In contrast, Willy’s other son Biff wants “to be outdoors, with [my] shirt off.” Perhaps those other women are materialistic, but not these men.

On capitalism, the play might hold critiques of failing to save for hard times, or of success based on who you know, good looks, and likability. But these are not intrinsic to, or even obviously correlated with, capitalism. For example, North Korea today is nothing like capitalism, yet it has strong status differences, people who struggle for status, in part to gain sex, and success based in part on good looks and who you know. A story about an old self-deluded status-seeking North Korean failure would make just as much sense as Willy Loman’s story.

This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.

It is interesting to note that, compared to most occupations, the world of Miller the playwright was especially like the salesmen Miller described:

For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. … A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Like salesmen, playwrights succeed when others like them. Even though most fail, most self-deludedly think they will be the exceptions, and can be crushed when they eventually learn otherwise. But few playwrights lament this, or blame it on capitalism. Why?

I suspect this is because playwrights see even failed playwrights as high status, and successful salesmen as low status. A hidden message of the play is “Poor Willy can’t see that even if he sold a lot, he’d still be a failure in our eyes.” Which is part of why it bothered Arthur Miller that his audiences empathized so much with Willy. Audiences thought Willy could have high status.

Some key quotes from the play:

To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. …There’s nothing more inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. …

And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not gettin’ anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. …

Sometimes I want to just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddam merchandise manager. I mean I can outbox, outrun, and outlift anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those common, petty sons-of-bitches till I can’t stand it any more. … I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade. I want to walk into the store the way he walks in. …

That girl Charlotte I was with tonight is engaged to be married in five weeks. … Sure, the guy’s in line for the vice-presidency of the store. I don’t know what gets into me, maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of competition or something, but I went and ruined her, and furthermore I can’t get rid of her. And he’s the third executive I’ve done that to. …

I mean, Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. …

Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way. … See—I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit! …

Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    I was about to point out the previous commentary on the play in No Death of a Buyerman, but there isn’t really much. I guess it indicates the play is particularly salient to Hanson.

    Arthur Miller is of course the man who wrote “The Crucible” as an analogy to 1950s anti-communism and is said to have been a communist himself. Understandable that he might not want to be completely open about the message of the play, hence people having a different from intended reading (as with Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”). And if we’re focusing on status, his marriage to Marilyn Monroe seems relevant. I was going to suggest that some of the quotes above evince envy of her prior husband, the athlete Joe DiMaggio, but the timing doesn’t work.

  • V

    While status seekers exist in any form of economy, Capitalism, or more properly the ideology endorsing Capitalist economy, is probably the only one that consider status seeking a value. In other systems it is usually frowned upon.

    While it is possible for a North Korean to increase his status by making a career in the government, overtly claiming to do so for personal gains would be considered unacceptable. In Western countries, on the other hand, claiming that you want to climb the corporate ladder or make a successful investment in order to make a lot of money is considered not only acceptable but even praiseworthy.

    • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

      I guess in any society openly trying to get status makes other people angry. (Status is a zero-sum game.) But there is a difference in balance, that in capitalism, the benefits gained by directly going after status outweigh the costs of being disliked by other people.

      More precisely, a successful status grab is probably a net gain in any society. (Benefits of becoming a king or a communist party leader are great too.) On the other hand, even in capitalism, openly working for status and failing to achieve it is a net loss. So where exactly is the difference?

      Perhaps in capitalism the chance to make a net gain is greater; one needs smaller amount of directly taken status to outweigh the natural status loss. This is either because the status is easier to grab directly (you don’t need to assassinate the old king or the old party leader), or because the natural status loss matters less (we are interacting with anonymous strangers a lot), or both.

      • V

        Capitalist economy doesn’t necessarily have higher social mobility than central-planned or traditional aristocratic economies.

        It seems to me that the difference is largely ideological:
        Capitalist ideology (e.g. the American Dream mythos, classical liberism) holds that status-seeking competition has typically net positive externalities, and is thus beneficial to the society as a whole, while other ideologies hold that the externalities from competition are net negative.

        In a Capitalist society, an overt status seeker may be hated by his direct rivals, but his behavior is not seen as immoral, while it would be seen as immoral in a system that empathises cooperation and social harmony.

      • http://rwcg.wordpress.com/ Sonic Charmer

        V

        “…while it [status-seeking] would be seen as immoral in a system that empathises cooperation and social harmony”

        It is ‘seen as immoral’, in particular, by that person’s rivals or potential rivals, who don’t wish to have to compete with that person.

        In this sense, ‘advocating an anti-capitalist ideology’ can be just another strategy for status-seeking – and Robin’s comments above equally apply.

      • V

        @Sonic Charmer

        It is ‘seen as immoral’, in particular, by that person’s rivals or potential rivals, who don’t wish to have to compete with that person.

        Not just by direct rivals, but in general by the society. That’s the main difference between a Capitalist ideology and a Collectivist ideology.

        In this sense, ‘advocating an anti-capitalist ideology’ can be just another strategy for status-seeking – and Robin’s comments above equally apply.

        Pretty much any action may be motivated by status seeking, but that’s beside the point.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        Social status is always zero-sum. There is no way that status can be other than zero-sum. Status is simply an ordered ranking of social status.

        In capitalism, you can use capital to make investments which yield returns as profits, which when accumulated become wealth. Capitalism only works to the extent that these voluntary exchanges are not zero-sum. Each party has to be actually better off as a result of the trade. Otherwise the trades would not happen.

        Wealth only equal status to the extent that a society allows wealth to equal status.

        Capitalism runs into problems when people start treating wealth as being equivalent to status. Because status is always zero-sum, people who treat wealth as equivalent to status also treat wealth as being zero sum. When capitalists treat capitalism as a zero-sum, it becomes a zero-sum or even a negative-sum. When trade is treated as a zero-sum, there are no incentives to trade.

        When owners of property and the means of production compel others to accept zero-sum trades, there is no benefit to that trade. Trade that is not a positive sum does not produce wealth.

        This is why the economy is stagnating. If you look at productivity changes and wages over the last 40 years,

        http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/05/40-years-of-workers-left-behind-chart.php

        productivity has increased but wages have not. What that means is that trade of labor for wages has become more one-sided and more of a zero-sum in that the workers have not benefited through wages by the increases in productivity.

        Krugman has a piece on how the wealthy do want their wealth to be considered as social status.

        http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/with-great-wealth-comes-great-pettiness/

        and are upset when they do not receive social status proportionate to their wealth. When they then do is try to double-down and acquire ever more wealth in the vain hope that even more wealth will translate into more social status. It won’t, and it can’t. Social status is zero-sum. The promise of capitalism is that capitalism will be positive sum. If you try to force capitalism into a zero-sum by capturing all of the value-added of trade, then capitalism “breaks” and stops working to create wealth.

        I appreciate that this is difficult to understand because everyone wants everyone else to leave money on the table in their side of every trade, but wants to not leave money on the table for their side of every trade.

        When trade becomes so efficient that middlemen are able to capture all of the value-added of trade, then there is no point to trade anymore because only the middlemen have any benefits.

      • http://rwcg.wordpress.com/ Sonic Charmer

        “Pretty much any action may be motivated by status seeking, but that’s beside the point.”

        It’s not beside Robin’s point, it’s central to it, namely that many things with ill effects (such as deadweight-loss status-seeking) are features of humanity, not of ‘capitalism’.

      • V

        But the point is that critics of Capitalism claim that Capitalism encourages these activities, while other systems discourage them.

      • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

        Capitalist ideology (e.g. the American Dream mythos, classical liberism) holds that status-seeking competition has typically net positive externalities, and is thus beneficial to the society as a whole, while other ideologies hold that the externalities from competition are net negative.

        What if it actually is true? What if all systems are right about whether status competition brings a net benefit or a net loss in a given system?

        Mere difficulty does not express it all. If you have a knife fight against an equal opponent, your chances are 50%. If you are playing chess against an equal opponent, your chances are 50%. Statistically speaking, in both situations it is equally difficult to win. Still, the first one is a net loss, while the second one could be a net gain. In terms of status, both games are zero-sum. Yet in the first game, one or both participants will be injured, while in the second game, both participant will practice their chess skills.

        Maybe Capitalism is making the combat between the successful players more like a game of chess, and less like a knife fight. Microsoft against Apple is not the same as Bolsheviks against Mensheviks. Perhaps becoming Bill Gates is just as difficult and improbable for an average individual as becoming Joseph Stalin, but still, Bill Gates did not have to kill millions to maintain his status.

      • http://rwcg.wordpress.com/ Sonic Charmer

        V

        But the point is that critics of Capitalism claim that Capitalism encourages these activities, while other systems discourage them.

        And the rebuttal to that is to point out, as Robin did, that status-seeking is hardly unique to societies that are “capitalist”.

      • V

        @Sonic Charmer I wrote:

        While status seekers exist in any form of economy, Capitalism, or more properly the ideology endorsing Capitalist economy, is probably the only one that consider status seeking a value. In other systems it is usually frowned upon.

      • V

        @Viliam Búr self-fulfilling prophecies are obviously possible, but I think that it’s inappropriate to compare revolutionaries like the Bolsheviks vs the Mensheviks with Microsoft vs Apple. Soviet leaders after Stalin didn’t kill millions in order to gain and keep their status.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        I am paraphrasing this, but I saw a poster of this online and can’t find it. It was something to the effect of:

        When we see a person who has 10 years worth of newspapers in their house, we think “what a fire trap.”

        When we see a woman who has 30 cats in her house, we think “crazy cat lady”.

        When we see someone who has had 50 plastic surgeries we think “body dysmorphic disorder.”

        When we see someone who has 10 years worth of canned food in their basement we think “survivalist nut”.

        But when someone acquires and hoards more wealth than they can possibly use we consider them to be someone to emulate?

        There are other status acquisition systems where acquiring status is admired and appreciated. These are systems where status acquisition accompanies benefits to the greater community. The classic example is potlatch.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

        Not surprisingly, this custom was made illegal.

        Acquiring status by doing good is always encouraged. The only people it makes angry are those who are unwilling or unable to attempt to acquire status by doing good.

        That is the rationale for higher status in soldiers, police, firemen, doctors, teachers. When such people do evil, they are often treated more harshly. People expect lawyers to do evil, so when they do, there isn’t as much of a backlash. Similarly many people expect capitalists to do evil and they are often not disappointed.

        Capitalism is only a fair system when there are no unpriced externalities. Many people who become wealthy did so because they took advantage of unpriced externalities. The biggest issue of the day, global warming is occurring only because the cost of putting CO2 into the atmosphere is not borne by those who are putting CO2 into the atmosphere.

        Those who profit from unpriced externalities are not necessarily operating a positive-sum operation.

  • ujsfbghju

    It seems to me that shirtless boy already has high status (based on his body) and hates having to lose status to those that have other things he doesn’t (money, career).

    I don’t shed many tears for hipster types who are healthy and good looking and just want to fuck. They don’t have to earn their way into a girls pants or get invitations to hang out with interesting people. Of course they are annoyed when an uglier, less genetically gifted man outearns them and takes the girl or orders them around on the job. Well so what. Status accrues a lot of ways. At least you’ve got some control over your earnings, more then your body. Those of us that don’t look good without a shirt on need to wear a suit.

    • V

      At least you’ve got some control over your earnings, more then your body.

      I think the reverse is true. While there are both genetically exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally ugly people, for most people appearance is more a matter of fitness and clothing than genes. Income, on the other hand, is mostly hereditary.

      Moreover, beauty seems to be distributed according to a normal distribution, while income is distributed according to a power-law distribution, which means that income is much more unequal than beauty.

      • ujsfbghju

        Looks may be distributed normally, but the benefits of looks are destributed exponentially. Consider the life of the 99% hottest women that strips for a few years and runs out of money by 40 versus the 99.9% that is able to become a super model and live in a mansion.

        Or for men sexual success is exponentially distributed, with a few men getting most of the women.

        Beauty is genetically heritable, just like any other trait. It’s likely heritable to your children as well, and your children’s children. Wealth, meanwhile, comes and goes. Genes are forever.

      • V

        A high-income supermodel isn’t necessarily more beautiful than a stripper. Their career difference is probably mostly due part to sheer luck, part to social connections (which largely depend on family status), part due to social and artistic skills.

        Or for men sexual success is exponentially distributed, with a few men getting most of the women.

        This statement appears an exaggeration, since it seems to imply that most men don’t have sexual intercourse, which is factually false.
        The number of sexual partners each individual (both male and female) has, is, however, power-law distributed. But it seems to depend more on profession than on looks: the hubs of the sexual intercourse social network are typically prostitutes, soldiers and professional travellers such as flight attendants and sailors.

      • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

        You only have an ordering for beauty, not a scale. (That is, we can objectively say Sally is more beautiful than Sue, but not by how much.) Without a preferred scale, like you have for income, it’s not meaningful to say whether or not beauty is distributed normally. Like IQ, it makes the most sense to simply define the beauty scale as the one that makes the distribution normal.

      • V

        It’s not obvious to me that beauty is a ranking. Can you provide an argument for that?

      • John Thacker

        “It’s not obvious to me that beauty is a ranking. Can you provide an argument for that?”

        If it’s not obvious that beauty is a ranking, then it’s not obvious that wealth and income is a ranking either, considering the different costs of living in different places, and the different personal values that people place on performing different jobs or owning different things.

        Much of the data you use, V, to demonstrate that income is “mostly hereditary,” apply to appearance as well. Fitness and clothing (and style and grooming) are “mostly hereditary.” Not just tendency towards a certain body shape (certainly you don’t believe that fitness is as easy for all) but also the habits learned and even one’s temperament– which also applies to income– that appears to be learned early or else genetic. (as the marshmallow experiment shows.)

      • V

        If it’s not obvious that beauty is a ranking, then it’s not obvious that wealth and income is a ranking either,

        In fact they aren’t.

        appearance as well. Fitness and clothing (and style and grooming) are “mostly hereditary.” Not just tendency towards a certain body shape (certainly you don’t believe that fitness is as easy for all) but also the habits learned and even one’s temperament– which also applies to income– that appears to be learned early or else genetic.

        Differences in genes and habits learned from parents can cetainly affect appearance, but nothing stops you from joining a gym and copying the clothing style of your peers. Becoming much more wealthy than your parents, on the other hand, is very difficult.

      • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

        It’s not obvious to me that beauty is a ranking. Can you provide an argument for that?

        Yes, of course, the ranking is only approximate due to differences in tastes. (All things considered, the differences are pretty small.) This is an additional complication.

      • Michael Wengler

        I remember thinking beauty wasn’t a ranking.  Then I did eventually realize that I had so built-in a desire not to waste my time on the unattainable that I was completely concentrating my efforts on girls I might conceivably get and almost instinctively leaving the much prettier girls to the higher status boys.  

        The gene that prompts a lower-middle status male to go after lower status females is a winner in evolution.  And NOWHERE in evolution has anyone ever seen an advantage in a gene telling the human why it is driving that human the way that it is driving them.  

      • V

        Even without considering the subjectivity of tastes, beauty doesn’t seem to be a ranking.

    • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

      Marilyn Monroe should have married Henry Miller.

    • Michael Wengler

      Right on.  It actually seems to me that in modern society, those who most vividly display primate status markers are in a very important part of society, much lower status.  The nerd is not a primate winner, but what he can do with his low aggressiveness and noisy neocortex is pretty impressive.  It may take evolution 10,000 years to “build in” a sexual preference for nerds, until then the highly tatooed guy with the dopey mullet, the dopey chopper, the leather, the studs, and the wallet on a chain will gain a monkey-respect from all of us, boys and girls alike, even as, for the most part, the ubernerds marry the supermodels.  

      • Grow up Michael

        That ubernerd will marry the supermodel and the model will cheat on the nerd with the “tatooed guy’ 😉 You must hate it when the “tatooed guy” is educated and yes it happens.  Just like the “primate” should go to school you should try doing some pushups.  Hating on others for their blessings or shortcomings seems very primal in my opinion.

  • http://eradica.wordpress.com Firepower

    I became skeptical of Miller’s messages after I discovered The Crucible was about Communist “witch hunts.”

    Having wrote this play during America’s economic Golden Age, it would be amazing to see what he has to say TODAY.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity.

    This seems true to me. I often have to remind my friends who have really not thought much about political economy, that a policy that they support will not work well because people are just that good/nice. They will take advantage of certain programs in a bad way.

  • Frank

    “This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.”

    But there is a deeper problem here that often goes unnoticed in this type of reflection. We are quick to distinguish capitalism from human nature, and on the basis of this distinction, apportion blame to one or the other for a particular ill or a generally deplorable condition. This distinction is becoming increasingly untenable; there is no position, external to human nature or capitalism, from which we could measure their extent and influence without running the risk of conflation.

    Ideology is dependant on the distinction between itself as nature and its other as distortion and propaganda. An ideology is successful when it presupposes itself in the nature out of which it emerged, and projects its ideal image into a past that legimitizes its ascendency and obscures the alternatives. We should be sensitive to the ways in which present day ideologies shape our understanding of the natural and inviolable.

    I’m not suggesting that there is absolutely no such thing as nature or that we can simply talk and critique our way out of acting, thinking, and feeling along certain lines. I just want to stress the difficulty of establishing hard and fast boundaries between these supposedly separate domains. These categories of thought are mediated by history, politics, science, and philosophy, they evolve and devolve in step with the struggle for rights and recognition ;they are both reflections and mystifications of the prevailing, and always unstable, material and cultural situation of a given time.

    While it is tempting to say that capitalism perverts human nature, or that it is largely providential, I don’t think this is helpful or even interesting. We can identify certain tendencies, probabilities, and statistical aggregates, we can deepen and broaden our knowledge of history, politics, and science. What I don’t think we are qualified to do is speak in the name of human nature as a finished affair. We should be sensitive to the various patterns of culturally prescribed behavior cut from the cloth of a nature that is itself subject to permutations and instability.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    If it is true that status is a zero sum game. Does that mean that if genetic engineering makes all girls pretty that we will still see the least pretty as ugly? I am not sure that it is impossible for all people to be high status.

    • V

      Beauty may not be zero-sum, although I suppose that there is some habituation effect, but status is zero-sum, pretty much by definition.

      • John Thacker

        Along any individual scale status is zero-sum. That’s why the diversity of modern society is important, because it allows people to compete in different status competitions. Of course a side effect of this is that people feel the need to disparage different measures of status (including how playwrights look down upon salesmen), but perhaps that’s inevitably a part of sustaining the different types of status.

        In a system that empathises cooperation and social harmony, instead of individualism, one would expect a fewer number of different status competitions. (An extreme being Communist countries, where the single status competition of the Party would control everything, instead of people competing in many different ways.)

        Even if this somewhat lowered the total amount of status-seeking, decreasing the number of different ways to seek status would worsen the problem IMO.

    • Michael Wengler

      It seems to me we see over and over the loss of status associated with a luxury good which becomes inexpensive and commonly available.  Knock-off luxury items confer decidedly less status than the real things, and a better quality knock-off doesn’t fix that bug, it breaks it more.  Of course evolution has generated gigantically attractive males and females in overwhelming numbers, and still most people would rather bag the popular guy/girl than the lower status one.  

      In some sense, spirituality is the realization that it is Evolution that puts us on the rat race, but that we can decide on our own to get off that rat race and enjoy the beauty that is freely available everywhere.

      It is one thing to not like this state of life, it is another to refuse to see it when it is pretty obvious.  

  • Dave

    This post is very insightful. I thought Robin was running out of gas but as long as we speak of earthly things OB can still rock and roll.

    I read the NY Times article and to me the take home message was that the editorialist thinks that the pursuit of middle class values,even though they stunk, was better than a vanishing middle class,as we have now.Thus Miller’s play is obsolete. I don’t know how accurate this is because I think the role of newspaper is to simplify and exaggerate while running around like Chicken Little.

    The problem I see with Miller and other old-time intellectuals is that they only know and respect fellow members of the intellectual and entertainment establishment. (One and the same.)

    Out of ignorance and a little snobbery they discount the small joys and sense of meaning that can come commerce,science and industry or from any job well done.True this can be ruined is by excessive materialism and status seeking. If this is the real point of the play it is true. Yet I see instances of competency,craftsmanship and honesty all the time. This country works and it wouldn’t wouldn’t work if 90% of the people didn’t show up for work daily.

    The problem is that the intellectual’s hyper-literate media promotes and is partly responsible for today’s negativity. There is too much grievance,out of proportion to real material need. This not an economic problem.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Capitalism is not an ideology. Capitalism is an economic system by which such a thing as property is defined such that individuals can own property and use property to generate more property which they also own.

    Capitalism doesn’t magically make humans into beneficent entities. If you let capitalists acquire monopoly power on an essential such as food, then that capitalist can acquire all wealth in the society. If you limit the things that money can buy, then you limit the extent that capitalists can acquire those things.

    If you require or allow that the essentials for life be purchased, then you grant the power of life and death to the wealthy. Not surprisingly, some then use that power to disproportionately enrich themselves.

    Regardless of what capitalists may wish, the arbitrary societal agreements that define property are not a suicide pact.

    • roystgnr

      A stirring paen to subsistence farming.

    • John Thacker

      Ah, so you’re one of those willing to consign thousands and tens of thousands of the ill to their fate, rather than let organs be sold?

      Actually, I do believe that your preferred policy is a suicide pact.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        So you think that teenagers should be allowed to sell a kidney to get a iPad?

        http://www.padgadget.com/2012/04/06/five-chinese-arrested-in-sale-of-kidney-to-buy-ipad/

        The problem with sales of many things is that there are externalities that are not included. Sometimes it is because the externalities are unknown, like the failure of the teenagers remaining kidney. Sometimes the externaltieis are known but the cost to mitigate them is not known, for example putting CO2 into the atmosphere.

        The usual response is to deny that the externality even exists, as with AGW deniers, health effects of smoking deniers.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

        I do favor a teen having the right to do so, but I don’t understand where the externality comes in.

    • Michael Wengler

      A belief that capitalism brings much more value to humanity than various competing alternatives IS an ideology.  It very much depends on what you have decided is valuable.  

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    No, the play was intended to be an indictment of the lower middle class by the upper middle class. Miller’s message is that you shouldn’t be a vulgarian like the Lomans, you should be like Bernard, the studious neighbor boy who played tennis instead of football, went to law school, and now argues before the Supreme Court.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      There’s a lot of truth in that.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    “All in the Family” is a like a comic version of “Death of a Salesman.” Norman Lear’s political intention was that audiences would identify with Rob Reiner’s Meathead, the liberal grad student son-in-law, and deplore Archie Bunker, but audiences liked Archie.

    • http://eradica.wordpress.com Firepower

      It seems odd a savvy guy like Lear would select an unknown as his protagonist to do battle against a famous character actor like O’Connor.

      • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

        Rob Reiner is the son of Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke show. It was the sit-com equivalent of picking a Manning in the NFL draft.

      • Michael Wengler

        A talented character actor could play unsympathetic and good writers could write unsympathetic.  Whatever the original intention with All In The Family might have been, it Archie was clearly intended to be likable through the vast bulk of its writing and acting.  That’s my critique of capitalism: in North Korea Lear would not have pandered to the audience just to make a few extra bucks.  Right, he would have done what the dictator told him no matter how stupid it was.  MUCH better than capitalism, or maybe not.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

       The US remake of the UK original was then all too accurate, since Johnny Speight was ways frustrated by viewers sympathising with Alf.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Wealth =/= Status

    Wealth is not equivalent to status. Wealthy people want it to be, but it isn’t. A good example of that is the true story behind the movie “Bernie”, where the wealthy widow was so despised that people didn’t want to prosecute her murderer, a man who shot her 4 times in the back.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_%282011_film%29

    If you have enough wealth, you can purchase the semblance of status, but that is not “real” status the same way that purchased companionship is not “real” companionship, or purchases sex is not the same as voluntary sex between two people who love each other.

    I appreciate that some people can’t tell the difference between purchased sex and sex between two people who love each other. That is very sad for them. That some people are unable to tell the difference does not mean that there is no difference.

    The semblance of status that can be purchased with wealth is analogous to the illusory increased status that comes from associating with powerful people mentioned in the other thread. It is self-delusion mostly. Some people can go along with the delusion, analogous to the Emperor’s new clothes effect, but that is not real status, it is power masquerading as status.

    If wealth equaled status, then how the wealth was acquired wouldn’t matter, but it does. Someone who steals a hundred million dollars doesn’t acquire high status. Bernie Madoff didn’t acquire high status from his Ponzi scheme. He acquired the illusion of high status by pretending to acquire wealth honestly.

    Wealth acquired through cheating does not confer higher status. Wealth acquired through random chance doesn’t confer high status either. Lottery winners don’t suddenly acquire high social status because they have become wealthy. Lottery winners do suddenly acquire a lot of sycophantic parasites who are trying to scam money off of them. If your idea of “status” is having lots of fawning sycophantic parasites around you, then your idea of status is different than mine.

    • Michael Wengler

      “Real” status?  Who decides what is real and what isn’t?  You?  Why?  

      The “real” impact of status seems to be improved access to sex, stuff, political power, and more or less any “thing” in the human sphere any one in the human sphere might want.  There are certainly people with superior access to sex, stuff, and power that I don’t personally like or respect.  I’d have to be pretty unrealistic to claim their apparent “status” was somehow not real for that reason.  

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    “Capitalism” is a stand-in for “modernity”, which in rough status terms means “the end of feudal social relations”. In other words, while status is omnipresent, it used to be something you were born with and were more or less stuck with. The modern world turned it into something more fluid, that you can and must achieve, or (as the play shows) you can quite easily lose.

    For leftist intellectuals like Miller, the modern world also has the bug that vulgar market values are constantly displacing more traditional virtues and tastes.

    This is all sort of Marxism 101. And no, you don’t have to be a Marxist to appreciate his critique of capitalism.

    The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. …. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. — The Communist Manifesto

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes the play can be seen as a critique of fluid status in modernity. But to call that a critique of “capitalism” is misleading, as most will understand that a one form of modernity being contrasted with other possible forms.

    • V

      Communism is actually more modern than Capitalism.

  • Amroth

    I read “Death of a Salesman” my senior year in high school. It was then, and remains today, one of the most unsettling, personally frightening things that I’ve ever read. The specter of Willy Loman’s failure and the meanness and everyday desperation of his life have haunted me ever since.

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