Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/09/2011

The Business of the American people is Busy-ness

So the government won’t shut down today. The President announced late last night the Washington Monument will be open and the families of soldiers in Afghanistan will have their paychecks deposited in their banks as usual. I suppose that’s a good thing.

That the President chose to begin his announcement by saying the Washington Monument will be open as usual strikes me as a metaphor that cannot be ignored. And that the President followed that closely saying the troops will be paid expands the metaphor (but I’ll save that for another day).

Don’t mind me, but I’m going to wax a little sentimentally patriotic here. I’ve always thought (being neither historian nor politician) George Washington’s three greatest accomplishments were keeping his ragtag and starving army together through the winter at Valley Forge, presiding over the Constitutional Convention never once interjecting himself into the debate, and refusing to serve more than two terms as President. He was terrible at being a politician.

So the government won’t shut down today and the Washington Monument will be open.

We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction (1).

There are many other things we want very much more than wealth, said Calvin Coolidge in the speech from which he is so often misquoted as saying, “The business of America is business.” He said, rather, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” What, one might ask, is the difference? Plenty. The American people are not—especially at this juncture—America.  I’m not going to get into a political debate or discussion. I’m afraid the people who least understand what I might say (the Tea Baggers, for example) would think I was saying what they believe. Not on your life. I’ve had plenty of strange bedfellows in my life, but I’m not going there!

Let’s play a bit with Coolidge’s idea, remembering that the “business” v. “busy-ness” pun (with which I have titled this rumination) is worn out. However, the truth probably is that

. . .  contemporary individuals are required to embody the normative codes of the ideology of activity. When they meet these terms, the motor of contemporary capitalism is fuelled – and one of the principal components of this fuel is authenticity. It would now appear to be indisputable that a culture of authenticity has embedded itself in Western countries. . . (2).

No epigones need apply

No epigones need apply

From business to busy-ness to an “ideology of activity,” culminating in “a culture of authenticity.” I would have thought that busy-ness (ideology of activity) mitigated against “authenticity.” Shows how much I know. I began trying to figure out what Petersen means (he never defines “authenticity” in this article). The closest I can come to his understanding of the word is “the moral idea that each individual ought to realise themselves according to their version of the good life” (3). I am, because I am not a philosopher, put off slightly by the idea that realizing myself according to my version of the good life is a “moral” imperative.

When I say my being put off is because I am not a philosopher, I mean that I had not until recently heard of (much less read) the enormous body of scholarly and philosophical literature around “authenticity.” Petersen does not define it because he assumes anyone reading his article knows what he means. That is, everyone has read the literature from Schleiermacher to Heidegger and beyond that treats the subject. Authenticity, in the view of one sociologist is

a matter of striving toward a more steady, coherent, and committed self from the multifaceted resources of uninhibited spontaneity. [Authenticity is] congruent with, or integral to one’s self, not just passing episodes that occur in one’s body and mind. . . [but] interwoven with his or her conceptions of the good (4).

Petersen’s idea that an “ideology of activity,” ending in “a culture of authenticity” has embedded itself in Western countries also has an element of “morality” about it. He says the new capitalism

is imbued with the moral idea that each individual ought to realise themselves according to their version of the good life. In conjunction with the new spirit of capitalism. . . this norm has turned into a demand. . . people are simply forced to internalise the growing demand for authenticity in their activities (5).

So, in the new capitalism (this  is the latest in what Petersen sees as stages of development of capitalism) one has the moral imperative to “realise themselves according to their vision of the good life.” And, this realization (authenticity) makes one a valuable member of the capitalist society in which we are all ensnared. We must be authentic so that we

. . . stand out from the crowd and invest [our] particularity in [our] activities. Epigones [undistinguished imitators] are not highly valued . . .  The conversion of the authentic self into praxis then becomes the competitive trademark – your personal capital – which serves as the gatekeeper for perpetual project work (6).

We have a moral imperative to be authentic (which means to be busy). Perpetually. We convert ourselves to authenticity, and the purpose of authenticity is to be the method by which we achieve perpetual work opportunities.

We are so inculcated with the necessity to be busy, to be involved in “perpetual project work” that we have actually come to think of it not as our own personal authenticity, but as the authenticity of our lives in general. As the authentic way of living for each of us and all of us. It defines our morality. We think busyness is

not primarily an external compulsion forced upon us by the economic system nor is it mostly a learned drive to accumulate or to deem oneself somehow special or superior for being important enough to be busy. . . Busyness is more; it is the opportunity to intensify sense experience—a longing that may well be built into us all. . . It is the promise of more life per life (7).

So, by all means, we must not shut the government down – “of the people, by the people, for the people” – the busy people. We will not, cannot, shut ourselves down. That would be immoral. George Washington apparently didn’t get it. He refused to convert his authentic self into praxis [to become his] competitive trademark – [his] personal capital. He retired.
(1) Bittinger, Cyndy. “The Business of America is Business?” Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. 2005-2009. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.
(2) Petersen, Anders.  “Depression – a social pathology of action.” Irish Journal of Sociology 17.2 (2009), 56-71.
(3) Petersen, Ibid.
(4) Salmela, Mikko. “What Is Emotional Authenticity?” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 35.3 (2005): 209-230.
(5) Petersen, Ibid.
(6) Petersen, Ibid.
(7) Cross, Gary. “A Right to Be Lazy? Busyness in Retrospective.” social research 72.2 (Summer 2005), 263-286.


  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post! Blogging mostly on all things Coolidge as I do, I’m always happy to see someone set the record straight on that insidious “business” quote. As for “busy-ness”, I agree that we are expected to follow the norm of being busily engaged in something, anything. To wander aimlessly, to loiter, to loaf, is to appear slightly asocial, and even on vacation we are expected to keep busy, engaging in sports or sightseeing. Well, excuse my rambling. One thought: you should tag Calvin Coolidge in your post.


  2. Thank you, Kaiology.
    I meant to tag Coolidge.
    I spent an afternoon at the Forbes Library once a long time ago. I think old Calvin gets a pretty bad rap he doesn’t deserve.



%d bloggers like this: