Thursday, June 11, 2009

Of sheep pens and revolution

Students taking my version of Rhetoric and Public Life tackle Thomas More's (1516) Utopia, a book that sometimes frustrates them before (usually) becoming one of their most vivid memories of class. In preparation for that adventure, I occasionally reread More's classic survey of a good-place/not-place where European customs, practices, and collective ideas about justice are turned upside down. Invariably I'm amazed that while More could not contemplate a United States of America, his words offer insight, and a little bit of critique, for our own experiment in utopian exceptionalism.

Many students encountering Utopia for the first time find More's description of an ideal community to be quaint, even if a little saucy from time to time ("Really? They view prospective spouses in the nude before marriage? Weird."). Further, those unaware of More's personal story and the life-or-death struggles he faced (and to which he ultimately succumbed) can be forgiven for dismissing his little book as mere fancy.

Revisiting Utopia, however, I find myself all the more ensnared by More's ability to render a verdict on class distinctions that are naturalized by church and state even as they clearly benefit the artificially wealthy over the materially poor.

In Book One (of Turner's translation) More's Raphael castigates the English aristocrats who have seized public lands, enclosing them to raise sheep for their personal finery. Before, commoners could raise marginal crops and maintain a dignified (if meager) standard of living. Now, those same people are cast into the cities and left to fend for themselves against a vicious cauldron of greed and corruption. Readers may think, "Hmm, sheep? That's the problem, really? I don't get it." But More makes it plain that the larger issue has little to do with wool. The debate is about values set by increasingly artificial measures.

From that perspective, one cause of our current economic woes - the gathering of cheap and worthless mortgages into bundles, which were then packaged and split into commodities to be bought and sold by people with no sense of the land or its tenants, of the material outcomes of their maneuverings - seems hardly surprising. Thomas More (speaking as Raphael, a traveling philosopher who visited Utopia) saw the same thing in his day:
[I]t's almost entirely under the control of a few rich men, who don't need to sell unless they feel like it, and never do feel like it until they can get the price they want. This also accounts for the equally high prices of other types of livestock, especially in view of the shortage of breeders caused by the demolition of farms, and the general decline of agriculture. For the rich men I'm talking about never bother to breed either sheep or cattle themselves. They merely buy scraggy specimens cheap from someone else, fatten them up on their own pastures, and resell them at a large profit. I imagine that's why the full effects of the situation have not yet been felt. So far they've only inflated prices in the areas where they sell, but if they keep transferring animals from other districts faster than they can be replaced, stocks in the buying areas too will gradually be depleted, until eventually there'll be an acute shortage everywhere. (p. 48)
More's Utopia (in Book Two) proceeds to tour the island that reveals an alternative to this economic structure, proposing instead a place where people work six hours a day and otherwise enjoy lives of leisure, conversation, education, and - more often that contemporary readers may imagine - volunteerism. How can it be so? How can a society endure if its workers toil only six hours a day?

It's easy, says More, if everybody (with a handful of exceptions) works toward the common good rather than for personal gain. Imagine if all of today's professions that produce nothing materially useful to the common good were abolished, More wonders, if people farmed together, constructed handicrafts together, and concentrated their energies on only basic needs.

More imagines that the artificial pleasures of a society - gambling in his day, anesthesizing ourselves with television today - would become odd and mildly pathetic to a community in which all people attend to each others' functional needs. Returning to material labors and material pleasures would inspire us to cultivate our mental gardens with much finer stuff than that which passes for inspiration to the contemporary mind.

More's Utopia is wildly and unabashedly communistic, of course. There is no property, no money, no sense of personal initiative that competes with the public good. It is therefore impractical, laughable, improbable, so say its knee-jerk critics. As for myself, benefiting as I do from a contemporary system that makes room for such musings (remember, there would be far fewer teachers in Utopia, and none who study something as abstract as "rhetoric and public life"), I sympathize with the reasoning of those who mock More's excesses.

Still, I cannot help but understand his fury at an economic system that deprives its prime movers - those who work with their hands more than those who manipulate spreadsheets - of the dignity of a living wage and then calls for us to define such artificial misery as natural, inevitable, necessary. I leave this note once more with More's Raphael who reminds us how similar the rage of 1516 looks today if we merely consider our contemporary world as but one of many choices that have been made, one that may be unmade if we have the will to peer past the horizon of common sense.
People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, or money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that's really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury. But labourers [sic], coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they'd bring any country to a standstill within twelve months - what happens to them? They get so little to eat, and they have such a wrenched time, that they'd be almost better off if they were cart-horses. Then at least, they wouldn't work quite such long hours, their food wouldn't be very much worse, they'd enjoy it more, and they'd have no fears for the future. . . What's more, the wretched earnings of the poor are daily whittled away by the rich, not only through private dishonesty, but through public legislation. As if it weren't unjust enough already that the man who contributes most to society should get the least in return, they make it even worse, and then arrange for injustice to be legally described as justice. (pp. 129-130)
Read the book: More, T. (1516/1997). Utopia. New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition. Another translation online:

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