Entry from May 22, 2002

In England at the time that F.A. von Hayek won the Nobel Prize in Economics and became, naturally, a subject of considerable public interest, I remember hearing him being interviewed on the radio once. The interviewer was grilling him with a series of questions designed to show the fundamental error of his free-market theory with reference to the sufferings of Victorian workers under the yoke of unbridled “capitalism.” How did he respond to that objection? he was asked. How did he account for the incredible hardships caused by theories like his a century and a half before?

“They never happened,” Hayek replied.

The interviewer was literally struck dumb for a moment. Even without seeing him you could hear over the faint static of the radio that here was a man who had just gone into intellectual shock. There were some things that he just knew about the world, and the miseries caused by early capitalism were some of them. He might not have known how he knew them; he might not have known that his knowledge was based on some long-outdated research by a couple of historians called Hammond. But he believed.

Hayek went on to explain that, as had been demonstrated twenty years before by a book (called Capitalism and the Historians) that he himself had edited, the Hammonds had misinterpreted their data. The facts showed that living standards had risen pari passu with industrialization, and that (as one might have expected, given a moment’s thought) the reason that people flocked to the new mill towns to take jobs in the factories was that, low-paying as they might have seemed to the out-of-town bourgeois who compassionated their sufferings, the jobs made them better off than they had been before, on the farm.

But the myths of the intellectuals, once lodged in the public mind, are the very devil to get out. The same is true with the standard account of the disillusionment allegedly suffered by the soldiers of the First World War, that famous “lost generation” out of which Hemingway and Fitzgerald and others managed to get so much mileage. Writing in the TLS recently, Imogen Gassert reported that, on the basis of her study of the reading habits of British soldiers at the front in the First World War, “the notion that, after the carnage of the Somme and Passchendaele, they were thoroughly disillusioned with the conflict (in contrast to the belligerent spirit of those at home) is flatly contradicted by their reading matter.”

What dominated their reading were works by the likes of John Buchan and Ian Hay and Compton Mackenzie and Hugh Walpole which were full of the kind of idealism, on the one hand, and bluff soldierly good humor in the face of hardship on the other that the received opinion tells us had vanished by 1916. For instance, Ian Hay, the pen name of Major John Hay Beith, wrote of the war as “the great maturing agent” which, though naturally “hell, and all that” nevertheless “has a good deal to recommend it.”

Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand and its sequel, Carrying On, though full of conventional views of the war about which Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden and others better known to us were being so scathing, were immensely popular among the soldiers at the front. This was presumably because they could help individual soldiers “to construct the mental parameters within which the war, and one’s personal relation to it, is to be considered — whatever experiences it brings.” The result was “not escapism or distraction at all” but rather “a manual on how to manage the war psychologically: a refresher course in the military ethos.”

In Hay’s tale, the enablers of war get to feel good about their role. He implies that the war is a comic romp, yet it is also underpinned by core heroics, to be depicted with tight-lipped but lugubrious sentiment. Bypassing intellectual arguments entirely, war becomes a sort of sacred rite of manhood, on which only initiates have the right to comment. These men’s answer to the call is visceral. War promises a renewed social unity, removed from the mass demonstrations and strikes, socialism, and suffragism of Edwardian and Georgian Britain. In “buck[ing] up the nation”, it has explicitly eradicated the “small nuisances of peacetime”, such as “Suffragettes, and Futurism”, George Bernard Shaw and party politics.

If this is true, then the hegemony of the myth of soldierly disillusionment, still so powerful in the novels of Pat Barker and the work of most mainstream historians, must date from after the war — when precisely such “small nuisances” found, like the bigger nuisances of Communism and Fascism, that they could make good use of it

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