Commentary

The nasty flip side of the concept “useful member of society”

With the pandemic attacking the less healthy it is time to revisit a nasty but difficult-to-attack concept: the useful member of society.

In the first episode of The Man in the High Castle, the series made out of Philip K. Dick’s novel, a young boy upsets his strict, authoritarian father by reading at the breakfast table. When told to stop he says that he just wanted to become a useful member of society by acing his exam. We all go awww, and so does the authoritarian father, and the boy is allowed to keep reading.

Not unrelated is that the boy is wearing a Hitlerjugend uniform complete with a swastika and is training to be a good nazi.

We have all been trained to hate the ones who helpfully mark themselves out with a swastika. But having no conceptual framework of what was wrong with nazism we all accept its collectivist premises when they don’t come with a swastika and don’t perform a Hitler salute. One of those collectivist premises is sorting people into groups of useful and useless – according to whoever.

It is unthinkingly thrown around in immigration debates, for instance, that only those who are useful must be admitted. The first example that inevitably jumps to mind is doctors who serve our health. Or young people who will pay lots of taxes and breed the children who will pay our pensions. Women are more easily accepted even by anti-immigrationists because they are useful: they can be used for sexual, emotional, reproductive and household functions by their husbands and children. Even the political christianists joked during the immigration crisis that females are still welcomed – illustrated with a boatload of naked women. They are not people with Muslim opinions but useful things – i.e. useful for society.

The concept of being a useful member of society also means that there must be useless people, too.

And if we want to reward the useful ones, what to do with the useless ones? Saying things like someone is useless has consequences and people will jump to conclusions as to what should be done to the useless ones, even when their politicians don’t helpfully supply suggestions.

So what was wrong with nazism – apart from killing six million Jews?

It is a very long list but let’s just take a tiny element of it: The other killings were also wrong and so was their justification. It is widely neglected but the nazis also killed other assorted groups of people who were deemed useless for society. Like disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals, or simply just not ethnic German. (Or anyone who was labeled one of the above by the local nazis (or collaborators) out of personal vengeance, hatred, or for economic reasons – rendering the self-soothing myth that one can stay safe when the state is killing people moot.

Because no, in an autocracy, you don’t get to decide whether you’re the targeted group. You don’t even get to decide whether you are a Jew. You don’t get to decide whether you are one of the useless or the useful ones.

But useful to whom? And useless to whom?

We conveniently ignore the question of perspective. Useful to whom? For what? And who says so?

Saying that something is useful for society is easy – one should look at those who make that claim. Because society certainly didn’t make that claim himself.

In the end what really matters is whether someone is useful for the power grabbers. Dead or alive. Can that new immigrant be fleeced? Is that group ofpeople more useful being fleeced or being scapegoated? What keeps the politician’s hairy ass in the seat of power? What makes his family richer? That is what “society” really means in the term “useful member of society”.

Ash falls from the sky, peppering the two men.

“What is that?” Blake asks.

“Oh, it’s the hospital.”

“Hospital?”

“Yeah,” the cop says. “On Tuesdays they burn cripples … the terminally ill. Drag on the state.”

Later in the same episode of The Man in the High Castle we get to see what is done to the useless ones. A rain of ashes falls from the sky and a surprised truck driver is informed not to worry, it is just the local crematorium. They burn the disabled on Tuesdays.

The concept of political uselessness and usefulness closely follows from our personal predilection to sort people according to their usefulness. And not just to ourselves.

But who am I to use anyone? And who is anyone to use me? How can anyone allow himself to sort other people according to their supposed uselessness. For society, for the king or for the collective?

There should be no such entity entitled to decide about “usefulness”- not least because it doesn’t exist. No one has to be useful to anyone in order to have the right to be left alone.

We should stop unthinkingly practicing collectivist thinking fallacies because we will end up supporting unacceptable political action. Such as higher tolerance for the death of the elderly because they are no longer useful – a course of action many politicians and an alarmingly large part of the public openly believe these days.

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