Harangue: Garrett's novel of Red, to Green, to Deconstructionist
The New York Times headline, which you can read in the archives, says "Warn I.W.W. Raiders: Officials Take Steps to Prevent March on North Dakota Town." That headline appeared in 1921. Another from 1918 reads: "Reveals I.W.W. Plans: Proposed Amalgamation with Non-Partisan League in North Dakota."
What is this all about? For those who don't know, the I.W.W. was the American movement of Reds — hardcore communists of the pure Stalin variety. The Non-Partisan League was the American movement of pinks, the social democrats who wanted full socialism but with liberties (so long as they could be tolerated). They join in 1918 to lay siege to the governor's office in North Dakota, and then nationalized the mills and the banks. They raised taxes, nationalized insurance and did a thousand other wacky things that sunk the economy and led to the recall of the governor. The whole experience ended in calamity, a fact that won't surprise anyone who understands the failure of socialist economies.
In those days, however, few understood in detail why socialism couldn't work. It wasn't until 1920 that Ludwig von Mises explained precisely why socialism cannot work: it crushes the pricing signals that are the main data that make economic calculation and therefore rationality possible.
The North Dakota communist experience is a bizarre chapter in American history, one remember mostly by those who love Red lore. It turns out, however, that one American novelist followed the events very carefully and wrote a fantastic novel about it all.
The novel is Harangue (The Trees Said to the Bramble Come Reign Over US), by Garet Garrett, soon to be offered in the Mises store. Harangue was written in 1926. The action is dramatic and the story wonderfully fertile for economic insight. He details what happens to an economy when central planners are in charge, with a special focus on pricing problems and production decisions. He explains what happens when a bank no longer deals with the problem of risk.
But what is especially interesting is his treatment of the sociology of the rich. Garrett has an enormously insightful take on what turns the rich into supporters of the Reds. In the story, Jael Saint-Leon is the daughter of an highly successful Wall Street trader, who dies when she is only 16. She is suddenly a mega-millionaire and internationally famous. She tries her best to pretend to be bourgeois but eventually she realizes that this is impossible. So like others of her class and wealth, she turns rather to difficult task of distinguishing herself.
In the precapitalistic age, the rich were distinguished for what they owned. But in the capitalistic age, this is hardly possible, since most of what the rich acquire becomes available to the middle class in a matter of time. So the super rich look elsewhere: to exotica in art, architecture, music, and, finally, ideology. Radical socialist theory is something the super rich can purchase and support that the middle class will not — and this is precisely what is so attractive about it.
Jael Saint-Leon becomes the great benefactor of the communist cause in Garrett's gripping novel of conspiracy, ideology, and violence. But what is especially striking is to follow her psychology, not only during her Red phase but also following. She began to read about the history of socialist experiments.
"She turned to the literature of these experiments and was surprised at the extent of it. She read the fascinating history of Brook Farm, also that of the Oneida Community. In an obvious sense every such experiment had failed. That is, not one of them endured."
And so does she abandon socialism? Nope "No matter," she thinks. "In a spiritual sense they had not failed. The mistake was to suppose they might succeed materially. That was neither their point nor their meaning."
Interesting! So what is the point of socialism if not to succeed materially?
"Going to and fro between New York and New Freedom had produced more than once that occasion in which everything one knows falls away, even one's name and identity; things hitherto unknown, beyond good and evil, assume terrific importance. She became aware of the great mystery of the earth mother. Always it was west of the Mississippi river this happened, sometimes in the swooning glimpse one may remember but never recall, sometimes in dreaming reverie of which the mystical truth alone without object or subject may be remembered. Some inner region of herself became in these moments vast, co-terminous with the limits of the universe, pulsating with a knowledge the mind cannot share. These experiences left her wordless. She could neither describe nor define them... Directly or indirectly all those indescribable emotions associated themselves with the earth—the fundamental mother."
So you guessed it: she turns from communism to environmentalism, setting up a collective, live-off-the-land, love-the-earth community. And then what happens? It falters for the same reason, and it is particularly hard hit with the tragedy of the commons. The lazy live off the productive. At first this disgusts her. But then she thinks again.
"At this time, however, Jael was less interested in economic analysis than in a new way of regarding life from an emotional approach. She was down on rational thinking. Deliberately to give herself up to feeling alone had become a conscious aesthetic experience. She knew what she was doing. That was the pleasure of it. She could say, 'Now I am feeling,' and enjoy it, just as she could say, 'Now I am reasoning,' and enjoy that. Feeling was the new enjoyment."
So there we have it: from red, to green, to deconstructionism. Keep in mind that this novel, which closely tracks the real experience, was written in 1926! It surely must rank among the most prophetic novels of the 20th century. It certainly deserves to be ranked among Garrett's great works.