Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Waters of Oblivion

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity.
Scarcity comes in many forms: scarcity of liberty; scarcity of money; scarcity of food and water; even scarcity of want:

The rise of the politics of fear begins in 1949 with two men whose radical ideas would inspire the attack of 9/11 and influence the neo-conservative movement that dominates Washington.

Both these men believed that modern liberal freedoms were eroding the bonds that held society together.

The two movements they inspired set out, in their different ways, to rescue their societies from this decay. But in an age of growing disillusion with politics, the neo-conservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision.

They would create a hidden network of evil run by the Soviet Union that only they could see.

The Islamists were faced by the refusal of the masses to follow their dream and began to turn to terror to force the people to "see the truth"'.

The neo-conservative movement, the one that spawned Paul Ryan as much as George W. Bush, has come to dominate by preaching a scarcity of want. Paul Ryan firmly believes those who have from private means are deserving, and those who have from public means are corrupted, are suffering from a scarcity of want, from a lack of need. If that is not a perversion of sense and civilization, what is it? If that is not demonic, what is it?

This is Puritanism perverted and grown mad on too much of nothing. Not the nothing of material deprivation, but the nothing of spiritual deprivation. Ayn Rand's "dystopia" (as NPR recently described it) is not a product of want and deprivation, but a product of infantilization, of growing up and find the world is not a mere extension of ego, that there are people besides you to account for. Rand's "Objectivism" is an unwillingness to face that reality: that you are not the center of existence. It is a child refusing to grow up; Peter Pan made real, and not a charming boy-child, but a distorted and disgusting adult, one who revels in her self-affirmed self-importance. Too much of nothing.

Paul Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand.

And why do I continue to harp on this? One example:

To call some of the provisions in this deal “budgetary” and others “policy riders” is a distinction without a difference. The budget is policy and policy is the budget. To take an example from my field of expertise: The deal likely reduces or even eliminates funding for One-Stop career centers. These are places that host many social service agencies and have the primary mission of connecting the unemployed to the workforce. (Total elimination appeared in HR 1, and a massive cut in the Senate amendment to HR 1.) This is a huge policy decision -- we have determined that we are not going to assist the unemployed at career centers. Where was the debate on this, not to mention the debates on the dozens of other effects of the deal?
Not only "where is the debate" but: "What are we doing?" Read the rest of the story at that link to find out. We are turning into Paul Ryan: deciding who is worthy, and who is not, and it's all based on some vague Ayn Randian idea that those who are worthy will survive, and those who are not should be discarded. And where is the debate on that?

And it all returns to too much of nothing. Not only are we fearful of it, or despairing of it (especially if we are the unemployed sitting at those computers asking "Can't I just apply for a job?", in which case your universe doesn't even include this post), we have become dependent on it. When everyone has nothing, only those who claim control of the nothing, who claim the right to dispense it and distribute it and control who gets the most of it, have something. And we have ceded that, we have given it away, we have thrust it upon them. A sordid boon! It is not the world that is too much with us, it is the nothing that the world offers. When we decide that nothing is all there is, we doom ourselves to despair and helplessness and fear.

Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion.

Want has become the new good, and when government interferes with that situation of want, government has overreached. Indeed, it seems government should create want, not alleviate it:

The Unites States, with costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased spending by 2.8 percent to $698 billion -- about six times as much as China, the second-biggest spender ahead of Britain, France and Russia. In 2009, U.S. spending grew 7.7 percent.
Much of that spending, of course, creates destruction and want in other countries. I've seen figures that indicate the current federal deficit is largely a product of two wars ("off budget" until Obama took office) and the so-called "Bush tax cuts." Remove that, and the budget deficit isn't such a problem. Indeed, we had this same argument during Vietnam: social spending was too expensive, but funding the war was an absolute necessity, no matter what.

I was teaching "A Modest Proposal" for the umpteenth time this week, when I realized something about it I hadn't noticed before. The argument, of course, is couched in terms meant to make the solution sound reasonable and practical. That the solution is cannibalism is meant not to shock with its absurdity or immorality, but with the reality that the English might as well eat the Irish children outright, as they devour them in every other aspect of human existence. Swift's argument is, in structure if not substance, a model of its kind. But what is easily overlooked is how well it works as an argument, and why its outcome is really so logical (if monstrous).

Swift's narrator focuses on the problem of poverty in Ireland, but like any planner, he focuses on the number of poor children, and the problem of poverty as a problem of lack of income. It is not, in other words, a structural problem (the English as absentee landlords refusing to allow Ireland any local industry for basic human needs (clothing, furniture; this is pre-Industrial Revolution Europe, remember; needs were simpler when factories weren't present to create new ones every day), or to even be taxed for their landholdings. A close reading of the essay, without any economic history lesson, shows money flows out of Ireland, not into it, and that's a dandy arrangement: for the English. But the proponent of the "modest proposal" sees the problem as one of numbers and of opportunity in what we would call a "free market." Indeed, his is the ultimate free market solution.

The problem, as the essayist sees it, is the number of poor children. But blaming the mothers never crosses his mind (which already makes one wonder who the real monsters are today). Instead, he wants to turn that liability to an asset, and he does so by calculations drawn from the raising of livestock as feedstock. Just as any farmer would calculate the cost of raising a cow or sheep until it can be taken to market, Swift's narrator calculates the cost of raising children, and concludes that 1 year olds can be raised on mother's milk and a few coins for clothing, then sold to the butcher at a tidy profit. The horror is in the cannibalism. No, the true horror is that this is still the way we approach human problems. We take the humans out of the equation, and roll on.

The horror of Swift's proposal, of course, is that it is inhumane. But the error is a simple one, and it comes from a simple situation: define the problem, and you define the solution. If the problem is numbers (number of poor children in Ireland) and poverty (lack of opportunity for income), the easiest solution is a new market for a new source of meat. It is, in fact, no less inhuman a proposal than any other proposal which displaces the person from the equation, and decides the solution based on numbers and an abstraction like poverty (which is very real in civilization, but quite abstract to those who plan ways for society at large to cope with it, or just to ignore it). So, define the problem without any humans being involved, and you get....

Well, the theology of scarcity, for one thing. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, for another. Define the problem by excluding the humans, and whatever solution you reach will be too much of nothing. And even when it is as monstrous as "A Modest Proposal," odds are we will pay attention to the horror of the solution, and not to the situation which produces fresh horrors everyday, for which no solution is ever offered.

On the waters of oblivion.

When we start from the assumption that there is always enough want to go around, and indeed that there should be a distribution of want, especially to those who are not us, then it's easy to see the solution is not an alleviation of that want, but it's proper allocation. Swift was satirizing an attitude of indifference, but his satire changed nothing. "Ireland has her madness still," as Auden would say 300 years later. It is the allocation of want that is the great driver of our society, just as it was in Swift's day. Ryan's budget proposal was originally based on predictions it would lower employment to 2.8% in some rosy future. The only problem with that, the experts pointed out, was that it would trigger inflationary worries in the Federal Reserve, which as a matter of stated policy would regard such low unemployment as a problem, and react accordingly. Want must be carefully allocated, in order to keep the system working. We all know that, since the advent of the factory, want has become the driving need of our economy: if we do not want, we do not buy, and if we do not buy, the economy falters, sputters, perhaps comes to a halt. Without the careful allocation of want, what economy do we have?

Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion. Send them all my salary from the waters of oblivion.

The basiliea tou theou is about the absence of want.

Matthew 6:25-33
6:25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Maybe the beginning of an answer is to begin thinking about what we can do for others, rather than thinking about what we don't have for ourselves. Maybe it's not want we should be focused on.


  1. Chilling, but - alas! - your post hits the mark.

    Thanks for your wise words. I shall reread "A Modest Proposal".

  2. Anonymous2:05 PM


    My name is Barbara O’Brien and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)