Monthly Archives: August 2019

Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles I: Wednesday

When I am writing intensely, as I most certainly am these days, I don’t read any new books. I read the old, familiar ones. The aging brain can take only so much. Last night I plucked from the shelf Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. As with all familiar books I did not begin at the beginning. I read some scenes that I like, including the one where Dunstan Ramsay re-encounters Paul Dempster performing as a magician in Mexico City. In the run-up to that life-changing event, Ramsay is sitting in a church watching the people who have come to see and experience a famous robe displaying a miraculous picture of the Virgin Mary, “the goddess of mercy, the Holy Mother, the figure of divine compassion” and admires the beauty of their faces. He then asks himself where mercy and divine compassion will come from for these poor people, when they have received the “inestimable benefit” of modern education? He goes on to muse:

Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we will have to pay for it, and in what coin.

Wonder no more, dear Ramsay, at least about the coin. We do not yet know how much of it we will pay. The coin is “economic and educational advance” run amok in an orgy of consumption, commodification, technological displacement, financial speculation, and violence. What was, briefly, benign and even meritorious in this advance, turns rapidly into a nightmare. The coin is alienation from Nature, whom we now treat, not as the beloved mother of Humanity and all Life, but as a property, a colony, a servant or even a slave, a commodity, a garbage dump, a thing to be exploited, an expendable. The coin is alienation from each other, a disintegration of nations, regions, cultures into tribes who eye each other in degrees of separation ranging from indifference to open hostility. Tools for communication on a scale hitherto unimaginable have become weapons in inter-tribal rivalries, assertiveness, and violence. The coin is incessant noise, so that we can no longer hear each other speak or ourselves think, let alone the “choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world”, as George Eliot described it. The coin is alienation from our own individual and collective humanity to the point where everything good in human nature, in our selves and others, becomes, one way or another, something to be exploited for base or trivial purposes, or distrusted, or abandoned as irrelevant. In short, the coin is the perversion of everything holy, everything benign, everything that natural and cultural evolution and human creativity have achieved. This perversion is not yet complete, has not yet become irredeemably grotesque, although the situation is grave. To steal a phrase from W.H. Auden, a little but not entirely out of context: This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.

I do not make or believe any predictions, because the future is in principal unknowable. I am however prepared to assign probabilities, based on knowledge and experience, not only my own. I am even prepared, with all humility and caution, to extrapolate a little, given the necessary data and rigorous estimation of relationships. I was highly trained to do that, and have spent my working life practising. I perform these intellectual and imaginative exercises as conscientiously as I can. I look at the results, and they are full of menace.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. We can still talk, and we can still listen. We can still write, and we can still read. We can still create, and we can still absorb. We can still use our five senses and our brains, our hands to reach out, our feet to cross divides. We do not have to tag along. Stephen Leacock, over the whole of his wide career as a writer, speaker, and teacher, advised us to bring to bear a creative melange of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion and Humour. We can still do that. We do not need to stop or reverse the economic, educational, and other long list of advances that have done us so much good. We have evolved wonderful tools. They remain wonderful. They are being perverted by vicious self-serving people and our own appetites for consumption, comfort, security,  convenience, and entertainment. We do not need to disavow the advance. We need to recognize the perversion for what it is, and put a stop to it.

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P.S. I am now writing my Leacock Anniversaries book, The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles. The Preface was released quietly on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at voyageur-at-bmts.com and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.

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Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapter VII

Stephen Leacock called the last chapter of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice “What Is Possible and What Is Not”, although he starts with what is not. Socialism is not, neither is individualism, or, he hastens to qualify, “at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order.” He did not qualify his judgement of socialism. He could have said, but did not, “at least the all-encompassing socialism presented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward.” He gives no evidence that he knows anything about Marx or Engels, although he probably knew something. He mentions Marx in his 1903 Ph.D. thesis on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire, without suggesting he has read him. By the time he wrote his textbook on Political Science (published 1906), however, he certainly had. One could speculate on the reasons why he chooses Edward Bellamy as the spokesman for socialism and not Marx or the English, French, or German socialists he writes about elsewhere, but this is not the place. He is prepared to qualify individualism, but leaves the socialist alternative in an extreme state, forgetting his textbook admission that “the greater number of socialists now favor the amelioration of present conditions rather than their complete overthrow.”

He makes another extreme statement as he sets up for his recommendations in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written you will recall, in 1919, when he refers to “principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution”. So much for the sharing ethic so prevalent among people living in aboriginal conditions on the edge of survival. Leacock himself is a convinced “sharist”,  however, as the recommendations themselves show.

A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of “natural” wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the “natural” order of society, based on the “natural” liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

Progressive betterment. An incremental approach, at least once the accumulated injustices of the past century have been mitigated, and the lessons of the latest Great War incorporated, jobs to be done through legislation. After all, he insists, if the legislative hammer and taxation can be used to fight a war, as they had so forcefully so recently, then they can be used for the positive betterment of people’s lives. The principle has been established.

What is radical in Leacock’s approach as laid out in this last crucial chapter, is not the content, but the cast of mind. What he recommends is, in brief, simply a comprehensive social safety net in the context of a liberal democracy that values individual creativity and enterprise and restrains individual greed and abuses of power.

The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children.

The war had shown that social enterprise on the necessary scale was feasible in practical, legislative, productive, and financial terms. The external foe had been defeated. It was time to vanquish the internal enemy. It could be done. Q.E.D.

Leacock’s nation is a Both-And place, both individualistic and socialistic. The two ideologies may be poles apart, but they can mix perfectly well. The Unsolved Riddle is in our minds, in our belief, defiant of all experience, that one ideology is right and the other is wrong, that they cannot be mixed. Nothing but disaster, he insists, can follow the pure pursuit of one or the other. To believe in a perfect world or no world at all is ridiculous, even insane. The modern industrial system, even in his day let alone ours, is simply too complex for ideology. Pragmatism is the only way. That is what he believed, and that is what we believe. Enjoy the Muddle, he says. It works. Understand it. Cherish it. Laugh at it. Improve it. That is The Cause.

When we look broadly across his writings we see constant reference to four ways in which we can and must tune our minds, a quadruple Both-And, using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. I am not going to suggest that Stephen Leacock pulled that off. In fact, I am not sure that any one person, however powerful the mind and wide the reading, can pull it off. That’s why we don’t like dictators. We do it together. Improvement is a collective act. The Muddle may be messy, and frighteningly verbose, but that’s how the magic happens.

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This ends my explicit consideration of Leacock’s book. I have now begun to write my 100-years-later extension of his approach and cast of mind, my version of his book, the Preface to be released on Saturday of this week, a chapter a week thereafter for seven weeks. I am following his model slavishly, although in my own style. In this blog, from now until the end of December when the Anniversaries time ends, I will tell stories of My Discovery of Stephen Leacock, which continues, and gossip about his life and ideas. But I think I have delighted you enough with his economic and social ideas. It’s time to get back to the humour.

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters V and VI

Today’s chapters from The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice are: V. The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist; and VI. How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward. They could be taken as one chapter, because Leacock segues explicitly from the first to the next, using Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887 and immensely popular in its day,—you can find it on-line at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/624,—and still listed as in print by Penguin Random House with an introduction by Cecelia Tichi, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. So you see, Bellamy’s book can still attract the attention of a serious scholar of literature, if not of political economy. It is in fact a fascinating work of fiction and I am pleased to have read it.

Looking Backward (the title refers to the perspective of the narrator, who is looking back on 1887 from the year 2000 in which he finds himself after a sleep of 113 years) quickly made a Canadian footprint, albeit a faint one. In 1891 some people wanted to found a community to be called Bellamy Village in Scarborough Township, Ontario, just east of Toronto. They got as far as negotiations with the township council. The idea ran into resistance and died, its only legacy being the name of Bellamy Road in Scarborough, which beginning at Kingston Road proceeds northward with only one break for railroad tracks finally to meld perpendicularly into Corporate Drive. But I digress.

Stephen Leacock’s views on socialism, as they stood in 1919, are neither sophisticated nor interesting today, although clearly stated. What is important is the cast of mind he brings to them:

For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know.

He does not doubt that those he later called people “of good will, whose hearts are in the cause”, who embrace a spirit of “righteousness”, can be found, even among officials. What he doubts is the human capacity to sustain that kind of virtue in a system where officials,—even if elected under the best possible rules,—are given the raw power literally to decide everything to do with economic life.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,—as every socialist has to do,—as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their grey heads—for Bellamy prefers them old—are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?

“With perfect citizens any government is good,” he claims towards the end of the chapter. “In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.”

Last week I drew attention to Leacock’s own dream of a “sane, orderly and continuous social reform”, yet in the peroration to his chapter on Mr. Bellamy he scorns the figure of “the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, [who ]frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self.” Suppose I were to rephrase that just a little, imagining:

a gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, framing for his country a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of social reform achieved little by little in a sane, orderly and continuous process, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they reach by this means and in this land a practical, muddled, benign kind of nirvana where the valid claims to well-being of both self and others are accommodated in a humane way.

I don’t think Stephen Leacock would disagree with that. I think that’s where deep down he wants to go. I think it’s where he was, almost, in 1912 when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a little town that for all its muddled thinking and living achieves a kind of organic unity and spirit of accommodation if not reform. It’s where Isaiah Berlin, prophet of Pluralism, arrived in 1950.

Did Stephen Leacock get there in 1919? Muddled or otherwise, we’ll find out next week when we look into Chapter VII of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. What Is Possible? What is Not?

 

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters III and IV

The two chapters I am going to cover today are:

III. The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; and

IV: Work and Wages.

Stephen Leacock begins his lecture on the failures and fallacies of natural liberty with the following sentence, as true in our day as in his: “The rewards and punishments of the economic world are singularly unequal.” He then contrasts them for the manual labourer, the stock market speculator, the unemployed person, the landlord, the lucky, the loafer. He then goes on:

Yet all are free. This is the distinguising mark of them as children of our era. They may work or stop. There is no compulsion from without. No man is a slave. Each has his “natural liberty,” and each in his degree, great or small, receives his allotted reward.

But is the allotment correct and the reward proportioned by his efforts? Is it fair or unfair, and does it stand for the true measure of social justice?

This is the profound problem for the twentieth century.

He then addresses, and goes on to trash, a central economic doctrine of his day, which he states as follows: Under perfectly free competition the value or selling price of everything equals, or is perpetually tending to equal, the cost of its production. In other words, “there is a ‘natural price’ of everything, and that all ‘natural prices’ are proportionate to cost and to one another; that all wages, apart from temporary fluctuations, are derived from, and limited by, the natural prices paid for the things made; that all payments for the use of capital (interest) are similarly derived and similarly limited; and that consequently the whole economic arrangements, by giving to each person exactly and precisely the fruit of his own labor, conforms exactly to social justice.”

He has earlier drawn attention to the effect on simple apparent truths of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity” that governs actual economic life. He now goes after the heart of the logic, pointing out that “the trouble with the main proposition … is that each side of the equation is used as the measure of the other. … It is a  mere argument in a circle.” In other words,—and unfortunately he does not use these words despite the title of the book,—the cost and the price of something are both an Unsolved Riddle, because each is a function of the other. Something else is going on to set their levels, and that something grows out of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity”. The idea that “every many in this just world gets what is coming to him, … gets what he is worth, and is worth what he gets” offers no explanation beyond the tautology that he gets what he gets.

He concludes the chapter with this promise:

If one knocks out the keystone of the arch in the form of a proposition that natural value conforms to the cost of production, then the whole edifice collapses and must be set up again, upon another plan and on another foundation, stone by stone.

Is it possible that the distribution of rewards in our complex world is effectively random, or would be if it were left to its own devices? Is that what a world governed by Unsolved Riddles means? If so, is that tolerable? If not, what are we going to do about it? What are we doing, and is it working? Stephen Leacock puts a great deal of stock in what works. Socialism is misguided because it doesn’t work. Laissez-faire-ism is misguided because it  doesn’t work. What does work? Or must we just muddle along, doing our best in a world we don’t really understand because, in the face of its complexity, we cannot?

In Chapter IV,—Work and Wages, he follows his thread further: “Prices, wages, salaries, interest, rent and profits do not, if left to themselves, follow the simple law of natural justice. To think so is an idle dream.”

The real truth is that prices and wages are all the various payments from hand to hand in industrial society, are the outcome of a complex of competing forces that are not based upon justice but upon “economic strength.”

The subsequent twenty pages of combined analysis and rhetoric amplify that statement and make, for me at least, tedious reading. I am running out of space today, and will leave you to look it up for yourself if you are curious. I want to get on to where he is going:

By what means and in what stages can social progress be further accelerated? This I propose to treat in the succeeding chapters, dealing first with the proposals of the socialists and the revolutionaries, and finally with the prospect for a sane, orderly and continuous social reform.

Sane, orderly, and continuous. That sounds wonderful! But suppose that we, due to the nature of the world we are given and the one we have created, in all their complexities and Unsolved Riddles, are stuck with social reform that is disorderly, discontinuous, and even sometimes apparently insane, as for example when we take great leaps of imagination and faith to do things that have never been done before? How do we act in that case? Where is Social Justice in that case? How do we think properly in that case?

This is the profound problem for the twenty-first century.

Leacock’s next two chapters deal with Socialism, the spectre that haunted his dreams, the hope that illuminated those of many in his day. We will look next week at how he dealt with it, to see whether we can learn anything we could apply to the hard-edged ideologies of our day, such as the “corporatism” and “technologism” and “fossil-fuel-ism” so prevalent in the dreams of today, and I don’t mean only those of self-interested corporatists, technologists, and fossil-fuel-ists. The ideologies whose primary approach is to oppose these, are they effective for Social Justice? What ideology would be, in a positive way?

In his last chapter he turns to “What is Possible and What Is Not”. We’ll get there two weeks from today. After that we get to work on our own.