Roberto Calasso has an amazing eye for the damning quotation. He is, after all, an admirer of Karl Kraus. In The Ruin of Kasch, he devotes a chapter to the ‘anti-romantic child”, Bentham. I read that chapter yesterday, and immediately recognized that it was about the U.S., circa 2000-2008.
Here are some Bentham quotes, taken from Halevy’s book about the Utilitarians;
“Directly or indirectly, well being, in one shape or another, or in several shapes, or all shapes taken together, is the subject of every thought, and the object of every action, on the part of every known Being who is, at the same time, a sensitive and thinking being.”
“Money is the instrument of measuring the quantity of pain or pleasure. Those who ar not satisfied with the accuracy of this instrument must find some other.”
“The only common measure the nature of things affords is money.”
These statements have a familiar ring to the American ear. Surely we just heard them. Wasn’t somebody on the radio, on the news, in the office, at a restaurant just saying that? The notion that money is the measure of all things has long been common to libertarians and economists. Markets in everything is the recent title of a book particularly recommended on the economic blog circuit.
But it isn’t the debasement of this kind of thinking that interests me, or even its impossibility – Market is a term that just aches to be taken apart, since it has many meanings and is used in a wholly senseless way to cover the whole of the life of exchange. We actually live in an economy with huge market gaps, and the title market is given as an honorific to aggregate activities, such as looking for a job, that really don’t correspond to being in a market at all. The job market and the banana market are much, much different things.
But let us leave that aside. As I say, it isn’t the debasing and painfully stupid reduction of pleasure and pain to money so much as the cultural effect of the moneyist attitude which interests me. Calasso juxtaposes these phrases of Bentham with this marvelous paragraph:
“John Stuart Mill – the first guinea pig to receive a strictly Benthamite education, one based entirely on the criterion of usefulness – did not react with sumptuous delirium, as Judge Schreber would in an analogous situation. On the contrary, he managed to write a magnanimous essay on Bentham. A genuine respect and lucidity guide Mill’s words, which involuntarily reveal more than what they say on the surface. First, he offers us the most fitting definition of the Master, presenting him as “the great subversive” and, in particular, as the “chief subversive thinker of an age which has lost all that they could subvert.” Bentham was the first living tabula rasa, a stolid and insolent child who could nave no doubts because he had no experience – and would never acquire any. “He had niether an internal experience, nor external; the quiet, even tenor of his life, and his healthiness of mind, conspired to exclude him from both. He never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety. He never had even the experience which sickness gives; he lived from childhood to the age of eighty-five in boyish health. He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last. Self-consciousness that daemon of the men of genius of our time, from Wordsworth to Byron, from Goethe to Chateaubriand, and to whcih this age owes so much of both its cheerful and its mournful wisdom, never was awakened in him. How much of human nature slumbered in him he knew not, neither can we know. He had never beenb made alive to the unseen influences which were acting on himself, nor consequently on his fellow creatures.”
Oh the age of boys. We are living in the full tide of it, for the Great Moderation, as the economists love to call it, which has become the Great Corruption under the ever vigilant eye of the Great Fly, has put the boys as firmly on our back as the Old Man of the Sea was on Sinbad’s. Anybody who is alive to these Benthamite strains will recognize that the same boys-will-be-boys atmosphere that heralded the runup to the war in Iraq (a war prefigured in the sales for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, Endwar, Ghostrecon, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of the boy unconscious) became the blood and ouns of the Bush boom. What James Galbraith calls the Predator state requires a mentality so stripped of any other measure than money and the immediate lulls of wellbeing that it can’t even recognize experience anymore. How to do this? One has to look at the whole system – the schooling, the media, the office atmosphere, the suburbs. One has to look at it the way one looks at processed meat – in these slaughter houses they cut away the imagination, all unnecessary emotional registers, and most of all, the very idea of the negative capacity – which is, like, so gross and negative! To catch the end result of this shallowness, one has to read, say, the Freakonomics blog over a long period of time. Or attend, listen, to the yearning burning love for Bush himself – remembering that the secret of the action movie is not the movie itself, but the action figures one sells concurrently. Bush is our most perfect national doll. He is a perfect doll for boys, and the boys are sore disappointed in him. Cause, as we know, America is Boy’s Life writ large.