Belief and Capitalism in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857)

by Mark Wallace

The primary insight of Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence-Man (1857) is one which was more recently articulated by financial historian Niall Ferguson:

“[M]oney is a matter of belief, even of faith: belief in the person paying us, belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers. Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed. (The Ascent of Money, Penguin, 2009, pp. 30-31)

Money works, that is, because people believe in it. The people it’s working for may or may not be the ones doing the believing, but someone is doing the believing, and of course acting accordingly.

So look at Melville’s title again. The Confidence-Man. This was a collocation more familiar to 19th-century readers than to us. Later, it was shortened to conman. We perhaps use the word “con” now to mean a trick or fraud without remembering that it comes from the word “confidence”. This is because we don’t use “confidence” in the way Melville used it. Indeed, Google Books Ngram Viewer records that use of the word “confidence” has been declining quite steadily since the 1850s. And when we do use it, it’s mostly with regard to self-confidence and related concepts. To take one of the most recent coinages: body-confidence is a form of self-confidence.

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Cover of the Signet 1964 edition. From PDFBooksWorld.

So we don’t immediately get the import of Melville’s title and his book. He spends the book circling round the idea of confidence in the 19th-century sense: the sense of trust. Confidence is a synonym for trust. A confidence man is a man who operates by gaining the trust of the other. Implied without being explicit in the title is that to give our trust is a mistake. Trust, or confidence, is a tool of predation and exploitation.

So, on a philosophical level, this book can be seen as a dialogical investigation into the theme of trust, and its place in human society. On occasion, however, Melville gets more specific than this. He’s not speaking in universalist terms – not always, at any rate. He is referring specifically to a capitalist society, and putting the idea of trust under capitalist conditions at the centre of his text. One of Melville’s characters claims:

“Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop.” (Signet, 1964, p. 136)

Thus, Melville’s man of business is inveterately opposed to any sort of cynical or mistrustful thinking. This is given expression throughout the novel. One character speaks of the need to “strangl[e] the least symptom of distrust, of any sort, which hereafter, upon whatever provocation, may arise in you” (p. 40). Melville is deliberately using jarringly violent language here, to call into question the view being expressed, and to hint at the dark motives behind an emphasis on trust or confidence.

Melville’s book has a specific and realistic setting, on a Mississippi steamer. Through delineating the behaviour of the societal cross-section on the steamer, he instils in the reader a severe distrust of the idea of trust. Melville suggests that the exploitation of trust is both an age-old human trait, and one that is particularly characteristic of his own society. This last is particularly related to the financial and commercial structures within which his characters are enmeshed.

Thus the most direct statement of Melville’s actual position is found late in the book in the interpolated story of China Aster. Typically for this contrary book, this structurally unnecessary episode is thematically central. Aster is an honest, hard-working man whose personal destruction has a financial basis. Initially, Aster wants no part of the credit system. But a purported friend goads him into taking a loan:

“Why don’t you, China Aster, take a bright view of life? You will never get on in your business or anything else, if you don’t take the bright view of life. It’s the ruination of a man to take the dismal one […]. Why don’t you, then? Why don’t you be bright and hopeful, like me? Why don’t you have confidence, China Aster?” (p. 217)

Eventually, the friend instils the necessary trust and optimism in Aster to take a friendly loan. But he also gets Aster to sign a contract on unfavourable terms. Of course, Aster is ruined by his attempts to repay. Melville’s concise moral of the story, chiselled on a stone by a listening character, is: “The root of all was a friendly loan” (p. 228). Aster was exploited by a friend he trusted, and the means of exploitation was the credit system.

Melville’s book is a sobering read in the light of our current financial circumstances, wherein, as Maurizio Lazzarato has argued, indebtedness is central to economic and indeed social progress. If you’re not in debt, you’re doing it wrong. We have to believe in our credit-based financial system individually and act accordingly, or we are frozen out; and, as Ferguson knows, they only work because we do believe in them. But who do they work for? Melville has an answer: they work not for the true believer, who is a dupe, but for the confidence man, the instigator of and predator on trust. After reading Melville, we trust just a little bit less, but whether this helps with our socio-financial adjustment in a capitalist society is a difficult question.

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