Resistance to Twentieth Century Capitalism in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

This paper explores how the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg appears as a powerful resistance against twentieth century Capitalism of America. A post world war poem, published in 1956, the poem shows strong distaste for the contemporary consumer culture, warfare and monstrous capitalism. With the rapid urbanization, industrialization and quest to pursue American Dream, working class people started to work hard in America. After being branded Superpower nation as a result of victory in second world war, America extended its business globally. Capitalism triumphed and class difference became distinct. As Hansen puts it, during 1950s “With increased living standards, broad layers of the working class were now able to achieve decent standards of living, and buy products that had previously been reserved for the upper classes – hence the phenomenon of so-called “consumerism” – the idea that working-class families could buy happiness with their disposable incomes” (Hansen par. 2). As a result, money ruled over humanity, intellectuality and the ethics. The value of poetry, ethics and morality declined. So, Ginsberg claims, due to capitalist triumph, he saw the “best mind of my generation destroyed by madness” (line 1). As the poem is addressed to his friend Carl Solomon who was in Rockland- a mental hospital, the “angelheaded hipsters” (line 2) destroyed by madness are perhaps the poet himself and his Beat Generation who advocate for equality and socialism. Throughout the poem, Ginsberg clarifies who were the best mind of his generation, how were they destroyed and who destroyed them.
In the second part of the poem, Ginsberg asserts “Moloch” (line 79) as the phenomenon which destroys the best mind of the generation. The myth of Moloch comes from Hebrew Bible, where Moloch is the idolatrous god which demands the sacrifice of children by burning. He presents Moloch as the synonymous term for Capitalism as Capitalism is also eating up humanity with utmost cruelty. “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!” (line 82). Capitalism relies on Industrialization and its mind is pure machinery, it does not regard the pain and suffering of an individual. Its only intention is profit. It is like a cannibal and sucks the life out of the people who intend goodwill instead of chasing American Dream. “Moloch the incomprehensible prison!” (line 81). Capitalism is the prison for the imagination, creativity and intellects. It forces all the genuine ideas to be disintegrated; justice and freedom is chained. Life becomes impossible without money in such world. Everything is comprehended through money and every other human potentiality becomes trivial.
The hangover of second world war was not yet over and in 1955, American people saw the dawn of Vietnam War. At universities, too, “war scholars” (line 6) were privileged. The poets and students who advocated for humanism and “Blake-light Tragedy” (line 6) were branded as obscene and “were expelled from the academics” (line 7). This is the autobiographical experience of Ginsberg himself. He was expelled from the university. There was no place for the intellectuals and the humanists of the generation. They were tortured by government for raising voice against capitalism, war, class-difference and advocating for cosmopolitanism and freedom. Due to the consumerist and capitalist culture of twentieth century, Ginsberg witness that creative and intellectuals are forced to "cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” and are “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge,”. In this world, only aristocrats, warlords and rich are valued. Nobody cares for the proletariat and people active on creative works rather than on producing money. Ginsberg says "but no one cares; they “walked away unknown and forgotten.” What could the poet and his generation do when the world is engulfed by the rage of war, hatred and the humanity is dismissed for the machinery capitalism? Finding no place for themselves under the monstrous shadow of Moloch, these people indulged on smoking Marijuana, homosexuality, drugs, poetry, protests and communism. They wandered all around talking continuously cursing for the government whose only interest is war and the Capitalism which brought frustration and suicide among the working-class people. They “burned their money in wastebaskets” (line 8) resisting Capitalism, “wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts” (line 22), “distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square” (line 32) advocating for the liberation from money and power. As Miller puts it, “Ginsberg illustrates that capitalism is oppressive and he proposes means to end the way of his protagonists Ginsberg effectively offers socialism and communism as superior alternatives to capitalism” (par 7, 11). Ginsberg’s major intention in the poem is to defense the proletariats group and amplify their potentiality which is oppressed by monstrous capitalism. Ginsberg describes about his protagonists ‘angelheaded hipsters’ who instead of involving in some creative and progressive process, are involving in degenerative activities like drinking, smoking, vomiting and “yacketayakking” screaming. This is all due to the despotic impact of Capitalism. The best minds are withering and being wasted. Frustration clouds their mind. As Wills points out:
angelheaded hipsters were poets, writers, artists, the mentally ill, the impoverished, the unemployed, drug addicts, homosexuals, visionaries, the disillusioned, criminals, and disenfranchised workers.  They were all enslaved by the dollar…their disillusionment with society led them to attempt suicide…(they) met Marx’s qualification for a proletariat truly ready for political revolution… and were keenly aware of their oppression.” (par 2, 3)
Due to the Capitalist hegemony in America, during and after world wars, Marxism and Communism intensified. The emergence of multi-national companies, rapid development of technology and massive industrialization produced aristocrats along with proletariats. Ginsberg’s mother had also subscription to Communism. As Jonsson claims, “His parents were communists and socialists, and Ginsberg had already as a youth the desire for becoming ‘a labor lawyer’ and ‘fighting the good foght” (par 19) Ginsberg’s involvement in Communist movement is also apparent. Communism was a response towards the Capitalist encroachment in America.
At the third part of the poem, Ginsberg shows solidarity with his friend Carl Solomon who is in Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute to which he refers by Rockland. He keeps repeating “I am with you in Rockland” to focus his support. “where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb” (line 117). He claims that there are “twentyfive thousand mad comrades” (line 118) with them together in Rockland who are singing the final stanza of the Internationale. This evokes for the starting of a new age of revolution. Furthermore, Ginsberg signals to the resurrection of human Jesus(the best minds) from the superhuman tomb(capitalism). By resisting evil capitalism and ongoing wars, with the mass demonstrations and awakening, Ginsberg asserts that they will be free soon from the tight grip of Capitalism. “O victory forget your underwear we’re free” (line 120). He symbolically shows optimism for the future.
In the footnote to the poem, Ginsberg uses the word “holy” repeatedly. He assimilates everything: the soul, the body, the skin, the tongue, the asshole, the nose being holy. “Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is eternity! Everyman’s an angel” (line 3). As footnote is the comment added to the bottom of printed page, Ginsberg seems to be portraying the world after the disintegration of Capitalism and Warfare. After money is burned and the world becomes free from the snare of rapid industrialization, everything will be holy and beautiful. “Intelligent kindness of the soul” (line 15) will be retrieved. Life will no more be cheap and intellectuality and knowledge will get priority in world. Alike Marxist expectation of world to reach to the condition of governmentless, countryless cosmopolitan situation at the end, Ginsberg also has the similar expectation.
To conclude, Ginsberg’s “Howl” resists the cruelty of Moloch(Capitalism) in twentieth century America. As a result of growing urbanization and industrialization pushed up by rapid development of science and technology, the best minds of poet’s generation were destroyed and involved in suicidal works like drinking, marijuana, drugs, jazz and protests as a result of frustration. Warfare and money were valorized at that time over the kind soul of humanist, poets and intellectuals. Materialism ruled over spirituality and poetry. Ginsberg portrays the true-wicked face of Capitalism which is like Moloch and demands sacrifice of poor and weak people. In the first part of the poem, he shows who the best minds of the generation are and what has capitalism forced them to do, destroying them. In the second part, he shows the true face on Capitalism by comparing it with Moloch. And in the last part of the poem, he shows his solidarity with all the best mind of generation frustrated, who are in mental hospital or locked up in prison by addressing his friend Carl Solomon in Rockland. He makes it clear that once thousands of socialists come together from all the parts of America to demonstrate with Solomon in Rockland, freedom will rise. He even uses obscene language like ‘fucked’, ‘ass’, ‘cock’, ‘balls’ to attack over Capitalism. The poet seems to be in no mood to negotiate with capitalism and attacks it time and again in favor of socialism. The poem is written to be read aloud and Ginsberg even uses enjambed long lines which must be read in one breath in order to make the voice of the poem powerful to attack over Capitalism. The howling in the poem is intended to defy gruesome Capitalism and establish a classless society which will flourish all the best minds of the generation by providing them equal opportunity and nurturing their creativity.

Works Cited
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop,
1956. Pdf.
Hansen, Tom. “Ginsberg’s Howl Against Capitalism- a Film Review”. In Defense of
Marxism. 24 Mar. 2017. Web.
Jonsson, Linnea. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg- Analysis & Discussion”. Sonoloco. 25 Mar.
Miller, Kyle. “A Marxist Analysis of ‘Howl”. Kyle’s Blog. 25 Mar. 2017. Web
Wills, David S. “Ginsberg and the Machinery of Capitalism: A Political Reading of Howl”.
Beatdom. 25 Mar. 2017. Web.

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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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