Gratitude is a trap

April 10, 2019 (736 words) :: How dare you criticise a system that provided you with the means of criticising it in the first place? You should be grateful.
Tags: inequality

This post is day 100 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I’m not entirely sure how healthy this is, but I spend a lot of time thinking about potential criticism of my political beliefs & the way I try to explain them to others. As in, how would an apologist for capitalism respond to my blog posts, or my published articles, or my upcoming book? What arguments would they find unconvincing in my writing? What would they believe that I haven’t considered?

One sentiment that I’ve seen in response to socialist arguments hinges on the concept of gratitude. I’ve touched on the topic in a previous fragment: how dare socialists complain about capitalism via Twitter on their iPhones? Surely they should be grateful that capitalism has given them so much freedom.

To be fair, there is an important point buried in this (bad) argument. How do you define capitalism? There’s a risk of defining it too cynically, by pointing at all the things you don’t like about our economic system, and grouping them together under the moniker of capitalism, without any sort of underlying theoretical framework connecting all those things together. At least, that’s probably how capitalism’s defenders see it - everytime they come across an anti-capitalist screed, they roll their eyes at the temerity of these critics to complain about a system that already gave them so much. Where’s their gratitude?

Well, whom should we be grateful to? There is no sense in assigning either gratitude nor blame to capitalism as such, because there is no agent to receive any provided gratitude. No one on the left is saying “capitalism is bad and therefore it should feel bad”; the left is saying “capitalism is bad, therefore we should reform/fix/transcend/overcome it”. The left critique of capitalism isn’t a moralising one, meant to critique specific people and shame them into behaving differently; it’s a systemic one. The purpose of judging capitalism is to then decide what should be done, if anything.

By saying that capitalism is fine and its critics should be grateful rather than resentful, capitalism’s apologists are expressing a barely muted contempt for those who think they deserve more than what they’re currently getting. Gratitude becomes an ideological weapon meant to keep the disaffected in their rightful place of supplication. All these gig economy workers who have no legal protections, minimum wage restaurant workers who make $2.13 and hour before tips, software engineers who hate their company and want to work on something more socially responsible - how dare they complain? How dare they feel entitled to a better life than the measly one they’re allowed under the current system? Don’t they know that by asking for a living wage, they’re just asking to have their jobs automated away and made mechanically redundant? Things could be so much worse; why aren’t they grateful for the fact that they’re getting anything at all? Why are they so entitled?

Entitlement, used in a pejorative sense, usually refers to a feeling of deserving more than what one is owed. But who should decide what is owed to whom? In this era of record levels of wealth inequality, asking for more than what one has seems like a fairly logical response for anyone who sees others getting rich off their labour (or rent) while they’re struggling. If we want to talk about entitlement, we should start by looking at billionaires, who have (unfortunately) been given responsiblity over the wealth generated with the help of other people and have captured so much of it for themselves, simply because they could.

To conclude this short post: ‘gratitude’ politics is a means of dampening dissent among those who have been unfairly cheated of their fair share of society’s wealth. As a means of shielding elites from the consequences of mismanagement, it serves to contain calls for structural change. Beyond that, as a political philosophy, it is an inherently backwards-looking enterprise. Spend too much time feeling grateful for what you’ve achieved so far and you’ll become complacent, less inclined to push for what has yet to be achieved. Societal progress is driven by discontent, not gratitude, and if anyone tells you to abandon the former in favour of the latter, you should be very, very suspicious of them: what are they afraid they’ll lose?

If you want to read an argument against gratitude in the context of refugees, I highly recommend Dina Nayeri’s gorgeous and heartbreaking essay for The Guardian from 2017.

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