Written during a weeklong visit to Montreal, late August 2013
As a visitor in Canada with just momentary exposure to contemporary politics there, it is disheartening to find that the ethos of elite neoconservatism that has strangled the United States seems to also have been true north of border.
Two recent pieces on Rabble.ca highlight the extent to which the Harper government has engaged in exclusionary and elitist policies. The first is through immigrant policymaking couched in pecuniary instead of more humanistic–or dare I say moralistic–terms, while the other is through methods of militarizing Canada’s college campuses, which would extend the military-industrial complex further into the reaches of liberal arts academia that used to be free from its long tentacles. Both efforts bear trademarks of the Western Neo-Con: made in vague terms, nominally if at all divulged, and with no impact analysis beyond exclusionary and typically inflammatory rhetoric. And, as true as it is in the United States, the policies are extensively covered, regurgitated, and reinforced by the corporate media chamber.
Hopes for an ideological turnaround as soon as the next election are probably unrealistic in either Canada or the United States. Rampant, unabashed capitalism has burrowed deep into the Anglo-European conservative tradition, and the West still operates under a tangled mesh of ideals it flirts with as truths, giving rise to justifications on human and social realities based on unprovable premises and mistaken assumptions of superiority. Such lessons are difficult to extricate from because they are deeply ingrained in the Western model of education, which itself is steeped in the ruthless pursuit of the ideal City on the Hill–a Platonic conceptualization intrinsically exclusive, hierarchical, and anti-democratic. The West will not change until it divorces its educational rubric from necessary Platonic rumination.
It is true that universities in the liberal model can be a force for egalitarianism and communitarianism. However the screening process for artificially construed distinctions in selectivity between institutions that otherwise have the same claim to truth–which should be the foundation of any academic endeavor–has led to the condensation of ideas and information, suppressing opposition, leading to the production of a self-selected, unabashed, ‘meritocratically successful’ few, whose consumers, their readers, their voters, their listeners, are not the masses for whom they claim to speak but rather those who tend to be of the like-minded sort: their similarly educated peers.
The gatekeepers of academia are produced from the same institutions as the gatekeepers of media, government, and business. The institutions themselves are factories of hardened meritocratic categorization. Students are commodified through grades and hierarchized accordingly.Those with the highest marks are given the plushest jobs and in turn the plushest salaries, while those down the rigid ladder still, overall, do much better than those who never were meritocratized–who could never, for example, afford without the brunt of lifelong student loans–through such institutions to begin with.
This self-ostracized minority–for one doesn’t simply stumble into institutions like the New York Times, the Brookings Institute, or universities like McGill–then emerges from their self-reinforced caves out into the world and realize what they had learned had been incomplete all along, that in fact out there, in the real world, it is entirely fine to subsist and live as an ‘everyday person’–a favored term, whatever that means. (The policy language itself as alluded to in the worthwhile read by Douglas and Yao Yao, which pits ‘economic class’ against ‘family class’ immigrants in preference, assuming the premise of hierarchy, as if having more children was automatically antithetical to economic success). The self-ostracized minority of elites and intellectuals, residing in their caves atop mountains of little intellectual diversity and hoarded endowments, peer at the masses below through stained glass windows, in the seconds spent away from books and journal articles (which themselves are compiled from written history produced by self-ostracized minorities of elites and intellectuals centuries of generations prior). Soon they think about how awful it must be to be down there. Many of them forget it was their norm prior to entering the gated compounds of the campus. And so they return, four or seven or twelve or more years later, finding the collective minute differences that have accumulated in the years since their self-ostracization uncomfortable, and consciously or not move, literally, intellectually and socially, back to gated communities of like-minded self-ostracized minority of meritocratic success stories, beginning to wonder whether such successes–within the parameters of capitalist, consumerist definitions–were perhaps, maybe, innate all along, whether through aptitude or luck. Because they hailed from similar meritocratic factories of learning, such gatekeepers tend to apply the same metrics, methods, and rules of meritocracy onto the gates they have succeeded to keep, whether in government or business or the media or academia, and the same perceived necessities of hierarchy and curved compensation they had carried over from university.
Such jewel-encrusted cages of steel (purchased on credit), such caves made of cities and universities on hills, may have been once but are no longer necessary. Not when the premise behind cost of education through history–its basis on availability and scarcity, with which any capitalist would agree–has been blown open by anyone with access to Wikipedia, torrents, iTunes University and Reddit, or practically anyone with a smartphone or a nearby library and enough time. (One wonders where literacy levels would be if much fewer people, or altogether no one, would have to be self-alienated into laboring two shifts of eight hours apiece for, say, elite-educated corporate fast food overlords, few of whom actually deign to touch their own products, just to survive).
We see the conversation continue to unfold today as the newly minted gatekeepers enter their jobs and existing ones continue to stand sentry against any rabble of unvetted intruders–against questioning the militarization of college campuses, as if it was necessary to decimate what remains of academia that is non-corporate, and against ‘family-class’ immigrants, as if it was necessary to implore that the solution to scarce resources was to have less children over and instead of less consumerism and more sustainability (see: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). And the Harper government is very much complicit in enshrining and increasing the largesse of the gatekeepers who hold such keys to power.
Popular movements such as Occupy, the student protests, and have only scratched the surface of elitist entrenchment in their respective societies. Despite the uncertainties of the aftermath of the recent financial ‘collapse’–the paradox between high employment and record corporate profits is pretty simple if you think about it, those jobs are being trickled-down to cheaper, more oppressive states overseas–we now know the gatekeepers remain alive and well-fed. PRISM and the NSA revelations have simply confirmed that the revolving doors of ethics and information between the elite-run, ever-voracious, militaristic states and markets of Corporate North America are spinning faster than previously imagined.
The exact year in which Dante started the Inferno is unclear. What is certain is that by the time of Dante’s birth, Florence was a burgeoning city-state, prospering from trade and commerce. The lending of money to and from private individuals for profit was regarded by the papacy as immoral, leading Pope Clement V to decree belief in the right to usury heretical in 1311. Nevertheless the loaning of money to businesses, with interest relative to the risk of the transaction, was the basis for growing mercantilism in the age.
Dante, for his part, seems unmoved by the distinction implicit between the two practices and condemns them equally, albeit for different reasons, for the Comedy is not only theological but a tract concerning political governance, echoing a changing focus of his work after exile. Of the two, Dante’s political reasoning is much the weakest; a reaction against the nouveau riche and petit bourgeoisie springing up in Florence and the growing political influence that new money brought. Like many a fundamentalist (and a fundamentalist he undoubtedly was), his religious zeal translated into a nostalgic desire for prelapsarian innocence, and he was by no means a progressive. That he held extreme religious contempt for the usurious is indicated most clearly in their place within the topography of the Inferno, which should now be elaborated.
The Inferno is subdivided into nine descending circles, each one corresponding to a worse offence and a greater punishment: the ‘virtuous heathen’ occupies the first circle, the ‘treacherous’ the ninth, closest to Lucifer and furthest from God. These nine circles and their populace are grouped by family resemblance regarding the type of sin committed, these being: the ‘virtuous heathen’ (1), the incontinent (2-5), heretics (6), the violent (7) and the fraudulent (8-9). Within circles 7 to 9 there are still a further 13 subdivisions, but these need not concern us here; what is of note is that the usurer is placed in the third section of the seventh circle; closest to the fraudulent; below the murderers and the suicides; and on a par with the blasphemer and the sodomite, in a group labelled ‘violent against God, nature and art’.
The relationship between usury and art will become apparent again in the later discussion of Pound’s Cantos, though in a slightly different interpretation. Regardless, the basis of Pound’s treatment of usury would seem to be influenced greatly by that found in the Inferno. What, then, is ‘art’ in this sense? Virgil, Dante’s guide through the nine circles of hell lays out a genealogy of ‘art’ towards the end of Canto XI, noting that ‘nature takes her course from the divine mind and its art,’ and that furthermore, ‘[man’s] art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God, as it were, a grandchild.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 25-30) In this sense therefore it would seem that ‘art’ becomes synonymous with ‘labour’ or man’s cultivation of nature before, (Genesis 1:28 ‘And God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”’, and after expulsion from Eden, (Genesis 3:22 ‘Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken’).
Acquiring money through the needs and misfortunes of others directly contravenes the Biblical precept of industry and hard work; ‘it behoves mankind to gain their livelihood and their advancement, and because the usurer takes another way he despises nature both in herself and in her followers, setting his hope elsewhere.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 32-35) That the usurer is also closest to the fraudulent is no coincidence.
But there is a further tension within the Divine Comedy which informs the place of usury in Dante’s cosmology. As already noted, this religious epic is also deeply political and quasi-Platonic in nature: echoing the Republic in its inferences on the shape and form of just political life and governance. To this end, much of Dante’s later works would take up the theme of human reason in much the same way as his earlier ones were preoccupied with his beloved Beatrice; it represents a shift from the donna gentile of his love poetry to the lady philosophy of his exilliteratur, which, in this case, is a distinct brand of Aristotelianism. The tension then, becomes quite clear: to reconcile ‘reason and Revelation’ in one work, which, as anyone with an eye on the political situation today will know, is quite an undertaking.
Much of the bizarre (to modern eyes) structure of the Inferno is predicated on this interplay between reason and faith which Dante’s sees as a divine gift. This explains, for example, why fraudulence is placed below murder and those treacherous to their lords are the lowest of all. If reason is the greatest of divine gifts, then the perversion of that reason to immoral ends is the ultimate betrayal, especially when turned against the divine order incarnate in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In this way then, the act of usury is not only in direct contradiction of biblical doctrine, but also an affront to the goodness of God and the faculties He bestowed on man.
Tellingly, Dante does not need instruction from Virgil as to the nature of the usurer’s crime, nor as to the reasons why it is a crime. For an abstract, socially (more or less) acceptable concept it would seem its severity is self evident to the author. No doubt this position is in no small part due to Dante’s extraordinary political situation and was not shared by those for whom the lending of money provided the basis for greater social mobility. But Dante’s social conservatism is neither particularly novel, nor confined to him alone. His aversion to predatory loan-sharking, is morally commendable, but the lack of distinction between this and commercial lending is troubling and reductive in the extreme. On balance it would seem that the repulsion he felt towards the masses got the better of his moralism and in the end his moralism fed into it. This though will be a recurring motif of the artistic treatment of usury.
In today’s New York Times Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive, publicly submits his resignation citing, among many other scathing reasons, the decline of the once morally sound corporate culture. This article is already receiving a volley of follow up publications from the skeptical to the satirical. And why shouldn’t it? It endeavors to critique the failings of today’s society, something we don’t take kindly to: criticism.
What makes this op-ed of such paramount importance is not what it says about one company, but the light it will inevitably shine on our society in the backlash that will undoubtedly follow. Like a childish tit-for-tat, I expect we will see media polarization of good vs. evil when it comes to talking about Mr. Smith. And the very process by which this “conversation” will unfold is the chilly reality of the world in which we live, and the qualities to which, by inference, we can reasonably assume Smith’s piece spoke.
I have in mind a few scenarios. First, following the negative publicity bound to be endured, Goldman Sachs (and others in comparable positions) will begin by discrediting Smith’s character. Either we can expect to hear that he was set to be let go, and in a clever attempt to capitalize on first-mover advantage, Smith tried to preemptively combat personal shortcomings by focusing blame on the company; or, that this was a childish attack by a disgruntled employee. Second, Goldman Sachs may refuse to acknowledge the attack, thus undermining Smith’s importance entirely, and proactively establish positive-spun PR campaigns to subconsciously reestablish a good image.
None of this seems revolutionary. But this is precisely why it is so important. We have accepted, either consciously or subconsciously, the way in which business, media, and society at large operates. It is indicative of the larger epidemic occurring these days: the acceptance, indeed encouragement, of the lowest (moral) common denominator. The transition from qualitative to quantitative analytics has allowed us to gauge success numerically, as detached from values (aside from monetary ones, that is).
Like the political to-and-fro of recent name-calling with respect to Rush Limbaugh’s controversy, we no longer address situations from the perspective of open and informed debate. Rather, issues are painted in such stark black and white contrast that there is no room for critique, only attacks. The further down this road we allow ourselves to travel, the less likely we are to advance.
Like Edgar Allen Poe’s pendulum swinging from extreme sides, the mechanics of today’s society prohibits anything in the middle from trying to stop polarization on pain of death. I eagerly await the reciprocation of Smith’s piece. Hopefully, I’ll be proved wrong and some fruitful discourse will take place. More likely though, the camps are already divided and trenches dug. I can’t help derive some satisfaction out of the fact that the devision factor on this particular issue, however, comes from a Mr. Smith. Moral philosopher, economist, polemicist. Can it merely be a coincidence?
The stage is once more set for Lib-Dems and Tories to pick at the unhealed scab that is the 50p tax rate. For those non-UK readers, the 50p tax stipulates that for every pound earned after £150,000, half will go to taxes. In an effort to generate more tax revenue from the rich, the polemic 50p tax has Conservatives (Tories) seething. The Financial Times reported today* that one unnamed conservative complained such tax structures (or any additional tax, for that matter) flew in the face of “Conservative values and principles” because they stifle a celebratory environment of success.
If the celebratory sense of success if pivotal to the Conservative approach to economics and politics, why remain unnamed? If there is a transatlantic parallel to be drawn here, it is the celebration of the fairytale-like “American Dream.” Did the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg have private celebrations of success? Of course not. While they may have thrown a few private parties, their names are still commonplace in today’s society and an indication of just how public their success has been. Those very exposed, public success stories are the fuel on which entrepreneurs’ dreams run. Though there must be irony in the unnamed person championing the celebration of success, I digress.
Most importantly, the question is one of “how?” How will the 50p tax mar this conservative value/principle of success? Are we to believe that people will aspire to earn less because their taxes increase? I highly doubt someone would refuse a promotion that pushed him over the £149,999.99 edge. Can you compare the resentment of losing 50p to the pound (over 150k) to someone who can’t buy the name brand cereal because it’s 50p more?
The demoralization of taxes, if anything, is the biggest hindrance to the celebration of success. If you chose to subscribe to the belief that all taxes are evil, then of course you cannot see, let alone celebrate, that an increase in tax revenue from you personally may go to improving society overall. Granted, a mindset akin to “celebrating” taxes requires a high level of trust in government and its tax expenditure programs, and in today’s world, this is near impossible. And being oblivious to the effectiveness of taxes isn’t conducive either. Rather, we should be keen to celebrate success, understand taxes don’t reduce the achievements, and even see that [taxed] success is all the more praise worthy when well invested. So please, Tories, don’t be so quick to preemptively condemn an entire concept that pays for societal structure. Rather, be constructive and celebrate those programs that you think best use taxpayer money and this will provide incentive for success and a celebration we can all join in on – a feat whereby there need be no one name associated with celebrating success.
* This article may require a subscription. Apologies for those who can’t access the article.
This is turning out to be a little too long for one post, so it’s coming as two (I hope).
When I first thought of this piece, the intention was to provide a historical look at prevailing historical attitudes towards usury through an analysis of the Inferno. This is still my intention, but it is done with an important caveat.
There are two mottos every self-respecting literature student should hold dear when it comes to textual analysis: ‘no man is an island’ and ‘there is nothing outside the text’. Art is fundamentally contextual in its creation and its interpretation. Of no author is this truer than Dante, and of no author’s work is interpretation more complicated. The extant biographical information on Dante, whether from contemporary accounts or his own poems, is extremely patchy; his wife and children (the number is still contested) for example, are never mentioned in his poetry, while Beatrice, his muse and objet d’amour with whom he was not on particularly intimate terms, is obsessively elevated to mythic standing in his early dolce stil novo works. Regardless, one of the few facts agreed upon by all scholars is that some time between late 1301 and early1302, Dante was exiled from his native Florence, and remained in exile until his death in 1321. The events of these years form the most pertinent backdrop with which to contextualise The Divine Comedy, the work that secured Dante’s place in the Western canon.
So where is the problem? All good art is a fascinating interaction between the creative individual and wider society, and, as this terribly brief biography highlights, Dante’s was particularly fraught. To read the Comedy in light of this singular event exposes its extraordinarily polemical nature. We think of the Comedy primarily as a fictional-theological work; as a startlingly imaginative cosmology delineating hell, purgatory and heaven; perhaps even as a theodicy of sorts, justifying the ways of God to man. But while it may be all of the above, it is also testament to the anger and bitterness the author felt regarding the political, social and religious situation of the day.
Therefore the caveat: like Milton’s Paradise Lost 300 years later, Dante’s epic religious poem is also an intensely personal sublimation of his politics, and, like Milton, politically he may not have been in the majority. To describe Dante’s politics as self-serving would overstep the mark; to describe it as coloured by a set of extraordinary circumstances and a desire for recrimination would, I think, be accurate. The Comedy is densely populated not only with mythical and historical figures, but also with the great and the good of Florentine society and one cannot help but feel that he had a score to settle. This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious: art is always a subjective endeavour. Nevertheless, personal circumstance seems to seep into The Divine Comedy on such an all-encompassing scale that it was a statement of the blindingly obvious I felt duty bound to make.