Saturday, October 04, 2003

Orwell and the Waiters Redux

A few days ago I posted an excerpt from Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris in which he described the servile fantasy life of Parisian waiters. I said it was a metaphor for the middle class. That post can be found here. Thanks, no doubt, to a reference on Mark Shea's Catholic and Enjoying It I got some pretty screaming comments about what I'd written. I'd planned to answer then, but got delayed, so I post the answers now. I changed the names of the people who posted comments at Shea's blog and this one, because I don't want this to be a personality fight, but rather a fight about ideas.

Even though I said "not everyone with a five-figure income matches this metaphor," just about everybody who replied thought it was directed personally at them and everyone they knew. "Let me see if I have this right," says Fellow #1, "IIf I don't produce any wealth, I should be a socialist or at least sneer at and/or criticize ‘the rich.'" Fellow #1, you don't have it right, because I didn't say you should be a socialist or sneer at the rich just because you don't produce or own wealth. In fact, I said that the bourgeois I had in mind positively love the rich, and that they wouldn't dream of obviously becoming socialists. (They tend to want their socialism, in the form of wealth-transfer payments, done quietly through the Small Business Administration, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Sally Mae, student loans, and similar middle-class welfare programs).

Fellow #1 goes on to say that he took my excerpt and comments to mean that if he's "neither a socialist nor a wealth producer, I probably am a loathsome seeker of vicarious pleasure?" Well, I don't know if you're seeking vicarious pleasure, Fellow #1 or, if so, whether your search is loathsome. But there are a lot of middle-class people who fit their own worries about what Murphy Brown's sitcom baby would encourage among the "poor" -- an illicit indulgence in another class's way of thinking, a pretence that they're capable of living a life they (and we) can't afford morally or financially. Take the salaried teacher with two wives and babies by each of them. Donald Trump can afford that sort of harem, but a guy knocking down thirty-eight grand a year can't. And harems are generally less-than-optimum moral environments. They're perhaps tolerable among the rich (who are safely locked away in gated communities) but not among the rest of us, who live cheek-by-jowel with the moral shabbiness that sort of life always engenders. Or how about the local businessman with 85K on his credit cards, a maxed-out 150K credit line and no retirement plan besides an anemic SEP and social security. Is he gonna be pulling his own weight when he hits 65? Profligacy is bad for the soul and society -- a nation of grasshoppers is going to suffer the grasshopper's fate. Debt loads like that are tolerable among the wealthy (who prefer to call it "leverage"), because they have enough political power to make their mess into our mess and oblige us to do tallage and clean things up again. But for everyone else, who don't produce or own wealth, that kind of "leverage" means "eventual poverty." Did you know that most divorces are triggered by financial difficulties? Still, the folks I have in mind all think they're doin' right, livin' the American dream. They're like the waiter who thinks he's got zen-like oneness with the rich just because he's sniffing the chateaubriand.

Fellow #1 also said, I'll have to remember to tell my definitely non-socialist, non wealth producing wife (teacher) parents (teachers), uncles (teachers), brother (retired naval aviator), friends (writers, Navy officers, firefighters, lawyers, doctors, editors, civil servant, policemen, college professors, Army officers), and colleagues (non-profit executives, college professors) that they, unless they rise up and shakee loose their chains, they forever will be forelock-tugging tools of the plutocracy. If you say so, Fellow #1. But I think you, like some other folks, are getting a little confused about my metaphorical use of Orwell. For some reason, it's being read to suggest that anyone who's not Bill Gates is one of Aristotle's slaves by nature. Like I said, Fellow #1, "not everyone with a five-figure income matches this metaphor." You're the guy who's dragging relatives and friends into Orwell's world, as though we can't breathe a word about hard differences between Warren Buffett and your wife without suggesting you married beneath yourself. What was that I said? Hmmmm, I think it was something about the middle class considering itself to be in zen-like oneness with the wealthy, its members insisting that they be regarded on the same terms as the wealthy. I can understand very rich people like Leona Helmsley getting the idea that "little people" really are slaves by nature. What I can't understand is why the little people want to agree with her.

Go back and read the excerpt -- Orwell's words leave little doubt that what was wrong with the Parisian waiters wasn't their lack of wealth, or their work, but what they believed about life. So far everyone has become fixated on the economic differences between Orwell's waiters and diners, letting note of a similar disparity between middle- and upper-class Americans automatically transfer Orwell's hard judgment (and my own) onto themselves and everyone they know simply because they, like modern waiters, are getting W2s instead of 1099-Ds. And that was even after I said that not all middle-class people are like Orwell's waiters (and therefore) that middle-class life need not resemble that of Orwell's waiters. If anyone needed an anecdote about how Americans instinctively believe in an egalitarian materialism rather than Christ's message about the independence of the human soul, he need look no further. Sure I said "we," but who's "we" kemosabe? It's a lot of folks -- and me. I ape the life of wealth when I have no decent reason to do so. I indulge in the shabby, pathetic and envious snobbery of Orwell's waiters. I confess it, too. But my spiritual health's not the only issue. What made y'all think everyone you know must fit that description if they have five-figure incomes? Not anything I wrote, and not anything Orwell wrote. Something Marx wrote? Oh yes, Marx believed in this phenomenon intensely: Consciousness does not dictate economic life, he said, economic life dictates consciousness. If somebody has a five-figure income, his income dictates his faith, his thoughts, the intellectual and moral nature of his life. Notice something bad about people in the same tax bracket, and it just has to be a judgment about everyone in the tax bracket -- even if it's your own wife, brother, or colleague, because they're all morally sinking or swimming according to class. Like I said, not all of us fit that description. But most of us do. because we're raised to love capitalism; Marxism, as Leo XIII noted, is just the "dance remix" of capitalism.

Fellow #1 wrote, "Finally, looking at your list of those who ought to be canonized (and I nominate Daniel Webster and Charles Carroll of Carollton for inclusion on that list), I see some names--e.g., Lee, Longstreet, Calhoun--who produced nary a nickel of wealth in their life, were not socialists, and apparently found their professions quite congenial." I'll consider Charles Carroll, thank you, and for that matter, his august brother as well. But Daniel Webster? Over my dead body. There ain't room enough in Heaven for Calhoun and Webster, and I'd keep Calhoun. Webster can go to the other place with war criminals like Sherman. As to Lee, Longstreet, and Calhoun, yes, they didn't produce a nickle of wealth, they weren't socialists, and they loved their work. Did someone suggest those things were bad? I must have missed that. I recall suggesting via Orwell that it's wrong to judge oneself and others on desperately-materialistic terms, to live your life according to materialistic fantasies that make you servile toward those who have what you yourself want. I don't think that describes Lee or Longstreet very well, and I wonder why you think it might. Oh yes, it's because they didn't own the Tredegar Iron Works, which must mean that anything we say about the middle class applies automatically to them, life dictating consciousness ‘an all . . . .

Another fellow wrote Would you rather serve in Heaven or Rule in Hell?

Hoo boy! Of course, I can't rule in Hell. That spot's already taken and for all other creatures it's Bob Dylan -- "you gonna have to serve somebody." The rest is a kind of a Rorshach blot, but for the record, I'd rather serve in Heaven.

Fellow #3 wrote I don't understand why so many Catholics (not just SAM) are so down on earning a living...they work, right? If success is just luck, why don't they quit working and wait for fortune to strike?

Now how on earth did "Orwell's Metaphor for the Middle Class" get turned into being down on earning a living? Or into a proposal that the Vanderbilts got rich because a bag of money fell out of an armored car? Modern Western capitalism isn't the only way to make a living, so that criticism of one becomes criticism of the other. The few wealthy people I know are incredibly talented and hard working, sometimes much more so than middle-class people in the same general line of work. This being a dialogue prone to extreme statements based solely on class, I'll no doubt get into trouble for suggesting that the rich are "better" than us regarding anything, but I'm just noting the fact that talent tends to succeed, and that some of the wealthy really are better than us, or at least me, at a lot of things. No doubt Fellow #1 will come along and whap me upside the head for servility and worshiping the wealthy, so I'll just say that when people have to be all one thing or the other based on how much money they have, life gets really complicated.

He went on to point out that, My five-figure income contributes to the wealth of our [local] economy all the time. I bought a house, paid landscapers, etc. Maybe I'm economically illiterate- and someone can explain what "create wealth" means.

I wouldn't say illiterate, just poorly informed (as, I think, we all are) about the nature of wealth. I'll do my best to describe what I mean here. I'm not trained in economics, and so I well realize that what follows may be be a rambling "Cliff Claven explains wealth" sort of essay, but I don't think it's too far from the mark of your present question.

If all a fellow's got is a mortgaged house and a cash money, he doesn't have wealth. If a fellow's got control of the things that make what other people need and want, then he's got wealth. A farmer's got control of land, seed, and tools which make what other people need and want -- food. He's got wealth. The hands who work for the farmer don't have control of those things, and so they don't have wealth, no matter how much money he might pay them. Why isn't money "wealth"? Don't people need and want money? Sure, but they need and want a good laugh as well and only in the most metaphorical way do we refer to a "golden age of comedy." Money, and by that I mean modern cash money, is a lot like a joke -- it's a statement between individuals who have enough in common to "get it." If that strikes you as odd, go try and spend a 2002 Iraqi dinar, or better yet, I'll send you some 100-Kwatloo notes right from my own Bureau of Printing and Engraving. I don't mean exchange these notes with collectors of curiosities -- I mean go to your bank and try to open an account, or give them to the fellow at the corner Kwiki-Mart. You won't get far, because the series of shared expectations that is cash money's real power has been dissolved by war in the case of the Iraqi dinar, and in the case of the Kwatloo the expectations aren't shared by people who don't confuse Star Trek with Scripture. "Kwatloo" is a language the Kwiki-Mart doesn't speak -- they don't know anyone who speaks "Kwatloo", either, and so when they turn around and try to get something of their own in exchange for the Kwatloos they got from you, they'll be out of luck. Meanwhile, they'll have given you something they could have gotten potent symbols for, like a tank of gas or a Slim Jim. So there you'd be, chomping on your Slim-Jim, and there they'd be, with symbolic tokens no one else understands or gives a hoot about. That's why they say "no deal." On the other hand, if I could back my Kwatloos with something everybody understood and gave a damn about, the Kwiki-Mart people would be happy to take them, because they'd be symbols that would be understood and accepted by a sufficient number of people.

That's why everyone on Forbes' list owns things besides cash money -- they all have land, gold, art work, etc. They want to speak as many "languages" as they can, so that if history whacks the United States with some big event that destroys the shared language of the dollar, they won't be left out in the cold. They also want to speak more than one dialect of currency too, and they tend to buy Swiss francs, Euros, etc. for the same reason. There are people whose careers are based on multilingualism -- we call them currency traders, or money changers. They swap in and out of currency languages based on what people are saying about them. If people say that the 3ID has made the Iraqi dinar a really poor way to communicate your desire for something, currency traders will try to unload Iraqi dinars in exchange for a more eloquent symbols (like the dollar) before anyone else hears about it.

That's how cash money got invented in the first place -- it was a more convenient and elegant way to say "I'll give you 2.2211 ounces of gold for that." First it was "hard cash" -- namely bits and pieces of metal most people think are useful and valuable, like gold, silver, and copper. Then it was "reserve notes," which were written guarantees that you could turn in to a bank and receive pieces of valuable and useful metal. Now it's just what I call cash money, which you can't turn in for anything else -- it's just a symbol of everyone's present agreement to act as though the symbols were, in fact, worth something, and its power comes from a shared expectation that the agreement will be honored in future. The paper, ink, or cool patriotic images have nothing to do with how much it's "worth." No shared expectation = no value.

Now it's true that every medium of exchange (save straight barter) relies on a common set of assumptions and expectations. Heck, gold doesn't mean much unless the people you're speaking it to understand the language. It's just much harder to make some languages disappear than others. Gold's one of the harder-to-kill languages -- there's all kinds of uses for it, everybody thinks it's pretty, and short of finding lots of it on the Moon or Mars there's not going to be any more of it. (That, BTW, is one of the reasons Will Rogers approved of buying land. He said it's the one thing they ain't makin any more of.) But in the end, what you (and I) call "the economy" is mostly a bunch of people shuffling paper among each other on the basis of shared expectations about what the paper will mean in the future to other people. Only a very few of us have real gosh-darned wealth, namely control over the things that make what others we want and need.

What I'm calling wealth, Marx called capital, and that's as good a word as any other. Don't get thrown off by my using Marx -- if Caiaphas and Balaam's ass can prophecy, it's only fair to let Karl (who rejected Christ and was also an ass) have at least one good idea. What's the big difference between capital and money? Capital is more closely (or even inseparably) tied to unalterable conditions of human existence than symbolic bits of paper. Suppose you own a big farm and a textile mill, and that you've got a million digits in your computer file at the bank. (The bank, of course, doesn't have the actual paper you opened the account with. They gave the paper to other people who promised to come back later with the same amount of paper which is called "principal" and some extra paper which is called "interest"), all on the shared expectation that the bank would still know people who speak the same langauge. Now suppose the U.S. Government were unable to transfer enough symbols to pay interest on the national debt, thereby going noticeably bankrupt, and the value of your recorded digits suddenly became equal to the value of John Spong's theology. You're still wealthy because you've got control over that ranch and textile mill. It's a lot easier for catastrophe to create a world where "dollar" means nothing than a world where people don't eat or use cloth.

This is why no one wants to live in a society where "the people" own all the wealth. "The people" is a lie, a hammer-and-sickle version of saying "working hard and playing by the rules" will make you wealthy. Working hard and playing by the rules might be a good thing (it depends on what your job is and what the rules are), but if all you're getting in return is pieces of paper that are useful because they're likely to mean something to other people in the future, you don't have wealth. And besides, "the people" is really just a few thousand families who've clawed their way to the top of the political heap and gotten control of the means to make cloth, food, chemicals, etc. Everybody else is excluded from wealth and -- for a lot of other reasons in addition to this one -- ends up cooking greenish meat and fantasizing about shoes. Communists and Socialists are the ultimate exponents of stupid middle-class snobbery; they take disparity in wealth to be so offensive, so galling to their righteous vanity, that they'll shoot people and build gulags before admitting that anyone should be wealthier or better off than they are. And of course, they do it all in the name of "the poor" -- just like the bourgeois nitwits in a nearby town, who spend millions of tax dollars on a library that lets out movies and copies of Architectural Digest. Maybe a free viewing of Robocop II on DVD, or seeing how Mrs. Arriviste's architects have managed to blend neo-Palladianism and Bauhaus into a stunning 5,000-square-foot home on Hawaii, will help the poor -- or maybe 90% of that library's just more intellectual welfare for the middle class, a state-subsidized monument to bourgeois pretention. If Michael Moore really wanted to do something good in life, he should make a documentary for PBS to run during fund drives; he could go to slums and and ask HUD-voucher recipients to explain how "This Old House" has improved their lives. Socialism has always been a middle-class conceit, the "vanguard's" delusion that they can transform the world into a state-university campus by grinding their fellow human beings into hamburger underneath the treads of tanks. They have to do it, because a world in which he's rich and they're not is just too awful to contemplate.

So that's why the middle-class has no wealth. What they have are mortgages on spheres of consumption, privileges of occupation and use rented from banks and people who do have wealth. We could change that, and change it without socialism or communism, but that will be very hard, very difficult, and most certainly beyond the moral power of people who are primitive enough to think that babies are disposable commodities. In the meantime, what we can do is realize that we don't have wealth, aren't likely to have it, and adjust our emotions, actions, and views of life (if they need adjustment) accordingly. The best and first way to do that, I think, is understand what "middle-class Americanism" really is -- the snobbish ignorance of Orwell's waiters.

Fellow #3 grit his teeth and said, Grrr. I do not ape the wealthy. I do not think he is me, nor I him. I live comfortably and produce wealth.

I didn't say you ape the wealthy -- see my note to Fellow #1 above. Generally, however, most of the middle-class people I know who are miserable or bakrupt got that way by aping the wealthy, by trying to live the same kind of life as the wealthy live. New cars every year or so, five figures' worth of Christmas presents under the tree, a brand-new car for the kid when he gets his drivers' license, a years' worth of income on the credit cards, two or more spouses perhaps with an extended harem system . . ..

I'm glad you live comfortably. That's a God-given right, as all the Popes have taught, to live in material conditions which are sufficient to allow you to pursue the good life of the sacraments, prayer, and family. Most of the middle class, however, doesn't live comfortably. They live under the Damoclean sword of financial ruin because they're swept up in a current of debt too deep and too strong for anything besides treading water, and they don't own any real wealth. They might produce wealth -- but if so, they usually produce it for others.

Lastly, he asked, Have you become a "double agent?"

I'd say I'm trying, because I'm trying to be what I think is a good Catholic. Good Catholics are all moles in a materialistic world, undermining it from the inside, expropriating the expropriators . . . . .

A lady wrote, Well as the daughter of a waiter, I couldn't be more shocked? floored? insulted? I am experiencing a cosmic "Huh?" Orwell is doing some major projecting of his own beliefs onto the waiters."

Maybe, maybe not. He knew them and worked with them, and we don't. I'd certainly take his word for the attitudes of those particular waiters.

She asked a really interesting question, So the guy enjoy the beauty of the party he was at- big whoop. What shoudl he have done? Stalk around and sulk and scowl at the pretty flowers, insult the people around him, and generally act like a miserable ass? Or maybe, the better way is to enjoy beauty whenever and however it is presented to you. A good man does his work to the best of his ability and tries to find the good in life, even the good in a servile job.

This is, if I may say so, a very Christian way of looking at life, although I think it's still got a little of that class insecurity that Fellow #1 has -- "servile" isn't the same thing as "service," and serving doesn't automatically make one "servile" (unless, of course, life dictates consciousness). One of the beauties of Christianity, I think, lies in its ability to transcend conditions without actually changing them. A servant can be wealthy and free in the only place that matters -- his soul -- regardless of the external and material conditions which happen to characterize his life. He doesn't have to change those conditions in order to be a saint -- he doesn't have to shoot the rich, blow up banks, destroy the world around him, before he can enjoy freedom and wealth. Materialists have to shoot the rich, blow up banks, and destroy society before they can "find Heaven" within themselves, because they think that economic and material conditions dictate their ability to be happy. I sometimes think that's one of the reasons vicious materialists seem to end up running things -- all the time and energy we use worrying about whether our lives are sufficiently incarnational, they use scheming to gain control over the only things that "really" matter.

That's one of the huge problems the Church has always had with so-called "liberation theology." The material conditions of life are important to Christians, but only because they (like every other aspect of human life) have a moral significance for our witness to God's sovereignty and its proclamation of human dignity. Ultimately, a Christian wants to reduce poverty for the same reason he wants to reduce fornication or inattentiveness during Mass -- they offend God and oppose saintly human happiness. A "liberation theologian" leaves that world when he begins teaching that salvation consists of removing poverty and changing the political and material structures of human society. He is a materialist, because he thinks that treasure on earth is Heaveny treasure. Yes, salvation requires laboring for justice, and sharing that idea is how liberation theology makes itself a plausible expression of Christian thought. But salvation has never required the achievement of justice, nor a conception of human happiness that is inseparable from material wealth, and that's why liberation theology isn't an expression of authentic Christian thought.

Orwell wasn't writing from a Christian perspective, and so I don't know how he'd react to the idea that there's a way for the waiters to find joy in their surroundings without being servile or aping the rich. I like to think that Julia and Winston's love, such as it was, points toward that idea. But I certainly agree that nothing about the waiters' income or lack of power should keep them from being happy, or finding joy and beauty whenever it's presented to them. Even Orwell's description of the waiters' offensive attitudes had nothing to do with the fact that they served others, or the fact that they weren't rich. Orwell could never have been a communist; he certainly doesn't think those facts are the only ones that matter.

She concluded, That's all I have to say -- especially since Mr. Orwell isn't around for me to punch.

All I can say is, "Or me, thank God!"

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