Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Plague

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, July 12, 2006 | Category: |

I Wrote most of this a couple days ago, I hadn't put it up though. Enjoy.

The following abridged quote is taken from The Plague by Albert Camus:

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yes somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise...

When a war breaks out people say, 'It's too stupid,; it can't last long.' But though a war may well be 'too stupid', that doesn't prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its was' as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

..A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and , from one bad dream to another, it mes men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest – that was all – and though that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plagues, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Now the reason that I bring this up is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is really good. I am only halfway through it and I am enjoying seeing where it is going, the seeming ease with which Camus wrote it and conceived of it. It should be noted that it was written immediately subsequent to WWII. Camus was a member of the resistance in France, and we see that there are a number of fairly obvious parallels between his analogies on freedom, choice and motivation in war as there are in a situation of plague. I believe that the plague of which he conceives is meant to be an ubiquitous symbol of whatever may 'plague' the individual, society at large, or whichever other grouping you choose to select. (On a more contemporary note have any of you listened to the band Bright Eyes album, Fevers & Mirrors? The lead singer chats about 'personal' fevers, granted in a much more juvenile way than Camus, but the motif is still prevalent in contemporary pop culture).

It is as a result of this commonality that I think we continuously need to consider those things which act in a plague-like manner in our society today. These may be anything from our consideration of poverty and inequality (the things that often worry me), to HIV/AIDS (an actual plague), to the possibility of moral degeneracy, to political game-playing and power-grabbing. One of the things of which I am dreadfully aware is the extent to which freedom is maligned. I know that I have expressed views on situations in which I believe that I would not mind my individual freedoms infringed if there were increases in the so-called greater good (ephemeral as that may be).

However, that is in an ideal world where government is benevolent and efficient. In the real world we need to consider the movements of government in ways that may be impinging on freedoms. The one that has worried me recently is the silencing of certain voices on the SABC. We all know that there was a whole lot of politicking when John Perlman was told he could not speak to specific individuals, and these individuals (for example William Mervin Gumede) don't like the ways in which the ANC is working. Black intellectuals criticising the black government. These are the ones that we are noticing as well. I wonder to what extent people remain silent in these situations.

Another frustration of which I have been witness is the whole issue surrounding crime. I have written on this already, but I do sincerely believe that something more needs to be done about it. When I, as an individual, have to repeatedly phone the fingerprinting services, the police, etc in order to begin to get a response, but still get nothing, that is a problem. We all know that there are issues with infrastructure, but I think that if there are such a massive number of people unemployed, and we need more people in law enforcement, surely we can find some way of employing these people. Combine this with the amount of underspending that goes on in a number of government departments, then we can see all kinds of possibilities. I know that generally you want to decrease personnel spending, but in such a personnel intense resource surely it isn't such a bad thing. I also agree (and have previously argued) that poverty, HIV/AIDS, unemployment all feed into these problems. The determinants of crime are directly linked to household income, education, employment, coherence (i.e. Single mum vs. more supportive family structure). These all contribute. To what extent is this a plague? What message does it send out when the security minister says that people who complain about crime should leave the country? I agree that we don't want people who are continually complaining, but equally we need to find creative and immediate solutions to a very prevalent problem in order to ensure a successful future. (Check again my whole multi-pronged attack idea, expensive but necessary I believe. Singular and isolated interventions are unlikely to work, they need to be well-coordinated at a high level - Mbeki's cabinet wouldn't be bad at this incidentally, their communal brain power is formidable, Netshitenzhe alone is significant...).

Anyway, there are a number of other things that are worthy of consideration in this context. I think I'll write on some more of them another time. In the interim, if you can, read the book The Plagueit's a good read. Again, this is somewhat rant-ish as well as retreading ideas I have covered before in too shallow a fashion, nevertheless their reintroduction and possible sparking of debate is worthy.

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