Tolstoy’s 1886 parable, How Much Land Does a Man Need has been on my mind recently. In the tale, the debt-ridden peasant Pahom rises to the status of a small landowner but remains dissatisfied, unable to let go of the idea that if only he had more land, he would not even fear the devil.
The devil of course, takes him up on his challenge. Pahom is presented with an unusual land-grab opportunity by the apparently simple-minded Bashkir family. For a thousand rubles, he can have as much of their land as he can run around, between dawn to dusk. If he manages to return to the starting point, the land is his. If not, he forfeits the thousand rubles.
In the story, Pahom overestimates his stamina and attempts to claim too much land. As dusk nears, he realizes he has over-reached, and desperately races back to the starting point. He makes it back, but dies of exhaustion at the finish line. He is buried in a six-foot grave, providing both an answer to the question in the title and a moral for the story derived from Tolstoy’s late-life pacifist Christian-anarchist views.
By preaching a morality of modest, self-limiting aspirations, the good Count was trying to have his feudalism-cake and eat serf-emancipation too. It is a response to destabilizing patterns of opportunity that has become all too familiar in our own time.
I call it the gooseberry fallacy. Let me explain.
Acting Dead, Choosing Life
When you consider the state of the world and Russia in 1886, the tale reads less like a simple fable about greed, and more like conservative moral authoritarianism trying to backstop a failing political authoritarianism in post-emancipation Russia. Tolstoy was offering relief, in the form of simplistic morality, from the anxieties of uncertain times.
My reading of this story is unflattering to Tolstoy. As an idealistic and progressive member of a nobility in decline, he wanted to espouse the values represented by the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 (which, like Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of 1863, remained more theory than fact for a century), without giving up the harmony of the social order he inhabited. An order based on an entirely different set of values. Faced with the idea that change and a harmony based on eternal values might be mutually exclusive, in stories like Pahom’s, he implicitly advocated retreating from real, painful change.
The motif of the six-foot grave suggests that Tolstoy’s implicit prescription is a case of what Bruce Sterling called acting dead. Don’t over-reach. Navigate by time-tested values instead of experimental new ones. Keep your aspirations modest. Be content with what you can get without striving at the edge of your abilities. At all costs, do not attempt to exuberantly be all you can be.
Act dead in short.
The opposite of acting dead is to choose life of course, but it is not clear what that means. In Sterling’s critique of contemporary culture, choosing life means choosing creative expression (through design fiction for instance) to explore an expanding space of new possibilities.
For me, choosing life is simply about choosing uncertainty over certainty and carefully nurtured dissatisfaction over contentment. So viewed from this perspective, Pahom was not being greedy. He was simply choosing life and challenging the devil, instead of safely staying within the confines of a life based on unchanging values. That he died trying makes him a martyr for the cause of choosing life.
Sterling rediscovered this line of criticism for our time, but Tolstoy’s moral authoritarianism did not escape criticism in his own time. His contemporary Anton Chekov was perhaps his subtlest critic.
Chekov versus Tolstoy
In Chekov’s Gooseberries (1898), we find an alternative answer to Tolstoy’s question. It is a tale of two brothers, Nikolai and Ivan.
Nikolai spends his life as a petty bureaucrat, aspiring to retire to the life of a small landowner in the countryside, growing his own gooseberries. Ivan seeks a more restless life of constant aspiration and striving. The story begins with an explicit reference to Tolstoy’s question, when Ivan begins telling his brother’s tale:
“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathized with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life — it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit.”
Gooseberries contemplates the idea that perhaps it is the self-limiting philosophies of the sort that Tolstoy implicitly prescribed for Pahom that are the real cardinal sin. That perhaps the only arena fit for the human mind is the entire world. And perhaps, Bond villains that we are, even the world is not enough.
Nikolai gets exactly what he aspires to, within his limited ambition a Jeffersonian middle class life. He retires to the country and even appears to enjoy it. But to Ivan, his brother appears as a petty human being who has closed himself off to intellectual, moral and physical possibilities. A human being who has abdicated his responsibility to be as fully human as possible; to aspire to engage the “whole earth” with his life:
“He was no longer the poor, tired official, but a real landowner and a person of consequence. He had got used to the place and liked it, ate a great deal, took Russian baths, was growing fat, had already gone to law with the parish and the two factories, and was much offended if the peasants did not call him ‘Your Lordship.’ And, like a good landowner, he looked after his soul and did good works pompously, never simply. What good works? He cured the peasants of all kinds of diseases with soda and castor-oil, and on his birthday he would have a thanksgiving service held in the middle of the village, and would treat the peasants to half a bucket of vodka, which he thought the right thing to do…Nicholai Ivanich who, when he was in the Exchequer, was terrified to have an opinion of his own, now imagined that what he said was law. ‘Education is necessary for the masses, but they are not fit for it.’ ‘Corporal punishment is generally harmful, but in certain cases it is useful and indispensable.’…
“And all this, mark you, was said with a kindly smile of wisdom. He was constantly saying: ‘We noblemen,’ or ‘I, as a nobleman.’ Apparently he had forgotten that our grandfather was a peasant and our father a common soldier. Even our family name, Tchimacha-Himalaysky, which is really an absurd one, seemed to him full-sounding, distinguished, and very pleasing.
Ivan essentially argues that any self-limiting conception of the good life is a case of acting dead. The only way to be fully human is to embrace limitlessness and endless frontiers in some form. The story ends with Ivan urging a young man to never settle or give in to modest, self-limiting aspirations:
“Pavel Koustantinich,” he said in a voice of entreaty, “don’t be satisfied, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!”
This is a subtle leveling-up of the debate. Ivan isn’t arguing for an alternative conception of happiness as an embrace of limitlessness over limits. He is arguing for dissatisfaction and doubt as governing virtues, over contentment and certainty. What’s more, he is equating the former with life itself and the latter with acting dead.
In another Chekov tale, The Bet (1889), we find a different treatment of the choosing life/choosing death challenge with a much more ambiguous outcome; one that offers life-affirmation without offering redemption of the American variety.
In this tale, in a discussion of capital punishment, a young lawyer argues that any sort of life is better than death. He is challenged by a banker to prove his point by spending 15 years in solitary confinement. If he succeeds he wins 2 million rubles. The lawyer accepts.
The tale plays out with the banker’s fortunes waning over the fifteen years, and the lawyer reading voraciously and undergoing a complex spiritual transformation in confinement. As the final day nears, the banker realizes the lawyer is going to win and ruin him. On the last night, he sneaks into the lawyer’s cell to murder him in his sleep. But just as he is about to do the deed, he discovers a letter written by the lawyer, denouncing (and renouncing) the self-limiting world of the banker and announcing his intention to deliberately lose the bet by walking out early.
The banker withdraws in relief and the lawyer follows through, walking away from a two-million-ruble certain win towards more uncertainty.
Tolstoy’s Pahom wins and dies. Chekov’s Nikolai in Gooseberries wins and lives, but only in his own eyes. To his brother, the life-embracing Ivan, he is effectively dead. And finally, Chekov’s lawyer loses a battle but finds an affirmation of life.
Tolstoy’s story leaves you with a simplistic moral. Chekov’s stories leave you with moral ambiguity that can only be resolved, if at all, by choosing to live and learning how life will play out for you.
It is actually surprising to find Tolstoy, who at times can be extraordinarily subtle in his observations of the human condition, on the less compelling side of this debate. My suspicion is that Isaiah Berlin had it right: Tolstoy was a fox whose work was somewhat compromised, especially later in his life, by his belief that one ought to be a hedgehog. To choose Tolstoy is to accept that Pahom ought to have limited his ambitions and chosen to act dead rather than die trying to own the world.
Chekov is pure fox. He offers many conflicting, ambiguous and impressionistic takes on the human condition. But on one point he is unambiguous: in the acting dead/choosing life decision, Chekov is unwavering in his assertion that choosing life is the right thing to do, whatever that choice might entail.
Pahom chose right. The fact that his decision happened to kill him is irrelevant.
Russia chose wrong, and ended up with the Soviet Union, an entity more allied with Tolstoy’s moral authoritarianism than Chekov’s life-affirming embrace of uncertainty.
Manifestos versus Long Bets
Tolstoy and Chekov offer two conflicting models for engaging the uncertain future: manifestos versus long bets. Manifestos are self-limiting constructs built around assumed certainties. Long bets are constructs built around uncertainties.
I’ve been thinking about manifestos versus long bets for several months now, thanks to a discussion of manifestos with a friend, which led to a little debating session at foocamp earlier this year, where I argued in favor of long bets.
A manifesto is about moral authoritarianism: an absolutist statement of eternal values from which follows (typically) an absolutist ideal of the good life. If there is one thing that most defines a manifesto, it is what it lacks: a central place for uncertainty.
To make a long bet of the sort accepted by Chekov’s lawyer, on the other hand, is to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty in a fundamental way, and choose life over death, even when you don’t know what that life might hold for you.
Choosing life is the most fundamental long bet. For Chekov, choosing the uncertainties of life is better than choosing the certainties of death.
This first bet leads to a systematic pattern of betting in the cascade of bets that is life: as a Chekovian, to the extent possible, you always choose the option that represents more of the possibilities and uncertainties of life. Given a choice between $100 offered outright, and 50-50 odds of winning $0 or $200, the Chekovian rationalist chooses the latter. The Tolstoyian rationalist chooses the former.
Yesterday, the topic of manifestos versus long bets came up again, in a discussion of Umair Haque’s recent post This Isn’t Capitalism — It’s Growthism and It’s Bad for Us with some friends.
Haque, I think, has fallen prey to the fox-hedgehog schizophrenia that plagued Tolstoy.
In past discussions with friends, I’ve made casual fun of Haque’s fondness for sloganeering and manifestos of various sorts. But lately my dissatisfaction with manifesto-thinking in general has increased to the point where I find myself arguing sharply against value-based positions of any sort.
It isn’t that I am against values per se. As with Chekov’s Ivan, there is a half-assed moral dimension to what passes for a philosophy around here. Except that, instead of arguing that people should “do good” as Ivan does with Pavel Koustantinich, I argue that you should be slightly evil.
It isn’t values themselves that are the problem, whether transient or timeless, but values as a means for avoiding uncertainty. Values as a simplifying heuristic for anxiety-ridden and complex times.Values marking a direction of retreat to certainties rather than forward movement towards possibilities.
This, ultimately, is my problem with well-intentioned folks like Haque and what is effectively a sort of future scaremongering. Haque’s “Growthism” is a strawman in exactly the same sense that Tolstoy’s Pahom is a strawman. Take for instance, the following:
Yet something was wrong in CapitalismStan. That very society was foundering. Its middle class was collapsing. It had already had a lost decade; and was starting on another. Its young had become a lost generation, desperately seeking opportunity. Median incomes had stagnated for decades. The economy spun headlong into a great recession; and then it “recovered”; but during the “recovery”, the richest 1% captured 95% of the gains. Millions faced chronic unemployment and poverty. Social mobility was low and decreasing. Life expectancy was dropping…
Growthism is willing to sacrifice everything for more growth. Even the very rights which enlightened societies once held to be inalienable. Are you concerned about the rise in extrajudicial mass spying, drone strikes, private security guards, military contractors, or even just the analytics that provide detailed information on what you say, do, and search to both the government and private companies? Too bad! Those are our growth industries, and woe to whatever or whoever stands in their way. Who cares about freedom of speech and assembly or the right to privacy when what we really need is good, growth-creating jobs? Jobs like becoming butlers and maids (or coaches, consultants, and “service-providers”) to the super-rich, who can purchase the “right” not to be frisked, stopped, or surveiled. Heaven forbid people protest. Why, that might hurt growth!
I find myself agreeing and nodding along with every one of the specific criticisms, yet unwilling to agree with the thrust of the whole.
The Gooseberry Fallacy
To me, this is merely a list of important problems to be correctly framed and solved. Primarily through the development of functional new problem-solving institutions. In whatever fumbling and bumbling way we are able to. Informed by whatever experimental values we model with our behaviors, rather than espouse with our words.
In the process of solving those problems we may occasionally make mistakes. Even huge ones, like America’s prison system.
Yet, to bundle it all up and attribute it to a monstrously evil philosophy of “Growthism” is to fall into a conceptual trap. And that is precisely where Haque ends up:
That is the great mistake growthism makes. But growth is not an end. It is a means. A means to, at best, expanding eudaimonia; the capacity to live meaningfully well. And a means, at least, to expanding human freedom.
To view eudaimonia as a state of well-being into which one arrives via some means is to fall prey to what I will call the gooseberry fallacy. It is a particularly pernicious form of the arrival fallacy: “When X happens, I will finally be happy and free.”
Capitalism of any sort is not a process with an “end.” It is defined not by arrivals but by departures; a willingness to abandon safe states for unknown adventures, not knowing for sure whether you can return.
Growth is not an ism, but a feature of certain ongoing problem solving processes in the presence of uncertainty. We may be able to find alternative processes that alter our understanding of what growth means (for instance, GDP growth may turn out to be a silly measure of growth in the future), but the opposite of growth, stasis, is not a problem-solving strategy at all.
To follow through with this line of reasoning you have to end up where Nikolai did: struggling through life, hoping to retire on your own changeless little farm from your childhood memories, to grow gooseberries and play at being a minor lord.
Like Tolstoy, Haque wants to have his cake and eat it too. His distinction between capitalism and growthism ultimately does not hold up to scrutiny, because his implicit suggestion for “fixing” a broken capitalism is to define a state of eudaimonia that offers risk and pain free “expanding human freedom” while holding cherished values (and therefore a social order predicated on them) constant.
No. Capitalism is not a means to any end, let alone eudaimonia for everybody. It is a process for exploring and engaging uncertainty with fluid expectations. Values can help us steer away from specific evils, like slavery or Social Darwinist eugenics programs, but not steer us towards specific predefined goods.
The problems Haque identifies cannot be solved with manifestos because they are problems, not karmic punishments for espousing false values that will go away through the embrace of the “right” values.
Embracing uncertain futures means temporarily giving up the comfort of shared values altogether while we fumble to figure out a new social order that works. New shared values follow from the discovery of functional new patterns of social organization that reflect new realities. They do not lead us there.
Solve problems first, identify the values latent in the solutions that work later. Enshrine those experimental new winning values as the basis for a temporary period of prosperity before we have to do it all over again.
Bet on what you think will work and feels right to you, not on what you hope is true.
In 2013 as in 1886, we live in an era of land grabs. You, me, Jeff Bezos, all of us. I’ve tried to grab some waterfront Internet property here on ribbonfarm not because I wouldn’t like an Amazon-sized empire, but because it is the best idea I could come up with.
The crumbling political authority of old mechanisms is driving up lifestyle anxieties. And the same kind of moralistic preaching is taking root everywhere. It happened last time around in America too, not just in Russia.
Then as now, there were two colonizations proceeding in parallel: a colonization of a new continent of possibilities represented by a new technological revolution, and a recolonization of old wealth according to the logic of that technology.
Last time around, many costly and tragic mistakes were made along the way, and entire countries chose poorly. But homo sapiens as a whole chose life. Enough of us managed to resist the temptation to act dead.
The situation is similar today: we have an ongoing colonization of the continent of possibilities represented by the Internet, and a recolonization of industrial age wealth according to the logic of computing technology. On the one hand, we have Amazon and Facebook colonizing virgin new territories of economic opportunity. On the other hand, we have entirely new patterns of geographic organization of life. An old social order is crumbling, a new one is emerging.
Tolstoy preached pacifist values and a harmony-preserving ideal of change. It is a philosophy with a rich history, dating back to Jefferson’s agrarian idealism (as opposed to Hamilton’s model of development), Gandhi’s decidedly curious ideas of village-based industrial development for India (as opposed to the more practical industrialization pioneered by the Tatas) and Booker T. Washington’s gradualist approach to delivering on Lincoln’s promises (as opposed to W. E. B. DuBois’ more radical politics).
In every single case, the gradualist, value-preserving model lost out to a pattern of change in the form of jarring, social-order disrupting rapid transformations that gave birth to entirely new values. We broke eggs. We made omelets.
To strive for smooth, harmonious change in the face of all evidence that transient unpleasantness and risk are necessary features of change, is to deny change altogether. As Ivan Ivanich says in Gooseberries:
“That night I was able to understand how I, too, had been content and happy,” Ivan Ivanich went on, getting up. “I, too, at meals or out hunting, used to lay down the law about living, and religion, and governing the masses. I, too, used to say that teaching is light, that education is necessary, but that for simple folk reading and writing is enough for the present. Freedom is a boon, I used to say, as essential as the air we breathe, but we must wait. Yes — I used to say so, but now I ask: ‘Why do we wait?'” Ivan Ivanich glanced angrily at Bourkin. “Why do we wait, I ask you? What considerations keep us fast? I am told that we cannot have everything at once, and that every idea is realized in time. But who says so? Where is the proof that it is so? You refer me to the natural order of things, to the law of cause and effect, but is there order or natural law in that I, a living, thinking creature, should stand by a ditch until it fills up, or is narrowed, when I could jump it or throw a bridge over it? Tell me, I say, why should we wait? Wait, when we have no strength to live, and yet must live and are full of the desire to live!
We are in an era of painful transition. Some of us are trying to cross the chasm that separates us from the post-Internet future and get to the right side of history via whatever paths we can find that suit our talents. Others are waiting for the chasm to narrow or be filled up. That is never going to happen. It is only going to widen and deepen.
There is no easy leap from the wrong to the right side of history. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
And yes, the leap might be fraught with existential risks for all of civilization. Choosing life does not mean you get to cheat death indefinitely.
So it’s going to be really rough for a while, and we may or may not make it. It does not mean we’re evil. It merely means we are alive. We haven’t retired en masse to eat gooseberrries on our farms.