Human beings as machines of self-interest (J.M. Coetzee)

November 11, 2010

Dear Paul,


Since I last wrote, you have had elections in the U.S., and the Republicans have resurged in force. I won't ask you to explain. But this is beginning to look like an interesting moment in history (and I don't just mean U.S. history).

Since about 1970, a pretty mean vision has been propagated and encouraged and allowed to take over the direction of the planet, a vision of human beings as machines of self-interest and of economic activity as a contest of all against all for material spoils (economy: properly the nomos of the oikos, the regulation of the household).

As a consequence a debased notion of what constitutes political life has come to prevail, and has in turn given rise to a pretty contemptuous view of what constitutes the practice of politics. Thus the same politicians who did nothing to counter the mean vision of social life get to feel the fury and contempt, the furious contempt, of voters who see them as little more than machines of self-interest themselves. The word "trust" has lost all purchase. If today a politician were to utter on a public platform the words, "I ask you to trust me", he would be laughed down, no matter how sincerely he meant it".

Yours in dark times,


(From Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011, J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster, p. 194)

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