I just finished re-reading a fascinating book called Fatherland by Robert Harris. This isn’t a book review, exactly, since I will relate it to personal finance… eventually. The rather grim image here should have grabbed your attention. It is, of course, the swastika. The swastika was an ancient Sanskrit symbol, and is even today used in Hindu and Buddhist cultures as a peaceful religious symbol. The Tsarina Alexandra (wife of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II) was fond of scribbling the swastika over her diary and notebooks – I’ve seen images of it. The fact that a monarch of Russia was scribbling the symbol of the German Reich, which would do so much harm to Russia a mere 20 years later, is unsettling. To most people, the symbol has become the epitome of pure evil.
To briefly summarize the book, it shows an alternate world where Hitler succeeded in conquering and holding Europe. He is still alive in the late 1960s, Fuhrer of the European Reich. He has subjugated most of western Russia, but a 20-year guerrilla war by the Soviets, backed by the United States, continues to drain resources. The European Union, much like the old Warsaw Pact, is “technically” independent but in reality part of the Reich. The US has defeated Japan, and is at the time of the book – which seems to be approximately the late 1960s – engaged in a cold war with Germany, much as the US and USSR were in reality. The book revolves around a murder investigation of a high Nazi official right before the visit of a historic summit between the US president, Joseph Kennedy (father of John!) and Adolf Hitler, to try to negotiate an end to the Cold War.
The book is thought-provoking on many levels, and I’ll just focus on one today. If you have read Orwell’s 1984 you’re probably acquainted with the idea of a dystopia – a perfectly awful world, as opposed to the concept of utopia, a perfectly happy world. Unlike Orwell’s dystopian Britain, though, Harris’ Germany is also utopian. Germany has utilized slave labor (the Slavic nations, like Ukraine, Poland and Russia) to enrich itself wildly. Every Reich citizen is basically fat and happy. The state provides wonderful foods, museums, entertainment, sporting events and benefits. The only crime is to question this perfect happiness or to challenge the Fuehrer…or to inquire (as one detective does, with terrible results) “what happened to all of the Jews?”
So what are the parallels to today’s world? Are Americans (and the West in general) overlooking “the dust under the carpet” in their quest for material comfort? Is the future we are building in the West (not just in America) being built on the grief of others? Of course nothing as terrible as a fully-realized Holocaust has occurred, where an entire race of people has been systematically wiped out, as it has in the novel. Yet material comfort has its costs:
- the proliferation of “stuff” has increased energy usage and drained resources around the globe, starting a climate crisis.
- the widespread use of China as a manufacturing partner has enriched the Chinese communist regime greatly, allowing them to continue their human rights abuses unabated in the years since Tiananmen Square, one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen in my life.
- the gap between the western world and the rest of the world in terms of wealth and health continues to widen, causing (justified or not, it exists) towards the west and its sole superpower, the US.
It’s really a fascinating question. You can feel the awful nature of existence in Orwell’s 1984, where one character infamously predicts: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever.” Harris’ utopia is far prettier, for those who have survived, but the implication is clear – pleasure gained at the expense of others’ pain is no real pleasure. It is possible to feel overwhelmed by responsibility. In personal finance we worry about funding retirement. For the most part, none of us worry about having our hands cut off by roving marauders as in the Sudan, or being forced into a lifetime of sex slavery like women from Moldova or Russia (horrific article). Maybe you feel helpless about that. However, do you feel helpless or is the real sacrifice to prevent it simply too terrible to think about? Would you be willing to pay $3000 for a basic laptop if it was built by workers in humane conditions and paid a fair wage? Would you pay triple what you pay today for coffee grown sustainably by fair wage farmers? Would you accept a ban on all imports from Eastern Europe if it stopped the sex trade? Would you pay $6 per gallon to embargo the Middle Eastern states? I wrestle with that question constantly. I don’t know the answer, honestly. If I look deep in my soul, the unfortunate answer is probably no – I would rather have my cheap stuff – if I am going to be honest.
It’s very hard to balance frugality and social responsibility. Often the socially responsible choice is less frugal, and worse, the socially responsible choice may have minimal positive impact. Sometimes the best you can do is avoid negative impact. It is important to remember, though, a famous Holocaust survivor’s words. This is a brilliant observation from the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. ” A utopia based on our indifference to others’ suffering is no utopia at all.