The modern market economy has never lacked for its literary expositors. From the time the industrial revolution (a term coined in the 1820s in France) first gained notice as a major and permanent development, litterateurs have given it the treatment. From Balzac’s dissection of the new class system of 19th-century Paris to Thomas Mann’s bourgeois saga Buddenbrooks at the fin-de-siècle, to Sinclair Lewis’s and John Updike’s exposes of the corporate boosters of Main Street and the new Rich at soulless work and play, “capitalism” (another 19th-century neologism) has been thoroughly worked over in literature.
As well, perhaps, it should be. The industrial revolution is as big a thing as has ever hit human history. Literature should drink it up. Absent the industrial revolution, realistic novelists would have to write about un-pretty subjects, as in Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun, from just before modern prosperity took hold.
As the 21st century moves on, it appears that the new big thing is not the market economy any more, but government. Government is now nearly as big as the private sector, by all the usual measurements, and is banking on getting bigger. 80% tax rates, wealth-confiscation, mandatory public service, government employment, a world financial warehouse, doctors on the dole, a big new wave of regulation—these make up a standard vision of the years before us.
Yet even in the pretty-big-government 20th century, imaginative literature gave us rather little in terms of exposing this major phenomenon. You can point to some things (in the universe of English) by Kingsley Amis and C. Northcote Parkinson; Willa Cather’s Professor’s House and its trashing of the Interior Department; and Richard Russo, who did, in Straight Man (1997), write that getting tenure at one of the innumerable second-rate state universities in this country is “a little like being proclaimed the winner of a [bleep]-eating contest.”
But not much more is out there. Just at the moment when the industrial revolution has met a rival in outsized government that wants to be as big and nasty as it is, literature has fallen silent on the matter. And yet there is so much dissecting, psycho-analyzing, tapestry-weaving, and rendering into proper comedy to be done.
Perhaps we do not live in a world where there is sufficient literary imagination or talent for this purpose. Which would be expected given state-sponsored white elephants such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (not to mention the vogue for throwing tax dollars at the “creative class”) which strive to steer the nation’s literary culture.
Nonetheless, the mandate is there. Government is set on being big, so there has to be a literature. We must rally to the task. A first step is to recognize is that there are some models, in this genre, worthy of emulation. Perhaps none stands out for its deliciousness so much as Tom Wolfe’s 1970 novella Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers. Let us call on this little gem from a generation ago to assist us as we try to learn how to talk about big government in books.
Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers is the story of a group of young, fearsome-looking non-whites (to use a manner of speech) who tramp over to San Francisco city hall to collar a government bureaucrat. The object is to make the bureaucrat fork over, to them specifically, the do-gooding dollars that the government keeps saying it has, dollars earmarked for “community-organizing” and for summer jobs for “all those hard-to-reach hard-to-hold hardcore hardrock blackrage…funky ghetto youth.”
The group does in fact collar a full-time government employee. “But he doesn’t have to open his mouth. All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man’s a lifer. He’s stone civil service.” He dresses poorly, he shines bureaucratese, and he is perfectly at home among the “good-enough-for-government-work” furniture.
“He keeps saying things like, ‘I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I’ll do everything I can to find out.’…A bunch of the aces start banging on the floor in unison. It sounds like they have sledge hammers.
“It’s the first assault on his dignity. So he breaks into [a] grin….It’s fatal, this smiling….When some bad dude is challenging your manhood, your smile just proves that he is right….
“Well, says the Flak Catcher”—this is what Wolfe, fresh from writing about Vietnam, called the government workers who have to fend off the public—“‘I can’t promise you jobs if the jobs aren’t available yet.’—and then he looks up as if for the first time he is really focusing on the thirty-five ghetto hot dogs he is now facing….
“‘Hey, Brudda,’ the main man says….How much money you make?’
“Now the [lifer] is trying to think in eight directions at once. He tries out a new smile….But all he gets is the glares, and the mouth shimmies back into the terrible sickening grin…He’s fighting for control of himself…It’s a lost cause….
“’Well,’ says the Flack Catcher, ‘I make $1,100 a month.’”
“How come you make so much?”
“Wellllll”—the grin, the last bid for clemency… and now the poor man’s eyes are freezing into little round iceballs, and his mouth is getting dry—….
“Listen, Brudda. Why don’t you give up your paycheck for summer jobs? You ain’t doing [squat].”
“He tries to take a tone that says, ‘You haven’t really been in here for the past fifteen minutes intimidating me and burying [me] in the sand and humiliating me….’”
And on and on, until the whole thing fizzles out and everyone heads back home. The visitors reflect on the episode:
“We’ve done it again. We’ve mau-maued the [dad-blamed] white man, scared him until he’s singing a duet with his [something], and the people sure do have power. Did you see the look on his face? Did you see the sucker trembling?”
“And then later on you think about it and you say, ‘What really happened that day? Well, another flak catcher lost his manhood, that’s what happened.’ [But] the Flak Catcher himself wasn’t losing much. He wasn’t losing his manhood. He gave that up a long time ago, the day he became a lifer….You did your number and he did his number….Still—did you see the look on his face? That sucker—”
Like the industrial revolution, big government is about so much more than the usual descriptors, trillions of dollars and so forth—in a negative sense, however. Big government is about capturing millions of individuals and relegating them to unfortunate and useless lives. The opportunities for literary comedy (let alone tragedy) are enormous, now that government is enormous.
There has long been a convention in our society, and perhaps it is admirable, to resist the urge to condescend to government employees. Yet how destructive this has proven to be. The opportunity beckoning to the national letters is to reveal the comprehensive farce and insipidness that is life-under-government.