Saturday, April 01, 2006

Over the hills and far away

The Republic, 369d-370c

'Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs.'
'So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men.'
'Then should each of these men contribute the product of his labour for common use? For instance, should the farmer provide enough food for all four of them, and devote enough time and labour to food production to provide for the needs of all four? Or, alternatively, should he disregard the others, and devote a quarter of his time to producing a quarter the amount of food, and the other three quarters one to building himself a house, one to making clothes, and another to making shoes? Should he, in other words, avoid the trouble of sharing with others and devote himself to provising for his own needs only?'
To which Adeimantus replied, 'The first alternative is perhaps the simpler.'
'Nor need that surprise us,' I rejoined. 'For as you were speaking, it occurred to me that, in the first place, no two of us are born exactly alike. We have different natural aptitudes, which fit us for different jobs.'
'We have indeed.'
'So do we so better to exercise one skill or to try to practise several?'
'To stick to one,' he said.
'And there is a further point. It is fatal in any job to miss the right moment for action.'
'The workman must be a profession at the call of his job; his job will not wait till he has leisure to spare for it.'
'That is inevitable.'
'Quantity and quality are therefore more easily produced when a man specializes appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others.'
'That's certainly true.'

We can imagine when this doesn't work. The shoemaker gets bored of making shoes, the farmer gets bored of growing food. Would this happen in Plato's mini-state? Why would one man stick to one job despite some boredom and lack of variety? Because the others depend upon him and value him - he is important both to them and, in extension, to the state that they have made together. Commitment to attaining good quality of work is also important (for Plato, a natural shoemaker would be disgruntled at not being able to farm very well, and at the fact that his natural talents are going to waste). We can imagine Plato's four men being pretty happy with their lot; it wouldn't be the case that they'd be bored before they die and break their little society. After a generation or two, the original contract between the men will become less and less important. But the principle of one man to one job will become inseperable from the lives of the people who succeed them: A farmer would think of becoming a jack of all trades perhaps like he would think of becoming a dog or a tree. It would in any case be hard to underestimate.

Imagine the situatedness of a people, should they be brought up from infancy into the professions of their parents (they would have to be taught that they have been brought up to be a farmer because it is their destiny or somesuch). The environments in which these people are brought up constitute the sum of the 'nurture' experience affords them - ask anyone brought up in a very specific lifestyle how hard it is even to understand people from other backgrounds. Plato's state would not of course be like this in many respects; as a meritocracy those who show aptitude and interest for particular fields will be assigned to them. To paraphrase a large part of The Republic, children will be brought up and evaluated for their various roles. The principle of one man one job will though be enforced as just through their education and myths that they will be indoctrinated into. The form is a little more religious and a little less working class Yorkshire, but the same specificity of life is assured (we should say 'once a Catholic always a Catholic').

So why can we imagine boredom as a factor? If we can see echoes in Plato's four man agreement of our present working practises, how do we deviate away from Plato? What is justice?

Plato's men have achieved in a sense certain economies of scale - Efficiency and productivity are assured through the principle of one man one job. Their's is also, of course, a social contract. We can draw these parallels along with others but they do us no good; They don't in fact translate to us at all. For example, one aspect of the social contract that we can highlight is the amount of imminent value there is in the performance of each job, each providing not just for himself but for the others. There is little of this feeling in our present day working situations, where it is likely that even thinking about what other departments in your company are doing takes some serious effort (unless it's thinking about how useless they are), let alone thinking about how your company functions in the world and whether it is beneficial. Considering how your work affects the world would require at least for you to see through the swathes of bullshit company ideology relentlessly informing you how aspirational and utterly creamily wonderful the company is. Alienation is a serious problem with capitalism, and I think the word fits when we describe our compartmentalised working practises - the holes around the input and the output are tightened, without a wisp of clean air, and we process and process.

Shouldn't we ask why? Isn't it the only healthy thing to do? In the fully constructed Republic, those who continually ask why will be fast-tracked to becoming Philosopher-Kings. It is this highest class of citizens that know the value of everything, who see when everything is in its place - when the state is just and when it is unjust. There is an incredible sense of loss with regard to the quality of our working lives; how we contribute to the lives of others and to society, to our children and to future generations. We have no sense of our value because we are harming rather than helping, and there is no way of getting away from this. Those who see in Plato's deductions about self-sufficiency the basis of a society like ours should look very closely indeed into how our society works and whether how we behave can be grounded in the principles that Plato identifies. Are we helping our fellow man and affirming what is just, what is right? In specialising our lives are we each providing a crucial and worthwhile output?

Plato knew that some virtues are better than others, but also that they cannot exist in isolation from each other. When we achieve an excellence in our ability to harm, is this really an excellence? Can we truly praise a murderer for murdering more people than another has? It is the seat of reason in the individual to keep everything in order; that the flow of virtue succeeds in its course in line with what is just. In the state it is the Philosopher-Kings that ensure justice. We today have, however, the media, assessing the state, and identity politics regulating the individual. Understanding just enough to control and manipulate does not help us identify if everything is in its proper place - what is right for us becomes simply what is intended, fiats of the powerful who maintain their power, and the sick who make sick. We dig ourselves down into the earth, into our industries, companies, departments, and/or our specialised fields, and in the darkness we cannot see what we are laying down behind us, nor measure how deep we have burrowed. So we go on digging, knowing that we are needed near the surface, where there is more light, where starving children, wars, and climate change await our return. Have we found anything to give them but a mud more slightly dense?

But this is not enough. The air higher up makes us dizzy. What we need is to do much less, to climb to the surface and see the ground potted with holes. We need to dip inside them and see what there is in each one. We need to stop working and start thinking, start considering what we are working for, and what we are going to achieve. But! From the first instance it is death that rears up in front of us, asking us how we can stop when we have to feed ourselves and continue to exist. It is not Churchill, it is not Queen Victoria, it is not any number of Popes or even a group of positivists that stand up to us. When we stop, lay down tools, and consider why we should pick them up again, it is not ideology, not some grand scheme or vision that we care about; it is not even the thought of being able to help others that demands our obedience. This is what is telling. The ultimate stands with finger pointing, giving an answer to the most feeble question, the question that is the last refuge of our self-humiliation, seeking to justify the unjustifiable through an entirely arbitrary cruelty. We cannot possibly think, it seems, that the grind does any good. There is nothing helpful to be gained from our graft, or there with our assent it would stand - quite as if that is all it ever did - by the water cooler where we drowned our mobile phones. Such an apparition is absent. And so it is that death mocks us. Isn't that quite out of character? Surely that, if anything, should inform us of the oblique and singular way in which we reproach ourselves, feining a serious show with an absurd puppet.

How does boredom enter our lives as a real force? Simply count the ways in which our lives differ from what is right. We can live with what is unavoidable but we can taste what is wrong. We teach ourselves that getting lost in our perversion of specialism is the only way we can be, and it gets stuck in our throats. Our way of life is not entailed by the principles of The Republic; our rationalisations are just dirty words, yet we bully ourselves with them all the same. The nihilistic potion of work we jam down our gullets with whatever soulless artifacts may come to hand, just to get it down - somehow - and we can taste it, this fascist juice. If Plato's Republic is seen by us as a totalitarian, narrow minded, artless and morally violent limbo, it is only because when we look for ourselves in it this is what is reflected back at us. For now this is justice enough.


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