The Poverty of Care

by Tristan on October 14, 2010

in Ethics

Walter Benjamin gave us this passage on the moral situation of man in the modern world:

The face of the angel of history is turned toward the past.  Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  The storm is what we call progress.

The Angel stands not for the perspective of a particular person, but the moral zeitgeist of our time.  Its concern is the redemption of history – the making of a just world in our shared future that would in some sense justify the “single catastrophe” of our past. But the Angel is incapacitated, blown forward by the winds of progress. Benjamin is right to make this evocation – the supernatural belief in growth and progress does stifle our ability to address the catastrophe as the debris piles skyward. And it’s easy to see this, for instance, in our society’s idea of the “impossible”: nothing is technically impossible, science is the impossible becoming possible. Politically, however, almost everything but the most simple and slight reforms are impossible. And why is there no similar hope, openness for political change as there is for technological innovation? Certainly one reason is the fear that political change would compromise technological innovation. Those with an interest in technical innovation and growth, i.e. capital, have a good reason to oppose destabilizing political change. Another reason, perhaps the greater reason, is the fear of political transformation due to the violence associated with revolution, and the worry that a new state would be as bad, or worse as the existing one. And these are genuine fears – the French revolution was indeed bloody, and the USSR never moved beyond a paralyzing system of secret police repression and state control over capital (it was in no way “socialist” because workers did not control production).

There is another motivation, however, which I think prevents us from applying the same open-thinking to the catastrophes of neoliberalism and the world system as we apply to technical problems. This is the sense in which we have an interest, as relatively mentally stable beings, in believing the world is a relatively well-ordered place, which overall is mostly fair. We all know this isn’t true (from a young age we were told “eat your peas because there are children starving in Africa). And yet – we actively ignore and turn away from opportunities to learn about injustice. And there’s a good reason for this – injustice is frightening, chaotic, we often don’t know what to do when we see it, and this forces us to experience our powerlessness. Worse, it might make us question and de-identify with structures which make up part of our identity. For example, when you present devout Christians with evidence of their church’s active role in genocide, they get upset, dismissive and irrational. But in fact they aren’t being irrational at all – they are merely protecting stories they tell about themselves, stories of fairness and justice, caring and love, which are thrown into question by the crimes committed by institutions they identify with. The same pattern is manifested by supporters of Israel’s expansionist, racist and colonialist policies, who Chomsky rightly calls “supporters of Israel’s moral degeneration”. For them, the idea that Israel could be a force of injustice appears as a racist condemnation of the Jewish people. And this isn’t accidental, there is a massive ideological apparatus that operates in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora which teaches Israel’s history and context in a particular way. And this apparatus is quite weak, in fact, compared to the force with which the worldview of America’s “moral” foreign policy is enforced. But I don’t mean here to concentrate on the institutional apparatuses that indoctrinate people into hearing criticism of Israel as “racist”, or criticism of the US as “Anti-American” – rather, I want to focus on the sense in which these institutions rely on our need for stories to tell ourselves about how the world makes sense, and how the forces of good (order) and chaos (disorder, disintegration) stand with respect to our own activity. To those brought up under into these ways of understanding, these stories give the world an order, a rightness, and a fairness which they can situate themselves in – and to challenge this order is to threaten their concept of existence – it is not accidental that Israel refers constantly to “existential” threats! And we all need stories like this (although I would suggest against these ones), because we all want to be good – and unfortunately we’re willing to believe lies in order to maintain the belief that what we are (our identity) and what we participate in (our institutions) are good things – things to defend.

But what does this have to do with climate change? The relation is not immediate, but it is, I think, deep. In order to maintain the belief that our lives are essentially good, we are forced to actively ignore the constant catastrophe which is institutionalized poverty, police violence, military and economic imperialism, corporate supported civil wars, etc… This is not neutral with respect to our ability to act as moral agents. Rather, our active ignorance of the evil which we are complicit in is a force of moral degeneration. It reduces our ability to empathize with others, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to recognize when the state must be resisted externally rather than or while being massaged internally.  We lose sight of our own privilege, our racism, and the big picture of who will be affected by global warming, and how to best mitigate not only the effects of humans on the climate, but the effects of the climate on humans. It encourages us to draw strict divisions, to discount huge swaths of morally relevant facts, and fight only for things that appear achievable within the anachronistic order.

The “poverty of care” is the situation of the human which corresponds to the Angel of History’s tangled wings. How might we overcome this poverty? One solution would be to develop a different way of framing our moral obligations with respect to the appearance of a constant stream of catastrophes. In short, rather than blocking out, choosing to ignore every cause which we don’t feel we can make a significant contribution to, we can learn about them in the time that we do in fact have, but then we can choose to concentrate our efforts in the directions which we think will have the best effects. In short, we can largely keep doing what we’re doing now – but we should do so without the ideological barricades which prevent us from asking fundamental questions about the political systems which we inhabit and identify with. To overcome the poverty of care, we need to recognize “propaganda” for what it is – the active production of hegemonic discourse which prevents us from considering criticism that might put into question the stories which institutions have identified for us to be fundamental.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:18 am

nothing is technically impossible, science is the impossible becoming possible

Actually, there are some very significant physical impossibilities relating to energy and climate change. It is impossible to build a perfectly safe nuclear fission reactor. It is impossible to power an automobile with performance comparable to those common now using just a photovoltaic panel on the roof. It is impossible to create energy out of nothing. Etc.

Thinking seriously about scale and physical possibilities is a key aspect of dealing with climate change, and one thing David MacKay’s book does especially well.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:21 am

Those with an interest in technical innovation and growth, i.e. capital

Everyone has an interest in these things. They are some of the major reasons why life now is better in South Korea than in Chad, and why life in Western Europe is better now than in the Middle Ages or during the time of the Roman Empire.

Certainly, technology and growth can have harmful consequences. But, in and of themselves, they are definitely good things.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:32 am

injustice is frightening, chaotic, we often don’t know what to do when we see it, and this forces us to experience our powerlessness. Worse, it might make us question and de-identify with structures which make up part of our identity.

This is true, and a good point about human psychology. People cannot easily live with the knowledge that basically all the people and institutions they trust and respect have done immoral and – in many cases – reprehensible things.

One solution would be to develop a different way of framing our moral obligations with respect to the appearance of a constant stream of catastrophes.

One big reason why there is so little activity on climate change is that the catastrophe is far from obvious. Almost nothing about our society is sustainable, but we are still in the honeymoon period before that becomes completely obvious. Some of the strongest candidates – when it comes to what will shake people out of consistency – are climate change and peak oil. Both will eventually be a dramatic reminder that there is nothing about the universe that grants us the right to keep living as we have been so far. Sometimes, when the tank is empty, you just cannot drive anymore.

To overcome the poverty of care, we need to recognize “propaganda” for what it is – the active production of hegemonic discourse which prevents us from considering criticism that might put into question the stories which institutions have identified for us to be fundamental.

For the examples you list, there is propaganda on both sides. Ignoring injustice may be one way of failing to live fully as moral beings, but ignoring nuance can be another. Oppressed groups often represent themselves as 100% justified in their claims and actions – ignoring the legitimate needs and interests of those who they are in confict with. Some people who support one group or another unflinchingly do so for tactical reasons – arguing that they are supporting the ‘right’ side and do so most effectively when they do so without criticism. This approach incorporates the same kind of moral blindness you are criticizing in this article, however.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:32 am

“Everyone has an interest in these things.”

Everyone has an interest in access to them – but I do not have an interest in technology or growth if it is at the cost of the amelioration of my class. I think what you are doing here is assuming the “trickle down” justification for neo-liberalism. In fact, the wage as share of GDP, and the standard of living indexes of a large portion of the industrialized workforce have not increased over the last 30 years. That means their lives are not, in fact, better. And if that’s been the cost of technical innovation and growth, then technical innovation and growth has not been in their interest.

Personally, I would choose a middle class lifestyle of the 70s, or even the 20s, over poverty today.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:37 am

Focusing exclusively on GDP involves the same set of errors environmental and social justice groups are constantly bringing up, such as how GDP rises when people are diagnosed with cancer and forests are clearcut. Also, not all the benefits of technology show up in GDP. From the perspective of GDP, a laptop that costs $1000 today is equivalent to one that cost $1000 in 1995 (ignoring inflation). That is manifestly not true, when it comes to the experience of actually using the thing.

Personally, I would choose a middle class lifestyle of the 70s, or even the 20s, over poverty today.

This isn’t comparing apples to apples. Would you rather be a random person in society in 1970, 1920, or now? If the question is about global society, ‘now’ is almost certainly the right choice, given the huge number of people who have risen out of extreme poverty in recent decades – largely as a consequence of the capitalist structures and neoliberal policies you so energetically condemn.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

“Some people who support one group or another unflinchingly do so for tactical reasons – arguing that they are supporting the ‘right’ side and do so most effectively when they do so without criticism. This approach incorporates the same kind of moral blindness you are criticizing in this article, however.”

I didn’t go into this in the article – but I actually have a response to this. In my experience there is nothing like the hard-nosed identification with a cause as “right” on the side of the oppressed as there is on the side of the oppressor. I’ve met dozens of Palestinian activists who completely condemn terrorism, and hate all the ideas that Hamas stands for (except for their adherence to the Arab Peace Initiative, and their electoral mandate). It’s quite easy for those who oppose the violent repression of a group to oppose the violence used by both sides, but also to have an analysis of how you actually end that violence. It’s quite difficult, on the other hand, for those on the side of the oppressor to not see their violence as legal, as totally justified for the cause of order.

To give another example – to oppose the British colonization of Ireland is not to support the IRA’s terror tactics – but, to support the colonialism is to support the terror, the targeted assassinations, and occupation by the British army. You can’t condemn the crimes committed by a state you support as crimes, because the imperialist logic names them as a priori justified. But the corollary, the argument that violence committed against the oppressors is inherently justified, is not at all necessarily connected with the criticism of oppression.

This is why Chomksy’s moral position is lucid – more lucid I think than other Philosophers like Badiou who insist on “taking sides” – because he simply takes a standard and applies it everywhere. This might be boring, but one thing it is not is a cause of moral blindness.

I’m really not sure who supports an oppressed group “unflinchingly”, although I’m sure it exists – there are fascist tendencies in every liberation movement. Those are the tendencies against self-critique, and which take stories of empowerment and turn them into glorious tales of moral rightness and God-sanctioned success and power.

You can see the fascist and anti-fascist tendencies in movements by looking at what alliances appear between causes. I wrote about this in some detail on northernsong in the spring:

http://northernsong.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/dynamics-of-identity-how-the-oppressed-and-the-oppressors-are-not-the-same/

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:47 am

“This isn’t comparing apples to apples. Would you rather be a random person in society in 1970, 1920, or now? If the question is about global society, ‘now’ is almost certainly the right choice, given the huge number of people who have risen out of extreme poverty in recent decades – largely as a consequence of the capitalist structures and neoliberal policies you so energetically condemn.”

If the question is about Canada, then I’d pick the 50s or 60s, because that was the most prosperous period from an HDI perspective. In the 60s my grandfather was able to raise a family with 2 children and live a decent lifestyle (Jaguars, Horses – some pretty expensive hobbies) on one income. That’s not possible today.

If the question is about “the entire world” then I’d pick sometime before Europe began raping the world.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

I don’t want to get into discussion specific ‘oppressor/oppressed’ scenarios, but I think having a fair perspective requires more than just a willingness to criticize unacceptable tactics from groups that claim to be oppressed. You also need to take into consideration the legitimate interests of the group being defined as their oppressors.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:51 am

In the 60s my grandfather was able to raise a family with 2 children and live a decent lifestyle

You realize there is a 50% chance you would be randomly assigned to ‘female’ right?

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 12:00 pm

“I think having a fair perspective requires more than just a willingness to criticize unacceptable tactics from groups that claim to be oppressed.”

Of course. But you’ve argued in the past that no tactic is a priori unacceptable, even a nuclear attack on innocent civilians. And that was merely to end a war more efficiently – if that could be justified, then there is no telling what force might be justified to prevent the extinction of the species.

“You also need to take into consideration the legitimate interests of the group being defined as their oppressors.”

Illegally invading armies have no rights, but only responsibilities. Nazi forces had no legitimate interests as they moved through Poland, France and Russia. The individual soldiers had legitimate interests (i.e. in their own security, both physical and moral – the latter is what Himmler was so concerned about).

“You realize there is a 50% chance you would be randomly assigned to ‘female’ right?”

So, you’re saying I should pick a more modern time not because of prosperity (which has decreased), but because society has become more civilized in response to the militant demands of oppressed groups to be treated as equals? Sure, fine, I’ll pick today – but in that case I won’t chalk that up to the success of neoliberalism.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 12:06 pm

“Actually, there are some very significant physical impossibilities relating to energy and climate change. It is impossible to build a perfectly safe nuclear fission reactor. It is impossible to power an automobile with performance comparable to those common now using just a photovoltaic panel on the roof. It is impossible to create energy out of nothing. Etc.”

“Impossible becoming possible” does not mean everything is possible – it means things that were impossible become possible. A perfectly safe fission reactor – impossible. But, a fission reactor as safe as riding in a car – probably possible. A car powered by a roof mounted photovoltaic panel? Well, actually that probably is possible if we started with a car like this: http://www.eta.co.uk/2010/06/03/bicycle-bling-porsche-gt3-full-size-pedal-car

But more seriously, a car powered by electricity that can serve the needs created by gasoline cars – totally do able (and actually do-able since the 70s). Actually that’s a bad example of “impossible becoming possible” since electric cars are as old as the car itself. But still, the Tesla is a good example of something we thought impossible – an electric car faster than a Ferrari – become possible, and in production. A Tesla, though rare, is now dull and boring.

Milan October 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm

A perfectly safe fission reactor – impossible. But, a fission reactor as safe as riding in a car – probably possible.

This is a tricky statement to assess, because the types of risks really aren’t comparable.

Riding in a car, you face a pretty limited and specific set of dangers – basically, the probability that your body will suddenly experience a change in velocity, and perhaps collide with something solid or be cut.

Nuclear fission reactors inevitably produce dangers of a more varied and long-term variety. There is the direct radiation they produce, the risk of meltdown which can probably never be entirely eliminated, the danger from waste, etc.

You look at statistics on how many people are thought to have died from cars – and how many are thought to have died from nuclear reactors – and then evaluate how ‘safe’ one is relative to the other, but that is not a terribly satisfying mode of analysis. For one thing, the risks of riding in a car are clear and comprehensible and voluntarily adopted by those who choose to do so; most of the risks associated with nuclear power are imposed on people who don’t have a meaningful ability to opt out.

Tristan October 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

“the risks of riding in a car are clear and comprehensible and voluntarily adopted by those who choose to do so”

I don’t think this is true at all. For one, the risks of riding in a car are not homogeneous – they depend on the driver’s skill, attitude towards driving, tiredness, drug or blood alcohol level. And they also depend on those factors in other drives, as well as risk-aversion of your driver, and other drivers.

Also, I don’t think people have a “feel” for how safe driving is, because they don’t experience crashes regularly. You can easily see this by a person who has recently been in a crash’s worry about getting into a car – if they were rational, they would be no more worried than anyone else. What this shows is we tend to under-estimate the risk, and then when we get hurt we over-estimate it. And I think this is how humans in general deal with risk-taking when they can’t actually understand how risky it is.

Worse, there are all sorts of social pressures that persuade people to take risks in ways that are not strictly voluntary. And this doesn’t stop with just “getting into a car” – there is a risk in not stealing a friend’s keys if you suspect they will drive home intoxicated. Those are really awkward situations, and there are a lot of things at play other than the simple calculation of risk and responsibility.

I think few risks we take are “clear and comprehensible” – but actually risks we share, such as the risk of nuclear disaster, the risk of hydro electric disaster (not an irrelevant risk when communities live downstream from huge dam projects) – these are potentially very clear and voluntary, because society as a whole (if it is democratic) can choose to take them on. On the other hand, it is very easy for drivers to externalize risk onto other drivers by choosing to drive unsafely – and there is no warning, or planning for this. The best you can do is be the best driver you know how to be. But hardly anybody does this – and this is strong evidence that the risks are not taken seriously.

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