The nasty flip side of “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 series made out of Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle, a young boy upsets his strict, authoritarian father by reading at the breakfast table. When told to stop and to pay due respect to the family, he defends himself saying that he just wants to become a useful member of society by acing his exam today. We all go awww, and so does the authoritarian father, and the boy is allowed to keep reading.

Oh, by the way, 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 or don’t perform a Hitler salute.

It is unthinkingly thrown around in immigration debates that only those who are useful for the country they wish to enter must be admitted. The first example that jumps to mind is doctors who save our asses. Or young people who pay taxes and breed the children who will pay our pensions. Women are more easily accepted because they are obviously useful things: 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 welcome – illustrated with a boatload of naked women.

But the concept of being a useful member of society also means that there must be useless ones as well.

But useless to whom? And if we want to reward the useful ones, what to do with the useless ones, politically speaking? 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 pile on with suggestions.

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

It is a very long story, but let’s just take a tiny bit of it: the other killings, and why they were deemed rightful. The nazis also killed masses of other assorted minorities, who were deemed useless for society, like disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals, or 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.

Because no, in an autocracy, you don’t get to decide whether you’re the Jew. You don’t get to decide whether it is you who gets attacked next. You don’t get to decide whether you are one of the useless or the useful ones.

Because in the end what really  matters is whether someone is useful for the power grabbers. Can that new immigrant be fleeced? Is that minority more useful being fleeced or being scapegoated? What keeps my hairy ass in the seat of power? What makes my family richer?

Ash falls from the sky, peppering the two men.

“What is that?” Blake asks.

“Oh, it’s the hospital.”


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

A bit later in the same episode of The Man in the High Castle we get to see what is done to the useless ones, when 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 to the collective closely follows from our personal predilection to sort people according to their usefulness. And not just to ourselves. Who am I to claim to use anyone? And who is anyone to use me? How can anyone allow himself to sort other people according to their uselessness for the collective and suggest a political course of action to follow?

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 – a course of action many politicians and an alarming number of their supporters loudly voice these days – just because they are no longer useful. To politicians.

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