White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy

“Wealth is glorious.”

– Deng Xiaoping (Attrib.)

Murdering to gain the family fortune is a tale so ancient it has become a respectable joke. Bourgeois culture sees it as a moral lesson of uncouth greed at best, rather than a paradigm of everyday finance. And if the protagonists happen to be poor and the fortune is around $10? Here again, it a strangely moral case, unsullied by political economy – broken homes, lack of discipline, ‘bad parenting’ and eugenics [i]. But let us enter the middle class itself, where desperation finally becomes understandable, rather than immoral or market-driven. Alas, the cloying style of murder from the median strata looks even less glamorous than colorful butchering from below. When a DuPont heir tops Auntie Agatha, these days he is acting like a used car salesman; for this class schizophrenia, the only possible explanation is insanity. No guilty plea is possible, because the most immoral thing for a wealthy man to feel is shame. Only the good bourgeois believes that public shame redeems every principal crime.

The contemporary Neolib remake removes the arcane aunt from the scene, substituting the less-quaint figure of massive tax breaks for the new unproductive producers, and offshore havens for the classic country estate. Inheritance is made in milliseconds these days, the short short-term scam – a floating currency of derivative incest where murder is just one of many service fees, and Papers Pentagon and Panama implicate everyone. Ghostly Aunts crawl out from under pensions and looted community banks, crumbling infrastructure and public works. After all, ‘good stock’ does have a double meaning and the race to the bottom is always the master’s race. As for the scheming relative, things are very relative indeed. You’ll only go down if it’s strategic – like Manafort, a lesson as American as P. T. Barnum’s lion and lamb.

The Psychology of the Rich Aunt, a Marxian correction to Veblen by the great Erich Mühsam (1878-1934) was published in 1905 when the Auntie integer-symbol was still able to disrupt congenital capital flow. Berliner Mühsam was finest of Anarchist muckrakers, the living embodiment of the ‘filthy Bolshevist Jew’ who gave the Nazis such a hard time in print and on the Hamburg wharf. He was part of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet, which earned him a jail sentence after the Freikorps crushed the republic in 1919. Lobbing 18th Brumaire irony and venom, he relentlessly hounded the brownshirts and bloated ideologues of the Third Reich in his noble rag Kain, and by any other means necessary. Although they finally got him, the best the fascists could do was fail upwards with boots and rifle-buts. Mühsam’s end was as upright, as careless and as crimson as anything else he did. In the concentration camp at Orangeburg, he traded the white of his eyes for the last sign of the Cheshire Cat. The SS must have been terrified, thought him mad – the Übermensch madness of the ‘Oriental’, and a bit of Hölderlin, Sophie Scholl, and Louis Lingg.

The book is made up of mock case-studies of 25 Aunts, arranged alphabetically, with the author taunting the reader in occasional sarcastic commentary injected into the overstuffed parodic plots. It reads like Midsummer Murders directed by Bakunin. Movingly, he also invokes some of his friends (Dehmel, Sheerbart), which gives a parenthetical sense of the strange pre-Weimar milieu of the time. The rich target-Aunts range from cheap and avaricious to kindly ciphers filled with cash. The murderous nephews (played to hilt, occasionally by Mühsam himself) are constantly thwarted by that occult element which apparently creates inherited riches: Chance. Or is each lunatic twist in these short tales a dialectical trap? Long shadows of class and slavery, primitive accumulation, magicians who have lost control over their curses? The mystery is no mystery, but an equation. The Rich Aunt Circuit might be rendered thus:

X ={> MC> CG1,2,3,4>}X [ii]

The only way to get money out of someone who has had it dropped into their lap by the Heavenly Father is by hurrying along a similarly divinely-ordained event. Piety here conceals the real process beneath the acquisition of wealth, which is Murder. Inherited Capital gains have nothing to do with commodity price or labor or Pauline grace or the fantastic abstemiousness of the rich. Yet perhaps original sin does indeed enter into legacy capital, for it seems that a windfall cannot be passed down without molecular degeneration in the receiving generations. What causes this cretinism in the heir is the windfall itself: a cash-genetic accursed share that invariably ends up in the hands of talentless ponces, weird mirrors of those welfare queens and super-predators invented once upon a time by the right-center collusion of interests. Investments sour, idiotic ironies collect around the rubble of incompetent Krupps and dissolute scions whose botched catastrophes lack even the allure of vigorous Old Rome sleaze. In each one of Mühsam’s increasingly silly scenarios, the bourgeois schemer can’t make a move without endless unintended consequences foiling his plans in the form of misspellings, missed connections, inopportune arrivals, slipped allusions and utterly improbable coincidences (school of vaudeville – Keaton, Chaplin & Kind Hearts and Coronets). The conman nephew has to rely on the same qualities that we were once told created ‘honest’ riches: ingenuity, patience and dedication. Lacking all these, he stumbles upon the reality which hasalwayscreated riches: homicide. The Wealth (or Murder Zero Sum) Circuit is:

0 ={> 0> 001,2,3,4>}0

No chance, fat chance, last chance and every man for himself and God against all. By using Chance as an absurd didactic device, our Anarchist banishes it to that austere moment when the rich, lead this time by ill-omened stars, appear at the foot of Madame Guillotine. Barron’s tells us that “Wealth creation is a public service provided by the private sector, which creates jobs that create wealth that creates jobs.” Selflessness is next to Headlessness.

Even if the hoard is speculative and the beneficiaries are now rentier, getting something for nothing is still the only game in town. From the old vultures too fat to fly, the ‘primal’ stash is now wholly claimed by the Grand Vulture – the FIRE sector, which amortizes debt with further debt. Thanks to some brokerage or Citibank or Federal Reserve fiat, finally liberated from the chains of heredity just as finance has now been liberated from material production, the Rich Aunt and her killer become a single asset. Things have changed less than we think, despite the locomotive of LIBOR and SWIFT, small mailboxes in sunny Cayman and the towers of the City of London which so resemble the classic Anglo Smile. Atavism and sentimentality are new again: the old salutes and uniforms, conspiracies of enemies within and without. Looking back to the dawn of the last new century, it’s plain that Mühsam rightly chose one of the silliest tropes from the prior to make the point that the transfer of wealth may move along atavistic lines but never, ever by chance. Differences in time seem aesthetic, at least where the bottom line is concerned. Another old joke has the Captain of the Titanic put on a wig and lace after he shouts ‘Women and children first!’ And it was children first to the trenches, less than a decade after this short and deadly anti-treatise was published in old Berlin. Other aunts, widows, mothers —

Translator Erik Butler is almost as relentless as Mühsam in his own dogged pursuit of a devious quarry. Few writers spat as gracefully and as dryly as Mühsam did at his best, and Butler pulls it off with American speed and enough distilled wry to keep the fangs sharp. He is also a pretty astounding polyglot, judging by the few sentences of bio in the back – translations from French, German, Italian, Yiddish. Mr. Butler has also written ‘two studies of vampirism’, which is a perfect counterpoint here to a translation that is anything but bloodless. Mühsam’s workhas been appearing in English more and more lately. We could use it, and Wakefield Press has done the living and the dead a great service with this latest one. The only thing that could possibly improve it would be an Afterword by Michael Hudson.

They broke Erich Mühsam’s poison pen-hands and then his teeth after he refused to sing the Horst Wessel for them. He did finally sing with his bloody mouth, but it was The Internationale. I am not sure that any archival recordings of his voice exist, but it must have been as beautiful the crow’s (he wouldn’t have a dove, for the analogy must be black and brilliant trickster, the opener of gates who shows the uselessness of gold). After the Nazis beat him to death, they hung his body in a toilet. His main interrogator, the preposterous SS Obergruppenführer Eicke, went on to work in admin at Dachau. His wife Zenzi, as tough and as brilliant as he was, ended up in one of Stalin’s gulags until 1953. She died a little under a decade later. In 1992, her body was finally interred next to her husband’s in the Socialists’ Memorial Zone of the GDR. Home again. This little book is a black rose on that treacherous path. Saleh und avante!


[i] For a truly hilarious defense, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/

This thing is so full of howlers, bizarre turns of phrase and unintentionally funny phrases such as ‘the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks’ that it sounds like a fantasy collaboration between Thomas Pynchon, Dick Gregory, and the Deviants.

[ii]  The Primordial Hoard, known as X – the original stash (origins unknown or inferred &ct.) > Money-Capital, known as MC- Patriarchal distribution (barring any interruption by God, microbe, hostile takeover) > Capital Gains, hereby CG (1) First Inheritor, who succumbs to some ailment (murder, war, syphilis &ct.) > CG (2) The Rich Aunt > CG (3) Third-tier Inheritor (who is stifled by ineptitude, chance, God, microbes, sex, chance &ct.) > CG (4) The State (Church, cops, lawyers, officials, camorras etc.) > The Second Eden of Fraud, X (2) > And given time and amnesia, now known again simply as X…

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.