Have you followed the unfolding of the great mystery? Some months ago, the tips of Hershey’s Kisses were commonly broken off. You unwrapped them. No tip. The entire sweeping flow of this edible piece of commercial art is thereby interrupted. You put them in cookies and the melting top doesn’t look right. The cook doesn’t like the result. Consumers are disappointed, just slightly, on the margin.
All of this unfolded during the holiday season of 2018. The company makes 70 million Kisses per day. All of them in these fateful weeks were shipped without tips. Customers complained. It was all over social media. The company looked into the problem. They discovered a problem with some new machines used in the manufacturing process.
Then happily, on the last day of January 2019, the company made a great announcement. They found and fixed the problem. All new Kisses will be shipped with tips.
Hurrah! All's right with the world again.
Now, in light of this news, I’m putting myself in the mind of any number of great thinkers of the past. It could be G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, or Werner Sombart whether in his Communist or Nazi period. All of these people – how we studied their thoughts so hard in college – can be classified as left or right or both. What unites them is their complete lack of interest in the small material concerns of life.
Thus would these “great” thinkers all be thoroughly disgusted by the above paragraphs. Why are we focussing on such absurdly stupid bourgeois concerns (chocolate indeed!) when the very theme of history stands on the precipice of dramatic upheaval? Do we not realize that thinking about the shape of candy is a gigantic distraction from our existential obligation to become part of the meta-narrative of historical transformation currently underway?
Do we not see how the commercial economy has dumbed us down, made us a petty and silly people, tricked us into numbing our consciousness so that we can’t even discern that the great thinkers find so obvious? And for what? So that a handful of chocolate kings can make money – mere money! – from our personal desire to have a well-shaped morsel of candy on our tongues.
And these merchants, where are their loyalties? Not to the nation, not to the toiling masses, to the race, to the grand dialectic. No, they are obsessed with...customers, balance sheets, and supply chains. The intellectuals are disgusted.
It’s fascinating to me how the thinkers we regard as mighty and decisive interpreters of the world around are actually profoundly uninterested in the actual way all of us conduct our lives in the real world. They care nothing for our discrete motivations and our desire to live a bit better each day, not live as a group or a nation or a class but as individuals in the particulars of our lives that we inhabit, each of us in slightly different ways.
No two individuals experience exactly the same life. There is no one solution that pertains to any large group. All improvement in life extends from tiny choices we make with minds that only we as individuals fully control.
They Hate Gum
Here’s an example of intellectual blindness that fascinates me. Leon Trotsky came to New York for 10 weeks in 1917. He came to observe and interpret. He was standing in the subway, watching the masses of workers come and go. He spotted some gumball machines. He noted that people were putting money in the machines and sticking gum in their mouths.
Why was this happening? My explanation: people like gum and are willing to pay for it. This was not his point of view. He wrote a letter:
Capitalism does not like the working man to think and is afraid… It has therefore adopted measures … It has put up automats in each station and has filled them with disgusting candied gum…. And they grind it with the automatic chewing of their jaws… It looks like a religious rite, like some silent prayer to God-Capital.
Basically, Trotsky hated gum. In his 1934 essay on the shape of a future communism in America, he put a fine point on it: “In the third year of the Soviet rule in America you will no longer chew gum!”
This is not to pick on Trotsky alone; the same bad attitude toward consumer habits was shared by his supposed nemesis the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. That list of great intellectuals a few paragraphs before could be expanded with hundreds, thousands, of names, fanatics left and right who have been trying to get our attention for two hundred years. One thing that unites them is a persistent disgust at the sheer plainness of commercial culture; in a word, snobbery. These are people who imagine themselves to be in touch with the meaning of everything gigantic but would be utterly at a loss to explain the appeal of the magazine rack at the typical CVS.
Liberalism Is Different
Think about the difference with the liberal tradition that has always celebrated commerce as an emancipatory force in history. Think of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Students pick it up and expect to read some big claims about the system we call capitalism. Instead what they find is a long series of discrete stories about people’s lives, their talents, the incentives they have to improve, and the magic of the interests that cause them to work together to make life better.
Smith’s only big claim – and it is a core claim of the liberal tradition – is that the best institutional framework to enable people to live the best possible life is one in which they are given the freedom to choose. But you can only understand that claim by getting your head out of grand meta-narratives and focus instead on how people actually live their lives.
The difference between people who believe in liberty and those who want to replace it with state control comes down to this. Do you think the small things matter or do you believe that the petty concerns of everyday life are a distraction from developing a higher ideological consciousness?
I think too about the many politicians today who are endlessly hectoring us about gigantic issues: national unity, inequality, what they call health care, a guarantee of security for everyone, all of which are said to be provided only by the state. But do these same people really care about how you are going to pay the rent next month, whether your holiday cookies are going to turn out right, whether your Uber driver knows your location, whether your wifi speeds allow for streaming the latest Netflix series you are desperate to watch?
The latter concerns are best addressed by allowing people to keep the money they earn, granting them freedom to choose, making sure technologies are available for the purchase on demand – all the small issues that make our lives slightly better on the margin. These are the only kinds of issues that genuinely impact on whether we live better lives. This is why liberalism cares about them and why illiberalism has always done its best to disparage and denounce them.
So yes, it really does matter whether our Hershey’s Kisses have their tips broken off. The solution is the same here, there, and everywhere, not a grand narrative of history but a specialist, paid with wages paid in anticipation of profits, who can fix the machine in the factory so that the results better meet our expectations.
Want to become a champion of liberty? Eschew historicism. Be suspicious of grand millenarian eschatologies. Learn to love the little things in life. Celebrate every individual’s right to choose how they live their lives. Smile when you think of every box of chocolate given and received this February 14th.
The tips on the Kisses are back and this is glorious.