Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


There is a Rand-ian trope (or Mises-macherei) that attempts to reverse the Marxian notion that labour is the unit of economic contribution, that working people are the creators of our world, and capitalists mere parasites. The opposing view — pushed by Ayn Rand, and advocated in increasingly stark terms by right-wing politicians, is that the capitalists and managers are “job-creators”, that everything exists because of their contributions. From Adam Smith’s idea that capitalism enables the private greed to be channeled into promoting the public good, we have come to the notion that private greed is itself almost a form of charity.

The reductio ad absurdum has been provided (of course) by Donald Trump, in the less commented upon portion of his bizarre attack on the family of killed-in-action Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan. Responding to Khizr Khan’s attack “You have sacrificed nothing — and no one,” Trump said

I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

For Trump, a rich man’s “tremendous success” is itself a sacrifice, to be matched against an ordinary man losing his child.

Brecht’s take on this question is below. I cited it in the last US presidential election as well.

Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters
Bertolt Brecht

Wer baute das siebentorige Theben
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon,
Wer baute es so viele Male auf? In welchen Häusern
Des goldstrahlenden Lima wohnten die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die chinesische Mauer fertig war,
Die Maurer? Das große Rom
Ist voll von Triumphbögen. Über wen
Triumphierten die Cäsaren? Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz
Nur Paläste für seine Bewohner? Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis
Brüllten doch in der Nacht, wo das Meer es verschlang,
Die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.
Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte
Untergegangen war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im Siebenjährigen Krieg. Wer
Siegte außer ihm?
Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?
So viele Berichte,

So viele Fragen.

 

Translated:

Questions from a Worker who Reads

Who built the seven-gated Thebes
In the books I find only the names of kings.
Did the kings lug the massive stones?
And Babylon was razed and pillaged again and again
Who rebuilt it each time? And shimmering Lima, decked with gold —
where were the construction workers’ houses?
When the Great Wall was completed, on that very evening,
the masons headed for home. Where to? Great Rome
Is crammed full of triumphal arches. Whom
Did the Caesars conquer? In storied Byzantium,
did its occupants dwell only in palaces? Even in legendary Atlantis,
In the very night that the sea swallowed it up,
The drowners howled for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
By himself?
Caesar smashed the Gauls.
Didn’t he at least have a cook?
Philip of Spain wept, an seeing his fleet
Sunk. Did no one else weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the victory feast?
Every decade another Great Man.
Who paid the expenses?
So many accounts,So many questions.

 

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