Mysteries of Progress …

There we dare to ask and wonder ….

… about sustainability, simple life styles and overconsumption, greed and modesty and what we really need – Skidelski/Skidelki publishing under the title

 How much is Enough?

 promising to look at

Money and the Good Life[1]

and Thomas Piketty writing about extensive inequality[2] – surely important, and shocking in its way. And in this way surely talking importantly about the Capital of the 21st century. But this way is denying that capital, in which century ever, is established on inequality – which is paradoxically emerging from contractual equality of the one who sells and the other who buys the labour power. This equality and even freedom, presumed by the contract is defined in very simple terms: Two parties engaging freely, i.e. without being forced by the other, with each other and defining ex ante the exact conditions – cost and benefits – of the interaction, defining this way exactly what they can and have to expect from each other – and both parties having the same rights.[3]

And although we may say that everybody talks about it, and is even reasonably honest, the question of the we is a bit tricky.

We the commoners? We, the decision makers, defining what is common – [in former times these people had been called members of the noble classes]? We, the people with common sense [which the German language translates into something that is linked to health: a healthy way of thinking …..]? We, the people whose life, attitude, belief, need is defined by a common standard?

Well, in one way or another there is a paradox, a trap, which is well described in an article I read the other day. It had been in a book looking at poverty and shaming.[4]

The respective sentences that caught my attention much beyond the actual topic of the book and the issue of employment are concerned with the “work-oriented culture”. In these societies

having a job is not just a matter of economic security. In a social sense, it is a primary arena for attaining the dignity associated with social normalisation.[5]

And in another article of the same book we find a quote, from somebody who lives in poverty – a person in Pakistan:

it is the rich who should be ashamed, not the poor.[6]

Isn’t it also that we as academics should be ashamed for not sufficiently highlighting this dimension of shame; for not sufficiently questioning the standards of normalisation


There is a real problem – not only characterising recent developments

Pronta sempre a disporsi per tutte ugualmente, come quella, che non si satia né si contenta d’una forma sola; ma havendo appetito a tutte, non ha prima l’una sopra di se, che quasi pentita&infastidita, comincia ad aspirare all’altra; non essendole più propria questa che quella: di maniera che molti l’assomigliano ad una publichissima meretrice: percioche, si come una donna tale, della conversazione di qualsivoglia huomo non si satia mai, & non più di questo che di quello essendo amica; non prima sta sotto l’uno che desiderando l’altro, cerca dal primo scostarsi: cosi questa prima materia commune atta, & pronta per natura sua à desiderar tutte le materiali forme,& a poter conseguirle, non essendo possibil che più d’una in un’istesso tempo sostenga mai; è necessario che mentre che sta sotto l’una, per l’appetito c’ha delle altre, so spogli di quella al fine;&quindi della nuova vestita poi, tosto per altre, il medesimo faccia di mano in mano; mentre seccedon le forme l’una dopo l’atera perpetuamente.[7]

The Faustian tragedy, later reflected by Marx in his work Capital (mind, not of the 21st Century or any other century – just the Capital), where we read in chapter 24 of the first volume:

At the historical dawn of capitalist production, — and every capitalist upstart has personally to go through this historical stage — avarice, and desire to get rich, are the ruling passions. But the progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity to the “unfortunate” capitalist. Luxury enters into capital’s expenses of representation. Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out the labour-power of others, and enforces on the labourer abstinence from all life’s enjoyments. Although, therefore, the prodigality of the capitalist never possesses the bona-fide character of the open-handed feudal lord’s prodigality, but, on the contrary, has always lurking behind it the most sordid avarice and the most anxious calculation, yet his expenditure grows with his accumulation, without the one necessarily restricting the other. But along with this growth, there is at the same time developed in his breast, a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation, and the desire for enjoyment.

Indeed, as we learn right before,

 original sin is at work everywhere. As capitalist production, accumulation, and wealth, become developed, the capitalist ceases to be the mere incarnation of capital. He has a fellow-feeling for his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at the rage for asceticism, as a mere prejudice of the old-fashioned miser. While the capitalist of the classical type brands individual consumption as a sin.


So, coming back to the questions about sustainability, simple life styles and overconsumption, greed and modesty, there are the “other people”.

The other day I went to my phone service provider, saying that I would have some problems with my phone.

I know that the battery of this model is extremely weak.

– Oh, yes, indeed ….

She thought admitting the weakness would be enough to get rid of me but …

– … but since some time …, actually I can literally see how the battery is drained.

Exchange of few words …, and 2 percent less power.

 – Please, can you check of there is something running in the background ….; I already made sure that Bluetooth is switched of and localisation  service ….

Indeed, she checked …

– No, I cannot find anything …. – but perhaps you should switch of the 4G service. This really kills the battery.

And I could only confirm that this problem occurred since this service had been introduced.

– And can I switch it off?

She nodded, did so and I left, not necessarily  happily, the shop, heading to the gate at FCO to go just for a two hour meeting to capital of the old Hapsburg empire.

Well, as I have had a little bit of time left, I stopped …: whoever had been at an airport knows the name of the shop, selling electronics and accessories and …

… and I resisted to by one of these “mobile battery chargers”, being still somewhat proud of my phone: slim, small, “handy” as the Germans say (though they actually don’t really mean what they say – but that is another story) and in “allowing me in a small shell doing nearly everything.”

Sure, many reasons to decide this way: lack of greed (I think some would call it avarice); the fear that with another new gadget, or gadget accessory I am again closer to the threshold for hand luggage; the aversion to buy a new suitcase; the fear that I would forget it frequently at home, loose or forget it somewhere, or at least would not find it in my rucksack, bag, pocket or suitcase; the annoyance by having another adapter and another cable ….

Sure, in this context technology plays a role. But looking at battery power of computers today, and comparing the development of computer and phone batteries ….

… in fact, though the exact figures  may be contested, there is surely great truth in the supposition that more than half of today’s production is the production of waste, directly or in form of “services” that occur in consequence of mechanisms that make things more complicated by their supposed simplification   ….

At the end so: it is not primarily the trap of overconsumption which puts me off, but the subordination under the rule of overproduction, the permanent and ever-present iron grip into our pockets.

Sure, as Swantje Karich writes on the  18.07.2014 in the F.A.Z. there is an alternative, namely the bench in the park being equipped with a power socket (Die Steckdose in der Parkbank)

In Boston müssen sich die Nomophopie-Geplagten nicht mehr fürchten vor einem längeren Spaziergang abseits von Steckdose und Stromversorgung. Die Parkbänke der Stadt sind jetzt solarbetrieben, haben Anschlüsse zum Aufladen von Akkus, kosten 3000 Dollar, heißen „Soofas“ und sind so konzipiert, dass sich auf ihnen nicht einmal ein sehr müder Bänker querlegen kann. Aufrecht sitzend behält man hier Anschluss an die Welt. Vier Bänke sind auf dem Campus einer Bostoner Universität aufgestellt – damit die Pause auch Arbeitszeit bleibt, man sich bloß nicht mit seinem Nachbarn unterhalten muss.


Yes, sure, there is an alternative. As I saved time, not buying the additional battery, I could sit down at the gate on a bench without power socket, the phone switched on “slow motion”, G3 (which had been high speed a short while back) …

A short while, I just wanted to open the book, somebody asked me if I could take the bag from the seat, next to me.

– Certo. …. Per favore, siediti …

I did not open the book …

 – And did you have a nice time here?

– I simply loved it. You know it had been the first time that I had been in Rome. People are so friendly, so relaxed …

I could see, feel the excitement

Sitting there and chatting with the person next to me had been so pleasant, relaxing … – and we exchanged addresses. Written on a piece of paper, the old-fashioned fountain pen requiring a bit of time, allowing the ink that had been used to write down where we live, how we can reach each other by email and of course the mobile phone numbers.

So relaxed .. – yes, that is what we think nearly everyday, walking round, having learned not to fall on the same streets which had been used by Jesus, Cesar, Augustus, Nero …,  Pliny, Plotinus … that is what we think nearly everyday, walking round, having learned that there are cars parked in the second and third line – of course, who would dare to park in the proper parking slot and not paying the parking fee?

Sure, the term hoax is actually mostly known from the IT-world, but originates in the world of information without technology, the real world as we frequently name it. May well be then that we actually didn’t really mean what we said – sad enough then. But may be we actually meant exactly what we said. Formulas are not primarily a matter of algorithms but sometimes just a matter of the sound of a voice and what the eyes tell.


[1]            I am not entirely convinced that they kept their promise though it is surely an inspiring reading: Skidelski, Robert/Skidelski, Edwards, 2012: How much is Enough? Money and the Good Life; Allen Lane

[2]            Piketty, Thomas, 2013: Le Capital au XXI Siècle; Paris: Éditions du Seuil

[3]            Ah, sure, considering freedom and equality we remember of course Marx, writing in a footnote:

Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of ―justice éternelle, from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the ―eternal ideas, of ―naturalité and ―affinité? Do we really know any more about ―usury, when we say it contradicts ―justice éternelle, équité éternelle ―mutualité éternelle, and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with ―grâce éternelle, ―foi éternelle, and ―la volonté éternelle de Dieu?

[4]            Gubrium, Erika K./Pellissery, Sony/Lødemel, Ivar (eds.), 2014: The Shame of It. Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies; Bristol/Chicago: Policy Press

[5]            Gubrium, Erika K./Lødemel, Ivar, 2014: ’Not Good Enough’: Social Assistance and Shaming in Norway; in: Gubrium, Erika K./Pellissery, Sony/Lødemel, Ivar (eds.): The Shame of It. Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies; Bristol/Chicago: Policy Press: 111-132; here:102

[6]            Choudhry, Sohail, 2014: Pakistan: A Journey of Poverty-Induced Shame; in: Gubrium, Erika K./Pellissery, Sony/Lødemel, Ivar (eds.): The Shame of It. Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies; Bristol/Chicago: Policy Press: 111-132; here: 126

[7]            Piccolomoni: Della filosofia naturale, lib 1, chap. 6, fol 14v


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