Capitalist Beavers and the Salieri Effect


If you’re ever in the mood for an entertaining, offensive and quietly insightful movie, watch any animated picture from the Classic Disney era. Weber’s conception of the capitalist spirit (the modern ethic that values above all the rational generation of profit for its own sake) reminded me of one in particular – Lady and the Tramp (1958). In the film, the protagonist – Lady – is framed by two grammatically challenged Siamese cats for the vandalism of her masters’ house. The owner of the cats responds by muzzling poor Lady, causing her to run away. She is rescued by the eponymous Tramp, whose street-smart instincts lead them to the zoo where he thinks they’ll find someone to remove the muzzle.

There, they find just the trick: a beaver busily chipping away at a sycamore. The scene is short, so I recommend you watch it yourself (2’27” in video below). This beaver is a respectable fellow. He is dedicated to and takes pride in his work, the maintenance and expansion of his dam. He works efficiently and is distracted by nothing, much less the petty concerns of two canines (“Do you realize every second, 70 centimeters of water is wasted over that spillway?”). One gets the impression that this beaver’s life revolves around his dam. However, the reason behind this beaver’s obsession is not revealed. The function of a beaver dam is to provide access to food and protection from predators. This beaver lives in a zoo, where he has no predators and where his basic nutritional needs are satisfied by humans. The conclusion we are left to draw is that he builds the dam for its own sake. As Weber might put it, “the [beaver] exists for the sake of the [dam] and not the reverse”, and he possesses (or is possessed by) the capitalist spirit or whatever the beaver equivalent might be. The absurdity of this beaver’s life and life purpose mirrors that of the modern capitalist’s.

(This said, even wild beavers apparently do not build dams for the sake of self-preservation. It is the sound of a running river which compels beavers to build dams, regardless of whether they actually need the food or protection that these provide. It would seem that the ethical impulse Weber claims drives modern capitalism is substituted, in the case of beavers, for an evolutionary one. Both systems of motivation, however, can lead to absurd results.)

It’s interesting that, in this film (and I think in many other products of popular culture), the character that embodies the capitalist spirit is not a major player and is not even necessarily portrayed in a positive light. Here, it is the Tramp that the audience is supposed to love and what he represents is something close to the antithesis of the beaver. His title says it all: he’s homeless, he doesn’t work, he begs for food, he spends his nights chasing tail and his days chasing chickens. Weber might say that he lacks a calling and that he does nothing but pursue spontaneous, unprofitable forms of pleasure. However, the film emphasizes the undeniable charm associated with the Tramp’s nonchalance, his improvisatory lifestyle, and his freedom. He’s a real Lady-killer. He does not appeal to the capitalist ethos, yet he is an entirely sympathetic and respectable character both in the eyes of characters in the film and the audience. As Peggy pithily puts it in the classic pound sequence later in the film, “He’s a tramp, but they love him.”

I don’t think that this is an uncommon phenomenon. In Forman’s film adaption of Amadeus (1984), for example, it is Salieri who is hard-working and who pledges celibacy and “every hour of [his] life” to God in order to become a great composer. Mozart, while he too takes his music seriously, is very rarely seen at work and is too lazy and impatient to accept students. Instead we see him spend most of his time at parties and around women. The effortlessness of his creative process (whose authenticity is not really the question here) is a point of emphasis throughout the film. Yet Mozart is, no doubt, the hero of the story, the one the audience is supposed to respect and admire. Salieri, on the other hand, is the embodiment of petty envy, mediocrity and impotence.

If, as Weber says, the capitalist spirit is such a powerful, organizing force in modern society, why isn’t it glorified in our culture? The religious fervor that nurtured this ethos died long ago. Has the ethos itself finally followed suit?


2 Responses to “Capitalist Beavers and the Salieri Effect”

  1. Ruby Says:

    Perhaps Lady and the Tramp, Classic Disney film though it may be, challenges classist behaviors and assumptions. Lady leads a pampered and privileged suburban lifestyle by the fireside of Jim Dear and Darling, while the Tramp is a marginalized orphan dog (Oliver Twist-esque) who begs his bread not out of laziness but due to the poverty into which he was thrust at birth. Jack and Trusty, Lady’s upstanding collared-and-leashed neighbors, scorn and snub the Tramp; human law enforcers hunt down the Tramp, believing his true home to be behind bars; only Italian immigrants embrace the Tramp and encourage his romance with Lady. This poor boy/rich girl narrative archetype is reincarnated in the film Aladdin (“Riff raff, street rat/ I don’t buy that”). Thus the Tramp’s unproductive lifestyle appears not to be due to his failure to adopt a capitalist mindset but due to oppressive social structures and prejudices that strip him of his basic canine dignity.

    As for Salieri’s hard work versus Mozart’s effortlessness — well, how bored audiences would be if the film consisted of Mozart sitting in a room throwing away paper! Nobody wants to think of our legendary, seraphic artists as frustrated or insecure. Clearly being an artist means you live this exalted, exhilarating, constantly inspired life, you attend jubilant parties, wear powder blue and are a powerful chick magnet.

  2. milescole Says:

    Dear Ruby,

    Your interpretation of the Tramp’s condition is probably very close to what the inventors of this age-old romantic trope had in mind. In your view, the relationship between Lady and the Tramp (or Pip and Astella; Aladdin and Jasmine; Jack and Rose; Gatsby and Daisy) dramatizes the class domination that Marx spouts on about in his Communist Manifesto. However, I don’t think that this quite does justice to the complexity of the Tramp’s ethical character. If this were true, why is the Tramp lazy at all? Why not establish in him a strong work ethic and a rational mind and proceed to demonstrate explicitly his inability to find work, climb the social ladder, improve his destitute condition? This, it seems to me, would be the clearest and most convincing illustration of the individual’s tragic struggle against structural power.

    But the Tramp clearly possesses none of these capitalistic traits. And the point of my original post was that this very fact is actually what makes the Tramp likeable. The film, then, neither reinforces conservative values of social Darwinism, nor does it simply expose structural injustice. It seems to point the way to a new ethical system altogether, in direct contradiction with the one which Weber thinks plagues modern civilization.

    The contemporary portrait of an artist you painted seems to confirm my idea that value systems today are at odds with Weber’s spirit of capitalism. A lifestyle of pleasure is precisely what the capitalist spirit rejects. The fact that our idealization of an artist’s character is roughly equivalent to that of a hedonist supports my argument that, to quote Bob Dylan completely out of context in a blatant attempt to sound cultured and hip, The Times They Are a-Changin.

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