Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, seems a novel well suited to our times. It’s about what happens to a society in which speculative motives have supplanted the traditional moral codes governing economic and social behavior—how bubble psychology plays out at the various levels of society and affects the various relations between different classes of people. Trollope unobtrusively works the theme into his different plot strands: we see speculators in the marriage market, speculators in aristocratic titles, speculators in a fictitious railroad scheme; cheats at cards, cheats at establishing literary reputation, cheats in the game of love, cheats in self-representation, and so on. Aristocrat card players issue their own illiquid commercial paper and reputational bubbles swell and burst.
In his workman-like way, Trollope take us through the thought processes of his characters, who, unlike those of so many other Victorian novelists, at least succeed in coming across as adults. In The Way We Live Now, characters are generally rationalizing their own selfishness by referring to the apparent selfishness of others—the overriding mode of moral reasoning during a bubble. Presuming that everyone is in the midst of calculating how to press their advantage leads to an overwhelming cynicism that one adopts by default. It becomes to hard to conceive of the possibility of authenticity, of a disingenuous self-presentation. (Hetta Carbury, maybe the least tainted figure in the novel, captures this well when she says to her mother of a suitor, “He has to me that air of selfishness which is so very common with people in London—as though what he said were all said out of surface politeness.”) Genuine emotions are so routinely turn out to be vulnerable weaknesses that the characters instinctively resist them and ultimately succeed in banishing the notion of having them from their minds for the most part.
This gives the novel moments of genuine tragedy, when we recognize that the characters can’t acknowledge their own natural sympathies, and the opportunity for real love and mutual understanding with others passes them by. Over and over, Trollope illustrates the alienation that stems from calculating rationality. If they sense them, they dismiss the possibility of acting on them, mainly because they are skeptical that such feelings aren’t a social trap, but also because they are so habituated to scheming. They are self-centered without taking much pleasure in it, which suggest the demeanor is imposed on them by the times—the way they had to live then. Speculation had become an end in itself—it becomes gambling addiction, where winning is beside the point of always finding action, always having a live bet. All the characters are subsumed by variations of this compulsion.
In a world where cynicism is virtually universal, belief becomes a valuable commodity. In this regard, the interpersonal intersects with the economic, as a capitalist economy runs on trust, or at least on trust transformed by capital into its economic aspect, credit. But credit, in Trollope’s novel, is a means to pervert the human relation of trust into something exploitable, into something that may easily be misrepresented since it is not a lived relation but a contracted simulacrum of a relation. Lady Carbury, the hack writer who hopes to ingratiate herself with the dubious financier Melmotte, poses this question—the question of the age, it seems—to one of her editors: “If a thing can be made great and beneficial, a boon to humanity, simply by creating a belief in it, does not a man become a benefactor to his race by creating that belief?” One can imagine many advertising professionals asking themselves this, as well. Nothing is real, anyway, right, so should we give people the opportunity to dream big? But the question also suits the Ponzi scheme high-finance has become in our time. As we have discovered, it is easy for the untrustworthy to secure vast amounts of credit; there are no moral tests to pass before one can pile on leverage.
So it’s not surprising that this piece of analysis from financial consultant Greg Curtis (posted at Barry Ritholtz’s site) seems a summation of the themes of Trollope’s novel:
In our view, poor risk controls, massive leverage, and the blind eye were really symptoms of a much worse disease: the root cause of the crisis was the gradual but ultimately complete collapse of ethical behavior across the financial industry. Once the financial industry came unmoored from its ethical base, financial firms were free to behave in ways that were in their – and especially their top executives’ – short-term interest without any concern about the longer term impact on the industry’s customers, on the broader American economy, or even on the firms’ own employees.