I was downtown a few days ago where I ran into an old friend. We were getting caught up on the news and I told him I had just returned from visiting family in California. He asked if I ever thought of moving there. I said no, because I wouldn’t be able to buy health insurance with what my Canadian dollars would be worth. Then he asked about the weather and just to hold up my end of the conversation, I mentioned that you see a lot of homeless people living under highway overpasses and camping in parks. He said, “We don’t see much of that here in Montréal.” He paused. “Winter takes care of them.”
Winter takes care of them? How does winter take care of them? Was he talking about the social housing down along rue St. Jacques, places like Welcome Hall Mission or even metro stations where people take shelter on a cold night? Or did he mean that winter takes care of them in a more efficient and less costly way? I know as well as you do some people have badly messed up lives and there is nothing much anyone can do about it. And if a man or a woman or even a horse has nothing to sustain themselves, why then winter will be left to take care of them, since nobody else is going to do it. We chatted a while longer and then said goodbye. The sun was going down. I felt a chill as I walked away.
What I Learned from my Grandfather
Grandpa Ben was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and as a young man he emigrated to Bayonne, N.J., where he wrote letters to his fiancée telling her he was longing to see her and “hoping to get on.” Things did not go so well for him in America. He contracted polio, which left one of his legs paralyzed. He never made any money to speak of, but he fathered six children, and they all did their best to look after him when he wasn’t able to work. By the time I was old enough to know who he was, cataracts had made him nearly blind.
Living under the same roof with Grandpa Ben was an experience I would describe as gritty. He had his ups and downs. He helped me understand the complexities of baseball. He explained Groundhog Day and why trains never leave early. One day he told me about the man who taught his horse to live without eating:
“When I was a boy there were no automobiles in Belfast and people conducted their business with a horse and wagon. I knew this one fella who thought it was too expensive to feed a horse, and since he wanted to save money, he thought that he would try to teach the horse to live without eating. It was not easy to do, Michael, because the horse kept trying to eat, but the man was smart and he knew that he would have to teach the horse to live without eating just little by little, not all at once.
Each day he would give the horse a little less hay and a little smaller bucket of oats. The horse kept on pulling the wagon, though after a while she went just a little bit slower. But in the end the man did teach her to live without eating and he saved quite a bit of money. Other businessmen admired his accomplishment and made much of him, thinking they might also try to teach their horses to live without eating, and so they came to him for advice on how to go about it. So you see Michael, how important it is to have a good plan and to follow it through carefully, and that way you will always succeed in what you set out to do.”
He smiled as he pointed out the benefits of austerity and then he said “be a good fella, now, and go bring me a glass of sherry.” He often had a glass of sherry at 10:00 o’clock in the morning. And as I turned away he took my arm and said, “I have to be honest with you because the man did have some bad luck. About six weeks after he taught his horse to live without eating, she died. It was a great loss to him.”
I knew Grandpa Ben was only pretending he knew a man who taught his horse to live without eating; nobody would be dumb enough to try that in the misguided hope it would save money. Losing the horse meant losing his means of livelihood. Then again it’s not that men just about as foolish have never existed or that even now people are trying to teach horses to live without eating. What else do we mean by austerity?
“Is man no more than this?”
What sustains us? What sustenance do we need? If I deprive you of air you will die within minutes. Death by dehydration will take longer, perhaps up to a week. You could last as long as the peddler’s horse, maybe a month with no food before you actually die of starvation. If you scrape up a little bit to eat every now and then, you can avoid starving to death by adapting to chronic malnutrition, like a horse learning to live without eating too much.
Well then, assuming you’ve got air you can breathe, water to drink, food to nourish you – what more do you want? Yes, I know. If you live near an oil refinery or a chemical plant, you might be breathing toxic fumes or fly ash and this would maybe not be so good. You are not going to suffocate immediately, but the fumes could give you lung cancer and the fine particles of the fly ash might cause COPD Good thing you can get water from your tap; at least you’re not going to die of thirst. If it is not clean enough to drink you might get typhoid or dysentery. Maybe there’s enough lead in the water to cause irreversible brain damage; it doesn’t take much. Your children’s future prospects are not looking so promising, what with the irreversible brain damage and chronic asthma from the fly ash. Anyway, look on the bright side. You have a minimum wage job at McDonald’s, so you’re not going to go hungry.
You might not be able to get fresh vegetables if you’re living on a minimum wage. Maybe you have enough money for vegetables, but if you live in a “food desert” somewhere in a sprawling American city, miles away from the nearest supermarket, you can’t get there without a car. There’s no public transportation in your neighbourhood? Looks like you’ll have to make do with burgers and fries from the McDonald’s and whatever you can find in the local convenience store. Don’t worry; chronic malnutrition won’t do any serious damage for many years.
Living in Montréal means you won’t want to depend on winter to take care of you, so you need a warm safe place to stay, maybe with a little privacy so you can make love to somebody else without having the whole world watching you. Well, but do you really need that? Couldn’t you live without amenities like privacy, to say nothing of sex? Suppose we make sure you can breathe the air, drink clean water, and have enough to eat. There will be a safe place to sleep, but you’re on your own about a private room. It’s the least we can do. Never let it be said we didn’t do the least we could do. Sorry about the sex but I’m afraid taxpayers are not going to be happy if they think they’re paying for you to be able to have sex.
Lives of Quiet Desperation
You have breathable air, drinkable water, adequate food to prevent malnutrition and a place to hang your hat. And that’s it. You will survive. It will definitely be better than living in a refugee camp. Would you be willing to say you are thriving? “Will a man content himself with a hut and a handful of dried peas?” Ralph Waldo Emerson asked this question in his essay on “Wealth,” taking a cheap shot along the way at Henry David Thoreau, famous for living in a hut close to Walden Pond where his daily exercise was hoeing the bean field.
The point of Thoreau’s experiment in economic minimalism was to discover an alternative to the life of quiet desperation being led by the majority of men, by which he meant the endless hustle of economic activity to the exclusion of all other pursuits. The idea was that if you understood your own real needs, you would soon realize they were relatively easy to satisfy. This in turn would help you recognize deeper aspirations and allow more time for enjoying gifts of the spirit, friendship, civilized conversation, music, books, pleasant people, laughter, along with spending time alone listening to the sound of the bittern calling.
I believe we are familiar with quiet desperation although we might be inclined to call it “productivity” and even take pride in our ability to adapt to its demands. Should we be ok with ourselves just because we are productive without considering the existential costs? I can think of three highly successful men I have known personally who were so productive that they actually killed themselves by mistake, and quite unexpectedly. Even if it doesn’t kill you, economic hyperactivity might degenerate into moral and spiritual destitution, diminishing your real wealth instead of increasing it. Part of the problem could be thinking that wealth is the same thing as money.
Emerson and Thoreau considered wealth in its archaic sense as “weal” – well-being, human flourishing, living a beautiful life rich in gifts of the spirit. Money can help you get things that enhance a beautiful life, but they thought it best not to judge the value of your life by how much money you are making. I liked Thoreau’s idea of not jumping on the money track with both feet but then I also liked Emerson’s idea of not living in a hut and eating dried peas. When I got to college I found out people were willing to pay me for reading books and talking about them to other people. This struck me back then as a reasonable compromise; the work was enjoyable most of the time and the money was not so bad.
Some people think enjoying your work ought to be enough and you should be willing to do your job for not much money. One of my friends from college thought I had it easy and didn’t need a big income. This man hated his job. It paid him a generous salary and he could afford to buy anything he wanted, but he hated what he did and who he did it with, so he retired as soon as he could. Things did not go so well for him after that. He made bad investments and lost his savings, but even if he had held on to his assets, working at a job he hated would have ruined his ability to enjoy his life. This was not such a good thing for him or the people who loved him. He died last summer, poor guy.
“. . . the superfluous and lust-dieted man . . .”
Midway through King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester is seized, blinded and driven out of his home into a fierce winter storm. Gloucester is a man of considerable wealth and power with a habit of boasting about his sexual conquests. He has been betrayed by one of his own sons and now, suddenly, he has nothing, not even his eyesight. In his despair, with no one to turn to, he calls out for justice.
Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your pow’r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough. (King Lear 4.1)
What Gloucester means by a “superfluous man” is someone with more wealth than he can possibly need. As for lust-dieted let’s say it means indulgence of appetite, of whatever kind. Gloucester is talking about himself, a man like many others of great privilege, who did not see because he would not feel, and is now reduced to helpless suffering.
Where does the money go and how does it get there? Why does so much of it end up in the pockets of superfluous and lust-dieted men? These are questions of distributive justice. This might sound like an abstruse philosophical topic, but really it’s just everyday life. We’re talking about how wealth gets passed around, how big a piece of it you and I and everybody else are supposed to get. As you’ve probably guessed from what I’ve said so far, it’s a matter of life and death. Why does anyone care whether somebody else lives or dies, not to mention living with dignity? Is it in your interest to care about this, or would you be better off letting nature take its course?
I have known superfluous and lust-dieted men in my time. Let’s call them Jerry, who once explained to me why there were so many obese men and women in the United States. The explanation was food stamps. “You see Michael,” he said, sounding nothing like Grandpa Ben, “these people live off the rest of us because it’s so easy for them to get fat on government hand-outs.” For me this was a novel interpretation of both food stamps and obesity, but I later found out it still has currency in certain circles. Jerry was convinced that if you took away food-stamps these overfed poor people would go to work and obesity would soon disappear. Or maybe winter would take care of them and we wouldn’t have to ask too many questions about where they went.
Jerry, not surprisingly, did not think much of distributive justice. He thought the market should decide who gets what. But the market doesn’t have an invisible hand to harmonize interests, making sure everybody gets what they need. In the real world the market is disorder and deception, keeping in mind here that déception is the French word for disappointment. You might even say that the market is a morass of invidiousness, as a friend of mine once put it, where you’re chasing after a shiny something that cannot sustain you, because maybe your neighbour has one and you think you should have one too.
For Jerry, free riders, which meant anybody on social assistance, were the big drain on society. “I believe in personal responsibility,” he said. You can work out an idea of distributive justice based on the principle that rewards should be proportionate to how much you contribute to the greater good. If you really applied this standard of proportionality, however, you might start asking yourself if the problem is free riders. Maybe the problem is teaching horses to live without eating. What about the messy details of proportionality? Is Jerry’s contribution to the greater good as the CEO. of a good-sized Canadian corporation really a hundred times more valuable than a day care worker looking after small children? Is it even ten times more valuable?
The Light of Suns We Cannot See
So long as markets are not governed, our lives will be governed by markets. If you have a strong preference for disruption, instability, and radical inequality, if living lives of quiet desperation seems like the way to go, if you think of war as an opportunity to make a profit, then you would probably be in favour of heading in this direction. If we all are to depend only on markets deciding how well to sustain us, a few will thrive, many will perish, most will continue to struggle. Ask yourself if this is a prediction or if the bad thing has already happened.
We have seen the gradual abandonment of what used to be known as politics, a noble way of thinking about the task of sustaining a shared social life through the pursuit of distributive justice. There have been cultures that placed the highest value on conditions of equilibrium, stability, and social continuity. Cultures of this kind gradually become extinct as ungovernable market conditions penetrate and dissolve traditional social bonds. At the present time we know only a vitiated sense of the political as a kind of war, a struggle for strategic advantage and dominance in global markets, in nation states, and even in local communities. Democracy, once considered the most promising framework for political activity, has not been much help in recent decades resisting the most corrosive effects of market-driven imperatives.
I have reached an age where I am no longer optimistic about seeing the restoration of a larger sense of social justice as the pre-eminent task of politics in my lifetime. Although the hour is late, I put whatever faith I have in the possibility of protracted struggle. Do I have another choice?
“. . . on ne pense jamais aux étoiles tout juste nées. Si on aperçoit toujours le scintillement des astres disparus, il y a des soleils dont on ne voit pas encore la lumière et, pourtant, sont là, flamboyant au milieu des ténèbres, parfaitement invisibles.”
Dominique Fortier, Au Peril de la Mer
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