Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus, Capitalism, and the Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Content warning: this post gets a little dark by moments, so if you're not in the right frame of mind, maybe read it later, or don't read it at all.

The pandemic crisis is prompting a lot of reflection about the dysfunctions of a capitalist system, which I guess is a good thing, though I'm pessimistic about much in the way of positive change. The richer classes are finally like -- "wait -- my food and well-being depends on these people! Are they OK? What if something happens to them?!"

Often when I think about the dysfunction of capitalism, I think about the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula Le Guin. The story describes a beautiful well-functioning town in which almost everyone is well and happy, but in which all the good things depend on the utter misery of one small child -- a child who is forever locked in small basement room in squalid conditions and constant suffering.

People talk about the various justifications and injustices of capitalism in many ways, but one common one has to do with overall prosperity: more wealth is created by capitalism than in alternative systems, it is argued, and this wealth improves people's lives. Here the details get a little fuzzy, about whether that wealth has to improve everyone's lives or what exactly.

From a practical point of view, I think it's fair to say that if actual contemporary western capitalism creates wealth, it is doing so in a system that relies on horrible and exploitative conditions for many. It's never been a secret that agricultural workers, people who work elsewhere in the food supply chain, cleaners, gig economy workers, and others work long, long hours in sometimes brutal conditions for little pay -- often working multiple jobs. One of the wake-up calls of the pandemic has been that carers in nursing homes are working multiple jobs at various homes, just to make ends meet, thus increasing the likely spread of disease. And we've written on this blog of the way that modern electronics production relies on getting minerals in exploitative and violent conditions.

How the denizens of modern capitalism frame their faith in overall prosperity with the existence of this suffering and violation of rights has always interested me. The situation is obviously complex, but I think one possibility has to do with the ways that various values create small shifting zones of coherence and acceptability. Inside these little zones things seem to work OK, which makes us forget that things are really not OK at a deeper level.

For example, with respect to the social contract in modern capitalism, I expect that many people who believe in the importance of prosperity/overall GDP/economic growth also endorse some informal version of the following: those who work hard at a full-time job should be able to support themselves or maybe even a family; those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder should be able to improve their situation with care and hard work; wages should reflect a fair wage for the work involved. Put more abstractly: people care not only about prosperity but also about fairness, equality, and expressions of mutual respect.

One thing that happens in everyday capitalism, I think, is that in certain small zones and in the experience of certain people, the system seems to make these values come together. If your parent came to the US from a life of poverty in Europe in the early 20th century and worked hard to send you to good schools, and you prospered from the contingencies of the 1950s to rise up to the middle-class, then from one perspective it looks like it all comes together: the society's prosperity goes along with the opportunities that the individual takes advantage of; rewards follow.

As is often discussed, this little zone of coherence is just that -- a little zone. For many people, it doesn't work this way at all. They work harder and harder and wages drop; ill health brings catastrophe despite best efforts; racism and discrimination radically diminish options and possibilities.

In this sense, the middle class and those who are even more well-off are somewhat like the denizens of Omelas: we're in a good situation made possible by someone else's horrible situation. Some defenders of capitalism are even kind of explicit about it, arguing against universal basic income on grounds that poor people will then be less motivated to do the crappy jobs that society needs someone to do.

When I talk about capitalism being morally dysfunctional in this way, sometimes my interlocutors are shocked, and they point out to me the horrors of alternative systems. But I think the one doesn't exclude the other. Even if capitalism is the best system out there, it can still be radically unethical. Sometimes in life you have no good options. And even if it is the case that other systems are worse -- then it's even more important for us to talk about the wrongnesses of our system so we can at least try to mitigate them or something.

In the Le Guin story, the residents all learn about the existence of the child in misery during their adolescence, and some go to see the child in person. Most weep and rage but realize they can't do anything about it and go back to normal life. Others, though, do not go back to normal life. What they do is walk away. Le Guin says, "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Like Le Guin, I can't imagine what it would mean to walk away from modern capitalism. In most basic literal terms, an alternative physical space would either be engaging in more capitalism, by buying up land, or infringing on the rights of other people whose land it is. In my darker moments, I fear that to walk away from Omelas would require ending my existence altogether.

But I try to remind myself: we're not in a fictional story land where the fates have decreed that our well-being and our failings are locked together forever, with our happiness inherently resting on others' suffering. We're in the real world, where things are complicated and confusing and can often be changed.

As the pandemic forces people to confront the situation of essential and vulnerable workers, let's remember that there are a lot of people for whom capitalism leads not to opportunity but to misery. Let's keep in mind that caring about overall economic growth and prosperity means facing up to this fact rather than getting to ignore it.

I fear that keeping these things in mind is going to get harder and not easier in the near future, as economies contract, business close, and times get tough. But we have to do it -- because unlike the people in the story, we don't have the option of walking away.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

What You Want To Do And What You Should Do: Lockdown Edition

I was sitting around at home on a weekend day feeling dispirited and trying to figure out what to do next. Someone suggested that I might think about what I wanted to do as opposed to what I should do, and do that. Don't worry: this suggestion was socially distanced.

It sounded so plausible as advice. But I had trouble putting it into action. I had no problem coming up with things that seemed immediately appealing, but most of them were things like sleeping and snacking that I knew would make me feel more dispirited in about twenty minutes. I certainly had tasks of various kinds waiting to be performed, but those all seemed like things I should do, not things I wanted to do.

As I should have known, I could have looked to this very blog to understand the source of my confusion. I have often written here about the weirdness of the typical desire-decision matrix of western popular culture. I see it is in 2010 -- ten years ago! -- that I wrote about the lost art of desire-management -- the way we treat our desires as if they are immutable and random forces of nature instead of responsive responses to habit, social context, and our own previous choices -- and thus, things that can be directed and managed.

One of the most destructive elements of that cultural desire-decision matrix is the bifurcation that splits everything into distinct categories of pleasure-yum-love and those of obligation-task-force-yourself-to-get-on-it. Or -- as I described it in 2014 -- that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied.  

I don't know how this bifurcated perspective got so entrenched in our way of thinking, whether it's a trickle-down from formal thinking and rational choice theory, or whether it's just the metaphors of capitalism creeping in everywhere, or whether it has something to do with the neoliberal entrepreneurial self, or what. But it is not good.

Among its more disturbing aspects is that it leaves out a huge category of things crucially important: the things that are difficult, voluntary, and worthwhile. Like making art, or writing something, or learning new things, or reading what for lack of a better term I'll call literary novels. You don't have to wake up with a burning desire to practice scales to make learning to play the piano a cool and worthwhile thing to do. No one finishes breakfast and discovers they're just dying to get on with re-editing the draft of the writing thing they've been working on and not getting anywhere with.

We don't even really have a good adjective to describe the positive subjective feeling that comes with engaging with these types of activities. "Satisfying" is about as close as I can think of, but that is such an oatmeal kind of word and doesn't really capture it.

The resulting perplexity is, I think, one reason that "goal" culture has so totally come into its own in modern life. If you set a goal, then somehow you're able to communicate -- to yourself and others -- why you're doing a thing and why it feels good to do it, even when it is difficult and motivationally challenging. But for me, anyway, the idea of a "goal" distorts the whole thing. I don't write because I need a badge celebrating ten years of continuous blog writing. I write because it's -- worth doing, or satisfying, or whatever the word is that we don't have.

I feel like lockdown has raised new challenges for these complicated pleasures of life that we don't have a name for. To me, one of the small sadnesses of the culture of lockdown is that this amorphous category has somehow formed a weird locus of interpersonal antagonism. First there were the people who said "Hey, you could use this time to learn something!" Which is true. Then there were the people who said "Speak for yourself! Some of us have kids and and chores and jobs!" Which is also true. Then it was pointed out that even if you don't have other demanding obligations, lockdown is hard, so if you want to eat a cookie, just eat a cookie ffs. Which is also, of course, true. 

I'm the kind of person whose general life sadness comes from the Pointlessness of Life demon rather than the Fear and Anxiety demon. So the answer to my weekend conundrum ultimately consistent in remembering that just because I didn't want to do a thing didn't mean it wasn't worth doing, and that even in lockdown, I had to keep making myself do stuff. Just because there's a global pandemic on doesn't mean I'm off the hook for doing stuff I don't feel like doing. So -- it wasn't really what I wanted to do or what I should do but something else altogether.

As always, your mileage may vary.