Money and the Moral Order in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century American Capitalism

Article excerpt

The moral use of money in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is consdered by examining a sample of thireen American entrepreneurs. Bourdieu's concepts on economic and symbolic capital, as well as Appadurai's ideas about linking desire and sacrifice through exchange are used to show how some entrepreneurs redistributed their wealth through philanthropy. Other men of wealth remained committed to personal accumulation. The concept of habitus is shown to be limited in explaining the differences in the moral distribution of wealth. [philanthropy, wealth distribution, money and morality, historic capitalism, economic alturism]

In this article I examine motivations for the philanthropic use of money, as opposed to the purely market oriented accumulation of wealth. I ask questions about the social forces and cultural processes that surrounded nineteenth and twentieth-century American entrepreneurs who gave away accumulated wealth, while other entrepreneurs ignored giving. Both groups were concerned with capital accumulation, but the philanthropic conceived of money as having moral potential, while the non-philanthropic entrepreneurs thought of money only in terms of rational gain and loss. Though considered irrational in terms of market forces, giving money away in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America could also be conceived, as I show, as supportive of the moral order.

Several anthropologists have considered this issue in other cultures. For example, Bloch and Parry (1989) have investigated the morality of transactions cross-culturally and found that money has been viewed as neutral to negative in short-term transactions. But money is highly moral when combined with ritual and symbolism in long term transactions concerning deities and one's relation to the cosmos. Though none of the essays in this collection examines capitalism, Bloch and Parry suggest that a "mature ideology" of the morality of exchange may be quite different from that of other cultures. For capitalist economies it is possible that greed is necessary to maintain public well-being as short and long-term values become merged (pp. 29-30). There is a clue here as to what has been happening in the postmodern capitalism of the late twentieth century, but it tells us nothing about the moral implications of monetary exchange in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is possible that the latter case is more like those of other cultures, in which the long-term vision of money is associated with the moral order of the cosmos. The purpose of this article is to examine the consequences of variable moral idealism among a small sample of wealthy American capitalists of that era, as it relates to cultural values and individual emotive power.

The theoretical grounding of this analysis is in the habitus and economic concepts of Bourdieu, and the exchange theory of Appadurai. Bourdieu indicates how "economic" capital can be changed into "symbolic" capital as an attempt to create a "misrecognition" so that an interested gift appears to be a "disinterested" gift(s) (1990: 112). Over time it is possible for the observer, as Bourdieu suggests, to perceive acts of generosity as seeming to transcend the time aspect of exchange, so as to create a sense of institutionalized obligation on the part of the recipient which tends to support the economic capital of the donor. He maintains that "interested calculation" is never absent from the "most generous exchange" (p. 115).

Appadurai shows how the transfer between the two forms of capital can be made. In his formulation the conflict between the desire for an object and the sacrifice to be made to obtain it is overcome through exchange (1986: 3). Exchange is political in the sense that those who have control over commodities should naturally seek to limit their flow, but as there are always contests for control there is a loosening of rules and increasing availability of desirable objects, if only to attract supporters in the contest (p. …