Friday, May 15, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, X

Mr. Poor Richard, so how does this all relate to wealth?

Despite the sententiae offered earlier in this paper as examples of Franklin inveighing notions of ancient nobility, he does not seem to exhibit the kind of vehement repudiation of the immemorial constitution typified by James Harrington, who did not even believe it existed as an organizing principle for the present moment of political activity. Those sententiae are rather directed at the rural population with the intent to cultivate a sense of consequence to their actions and the subsequent responsibility they inherit to self-ennoblement.

Franklin before the revolution, to put it rather bluntly, does not particularly care about the ancientness of the doctrine legitimating the English sovereign. That line of reasoning had already been imploded three quarter centuries before by the party Franklin increasingly found himself in opposition to. His concern in disowning immemorial nobility instead seems aligned with an opposition to the greater chronotopic structure that customary antiquity imports, which delimits claims to the past as much as it does claims to the possibility of a modifiable, new future. The crown could neither perpetuate a functional continuity of the present nor could it administer a logical plan for the future.

And Franklin, from the representation he offers of himself in the Autobiography, had all along been constructing a personhood in agential relationship to its future. The devising of his reputation as economic mechanism, as when an industrious image grants him “character and credit” with his neighbors, engenders a timescale in which a futurity of beneficial economic relations is based on the shared expectations of rewarding exchange between him and his neighbors.

On a greater scale, in what he called a “Rough Draft of Affair of borrowing Money,” Franklin compares the credit of England and America in 1777, arguing that America’s national character, unlike England’s, had been positively established by its timely discharge of debts and that future procurements of debt had been guaranteed by the “Habits of Business and Ability” acquired by its citizenry’s practice of industry and frugality, which had become evident to global creditors. In establishing debt based upon the credit and character of America’s ethos of industry and frugality, America was mortgaging its future labor and thereby creating a negative balance sheet of commercial performance, which would be settled by the increasing productivity and wealth of its citizens. Its citizens, in effect, would have a future to work for.

As early as 1729, Franklin was arguing for a paper currency, which would create, among other things, a greater attainability of credit—interest being lower when money is plenty—from which a greater network of debt among the citizenry would surface. By participating in a community of credit, a citizenry would enact that expanding mechanism which Pocock terms “boomtime beliefs,” working off the expectations of each other to “credit one another with capacity to expand and grow and become what they were not.” Futurity is placed in the contained determination of individuals to create it from a collective imagination of promise and growth.

And Franklin had created the transportable metaphors of futurity by which a future might know the necessity and utility of those virtues—principally frugality and industry—which had enabled the very possibility of the existence of posterity as a speculated-upon future.

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