Saturday, October 22, 2005

Of Models and Descriptions, Ideas and Ideologies, the difference between the 19th and 20th centuries, etc. etc.
I happened to be reading a paper by a friend today and came across a lovely passage by William Morris on the principle of distribution that would obtain in a socialist society. The passage is from Morris’s What Socialists Want and I found it interesting in the light of the arguments that go on today among egalitarian liberal political philosophers. Thus spake Morris:
when a family that is comfortably-off sit down to a leg of mutton how do they act? do they bring in a pair of scales and weigh out to each one his share of the victuals? No that is done in a prison, but not in a family: in a family everybody has what he needs and no one grudges it: Mary has one slice, Jack has two, and Bill has four: but Mary and Jack don’t feel wronged, since they have had as much as they wanted: and the reason for this is that enough has been provided, and that the members of the family trust one another. My friends it is for you to choose whether you will live in a prison or a family: we Socialists beg you to choose the latter.
The important thing for Morris is that everyone have enough, and that everyone trusts one another sufficiently to be assured that others are not taking more than they need. And he contrasts this with an attitude of (suspicious) calculation. I’m not sure whether Morris is enunciating a principle of justice here, or whether he would say that justice is inherently calculative and that these are circumstances of abundance where the watchful attitude of strict justice no longer applies. But if (and it’s a big if) this is taken as a principle of justice, then it is notable that he isn’t endorsing a principle of strict equality, but rather one of sufficiency. Indeed this contrast is even clearer towards the beginning of the text where Morris writes:
So you see whatever inequality I admit among people, I claim this equality – that everybody should have full enough food, clothes, and housing, and full enough leisure, pleasure, and education; and that everybody should have a certainty of these necessaries: in this case we should be equal as Socialists use the word ….
Again, a principle of sufficiency and the suggestion of the dimensions of human existence in which we should have sufficient that prefigures some of the lists of essential capabilites that Martha Nussbaum enumerates in various places.
My two comments:

1- You’ve made the intellectual’s usual mistake of equating description with prescription. Calculating an argument against calculation destroys Morris’ thought.

Literature, unlike philosophy, describes without prescription, and Morris’ is as much a literary as a philosphical statement. The 19th C. was good for that sort of stuff. I’ve made the same point to Henry about Marx.

The question you should be asking is how to construct and communicate in such a way that might attempt to do justice not to the ideas of ‘friendship’ and ‘trust’ but to the facts of them.
I’m not claiming there’s an answer to the problem- strictly speaking there isn’t- only that the problem exists. In fact it’s the central problem of contemporary intellectual life.
What exactly is ‘art’?

2- Again, since no one listens, here's the question: how do you construct a 'model' as complex as what preceded it? Morris is describing family relationships as they exist, using givens and generalities. He is describing a system after its genesis. That's what literature does. A model on the other hand is a precursor.
There's a contradiction here, and if Morris is on one side everyone here is on the other.
I prefer Morris if only because he is more interested in his way in the complexity of things than of ideas.

I'm so sick of these assholes. What do you say to people proud to be smarter than David Brooks? So you're not absolute idiots. Now get down off your high-chairs and do something worthwhile.
Idiots like Brooks know enough to be self hating. These fuckheads are too full of themselves to see the contradictions in their own position.

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