Who Are The Sellouts?
Who are the sellouts? What is a sellout? The very term seems to have become passé as the present generation appears to have made its peace with commerce. But the fact that the term still stings would imply it is not yet dead, and that is a sign of hope. It reveals that buried deep in memory some remnant of our forgotten potential still resides. We only need to acknowledge it to bring it back.
To be clear, the term sellout is not being used in any special sense here. It is exactly what it has been, an accusation of the betrayal of one’s principles in exchange for promised wealth and fame. Today the very idea seems childish and naive to most. “This is just the way things are.” Some would say. While others will make rationalizations that amount to the same thing. But if everything is up for sale, what is left of virtue? Are moral principles then but a trap for fools?
It is one of the many sad effects of capitalism that most of us are forced by necessity to compromise their view of the good life in the cause of simply living. Many dreams and ambitions will be put upon a shelf, perhaps with the half hopeful promise to revisit them in retirement but, deep down sensing that in all likelihood they will be forgotten long before. We have been conditioned to accept this state of affairs for so long that we don’t even think to question it. This is the drumbeat of the working world and, woe to he or she who does not march to it.
Yet we love our rebels, if only in the commodified form modern media provides. Some residue of the romantic outlook continues to cling to consciousness as a reminder that things were not always so. They grant us the luxury of pretending from time to time that things could be otherwise than they are. Such is the role often fulfilled by entertainers, comedians and, what are popularly referred to as artists. Musicians (there is that romantic trope again) are especially viewed in this rebellious manner, perhaps due to the power and ease with which music works upon the emotions and opens us to vulnerability; but any personality in view of the public will do.
Especially when starting out in their careers we admire their gusto, their defiance, or perceived defiance, of the norm, and we cheer our rebels on. Then, as usual, comes the fall from grace. The accusation that they have sold out, have changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Regardless, it is inevitable, if our hero is admired to a point of excess, material rewards will follow and, as a result, remake the mold. When F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that the rich are unlike you and me, he was not only referring to their bank accounts. Wealth of any form, earned or not, brings with it a new worldview and a new identity. But, can we blame them?
For human beings life is not so much breathing or eating as getting, and the necessity of “getting a living” will eventually enable you to get more of life or less but, we will either succeed in the getting or, life will get us. It is no surprise then when a hero declines the chance to be a martyr. For, though we rarely like to acknowledge it, we judge but are not immune to the same forces that compel our heroes to conform. Indeed, there is plenty to tempt us to join them.
There are no material rewards for the preservation of self-respect and dignity, but often very great rewards, both material and otherwise, for those willing to sell their own. But, as we have increasingly lost the habit of questioning the terms of our enslavement, our state of servitude itself becomes the natural state of being; so much so that we did not know we had any self-respect or dignity to start, as the only value that is known is the value of our stock.
What is more, even for those who believe themselves wise enough to escape this trap, who have abandoned the nine-to-five routine to perhaps live on the road or abroad as “entrepreneurs” running a business from a laptop, have merely modified the terms of bondage, not escaped from it. They sell the idea of freedom as a commodity, and by offering a fantasy of freedom only help subvert the change that might otherwise bring genuine freedom about; a form of subversion that has interesting ethical implications as we will see. And so it is here perhaps the virtue ethics of Aristotle may provide a rubric for ethical analysis.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle contends that virtue is an expression of reason, as the virtuous choice is, he believes, the reasonable one. And to be reasonable is to choose balance or to seek the mean, that is, the middle point between extremes. For instance, courage might be defined as the mean between cowardice and rashness. But the point here assumed is that one is free to choose the mean. As Aristotle concludes that the rational life was the happiest one, it was with this in mind he argues slaves are incapable of happiness because they are not free to choose their lives. Choice then is a privilege, and such a privilege was taken for granted by the aristocratic audience Aristotle was addressing. A fact not to use in disregarding Aristotle’s views but, a context to keep in mind.
The average modern citizen can little expect a life of unrestricted opportunities and, many are prevented from choosing virtue out of the simple necessity of survival. But, despite his presumed well-to-do readers, Aristotle was not inclined to judge harshly those failing to meet expectations. The philosopher did not feel the need of Jehovah to condemn some as unworthy of perfection as, he understood from his observations of the natural world, that the world is often less than perfect.
As virtue must be a free choice he contends, the circumstances in which the individual can make the choice must always be taken into consideration. Such a view of the ethical is more true to real experience and its messy ambiguities than the more rigid alternatives of both philosophy and religion. Hitting the golden mean between extremes is the ideal; in practice, most mere mortals can but try, and this only if an individual has the necessary understanding to determine the mean at all.
This understanding Aristotle terms ‘practical wisdom’ or, Phronesis. Phronesis can only be acquired through life experience and reflection, and few things provide more opportunities for acquiring life experiences and the intellectual skills for useful reflection more practically than wealth. As virtue is a matter of free choice, and as our ability to choose is determined by our circumstances, those who most closely resemble the slaves of Aristotle’s Greece are consequently the least able to attain virtue and thus happiness.
It should also follow then that those who possess the greater freedom of choice are also obliged to accept a harsher measure of blame in their degree of failure to attain the mean, as their opportunities for developing and choosing virtue were more numerous. But this is not all. Unlike the aristocratic society for which Aristotle wrote, ours is not a world that honors virtue; or at least, our concept of virtue and what pertains to it is either unclear or the outright reverse of our forebears conception.
This deep ambiguity is why even otherwise pleasant, decent people may inadvertently be benefiting from and perpetuating, a false sense of virtue. Aristotle saw virtue as something to be developed, it does not come to us ready-made but requires effort on our part. However, this is not to say that the desire to be virtuous does not exist before our understanding of it. This desire to do good while still in ignorance of in what the good consists Aristotle termed ‘natural virtue’. Children are typical of this category.
To illustrate, consider a young child who wakes before its parents in order to cook them breakfast, and in the process burns down the house. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. From much the same mindset there are many adults who, while trying to do good, remain ignorant to the fact that their actions do little or nothing to bring about the conditions in which virtue could thrive. Their good but blind intentions do not rebuild the house, nor stop the fire to begin with. Once again, this only helps to underscore how important are the conditions under which we live that allow for virtue’s development.
In this, it seems however unknowingly, that Aristotle has laid out an early formulation of moral luck. The term, coined by the British philosopher Bernard Williams, concerns the question: How do factors beyond our control affect our moral responsibility?
For example, we might view it as the difference between an individual stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family and, an individual stealing a loaf for a thrill. Most of us instinctively would (although recognizing that theft in itself is wrong) judge less severely the person stealing from necessity than the person just having a lark. Here again, we are reminded that our freedom to choose always relies upon the means and opportunity to do so. The starving beggar might prefer to pay for his meal but, fate is indifferent to our desires and most of us will fight to continue living at any cost, as is only natural. But that natural desire to live often comes at the price of one’s dignity and the debt of one’s shame, two consequences of simply being born the poor know all too well.
Although the moral effects of poverty were not overlooked by Aristotle, we must move several centuries ahead to meet a mind that could analyze the material conditions of the modern world and connect the line of thought started by Aristotle to the degradation of our mental and spiritual lives in the present day.
And so we must now turn to Karl Marx if we are to flesh out our definition of the sellout in full. It should be no surprise to those who have read him closely that Marx was deeply sympathetic to Aristotle’s view of human flourishing. This will appear curious to those who had believed Marx lacked any concrete ethics. Yet it is clear that he was deeply moved by the injustices of capitalism he saw about him as evidenced by the numerous instances of dark comedy with which he enlivens the otherwise bleak pages of Das Kapital. Marx agreed with Aristotle that good character and its attendant virtues sprang from self-esteem and a confidence that arose in satisfaction through the expression of reason. Capitalism not only removes the freedom to choose from those unable to afford to but, alienates the worker from their own nature as well.
Every individual seeks to express their “species-being”, that is, to express their human nature through the exercise of their reason and imagination, choosing to attain self-fulfillment and thus happiness. Labor that is alienated gives us none of this satisfaction and, consequently, work becomes just the means to continue work, and all thought of fulfillment is deferred for a later day. This concept, Alienation, is one that should be more often discussed than it is, for it acts as a very palpable alarm bell for all of us, and for far too many makes up the very substance of their lives.
If our species-being is to find fulfillment we must be free to develop our talents and abilities, but modern economic conditions must always constrain them. The alienated worker is one with no control over the productions of their labor and must sell their labor power to survive. With their autonomy thus crippled they are limited in how they might otherwise choose to live their lives. Whatever one may argue as to the improvements in career satisfaction and the modern possibilities for self-direction and self-fulfillment in the workplace, the fact remains that if one is unable to choose, like Bartleby, that they would “prefer not to” then, one remains a slave and a prisoner to the will and expectations of others.
It is this distinction above all else that defines the true sellout, whether knowingly or not, from the everyday laborer: that the sellout is no longer compelled by the basic need to sing for their supper, yet continue to dance to the tune of their former masters. Either out of unreflecting habit or, conniving self-interest, their culpability, we must conclude, is much the same.
But as I said above, such an Aristotelian/Marxist conception of the ethical is not so much about judgment and condemnation as it is about self-correction. The goal that Aristotle sought was the gentle one of unfolding enlightenment. A process that demands patience, both with ourselves as well as others. Both Aristotle and Marx saw human nature, not as a fixed mode of being but, an infinitely variable and perfectable project. It is the larger material conditions under which we live that often impede or hinder completely each individual’s capacity to seek their conception of the good.
But how much have those material conditions changed? A great deal though, not in the direction we might have hoped. If anything, the systems which enslave us have become even more subtle and sophisticated, as the ad men took up the study of psychology. Television was a good start, but it was impractical to carry one with us in our day to day lives. Then the Internet, and now its portable delivery mechanism the smartphone, is on hand everywhere to give us a steady drip of endorphin inducing cognitive sedation.
Absorbed into this hive mind we slowly lose our sense of self or, more correctly, learn to see ourselves as defined by others. Platforms like YouTube and Instagram, which monetize views and offer opportunities for product endorsements, democratize the disease by creating a sense of easy money for those producing this content, while at the same time obscuring the true nature of capital and reinforcing the sirens song of luxury and wealth that it promises to provide like a honey trap.
This is not a new complaint however it is one, the implications of which, risk slipping away unless we return to it again and again. The great good the Internet has done and can do is easily hijacked, as the last American presidential election demonstrated. The Internet is not the long-lost “Public Sphere” for, as Jürgen Habermas has already pointed out, something cannot be public that is privately owned. The Web is an illusion of liberty, they can cut off the tap anytime they want.
At no time in history have the conditions of the age so mirrored those of antiquity. When a small minority holds all the power and almost all the wealth, we resemble more and more the world Aristotle inhabited. Once again the question of virtue or survival, and the privilege of the one to choose while the other has no choice is made manifest and highlighted ever more boldly the greater the division widens.
For Aristotle, those conditions already existed for a few, and those few took it for granted that their lives were their own, their dignity inviolable and not for purchase. It was the golden mean for Marx that the conditions of those few might be the conditions for all, that dignity would be a free choice rather than a choice of evils, and that all might own themselves instead of being owned.
But ultimately, so long as we tolerate a culture that places profit before the dignity of the person, we are all sellouts. The only difference being one of degree, between those who have few, if any, options in seeking virtue and, those who have all the options but either do not know they have failed to find it or, those who know but fail to care.
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