Finding meaning in the dustpan — or how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related

Believe it or not, in an act of near heroic intellectual prestidigitation, I’m going to explain to you how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related. Or at least I’m going to try. Here goes:

One of my all time least favorite movies is the 1994 version of Little Women. It is a beautiful movie, and lovingly done, but it totally fails to “get” the message in Louisa May Alcott’s classic book. In fact, it gets the message topsy-turvey, and that kind of thing irks me.

The wrong moment in the movie, the one that spoiled it for me, is a moment about 2/3 of the way into the movie, when Jo tries to explain to Professor Baehr her father’s philosophy. I can’t find the quotation, and I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, but what Jo said was essentially a fancy version of “follow your bliss.”

Putting aside the fact that “follow your bliss” is not the message behind transcendentalism (although Bronson Alcott did, in fact, use his philosophy as a justification for repeatedly trying to follow his bliss), anyone who has actually read Little Women know that “follow your bliss” is most decidedly not the message in the book. The book’s message is that you must find meaning and purpose in life by serving others.

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No, I’m not making this up. In chapter after chapter, with increasing force as the book nears its end, Jo is taught to think beyond her own needs and to sacrifice her hopes and desires to others. Only in that way can she find happiness. Whether Jo struggles with her baser self after Amy destroys her writing (only to learn that Amy is more important than her nascent career), or allows herself to be rude to Aunt March (only to lose the chance for a trip to Europe), the lesson is always the same: Don’t think of yourself. Thank of others.

Only when Jo is forced by her intense love for her dead sister Beth to try to take the latter’s place as the family’s domestic Goddess does Jo find her “happily ever after” — and she does so in the arms of Professor Baehr, who pedantically uses every opportunity to lecture Jo about the beauties and joys of self-abnegation. For Jo, therefore, life’s quality is to be found in appreciating the service of broom and dustpan. By looking to others’ needs, she profits herself.

Right about now, I can hear the good statist asking asking me “How can you be a capitalist if you believe in self-sacrifice? Capitalism is all about greed. It’s only liberals who are willing to give to the general good.” That question is as wrong as the movie was.

Capitalism works only if you find a need and fill it. You have to look outside of yourself to determine what product others will want or what service they will need. You then have to work, and work hard, to provide that product or service for others. If you have correctly read others’ needs, you will be rewarded. In a capitalist system, that reward is money. And in a free nation, you are allowed to keep that money (which, presumably, you will plow back into the capitalist marketplace by buying products or services that some other outward looking person has labored to put in the market).

Capitalism, then, precisely reflects Louisa May Alcott’s philosophy: look to others, serve their needs, and reap the reward. That she was speaking of emotional, not financial, rewards, doesn’t change the underlying paradigm.

Socialism, on the other hand, by allowing people to pass on to the government the responsibility for serving others, is essentially navel gazing. You never have to do anything beyond sitting back and letting the government siphon your pay check, all the while telling yourself “Woo-hoo! This feels really good, because in a completely passive, unthinking, effortless way, I’m serving others.” In reality, you’re doing nothing at all. Your moral contribution is no greater than the cow who automatically produces that milk. It is the farmer who, through his labor and initiative, brings the milk to market, so as to feed the child.

And that, my friends, is why Little Women is, or at least should be, one of the doorways to free market capitalism and individualism.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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