Playing Dice With the World

Photo Credit: Curtis Gregory Perry via Compfight cc

Day 13 of Lent

I am slowly working my way through Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It is powerful and sobering reading from the very beginning, in which he catalogs the greed and merciless cruelty that drove European colonizers to perpetrate genocide on the indigenous populations of the Americas. Zinn’s book is even more powerful in light of the fact that he reflects deliberately on his method. Rather than focusing on the official actions of states and of the powerful– the kind of history written by history’s “victors”–Zinn attempts to write history from the perspective of those who, in any particular time, are the most disadvantaged by it. Zinn makes clear that he is not engaging in gory spectacle simply for the sake of it, and in doing so says one of the most insightful things I have read in a long time:

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

The past two weeks have been a virtual pageant of privileged people arguing, over the protests of oppressed peoples, that everything is just fine, that they deserve all of the privilege that they have, that the only thing holding them back is themselves.

There is the army of white people lining up to tell nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis that she should totally be OK with being called a “c**t” because, well, it would help them be ironic and subversive. (Ignoring, of course, that they aren’t nine years old, and black, and members of a group who is routinely hypersexualized in a way that white folk are not. AND NINE YEARS OLD. Did I mention that part?)

There is Antonin Scalia telling racial minorities in states where Republicans routinely target their voting rights, “It’s 2013 already! Haven’t we done enough for you people already? What more do you want?”

There is the obsession in the LGBTQ community with same-gender marriage as the exclusive focus of activism and commentary, which is often accompanied by an attempt to keep restive folk in line who disturb the narrative– queer folk who have no use for marriage, trans* folks who struggle to have their gender identities recognized and routinely struggle with threats of violence that cisgender gays and lesbians have an easier time avoiding.

I can understand why oppressed people, “themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.” A profound vein runs deep through American culture that only lets us feel good about ourselves if we can look at someone else who has it worse, compare ourselves to them, and then tell ourselves a story in which we deserve to have it better than they do. Those stories abound:

“I have obviously worked harder than they have.”

“No one gave me anything on a silver platter. I worked for what I have. And yet [INSERT OTHER GROUP HERE] get handouts.”

“Oh, I am not like those people. I am just like the good people, except for harmless differences that we “good” people claim to be blind to anyway. I’m not [insert word here–promiscuous, unmarried, etc.]”

I think that lots of people, myself included, have a deep-seated need to feel like what happens to them has something to do with what we deserve. Given the history of the United States, which has barely woken up from a past in which white folks were given an explicit legal and institutional leg up, merit and desert are a special preoccupation of white folks. We are haunted by the need to assert and prove that we deserve what we have.

Usually, we frame the alternative to getting what we deserve as a matter of luck: Either we have good luck, like winning the lottery or being born attractive, or we have bad luck, like getting caught in a hurricane. In either case, the luck in question doesn’t upset our sense of morality, it merely impacts it from without; the universe grants us a tremendous windfall or an underserved setback. It disturbs us enough, though, to force us to try to domesticate it within the moral order of things by either clinging to being good, honest people despite the windfall or the setback and to convince ourselves that we are worthy of the good luck or undeserving of the bad.

Most attributions of moral desert are distorted by the fact that they don’t take into account the extent to which our options are structured by power relations over which we lack control. Moral desert is tied to notions of autonomy and individual responsibility, but the field of options in which the individual finds herself are not within her control. In fact, they are far less within her control than we ordinarily would like to acknowledge. Above I referenced the legacy of institutional racism in the United States, a legacy that is still with us, Antonin Scalia’s protestations notwithstanding.

But the distortions are just as much about present reality as historical legacy. I read something a few days ago that drove this point home for me. In a recent Rolling Stone article, “Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail,” Matt Taibbi discusses how representatives of HSBC, one of the largest banks in the world, spent about a decade laundering money for murderous drug cartels and named terrorist organizations. Taibbi isn’t making this up or overstating it; the U.S. Department of Justice has discovered ample evidence of this, and HSBC itself has essentially owned up to all of the conduct alleged.

If HSBC were a country (it could be– it has greater wealth than a lot of countries), its conduct would undoubtedly earn it a reputation as a rogue or failed state. The discussion about it in the respectable developed democracies would center on whether to punish it with sanctions or to declare war on it and install a better regime. But HSBC is a multinational bank– transnational, arguably– and so the U.S Department of Justice determined that it was not only “too big to fail,” but also too big to prosecute, so powerful and so interwoven into human life in the 21st century that to hold it accountable for its actions would threaten to destabilize the world. The individuals responsible for HSBC’s crimes currently enjoy the inscrutable privilege of de facto immunity from prosecution.

Even more thoroughgoing is the effort by UBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank, and others to collude to manipulate LIBOR, the interest rate at which banks lend one another money, to make their own institutions appear healthier than they were and therefore to make them more money. As Taibbi puts it:

There is nobody anywhere growing weed strong enough to help the human mind grasp the enormity of this crime. It’s a conspiracy so massive that the lawyers who are suing the banks are having an extremely difficult time figuring out how to calculate the damage.

British regulators released a cache of disgusting e-mails showing traders from many different banks cheerfully monkeying around with your credit-card bills, your mortgage rates, your tax bill, your IRA account, etc., so that they could make out better on some sordid trade they had on that day. In one case, a trader from an unnamed bank sent an e-mail to a Barclays trader thanking him for helping to fix interest rates and promising a kickass bottle of bubbly for his efforts: 

“Dude. I owe you big time! Come over one day after work, and I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger.”

Now that is privilege. The financial system structures everyone’s options in ways that most of us only dimly understand: The availability of credit, the actual cost of what we do, and who pays higher costs in life than others. There is this story that people pay high costs because they deserve to– because they behave in risky ways, because they don’t work hard enough, because they aren’t good enough– when in reality what they pay may depend on nothing more than some asshole who fudges a number to get a nice bottle of champagne. And states have declared themselves essentially powerless to bring banks within the purview of the ideals of justice and fairness they claim to safeguard.

What is the conclusion here? It is just that to some degree, anyone who is likely to read what I am writing is in some sense a victim of late capitalism. There are transformations afoot that may not be the enlightened technological utopia of “world-is-flat” boosterism. Take, as an example, the eerily similar changes taking place in the old “professions”: law, ministry, medicine, and the professoriate. The war that capital has waged against labor for the past thirty years is now at the doorstep of this educated professional class, and the professional class obviously didn’t see it coming. From the academy’s increasing reliance on adjunct labor and business-style management, to “two-tiered” systems in the legal profession, to the increasing scarcity of full-time jobs in ministry, the old-style professions are being reorganized in novel ways.

As in any time of fluidity and relative chaos, there are people in all of these areas that tout themselves as providing a creative way forward, as perhaps having the creative way forward. Yet what still hasn’t come about, as far as I can tell, is an awareness that these reorganizations, and the creative solutions people offer to them, are structured by trends that are bigger than individuals’ vice and virtue. They are structured instead by a deeper logic, one that systematically “prices up” secure professional work, prices down young professional and paraprofessional work, and directs increased profit upwards to the management class.

And yet, those who find themselves disadvantaged by this deeper logic often crave the approval of those who are advantaged by it. They seek to prove themselves worthy, to demonstrate their good citizenship and their virtue. Yet they do this, not by reimagining and recasting good citizenship and virtue, but instead by, in Zinn’s phrase, “turning on other victims.”

Einstein famously said of quantum theory that he didn’t think that God played dice with the world. Yet the powerful and privileged play dice with the social world with gleeful abandon. In the face of that reality, we can curry favor with the powerful and the privileged and hope they will have mercy on us if the roll of the die disfavors us. Or, we can stand in solidarity with the oppressed, with those who figured out a long time ago that the dice seem suspiciously loaded, in the name of a nagging suspicion that the game of the privileged and powerful is not worth playing, using whatever power and privilege we have to pursue a justice that doesn’t depend on the roll of power’s dice.

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