Saturday, October 20, 2012

You do have to fuck people over to survive

Anarchists have a rallying cry: "You don't have to fuck people over in order to survive."

It's not clear that this statement is true. It's veracity, of course, depends on how one parses it. It could be equivalent to the statement, "Under conditions of capitalism, it is necessary for each person to fuck-over her fellows to survive; but another world is possible." Alternatively, one could take "You don't have to fuck people over to survive" to mean that "For all or at least most human individuals, in the present world, fucking people over is not the only viable strategy for survival." One suspects that the first interpretation of this slogan is closer to what its carriers mean: to say that another world is possible amounts to an indictment of capitalism; on the other hand, to say that fucking people over is not the only viable strategy for survival is not only an apology for capitalism, it's also manifestly false.

In the highest spirit of journalistic corroboration, your correspondent has therefore ventured into the world of markets and enterprise to investigate whether, in fact, behaving decently will allow you to fill your belly and pay the rent. Under present conditions (as opposed to, say, human society sixty thousand years ago), is it possible to economically survive-and-thrive while obeying basic moral norms?

The short answer: not so much. Anyone who actually participates in the economy--from the poorest busker to the richest businessman--knows that profit-generation boils down to successful manipulation of other people. Not treating them as free-and-rational ends-in-themselves; not doing unto them as you'd wish done unto you. No: the art of profit essentially involves treating other human beings as objects to be moved, whether they physically move (into the condos your company rents), economically move (capital into your company's stock), or are emotionally "moved" (by the breath-taking vision of the Better Tomorrow your company is striving toward, according to the PR materials an outside ad-agency created).

Everyone knows this. Only small children believe that the smile they receive from the Starbucks barista springs from real and un-coerced emotion. Only fools and Republicans believe that BP advertising which depicts clean gulf beaches represents the vision, rather than the poise, of that oil giant. The fact that businessmen struggle to manipulate the knowledge and emotions of everyone around them is obvious in the way that the sky is obvious: it's so in-front-of-you, it's hard to keep sight of.

Does this kind of manipulation amount to fucking people over? Yes. Not just in a high-fallutin' ethics kind of way, as when Kant implores us to treat one another as other-selves instead of humanoid tools. It concretely erodes the quality of human society; for example, by making trust a laughable exercise and acclimating everyone to cynical self-presentation as a norm. As the great Mr. Stewart said recently (on Paul Ryan's faked photo-op at a homeless shelter), "Even if you don't really give a shit about the homeless, at least give a shit about making us think that you give a shit. Don't phone in your cynicism." No one was surprised by the vice presidential candidate's cynicism; people were appalled only by the shoddiness of his effrontery.

Your correspondent's recent experience with lucrative manipulation took the form of pedicab-operation: I pedaled people around a six-block radius during large sport events. The transportation-utility of my work is practically nil: if you can walk, you can get to your destination almost as quickly as a pedicab. Rather, I sell the novelty of being tugged around on a couch hooked to a bicycle. I put on a performance of strenuous exertion and chat customers up in the most flattering way possible. In exchange, they pay me twice as much as I've made at other, more productive jobs (e.g. shellfish farming; caring for the disabled). We can skip past how 1) the fact that lots of people having enough disposable income to afford a pure-luxury service like pedicabbing, while 2) heroin addicts twitch in the gutter, is 3) an astounding example of economic disparity. I just want to point out that my line of work is pretty much useless to society overall; pedicabbing is only valuable within the context of a privileged elite. And--what's more pertinent to our discussion--I make my money mostly by manipulating people: not by getting them from Here to There, but rather by flattering them with chatter and impressing them with my physical exertion. I manipulate people to pay my rent.

So do you have to fuck people over to survive? In an economy where money (i.e. access to resources) is allocated according to a person's ability to manipulate others, then, yes, you do have to fuck people over to survive. Whether you're Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs (stealing your peers' ideas, using brand-identity to manipulate consumer choices, and outsourcing labor to the cheapest/most desperate workforce you can find) or a homeless guy on an off-ramp (with a "Two Kids! God Bless!" sign to pull heartstrings, or a "Why lie? I need beer money" sign to flaunt your 'honesty') or a member of the proletariat (a waiter, salesman, or middle-manager with a Welcoming Smile and all the charm you can muster), we all manipulate each other, because we're all at the mercy of scarcity. Decency (as opposed to the performance of decency) is a luxury good: suburban do-gooders volunteer in poor countries, then cover their Facebook with pics of their romantic piety. Decency is what you do when you're not working: ethics as a hobby, like birdwatching or stamp collecting. Manipulating people--fucking them over--is what you do to survive. What we all do to survive. And it's not at all clear that we can change this imperative, or how, or at what cost.

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