Is Work a Blessing?

English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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22 Comments.

  1. Kevin Henderson

    When a profession matches what one both loves and is good at, there is likely nothing that could make someone happier. A brilliant theoretical phycisict who always wanted to do that will probably maintain a happy life, under any circumstance, like Stephen Hawking.

    Most of us are usually good at more than one thing. And luckier still are those who recognize how to parse a day with work that may be challenging and fun, but not the most rewarding, with hobbies that are pursued as if they were work. Sometimes hobbies can be paid for, like the afterwork swim coach, or on the weekend guitar lessons for kids, etc. But for most hobbies are unpaid but they are pursued as vigorously as real work and they provide the incentive to make work that may not be all that fun, worthwhile.

  2. Mike,

    What I think you’re really doing here is not so much exposing a problem with the idea of “work” as a blessing as you are exposing the lack of discipline that goes into our use of the word.

    If I have to toil away at making electronic devices the labor may not be fulfilling to me, but it is not pointless labor overall. People other than the owners of the capital where I labor will benefit. Besides, the owners’ property makes it possible for me to enjoy the extraordinary luxury of making survival income by the repetition of simple tasks. That would not be possible without the appropriate massing and management of machines and people. Those things are hard to do. Many people fail at doing them well.

    But the benefits of my efforts are not limited to their profit, nor even to the continued viability of my living by simple tasks. My labor will have contributed to ordinary people having use of a technological social lever when those devices are sold.

    All of that means that I am not condemned to starvation and death because I didn’t learn appropriate survival skills in my youth.

    If I dislike that simple labor I also have an incentive to assert my individuality. I can seek to improve my salable skills and knowledge base in fields more expressive of my desires. The requirement of labor, then, invites individuals to self-examination if they really desire self-determination.

    It is the nature of our nominal undisciplined use of language that we will see “work” as designating a “job”, humorously taking for granted all the steps that made that concept seem like something we could take for granted. Only in a technologically modern society can we imagine that being alive gives us the right to believe others must labor to keep us alive.

    We all stand on a fabulous foundation of intellectual, societal, and mechanical technologies. It is certainly not asking too much to expect every person that can contribute something to that capital framework to be a part of its support.

  3. Work is more than a blessing. It is a necessity. It builds character, responsibility and puts food on the table. We couldn’t enjoy leisure without work.

    We bitch about working but when we don’t have a job and can’t get one we feel worse. It is part of our equilibrium and self-esteem to work. If people get rich and wealthy off our work, well that is another matter.

  4. Work sucks.

    A small group of people, who may be more creative or more resourceful or better educated, do work that means something to them, but the vast majority of people labor at jobs that are boring and alienating and pollute our already polluted environment even more.

    Working in a call center, answering questions about cellphone plans which you know well are generally a rip-off, sucks, as does working as a cashier in retail stores which sell junk which destroys the environment on credit to people who already owe too much money.

    Not only do most jobs suck, but they serve to make the rich, the owners of capital, those who buy our labor power, even richer, so that they can feel superior and lecture us, from the heights of their hypocrisy, about the virtues of work.

    Of course, working to contribute something to improving this world is a virtue, but most jobs, as part of a system which destroys the environment and lets the 1% lord over the rest of us, only contribute to making this world worse, more unjust and more polluted.

  5. Thanks for the stimulating article. John Ruskin had this to say: “Generally, good, useful work, whether of the hand or head, is either ill-paid, or not paid at all… Five thousand a year to your talker, and a shilling a day to your fighter, digger, thinker, is the rule… In science, the man who discovered the telescope, and first saw heaven, was paid with a dungeon; the man who invented the microscope, and first saw earth, died of starvation, driven from his home. It is indeed very clear that God means all thoroughly good work…to be done for nothing.” Alongside many other quotes regarding work, I included this in my book of philosophical crosswords, since such puzzles are the epitome of leisure rather than drudgery: http://lankstephens.wordpress.com/

  6. This topic is two bricks short of a load. Of course a definition of work is needed. What is work, eh? By Zeus, how the Greeks hated the idea of working for another. Socrates would not. Good thing for him that Xanthippe came from a wealthy (i.e. hippos-owning) family. Yet those Greek were not as clever as they should have been. If they had invented working for wages, they would not have needed slaves.

    The other missing brick is ‘What is a blessing?’ Be mindful of the last Book of the Old Testament. A blessing given but not accepted will turn into a curse.

    Is that what happened to Amerika? Y’all asked ‘God bless Amerika’. He did, but then y’all fumbled the football.

  7. If work really sucks, why are there so few hunter-gatherers and so many workers?

  8. Mike LaBossiere,

    “One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. ”

    And strangely this may even be more so for the bureaucrat earning many times the wages of the McDonalds worker. A McDonalds worker has to make real cheeseburgers, a bureaucrat may have to go through the painfully slow act of pretending to make a cheeseburger, that another bureaucrat will pretend to eat. There’s a mythology that this only happens in the public sector, but the private sector may be worse. The bureaucrat making the performance of doing something but in reality doing nothing of apparent value, is performing a useful function. Useful for capitalism.

    The function of Capitalism is to only serve Capital. It doesn’t matter how wasteful or absurd that functioning is, and any benefits that accrue to human beings are a completely unintentional byproduct.

    Now something that does happen, as I have witnessed it first hand. A large computer company, may hire hundreds, even thousands, of bureaucrats who really do nothing all day, they often engage in pointless box ticking exercises – and even though they work for a computer company these exercises may be done on paper. But they will be well dressed, look emotionally stable (a mostly blank face with a meaningless little smile of pleasureless contentment), and unhurried (they have to show their in absolute control – and there is no need for urgency).

    The purposes of these bureaucrats is so investors and clients do not get to see the boiler rooms where the work is really done. Because they will get a shock. They will even go as far as having fake boiler rooms. If the client wants to see programmers in shirts and ties, who never speak with the foolish abruptness of engineers, that’s what they’ll show the client. The real work may be done by metal t-shirt wearing nerds, who eat huge pizzas from their desks, because they’re too busy to go to lunch. How are so absolutely focused on their work (nerds love this stuff), they don’t have time for the performance of the spectacle of work. (to the untrained eye, they can look lazy – in reality they’re kranking it out.)

    If capitalism were truly efficient, you’d have the boiler room with just enough bureaucracy to run it. But the clients and investors want the wasteful illusion, so that’s what capitalism gives them. A human crisis that capitalism creates is wasting vast resources, time, money, and people, creating spectacles – expensive steel and glass prisons. Most air travel is not for pleasure, and neither are hotel stays. They’re for business. But they’re not for the purpose of expensively moving a person around, whose physical presence is essential. If there is an essence beyond the performance of a physical appearance, why can’t they just have a phone call, and email the most likely meaningless powerpoint presentation. If Sheryl Sandberg’s time was so valuable, why was so much of it wasted in airport lounges, being shuttled to and from hotels to conference rooms. She could have made phone calls, video skype from her box room, she would not have to leave before she leaves.

    The thing about Capitalism is it’s really like a wicked Genie. It gives you what you think you want, not what you need, or really want.

    “Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.”

    There is something very interesting in this particular point in history, in that you say their values are deranged. That you have come to believe their values are deranged. Or that they have to state their values in a slightly mystified way. They state the accumulation of profit is the highest good – and they believe this, but it is their accumulation of profit is necessary for the higher good. It is a paternalistic belief. This appears deranged to you, because you cannot see the higher father, who art in heaven and who is being ultimately served. It is not any doctrinal religion, it’s pure paganism. The Queen of England no longer has any power beyond the symbolic and that as cultural representative. Because the people of England, are largely atheist and even those who are religious, do not belief that she was selected by God to both govern the nation, and the church. The Queen doesn’t even believe this. But if she did, and if the people did, then parts of reality, that can be dictated by the imaginary would be completely different. And so would all the material relations of England. The Queen would live in an even more absurd palace, the people in an awful grinding self-sacrificial impoverishment – all in the belief they were serving a higher, celestial even, power.

    That would be deranged, wouldn’t it.

    To put aside the Dawkinite evangelicals, who really just have another cargo cult religion – (Science will deliver the cargo that will resolve all our material issues if we just worship it enough). The worst kind of pagan crap. The longer Dawkins keeps it up, the more he sounds like a senior cleric of the Church of England.

    Left-wing anticlericalism has very deep roots – if the king derives their power by divine appointment, then by destroying that divinity by whatever means, then the king has no power. And material relations must change.

    You may even need to convince just one person; the King. If they believe their actions are being directed by a divine force, then they can confidently govern a complex nation, a complex national church, and reward themselves lavishly without guilt for the human sacrifices required for these rewards. If this belief, were to vanish, then they would just be a frail human being, they wouldn’t feel confident to govern, the wouldn’t feel the absurd spectacles of their wealth were justified. In fact they would look absolutely insane.

    Religions, pagan cults like Dawkin’s aside, are often more complex and subtle. Genesis seems straightforward but it isn’t. Does life begin when God creates the world, or is it when Eve takes a bite from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What’s not in there, but might fit in a heretical text, that could be a little too revealing, is Adam being presented with a dilemma, Eve saying to him, that God told her they can return to the Garden, if Adam let’s Eve chop his penis off. I believe that was the Heaven’s Gate cult interpretation.

  9. JMRC,

    Religions are not limited to the ones we identify as such. The notion that one can identify an “ideal” and then castigate society for not achieving that seemingly obvious goal is an excellent example of a religion. “Jobs” are a peculiar abstraction of functional specialization made possible by the form we have given (evolved) to culture. To see them in any other way is purely religious thinking. Thinking there is a “should” we “ought” to apply to them is an even lazier form of religious thinking.

    The superimposition of this quasi-religious narrative on Economics and particularly on Philosophy applied to Economics obscures far more than it reveals.

  10. Lee Jamison,

    “Religions are not limited to the ones we identify as such.”

    Yes, but there is a problem in language and perception here. Religions with churches, clergy, rituals are easy to identify – they are presenting themselves as religions. But others that even pointedly do not present as religions can be much harder to identify.

    Especially is if language allows for parallel interpretations. One person is speaking in non-religious terms, but the other is hearing in those terms. In one way it sounds like Dawkins is talking about science – listen long enough, it starts getting shaky. There is an issue when certain religious groups attack scientists – the actual age of the earth. It’s unequivocal from many scientific disciplines, that the earth is not 8,000 years old, and is in fact much much older. There is a genuine threat to science with this specific belief – if the science that contradicts Young Earth, were suppressed, we’d lose everything. But on many other issues science has nothing to say on religion, because it’s not a religion.

    Not to limit this to Dawkins, people have a propensity for religious beliefs. They will take all kinds of things and structure a religious system around them, when there is nothing there.

    “The notion that one can identify an “ideal” and then castigate society for not achieving that seemingly obvious goal is an excellent example of a religion. ”

    Dostoevsky “without god everything is permitted”. Slavoj Zizek’s position on this, which is mine, that the complete reverse is true. That with God, everything is permitted.

    With an ultimate higher power, with an ultimate higher purpose, then all kinds of acts can be justified. The NAZIS practice of eugenics. Scientific theory, does not injunct to murder hundreds of thousands of unfit people, sterilise many more, with the purpose of creating super race of super healthy people at some point in the future – returning to the Garden of Eden, NAZIS style. Science can tell you, what is and what is not, pure gold – it will tell you how to purify gold. What tells you what is a pure person and what is not – only a religion.

    “The superimposition of this quasi-religious narrative on Economics and particularly on Philosophy applied to Economics obscures far more than it reveals.”

    No. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all the other big ones, deal explicitly in materialism. Anti-material interpretations are often attempts at leger demain. “Jesus doesn’t really mean we should give health care coverage to the poor, and feed the indigent…..He meant really meant we should have personal responsibility, not teach dependency, and serve God by serving ourselves”

    Pure economics is like science, it doesn’t give injunctions moral or otherwise as to how, when or what should be distributed.

    An argument I heard from a South African friend recently (he’s white, just to give it colour). The argument goes, that under Apartheid, the South African economy was booming (embargoes aside it was). And the argument follows, that if Apartheid had been left in place – had SA’s economy been allowed to further develop under Apartheid, economic growth would have raised all standards of living, in itself reduced inequality, and the worst aspect of Apartheid could have been dissembled slowly. SA is currently facing all kinds of problems, that could become very messy.

    The argument does have a strong logic, but you have to justify the sacrifice of several generations of black South Africans for this paradise to come.

    The architects of Apartheid are often misunderstood as being willfully evil, when in reality they were paternalistic and conventionally religious. What they did was evil. No religious person ever sets out to do willful evil for its’ own sake. The evil is permitted by a higher purpose, a higher power. With God, everything is permitted. And all is pure to the pure.

  11. Lee Jamison:

    It’s 7:30 AM in a big city and I look around at the faces in the metro (subway) car: tired, resigned, defeated, bitter, angry, frustrated, despairing, tense, joyless.

    Since the faces of the few students mixed among the workers, although tired, do not reveal
    despair or defeat, I suspect the problem is not just the early hour.

    6:30PM: I ride the same metro line and observe the faces: the same expressions of defeat and despair, mixed with even more fatigue, so whatever they did at work during the day did not exactly cheer them up or make them feel better about life.

    Our complex societies show horrifying indexes of drug use (that includes tranquilizers and anti-depressants), alcoholism, obesity, domestic violence and road rage, all of which indicate that people are not happy with their lives.

    Happy people do not overeat or drug themselves or drink until they drop. By “happy”, I don’t mean “the life of the party”, but feeling good about one’s life because one has a virtuous and productive existence, because one’s life feels meaningful to oneself.

    Now, what is causing so much unhappiness? The stars? The drinking water? Our football team losing the championship?

    Since most adults spend most of their waking hours commuting to work and working and grooming for work, our investigation into their unhappiness might well begin with the hypothesis that for most people their work is meaningless, alienating and oppressive.

    As to why there are so few hunter-gathers these days (your question), well, most of wild animals and wild fruits have been destroyed and in any case, the last time I innocently started to hike in what seemed to me like a wilderness area, I was driven off by a fellow with dogs and a shotgun in the name of private property.

  12. Work can be a blessing or a burden. A lot depends on attitude. At one time New Age groups were giving workshops on doing the work you love. The notion being that if you follow your bliss all else will follow. Work that is loved being perceived as creating a magnetic vortex which would inadvertently draw prosperity as a side benefit.

    The monastic approach is different. That approach is: love what you are doing no matter what it is. This is about breaking down the ego, about getting a person away from self-interest to a more universal way of looking at things. Also bringing the full range of attention to what is being done, no matter how mundane, transforms it.

    As long as we are material beings it is necessary to work for our own survival and that of others. Also our creative impulses need an outlet.

    It is unfortunate that some work is unnecessarily demeaning or that it creates unnecessary ‘stuff’. It one thing to break down the ego and another thing entirely to break down the spirit.

    The accumulation of wealth as a goal is pathetic. Better the accumulation of wisdom.

  13. Vina- Outstanding approach to the issue. Moreover were you to teach these ideas to children they would be well equipped to have the intellectual dexterity to adapt to the way the world really is. They would be able to see it as an environment in which resources are present which allow them to sustain life while also allowing for the growth of full awareness.

    JMRC and Swallerstein, Neither of you appears to recognize that what you’re really complaining about is that the unspoken dogma of conventional Western culture is not true. Meaning really doesn’t come from the messages of the culture. In fact both of you are so not-aware that you seem to suggest the answer to the dominant false dogma is yet another dogma, rather than Vina’s “be the exploiter” approach.

    The answer to the defeat inherent in buying onto the materialism of the dominant culture is not a materialism of an alternate culture. It is a recognition that materialism is a false value structure for an enlightened mind. One need not be materially rich to have lived well. And one need not have the respect of those whose minds are trapped in the dominance of cultural materialism to have been significant.

    The people mired in defeat on the subway are not prisoners of the shape of the economy. They are prisoners of the shape of the ideas that frame their conceptual world.

  14. Lee Jamison,

    “JMRC and Swallerstein, Neither of you appears to recognize that what you’re really complaining about is that the unspoken dogma of conventional Western culture is not true.”

    No. One thing, you’re implying that there is a dogma. And there is a collective agreement not to speak it.

    I’m going to quote Slavoj Zizek again. In an off the cuff remark from a talk he was giving, he said something along the lines of a moron believes the symbolic reality is reality, the idiot can see the symbolic reality is not reality – and idiotically points this out to the morons who think he is a madman.

    He doesn’t explain this fully, but I will. A strange and absurd sounding fact, but if you do a little of your own research you will find this to be true. The average adult has the intelligence of the average 12 year old child. This is a fact that emerged from comparing the data of mass IQ testing. At first it was thought to be a mistake, but it always emerges, the average adult has the intelligence of the average 12 year old. This also posed a little problem as before that point, an adult with the IQ of a 12 year old was classed as a moron.

    The average person is a moron. The average person has no idea what dogma is, or that there is a difference between the perception of reality and other possibilities of reality. They believe symbolic elements of reality are reality. The owner of a factory I knew. When his workers would come to him looking for a raise, if they were stupid he would change their job title and give them a new and different coloured shop coat from their old one. Same responsibilities, same pay – just a slight different symbolic appearance. Often they were more happy than if they’d received more money. But money is a more tangible material reality than the symbolic – it is still symbolic, but so are bills, and they need paying with real money.

    Right, Lee. You can see the distinctions between symbolic realities, and those that are not. You’re not idiotic enough to jump up and down shouting that the symbolic is only that. The average person, one of the morons, does not actually see the distinctions – it’s all real to them. There isn’t a collective agreement to remain silent. Lee, it’s not that they are pretending they don’t get the joke, it’s that they don’t get the joke in the first place.

    There is a superficial reality, and there is a substantive one. They are both reality.

    “The answer to the defeat inherent in buying onto the materialism of the dominant culture is not a materialism of an alternate culture. It is a recognition that materialism is a false value structure for an enlightened mind. One need not be materially rich to have lived well.”

    There is certain materialism that is simply not an option for the purpose of existence. You need food, shelter, medicine if you are ill, to continue you your existence. You could say hunger, pain and cold are all in the mind, but go without these things and you will cease to exist.

    During a recession incidents of domestic abuse sharply increase. Now, the recessionary effect on family finances may be a contributing cause, but the real reason for the increase is that during a recession women have less economic opportunities available to them. And this can and does put many women in a position that they are dependent on a violent spouse. They do not have the material wherewithal to run away. Now, these women could sit in the lotus position, doing a hom, transcending their material reality with transcendental meditation – but it won’t stop the bruises.

    The wife beater is an unpleasant fellow to his wife, it’s very doubtful that he becomes all sunshine and unicorns when he gets to work. If he’s a manager, or in some position of power in the work place, he will psychologically beat and torture those he has power over, just like he does to his wife. In a recession, if people he holds power over, are just as materially dependent on him as his wife…..They cannot run away.

    The significant damaging element in torture is not the physical pain, it’s that a person is doing it to you, and that you cannot escape. A torturer will not let you drift off into peace mediation – the will do all they can to keep you rooted in a material world of permanent suffering.

    “And one need not have the respect of those whose minds are trapped in the dominance of cultural materialism to have been significant.”

    Lee, if you’re in a position to do so fine. It is not just the mind of the beaten woman that is trapped, she is physically and materially trapped. The violence is only to reinforce the trap, and is utterly meaningless.

    When there isn’t a recession, the material world is different, and this allows many beaten women to escape to materially better lives. That is the truth of reality.

  15. Swallerstein,

    True-work does suck. As you noted, most jobs are unpleasant and unfulfilling for the worker, but do generate profits for those way above them. So, most of us engage in unpleasant toil so that those who have much can have a bit more.

    Fortunately, their are some jobs that do have a degree of satisfaction: I like the teaching aspect of my job.

  16. Lee Jamison,

    The fact that there are so many workers doesn’t show that work doesn’t suck. After all, at one time there were a lot of slaves. But I’d venture to say that slavery sucks-certainly for the slave.

  17. Starvation and mass extinction such as happened 60,000 yeas ago also sucked. When Philosophy starts to think in terms of comparisons with imaginary ideals, and finds realities appalling by those comparisons, it does all mankind a deep disservice.

    It does not elevate us in any way to play better-than-religion and project that bogus enlightenment with an excuse, as JMRC does, that could have been quoted from the apologetics for slavery of people like George Fitzhugh in the 1850s. Creating a class of people who don’t understand by teaching them things that are false, in the name of coddling the unintelligent, is a belligerently elitist policy. Ultimately, as it did in Greece, in Rome, in the antebellum South of the United States, and as it is doing in the West today, it so corrodes the intellectual life of a society that it can’t stand on its own feet.

    The ultimate corruption of a civilization is to claim the people who are the self-professed intellectual elite are so, not because they have material and social advantages, but because they have the divine right of greater intellectual capacity. Yet the academic elite of the West pretend the material resources that support them are not wealth because they define an artifice of a boundary of legal non-heritability as a separation from the capital they abhor in its legally heritable forms. In so doing they set up moralistic straw-men, idols they happily think themselves superior to the common rabble for having worshiped.

    The academic elite decries the materialism of capitalists, but they do not offer a more enlightened view. They, instead, pretend there can be a better materialism. They make the bizarre claim that we can destroy the administrative functions that led to a material plenty which has allowed a fourteen-fold increase in the human population of the planet in the last two hundred years and replace it with a more “equitable” distribution of resources. Magically, then, our lives will “suck” less. Has there ever been an empirical example of such a system in which the notions of property rights, private ownership, and capital resources did not undergird a civilization in which general well-being permitted the free expansion of a population? Not to my knowledge. Ever.

    The conceit shown by JMRC in his answer to me above is the fundamental truth of groups of humans who manage resources for the great mass of the population. They will ALWAYS believe they have the power they have because some holy writ has blessed them with the superiority that demands they administer the world for the lesser beings.

    As a part of that they will construct debilitating mythologies with which the masses will be infected so they will know their place.

  18. “Creating a class of people who don’t understand by teaching them things that are false, in the name of coddling the unintelligent, is a belligerently elitist policy.”

    It’s simply paternalism. School teachers lie to school children, parents lie to their children. A child’s dog dies and the parent tells them the dog has gone to heaven. Some children grow up to realise that maybe their dog didn’t go to heaven……..Some don’t. This leaves a dilemma for the child who has become an adult, and realised their parents lied to them, when confronted with an adult who does believe their dog really did go to heaven.

    And you can scale this up to the level of a state. GW Bush, though he pretended to be an honest to goodness Texas cowboy, had a very paternalistic government. His ideologues, and if you read up them you will find, elitist paternalism was central to their beliefs. Which they derived from Plato (possibly through Ayn Rand). Republican leaders protest that they are anti-elitist. But they are deeply elitist (socially), and deeply paternalistic (ideologically).

    This is a philosophical dilemma with material consequences. Which is more dangerous; the benevolent liar, or the benevolent idiot. The benevolent liar may have to compete for the attentions of the idiot, with a malevolent liar. I’m not saying which is better. But you do have a dilemma.

    “The ultimate corruption of a civilization is to claim the people who are the self-professed intellectual elite are so, not because they have material and social advantages, but because they have the divine right of greater intellectual capacity.”

    No. It’s is just one possible corruption. One enemy of civilization…..One barbarian at the gate.

    What’s worse is idiotic ideas taking hold, and spreading like wildfire. The Holocaust was the product of the minds of provincial idiots and their folkish narcissism. The Gulags; of the minds who had read Hegel. The god of the Enlightenment calls out three times, “Modernism, why have you forsaken me”…And then dies on a cross of iron.

    “They, instead, pretend there can be a better materialism. They make the bizarre claim that we can destroy the administrative functions that led to a material plenty which has allowed a fourteen-fold increase in the human population of the planet in the last two hundred years and replace it with a more “equitable” distribution of resources.”

    Now here, I want you to reread your words very slowly and carefully.

    What you sound exactly like is a communist apparatchik defending Stalinism, and the productivity of the Stalinist period. It did raise Russian living standards – when Stalin came to power the Russians just had the wooden plow, by the time he left they had the atomic bomb. You defend the administration/the bureaucracy of the system (it’s role is mystified but absolutely necessary)……The ends justify the means…….and any human causalities caught in the machinery of the system, are unfortunate statistics……yes, they may perish, and cruelly perish, but look how well the survivors who benefit from their suffering are doing.

    We are building the future; building capitalism/communism. Those who perish are doing so with their own consent; they are serving history.

    “The conceit shown by JMRC in his answer to me above is the fundamental truth of groups of humans who manage resources for the great mass of the population. They will ALWAYS believe they have the power they have because some holy writ has blessed them with the superiority that demands they administer the world for the lesser beings.”

    There, you accuse me of proto-Stalinism.

    “As a part of that they will construct debilitating mythologies with which the masses will be infected so they will know their place.”

    But Lee, you are the conservative, who wishes for conservative structural mythologies to be maintained. You are the post-Stalin Soviet, who is absolutely disillusioned by ideology, hope, and humanity – but you think of the productive nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy as being essential, though imperfect, and that there is no possibility of any alternative.

    “The academic elite decries the materialism of capitalists, but they do not offer a more enlightened view”

    This is a point I agree with you on. But these people are largely irrelevant and do not warrant further discussion.

  19. JMRC,
    Classical liberals will often, because we believe private property rights are the best way of distributing both property and the administration of resources, be classed with conservatives (by modern so-called liberals). But that’s not what we are.
    True conservatives seek to use government in an attempt to favor industrial interests in the management of the populace for the benefit of their preferred elite. Modern liberals seek to use the powers of government to manage to populace for the stability of the governmental elite. Both of those elites are tremendously conservative in point of fact, because they seek to conserve the advantages of their classes. Both will make differing claims to be seeking to benefit some group of lesser power but greater numbers for the benefit of the electoral prospects of their class. A serious examination of the results of these entreaties in practice will reveal that both are hollow gestures. Establishment conservatives like the Bushes ultimately damage small business, while recent examples of liberals tossed up by the American Democratic Party have devastated the economic prospects of the poor and dispossessed. Both parties have highly favored the very rich and privileged, though Democrats grow the disparity between rich and poor more.

    I see things like that and can’t imagine why the anticipation of the goals of ideologies are so divorced from actual results. When I examine history what I see as having the most impact for the broad distribution of economic benefits is broad distribution of the power to decide how property will be used. Concentration of that power, particularly the public concentration of that power inevitably yields injustice and exploitation.

    As to what I’m “calling you”, choose whatever label you prefer. What I’m saying is that paternalism, as you call it, leads to serfdom. With my children and grandchildren I understand that I am building a structure of concepts they ultimately can use to fine tune an understanding of the universe in which they live. Hopefully that structure will permit them to develop understandings that surpass my own.

    Public paternalism has no such aspirations. It is intended to make the public as utilitarian as they can be manipulated into being without tainting them with the capacity to challenge notions about the primacy of materialism in general, and secular materialism in particular. This leaves them unable to seriously examine the enslaving premise that the value of their lives is defined by their accoutrements. That is what really gives their economic exploiters power over them.

  20. Lee Jamison,

    “I see things like that and can’t imagine why the anticipation of the goals of ideologies are so divorced from actual results. ”

    There are many reasons, but often it’s they received precisely what they asked for. This is the moral of the fables of Genies granting wishes. They give you what you wished for.

    Irving Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who had been mugged by reality. In Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, one of the disillusioned American administrators defines himself as a neoconservative who had been mugged by reality.

    It’s interesting that with Iraq, it begins with neoliberal ideology, then classical 19th century liberal behaviour (that is using violence when the freedom is not going to plan). It actually ends with GW Bush trying to get preferential trade agreements with the Iraqi government. And they don’t even give him a crumb or a bean. Instead, he gets a shoe, or two.

  21. Rare indeed is the situation like that in America in the 1780s where classical liberals have the political upper hand.

  22. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Work can be either a blessing and a curse, again, all words and circumstances need defining. Even boring and demeaning work can be a blessing in the sense
    that it provides for a family when there is no alternative, but the society that requires it is deficient and the exploiter of labor is evil. Most people want to do something that interests them in a more or less routine way: even philosophizing, if you’re fairly good at, it is a kind of work and occupation, although not so lucrative. But attaching a moral value to work is often off-base. I know people who brag about what they do when the only person it profits is themselves. I suppose we have Calvin to thank for such bores.

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