The students in the political theory class for which I teach a linked writing course were really excited about reading Emerson's "Self-Reliance," because it showed "how important it is to be yourself, and to be different."
They hear this message everywhere. I'm not blaming Emerson for it. On the contrary, "Self-Reliance" is a wonderful illustration of why the cliched fetishizing of being special is subtly insidious. It's the backbone of modern capitalism. I don't see this being discussed very often, so today, I'm adapting the lecture that I gave my students several weeks ago. All citations are taken from the Dover Thrift Edition of "Self-Reliance and Other Essays."
At the close of "Self-Reliance," Emerson rejects "the reliance on Property" as "the want of self-reliance," which might appear, on the surface, to be a very Marxist position. But as he clarifies, Emerson explains that what he hates is inactive property, which "merely lies there," while "that which a man does always by necessity acquire" and which "perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes" is not only acceptable, but ideal (37). Power, he wrote earlier, "ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state" (29).
This is Marx's definition of well-used capital; the bourgeoisie's constant revolutionizing of the instruments and means of production. Revolution doesn't mean only revolt, in this sense -- but also revolve -- the maintenance of a continual cycle.*
Emerson's very first example of the importance of being true to one's own individuality defines individuality in the terms of intellectual property: if we fail to take possession of our own ideas, then "to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another" (20).
The shame has nothing to do with being right or wrong in one's thought -- it's about someone else having claimed it as property, and taking control of how it's shared out. Self is the ultimate capital, the "plot of ground which is given to [man] to till" (20). One of the things that makes Emerson remarkable as a voice of capitalism is that his assertions so easily reinforce the positions of both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.** "Accept the place the divine providence has found for you" sounds like humility, but then he clarifies we "must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner .... but guides, redeemers and benefactors" (20).
Emerson's real ideal is to speak from a position of wealth and power: youths are not just to be accepted because they are self-sufficient, but capable of making their elders redundant (21). This is the humility of the capitalist system: the people who are to be revered are the ones who are capable of making you obsolete. The ideal man who does interact with society does so in the following way: he can "utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear" (21). In other words, making other people fearful is not only his prerogative, but his responsibility. The risk of entering society in more communally-oriented ways is that one might have to give up or reduce one's ability to be seen as superior to others. Dick Cheney would love this guy. Why haven't we heard yet about how Emerson is his ideal of American patriotism?
If the self is capital, then virtue is expenditure (22) -- monetary charity to another who "does not belong to me and to whom I do not belong" is a waste; to act virtuously is a penance, a payment. To ally yourself to dead capital, rather than focusing on the importance of renewing capital, is not just to make an unprofitable economic choice, but to obscure the self. This is what makes "Self-Reliance" insidious, and what makes it the embodiment of capitalism -- of personal worth and identity being commuted into exchange value. It gives lie to the earlier statement about aspiring to be a redeemer or benefactor.
Nor is Emerson merely expressing an emotional mood of capitalism that simply affects how one thinks about oneself and how one thinks about others. There are significant ethical ramifications as well. People love to quote Emerson's aphoristic statement that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" -- most often, I see it referenced in regards to piddly grammatical errors, matters of less and fewer. It's appropriate in that context, but Emerson is invoking it in regards to past words and acts; rejecting the judgment of the eyes of others. There's wisdom in that, to be sure, but Emerson's rejection of caring about whether you are wrong, or misunderstood, looks different if we think about it in conjunction with Marx's description of the cycle of commercial crises brought on by the bourgeoisie:
It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. [...] The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented. (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Emerson's rejection of foolish consistency is a rejection of responsibility, justified by the possibility that to be responsible for others would be a violation of one's self.
Is there social justice in "Self-Reliance"? Emerson says that "We want men and women who shall renovate life and or social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, [and] have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force" (32). In other words, they're ineffective at exerting power and managing their self-capital successfully. Naked self-interest becomes all in all, and greatness is to be able to claim that nugget of intellectual property and control how it's shared among others. "Every new mind is a new classification," writes Emerson, and a truly great mind is the one which "imposes its classification on other men" (33).
That's the social justice that results from making nonconformity the supreme virtue.
Like Marx, Emerson sees society as "undergoing continual changes" -- we have changed in vulnerability from the New Zealander (who has far less property), in technology (the coach, the watch), and therefore, the institutions that define how property is owned and protected (37) are equally ephemeral. A man is better than a town in that a town, by Emerson's definitions of the ways that people organize, cannot really bind together as equals to accomplish anything. Not only is his perspective of the importance of exerting power over others contra to Marx, but his view of the inability of others to organize effectively explains why he would have put little or no faith in Marx's proposed proletariat revolution. To assume "free development for each" and "free development for all" would require a conformity that is unacceptable.
I think I've gone on quite enough, and less stylishly than I'd like to, because this is a very hurried adaptation of lecture notes. But when I hear "what's different makes you beautiful," I can't help but think that it has opposing meanings, depending on whether it's taken in a private or public context. Everyone I love is beautifully different, and the privacy of the way that I perceive that difference in each of my friends is what keeps me going, especially when I'm stressed and freaked out over one thing or another. But in a public context, "what makes you different is what makes you beautiful" is, all too often, just another way that capitalism is all-pervasive.
* See also Reinhart Koselleck, "HISTORICAL CRITERIA OF THE MODERN CONCEPT OF REVOLUTION."
** And yes, I'm aware of Emerson's seeming opposition to capitalism, in that he was opposed to Smith's division of labor. I stand by this argument.