Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

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11 thoughts on “Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

  1. CLRG

    The axiom of laissez-faire is thus: abolish all laws preventing more industrious and efficient competitors from outdoing less industrious and less efficient competitors and restricting the mobility of commodities and men. Neither fascism nor communism qualify.

    If there were more substance and less innuendo, it might make for a ‘real’ conversation.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      The definition you provide of laissez-faire aside, the consequences of pursuing it are well known, and Frye’s observations address that. Your call for “more substance and less innuendo” to facilitate “‘real’ conversation” is more innuendo than substance, as betrayed by the quotation marks around ‘real.’ Perhaps you could respond in detail to the details offered rather than with a sanitized definition that is remote from the facts, as though doing so constituted an argument.

  2. CLRG

    There’s nothing to betray. Frye makes a point (#2) about the real world: ‘There is no real world except the physical world…’ It would appear this is intended as support that there is a real world beyond the physical world – Can you define that world which is real and not physical? And, importantly, can you explain how we know about it (without, of course, referring to the RW as a proxy)?

    Yes, the consequences of relative laissez faire are known (relative, because while we have nation-state borders that restrict the free movement of goods AND men, we do not have laissez faire as such): the earth is now supporting a population greater than at any time in its history and these people are living, on average, longer, healthier lives. If you want to see RW consequences most starkly, compare the situation in North and South Korea.

    Frye’s observations do not address anything specific, which is the problem. He is ostensibly trying to make a point about economics by dealing in second rate political populism. I’m sure his work has more to offer that can clarify his views. But it is not presented here, and in that sense you likely do a disservice to his legacy.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      The real world is not just physical because we have things like language and love and literature and transposable knowledge and prevailing concerns that exceed an existence T.S. Eliot characterized as birth copulation, dung and death.

      To refer to “people on average” is not to make a specific point. As Mark Twain observes, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. And as Frye says elsewhere, “famine is a social problem, but it is the individual who starves.”

      Korea and North Korea? Are those our only choices? How about Canada and the U.S. with regard to life expectancy? (Although, as Bill O’Reilly once pointed out, “Of course Canadians live longer. There are fewer of them.”) Or how about the widening chasm between rich and poor? Or the fact that there is a correlation between low taxation at the top end and declining job creation as well as larger deficits? If that isn’t good enough, what about the self-regulating market that self-regulated itself into the ground three years ago? Or the fact that while tens of millions of people lost their jobs and whole nations became insolvent as a result, those responsible somehow ended up richer? And why not? They weren’t making anything of any value. They were simply moving other people’s money around in a scam that paid commissions as part of a global Ponzi Scheme. All of these phenomena are much closer to laissez-faire than not. All of those responsible want more of this, not less. (Did you know, for example, that the crash of the financial market was due primarily to the government forcing bankers to give sub-prime mortgages to poor colored people? It’s true. Just ask the people at Fox and CNBC.)

      Here are some helpful observations from Adam Smith:

      People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

      Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

      For the record, Smith was for high wages, supported the right of labor to organize, and, as the quotes above suggest, understood very well the plutocratic disposition of unrestrained commercial interests.

      Finally, Frye never indulged in “second rate political populism,” which is an estimation that seems based upon no significant knowledge of the work. Frye’s interest when it comes to the quality of human life is about individuals who cannot and should not be “averaged” out, and who are not for any reason to be subordinated to self-serving ideologies benefiting only those who pursue them to the exclusion of everything else.

  3. CLRG

    1 – Indeed, you prove my point: the RW is the sole proxy. Conceptual realism is a chimera.

    2 – You seem to have difficulty sticking to a principle of argumentation. If you wish to critique mathematical formalism, then it is difficult to take seriously your appeal to statistical data on life expectancies, income inequality, etc. When you make up your mind how you wish to proceed with respect to aggregate data, let me know.

    3 – No, N/S Korea is not the only choice for comparison – but it certainly makes sense if you want to consider the differences in prosperity produced by fundamentally different LEGAL regimes (see definition of laissez faire above).

    4 – Thanks for citing TS Eliot, Mark Twain, Bill O’Reilly and Adam Smith, who have written about many interesting things; but the original post and my response addressed your presentation of the thought of Northrop Frye. You don’t point to Frye’s work at all here. You imply you have significant knowledge of his work, so enlighten me by pointing to his justificatory arguments for restricting the mobility of commodities and men.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      He doesn’t have any justificatory arguments for restricting the mobility of commodities and men.

  4. Michael Happy Post author

    We don’t need to have justificatory arguments to restrict the mobility of commodities and men; we only need to be aware (as Frye was very acutely aware) of human concerns that transcend the necessity to justificate the mobility of commodities and men at the expense of men, women and children alike. Otherwise, it’s just another dismally inhumane case of the ends justificating the means.

  5. CLRG

    Your comment suggests you are either extremely confused or completely unprincipled. You suggest the ends should not justify the means and that justificatory arguments are unnecessary. This, following a post in which you attempt to make justificatory claims against laissez faire by appealing to consequences (aggregate data) without contextualizing that data for any jurisdiction or legal regime, which would be necessary to test the correlation between these measures and the relative existence (or not) of free markets.

    It sounds lovely to stress ‘human concerns’ but clearly you feel that some human concerns should outweigh others since you imply it may be necessary to restrict freedom for some, sometimes – but you never say for who or when.

    Hopefully Frye thought through his position better than that.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Some “human concerns,” as you charmingly render it in quotation marks, do outweigh others. Like feeding the hungry and clothing the poor without expectation of reward or profit because it is self-evidently good to do so; things in that general area. This ought not to be a reach for someone who can evidently contextualize data from any jurisdiction or legal regime, knowing that it would be necessary to test the correlation between these measures and the relative existence (or not) of free markets.

      The data are in, and have been for some time. The global disparity in wealth has increased substantially during the last thirty years. The causes are clear enough to those not invested to pretend otherwise — crony capitalism, unregulated greed, unpunished malfeasance, and people like Lloyd Blankfein claiming that Goldman Sachs is “doing God’s work.” That remark particularly captures the living hell the world has become for the have-nots. Goldman Sachs. God’s work. God save us. The disparity, in any event, is not about “merit” (where is John Galt, anyway?). The game is fixed, and the apologists and enablers are well-compensated.

      As for the Frye stuff, you need not resort to concern trolling. If I’ve done Frye a disservice, read him for yourself and let me know.

  6. CLRG

    Crony capitalism is, indeed, a good topic for discussion. But the original post (citing Frye) and all related comments from me were in reference to laissez faire. It would seem you lack a definition and an understanding of both.

    The irresponsibility demonstrated by presumably well intentioned people who opine on topics about which they know nothing arguably does more harm in this world than the directed efforts of truly evil people ever could.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Well, I’m not sure we’re as ignorant as you claim. Our starting point is Frye’s well-informed understanding of economic history and the function and effects of laissez-faire, particularly with regard to what he saw in the 1920s and 1930s, which were in turn instrumental to the unfolding of the even more disastrous events of the 1940s. His concern at the time he wrote the piece in question in 1940 was the rise of the anti-democratic “managerial classes” that emerged from both the left and the right: Communism and Fascism. These proved to be forms of crony capitalism that may not meet your standard of laissez-faire but nevertheless have political, economic, social and historical relevance. Our ongoing concerns here are similar. The pursuit of laissez-faire in at least the generic sense has been the source of undeniable disaster — disaster so extensive that it need not be reiterated at this point.

      Our further assumption that may not meet your standards is that human concerns have primary and secondary dimensions. Primary concerns — freedom to move, sex and love, food and water, and property (in the sense of that which is proper to a productive life) — are what all human beings have in common, and our personal and social priorities ought to follow from that. Secondary concerns, on the other hand, are contingent ideological formulations by which we attempt to realize primary concerns, but are almost always inadequate because they, like human will, are corrupt to the point of being genocidal and, ultimately, suicidal (think, well, Communism and Fascism). Our endeavor therefore is to recover the sense of priority of primary concerns over secondary ones, and to dismantle, or at least reform, the latter until they more fully in line with the former.

      Frygians are not anti-ideology, but they recognize a subordinated role for it not shared by ideologues. And, let’s face it, the vast majority of people are ideologues — that is, they put secondary concerns first and rationalize away their inability to meet primary ones for all people everywhere all of the time (“They don’t deserve it”; “They didn’t earn it”; “They are inferior beings”; “They have been smited by our angry God”; and so on).

      That’s about as much as I can simplify it in this context. There’s much nuance involved, but that’s why we have the site: to explore them and unravel them one thread at a time with the expectation that we will weave them again in a process Frye called “recreation.”


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