If I could become rich simply by wishing the death of Chinese mandarin on the other side of the world, would I do it? This is a question that comes up in a famous passage in Pere Goriot, expressing the moral seduction of Rastignac by Vautrin. Rastignac asks a friend of his, Bianchon, if he remembers a passage somewhere in Rousseau “in which he asks the reader what he would do if he could become wealthy by killing an old Chinese mandarin, without leaving Paris, just by an act of will?” Carlos Ginzburg, in his essay, the Killing of A Chinese Mandarin, has traced the way Rastignac’s inexact memory of Rousseau (the passage seems rather to come from Diderot and Chateaubriand) articulates a long tradition, in moral philosophy, concerning distance and the good. Ginzburg points out that distance, in the way Aristotle considered it – where it plays approximately the same role as Gyges rings, a manner of hiding oneself - becomes, necessarily, different when distance itself becomes different. “… the emergence of a worldwide economic system had already turned the possibility of a financialgain, involving much longer distances than Aristotle had imagined even in his wildest flights of phantasy,into reality.”
Distance is, in Ginzburg’s take, not portable; it is not something one can wrap around oneself. It is relational and spatial or temporal. However, if we consider it a kind of hiding, it does seem portable. When the airplane pilot drops bombs, the distance is not only relational, a matter of weakening the tie of sympathy that would make the pilot save someone near and not even that dear – but the distance is also portable. It is carried by the pilot into the scene of the bombing; it operates as a cloak.
As a cloak, distance can also be imported into the near. We have seen this happen extensively in the last thirty years. When complaints are made, in the U.S., that free trade is, for instance, destroying the middle class, it is not uncommon for neo-classical economists to take the near – the U.S. worker – as self-indulgent, and the far – the poor third world worker – as the true worthy moral subject. This seems like a rhetorical trick too far… who could possible buy this story? And yet this variation of the distance story is rather popular among economists, who, perhaps to compensate for being rich themselves and advocating policies for the rich, need to validate their own moral bones – hence, where the unfeeling U.S. worker has been killing Chinese mandarins on his way to a living wage, the free trader comes in to avenge the mandarins by denuding the worker. In this way, the old truism, charity begins at home, is turned upside down.
There is, of course, a problem with the idea that the economist is really helping the Chinese worker – since of course this is a byproduct of helping the Chinese businessman, and the same ruthless logic applies to those Chinese workers, who, garnering a slim, slim part of the social productivity that is based on them, should never demand too much. Still, in moments of “compassion trolling”, the traditional notion of distance is reversed – or rather, the economist wears a cloak of distance that puts him or her at a distance from what is near.
Perhaps this helps us understand Christine Lagarde’s counterproductive comments about Greece. When, in her by now infamous interview with the Guardian, Lagarde was asked about the Greek meltdown, this is how it went:
"No, I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens." She breaks off for a pointedly meaningful pause, before leaning forward.
"Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax."
I say this is counterproductive – because even though this does represent the true heartlessness of the predator class, even that predator class has to prey. By putting the terms of the deal so harshly, Lagarde upset the effort of the EU to entice the Greeks to take the loans that will really simply circulate back to banks and hedgefunders in the EU and the U.S. Once Greece is taken out of the picture, the plutocrats will just have to get the funding directly from the EU states – and this is going to upset people. Moreover, it is French banks and German ones that will follow the Greeks down.
So what was the compulsion there that caused this blip, this moment of truth, in which the claws came out? Perhaps it was the comfort with the cloak of distance. The millionaire to billionaire class has grown very comfortable with morality at a distance. Even if, as we know, the IMF would not lift a finger if all the little villages in Niger were thrown into the sea if if meant that Niger or Nigeria or any other place upset the system of exploitation in place, still, the image of that distant suffering has a very strong symbolic value – a strong shaming value. It can shame the near. Interestingly, the plutocrats have effortlessly poached an old left trope, which rubbed the face of the West’s prosperity in the detritus of the enslaved and the exploited, the colonized and the robbed. The plutocrats borrowed the form, not the content. And as the left has died, the right has played this game to their hearts content. Lagarde was just pushing some old buttons. She must have forgotten that you have to put on your cloak of distance properly. Just as she forgot that it was easy to discover that, as a matter of fact, she herself pays no taxes on her salary.