Sunday, April 24, 2011
Disposable money: Disposable Culture Part 2
It is always dangerous to compare vastly different historical eras in order to enforce some sort of socio-political point. It is currently popular to compare modern society to Rome, though the overall conceptions of Self, Society, Class, God and Will were so vastly different in classical society, all comparisons that do not take these complex differences into account are hollow.
However, it is interesting, and perhaps instructive, to look at culture during the first great modern Disposable Money scheme. This occurred in France during the reign of Louis XV, who inherited a country whose coffers had been vastly depleted of Gold by the myriad of unnecessary wars foisted upon the country by Louis XIV - not to mention the expense of the Royal lifestyle at Versailles.
The young Louis XV fell under the spell of a Scottish Banker, professional gambler (and accused murderer) named John Law who sold the naive King on the benefits of paper money that could be issued and controlled by a Central Bank. Law was set up as the chief executive of the Banque General wherein most of the capital consisted of notes backed by the French Government, making it the de facto Central Bank.
He then used the Central Bank Credit to purchase all the current Louisiana Territory concessions, roll them into one company and then issue new vast quantities of paper notes backed by shares in the Louisiana Company (which he now owned). This scheme made those closest to the Central Bank enormously (paper) wealthy. And most everybody who could afford shares sold all they had of value to get in on the instant-wealth scheme.
The entire scheme lasted only about ten years, and though it left the country completely bankrupt when it collapsed, it did manage to introduce the idea of Wealth as divorced from Labor: Wealth produced simply by controlling the issuance and flow of Paper Money.
This scheme, though discredited at the time - for a time - naturally took hold in the economic consciousness and was recreated at various times in order to prop up sagging economies - all the way to our present era - where it has become wholly accepted as a foundation for our current economy. The founding fathers were aware of it, which is why they decreed in our constiturion that only Gold and Silver could ever be used as money in the United States of America. ('Strict constructionists' where are you?)
But all this brings me back to the curious cultural phenomena associated with this easy money ideal of 18th Century France. Here, I am out of my depth, (though I studied it a bit in college) - so I present some curious developments in popular entertainment that appear for the first time, in the human repetoire and have flourished ever since.
18th Century French literature - though rife with brilliant social critiques involving social climbers and easy-wealth seeking devotees, also introduced a genre that can be best classified as Middle Class Porn, in the form of the "Erotic Novel" - such as Les Liasons Dangereuses and the incoherent sexual ramblings of the Marquis De Sade (both still popular today - unsurprisingly). During this period we also find the birth of the Romance Novel - or "Housewife Porn" which explores the Romantic yearnings of middle class heroines (like "Paul and Virginie") swept of their feet by dashing strangers - a genre which was so aptly satirized by Voltaire ("Candide") and Balzac ("Eugenie Grandet") - and is now the mainstay of popular culture in the form of novels, films and television.
In painting too, we find the introduction of Middle Class Porn in the form of "Sensuous Nudes" in "mythological settings:" Topless bathing Nymphs, Maenads, and Goddesses, many of which still adorn the walls of wistful college students. Also popular right at the height of the Mississippi Bubble were the Fetes Gallants paintings that celebrated nobles involved in feasts in sumptuous settings, rife with erotic undertones.
Now, I would never argue that it is impossible to point to certain individuals throughout history who embodied the idea of Wealth as divorced from Labor, Honor and Service. (Certain Roman Emperors, like Nero, do come to mind). However, on a vast, popular, societal level it seems that the themes of disposable culture (wealth without labor, happiness based on Romantic and Sexual gratification) are directly related to the introduction of disposable money.