a fable: scraps from the king's table

A fable:

Once upon a time, there was a king. As kings go, he was far from the worst his people had seen. He was of a kinder disposition than the tyrants of neighboring lands, and under his rule his people were more prosperous than their grandparents had been. (Though some people pointed out that this prosperity was based on chopping down the old forest, selling the wood, and cultivating more land, and what would the people do when the forest ran out?)

Still, he was a king. Because of an accident of birth, he lived a privileged life in a palace, worse the finest clothes, and feasted every night, while his people lived in rude huts, worse corse cloth, and ate simple fare. But being a decent king, he always left the scraps from his nightly feast for any hungry peasants.

One night, as a group of peasants stood outside the palace door waiting for the chamberlain to bring the scraps from the king's table, one malcontent spoke up. "Have you every wondered, my friends, why it is that the king is feasting, while we are forced to rely on his charity and beg?"

"Hush!" said his companions. "Have you no gratitude for our king? Would you rather live under the tyrant who rules the lands to the east?"

"Of course not," said the malcontent. "I don't want a tyrant. But why should I feel gratitude for a king?"

"Why, if we had no king, where would we get the scraps we dine on? Surely you are addled in the head."

"I don't want scraps! I want us all to share the feast."

"Well if you don't want the king's scraps, then leave here and go be hungry, you ungrateful wretch!"

There's an argument that I often hear, in various forms, about how capitalism has created more wealth than any other economic system. And that may be true, as far as it goes. (Though considering that Leninism/Stalinism, for all of its horrors, took a nation of peasants and made it into a spacefaring superpower in a matter of a few decades, and that Maoism wrought a similar change on China, while the economic expansion of the capitalist U.S. and European nations was founded on imperialism, slavery, and genocide that externalized many costs, I would say that the situation is more complicated than that. This is not an endorsement of the murderous, monstrous regimes of Stalin or Mao, nor of slavery, genocide, or imperialism.)

And so, the argument goes, we should be grateful to our corporate masters: "STFU about discussing any alternatives to capitalism, this is a good as it can possibly be and you're an ungrateful wretch to speak against capitalism while taking its table scraps." We've seen that argument in full force from various pundits who have observed that Occupy protesters are still using products of various large multinational corporations.

I've come to think of that argument as "the fallacy of the scraps from the king's table". The fact that one eats scraps from the king's table, or uses the products of a powerful multinational corporation, does not mean that one cannot hope, plan, and work for a world without kings, or powerful multinational corporations.

This fallacy is a failure of imagination, a fundamentally conservative attitude that progress is impossible. It reminds me of something that Tim Kreider wrote:

I’ve thought before that the most fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is not over issues of individual freedom vs. authority or progress vs. traditional values, but imagination. Conservatives don’t have any. The status quo seems only inevitable and right to them, the natural order of things, and anyone who protests it is an impractical dreamer who should get a job or a malcontent who needs to be medicated. They're incapable of seeing their own historical moment as in any way anomalous or provisional; as Montag's colleagues assure him in Farenheit 451, "Believe me, houses have always been fireproof. Firemen have always burned books." They believe that they deserve their own lives; they can't imagine having been born as someone else. (Empathy, and by extension compassion, is a function of imagination.) They can't imagine what it would be like to be poor, or black, or gay, because, well, they're not, and they suspect that these unfortunate conditions are those people's own faults, a consequence of some moral failing or dereliction. (I always secretly felt this way about old people until I noticed I was aging as well.) Likewise people living in other cultures with different beliefs and customs; they're simply ignorant, deprived of the advantages of Jesus and Wal-Mart. Francis Fukyama, in a book with the straight-line title The End of History, argues that capitalist liberal democracy is the final culmination of all social progress, apparently unable to imagine a more perfect system than the one epitomized by Donald Trump and Kenneth Lay.

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