Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Capitalism & Freedom / American Character



- Sometimes I think I've got these ideas almost worked out but then, when I need them most, I'm lost. Will you help me out?
- If I can.
- You know how when someone asks, 'How are you?' and you answer honestly, 'Not too good, there are these problems I just can't manage to solve, not for lack of trying, I've tried everything I can think of.' And the person you're talking to answers that he is a great believer that it's possible to do anything you set your mind to. You've been through this?
- Many times.
- It makes me angry. I am being told to do what I never was willing to do in the past in order to allow me to do what I want to do now. I'm being asked to do things I fundamentally don't want to do, like lie, disrespect strangers, turn completely around the direction of my life and go another way. Follow?
- Yes.
- So tell me, what exactly defines this wrong way we refuse to go in order to get to where we won't otherwise ever be? They, the good Americans, tell us traitorous complainers, if only we turned our minds to it, repeated to ourselves over and over anything is possible, anything would be possible. We traitorous complainers answer, 'Maybe, much is possible, if we're willing to destroy ourselves, but we aren't.' And the good strong positive thinking true Americans ask us what we're talking about. 'Destroy what about yourselves? Your inflexibility? Yes, now you're talking, destroy that! Do it right now!' What do we say to them?
- We ask them, Isn't it true that if we have a certain character, we have certain habits, ways of doing things, and these habits make it easier for us to do some things and harder to do others? And if so, how can a person of strong character do everything and anything?
- By strong character they mean the strength to go against their own habits when necessary.
- And that is the American character that anything is possible to.
- Yes.
- A sort of instantly renewed character to suit constantly changing circumstances.
- Yes.
- Where would such a character be at home?
- In America, obviously.
- But would there be any particular place they'd be more at home than another that would suit their character best?
- That would have to be the place where instant adaptation of character would get most exercised.
- And where would that be?
- America.
- Would such a character find any rest in America?
- How, if being at home meant constant change and adaptation?
- Then being at home would mean constantly moving, inventing, producing. For those who have the un-American character of having habits rather than having a habit of change, the reward and goal of activity is rest at home when activity has come to an end. What is the reward and end for those who have a habit of changing their habits? Do they never rest?
- I'd say they don't. The more money they make and possessions they acquire the more they want to make money and acquire more possessions.
- Would you agree that if it is true to say they rest at all, it is a rest in their confidence in and satisfaction at the thought they can continue to perform and acquire new habits successfully in any conditions?
- Yes. They gloat over their sense of power.
- But only to go on and acquire more power, because only in their thoughts is there a sort of rest, not in the world itself, there is no comfort anyplace for them when they stop doing things.
- So, when they tell us, if we only turned our mind to it, we like them could do anything, we answer, maybe, maybe not, but we don't want to lose our sense of home, we don't want to lose our character.
- And they tell us, yes, you say it yourself, you have another character, you are different from us, you are un-American losers.
- They do.
- What do we say to that?
- That they are the true losers.
- What have they lost? Themselves? Truth?
- Yes. But what I was thinking particularly to tell them was that they have lost exactly what they think they have gained.
- Which is?
- Freedom. Call it a bad habit, a character flaw if you will, but one last time will you let me make use of Plato's allegory?
- Prisoners are chained in a cave...
- Behind and unseen by them is a wall on which puppets and objects are paraded. And behind that wall the puppets are moved along is a fire which throws their shadow on the back wall of the cave the prisoners face. Outside the cave are the real people and things the puppets represent, but the prisoners only see the shadows of the puppets. Let's say the American 'we can do anything' character is that of a prisoner who has broken his chains but rather than escape to the upper world of real things remains down in the cave to be a puppeteer. In his bets with his fellow prisoners about what the shadows will do he almost always comes out on top because he is no longer simply himself, he can do what he wants with all the shadows including the one that the other prisoners are now told represents himself. He can do anything he wants, subject to the need to avoid the danger of losing his advantage by teaching too many of the other prisoners to do the same he has. What do you think? Does this describe the American character of having no character we've been talking about?
- It's not really true the prisoners can do anything: it's true only that they can do anything with the shadows.
- Yes. Outside the cave is the real world illuminated, not by the artificial light of a fire, but by the sun, which is the source of good. Getting up and getting out of the cave we establish a real relation to the world we come to know. We find that known part of the world to be good, and rest in the feeling of being at home.
- The unchained but still in the cave prisoners are free to produce for themselves the most powerful representation of themselves. It's like magic to the other prisoners who can't change their own representations and are afraid to break their chains and do what true Americans can do.
- We know though that among the prisoner puppeteers there can be no discussion about truth: each tries in his own way to put on the show that brings the most possessions into association with his own puppet. There is no truth to the show except that it is a show.
- But it's all about things. It's a show about things.
- What else could it be about if there never is any home or rest?
- So the prisoner puppeteers are capitalists: there is no fixed right and wrong, there is nothing but the fact a show is to be performed, a show about things being produced and exchanged, and in that show they can do anything, they can destroy competitors' puppets and the things associated with them, do it behind the scenes or openly on the wall, whatever they can get away with. But no matter what they do their world is exclusively a world of things.
- To people without character everything is allowed, everything except getting out of this world composed only of things and their shadows. Or to put it another way: Americans are entirely free to do anything they can get away with except question property, the idea that meaning in life is to be found in associating oneself with things. They never get out of the cave. They are not free to make their lives good.
- But, you know, I allowed you the cave, allow me to risk making myself ridiculous and speak for the whole country: these people we are calling Americans are not Americans. You and me are Americans. We don't want freedom to move around things and images of ourselves. We want freedom to do good with our lives. These people are 'doers for the sake of doing'. They are materialists, they are restless, they are without home.
- Altogether too much character for people who claim to have no character.

Further Reading:
Puppy & Puppets
Hybrid Fates
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Doing For The Sake Of Doing
Zagreb Stories