Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sun, 17 Jan 2021, 2:07 PM


Alienation & doublethink

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"The right side lost, but the wrong side won". I was reminded of John Le Carre's assessment of the Cold War by a recent exchange in which Allison Pearson claimed that she knew "hardly anyone" who knew somebody who'd had Covid only to immediately say that her whole family had had it.

This seems nonsensical. But it's not. It reminds me of what happened in the former USSR, where the conflict between the reality of day-to-day life and the imperative to conform to ideology led to an Orwellian doublethink. As Timur Kuran has written:

The individual citizen's mind was divided into two layers, one "pragmatic" and the other "ideological". The former layer contained the practical information necessary to get things done, derived mostly from experience...The latter consisted of abstract information, drawn primarily from public discourse. (Private Truths, Public Lies, p218)

People had to present different personalities. Kuran cites one Russian who said after the collapse of the USSR that he had six faces - one each for his wife; his children; close friends; acquaintances; colleagues; and for public display. There was, says Kuran, a sharp distinction between public and private opinion. Allpearson

Ms Pearson was practising just such doublethink. Her public persona in the griftmedia required her to present an ideological face and downplay Covid, but her lived experience in her private life dictated otherwise. In that exchange she jumped from one face to another.

That she had to do so is the product of our latter-day media, well described by Sarah Ditum. She says she would look for "something that I could be mad enough about to write 600-800 fiery words on it." But, she says, some of this writing "had a dishonesty that made me feel ashamed". As with Pearson and Soviet citizens, there was a public persona and a private one.

It's not just journalism that produces such doublethink, however. Tony Yates tweeted yesterday:

I teach models with optimizing consumers, and spent 1/1000 time buying a new washing machines as I have so far spent sourcing a second hand 2nd bike.

Now, you can perhaps salvage some rationality from this particular example (see thread). But there is a general point there - that many academics have taught about optimizing consumers whilst knowing that such beasts don't exist in reality. Students, Deirdre McCloskey has written:

Come to believe (until experience drives the madness out) that economics is about a certain mathematical object called an "economy". They have no incentive to learn about the world's actual economy. (Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics, p173).

Again, we see a conflict between the public lie of academics telling their students about optimizing behaviour, and the private truth that they know people behave otherwise.

The point broadens. In Bullshit Jobs, the late David Graeber described the "spiritual violence" caused by a paradox - that our sense of self-worth is tied to working for a living, but we hate our jobs. Our jobs require us to pretend. Not just the pretence of grifter journalism or teaching about rational behaviour, but the pretence that managerialist waffle is meaningful or that bullshit jobs are actually worthwhile. Most of us, to some extent or other, must wrestle with the dissonance this causes.

This is of course not a new observation. Here's Marx in 1844:

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.

In capitalism, even well-paid, comfortable jobs - perhaps especially well-paid comfortable jobs - require a denial of ourselves and of reality, that we adopt a different personality.

Which brings us back to Le Carre. One good objection to Soviet communism was that enforced widespread dishonesty. People had to deny fundamental truths which thwarted their true natures and hence their freedom. That's why the right side lost the cold war. But capitalism does the same thing. Which is why the wrong side won.

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