Are You a Guard?

In Chapter 24 of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen. These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.

This would be very insightful if Zinn wasn’t so hell bent on pushing a version of morality where the only moral society is one that shares everything in common.  There are very few real socialists and communists around because the failures of this philosophy are so great.  Few people are really looking for a worker’s paradise anymore. Very few people think that human nature is compatible with such philosophies.  Unfortunately, even though people know people are motivated by self-interest, the ideas of socialism and communism are still looked to as an ideal of what is actually fair.  Since we humans are so self-interested, it is up to our moral superiors, who understand that we must all share for justice to occur, to use the hammer of the state to beat us all into compliance.

They, the people I have called our moral superiors, don’t share Zinn’s vision.  Zinn sees the establishment and the elite using the central government to keep people from realizing a better way of life.  He sees starting at the local level as the solution.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods-a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

The current progressive/liberal thinking is that change must be top down, and that we need laws at the federal level to make sure people are treated fairly.  I like Zinn a whole lot better than these people, even if I don’t agree with his socialist vision.  These top down people, these big government people, they are the guards of the crony capitalist system that lefties and libertarians decry as unjust, even as we disagree as to why we believe the system is unjust.

Individualism and Higher Aims

 

Oscar Wilde has an utterly romantic view of human nature in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.  He comes at the topic with the idea that the nature of man is basically good.  It is the institution of private property that has led man astray, he appears to believe.  Here are some quotes to illustrate his point of view:

“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

 

“Wealthy people are, as a class, better than impoverished people, more moral, more intellectual, more well-behaved. There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.”

Wilde doesn’t like for people to be poor. He sees it as degrading, demoralizing.  He sees the abolition of private property and the realization of socialism as the remedy to this degradation.  He also thinks it would relieve the wealthy of what he views as their unhealthy obsession with gain.  He blames private property for what he sees as the ills of mankind.

As I have written before, he has to have a fundamental misunderstanding of economics to believe that socialism is going to remedy poverty.  I think that is very common misunderstanding seen in that era as people tried to come to grips with the apparent contradictions they were seeing in the world around them after the onset of the industrial revolution.  More and more people moved to the cities to find work in factories, and these people were very poor.  There was also great wealth in the cities, and to the common observer, this seemed unjust, that one man should suffer extreme poverty while another lived in fantastic wealth.  It is what spurred Henry George to write Progress and Poverty, where he too put forth his own socialist remedy to this reality.  As much as I disagree with socialism, I believe that Wilde is a product of his time and that his motivations are positive.  He wants to relieve the suffering he sees, and he wants people to realize a better, more fulfilling life.

He thinks men were meant for more. He thinks if they were freed of the burden of accumulation of wealth, that they could realize their true and unique individualism.

“they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else.”

I look at what he is talking about, and I see echoes of my own thoughts regarding the abundance that capitalism and the division of labor has actually brought to us.  I think it is fantastic because it gives us all time to pursue those things that bring us joy.  Am I like Wilde then in some regard, who I have been so highly critical of?  I’ve praised the market over an over for the abundance and labor saving devices it has brought to us.  I’ve claimed this is excellent because it frees us up to pursue higher aims, such as art and religious worship.

One thing I do not want to do is pretend that the market is a panacea for all men’s ills.  Yet, I think I might come across like that with such optimistic claims reminiscent of Wilde’s delightful leisure to devise wonderful things statement.  I want to be a realist.  I don’t want to paint a picture of a Utopia that will not emerge.

What is the truth then?  In the West, we live in abundance that the world has never known before.  We have way more free time on our hands that our ancestors could have ever imagined.  We still work, but it is not sun-up to sun-down, it is just a 1/3 or a little more of our day.  Alright, so parents spend much more of their time working because of the care necessary for children, but that is usually just a short period of our lives given the limited number of kids most of us have.  Hopefully that is also a labor of love.  The truth is that we do overall have much more time to pursue what Wilde or I would consider higher aims.  I don’t know how this could not be considered a good thing.

Has this freeing up of our time led to a state where we are all pursuing these wonderful higher aims?  No.  We don’t all value that kind of thing in the same manner.  When I was young, with way more free time on my hands, I recall valuing drinking binges.  I dare to say that there are a lot of people that would pursue physical pleasures like that versus spending their time honing an art, practicing a craft, studying history, or deepening their knowledge of the religion they practice.  Abundance of goods and abundance of time did not lead to this fantastic place where we are all realizing our wonderful individualism to the benefit of mankind.  We still have all the ills that have always plagued us.  There is still pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth.  Abundance hasn’t changed the nature of man.

As long as there are temptations to be had, then mankind will continue to wallow in those temptations.  No changing of the social order for realization of a world where starvation is not a risk is going to change the nature of man.  Freeing man from the necessity of hard work will not change the nature of man.  We may think these are good things, that no person would be in danger of starvation, that no one has to destroy their health through back breaking labor.  Indeed, they appear to be very positive.  However, those are not the things that cause men to sin.  It is in our very nature that we should succumb to various temptations, and that we need redemption as a result.

Perhaps, we could be angry with God for making us so.  Without the ability to choose to succumb to temptation, we would lack free will.  Free will is a gift beyond compare.  Let us not be angry at our Creator for this gift he has bestowed upon us, for he has also Redeemed us.  Our desire to not see our fellow man suffer is good.  Relieving physical suffering of hard work and hunger are worthy aims.  However, human suffering goes much deeper than the physical, and as such, we must not imagine that through our own acts we might save humanity.

The Young King, Continued

Continuation from The Young King: The Courtiers Reaction

The young king leaves his chambers and finds the nobles celebrating.  They are unhappy with his dress of a commoner.  He rides out into the streets, and the people mock him.  One man tells him “Sir, knowest thou not that out of the luxury of the rich cometh the life of the poor?  By your pomp we are nurtured, and your vices give us bread. To toil for a hard master is bitter, but to have no master to toil for is more bitter still.  Thinkest thou that the ravens will feed us?  And what care hast thou for these things?  Wilt thou say to the buyer, ‘Thou shalt buy for so much’ and to the seller, ‘Thou shalt sell at this price’?  I trow not….” The young king asked “Are not the rich and poor brothers?”  The man answered yes and the rich brother is Cain.

Here we see the acceptance of the existing social order by the masses spoken by the one man.  They don’t like it, but they see no other way.  They see the rich as evil as Cain.  Then there is the discussion of prices.  They think it is ridiculous that a king should set prices.  Which, it is perfectly ridiculous, and for a recent example of this, look no further than Venezuela.  Wilde is a writer, not an economist, so I don’t know that he would be aware of the ridiculousness of price controls.  It is hard for me to grasp what he is trying to say here, then.  Why this discussion?  Does Wilde think a King can command an economy?

From there the young king goes on to the Cathedral where his coronation ceremony is to take place.  The Bishop follows suit of everyone else he has encountered.  He wants the young king to go back to the palace and put on the finery that was made for this day.  The young king asked, “Shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?”  Then the boy relayed his dreams to the bishop.  The bishop acknowledges the evils of the world we live in, but asked the young king, “Canst thou make these things not to be?… Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art?”   The bishop again requests that the king return to the castle for all the luxurious items meant for his coronation ceremony.  He tells the young king, “The burden of this world is too great for one man to bear, and the world’s sorrow too heavy for one heart to suffer.”

The bishop seems to echo the words of the man on the street, that a king cannot change the nature of the world.  He makes the further point that God, the Creator, is certainly wiser than the young king.  Now you can’t blame the young king for being upset at the fate that befell those who prepared his finery for the coronation.  That seems as it should be.  But what is Wilde getting at here with so much acceptance of the existing order of things, by the couriers, the people, the bishop?  Yet the young king remains distressed by it, he rejects it, he wants no part of it.

From there, the nobles show up with murder on their mind because they now think him unworthy to be king.  The boy stands before the image of Christ and prayed, then rose, looking about sadly.  Then suddenly, sunlight streamed upon him from a window and he was clothed in stunning finery.  The Glory of God filled the place, and the music sounded.  The bishop proclaimed, “A greater than I hath crowned thee,”  All kneeled before the young king, swords sheathed, they did him homage.  The young king returned to the palace, but no one would look upon his face as it was like the face of the angel.

I’m pretty sure the answer I’m looking for is in the end, but I don’t understand it.  I get that God crowns the young king as the rightful ruler, and apparently because the young king cares about the fate of men.  However, we are still left with the bishop’s words, in particular.  I’ll quote them again. “The burden of this world is too great for one man to bear, and the world’s sorrow too heavy for one heart to suffer.”  The king has just been crowned by God.  Is this another instance where we are to recognize Christ in a character?  Maybe that is it.  Maybe I don’t get it because the economic criticism may have been fitting for the 19th century, but as we can see after capitalism hit full stride, that the lives of those living in developed nations was so vastly improved that our poor do not suffer from the same conditions that were prevalent in the early days.  Maybe I can’t get it because I am unable to not be anachronistic.

ETA:  I spent all this time reading, writing and thinking about Oscar Wilde’s story and it didn’t occur to me to google him until just now.  The man is a socialist that favors the abolition of private property.  The thinking that I found incomprehensible is explained in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering.  They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.

Is this not typical of socialist thinking, that other men are too ignorant to understand their own lives?  The history of man has been one of poverty and suffering.  Weaved into that suffering is love, joy, and hope.  No mud, no lotus.

ETA (again)  My heart is a little bit broken that this author, whose work I have been enjoying so much, promulgates such incoherent and unrealistic ideas.