The Pyramid of Victims

Naked Questions/10 - Accumulating goods is not bliss, happiness lies in work

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/01/2016

Logo QoheletWhen Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The desecration of the law and justice have always activated the voice and the indignation of the prophets who continue to expose the corrupt and call them to conversion.

The criticism Qoheleth casts on his unequal society is different, but no less radical than the prophetic one. He doesn't really believe in the moral conversion of the powerful, but with the strength of his wisdom he dismounts the logic of their power and wealth from within, pointing out the intrinsic vanity in it as a layperson.

To restore hope to the poor who have been humiliated the fiery words of the new prophets would be needed, but a few new Qoheleths would be equally valuable, as they should be capable of revealing the nonsense and the sadness of our fake richness and false happiness.

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” (Ecclesiastes 5,8-9). Half way through into his discourse, Qoheleth takes us inside the dynamics of power and bureaucratic and hierarchical societies. His first mention is of the "oppressed poor", but instead of a moral condemnation he "loves" the poor with truth, revealing a not-so-evident reality. He tells us that those who seem strong and belonging to the rulers are actually victims of a sick and corrupt system.

The unmasking eye of Ecclesiastes can see the high pyramid of oppression, exploitation and injustice over the poor. On top of a torturer there's another one that oppresses him, and so on, until the last boss, the king, whom Qoheleth still sees as "committed to cultivated fields". Although the meaning of this verse (5,8) is doubtful because it's been corrupted by time, it is not a farfetched idea that Ecclesiastes wanted to place the king in the chain of servitude and vanity, too. Not even the greatest and richest man - as Genesis also tells us in the "Joseph Cycle" - can free himself from the dependence on the rhythms of nature, from famine and calamities, from returning to dust and to earth as all Adams: “As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came...” (5,15).

There are many things we can read from this description of injustice as a social pyramid of oppression. First of all Qoheleth offers us the opportunity to take a less severe moral look on the last taskmaster who oppresses the poor, because his act of unfair abuse is often sparked by other abuses of which he is the victim in turn. There is no moral justification for his behaviour, only an invitation to a better reading of the exploitation in question. Those that seem victim-perpetrator relationships to us are often victim-victim ones instead. The world is filled by hevel, everything is an endless Abel, the earth is full of victims: Qoheleth told us so in the opening passages of his book. Now he shows us victims where we only see executioners. Hence there are three important things to be noted: the rise of hierarchies increases the number of victims under the sky; the weight of the entire pyramid pours on the last oppressed poor; if we want to save the poor from oppression the pyramids generating victims should be demolished. Yesterday and today. Today as we look at capitalist enterprises or other hierarchical institutions, the abuse of power or exploitation itself does not appear to us as their first nature. Furthermore, the new management ideology is replacing hierarchical relationships with incentives that are presented as horizontal relations, contracts based on the free choice of all parties involved in it. In fact, if we are guided by the ancient wisdom and we try to look beyond ideological appearances, we will realise that when a wicked financial product is administered to a pensioner by an officer there is also an official of a higher order that puts pressure on and oppresses that first official for the achievement of corporate goals on which the wages and careers of both of them depend. And so on, going up the steps of the pyramid, until we reach the top and find heads of companies that, in turn, are "servants" to the market movements, geopolitics and natural phenomena. In that final product-abuse there weighs the whole chain of ill born relationships.

Not all hierarchies are characterised by abuse and harassment, but still many, and the Bible invites us to dream of a type of new land, law and justice that is not there yet. There are no organizations without exercise of authority, but you cannot exercise a non-hierarchical authority. There are only a few historical experiments of non-hierarchical authorities, and many among them have been unsuccessful. But the poor will be "oppressed" and the victims will be multiplying until we learn to translate the principle of fraternity in the governance of companies and institutions.

After this description of the morphology of power and hierarchy, Qoheleth returns to one of its major themes: the vanity of the pursuit of wealth, the smoke of avarice: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity [smoke, hevel]” (5,10). It is a phrase that we should display at the entrance of business schools, companies and banks. When money becomes an end instead of being a means, it turns into a tool that creates endless unhappiness, because its accumulation soon becomes the main purpose of life; and accumulation, by its very nature, has no end, it is an idol that always wants to eat. There is no poor more miserable than the greedy one, because the increase of his money increases his hunger. And then he continues: “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a labourer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” (5,11:-12). What great wisdom!

Here Qoheleth takes us inside a palace of his era in the Middle East. He shows us a rich man, and a plethora of courtiers and parasites around him that eat his wealth. It's all and only about unhappiness, of parasites and also the rich whose wealth and dreams get eaten. Outside the building there is instead a worker, a farmer or a craftsman, who lives by his labour and has sweet dreams. In these few words we find the ancient and eternal conflict between income and labour, between those who live by eating yesterday's bread and others who live from the little bread of their work. It has never been work to create great wealth. It is almost always produced by income, i.e. by income deriving from some form of privilege, abuse or advantage. And income generates parasites, unproductive consumption, from which there is no work or happiness born for anyone. The "parasitic syndrome" never fails to appear in times of moral decay, when entrepreneurs, workers, entire social categories stop generating work and new revenue streams today and invest energy to protect the profits and privileges of yesterday.

Parasitism is a disease that is not found in the economic sphere only. Those who fall into this syndrome include, for example, those communities or movements that become large and beautiful thanks to the work of the founders and the first generation, and instead of developing what they inherited by new work, risk and creativity they begin to live off of it, satiated by the past, unable to generate "children" and a future. The parasitic syndrome is still the leading cause of death of businesses and communities.

Qoheleth clearly stands on the side of labour, those who work "under the sun" to earn a living. He has already told us so (3,12-13), and now he repeats it with more poetry and force: “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink ... for this is his lot.” (5,18) There is no other happiness than what we can see in our everyday work, enjoying the fruits it brings. Qoheleth continues his polemic against religion and economic compensation in a coherent fashion.

The blessing of God is not in wealth and possessions. However, surprising us, he also tells us that it is possible that even the rich, for a special grant of God, may share a "part" of this good happiness: “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.” (5,19) It's rare, but not impossible: the rich man, too, can be happy, if he works and manages to enjoy his effort.

There are millions of people, rich and poor, businessmen and housewives, who can give substance and happiness to their lives simply by working. There are those who defeat death and vanitas every day by rearranging a room, preparing a meal, repairing a car, teaching a lesson. There are certainly higher forms of happiness than these in our lives, but we cannot reach them unless we learn to find the simple happiness in the ordinary efforts of every day. We are only saved by working. Not because of a sentimental joy or self-comforting that abounds in the pens of non-workers - Qoheleth would never forgive us for that - but for the one that flourishes inside fatigue and even in tears. The Book of Ecclesiastes, however, tells us something even more beautiful: “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (5,20). Work is a generator of joy because if we get engaged in a non-vain activity our heart is distracted from "thinking too much" – and wrongly – about vanities that may be real in our lives; and also because that's where Elohim is waiting for us with his joyfullness.

This humble joy is not the opium of the peoples, it is simply our good fate. If the presence of Elohim in the heart is a "response" to the good efforts, if it is the first salary of the worker, then the joy that sometimes surprises us during work can be no less than the presence of the divine on earth. This, Qoheleth, my friend, is really good news. So where is your much evidenced pessimism? Under the sun, non-vain joy is actually possible.

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