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The Perverse Seductiveness of Fernando Pessoa

Branko Milanovic - 5th October 2017
The Perverse Seductiveness of Fernando Pessoa

Branko Milanovic explores lessons from Fernando Pessoa's 'The anarchist banker'.

It is impossible to spend a few days in Lisbon and to be a compulsive voyeur of bookstores, without noticing almost everywhere the name of Fernando Pessoa. I knew that he was a poet and, vaguely, that his star was on the ascendant because I have seen his name mentioned in a number of publications. But I never read anything written by him. Seeing him now everywhere in Lisbon, in French and English translations, and even in a small bookstore dedicated entirely to his writings, spurred my interest.

I was struck by an eerie similarly between Pessoa and Cavafy: one generation apart (Pessoa 1888-1936, Cavafy 1863-1933), both poets of their own civilizations and cultures, ignored during their lifetimes, homosexuals who almost never left their cities (Alexandria and Lisbon), anglophiles whose poetic fame keeps on rising the further we are from their physical lives (as indeed the glory of all great people does). I have to confess that I am a huge fan of Cavafy’s poetry (in beautiful English translation by Avi Sharon here), but have not, as I mentioned, read any of Pessoa’s. Still luckily for me, the only work in prose that Pessoa published is a short 1922 novella called “The anarchist banker”. And as soon as I opened the book (in French translation, “Le banquier anarchiste”) I knew it was something that I would be interested in; and indeed I read it in an hour or so.

It is a Dostoyevsky-like monologue of a rich banker who was born poor, in a working class family, and used to be an anarchist. To the question asked by the narrator in the beginning of the novella, why he betrayed his ideals, the cigar-smoking banker bristles: no, he never stopped being anarchist; moreover it was him, unlike other “conventional anarchists” who combined the theory and practice of anarchism, and is helping human society along toward the ultimate goal of “natural freedom”.

How come, you wonder (together with the narrator)? Here is the answer. Every society is composed of inequalities that are “natural” and others that are a “social fiction”. The latter are what John Roemer calls “circumstances”. They are inequalities due to one’s birth, wealth of his/her parents, connections, or money they inherit. These are the inequalities that, our banker-anarchist tells us, have to be eliminated in order for a society to be just and for people to live freely and “naturally”. Other inequalities (of innate intelligence, effort, stature and strength) cannot be remedied because they are not produced by society. (So our banker-anarchist is a luck egalitarian.)

Having realized this early in his life, the banker (then anarchist) enrolled in attempts to change society, both through anarchist propaganda and “direct action”. But he realized that the attempts to eradicate money-driven “social fictions” quickly led to a rule of a minority that imposed another set of “social fictions”—a military dictatorship (a clear referee to Bolshevism) that, not differently from capitalism, constrained human freedom. Moreover, he discovered that even within small anarchist circles that were struggling for “freedom”, hierarchical rules soon emerged: some made decisions, others followed.

He was then faced with a choice: either man is born vicious, in need to impose hierarchy and, for the other part of mankind, desirous of submission (“born slave”) in which case all attempts to change capitalist society are vain; or man is made vicious by “social fictions” which ought to be made irrelevant by individual effort; that is, not through social organizations that inevitably re-impose hierarchies. If man is vicious because of society, and not innately, then the way to extricate ourselves from “social fictions” and to reach Marx’s “empire of freedom” where money does not matter is to become wealthy enough so that money becomes irrelevant. This is why our anarchist decides to become a banker, and to use the most sordid means to become rich. But didn’t he thus exert tyranny over the lives of many other people, didn’t he reinforce the “social fictions” against which he was fighting? No, the banker says, because “social fictions” can be destroyed only by wholesale revolutions and to bring such revolutions about we need to free ourselves from “social fictions” individually, one by one, by growing rich and extracting ourselves from the vulgar rule of scarcity (“[by getting rich] and overcoming the force of money, by liberating myself from its rule, I become free”).

The story is to some extent (but only to some extent) absurd. It has a kind of perverse dialectical logic which we also find in some Marxist literature (as here) where the achievement of a society without scarcity requites the utmost development of the productive forces—using the most capitalistic, selfish and destructive means possible. For the achievement of happiness (says Pessoa) can be realized in only two ways: either we reduce our needs and live like animals, or we create an abundance of material goods to such an extent that they do not matter anymore.

To reach the state of freedom we need to go through the “valley of tears”, the Industrial Revolution, Stalinist industrialization, “trickle-down economics” or Maoist Great Leap Forward. All of them are attempts to increase production, reduce or eliminate scarcity and do away with “social fictions”.

Does it make sense? Perhaps only to the extent that scarcity is scarcity of material goods. Many of such scarcities for many people in the world today have been eliminated (food, water, electricity, housing). But other scarcities, of positional goods, will by definition, be always with us: they cannot be eliminated no matter how many television sets, iPhones, water melons and potatoes we produce. So, post-scarcity Utopia seems to be indeed a “no place” that may ever exist, and the rationale that unscrupulous exploitation of others is a short-cut to the world free from want is indeed perverse.



This post first appeared on Branko's blog and was reprinted with permission.

Image Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)