Civilization means saying no to the poor

Political scientist James Scott argues that barbarism is superior to civilization:

What if early civilization was not a boon to humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small and rapacious elite?

Lots about the awful “exploitation” wherever settled agriculture took root, compared to the carefree egalitarianism of the barbarians.  My God, can we have any reprieve from this relentless moralizing by our men of letters?  Do they ever do anything but preach?  Has there ever before been an age of such suffocating moralism?

One historical parallel did occur to me.

I have received, sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society–from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations–have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I.

Although I instinctively dislike him, I do agree with Professor Scott on one point:  “exploitation” really is the essence of civilization, whether by exploitation one simply means authority as described by those insensible to its moral force or more simply the refusal of elites to divulge their resources to the poor.

In fact, no human creation of lasting worth could ever be made without a willingness to tell the poor to *** off.  If we really listened to the demands of social justice, if we really let compassion be our guide, we could have no art, no music, no science, no religion, no philosophy, no architecture beyond the crudest shelters.  The poor are before us, their need perpetually urgent.  It is inexcusable for us ever to build a sculpture, a cathedral, a particle accelerator.  And the poor, we have it on two good authorities (the other being common sense), will be with us always.  What we give for their needs today will have disappeared tomorrow, and they will be hungry again.  Imagine if some Savonarola had come to Florence a century or two earlier and convinced the Florentine elite to open their hearts and their wallets to the poor in preference for worldly vanities.  All that wealth would have been squandered on the poor and would have disappeared without a trace.  Instead, we got the Renaissance.

When I was young, the refrain was still popular “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…?”  The answer, of course, is that solving social problems like homelessness and dysfunctional nonwhite ghettos is more difficult than putting a man on the moon.  Money and technology can give us the latter, but are quite inadequate to the former.  But the answer to the question isn’t its point.  The point of the question is the resentment it expresses.  “You had no right to send a man to the moon while black children were starving.  You are proud of doing this, when you ought to be ashamed.”  Now, anyone whose spirit hasn’t been strangled by morality will see the project of sending men on a rocket to walk on the moon and then return to Earth as an act of greatness, as a glorious deed of the kind one sings about generations hence.  Glorious deeds do nothing for the poor, so the man of social justice will see no value in them.  But we are tempted to respond in the name of our ancestors “You good men think you’re better than us.  In fact, you need us more than we need you.  We build.  You only critique.  We are ‘exploiters’, ‘fascists’ because we had the brutality needed to impose order out of chaos.  Our order makes decent life possible.  You always find fault with it, but there is no real alternative.  When we do something great, you mock and condemn us, because mockery and condemnation is all you are capable of.  You are too good to ever be great.”

Science and religion both expend resources, in defiance of social justice, in ways that do not materially benefit the poor.  (The extravagances of social justice propagandists and their expensive creations are, naturally, never criticized.)  Religion gets criticized for this more, even though the goods of churches and religious artwork are far more accessible to the poor than the results of scientific research.  (Savonarola, despite his republican stupidities, at least had sense enough to appreciate the value of religious art to the poor.)  Advocates for science sometimes grant the social justice premise, but claim that pure science will justify itself through technology which will lift up the poor.  There’s a Star Trek future before us, and it’s in the ultimate interest of the poor that we get there as soon as possible.  I actually think the case for pure science funding is stronger if this is not true.  Suppose humanity is destined to sink to pre-industrial poverty once the fossil fuels run out.  Then now is the time for ambitious experiments that may someday be beyond our capacity.  What we learn now can be recorded for all these future generations, while resources given to the poor will benefit only their immediate recipients.  If we grant that ending poverty forever is not really possible, the demands of social justice lose some of their force, and we can perhaps even make the case for civilization.

6 Responses

  1. Leaving aside interpretations – the facts seem to be that the pre-agricultural hunter gatherers had a higher per capita ‘income’ than the societies which replaced them; in the sense that their skeletons are taller, show less variation, fewer sign of disease. And recently described hunter gatherers (there aren’t any extant nowadays) have apparently had a lot more leisure (for social activities) than recent peasants.

    Further – modern society has abolished povery, long since – if the definition of poverty is maintained constant in the way it was understood in Biblical, or Victorian, times.

    Indeed, by all accounts, poverty was abolished as long ago as the mid-late 1800s in Deseret/ Utah under Brigham Young – and there wasn’t much poverty in the pre-civil war, pre-industrial New England of Emerson’s heyday, either – Emerson was astonished and appalled by what extreme poverty he saw in England, which was the wealthiest nation of that time.

    But modern people conflate poverty with inequality – and with physical degradation. Emerson focused on the squalor and degradation of the London Victorian poor – not realising that these poor were, for the first time in history, able to raise an average of considerably more than two children to adulthood.

    I don’t agree with your implicit thesis that the high agrarian society (eg of the middle ages) was the epitome of the human condition – although it was indeed the epitome of civilization and of the churches. Indeed, I regard all past societies as all so fundamentally flawed (although not so fundamentally as ours is now) that we should not aspire to return to them, but instead respect and learn from them.

    But I suppose that is a matter of priorities – of whether the church is put at the centre of life; in which case something like Byzantine Constantinople, medieval Paris, or Calvin’s Geneva would be regarded as the peak of civilization.

  2. @Buce Charlton
    St Alphonsus de Liguori defines the poor as those who work to win bread. Consider the plumber, master brick layer or an office salaryman (they could be earning upwards of whatever even 100k), the saint would still consider them poor/plaebian because if they were to cease doing that they would not have bread. Especially if they must take on debt to ensure housing, say if the price of real-estate was high where they must work.

    The rich are said to be belonging to the ‘liberal’ (tempo libero) class, those that do not have to go to a place and then do things to earn bread and if they do go to places and do things it is not essential for them in terms of breadwinning.

    The Church teaches it is man’s time that is the most precious because in it by Faith man is capable of acquiring eternal riches so it is fitting that the use of time would be essential to distinguishing the poor from the rich.

    Someone may say most people in this or that country have cars so they’re rich because it’s a technological luxury. Yeah they have cars so they can drive to work.

    This definition is significant because it ends the nonsense about yearly salaries, technological advances and searching for where the famous ‘middle class’ begins and ends. Most of society poor/plaebian. It’s always been like this and it makes common sense.

  3. The science fiction story we live in is “Zardoz,” not “Star Trek”: elites breaking their shins on a history that refuses to end, no matter how much science and technology they bring to bear.

  4. Further – modern society has abolished povery, long since – if the definition of poverty is maintained constant in the way it was understood in Biblical, or Victorian, times.

    Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land. Deut. 15:11

    You have the poor with you always Matthew 26:11

    Who knows maybe the great Brigham Young received a new revelation and these verses no longer apply.

  5. The Scott-Bonald confrontation is at the root of political philosophy, and ought to be at the core of any such academic curriculum. I have often wondered the same confrontation wrt feminism. If the past was patriarchal oppressiveness, but such was necessary to facilitate sufficient reproduction in the past ages of mortality; what would feminism have to say to this? So what? Better for the species to die out than for the sexual false consciousness and equality to exist?
    The State motto of New Hampshire is immoral.

  6. If the past was patriarchal oppressiveness, but such was necessary to facilitate sufficient reproduction in the past ages of mortality; what would feminism have to say to this? So what? Better for the species to die out than for the sexual false consciousness and equality to exist?

    Feminism holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one man, I will not say, should be made superior to any woman, but should commit one microaggression against a woman, should tell one wilful anti-feminist joke, or should receive one poor farthing extra for equal work.

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