To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.


Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

Is Inequality Necessary?

511BEhcZ-cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1492, two cultures collided. In my school we were taught to call this Columbus’s discovery of America. Of course, there were already people living here, and they equally discovered the Spanish. There are no written records of how the locals perceived of these strange new arrivals. Columbus, on the other hand, left a diary, which made it quite clear that he did not understand the local customs at all nor did he believe he had any reason to.

Reading Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, I was often reminded of Undiscovery Day in Ocean Shores, Washington. Each year on the last Saturday in April the residents of Ocean Shores commemorate the time George Vancouver sailed right by their town without discovering it. They go to the shore and shout “Hey George!” (And then presumably head to the bar for drinks.)

Todorov’s thesis is that Columbus managed to encounter the people of America without ever really discovering them.

When Columbus first met the people he called Indians he found them to be generous and a bit foolish. He could not understand why they would trade gold for worthless things like bits of glass.

“No more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass in itself, but only in the European system of exchange,” Todorov wrote, “…a different system of exchange is for him equivalent to the absence of a system from which he infers the bestial character of the Indians.”

The people he encountered did not possess private property. They had an egalitarian society.  “I seemed to discern that all owned a share of what one of them owned and particularly with regard to victuals.”

Another member of the crew confirmed that they owned everything as common property and would “make use of whatever they pleased; the owners gave no sign of displeasure.” The Spaniards seemed to admire this– until their neighbors extended it to their property, at which point they went from generous to thieving in their eyes even though their behavior had not actually changed.

Before we get too smug about Columbus’s blind spots, we should admit that we are really no better. Can you imagine a society without private property? Our system of organizing society is so ingrained that we are largely unaware that there could be any other way to do it. A few years ago I wrote about what Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics, the idea that money evolved out of a system of barter. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea that objects and services have a comparable value that can be quantified and exchanged developed with money. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:

Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy.  That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others.  This is the old relationship model of commerce. Money was of Caesar. The Kingdom of God was to operate on an egalitarian system.

Yesterday I read an article on Big Think reporting on a study published in the journal Nature which argued that human sacrifice was not merely a religious ritual, but a means of social control.

Two-thirds of highly stratified societies once took part in the grisly act, while only a quarter of egalitarian cultures did. The groups who at one time practiced human sacrifice, had more rigid castes, titles that were inherited, and less social mobility. Researchers concluded that “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.” Though sociologists have posited such a hypothesis before, this is the first time it’s been scientifically studied.

Among many today, religion is thought to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet, this study, as Watts said, “…shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” Since these societies prospered, it proved an effective method of social control. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized,” in order to achieve the desired effect, Watts told Science. Moreover, ritualized killings would’ve given pause to rivals considering a power play for the throne, foreign ministers mulling over war, and bands among the populace grumbling for rebellion.

Yet, Watts and colleagues posit that social cohesion and stratification was necessary to give humans the ability to develop large-scale agriculture, build cities, erect monumental architecture and public works projects, and to allow for greater capacities for science, art, and learning. Though these findings are thought provoking and significant, some experts wonder if the phylogenetic analysis proves a causal relationship, or merely hints at one.

One of the things that interested me was the researchers’ conclusion that stratification was necessary to have modern culture. There is a double assumption here. Not only that we need a division of labor to achieve large tasks, but that some of the people must receive a smaller share of the rewards for a division of labor to work. In other words, Watts cannot imagine a division of labor without a corresponding class system.

As with gold and glass beads, values are conventional. There is no objective reason that the manual laborer must receive a smaller compensation than the manager. One could imagine rather that a job like working overnight to clean the machines at the slaugherhouse, a job that is both unpleasant and dangerous, might be compensated more than a job like management which has non-monetary rewards like status and a clean working environment. Just because we cannot imagine a large-scale system with a division of labor that operates on an egalitarian system doesn’t mean that such a thing could not exist. (See also my article on the Western notion of History as a Straight Line.)

Yet the human sacrifice theory makes sense to me. In the shift from the “I owe you one” economy to the monetary economy, imagine how radical this idea must have been: that I am entitled to a smaller share of the pie because my job is different from yours. Creating a stratified society required more than just differentiating jobs. It meant convincing people that not only should they take the unpleasant slaughterhouse job, but that the work is not worthy of as much reward as the job of the manager. To get people to agree to that, you need force and maybe the voice of a god.


Unrepentant Sensuality and the Pleasures of Sin

Dorian-Gray-dorian-gray-32846735-1600-1067So today I was reading a literary analysis of the works of Oscar Wilde. (Christopher S. Nassar called Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde.) Wait… Don’t hang up yet. Yes, I know that is a very dry opening.

I began to think about forbidden sexual practices and unrepentant sensuality, the pleasures of sin. Better?

Scholars and non-scholars have long debated the meaning of the end of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GraySpark Notes for example, puts it this way: “The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism.”

I am inclined to believe Oscar Wilde when he said he was not trying to impart any moral lesson at all, he was just trying to write the best literature he could. The premise he began with determined to a large extent what endings were possible. Imagine the story of a young man who wished his portrait would grow old and take on his sins instead of him. He found that his wish had magically come true… and he lived happily ever after. This is not much of a story.  I believe what Wilde wanted readers to think upon finishing the book was “Wow, that was a great story.” (And perhaps “Wow, Oscar Wilde is very clever.”)

Nassar wrote about The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relationship to the decadent movement.  the decadent “looking within and discovering not only purity but evil and corruption, yields to the corrupt impulse and tries to find joy and beauty in evil. Finally, the vision of evil becomes unbearable, the decadent has burned all his bridges, and he finds himself trapped in a dark underworld from which he cannot escape.”

When I tried to think about more modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.

The most obvious example is Breaking Bad. The main character, Walter White, is drawn into a world of crime in order to secure his family’s financial future. As the series goes on, he is drawn more and more into “a dark underworld” and becomes increasingly vile and unsympathetic.

The drama of Dorian is fueled by a particular anxiety about what can happen when sensual pleasure is entirely divorced from any emotional human connection. Victorians, on the one hand, felt constrained by the roles society forced them to play and they enjoyed the fantasy of throwing off all of those moral codes and giving in to their basest desires. On the other hand, they were afraid of what would happen if their sensual pleasures were not constrained. What if sexuality was not coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another?

It strikes me that the ideas that made Oscar Wilde seem so dangerous have become quite mainstream. He advocated the idea that artists needed to explore all of their impulses in order to create art and serve humanity.  In the 21st Century the notion that a person must be in touch with her sexual nature in order to be creative and healthy is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a book like Eat, Pray, Love in which the protagonist did not find amazing sex as part of her journey of self-discovery. Our anxiety, if our blaring magazine headlines and advertisements are anything to go by, is more that we are somehow missing out on the life-transforming bliss sexuality is supposed to be bringing us.

If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, however, we do have anxiety about what happens when money is decoupled from a sense of responsibility to one another. We love the fantasy of having all of our financial worries eliminated quickly. We loved watching Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, charismatic, powerful with that cool mobile phone with the antenna. In Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s slightly less memorable leading character is, like Dorian, trapped in a dark underworld. It is not dark in the way Breaking Bad’s world is dark, but it is depicted as a world of questionable moral values which threatens to suck the young man in– a world of large Manhattan apartments, expensive cars, and gold-digger model-esque girlfriends–pleasures that are hard to escape.

Sheen’s character keeps his moral center, although he goes to jail. The real Dorain character, though, is Gekko who has sold his soul. “Greed is good,” he says. “Greed works.” Like Dorian, Gordon Gekko has no conscience about pursuing his own pleasure. As an audience we find him both attractive and repellant because he represents the freedom that comes with complete self interest, the dream of not having to make all of the compromises we mere mortals make each day in order to get along. Yet he also represents the danger of complete self-gratification.

It is a mistake, I believe, to ask whether Dorian Gray is an argument for or against the philosophy of aestheticism. It is neither and both.  Too much social constraint and too little social constraint each have their dangers. The question is not “is pursuing self-interest good or bad,” it is “to what extent should a person pursue self-interest, in what balance and what context?”

I wrote a much more detailed version of this a few days ago and Word Press ate it. The pithy version is probably an improvement.

Weird Article Juxtaposition of the Day

From Marie Claire Magazine’s 5 Things You Need to Know Right Now:

4. Science says materialism is keeping you unhappy. Just in case you didn’t realize, a new book aggregated a ton of data on the subject and found that “the materialistic tend to be unhappy, those with material goods will remain unhappy, and the market feeds on unhappiness.” [Raw Story]


5. This female Harvard Business School student just figured out how to 3D print MAKEUP. Just watch this immediately.



Yucky Framing of the Day: How to Suck Money Out of Young People

I believe I have made it clear in this blog just how much I hate marketing speak that treats literature as product and author as brand.  (Rather than the more relationship/service oriented way of thinking: building an audience by creating work that has value and meaning to them.)

Clicked on a link for an article on “Reaching Tween Readers” today expecting perhaps some reflection on young people’s passions and interests, their unique view of the world.

Instead, this was the first line:

“All of a tween’s money is spent on themselves so there is a big opportunity for publishers to learn how to get it.”


Oh Yeah, And People Might Starve Too.

Why is it that in our culture the only legitimate argument for anything seems to be its effect on making money?  I have brought this up before when it comes to arts funding.  We always try to argue that we should fund arts because of the economic impact artists have on an area.  We argue for arts education funding with the claim that music makes you good at math with which you can, presumably, make actual money.

Do we not place any value on doing things because they are good for the community and society, because doing them makes our nation a more pleasant place to live, because they are morally right?  It seems that we do not consider such arguments to be serious enough.

Take this example.  In The Shamanic Economist, the author says he is going on a one day, symbolic hunger strike to protest extreme austerity measures.  The arguments against cuts to food programs all come down to our ability to boost productivity and bring in money.

The point I personally hope to make is that it is the height of folly, even in an austerity budget, to axe the very things that are necessary for people to work and live. To a limited extent, the government must support such things as food, housing, safety, and transportation.

Let me start with transportation as an example. Broad cuts in transportation leave significant numbers of people at home, unable to get to work. When people don’t work, they don’t pay taxes. And when people don’t pay taxes, that makes the budget situation worse, not better.

It is the same with food. When people can’t eat, the quality of their work suffers almost immediately. If they are looking for work, the quality of their job search declines in the same way, and the tendency for employers to take them seriously or view them favorably all but vanishes. In the United States today, it is basically impossible for a person who looks like they are suffering from hunger to find a job. But again, as long as they aren’t working, they aren’t paying taxes. Thus, withholding food from people does not improve the budget either.

I am not suggesting that by focusing on the economic impact or making an argument based on taxes and revenue that this is the only thing on the writer’s mind.  I don’t believe this author is concerned about people going hungry only because it affects the quality of their work.  But it does point to a framework for discussion, in which the only thing were are able to consider– the only “valid” argument we can make– is a financial one rooted in the concept of economic prosperity measured in terms of GDP.  Is that truly the only thing worth considering when making policy?