Thursday, October 22, 2009

Asses' Parliament

I suppose I should be careful about digging for relevance in books I read when I was still a teenager. I mean, provocative scenes often stick with me, but the context can disappear after a while. (One of the look-smarter-than-you-are tricks I've learned as an adult is to reconstruct context from a few mnemomic cues.) When it comes to anything I absorbed at nineteen years old, when I was still learning the basic anatomy of that sort of thing, it's a good bet that I missed all but the most obvious meanings in the first place. There is a scene, for example, in Zora Neale Hurston's vivid novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God that I've never gotten out of my head. An old mule, fattened and indolent and free, wanders off and dies. The locals perform an elaborate funeral ceremony, elevating the beast to the status of human and then some, imagining and celebrating a full mulish theology, which is followed by an equally formal, but more practical, sermon evaluated by the carrion birds. "What does this scene mean?" my young self reflected in the margins, in red ink (a short-lived habit born out of the novelty of buying my own literature), probably on assignment, but also genuinely struck with the imagery.

The novel was set in an all-black community in Florida (based on Hurston's home town, evidently, and set during her lifetime), at a time when it was filling itself out politically. The themes of the book include freedom, autonomy, and power relationships, and in a passage like that, the shift of perspective is both entertaining and a little unsettling. The uncomfortable observation is that free people didn't do much better than re-discover hierarchies, and that the citizens ultimately suffer the same practical morality as every other creature does. But there is also the excitement and humor that comes with the privelege of establishing a society of your own at long last. Tempting that sort of universality is one reason this novel gets treated as an important book today (or at least as one worthy of an introductory college course), and finding such evocative connections to a a poor southern black community of the last century, to women, are powerful tools to crack open anyone's parochial thinking, or they should be, and anyway they did that time.

So I hope that's enough apology for the segue into what I hope will be an entertaining post. I am not attempting to pretend, amid a period of comfort and privlege, that I was oppressed in any way (I hope I have a little more awareness than that), but I can share in the humor of our unfortunate human organizational tendencies, which copy themselves everywhere. I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about government by the time I was nineteen.

The truth is, we're awash in government and economic models, many of which even function. Take the corporation (please): it's like some modern version of feudalism, in which hordes of peasants labor with negligible representation in exchange for the protection of health plans and subsistence wages, and which suffer under the authority of middle-managing vassals, and from which the owners gather in the lion's share of the gain. ["But that's just capitalism," you say, and mutter "Marxist" under your breath, "and you're not defining feudalism accurately either there." There's all sorts of gray areas between the various socioeconomics brands though, and I reply that I'm merely talking about the inflexibility of the org chart, and the unequal distribution of the benefits. The difference between a dynamic, viable business structure and a peasant mentality is a matter degree and of attitude.]

Likewise, most of us have occupied long periods of lives in family units, which tend to be organized like a sort of authoritarian socialism. Benefits are distributed generously to everyone according to a central plan, but representation varies steeply with age. And the strict heirarchy dominates everyday affairs too, otherwise it'd take us a year to all get in the car. Primary school was like this too, but worse, probably because the scale gets a few more correlation lengths between the students, the authorities and the "owners".

Donkeys are a natural stand-in for college kids, if you ask me. Let loose from Mom and Dad's tyranny, but not yet under the iron heel of corporate overlords, those young people make a lot of noise, eat anything, cart around drunks, and act, well, asinine. When I was that age, I found direct democracy to be the hideous social experiment of choice. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us cohabitating that decrepit building, and the responsibilities included, more or less, keeping it clean (or at least keeping the smell down), some basic building management, keeping a non-threatening community presence (i.e., appointing someone to answer the door and look respectable if the authorities called), managing the cook, managing the budget, as well as a number of minor things like keeping the kegs working and making sure someone signed up the hockey team in time. The accounting was mostly the food- and maintenance-related budget, presumably some dues, and a couple of really irresponsible seasonal parties that are surely outlawed by now. Good times. To get the idea of the kind of tight ship we ran, one year, a recent house accountant started off the semester by pitching us a pyramid scheme.

Dennis would have been proud to know that all decisions were ratified in special biweekly (or something) meetings by a simple majority, etc., and were a fine outlet for sarcasm and mockery. They were generally kind of fun, but curiously, believers could sometimes emerge from the malcontents (I may have been guilty of it myself once in a while), who, from time to time, would start to treat the pretend formality like it meant something. Whenever the rare moral gesture was demanded, or some appeal to sentiment was made sincerely, you could be assured that the fucking meeting would extend approximately forever, and accomplish precisely nothing. There's no bigger waste of time than a public whine for dignity, and yet an open forum seems to engender such things. Another bizarre ethic that I recall evolving was the need to beat the working budget. "Hey, we can cut the dry ice out of the fall Bacchanal." "What do we do with the extra?" "Save it!" "Wait, what?" I mean, that sort of accounting doesn't make much sense when you're just balancing your outlays vs. your expenses. (No one suggested that we do something else with it, or cut the budget accordingly next semester.) In a less harmless legislative body, with less common interest, we'd have cutting corners for the purposes of graft and/or profit is what we'd have.

Of course, since the general assembly was so obviously ineffective, most of the actual decisions were made behind the scenes, by a steering committee, leaving the rest of us useless slackers to go on with what we were doing anyway. (I have no idea how the select meetings went, really.) It was great most of the time, but it's also a fine illustration of how power concentrates all by itself, in that case by nothing more evil than the perpetuation of presumed responsibility.

I hesitate to argue anecdotally, but I've gotten myself in the mood for universalizing. If I ever write a book, I hope it'll include such a section with a biting committee parody. In any case, I'm sure that equal collaboration within any group over a certain size is doomed. Yes, we accomplished more mischief collectively than was possible individually, but the tradeoff was the evolution of power structures, and the inevitable group uselessness. All of us together, as the adage goes, were stupider than any of us alone. Maybe a better group of Athenians could have managed a number greater than thirty, but all we had was our parliament of asses.


switters said...

Cigar smoke-filled back rooms? Insurance collusion? Gas price fixing? Molson night? I thought we got rid of all that. Did we not?

You probably know this already, but This American Life did a stinging history of American healthcare in two parts recently. Same two guys who did the expose on Wall Street. Brilliant. Scary. Depressing.

I'm convinced, in an idiotic, conspiratorial way, that market ups and downs are purely manufactured so that the same people can profit every time.

Kind of terrifying, though, just exactly how true Office Space is.

Sounds like your frat-as-writ-large has some merit. Give people the impression (delusion) that they're in control of their own destiny, and they'll do whatever you want them to do.

Keifus said...

Missed the TAL (during pledge drive maybe? but I miss a lot of those), but NPR actually had a pretty good, informative tour a few months ago of world health care systems, and aired it during the normal politics hour. (Then they went back to the usual news reporting). Do you know when it aired? I'll download it. I meant to download the Wall Street one too.

You think market volatility is masterminded? That's giving 'em a lot of credit for long-term planning and forecasting, and while they obviously nudge the policy their way, I think they're also pretty reactive. Do a million small, self-serving decisions add up to such collossal fuckups and swindles? Well, I think they set the stage at least.

Office Space: proof that it's not the internet that keeps me unproductive. The flick is deserving of its cult status.

Fraternities: Always hesitant to mention that sort of thing, comes with a lot of baggage. If it were a different (normal) college, or a different (more typically douchebaggy) sort of crowd, would have been a much less likely choice.

They take your offer?

switters said...

Somehow, the Wall Street Overlords have figured out a way to manipulate day traders and use them as a sort of hive, determining and controlling bullish and bearish markets for their own gain. And alien lizards under the Denver Airport Terminal.

My dad was an Alpha Tau Omega. His hazing consisted of having to swallow 2 goldfish. Old school!

Haven't heard back from them. There was another offer.

Keifus said...

I figure they gotta tell you one way or the other. It's been standing for awhile, right? You might still have a good shot at it. (Stressful business even in the smoothest of times--it's always a big decision...)