the problem of the docks
May 24, 2020, 10:51 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,


We know morality comes from God and is passed through priests who write codes to which we become devotees. It’s essence is pure as it stems from a pure God and is passed through pure priests who make pure codes.

But there is another morality origin story. Merchants hire police and make self serving laws to protect their property on docks around the world. The laws are presented as moral even though their ultimate motive is self serving and maybe even impure. To know morality it may be better see where power lies than where God is.

Unfortunately, when we teach morality, when we study the history of morals, we always analyze the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and do not read [Colquhoun], this character who is fundamental for our morality. The inventor of the English police, this Glasgow merchant … settles in London where, in 1792, shipping companies ask him to solve the problem of the superintendence of the docks and the protection of bourgeois wealth. [This is a] basic problem …; to understand a society’s system of morality we have to ask the question: Where is the wealth? The history of morality should be organized entirely by this question of the location and movement of wealth.

Michel Foucault


a strong element of the haphazard
May 14, 2016, 1:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

photo: Gregory Crewdson

Your fault if you’re poor – says Gates; how can it be your fault there’s just so much randomness – counters de Botton, below. Gates’s – also Trump’s – view adds misery to life unnecessarily.

If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it is your mistake.

Bill Gates

I think it’s the randomness of the winning and losing process, that I want to stress.  Because the emphasis nowadays so much is on the justice of everything … Now I’m a firm believer in justice.  I just think that it’s impossible.  We should do everything we can to pursue it, but at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.  And it’s that that I’m trying to leave room for, because otherwise it can get quite claustrophobic.

Alain de Botton

six stories

In autumn the surface water in lakes begins to cool and grow heavy.  Eventually the heavy top water sinks and displaces the lighter water at the bottom of the lake; and the lake turns.

History can be like a lake.  Take for example how we see class, particularly the members of the upper and lower ones.  Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, uses three stories to illustrate how we used to see the rich and poor, until about the middle of the 18th century, and three more stories to show how that perception of class has literally flipped.

We used to believe the labour of the poor drove wealth creation, that there was no shame in poverty, and that the riches of the upper echelons were generally ill gotten.  Now we believe the opposite.

Arguments can be made about the relative truthfulness of each of the two antipodal visions of society.  It’s much harder to argue that the radical shift in perspective has not had a profound effect on our lives.  To claim we’re not worse off, for instance.  Among many other things, it’s quite clear we have become uncompromisingly and unapologetically uncharitable.

From Status Anxiety:  the first three stories are the old vision, and the second three are what we believe today.  The old view of class:

Three useful old stories about failure:

From approximately 30 AD, when Jesus began his ministry, to the latter half of the twentieth century, the lowest in Western societies had to had three stories about their significance, which, while they could be believed, must have worked a profoundly consoling, anxiety-reducing effect on their listeners.

First Story:  The Poor Are Not Responsible for Their Condition and Are the Most Useful in Society

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moral absolutes
April 14, 2011, 7:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

I just came from a second hand book shop where two men – a father and son, maybe – in baseball caps and tees, blew into the back room where the fiction is to find a copy of the Fountainhead.  They were on a mission.

Six months ago on the L line I managed to restrain myself from tearing a copy of Atlas Shrugged out of the hands of a young reader.  My plan was to enact a teachable moment:  selfishness is good, I have selfishly taken your book, live with it.  It’s a missed opportunity that I have added to my list of life’s regrets.

Twenty years – more – ago I got into the habit of asking the book buyer at the campus bookstore where I had summer jobs, which book to read next.  When I asked her about Rand, she said, with a tight smile, “if you’re a 12 year old boy.”

It’s amazing how this adolescent, ideological, bitter crackpot fully captured the imagination of a nation and an age.  The clearest route to her current influence is no doubt through men like Greenspan and Friedman who brought her with them in their ascent to top posts in academia and government.  In their age – which may now be waning – cynicism and moral clarity were easy sells.

Jonathan Chait summarizes the Randian world view in this paragraph from his essay Wealthcare in TNR.  In this crazy world the rich are being punished by the rest of society who, by a moral law of the world, have failed to succeed in their own lives and deserve their fates.  It’s grace-less and harsh and, more to the point, absurd, a moralistic and ignorant fantasy.

Here is the paragraph from Wealthcare:

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.

WealthcareJonathan Chait, The New Republic

wealth work desire
January 31, 2010, 7:44 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

The greatest of these is love.  I believe this more and more.  Erotic desire, poetry and ecstasy are pursuits worthy of our time and our lives.  Work and wealth are merely means to the proper, higher aim of love.  So says George Bataille in this quotation —

It is banal to devote oneself to an end when that end is clearly only a means.  The quest for wealth – sometimes the wealth of egoistic individuals, sometimes wealth held in common – is obviously only a means.  Work is only a means.

The response to erotic desire – and to the perhaps more human (least physical) desire of poetry, and of ecstasy (but is it so decisively easy to grasp the difference between eroticism and poetry, and between eroticism and ecstasy?) – the response to erotic desire is, on the contrary, an end.

George Bataille, The Tears of Eros (trans. Peter Connor)