The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
In America Catonism has taken the form of resentment against the city slicker and more generally any form of reasoning that goes beyond the most primitive folk wisdom. In Japan it manifested itself as violent antiplutocratic sentiment. The city appears as a cancerous sore full of invisible conspirators out to cheat and demoralize honest peasants. There is of course a realistic basis for these sentiments in the actual day-to-day experiences of peasants and small farmers who are at a serious disadvantage in a market economy.
As far as feelings (so far as we really know them) and the causes of hatred go, there is not a great deal to choose between the radical right and the radical left in the countryside. The main distinction depends on the amount of realistic analysis of the causes of suffering and on the images of a potential future. Catonism conceals the social causes and projects an image of continued submission. The radical tradition emphasizes the causes and projects an image of eventual liberation. The fact that the emotions and causes are similar does not mean that the emergence of one or the other as a politically significant force depends on skills in manipulating these discontents, as repeated failures to win over radicalized peasants to conservative causes (or vice versa) through the methods of psychological warfare clearly demonstrate. These psychological and organizational skills are important, but they work only when they are in line with the everyday experiences of the peasants whom such leaders attempt to set in motion.
Thus Catonism is not purely an upper-class mythology about the peasants, attributed to the peasants, but finds a response among the latter because it provides an explanation of sorts for their situation under the intrusion of the market. It is also quite clearly a body of notions that arises out of the life conditions of a landed aristocracy threatened by the same forces. If one glances at the major themes in the form of the aristocratic response that culminated in liberal democracy, one will notice that they also occur in Catonism—transposed to a different key. The criticism of mass democracy, the notions of legitimate authority and the importance of custom, opposition to the power of wealth and to mere technical expertise all constitute major themes in the Catonist cacophony. Again it is in the way they are combined, and even more important the ultimate purpose, that makes all the difference. In Catonism these notions serve the ends of strengthening repressive authority. In aristocratic liberalism they are brought together as intellectual weapons against irrational authority. Catonism, on the other hand, lacks any conception of pluralism or the desirability of checks on hierarchy and obedience.
As noted above, modern Catonism is mainly associated with the attempt to go over to labor-repressive forms of capitalist agriculture. It is also anti-industrial and antimodern through and through. Here may lie the basic limitations to the spread and success of Catonism. There is, I would suggest, this very significant residue of truth in Veblen's cautiously yet repeatedly expressed hope that the advance of the machine might somehow flush human irrationalities down the drain of history. The more extreme forms of labor-repressive or exploitative agriculture can be decisive adjuncts to capitalist development, as was the case in the connection between American slavery and both English and American industrial capitalism. But industrial capitalism has great difficulty establishing itself in the same area with a labor-repressive system. As part of the effort to hold down a subject population, the upper classes have to generate an antirationalist, antiurban, antimaterialist, and, more loosely, antibourgeois view of the world—one that excludes any conception of progress.