Arts & Culture » Book Review

Capitalism Is a Harsh Mistress

A new cultural history shows how not winning became the same thing as losing.



Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

by Scott A. Sandage (Harvard)

Where do Americans get the idea that we always have to do better, push harder--that just getting by isn't good enough? Why do we lie awake at night worrying that we don't have enough ambition, that we're never going to amount to anything? "Failure" used to be something that happened to people but sometime during the 19th-century market revolution--the boom in commerce that accompanied the era's innovations in transportation, manufacturing, banking, and communications--it became an identity. In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott Sandage raids private diaries, business records, and "begging letters" from desperate wives to bring us the stories of ordinary 19th-century businessmen who failed. His project: to show how the word "loser" stopped meaning someone who had lost money and started meaning someone who could never win.

In the early 1800s, Sandage argues, the buying and selling of goods on a large scale offered Americans unprecedented opportunities to go broke. And for the first time, large numbers of people were failing spectacularly, all at once. The panic of 1819, the first such crisis precipitated not by war or crop failure but by fears of inflation inside the economy itself, ushered in a national depression and instilled in many a profound fear of failure. But the increase in commerce also brought new, tantalizing opportunities to succeed. Any white man with a little extra money--farmers, lawyers, shopkeepers--could become an entrepreneur and hope to see returns, possibly enormous ones, on his investment. The average citizen could become that great American archetype: a self-made man. And in this context, not jumping at such opportunities, not striving to increase your capital, was its own form of failure. "If a man could fail simply by not succeeding or not striving," Sandage writes, "then ambition was not an opportunity but an obligation."

Nineteenth-century Americans didn't know what to make of the new proliferation of debtors--not just drunks and gamblers but "honest men," friends, neighbors, and family. So, according to Sandage, they clung to traditional explanations for failure, blaming moral shortcomings in the person who had failed. "The merchant evidently believes the State street proverb that nobody fails who ought not to fail," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. "There is always a reason, in the man, for his good or bad fortune, and so in making money." We may know more now about market economics, but the idea that losers have brought misfortune upon themselves persists. Coming down squarely on the side of the losers, Sandage laments that today "the logic of 'the reason, in the man,' extends not only to white males but to all citizens, shaping opinion and policy not only about bankruptcy but also about poverty, unemployment, welfare, affirmative action, and education."

According to Sandage, early credit agencies were largely responsible for codifying failure and converting it into an identity. In 1841 Lewis Tappan, a prominent abolitionist and social reformer, established the Mercantile Agency--a forerunner of Dun & Bradstreet--to police the credit economy. Tappan organized a nationwide network of undercover informants who filed reports on anyone in business seeking credit. The "big red books" that gathered these reports together separated "first-rate" men--who deserved the best interest rates--from second- and third-raters. Not only did the books report who had failed, but they endeavored to predict future failure. Credit agents forecast success for the "active, driving man" or the "man always on the go," but those apparently lacking in ambition, the "plodders," weren't expected to amount to much. "He is steady and honest, but unless I am mistaken he will make many bad debts," an agent wrote. Because creditors used these reports to evaluate business risks, such prophecies tended to be self-fulfilling.

Sandage, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, spent ten years researching and writing Born Losers. His account overflows with documentary evidence--the voices of failed men, their wives and neighbors, and the credit agents who never ceased watching them--but almost every scrap is illuminating, and Sandage weaves them all together to create a rich and coherent history of failure. One of the more compelling cases he presents is that of William Henry Brisbane, whose 1846 credit report described him as an "honorable high mind[e]d man" who had "run thro" a large inheritance, had "never succeed[e]d at any[thin]g & probably never will." Brisbane's own diary reveals a different picture: His inheritance had been a plantation and 22 slaves. He hated slavery, so he sold his slaves cheaply and left the south. But once he reached Ohio, he was overcome with guilt, and he brought financial ruin upon himself buying them back and paying their passages to freedom.

By the 20th century, Sandage writes, "Failure had become modern, a low hum rather than a loud crash." If plodding along signified failure, then anyone could wear the badge. Before long, "the American idea of failure centered on problems recognizably our own: aimlessness, routine, stress, conformity, loss of individuality, the dead-end job, the disgrace of being 'merely' average." Today, the Willy Lomans of the world can work hard, provide for their families, and still end up feeling like losers--however hard they strive, it's never good enough.

But there's another side of failure that's even more troublesome: we may be fighting a losing battle, and the battle itself may not be worth it. A much-discussed international survey on happiness published in 2003 in the British magazine New Scientist found that happiness hasn't increased significantly in developed countries since World War II, even though incomes have risen steadily. Sandage alludes to this other kind of failure, the failure to find meaning in life, when he writes, "The promise of America is that nobody is a born loser, but who has never wondered, 'Am I wasting my life?' We imagine escaping the mad scramble, yet kick ourselves for lacking drive."

Henry David Thoreau, a man who did escape the mad scramble to some extent and whom Sandage much admires, wrote in 1857, "The merchants and banks are suspending and failing all the country over, but not the sand-banks, solid and warm, and streaked with bloody blackberry vines. Invest, I say, in these country banks. Let your capital be simplicity and contentment." Thoreau's contemporaries thought of him as a failure; even Emerson, speaking at his funeral, criticized him for his lack of ambition. The irony, of course, is that few today would consider Thoreau anything of the sort. Not only did he grow rich in self-knowledge, he achieved some measure of worldly success too: he died in 1862, but Walden hasn't been out of print since. Few of us, however, are able to opt out as Thoreau did. In fact, Sandage begins Born Losers with an account of Thoreau's funeral and likens his passing to the death of the American dream. Describing the children sitting in the pews, he writes, "Someday they would rise and fall in the world the sermon presaged, where berry picking was a higher crime than bankruptcy." When they buried Thoreau, "part of the American Dream of success went asunder: the part that gave them any choice in the matter."

Born Losers does offer some relief to those of us who fret over whether we'll ever amount to anything (a business metaphor, as Sandage points out). We punish ourselves "because a century and a half ago we embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives. Ours is an ideology of achieved identity; obligatory striving is its method, and failure and success are its outcomes." But despite the balm Sandage provides, his critique is urgent and serious. We've locked ourselves into Max Weber's "iron cage" of capitalism, whether we like it or not, and the system we labor in relies on failure as much as success. Even knowing this, as most of us rationally do, we can't shake the 19th-century belief that those who fail are somehow fatally flawed, that they've brought about their own disgrace, and we push on to prove to the world, and ourselves, that we're intact. As Thoreau wrote, "In my opinion, the sun was made to light worthier toil than this."

Add a comment