In Cape Town, South Africa, there has recently been an outbreak of riots, and the very first thing that most news sources would tell you about was the violence. Oh, the violence, so bad, so terrible. And yes, violence is absolutely awful, and should always be a last resort. However, thanks to the unilateral narratives peddled by the media, we are usually quick to assume that the acts of violence we see on the news are not last resorts. But what if, in some cases, they truly are acts of desperation? Would that demand a different kind of judgement?
Looking into the story, in order to find the enigmatic justification for the riots, I found this quote from a spokesperson for the group ‘Cape Town is Gatvol’, which reads: “Over the past year, our situation has gotten worse and we are nowhere near a solution. People are still being evicted and thrown to the streets during this time of natural disaster, with no concern for their health and safety,” Mind you, I had to read a lot about throwing stones before I actually got to an article on News24 that actually addressed the reasons for the riots. People are being thrown out of their houses during a pandemic, where work is scarce, and where not every person has had the luck to be able to save up enough money to be able to live comfortably for four months without work. That sounds like something that we should be concerned about, right? But why does this sound so familiar?
The answer to that can be found in an episode of Last week tonight with John Oliver, released on 29 June 2020, where the host discusses the growing amount of people being evicted from their apartments during the COVID pandemic, because they could no longer pay their rent. And sure, some people get to stay, but they accumulate so much debt during this time, that they will be paying for these last four months for the next four years. Again, I have to ask, are we really okay with this? And sure, if you are one of those people who harbour the illusion that any conversation that takes this trajectory is a bunch of bleeding-heart leftism, then you might as well stop reading now, and return to Ben Shapiro’s YouTube page. The rest of you might have to bear with me for a few moments, because we need to understand how it is that we got to a place where these evictions are not only possible, but defendable, and (for some) morally justifiable.
You see, it all comes down to economics, or at least ‘the economy’, as some independent force that “fairly” regulates the dispersion of resources among the population of a country, or even the planet. There are thousands of variations on this rhetoric, and it usually stems from a combination of the libertarian ideals of Nozick and Freedman, and the faux-ethics of selfishness peddled by people like Ayn Rand. Usually, the counterarguments to pointing out economic disparity take the form of, either a devout commitment to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or a quasi-religious understanding of economy that resembles that of the South Park episode ‘Margaritaville’. It is worth noting that I do not completely agree with the conclusions drawn by this episode, but the approach is something to be admired.
All too often, criticism of inequality is met with “the economy is my shepherd, I shall not want” or, “that’s just the way it works, I’m sorry if these ‘facts’ trigger you”. However, most of the people who levy this argument have very little idea what the concept of ‘economy’ actually entails, and instead deploys it as an unshatterable ideological wall that, by virtue of its infallibility, ends the argument in their favour. For a very long time, the message to the left has been clear: “do not interrogate the concept of economy, because it is impossible to question it. You MUST accept it and all its consequences”. The economy is the so called “fact” that cannot be disputed by those of the left. And I am not attempting a strawman here, I am literally congesting hundreds of articles, videos, and books into a few common statements. And look them up, you will find them presented in every language, in every format, that you wish to hear them in. This argument is almost as old as the concept of ‘economy’ itself.
So, this is how the left loses every argument about housing, medical care, food, welfare, and systematic inequality. We just don’t get the economy, and that’s why we have our little bleeding hearts ripped out all the time. If our eyes were only to open, and we were to swear our devotion to the cult of economy, then all these concerns for the poor, the sick, and the otherwise disadvantaged would disappear. As soon as we know that being selfish can also make us feel heroic, in Rand’s terms, and that whatever privileges we have over others have been preordained by the gods of the economy, then we can also sleep well at night, knowing that a select few have more money than 60% of the global population put together, and that around 735 million people are living in extreme poverty right now. I mean, that’s how the economy works right? Surely every billionaire out there deserves all their money on a moral level, and the evil left should be ashamed of gunning for some of that money to be distributed in a way that would assure that poor people won’t be evicted during a pandemic. Billionaires, they are the real victims here, right?
As ludicrous as these statements might sound, they are not far removed from the dreck spewed by right-wing and libertarian think tanks like PragerU, where big words, and logical fallacies galore are deployed in order to help the middle classes understand that the lazy, stupid, emotional, left wants to take all their money. This is a very common tactic of these websites and talking heads of the right. Even though they are often funded by people with excessive levels of wealth, they are not targeted at the rich. No, these organisations hone in on the middle-classes, and deploy every tactic in the book to scare them to death. If you watch these things, it usually boils down to the left wanting to take the money from Uncle Jeff, who finally got to by a second car. And this is simply not true.
You see, the right’s tactic of weaponizing the sentiments of the middle-classes is based on the idea that the middle-classes are somehow enemies or victims of wealth distribution. First of all, you have to do a lot of damage to every single middle-class household, in order to make even a fraction of the difference that you would make by properly taxing and taking from multi-millionaires and billionaires who get by on tax cuts. Secondly, the left has never been about creating poverty for people, contrary to what the right might tell you. So why would we make someone else excessively poor, just to spread the money around in ways that assure than almost no one can ever pay rent again? Thirdly, and this is an important one, the middle-classes already do what the left wants them to do. They work, they start businesses, they employ, and they pay their taxes. And for all this they get to have a house, a car, and hopefully enough money to send their kids off to college, because no one wants free education in the West, or so it seems.
This has been a very prominent tactic of the right, to convince the middle-classes that the left is out there gunning for little Johnny’s college fun, when in fact, the left is trying to distribute the wealth of billionaire tax dodgers in such a way that little Johnny won’t need a college fund. Middle-class people, listen to me now, YOU DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH TO PUT A DENT IN OUR PROBLEM. WHAT CAN BE TAKEN FROM YOU IS NOT ENOUGH. TAKING FROM YOU WILL JUST SPREAD THE POVERTY MORE EQUALLY, IT WON’T ADDRESS THE PROBLEMS OF POVERTY. SO, GET OVER THE IDEA THAT WE WANT ANYTHING FROM YOU EXCEPT YOUR SUPPORT IN TAKING DOWN THE DISGUSTINGLY WEALTHY 1%. And seriously, please don’t be fooled by these videos that try to convince you that you are in the same boat as Jeff Bezos, trying to keep the left from taking your money. You are not, and will never be in that same boat, and rhetoric like that only serves to widen the gap between you and the billionaires you stand in solidarity with.
And sure, there will be talking heads on the left that will say the opposite of this, because we have never claimed a monopoly on intelligence, but we do believe that our intelligent people make a lot of good sense. This is especially true when you consider the fact that generally, the left isn’t the bunch of recreational abortionist communists that your average Fox News pundit might have you believe. Instead, usually the idea is just to avoid accumulation that is in such gross excess that it has a negative impact on everyone else. No one is saying that a brain surgeon and a janitor need to have the exact same things. What we are saying is that no one should have eleven houses, at the expense of someone else dying of hunger.
What we are saying is that we need to level the baseline to a point where you don’t need to be wealthy to afford life-saving surgery, and where one single person does not have more money than the GDP of some poor “third world” country. What we are saying is that we should start this conversation at the bottom, and talk about the people who suffer, and think about how we can make their lives better without rendering anyone destitute. But instead, the figureheads of the “Lord God Economy” crowd always seem to want to start this conversation from the perspective of whatever wealthy victim might not be able to go on a second ski trip this year. And through the magic of “that’s just how the economy works” you have a “logical” and “moral” argument for why skiing trips and champagne are more important than food and healthcare. At this point, it is fair to say that there are significant rumblings in the zeitgeist that indicate that an enormous portion of the global population have grown tired of these bullshit arguments. I mean, if you are reading this website, then you’ve probably been harbouring some of these thoughts already. Do yourself a favour, and look into John Rawls and the Difference Principle.
Well, that was a massive deviation. Back to evictions. These evictions are particularly distressing, because the people who are justifying them seem to be using the same arguments that the cult of economy have been deploying for decades. I mean, it totally sucks for you that you have not accumulated enough wealth to be able to pay all your bills during a time of crisis, when it becomes difficult for you to earn the living you’ve been earning for the past few years. And it sucks for you that you can currently no longer afford the roof that you have been paying for all this time. It EXTRA sucks for you that none of these things are in your control, and that governmental restrictions during a global health crisis has completely destroyed your life. But, unfortunately for you, that is just how the economy works hey. We don’t make the rules, we just follow them.
What exactly are we to expect from people when they are presented with this rhetoric as justification for why they’ll be sleeping on the street tonight? How are they supposed to feel, knowing that an invisible, insentient, force is somehow responsible for putting their living, breathing, feeling, and bodies out on the street? How are they supposed to feel when no creature with a brain is willing to take responsibility for their misery (even when actively complicit in its generation), but passes the blame to some illusive mindless force that every single person on the planet is beholden to? And what are they supposed to say when they are made to understand that they only have themselves to blame for “not working hard enough” to keep up with the requirements of the Geist economy.
Yup, one of the biggest evils that has resulted from this devotion to the economy, is that it automatically allows for a reductionist sentiment that let’s every person know that, because the hypothetical possibility of a better life exists, it is their own fault if they are not adorned in wealth and luxury. It is the proponents of this very same argument that are usually offended when people talk about privilege, because the ‘economy desserts’ argument only works if you completely dismiss any understanding of social and material privilege. And that is how you get to divert your attention away from people getting thrown out of their houses, and towards their angry reactions to these injustices. “You live on the street now, the economy wills it, and it is all your fault. Therefore, every negative reaction you are going to have about this is going to be judged as ‘thuggishness’ and unwarranted violence”. Welcome to hell folks, because that is how you get to justify putting people on the street. And that is how you get to focus all your attention on the ‘violence’ that they commit in protest, instead of the accumulation of circumstances that put them in a position that necessitated protest.
Look, here is the point of this whole long-winded rant. There should be no argument that allows for atrocities like eviction and starvation on the part of many, in order to maintain disturbing levels of material wealth for a few. The economy argument has turned into a weird knee-jerk response that presents as quasi-ethical, and quasi-logical, as long as you mindlessly accept the omnipotence of the economy as a barometer for both ethics and logic. It echoes those arguments that are okay with the same things because they are “God’s will”. I will give the Christian crowd this, at least they are under the impression that their deity is conscious. The economy cultists base so much of their decisions off of something that has no mental capacity to make any decisions. Phrases like “the market decides” or “the economy decides” serve only as frustrating reminders that we are all subject to a cult that has to repeatedly anthropomorphise a golden calf that none of us had a hand in moulding, and yet we all have to pray to. There is no ethical argument that can reasonably be made to justify starvation and eviction, based on the “decisions” made by an invisible force that does not have the faculties required to make decisions.
It is for this reason that no person should buy into any moral argument that attempts to justify putting poor people on the street during a pandemic, if that argument is based on “well, the economy…”. No, your moral argument should start with the value of human life, the mutual responsibility that we have to speak up against injustice, and the obligation we have towards each other as human beings. What were those things that Aristotle said we should strive for again? Oh yeah, virtues of good character. Which virtuous character trait generates suffering in people who are already in dire straits? Which virtue denies people access to that which can save their lives, based on the fact that they don’t have enough wealth? Which virtue puts a single mother and her kids on the street because the pandemic has ruined them financially? The economy cult is for the privileged egoists who are threatened, or think they are threatened, by the application of human virtues in a time where they are more desperately needed than ever. You can take that to the damn bank, since that is where you seem to generate your ethical decisions.
Contributor: Sarel Marais
Disillusioned academic going through every day life. Entertainer, musician, and comedian that hates entertainment, music, and comedy. Writer that uses any and all writing skill, stretching to the far reaches of my vocabulary to convey my utter annoyance with the absurdity of human existence.