Saturday, September 19, 2015

Potlucks and freeloaders

Suffering From Capitalism? I have been contemplating, often as I drive listening the past month or so to forty hours of Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch, read wonderfully on audio by David Pittu, about its themes of how evil can produce good, and bad intentions may be construed ethically as justifiable. At least in hindsight by its main actors.

With its nods to not only a Dickensian scope and breadth, but Proust and Dostoevsky's The Idiot. the novel takes on, near its end at least, the question of morals and intentions. Every system to improve humanity has some roots in efficiency and practicality. None are totally removed from reality. Even those from left-libertarian aspirations, however dim or doomed to speculation, base their strategies in what is possible to draw out from within us. Like Tartt's characters, they pause and examine how their schemes have emerged from their occluded hopes, over decades. The political theorists and anarchic idealists I find myself reading recently claim that anarchism intends to bring about glimmers of such  better lives by allowing people freedom of choice rather than duty and obligation. As to who would clean up after the party, and who would pick up the trash, the reasoning goes all would pitch in, or divide the tasks. If motivation counts, I reckon those who'd develop new technologies of composting and waste disposal would get extra dessert at the communal feast. There's always competition, after all, built in. Still, I can't cheer on those who promote free markets above ecological stewardship. I have grown up with an instinctive aversion to real estate development rather than open space. I see land and to me it is never undeveloped, but a terrain where weeds, trees, birds, and beasts thrive.

One of our flaws may be the curse of Adam and Eve. Not to stay in our sylvan paradise, but to cut forests down, to kill animals, to dominate by naming all creatures and creations. I guess I lament my own childhood's end, prematurely, as lemon groves gave way to freeways and tract homes. The chaparral recedes, now as fire threats, beneath or around the subdivisions replacing my fields of play.

We seem cursed to reproduce this. To me, who found myself sympathetic with Augustine in medieval philosophy class, I recognize the inborn darkness that confounds the light; I lack the praise of humanity of progressives. However contradicting myself, I also inherit a Fenian stubbornness that contains a strong dose of defiance, albeit self-contained more than erupting, of questioning the status quo. I don't romanticize the poor, and coming from blue-collar roots, I reject glorifying working stiffs. Still, as I teach and talk with my students often from such similar roots, I slip in my slant.

For, I take their side more than their "betters."  I sidle away from profiteers. I may bend but I don't want to bow down. I don't like subservience, but I don't mind meritocracy. I can't reduce endeavor to earnings, nor can I run my life fueled only by a paycheck or by a media diversion or gadget. I savor autonomy, I seek transformation, I suspect commodification, I shrink from surveillance.

Margaret Atwood observes of our ancestors, how they treated troublemakers: "In the millennia we spent as hunter-gatherers, we had neither passwords nor prisons. Everyone in your small group knew and accepted you, though strangers were suspect. No one got put in jail, because there were no buildings to serve that purpose. If a person became a threat to the group – for instance, if he became psychotic and expressed a desire to eat people – it would be the duty of the group to kill him, whereas nowadays it would be the duty of the group to lock him up, in order to keep others from harm."

How do we, in our own prison of our own making, deal with malcontents? If we are building on this medium a better world, how does the purported libertarian ethic of the Net's countercultural founders fit into the corporate model we all pay fealty to today, as I type this via Google and post it on FB? 

So I was musing with a FB friend recently. When I cited anarchists who propose that if freeloaders showed up at the potluck, soon enough they'd be banished, the response came wittily and rapidly. Who likes potlucks anyway? Let the freeloaders eat at them. So much for the elevation of the kibbutz over the TV dinner in front of one's own screen. I was reminded of picking up trash in giant black bags in the dining area after my younger son's coming of age ceremony, as congregants mostly sat about kibitzing and very few offered to pitch in at all as me as the host, in suit, grappled with garbage

I suppose no meal, elegant or utilitarian, will dissuade those who flock to a free lunch, wherever it is held. Especially if it is apart from a ceremony, if one times one's arrival carefully. Socialism tries to encourage the expectation all will gather for the celebration--after the ceremony. Capitalism might counter that the freeloaders will sneak in later. Especially if those hosting are renowned for a better spread than day-old baked goods. But a part of me, in spite of my own aloofness, recognizes the lure of a life where people come together not out of profit or manipulation, but out of a purer sense of joy.

Is that primal life, where supposedly our ancestors gathered and hunted to share their bounty equally. only a distant origin myth? Early Marxists and today's anarchist anthropologists find that socialist paeans to a pre-patriarchal era are proven true. So, that capitalism is the root cause of our maladies was a meme I posted, if half in jest, at least that fraction seriously. There's slippage of leisure into work more as my job responsibilities find me at a keyboard every day at some point, and the idea of "weekends off" fades when one teaches Saturday morning and then grades on Sunday evening.

My intellectual sparring partner responded that the problem with capitalism was not its existence, but the demand for consuming goods no matter what. I suppose the quaint notion I had in college when I worked for J.C. Penney at a mall which opened at noon and closed at 5 on Sunday stuck with me. Some time off was necessary: I am not sure how I managed to go to Saturday evening Mass if I worked back then and had to go to work Sunday, but despite dim memories of mandated attendance, the concept of the sacred and the profane had ritual and practical separation. Now that seems gone.

So, I've l taken some time over these ten days of reflection to do so on this blog. If the personal and political blur, so be it. That is how I think and how I act and how I teach. I hope you like reading it.

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