The Apocalyptic Vision of The Road
What is the "means of production" and what significance does it have to society? How is it created, expanded, or merely sustained? What is the relationship between the prevailing moral order of a society and its accumulation of capital?
These are questions that economists and political philosophers have considered throughout the history of economic thought. If you have ever enquired into the differences between capitalism and socialism you will have heard of the means of production, and you will be aware that this is very important to the organization of society. You might have heard of this, but you might not have spent much thought on the relationship between capital and moral order. Indeed, why should ordinary people care about such things? Isn't the means of production just something that one reads about between bong hits in the dorm rooms at university? Or is it perhaps something that is the domain of accountants and corporate managers, concerned with the proper techniques of double-entry bookkeeping? What is its great significance?
For those who are not sure, or don't care, The Road by Cormac McCarthy gives us a chilling glimpse of a society without capital or moral order — a world without a "means of production." It is a terrifying vision, and a wake-up call to those who regard questions of capital accumulation as being merely the dry and technical subject matter of economists. The novel is set in a postapocalyptic world devastated by a catastrophe of some kind that has destroyed the natural environment. It tells the story of a man and his young son trying to survive the dangers of the new world and retain their sense of goodness in the face of its horrors.
The country was looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb. The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it.… He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable.… Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (pp. 129–130)
The world of the novel is cold and inhospitable, and hunger is ubiquitous. Its natural capital has been devastated, and other capital goods lie useless in the abandoned homes of the dead. Aside from some surviving humans (and the occasional animal), plant and animal life on the planet has become extinct, and the environment is barren and cold. There is no way to grow crops or create food, and so humans revert to foraging through the stored goods of the old world, and preying on the only remaining source of meat — other people.
By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters. (p. 181)
1. Civilization, Capital, and Moral Order
Where do our stores of food come from? And where our civilization? Though modern civilization is a complex thing, it is also very simple in its essence, for it is built on three forms of capital that form the pillars of any civilized order. One of these is the natural and man-made physical capital that humans use to live and to sustain their production of goods — the "means of production" (and perhaps also the means of distribution of goods). In addition to this physical capital are two corresponding forms of human capital: the technical knowledge to operate physical capital and sustain production, and the moral order required to sustain organized use of scarce resources. The degree of civilized life that presently exists does so because we have inherited physical capital and technological knowledge, but also because we have some sense of a moral order needed to sustain these things.
The story of civilization is the story of capital accumulation. This has included an accumulation of physical capital, but also a corresponding accumulation of technical and moral knowledge. We are civilized only to the extent that we ask ourselves what kind of moral order is needed to sustain the accumulation of capital. What kind of moral order sustains a means of production?
There was yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what? (p. 120)
In the midst of a prosperous civilization, it is easy for people to become flippant about the moral order needed to sustain the accumulation of capital. Large stores of capital goods are already here, and it is the present concern of many people to worry about how these should be "distributed" to satisfy their managerial lust and quest for "social justice." In a situation of such abundance, moral relativism and nihilism thrive. All is subjective, and the good is whatever "the representatives of the people" determine it to be. Those who pooh-pooh the moral rules that sustain the accumulation of capital often imagine that they are acting on behalf of the weak and downtrodden. But the breakdown of capital is the breakdown of civilization, and this is of great harm to the weak and strong alike. Indeed, if there are any who are most dependent on civilized order, it is those who are the least likely to survive under the predations of the strong.
Oh papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackened on a spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I'm sorry, he whispered. I'm sorry. (p. 198, grammatical omissions in original)
The Road shows us the predatory nature of man in the absence of his means of production, and the degeneration of the moral order this loss entails. Though the man and his son struggle to remain "good guys" during their precarious existence, the world of the novel is mostly inhabited by "bad guys" — armed gangs who enslave unwary travelers and commit terrible atrocities.
They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Trampling. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites [boys kept as sex slaves] illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening. (p. 92, grammatical omissions in original)
The man in the novel struggles to protect his little boy from the predations of other men, while at the same time struggling to maintain his sense of morality and bequeath good values to his son. He carries a gun for protection but has only two bullets, one of which he is saving to kill his own son if circumstance should require it. The boy is too young to comprehend the atrocities that will be inflicted on him if he is caught by "the bad guys," but the man is well aware. Though he devotes his life to the protection of his son, he also considers the fact that he will kill the boy as an act of mercy if they fall into enemy hands:
Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if [the gun] doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? (p. 114, grammatical omissions in original)
2. Why Aren't We Eating Each Other Right Now?
Reflecting on the likely effects of massive capital destruction is a fascinating thought experiment. It is one that gives valuable insights into the nature of humanity and the fragility of our present civilization. It matters not whether the destruction is brought about by a sudden disaster, as in the book, or a slow feasting on the accumulated capital of the past. If the means of production are destroyed, or simply not sustained, then we are heading down the road to hunger and predation, as illustrated in the novel.
What stops us from eating each other right now? How long would it take people in our civilization to turn to gross acts of predation in the event of a catastrophic disaster? How long before we would see people start farming other humans?
There are essentially two reinforcing reasons that prevent present humans from treating each other in such a patently predatory way. One reason is moral: there is widespread acceptance that it is evil to enslave and eat other people in our present circumstances. The other reason is contextual: the accumulated capital of our civilization is sufficient to ensure that we simply do not need to eat other people — we already have abundant food available to us. (One other alleged reason that might be mentioned is consequential: we fear the punishment that would be imposed on us for eating other people. However, this is a very minor concern in our present society and is not really operative on most people. The vast majority of people would avoid cannibalism under present circumstances regardless of whether or not they would be caught and punished for this behavior, simply because they do not want or need to engage in this kind of depravity. We mention this motivation only to explain that it is inoperative on most people.)
These two sources of civilized behavior — moral and contextual — are not independent of one another. Our moral views on slavery and cannibalism are formed within the context of a prosperous society where these activities are not needed to supply us with our needs (i.e., our present context affects our morality). Similarly, our lack of need for this source of food is itself a result of capital accumulation generated by having an ordered system of production built on moral rules (i.e., our moral system affects our activities, which affect our context). Though the first connection is widely appreciated, the second is not so well understood, and many people are prone to treat the fruits of civilization as just being here somehow (or as a result of science and technology, which got here somehow, etc.), without any particular moral principles needed to sustain them.
The fact that people's behavior is built on a moral foundation that is itself highly dependent on their context is a scary thought — even though people think it's abominable to eat each other right now, give them a few months living in a postapocalyptic moribund world and they might change their minds! Indeed, this is one of the main salutary lessons of The Road — it shows us the fragility of the moral principles that underlie civilized society.
3. Moral Order? What Moral Order?
Readers of The Road are likely to be struck by the strong connection between the lack of capital and the lack of moral order in the dying world. In that respect the book is an excellent instruction in the importance of capital to civilized life. But if all this is accepted, then what is the moral order required to accumulate and sustain capital?
To answer this, we must understand that capital is formed and sustained by productive efforts undertaken for future reward. By its very nature, capital accumulation requires a present refrain from consumption with a view toward expanding one's future productivity. In order for this trade-off to be worthwhile one must have property rights that function as the "boundaries of order" in our interaction with other people. This is what allows us to accumulate capital and avoid predation. It is what allows us to save for the future with the assurance that we will reap some reward, rather than having our efforts taken to feed looters and killers. The proper moral order for civilized life is one that allows cooperative action for mutual gains but eschews coercion. To the extent that this moral order has been practiced, it has allowed man to build capital and develop civilized life. To the extent that it has been violated, it has led to barriers to capital accumulation, or outright capital destruction.
Despite their peril, the man and boy in The Road are very respectful of the moral order of private-property rights.1 They vow not to eat other people regardless of their hunger, and they show great respect for the abandoned property of others. When they stumble onto a cache of stored food in an abandoned bunker, the boy says a makeshift prayer for the people who left it there:
Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn't eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didn't get to eat it … (pp. 149–155)
Though the story of The Road is a grim and uncompromising story of societal breakdown, it is also a love story between a man and his son, and a story of the struggles of good people in a bad world. The man in the story tells his son that they are "carrying the fire," meaning that they are carrying the remains of the civilized order of the old world. They are very much like those described as "the Remnant" by Albert Jay Nock in his classic essay: "those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend [the principles of civilization], and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them."
4. Capital, Moral Order, and Human Survival
The vision of The Road is a vision of what occurs when man loses the accumulated capital of civilization and the moral order that sustains it. The book is vague on the nature of the disaster that lands its principle characters in the final days of their species, but this is not really important. What is important is that we are presently in the process of discarding the moral order that sustains the process of capital accumulation, and there is reckless disregard by many people for any connection between an objective moral order for cooperative conduct and the capital accumulation and maintenance they take for granted to feed their abundance.
Those who concern themselves with the "distribution" of the accumulated wealth of the world are a reckless force chipping away at the foundations of civilized order. That they do so with pretentions that they are working for the benefit of the weak and disenfranchised only serves to show their naïveté, and their disregard for the nature of man without his civilization. The problem with this decline is not merely a danger of loss of physical capital, but something far deeper and more total: it is a moral rot, gradually undermining people's capacity to produce and sustain production. Every coercive measure interfering with the moral order of private property and cooperative exchange is another chip at the means of production and the civilized life it engenders.
The Road shows us what it means to lose the means of production. It is not pretty, and it is not at all to the benefit of the weak, nor anyone else.
The book has been praised as a salutation to environmentalist philosophy because it shows the consequences that a total environmental breakdown would have for humanity. I cannot comment on whether the author intended the book to convey this view, though it does not seem evident to me that he did. (The disaster in the book is clearly a sudden catastrophe, and certainly not a gradual breakdown caused by the activities of man.) In any case, I take a different lesson from the book than the alleged environmentalist message. To me, the book conveys the strong connection between capital and moral order. By depicting its absence, the book shows us the core of a civilized society, and allows us to see the importance of capital in a far more commanding way than is presented by economists and their treatises.
At root, human beings are animals, and like other animals we have a hierarchy of needs to satisfy. Despite our ability to reason about our own conduct, our mode of behavior will always reflect the necessity of satisfying those needs in some way. In the midst of our present civilization, with all its abundance, the idea of enslaving and cannibalizing other people (including children and babies) is horrific and revolting, but it is a reality of human nature that this can come about under dire circumstances. What protects us from this result is the accumulated capital of the past, and our capacity to protect that capital by formulating an appropriate moral order to guide our actions. If we are reckless about the connection between our moral order and the accumulation of capital, then we are asking for disaster.
When a person glibly tells you that moral rules are just subjective judgments, or that they are something that transcends petty concerns over material goods, ask yourself where that position leads. If man adopts such a view on a wide scale, will he still exist in another thousand years? Or will his fate have been embodied in The Road.
On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (p. 287)
- 1. This discussion should not be taken to mean that the moral order of private property ought to be operative irrespective of context. The proper moral principles applying to human interaction may legitimately depend on context; see, e.g., Moral Rights and Political Freedoms (1995) by Tara Smith. It is quite possible that a moral order of private property would not be legitimate in a moribund world such as in the novel, and one might even make the case that cannibalism could be morally legitimate when humans are one of the few remaining sources of food possible. I take no position on these questions in this essay, but they are worth noting to avoid misunderstanding of the source of rights. What is important is that, in the context of a world where it is possible to sustain a means of production, a moral order based on private property and nonaggression is proper and desirable.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.