The concept of self-interest has always contained a fundamental ambiguity. It emerged in the 18th century, recasting avarice in the neutral language of utility, underwriting a benign if unheroic shopkeeper’s ethos. But it always had a wilder side, encompassing the frenzied speculation and extravagant consumption that were essential to the expansion of capitalism. By the early 20th century, thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic recognized that economic growth required periodic infusions of visceral vitality – what John Maynard Keynes, summarizing several decades of modernist vitalism in 1936, called “animal spirits.” 20th century advertising assimilated vitalism to its creed of insatiable consumption. Yet animal spirits could still remain detached from market discipline, could still promote reckless generosity and serious play. Indeed, the vitalist impulse would prove to be the wild card in the history of self-interst.
T.J. Jackson Lears is the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and the editor of the distinguished journal Raritan: A Quarterly Review. Lears’ research interests include U.S. cultural and intellectual history, comparative religious history, literature and the visual arts, folklore, and folk beliefs. Lears has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and both the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. His books include Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (2009); Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003); Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (1994), which won the Los Angeles Times book prize for history; and No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1981). T.J. Jackson Lears’ essays and reviews have appeared in the American Historical Review, American Quarterly, the Journal of American History, and he is a regular contributor to The New Republic, The Nation, the London Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications and scholarly journals.