Let’s begin with a story. I’m about 10 or 11, having just finished B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948). I’m in bed reeling from the utopia it imagines. I especially love the idea of standardizing work obligations through a 4-units-per-day point system, with the most arduous and messiest jobs in the community gaining a person, say, 1 or two points per hour, and work like writing a play garnering, say, 0.1. In such a system, you can easily meet your daily quota by spending a stretch of time in waste management or on building crews, then fulfill your creative side in the off hours. And even if you’re pulled in to serve on the governance council–a quietly held, constantly rotating set of positions that eschews cults of celebrity–the work needn’t take the whole day. Perfection!
My mother comes in to take other books from my nighttime hiding places (she never found them all), and I tell her I want to live in a community like Walden Two. My mother replies by teasing that I’ll have to get a move on, then, and find a place like that fast, because Skinner’s world also involves having (communally raised) children young, so I’ve got about five years before I enter prime procreating potential.
And I know she’s just joking, but I’m also deflated in that moment by the attendant reality: I will never live in a utopia.
I’m sure you all remember the suckerpunch of a similar awakening. Today I want to talk about another.
False Dichotomies: Capitalism vs. Communism
1948 was, of course, also the year in which a famous dystopia was written: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). With Soviet and Chinese Communism at that time presenting significant threats to Western recovery from World War II–and also, with both countries’ horrific histories of starving and working their citizens to death–you needn’t try to imagine which view of the future, Skinner’s or Orwell’s, proved more popular in the West. We know the answer. We know that the spectre of Big Brother cast its long shadow over subsequent generations, and still shapes cultural discourse today.
Which leaves us, now, in a bewilderingly reductive political debate about how best to build a good society. We’re still stuck, by and large, between the rhetoric of Capitalism Vs. Communism (with a blisteringly poor understanding, especially in many U.S. quarters, of the difference between socialism and Communism, too).
Meanwhile, these terms are not the be-all and end-all of critical ideologies surrounding the management of our lives and economies.
Indeed, some of the most heinous aspects of both systems are shared aspects–like the croneyism and nepotism that creep into both governance structures with remarkable efficiency; and the obscuring of vital economic mechanisms that fudge the results, say, of Five-Year-Plans as well as the strength of derivatives such as credit default swaps.
And so beneath these two supposedly opposing pillars of socioeconomic rhetoric, we find something far more pressing–something that the secular world in particular needs to get right if it’s going to retain moral storytelling authority.
The question, that is, of what a human being is worth.
Taking a Page from Modern Media…
In The Good Fight, Season 3, Episode 4, a majority-black Chicago law firm struggles with the fallout of shared salaries that illustrate racialized pay gaps. Now, the episode was written by a white writer, Tegan Shohet, within a story developed by three other white writers… which is a touch odd for a series that foregrounds quite a bit of black experience, and has so many excellent black actors dominating in storylines and discourse… but then, that’s precisely the sort of State-of-the-Industry contradiction that one scene in particular points to, as part of the intricacies of working towards equality.
In it, two of the senior partners, both black, wrestle as follows with the reasons behind their firm’s racialized outcomes:
Adrian: “Well what, Liz?”
Liz: “Why *are* we paying [recent-white-hire] Marissa as much as [longterm-black-hire] Jay?”
Adrian: You know why. You were there. Because [black partner] Julius argued for Marissa. She was getting more assignments than Jay. More associates were requesting her.
Liz: More of the *white* associates were asking for her?
Adrian: This company keeps working because we don’t look at certain things. We don’t pick at certain scabs. We pay people more, who we think we’re losing. We pay people less, who we know are not going anywhere. Nothing to do with Marissa. It’s capitalism, Liz.
Liz: Because the white people are more likely to leave us than black?
Adrian: Hell yeah. You, you thought I’d say no? The ugly truth, Liz? Women are valued less than men because we think that men can leave us for better paying jobs. And black people are valued less than white people because we think that white people can leave us for better paying jobs. I hate it. But that’s the reality and that’s what I have to deal with. If we don’t keep this place afloat, no one survives. And–don’t make it *my* thing. There’s a nine year expiration date on minority-owned businesses winning no-bid contracts. Liz! 40% of our business were governmental contracts, and they’re gone–forever! So we diversify! That’s how we survive! That’s how we pay for the pro bono work, the volunteer work, everything. We’re building a company for the future. And *not* just for the next five years, for the next fifty years!
Liz: Adrian, you act like I am arguing with you, and I am not. All I know is that, we may not want to pick at that scab, but someone else will.
In other words:
There have been a great many pieces trying to pinpoint the critical driver behind racialized and gendered pay-disparities, but none I think quite as succinctly makes the most chilling and necessary point as this snippet of dialogue. Because here, Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) outlines to Liz Reddick-Lawrence (Audra McDonald) a whole host of complexity around an abiding human attribute.
So–yes, as political scientist Robert Nozick noted with his infamous Wilt Chamberlain example, given the freedom to choose people will choose–as Julian does in this quote–that which on the surface goes against the struggle for equality. Provide them with an equal playing field and certain forms of inequality will invariably be selected.
And–yes, there are larger systemic pressures, like the time limit Adrian notes on the receipt of guaranteed government income, which compels even the most idealistic player to give way to the pressures of a non-ideal marketplace.
But most of all, there is also something here that no company-specific equality drive can fully compete with: namely, the broader cultural prejudice underpinning split-second instincts that tell us [X] deserves more opportunities and rewards than [Y]. That [X] human being is simply worth more than [Y].
“It’s capitalism, Liz,” says Adrian–playing into the oldest economics vs. politics divide: the question of whether the economy ultimately drives politics, or vice versa; and with it, of whether there’s any point to trying to change what happens in the world.
Ah yes, good old economic determinism
Back in my early poli-sci undergrad days, I remember fellow students–usually young white men in suits they hadn’t fully grown into yet–exulting in this question. These students fashioned themselves as natural-born leaders of the masses, Plato’s-Republic style, and were routinely ready with quips like “there will always be winners and losers” even when, say, readings from The Three Johns (Stuart Mill, Rawls, and Ralston Saul), pressed for far more intricate questions about our underlying assumptions. (For instance: What are we presuming that “losing” has to look like in a society of means? What constitutes a fair contest from which to assess whether one has actually “won” or simply been handed a prize? And what’s the difference between handing out “unearned” prizes and preventing “losers” from suffering unduly in their defeat?)
For such aspiring future leaders of industry (often from homes of current leaders of industry), the economics-first argument gives easy license to eschew a great number of moral quandaries. After all, if politicians can’t turn the economic tide, then it can’t be their fault, either, when others don’t achieve good outcomes in the systems they’re governing. It would simply be the way of the world, a natural consequence of economic ebb and flow, which some people are just “naturally” better suited to managing to their benefit. (Also, in a racialized corollary that one of my family members upholds: if one cultural background hadn’t oppressed others throughout history, it would have been another culture doing the oppressing, but the oppression itself would still be there either way… so if it’s an historical inevitability to have racialized winners and losers, why get so worked up about it? Why advocate so strenuously for the “winners” to give up their “winnings”?)
And anyone who disagrees is simply an empty-headed, bleeding-heart liberal.
Bullpucky, of course.
Divisive and overly simplistic bullpucky.
Why This Is A Super-Important Secular Concern
Right now one of the most critical “winners and losers” scenarios in North America is the current population of concentration camps and related detention centres near the U.S. southern border. Now, let’s put aside the radicalized-xenophobic opinions on this issue– the people, that is, who believe those coming into the U.S. made a choice to be “illegal” (even though the vast majority are legally sound in their pursuit of asylum, and even though a person who has transgressed by being in the U.S. has usually only committed a misdemeanour, not a felony, under the U.S. judicial system). Since most of my readers are probably on the side of being thoroughly horrified and ashamed of the conditions in these facilities, let’s avoid preaching to the choir, shall we? Let’s present, instead, the most reasonable cause for conservative persistence in blaming immigrants for so awful a state of affairs–and see what action-plan this strongest argument of theirs calls for.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Fareed Zakaria argues that Democrats are missing a key part of the narrative when they focus on outrage over conditions at the Mexico-U.S. border. As he notes, there has been a 240% spike in immigration cases since 2014, reflecting a huge surge in the number of people clamouring for asylum. And some of this, he argues, is based on flawed U.S. policy. Namely:
It is also clear that the rules surrounding asylum are vague, too lax and being gamed. The initial step for many asylum seekers is to convince officers that they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries, and 76 percent meet the criteria. Some applicants for asylum have suspiciously similar stories, using identical phrases. Many simply use the system to enter the United States and then melt into the shadows or gain a work permit while their application is pending.
As a senior Homeland Security Department official said in April, “the system is on fire.”
The United States has an elaborate immigration system that takes in about 1 million people legally every year. Asylum is meant to be granted to a small number of people in extreme circumstances — not as a substitute for the process of immigration itself. Yet the two have gotten mixed up.
This rhetoric reminded me of the Eritrean example–especially in relation to Israel, which also had a hard-border response in recent years. Eritrea’s government has extreme punishments for unlawful exit and re-entry into the country, because people have been fleeing for two decades–especially persecuted Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also folks in general trying to escape a brutal military-service requirement that requires men and women from 18-40 to be enlisted into violent organizations with no impunity or oversight for commanding officers (some backstory in the section titled “Rights Denied” here). When they do get out, though, they then get trapped in a complex interplay of incentives and deterrents on the world stage, all while simply seeking safe harbour in which live out normal lives.
I can’t find the specific report for Israel right now (it’s been some time since I first read up on this issue, and more recent Israeli-Eritrean news has flooded the search engines thanks to that aforementioned extremism in Israel’s recent policy changes), but I found two other Country of Origin Information Reports describing the problems Eritrean asylum-seekers have when compelled to return after failed claims in another host country:
- Section 3: Punishment of returnees, from the EASO, in a 2016 report on Eritrean national service and illegal exit; and
- Section 6B, pp. 43-45 in the Home Office’s general country overview for 2006.
Essentially, the cruelty that causes Eritreans to leave is so exacerbated upon any return thereafter, that the UNHCR and other international bodies have put added pressure on host countries to do everything they can to accommodate asylum applications. And so when there is any show of “weakness” (as there was in Israel at first, before it built a strong deterrent of a wall in 2013, and legislated its way to a huge drop in successful asylum applications thereafter), certain countries sometimes receive a greater influx of different cultures than the locals are prepared to adapt to. In Israel in particular, the consequence was a great deal of hate-crime activity towards Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, as well as “baby factories” (sound familiar?) and a concerted effort at mass, forced deportation scrapped last year only after extreme global pressure.
So no, as Zakaria notes, as horrible and immediately unconscionable as any detention in concentration camps invariably is, it isn’t the whole of the issue, either. In a world with increasing climate-change pressures, we have a staggering number of global refugees–either from direct environmental crises or else from resource-scarcity-related violence and war–and that number is only going to grow in the coming years.
We therefore cannot act just as, say, the character of Christ argues in the New Testament–as individuals, that is, providing individual acts of charity, comfort, and presence: visiting people in prisons instead of calling for prison reform; feeding the hungry before us instead of widening the social safety net for all; or otherwise accepting with great humility whatever acts of charity individual “masters” choose to give to workers in their care.
No, we need to do something that the Bible doesn’t call for–something that Evangelical Christians in particular have the absolute right to claim is a misreading by liberal Christians of their religion’s central text.
We need to update Caesar’s world.
We need to talk about system-wide, international-level policy reform.
How We Talk About Worth
Because what we currently have is a world making far more fundamental, far less democratic, and far more brutally naturalistic arguments about humans and their worth.
And while this is plainly true on the local level, in the likes of socioeconomic disparity issues between different demographics within a shared nation-state, this is also especially true with regard to how international policies around migration exacerbate locally abusive systems of government. The message these broader foreign policies send to our global family is simply this:
- that you are born into the circumstances you’re born with, and if it turns out that the circumstances you’re born into are awful, well, that’s just your lot. (The system can’t make winners of us all, amirite?) In consequence,
- if you accept your lot–as Christ makes the Canaanite woman accept that she is a “dog” next to the children of Israel he was sent for–then you’ll get, at minimum, our pity and maybe some of our aid, on our terms. But also,
- if you try to escape your circumstances, if you resist instead of quietly suffering with the patience of Job, then all that you suffer is no longer a simple unfortunate consequence of reality. Then it is your fault. You brought it on yourself–and no one else should have to seek to change the system to assist you.
This… horrific argument, writ large in ever so many border crises and bolstered by much of the Bible (e.g. Christ’s routine use of master/slave stories to explain how what a master chooses to do is his own business, and the slave or other worker’s job is simply to obey, expecting no thanks for doing only what is his duty; and also in his routine call for individuals to help other individuals–not for individuals to petition the state, say, to improve overall social welfare nets through elaborate taxation), almost makes sense if you’re expecting another world to come, where everything will be magically righted.
I mean, why bother seeking to right the secular world, if there’s a Biblical promise that your god in its own time will wipe away every tear? When your main duty, then, is to put yourself at rights with said god, because all of this great reckoning and transformation was slated to happen before the generation before Christ passed away–and so, for every evangelical generation thereafter, imminent spiritual readiness has become the core calling of the Christian faith?
Meanwhile, though, we secular folk know that this is a ridiculous basis for morality–and we are joined in that understanding, thankfully, by many religious people who also believe (however at odds as they might be with the Bible itself) that paradise must be made–or at least made way for–through their humanitarian action in this life.
So we really have to knock it off with this overuse of the naturalistic fallacy. We instead simply have to accept that, between what is and what ought to be, the latter alone is a realm for acceptable moral decision-making.
Because to think otherwise–to suggest that some current state of sociopolitical outcome is beyond reproach because it emerged as a “natural” consequence of our economic systems–is to make us no better than spiritual people whose only explanation for a given moral position is “it’s God’s will.”
Other Ways of Thinking about Human Value
I have been trying to finish this essay for two weeks because it’s infuriatingly hard to propose viable solutions in a single post–and yet, I know full well that I will be criticized for “complaining” about this state of affairs when I haven’t every single facet of the solution worked out. Well, so be it. These are not easy issues.
Let me be clear, though, that one solution I strongly believe in, as a first line of attack, is our need to stop buying into narrative divisions between communistic and capitalistic enterprise. Both systems, when enacted by nation-states as we currently conceive of them, carry within them this sense that transgression from prescribed societal roles necessarily diminishes human worth–and not just in the eyes of both the government and the economy, but also in the minds of fellow human beings.
Oh, if [X] had only been a better contributor to our co-op board, someone in China might now argue, they wouldn’t have seen a reduction in their citizen score, with wide-ranging implications for their and their children’s social success!
Or more sinisterly–ah, well, if only [Y] had been more respectful in their use of government-sanctioned social media, they wouldn’t now be undergoing re-education in a psychiatric hospital!
And likewise–oh, if only [Z] hadn’t tried to wedge himself into a capitalist society offering a better chance at economic prosperity than the war- and gang-violence-torn street economies of his birth country… then he wouldn’t have died in a river, or a desert, or a detention centre. If he had “waited his turn”, perhaps for decades, then he would have “earned” the right to live with the same range of opportunities afforded those having the good fortune to be expelled by a better-positioned womb.
We are 7.8 billion people on a planet undergoing such extreme environmental upheaval that many of us will die, and many more of us will be displaced, before any greater, more egalitarian peace becomes conceivable for our global family.
And so we humanists, compassionate and 21st-century-problem-minded, have to take as our adversaries in this struggle the following:
- Those who would claim that because something is happening, it ought to be–that because there will be death and displacement it’s not much use trying to staunch even a fraction of it; and
- Those who follow the Biblical Christ and related New Testament-advocacy for acts of individual charity alone, believing that all broader systems of Caesar’s world are their god’s to address with ruination and the end-times when it sees fit; and
- Those who cling to notions of “legality” to justify suffering, full stop.
What we do next–the world we build next; the metrics for human value we set next–can only be decided via extensive, collaborative, and above all else proactive negotiation.
So where and how, in your own corners of this Earth, have you advanced your own?