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When the literature of capitalism is called to mind, one's thoughts would naturally turn to works of politics, philosophy or economics. There is almost no conception of a capitalist art movement. There is Ayn Rand, and there are an assortment of science fiction writers, and little else.
Enter Daniel Jencka and Specular Press. The Secret of the League, written by Ernest Bramah, promises to be the first in a series of capitalist fiction. Jencka envisions the series as mostly comprised of forgotten works from earlier times, while also including modern works that develop the genre.
The Secret of the League is a future history novel that tries to do several things at once, and mostly succeeds. I doubt it contains the power to convert the masses (or even a majority of the upper class) to the gospel of capitalism. But it is written thoughtfully and entertainingly enough that it would appeal to lovers of adventure stories, science fiction or turn-of-the-century British literature, as well as capitalists and historians.
From Bramah's vantage point in 1906 England, he projects what his country might well be like by 1916 if the Socialist Party took power. From my view here in America in 1995, it seems he has far more hits than misses. Writing about the near future is one of the more dangerous options a writer can take. Sadly, most fail in accurately predicting much of anything. Except for a few bizarre wrong turns, if Bramah has erred in his predictions of technological advancement, he posited too much too soon. For instance, he describes a rather cumbersome yet elegantly efficient fax machine. It is clear that if he had an inkling of the invention of computers, he would have predicted the Internet. On the other hand, his vision of how flying machines would take form is so off the mark it's delightfully goofy. But I won't spoil the joke.
While Bramah scores well on the test of predicting the future, any book must still stand or fall on the strength of the narrative. This is a fine yarn with a dramatic flair about a mysterious fellow named George Salt (fans of Atlas Shrugged take note) who joins forces with a retired and still widely respected independent politician, Sir John Hampden. The Socialist Party has been in control for a few years and has drastically changed how England does business. The workers are deified and the middle and upper classes are taxed (sometimes literally) to death. Together Hampden and Salt form a union of the upper classes, the Unity League. Over the course of two years, the League prepares for and ultimately launches an economic war against the Socialist government. (It is worth noting here that the novel was originally published under the title What Might Have Been; The Story of a Social War.)
All the elements of a good story are present. The plot is strong and free from continuity flaws. The author gives you only as much information as you need to know, encouraging speculation as to what comes next and delivering many surprises, by turns frightening and delightful. The characterization is competent enough, despite the characters having to serve double duty as stereotypes of a particular philosophical outlook. Sometimes this causes a few to devolve into cartoonish figures. But this is overcome by the fascinating ways in which these characters interact, and in the understanding of the subtle and far-reaching minds of our two heroes. Occasionally the text is strewn with odd bits of dialect that escape my comprehension and interfere slightly with my understanding of events, but the publisher comes to the reader's assistance with an appended three page glossary.
Capitalists will be pleased to see an accurate portrayal of capitalist economics woven into the fabric of the novel. Bramah's predictions of future economic history exceed his accuracy in the realm of invention, and again if there is error it most likely is because he is almost too prescient. What takes but ten years in his story has taken socialist governments in the real world decades to construct. No wonder there was an uprising!
The order of the oppressive socialist economic policies is amusingly different from reality. It begins with a variety of labor laws and heavy taxation directly on production and on the rich. Social welfare programs that destroy lives as often as they save them are established. Predictable enough so far. Only later do the socialists attempt to pass a property tax, and the last straw is the minimum wage law. Bramah discusses minimum wage laws as if anyone can see just what deleterious effect they would have on production and employment.
The primary weapon employed by the Unity League in their economic war is a mass boycott of coal, one of the most heavily state subsidized industries. I have long advocated the boycott as a tool which can effect major social change in a manner consistent with libertarian principles, so I was most intrigued by Bramah's choice. In this case, it creates fatal problems for the socialist government on many fronts. I don't mind letting you know that of course the good guys win, but to describe this pertinent aspect of the book any further would be to give away even more of the plot than I already have. That's how well Bramah weaves economics into the fabric of his story.
The Unity League can not, however, be mistaken for libertarians. In the course of conducting their economic war, our heroes have no reservations about buying off the media, conspiring with foreign powers or gutting the bedrock principles of democracy. State power itself remains unquestioned. Bramah clearly believes that the captains of industry are the rightful rulers of a strong government, which many would today consider an aberrant Reaganite fantasy. But these are trifling matters. You shouldn't let them get in the way of your enjoyment of a delightful tale well told.
I am grateful to Specular Press for bringing this book to light, and I look forward to future installments in its Capitalist Fiction Series. D
Sean Haugh is a member of the Free Nation Foundation. He is the editor of The Tarheel Libertarian, the newsletter of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, and has been active in various libertarian and anarchist organizations since 1980.
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