“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Friday, 12 February 2016

Fucking Big Wisdom

I've always loved the book of Ecclesiastes.  Anyone of a stoic, existentialist, fatalistic and even nihilistic bent, religiously-minded or otherwise, would do well to ponder this odd little book tucked away towards the back end of the Old Testament.  I think one of the things I love about it is just the fact that it's there: hidden in plain sight amongst the Bible's tales of unfathomable brutality, violence, tribalism, xenophobia and zealotry, often demanded by a divine being of dubious motives and questionable competence, we also read:
"What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it".  (Ecclesiastes 3: 9-14)
and:
"There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun".  (Ecclesiastes 8: 14-15)
It's a proto-socialist, proto-nihilist, proto-situationist tract, several thousand years out of time.  Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, but I'm more inclined to believe that it's words like this that have the right to claim "divine inspiration" than, for example, whoever wrote that a man possessed by "the spirit of the LORD" once allowed his own daughter to "roam and weep" in the wilderness for two months before keeping his promise to murder her as a "sacrifice" her to that very same Lord (Judges 11:29-39).

Much as I enjoy a good argument about that sort of thing, that's not what this blog is for.  I'm interested in anti-work/anti-materialist thinking, wherever it happens to come from.  I love ideas.  Still, it's hard to separate the practical from the metaphysical and I think, ultimately, it's probably a bad idea.  When the writer of Ecclesiastes asks "what do the workers gain from their toil?" I think he has both the material and the spiritual sense of "gain" equally in mind, just as you might say Jesus did when asking, "what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?"  It isn't that anyone who does "gain the world" automatically loses his soul - that's something that depends more on the type of person doing the gaining - but it certainly doesn't make the average person's soul any easier to hang on to.

Even the tiny, tiny part of the material world I've gained seems already to have put my soul at risk.  Two weeks ago I bought a new television.  I've never owned a television before - a fact I've always been rather too smug about than is really necessary.  It was an impulse buy.  I was bored, frustrated and tired, as I have been now for years.  So I bought a 43-inch, Ultra-HD 4K, smart, wifi-enabled television.  Because I could.  It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  I carried it home in the rain (I live a five-minute walk from Manchester's Arndale Centre).  Remember Trainspotting?  "Choose life, choose a job, choose a fucking big television..."?  After I'd unpacked it, plugged it in and queued up some youtube playlists, gloried in the realer-than-real wonder of 4K 60fps video, I started to wonder what my next drug of choice would be.  This one's sat on my coffee table for two weeks now, (and I've had several hours of pleasure from it, there's no point denying that) but the thrill of consumption has already gone.  The money I could have spent instead on making the world a better place has gone too.  The frustration, boredom and exhaustion has not.