Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau



Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s instincts, at least, were close to theirs: Orwell, after all, wanted a law to make 20 mph the top speed limit in England, a pretty typical Red Tory gesture, gallantly futile. In England, the term would include Ruskin and Chesterton, and the spirit at least of William Morris. In France, you have Charles Peguy and Jacques Ellul. In German speaking countries, there are many more names to choose from – to mention four, Thomas Mann up to the late 20s, Karl Kraus, Georg Simmel and Max Weber.


The Red Tories, by inclination and conviction, were never systematizers. When Burke, in the Reflections, denounces “theorists and economists”, all the progressive planners, he spoke for the tribe. They form something more like a family resemblance than a party. They, too, are in revolt against capitalism, but not because it wounds their sense of equality – on the contrary, what it wounds is their sense of the just order, or the organic society. This comes out in their protest, all the way along the line, in honor something I’m going to call “integrity”. Against integrity, the sense of purposiveness and vocation in life, they saw arrayed two forces: capitalism, with its generation of alienation, its calculations that eat into the integrity of labor, seeing it only as another inter-substitutable commodity, and socialism. Socialism, from their perspective, is merely the bourgeois attitude for workers. The socialists basically want the workers to make more money – they don’t put in doubt the system of production that the workers are engaged in. Socialists are pro-industry.

From the economists viewpoint, whether a person works as a carpenter or sells bubble gum over the counter is a matter of indifference, the product of a labor “market”. Economists do recognize “human capital”, but like any capital, it is invested indifferently, and must be to be efficient. Maximizing profit on all fronts, such is the letter of the law for economists.

The Red Tories saw, as well as Marx, that this social maxim was in deathly struggle with the ethos of integrity. Integrity, the desire to do the best job possible because of the thing itself, its value in the doing, no doubt stems, as an ethical value, from the artisan class in the early modern period. Or even before, in the ancient urbs. It is significant that the first socialist organizations in France and Britain were composed of a largely artisanal membership – because these people instinctively felt that they were being symbolically degraded under capital. It is also significant that Marx decided, early on, that these were definitely not the people who would lead the advance guard against capitalism. Thus, the complex struggles against anarchists and other non-scientific socialists.

The programmatic example of the Red Tory exaltation of integrity is found in Charles Peguy’s Money (1913) Peguy never has had much of a following in the Anglophone world. He was an often disagreeable Catholic. Notoriously, his feud with Jaures resulted in some disciple of Peguy’s assassinating the great socialist leader. Peguy was all in for the war against Germany. He volunteered, even at his absurdly advanced age, and was ground up like so many others.


This is how Peguy, with some nostalgia (but also, with some insight), remembered the society of his youth – this would be around 1880.

We never thought about anything but working. We knew workers who in the morning only thought about working. They woke up in the morning, and so early, and they sang about the idea that they were going to work. At eleven o’clock they sang about going on lunchbreak. In all, it was always Hugo; and it is always to Hugo that we have to go back. “The went, they sang.” To work was their joy, even, and the deep root of their being. And the reason that they were who they were. There was an incredible honor in work, the most beautiful of honors, the most Christian, the only one perhaps that could still stand.

And, on the same subject, here:

"These workers didn’t serve. They worked. They had an honor, absolute, which is the real property of an honor. It was necessary that a chair leg was made well. It was understood. It was primary. It was not necessary to make it well because of the wages. It wasn’t necessary to make it well for the boss, nor for the connoisseurs, nor for the clients of the boss. It was necessary that it was well made in itself, for itself, in its being, even. A tradition, come, coming up from the deepest depths of the race, a history, an absolute, an honor willed that this chair leg be made well. Every part of the chair that couldn’t be seen was exactly as perfectly made as that which could be seen. It was the principle of the cathedrals."

This state of affairs was, without a doubt, not the bower of bliss that Peguy now remembers it to be – even he, in part, admits this. Certainly the singing is interesting. The French countryside, in a sense, learned French by singing – it was a standard part of the peasant’s laboring day. Factories, in the 1840s and 1850s, as Engels noticed, banned it. Singing was something that the factory supervisors came down on hard. And of course no group on earth cared so little for their pay packets. However, contra the capitalist mentality, this was not a complete truth, either then or now. The irrational hatred of Peguy for Jaures was poisonous, but I have to give Peguy some credit, here, for spotting the moment in which alienation drops out of the socialist attack on bourgeois society and assimilation becomes the goal. In this respect, Jaures was a great figure, which is one of the reasons that every goodsized town in France has a street named for him. Marx, on the wholly other side of Jaures, would perhaps have agreed with Peguy in his own dialectical way: as we know from his critique of the Gotha Program.


Integrity is not really discussed in ethics classes. I taught them in a philosophy department a long long time ago, and I don’t recall any discussion of the integrity of labor for itself. America, one might think, is just the place where we cast off the principle of the cathedrals as a scandal to the pursuit of happy consumption. But I don’t think you’d hang around people who do things, or provide, horrible word, services very long before you’d run into this ethos. It has been attacked over and over, laughed at by neo-liberalism, disappeared utterly from the entertainment we feed ourselves and our kids on, yet there it is, every day. Every f-ing day, to write unlike Peguy, the principle of the cathedrals and goes to work in millions of offices, stores, and factories.

It is in many ways the contradiction that keeps capitalism moving, that bears up the almost unbearable stress of everyone becoming poorer in relation to the rich, atomized, more powerless. People in whatever field do not respect people who have no integrity in this crucial sense. They suspect that their bosses do not have this integrity, that the organizations they have built up are ultimately indifferent to them. To work is to see this sorting procedure. To work is to see the silent contempt that builds up for those who will do anything. Who work for pay, the boss, the clients of the boss, and not, on some level, for the thing itself that they are doing.

I’ll finish this riff on integrity with quite another story. This one comes from Nico Rost’s Goethe in Dachau.


First a bit about Rost. Rost was a Dutch journalist who was stationed in Berlin in the Weimar era and became great friends with the most advanced artists and lefties. In 1933, to honor his work in making known Germany’s leftist culture, the Nazis sent him to the Orienberg KZ. He was released after a couple of months, and he saw enough, was beaten enough, that he bore no illusions about the Nazis. He translated exiled German authors in Dutch, and fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, he was stuck in Brussels. Rost made his thoughts known about that in a newspaper he founded. It was shut down and he was shuffled between KZs until the end of the war. His last stop was Dachau. When he published this “journal” from Dachau in 1947, it received some attention, especially from German leftists. Then it was largely forgotten. It was never translated into English, so I am gonna translate this bit myself. It is an anecdote that helps to envision integrity as an actual life-value.

“In a neighboring bed [in the infirmary] lies a new one. A kind of Michael Kohlhaas, yet more good natured and sentimental than his classical model out of Kleist’s novella.

He is by profession a baker. He lives in the Kopenick near Berlin, and is now here, he tells me, for the second time. For the same offense.

“I baked cakes made out of flour that is better than that officially allowed, and with eggs. Not in order to earn more, but because they were being sent to the Front, and I couldn’t allow them to send bad cakes. I got a year for it. Then they wanted to release me, but they wanted me to pledge, in advance, to adhere strictly to the rules in the future. I couldn’t go for that. On the contrary, I explained to the Gestapo that I would certainly use good flour and eggs in the cakes, because I would not turn out mud for the women who came to me to send something good to their men on the front.

After I said this, they beat me all over again, and sent me back here.

He told this story very clearly and with many details. Modestly, even a little humbly, but before everything else satisfied in the feeling that he had done his duty, and that he couldn’t have done otherwise.

We sealed our friendship with each other, and he invited me to visit him after the war. I promised to do so.

“You just have to ask for the fat baker and even a child will lead you to me.”

Poor devil. He completely forgot that, in between, he had become as skinny as a piece of thread.”

Cake for cake’s sake. It is a revolutionary act.


1 comment:

Ray Davis said...

As you note, any kind of career path provides opportunities to observe & relive the unending spiritual-exploitive war between the values of "integrity" & "wised-up". (I knew a fellow work-study student in college who took immense pride in his dishwashing.) For some reason this recently told battle story has particularly stuck with me:


Thank you for the Nico Rost pointer. Maybe I'll see what Deep-L makes of the book.

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