Why we are a failure

2 February 2010

“If you mind your business, nobody will give you problems,” said a woman to me last week. “All they do is say ‘What the fuck that white boy doing here?’  By then, you’ll be gone.”

Indeed.

I’m not sure if actually working for government has yet fully deadened my interest in government. The two are actually pretty easy to keep separate, not least because, as a friend and fellow veteran pointed out recently, “Nobody who works in the government ever thinks about it.”

With the usual caveats.

My excursion into the industry of professional helping has been interminably brief and, on the whole, intolerably busy.  I suppose I didn’t take government to be the sort of place which left little time to catch one’s breath – or at least government at the sort of level attended by a 22 year-old of no particular credentials or repute. From my observations and understanding it’s not. Yet there are two sides to government.  The glam side – frenetic but easy and carefully circumscribed – are the people in Congress, the executive offices. You know: “the top.” The ones who made it and are “changing the world.”  Then there is the underbelly, where that fact is really, tragically, true.

The top half – although it is not a half but a tiny minority – live in a properly philosophical world. Most of them would hate this idea, but it is just that. The “big ideas” are invariably functions of values and the reconciliations of them, determinations based occasionally on conviction but more frequently on calculation of the basic questions of who is part of the club – “one of us” – and what that fact means. Decisions about taxation, schools, and the environment are not merely marginal adjustments to a basic framework but fundamental decisions about the shape of the world to come. These decisions are invariably thin – all decisions are – but unquestionably if ambiguously weighty.

The world which is my daily joy is far from that big blue sky.  Like a general who decides how the enemy is to be defeated but leaves the deed to others, so does a Mayor or a President and the people who trail behind them decide how the people are to be made wealthy or happy or good and send down the order. There are grunts far below responsible for realizing it in the shape of a idle march or a frantic siege.

This of course is the limit at which war illuminates the subject. Its task is quite simple – defeat an enemy.  You reduce a people to a level at which their own resistance becomes incomprehensible. The reason government is so difficult – and the reason every “war on” a social problem necessarily fails – is because it is in its likeness with war precisely its opposite. Government is the creation of a world in which giving up in the face of adversity is incomprehensible. Like war, it is a response to human terror. War attempts to turn it to use. Government attempts to banish it. Both end up being defined by it. The result for the latter is unsatisfying to an amazing extreme, because such upbuilding – even when ideally realized – is necessarily repetitive, incomplete and ceaseless. Creation is never permanent in the eay way destruction is.

I imagine that in a good number of places the business of government is not much of a struggle. In a close-knit community – what one might snootily call “rural” but which could be anyplace with the character of a village – the people are resistant to adversity by nature; in the sanitized suburb the mere whiff of adversity, while socially disgusting, is slightly romantic, the idea of poverty unpleasant but unthreatening and always surmountable. Problems here are more often a matter of the neighbors daring to intercede in my life rather than any violent disruption from the outside. It is not difficult to see why the number one concern to suburban life is crime, and why it’s so much less frequent when suburbs themselves are not a feature of that life.

And then there is the city. In the modern world the city has always been the problem. The reason is simple: people live in proximity like villagers with the interpersonal skills of suburbanites. It’s the perfect storm of “social decay,” “urban blight,” whatever you want to call it. It only really takes one addition – an admittedly hefty dollop of “want” – to bring to full heights human cruelty in its many forms. It is something we have become reasonably expert at in this country,  perhaps nowhere more than in the capital city.

But this is what makes the city so ripe and fascinating. (When you’re from the suburbs other people’s want is almost as sexy as the idea of your own.) The city is both the birthplace and graveyard of ideology. The city gave us both liberalism and Marxism, the two defining ideologies of our time, before promptly devouring its children like Cronus. It is a novelty to have an environment – at once so perfectly alien and so peculiarly human – both give and take away the last best hopes for organizing a world without one God. Never before has mankind been faced with a thing so bipolar and fraught. For in the city there is no escape. It will always make a lie of the well-meaning and zealous. Here philosophies mighty and petty are waylaid everywhere; hidden in the bushes and the alleyways they’re mugged and raped and killed by the dark forces of real life. All of the systems we have are built in reaction to the city, and they all are made worthless here. We are simply too many; we have too many ideas. Where is the space for the gudwara in Walden Pond?

This is where government comes in. We have it because philosophy fails. It is the awful compromise we make with ourselves, the deal with the devil that assumes problems will be taken care of so long as they are pushed as far away as possible, so that we might be spared the awful sight of the death of our ideas. But government is simply the tragedy of the failure of all our grand designs built into an awful whitewashed edifice. The people in this country who cry out with revulsion at the erosion of their freedoms are so laughable precisely because the government they hate is so puny and sad. Its programs are wasteful not out of malice or caprice but because, by their nature, they have to be.

This is my job: spaghetti tactics. You throw it at the wall and you see what sticks, but what you’re throwing at the wall are not programs but people. Living and breathing, with names and hopes and stupid clothes and bad breath and four kids at the age of 22. You make a program and you do not give it to them but give them to it, and see how many it “saves” – whatever that means. And then you make a new one and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually, you hope that everybody gets stuck to – with – something. That you save everybody.

Of course you don’t. The city is laughing at you and your feeble attempts to save the world, always. Every program fails people, including mine; some people are failed by all programs. They stick to nothing, and the tragedy is that in the end you’re not surprised. They’re not the kind of people you want to help. It’s easy to get my liberal hackles up against the abandonment of the decent, the hard-working, the “unfortunate”; but what about the people who are lazy and obnoxious, the ones who don’t want to be helped or if they do will never let you close enough to do it? What about the ones the civil servants, well-meaning as we always are, look straight in the eyes yet cannot see?

This is the problem with government. It’s so personal.

At the end of last year I took a class on Marxism. Philosophy, of course, so there’s always an air of inevitable pointlessness about it; but at the very end of the class I got the professor’s hackles up because I asserted boldly that if there was a difference between Marxism and liberalism I didn’t see it. Marxism is at best the other side of the liberal coin, the equal and opposite reaction its unique failures had to engender; at worst its a simple correction of it inappropriately couched in apocalyptic terms.

Take the program I work in. It could just as easily be compared with the best sort of New Deal initiative as with the workshops of the Paris Commune. The objectives are much the same either way: to take someone who has nothing, not in terms of resources but in terms of skills, or qualities, or consciousness, and engaging in that so characteristic upbuilding. In the process it’s hoped that a measure of personal power and the ability to similarly draw up others is imparted to them. It is to draw them into society. The objective is, through wholesome and empowering work, to be de-alienating. This is something at once perfectly liberal and perfectly Marxist – a reconciliation of devout opposites.

But there are some people. I’ve met them, talked to them, listened to them rant. They’re loud. They’re angry. They’re bitter but yet entitled. They have no skills or pretension to skills; they want for everything but want nothing. They are always unpleasant to deal and no effort is sufficient to make them fit. Their antics are tolerated for months on end, they’re brought in, talked to – and, when it’s finally too much, unceremoniously dropped.

But they’re someone’s – aren’t they?

What does Marxism have to say about them that liberalism doesn’t? A liberal would have called them the “residuum” or “undeserving poor,” would say they’re lazy and have no work ethic and would have to shrug his shoulders and say: some people can’t be helped. A Marxist would call them the “lumpenproletariat,” uninterested – as they surely wouldn’t be – in the virtues of collective action because of their contentment living off the fat of the state. He’d say they’re blind and mired in false consciousness and – at length – some people can’t be helped.

But what happens then? You can’t just ignore them. They’ll still be there. Part of the reason they are there is because you ignore them. They don’t fit into your system, or any system; so now what? When do you make that great leap to say – they are human no more? And how do you know when that leap happens not because of the people but because of your system? This is the leap that both liberalism and Marxism, in the end, find themselves forced to make. Neither are ever shy.

I think this is why civil servants don’t think. It’s hard, day after day, to stare into the faces of the person you don’t like and can’t help and don’t think anybody can – and to follow the fact to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to see from the inside the way your grand ideas are brutally parodied by your work. For in a city people are paid to decide if you matter. This is the bargain. I am paid to sort lives into useful and unuseful piles, and dispense with them as quickly as possible. There are many others like me. And we do this – I do this – for the same reason they keep coming to us: a paycheck. I too need; I too want. And so not because I am powerful but because this role lays bare my own powerlessness do I sort lives as I see fit. Maybe I do it with more or less charity; but it’s a thin kind of charity.

And someday I’ll leave, as quickly as it would take to wonder what the fuck that white boy was doing there anyway. I won’t have had a good answer. Today I didn’t when with an affected air of smug satisfaction I listened to fifteen people describe eloquently and rightly how I’m failing them, led on by two people who themselves did far less and knew no better. They didn’t mean it personally – but the problem with government is that it is personal, to each and every one of us, because it is the living manifestation of the terror that comes from our own social bankruptcy. It is a bundle of all the failure we cannot admit and survive, a great church which – for a tithe – hides away the crimes we commit against each other. For all the spaghetti that stuck there will be some that got away. Maybe some other me, secreted away in a similarly dingy building somewhere else, will catch them. But not all. Some will get away, and sit there, and by their existence laugh at our philosophies which are no more different than two sides of a sheet of paper.

Until the next throw.

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