Arnis Rītups in conversation with George Scialabba (Nov 2015)
RL: Are you proud to be American?
Scialabba: Well... I'm proud of some parts of the American heritage and very unhappy about some parts of contemporary American culture. I don't worship the American Constitution as many of my fellow Americans do. Americans tend to be a little bit superstitious in their reverence for scripture, both religious and political. But I think the Constitution was an expression of the Enlightenment - the European and to some extent American Enlightenment. It was a step forward but there were objectionable parts of it.
RL: Could you point out some of these objectionable parts?
Scialabba: Well, one of them is that slaves were counted as part of the population for purposes of a state's representation in the Congress but were not allowed to vote, of course. In other words, it legitimised slavery.
RL: Anything else?
Scialabba: Oh yes, a number of things, but the main thing is that it's very imperfectly democratic, that is, it has far too many safeguards on private property. I don't mean individual private property - you know, yours and mine - but the power of wealthy people to maintain inequality, both economic and political.
RL: But what's wrong with the idea of private property?!
Scialabba: Nothing is wrong at all! I mean, as I say - private property for use is one thing but the unlimited accumulation of private property, to the extent we see it in contemporary America and have always seen it throughout American history, at least since the arrival of industrialisation and mass production in the late 19th century - it is not legitimate.
RL: But it's constitutionally legitimate. In what sense is it illegitimate then?
RL: What do you mean by 'moral legitimacy'?
Scialabba: I believe in the morality of democracy. I believe that those who are affected by actions and policies should have an equal voice in deciding those actions and policies.
RL: And by 'equal voice' you mean...?
Scialabba: Equal opportunity to influence the outcome of the decision, of the collective deliberation.
RL: So already here your utopian views are present.
Scialabba: Yes, although... They're probably a very long way from realisation, but they're not utopian in the sense that... They're not extremely eccentric or idiosyncratic - it's what John Stuart Mill believed, it's what the Fabians, it's what all of the great Anglo-American democrats believed.
RL: Yes, but they were delusional about the human nature - they thought that equality is implementable, which is obviously false.
Scialabba: Well, equality of treatment, equality of right doesn't depend on equality of endowment - of talent or capacity.
RL: But the equality of what you mentioned, 'the voice', would imply the equality of the ability to make use of one's endowment. It presupposes that one should be able to do something with one's endowment, whereas the majority of people are completely unable to do that.
Scialabba: Well, not completely - most people muddle through their lives. But it's true, of course - when it comes to managing wealth, when it comes to influencing public opinion... When it comes to virtually every human capacity, we're not equal. Nonetheless, what ought to determine our opportunity to influence decisions, public policy, is not the luck of our endowment, of our birth, our genetic gifts - it's the degree to which we would be affected by those policies. So if a workforce should collectively have the ability to determine what is done with the surplus that a factory or an enterprise produces it should have a right to determine the conditions of work. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be managers, superiors - people who have more experience or more insight, who are delegated the authority to make one decision or another. But the delegation is itself a democratic process, it's part of democratic theory - representation is the only form democracy can exist in in our societies.
RL: ...outside, say, the ancient Greek polis, with a limited number of citizens. But let me press you a bit more on this point... I have questions regarding the very idea of equal opportunity - because this idea presupposes that it is possible for people with unequal abilities to have equal opportunities. That is part of what this opportunity is - it includes the ability, whereas abilities are not equal. Don't you see that the very idea of equal opportunities contains an oxymoron?
Scialabba: Well, if you press it to its logical limits... I'm sort of Wittgensteinian - that is, I believe that there are no autonomous, separate meanings of words. I believe that all words are part of a language. So what I think equality of opportunity, equality of political rights has meant among democratic theorists generally is, roughly, an equal vote. It's true that what it meant in classical Athens... There were certainly people who could sway the demos one way or the other, but all members of the assembly had one vote. Likewise, in this workplace democracy I was talking about not all workers would articulate an opinion about where to invest or how the work process should be organised. But once all the people who wanted to have their say and were capable of it and had the self-confidence to get up and present it had had their say then everyone affected would have an equal vote. That's a rough, practical form of equality that we are a long way from in the United States or anywhere and that I think is the minimum level of effective democracy that we should work for. And the Constitution does not enhance or foster that kind of equality.
RL: The only problem with Wittgenstein I think, when it comes to language games, is that from his writings it's not clear how the rules can be changed. As we know from history, rules do occasionally change, and Wittgenstein, believing that a philosopher should only consider the world as it is, apparently hadn't thought about how the rules might be changed. If you were Wittgenstein, I would ask - what do you say to that?
Scialabba: Well, if I were Wittgenstein, I would probably scratch my head, look up into the air for several minutes and then say: "Well, I guess people will misunderstand each other - they will talk past each other for a while and bump up against each other. And then, if they really want to understand one another, they will say - 'look, are you meaning this by this word?' And the other person would say - 'no-no, I mean this!' And then the other person will say - 'well, I know some people think the word means that but, really, don't most people think it means this?' And they would negotiate and eventually come to a consensus, if they wanted to. Of course, if people didn't want to be understood or understand each other, then this process won't end in an agreement or a consensus - it will end in manipulation."
RL: Apart from slavery and not enhancing that understanding of equality, what other shortcomings of the Constitution can you think of?
Scialabba: Well, the Electoral College is a hopeless idea. You know, the presidents of the United States are not elected by popular vote - they're elected by this archaic institution called Electoral College. Each state is apportioned by population a number of electors with a capital 'E'. The electors were originally appointed by the state legislature - the people could vote but the legislatures chose the electors and the electors decided who the president was. It could happen - it has happened four times in American history - that the majority of electors chose someone different from the majority vote of the population. Because all the electors of the state vote the same way - they have to vote the same way. Whichever party wins the majority in a given state wins all the electors in that state - it's called 'winner-takes-all', very foolish system but it ensures the monopoly in power of two parties, Democrats and Republicans. So even though more than a hundred times the reform or abolition of the Electoral College has been introduced in Congress and has passed the House of Representatives it is always defeated by the Senate - because the Senate is the first thing that would go if there were a radical reform of that sort. The Senate is an absurdly undemocratic institution! It's clear even in the federalist papers that the purpose of the Senate is to frustrate the majority will - because the majority was not trusted by the founding fathers, all of whom were members of ...
RL: Well, the very idea of democracy at that time was not as developed yet as it became in the 19th century. Democracy was considered a very suspicious political system up to the mid-19th century. What good do you see in radical democracy?
Scialabba: Do you know that saying by Churchill that democracy is undoubtedly the worst political system, except for all the others?
RL: Yes, and he also said that a five-minute conversation with an average voter makes one doubt the value of democracy.
Scialabba: Right... As Kant said, the only way to learn to exercise free will is to exercise freedom - to make mistakes and learn from them. The premise of democracy is that each person is the best safeguard of his or her own interest, or at least can learn to be.
RL: But you see, these are fundamentally different positions - each one 'is' or 'could be'. Those are fundamentally different views on human beings!
Scialabba: Yes, but the only way one can learn to be is by exercising that freedom.
RL: Do you think that out of the 320-350 million people the majority want to exercise that right, even if they had it?
Scialabba: In the United States?
RL: Yes, for example.
Scialabba: The population is... The population is not awake, politically.
RL: Or maybe not awake in any sense?
Scialabba: Right, well... They're all very clever and alert shoppers - they're awakening as consumers, but as citizens they're not. And that has a long history of development. One of the most recent reviews I wrote is of two books which explain how American political culture got to such a state of torpor and apathy and confusion. It's in The Nation, in May or June. One of these books is by an American historian Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence, and the other is by a novelist David Bosworth, called The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. They're both small masterpieces - well, The Age of Acquiescence is not small, it's a lengthy, detailed account of how the vigorous self-assertion of the 19th century working classes and small proprietors, which was I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, that is, early and mid-19th century America, was transformed largely by the advent of mass production into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.
RL: And you think these passive, apathetic, ignorant and deskilled consumers should have equal opportunity to decide the matters of common concern?
Scialabba: Well, what are the alternatives?
RL: I don't know yet.
Scialabba: Enlightened guardians?
RL: Yes, philosopher kings! (Laughing.)
Scialabba: Well, I might be willing to entertain the notion if there were a reliable source of philosopher kings on the horizon.
RL: But maybe this picture of the American society which you just described is the only possible picture which could support the process of the United States becoming the world's policeman and banker? Maybe in order to acquire all this power that it has the US needed such a society?
Scialabba: Unquestionably, the American political elite needed precisely this kind of acquiescent, uniformed society in order to, as you say, become the world policeman and banker. The fact that we have become the world's policeman and banker is not good, either for the rest of the world or for the American population.
RL: Why is it bad for the American population? You can take whatever you want - you don't even have to borrow, you just take it and live in affluence. Why is it bad?
Scialabba: One has to disaggregate. When one says that 'America' can take whatever it wants...
RL: ...one means the ruling class.
Scialabba: Yes! I mean, there's unequal distribution, let's say, of the proceeds of imperialism or globalisation. And the American people, of course, are the ones who are sent to fight, to police the world, which has involved not only a great deal of bloodshed on the part of our victims but also a certain amount of bloodshed on the part of the American population. And also this regime that has made it possible for us to become the world bankers, that is, the regime of unrestricted, globally mobile capital, means...
RL: ...having a money printing machine.
Scialabba: Yes, but also having the ability of investors to move wherever opportunities favour them most, which has simply destroyed America's industrial workforce. It's in those senses that becoming the policeman and the banker of the world has made the American elite the happiest and wealthiest stratum, ruling class ever. Good for them, but not so good for the rest of us!
RL: And 'the rest of us' is 99.99%?
Scialabba: Yeah, roughly - 99.9% I'd say.
RL: Ok, but let's come back to the beginning of our conversation, when you said that you were proud of some parts of the American heritage. Could you mention two or three examples?
Scialabba: Freedom of speech. We do have a tradition of relatively unrestricted ability to criticise the government. It will take a great deal more rollback before any American actually has to watch what he or she says in public, or even in private, as has been the case in most of the world for most of history. Until very recently the idea of the government having a secret political police spying on the population was a scandalous idea! The FBI has been doing it ever since the First World War, basically, but it has been kept very secret. Occasionally organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union and enlightened sectors of the ruling class have pushed back - there have been court decisions restricting the government's ability to spy on and harass political dissidents. Lately, after 9/11, the attack on civil liberties has intensified. It's not just since 9/11 but since 1994, when the new Republican majority took over the Congress - that's more of a watershed in American politics than a lot of people realise. But there's also freedom of the press! The idea that a press would need prior approval to publish sensitive documents rather than going ahead and publish them and taking its chances in court, defending their publication against the government - until 10, 20, 30 years ago it was unthinkable! I mean, Nixon got in great trouble for trying to pull tricks like that - they had to be kept secret, they were called 'dirty tricks'. And the libel laws... I don't know much about Europe but I certainly know that Britain have shameful libel laws! Virtually any rich person who dislikes something that was said about him or her in public can just hire a lawyer, sue and force whatever person or institution responsible for that opinion to either bankrupt themselves with legal costs or publicly retract.
RL: So you're saying that you're proud of freedom of speech but that in the last 20-30 years it has been undermined. I spoke recently with an old mathematician from the Soviet Union who was imprisoned five times. He is 91 years old now and has been living in the United States for the last forty years. He said that the United States was a better place because he could think and speak whatever he wanted, without being imprisoned. So, comparatively speaking...
Scialabba: Yes, comparatively speaking it's something to be proud of.
RL: What else, apart from the freedom of speech, are you proud of?
Scialabba: Well, there's a tradition of what we call 'know-how' - a kind of practical aptitude. Another phrase besides 'know-how' is 'can-do'. Americans are can-do types, that is, when we're faced with a difficult problem we tend not to theorise about it, we tend to roll up our sleeves and pitch in - at least that's the national image, the stereotype. There's something to it, as with all stereotypes - it's true! Americans are a pragmatic, common-sensical, generally tolerant people.
RL: You could also extend this list by adding 'superficial', 'hypocritical' etc...
Scialabba: Yes, and it could get less admirable.
RL: You're highly critical of how the American democracy functions. How do you cope with the helplessness of criticism?
Scialabba: Do you know that immortal phrase by Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on, I'll go on"? (Laughing.) What can you do? You go on as long as you can and then you... you just take a vacation. (Laughing.) I don't know the answer to that. It's difficult, it's frustrating, exasperating... It's maddening! It actually has... I could say, literally, driven me mad. I have a history of clinical depression, and at least a couple of those episodes were triggered I think by... just a constant, seething indignation at what was being done to American political culture. I mean, from 1994 to 2005 I was grinding my teeth and clenching my fists and holding my breath in indignation countless times every day. And in 2005 I finally broke down and had the longest and worst depression I've ever had. I don't think it was a coincidence that all those years of political despair, humiliation, agony, anguish terminated in that episode. You know... you just go on as long as you can and then you stop - like life. (Laughing.)
RL: These changes you are referring to, which started in 1994, seem very gradual though, at least from an outsider's point of view. Maybe you could point out some of the most crucial turning points which, as you claim, changed the political culture?
Scialabba: Well, another watershed is 1980, the election of Reagan. But, of course, it all started with the New Deal.
RL: You mean, in the 1930s?
Scialabba: Yes. American capitalism was in crisis, and there were two schools of thought about what to do. The old school, laissez-faire, the classical liberal idea was - we just wait it out, it will pass. The farmers, the workers, the banks, the small businesses - a lot of them will starve, but it will be even worse if we try to help. Very convenient for the bankers and for the rich people. And then there were the so called 'Progressives' - followers of John Dewey and... kind of an enlightened liberal segment of the ruling class. Their representative was Roosevelt, and they thought - well, maybe... Yes, a lot of people will starve but possibly we could put up with that if we were sure that capitalism would survive. But look at Russia, look at the failed revolutions after the First World War in Germany and elsewhere - maybe capitalism won't survive! We can't be sure, so let's try to help. And Keynes was there, with his new theory. So they tried, it worked with a little 'help' from the Second World War, and the New Deal seemed to be a permanent part of American public policy and political culture for several decades after the Second World War. But this first segment, this very straitlaced, single-minded - simple-minded! - segment of the ruling class never accepted the New Deal, never accepted the restrictions on business, the powers granted to labour to organise and bargain collectively, the extent of regulation on business, on commerce and pollution. At first all they could do was fume and scheme in private - the John Bridge Society, these small groups of Texas millionaires who would meet and...
RL: So this undercurrent never died out?
Scialabba: Exactly. It persisted and it saw a tremendous opportunity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the high working class dislike of the student movement and the counter-culture. It formulated a new strategy called 'the culture war'. Part of it was playing on the resentment of Southern whites at the extension of civil rights, and part of it was playing on the resentment of religious [populace], especially Midwest evangelicals and Southern evangelicals, of the sexual freedom and the equality of women advocated in the 1960s. They had money to hire the very best public relations consultants, propagandists, and they whipped up this cultural war and it was successful! They brought Ronald Reagan to power and...
RL: Sorry, before you proceed... The fact that they thought out this cultural war sounds a bit like a conspiration theory - that they were so smart...
Scialabba: Well, of course they weren't half-a-dozen masterminds.
RL: So by 'them' you mean a large group of people and not a very unified effort?
Scialabba: Right - not unified but coordinated. There are industry associations in every large industry, there's the US Chamber of Commerce, there's the Business Roundtable, and there's the Republican Party. All of them communicate a great deal! I don't mean that they have secret meetings in a lodge out in the woods...
RL: Although they do. (Laughing.)
Scialabba: Occasionally, but... They know what each other is thinking, they know what their grievances - their common and individual grievances - are... They all disliked regulation - they were all against the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labour Relations Board... I mean, as soon as someone came to them - some enterprising politician or the Republican National Committee - and said: "Look, these are Democratic initiatives. The Democratic Party is trading away some of its political capital among white and Southern voters and religious voters by going along with racial equality and sexual equality. We think that if we whip up these resentments on their part we can steal those voters from the Democrats! And once we do, once we get the executive power and maybe even the control of Congress (which they didn't get for three quarters of the Reagan administrations) we can start undermining the New Deal." And that's exactly what happened! Reagan got elected. If you look at the political polls of those times, most people didn't know - and to the extent that they did know didn't agree with - the actions that Reagan immediately started taking: undermining social security, undermining labour protection, undermining environmental protection... He was sold as 'one of us', a real American, somebody you could have a beer with, and the Democrats were considered effete and snobbish, arrogant, condescending, liberal. These stereotypes are a great pity but great issues were decided on the basis of these superficial stereotypes. And, again - Reagan was not elected to appoint people to the Environmental Protection Agency, who came straight out of polluting industries and immediately declared their intention to roll back regulations on PCBs, this deadly chemical that was raising much public concern. But he did! And, likewise, he appointed people to the National Labour Relations Board, and ever since 1980 the National Labour Relations Board has had a majority of people on it from industry, who don't believe in unions. And so the average time for arbitrating a complaint... Typically what will happen is that the union will go to a workplace, try to organise while the employer will hire a law firm, which will come in, interview every worker, tell them that their jobs will disappear if they join the union, etc. And these law firms typically provide Republican appointees to the National Labour Relations Board, so every time a grievance against one of these things is filed these appointees grant one continuance after another. It takes roughly two years for the average complaint to reach a judgment - and by then, of course, the union has disappeared and the passion has dried out. So in countless small ways like this, starting with the Reagan administration, the 'capillaries' of the New Deal were tied off. It was like the American infrastructure - it was left to decay. Infrastructure needs constant maintenance - you can't just build it and then expect it to remain functional forever. It's the same with political infrastructure - it needs to be sustained by capable public officials who want to fulfil the policy goals rather than undermine them. And both, the American physical infrastructure and the American political infrastructure have decayed disastrously - largely starting in 1980. Of course, in 1994 there was... I don't know precisely what produced this extra degree of ideological fanaticism among the incoming Republican Congress that Newt Gingrich was the leader of. Reagan was not very subtle but compared to them Reagan was... you know, Machiavellian. They just went after the government itself! One of the chief strategists of this Gingrich revolution, the Contract with America - you may recall it was their program, their platform - was Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform. He is perhaps the most influential lobbyist in Washington - he convenes a weekly or monthly meeting of Congressional leaders and conveys to them what his business constituents are thinking. Anyway, in 1994 after this victory he was rubbing his hands and said not only "we're gonna shrink the federal government" but "we're gonna shrink it so small that it can drown in a bathtub".
RL: And you mean that they were successful?
Scialabba: Well, not fully successful, but the movement towards plutocracy accelerated. It began in 1980, it accelerated in 1994 and in 2001 there was another turn of the wheel, especially concentrating on the executive power and secrecy in foreign policy. And now American democracy is just very sick.
RL: How do you explain the drive of this sick democracy to impose this same democracy on the rest of the world? Afghanistan, Iraq - these campaigns went under the slogan of spreading democracy.
Scialabba: The tobacco industry once had a slogan: "Even doctors do it!" And there was a picture of a man in a white coat smoking a cigarette - in the 1950s. Slogans are just that. The American crusade for democracy is simply and solely public relations.
RL: You mean, it's purely propaganda?
Scialabba: Yes, it's purely propaganda. That's not to say that there aren't mid-level, perhaps even high-level, people in the foreign policy apparatus who don't believe that somewhere down the line, in some way that's not very clear, American intervention will lead to more political freedom. But the US has had a really hegemonic power over a large number of client states throughout the 20th century - starting in the Philippines in the very early 20th century, then Cuba, Nicaragua, all of Central America, most of Latin America and many small states in Asia and Africa. In all of those states a word from the American ambassador on freedom of the press or freedom of speech would've had a significant effect. The United States continually intervened whenever there were threats to the freedom to do business. Whenever a country like Iran decided in 1953 that the agreement that we have with American and British oil companies really is not fair - in fact, it's ridiculously unfair - in fact, it's a national humiliation! So they elected a moderate social democrat. Immediately the CIA was tasked with overthrowing him - and they did. In 1954 in Guatemala, which was practically a fiefdom of the United Fruit Company, there was a large amount of land that the company owned but was not using. The Guatemalans elected another social democrat, Arbenz, who said: 'We're gonna take this land and distribute it to our landless population and we will compensate you - we will pay the United Fruit in fair amount of value for the land'. But the very idea that a client state could contravene an American business interest merely for the welfare of its citizens was too much! The CIA was tasked with... Well, in this case it was the Guatemalan military, who were supplied by and trained by the US military, who themselves were unhappy - they were simply given approval to overthrow the government, and the government was overthrown.
RL: But let's stop here because otherwise it will take us an hour to...
Scialabba: My point is just that if you want to look at what the United States government really cares about, look at what prompts it to intervene. How often does it intervene in countries where there's no political freedom but American business is free to operate? How often did the US intervene to promote political freedom? I can't think of one instance. How often has it intervened when a movement or a government has attempted to constrain the freedom of American business in order to enhance the welfare of its population? Innumerable times.
RL: Are you a Russian spy?
Scialabba: Ha! No, of course, like most American leftists I loathe Leninism and Stalinism. In fact, it seems to me that the worst thing that ever happened to socialism, really... If only Lenin had fallen under the train in the Finland station instead of riding in it, the world would be a much happier place.
RL: Well, Lenin died a long time ago, but are you a contemporary Russian spy?
Scialabba: No, no! I mean, Putin is just a gangster. No, there hasn't been socialism ever anywhere in the world. (Laughing.)
RL: But do you see where my question is coming from? Your critical comments of the American state undermine its glory - its self-righteousness and strength. Do you want to make the United States weaker?
Scialabba: Well, again - you have to disaggregate. 'The United States' - what exactly is that? "The United States benefits from globalisation." Oh yes? Who exactly? "The United States despises the government of Cuba." Who exactly? "The United States considers Iran the biggest threat to the world peace." Well, who exactly? You know, in all of those cases it's not you, me, people on the street...
RL: I agree that these are the right questions to ask but are the answers available? Is the system transparent enough for the answers to be reliable?
Scialabba: No, I think the system is set up not to look for answers to those questions but rather to marginalise them - to distract the population from taking an interest in those questions and asserting their own views, figuring out their own interests.
RL: What could bring a major change?
Scialabba: Well, if only everyone would subscribe to The Baffler, I think...
RL: But apart from that, is there anything else you can think of?
Scialabba: People are always asking Noam Chomsky that question.
RL: And what does he usually say?
Scialabba: He sometimes says: "Well, you know as well as I do. What do you think?" But more often he says: "You know it perfectly well - just go and do it!" Asking the question is almost the irreversible beginning of serious social change, because the recognition of the need for major change is the main obstacle. Once people start asking themselves... "Why is it that the head of Blackstone Fund, who gave a ten-million-dollar birthday party for his daughter, pays a lower proportion of income tax than I do? I must write to my congressman about that! And I must organise a little study group among my friends to find out if that's an exception or if that's the rule. If I don't hear back from my congressman then maybe my group and I will get up a petition, or maybe we'll go to Washington and speak with his aide, or maybe we'll get in touch with other groups in other cities." Once you ask the question and decide to do something about it, then ... you know, the American can-do spirit will come to your aid. Americans can do things once they decide to do them! But American culture, most of it, is a gigantic and very effective distraction from political self-mobilisation.
RL: To what extent do you think your critical attitude towards the status quo mirrors your inner psychological life?
Scialabba: Well, I think that I have been fortunate in my deprivations and misfortunes. That is, my parents were literate, but just barely - I don't think I ever saw them reading a book. That is, I wasn't socialised into middle class aspirations - I wasn't instilled with these ideas of prestige, success, financial security... Instead I latched onto the only thing in my childhood environment that looked interesting and exciting at all, which was the church. At first the church meant the Franciscan Order, which was my home parish, but the Franciscans were just kind of... a little dull. They were kind of unbookish and... a bit simple-minded, so I don't know what I would've done. But I was recruited by Opus Dei, and Opus Dei was all about, you know, being a saint but in the world - in the professional world. So they said: "By all means, go to the best college you can get into and study hard. But also you must have this very rigorous spiritual life - we want you to be a saint as well as a success." So I had a very rigorous spiritual life in college: I meditated for an hour a day, I read the gospels every day, did spiritual reading every day, prayed the rosary every day, went to mass and communion every day... But it did give me a hunger for the ideal - it did give me a sense of commitment to something larger than myself and my own success. And once that hunger, that taste is awakened in someone, - it stays. So because I had the fortunate misfortune not to be brought up with middle-class values and aspirations, because I had the fortunate misfortune of being recruited by this fanatical Catholic counter-reformation group that insisted that you sacrifice everything for God but still be in the secular world, I wound up in my twenties secular and...
RL: ...and clueless.
Scialabba: And clueless - but with this hunger for the ideal, still.
RL: And you think that this hunger for the ideal is the main source of your critical attitude towards the status quo?
Scialabba: Yes. I mean, there are plenty of people without this history who have the same critical attitude toward American democracy and the same utopian, if you want to call them that, ideals. People come to visions and sentiments by their own paths but... Yes, I think this was my path.
RL: You have forty years of recorded clinical depression - from 1972 to 2012, if I'm not mistaken. My main surprise when reading these published records of yours was that it's not clear what depression is - not clear at all. Have you now, retrospectively, understood what kind of aggregate is called depression? What is it?
Scialabba: Well, the closest I've come is recorded in an essay in the last collection I published, For the Republic. The essay is called Message from Room 101. In Orwell's 1984, you may remember, 'Room 101' is the place which Winston Smith is continually threatened with - '101' is where the worst thing in the world awaits you. In that essay I tried to describe what depression was like, where it comes from and tried to draw a political moral from it all. I think it's fundamentally a matter of your psychic constitution. We all have a certain amount of resiliency - you can think of it as a shock absorber, like the one in your car. We all go through a certain amount of stress - you can think of it like potholes in the road. If you are unlucky enough to be born with a poor shock absorber and happen to encounter a lot of stresses, that is, a very rough road, then your shock absorber gives out and the car starts to shutter and shake - it's a very bumpy ride. I think I was born with a weak shock absorber.
RL: From what you have read, isn't there a way to improve this 'shock absorber'? Or if you're born with a weak one you'll die with a weak one?
Scialabba: Well, I think if you inherit an independent income or if you're lucky enough to be born in a society which actually cares for its citizens - you know, Scandinavia and other European social democracies - or if you're lucky in other ways then the shocks in your life are rendered less traumatic. Yes, that's in some ways the political point of the essay. It makes this rough calculation of how much extra disposable wealth that top 1% of the population has and how many depressed people there are in the US at any one time - it divides that number into the sum of extra disposable wealth and comes out with a figure close to a million dollars.
RL: A million dollars for what?
Scialabba: For each depressed person. A million dollars of surplus wealth on the part of the 1% for each depressed person - 40 000 depressed people or something like that.
RL: And if each of those 40 000 people received a million dollars it would reduce that number to zero?
Scialabba: Not necessarily zero. For some people it's not financial insecurity - it's other kinds. But I think it would mop up quite a bit! (Laughing.) Certainly it would've I think mopped up mine.
RL: So in a way you have made a political point even out of your long experience with depression.
Scialabba: I tried, yeah.
RL: I'm impressed. There's one aspect though which I think it would be hard for you to make a political point of... Your understanding of luck - what is it based on?
Scialabba: I would've thought that question is kind of intrinsically uncomputable. Why luck? I mean, the definition of luck is something for which there is no... Why?
RL: Well, there are several definitions of luck but one of them refers to the lack of understanding of its causes. What Aristotle tried to do in a couple of his works was to try to understand what determined luck: whether it's just sheer luck, e.g. when throwing a dice, or whether there's something in that mental constitution or mind, or whether it's simply human nature - 'the constitution' as you said. Aristotle thought that some of these do attract luck and some of them push it away.
Scialabba: Well, that's true but what accounts for that differential - attraction or lack of attraction - I would say that's luck. Some people have it, some people don't.
RL: Are you a determinist?
Scialabba: Well, this again is one of those words about which one could argue endlessly. But in a rough sense - yes, I don't believe in free will.
RL: You had a free will to meet me or not.
Scialabba: There's a short book that I've just finished reading that answers that question - it's called Free Will by Sam Harris, the famous atheist who wrote The End of Faith. I pretty much agree with him that... There were vectors in all directions - do I want to meet this unknown Northern European person? Well, yes! I would like to be known in Latvia - I would like my friend Sven Birkerts to be impressed by my appearing in the same magazine he appeared in. But, on the other hand, it means getting up early in the morning. I have to get up at 11 to meet this person. All the vectors together just balanced out and...
RL: And this was a conscious calculation?
Scialabba: Not conscious - semi-conscious.
RL: How do you understand the last words by Wittgenstein: "Tell them I had a wonderful life"?
Scialabba: I've pondered it a great deal... I think, among many other things, Wittgenstein had a saintly streak. You know, he was capable of giving up his entire fortune and going to teach kindergarten in the Bavarian Mountains.
RL: Yes, but look who got his money - instead of giving it to the poor he gave it to his relatives, artists etc. But yes, I know what you mean - he had sort of ascetic aspirations.
Scialabba: Yes. So I think it may have meant simply that he wanted to make his friends feel good about his death. Or it may have meant that the satisfaction of achieving certain insights was so intense, so compelling that it made up for all of those dreadful depressions that he went through. I would guess it was one of those - or maybe some of both. But it's just a guess.
RL: And on the level of 'just a guess', what do you think could or should be your own last words?
Scialabba: Hm... In this book that I just read by Sam Harris on free will he quotes the last words of the Primate of England, who was an unusually liberal Catholic. As he was dying he said: "I'll see you in purgatory I guess." You know, it would've been conceited to say 'I'll see you in heaven', it would've been frightening to say 'I'll see you in hell'... I don't know, I'll say whatever I think the people - a person or persons there - what would make them least unhappy.
RL: So even in your last words you would care for them, not for...
Scialabba: Of course, if the only person at my deathbed were Henry Kissinger, I would try to say something that would make him very unhappy! (Laughing.)
RL: My last question - what is the most important thing you have understood in life?
Scialabba: Oh, what a marvellous question... (Sighs.) I would say the sheer fact that it all fits together, that it's intelligible down, down, down - as far as at least I can go and possibly as far as any human can go. A few glimpses I've had of the vast intelligibility of the human and physical universe is the biggest thrill I've ever had.
RL: And this intelligibility never led you to a thought that it might exist thanks to a superior intellect?
Scialabba: Well... I sometimes have wished that I had never started thinking, but... It's another uncomputable thought - you can't... you can't be unconscious once you're conscious.
RL: No way back, you mean?
Scialabba: No way back.
RL: And you think that if you're conscious you cannot accept that there's an intellect which has devised the whole world and all of us?
Scialabba: Oh, you can if that's where your thinking leads you. But once you've understood something - you may change your mind about it but you can never again not have understood it.
RL: And you understood at some point that there is no God?
Scialabba: As it seemed to me - yes. And I haven't seen any reason to change my mind, although I'm still pondering the question. What do you think?
RL: There was an Orthodox priest who once said that there is no true faith in anyone unless that person has seen eternity in somebody else's eyes - without it all the faith is just a façade. So I wish you to meet someone in whose eyes you could see the eternity.
Scialabba: Thank you.