Sops and Horrors: An email Exchange with Alain de Botton

(This exchange took place in 2010. My thought has moved on somewhat since then, but the basic points hold)

My first mail

Dear Alain,

…in your talk you equated the cut-throat behaviour of modern businesses and people within them with our savage hunting past. I wanted then to know what you thought of the ample evidence that suggests that early and pre-agrarian peoples led egalitarian and carefree lives, at the very least relatively so. Going by building design, art, analysis of middens, analysis of early myths and by study of those communities that, until recently, were least affected by the kind of social stratification that Indo-Europeans introduced to the world, a very good case can be made for lives led free of alienation, overwork and even, for a large part, disease. Many hunter-gatherer communities worked less than twenty hours a week, this work was varied, creative and for the most part agreeable, and, as modern observers have noted of their recent counterparts, most of the rest of the time was spent in play. In fact the distinction we understand between unpleasant work and agreeable play (although free time, as Bob Black points out in his seminal essay, for most people on earth means getting ready for work, going to work, returning from work, and recovering from work) is a modern one, and by modern I mean largely post Indo-European (all words for work in Indo-European languages denote suffering) and not post-Aristotle (your own starting point), spokesman for a warlike nation of pederasts with a notable antipathy towards women, artists and indeed work.

One need not go further than the recent Bruce Parry BBC series, Tribe, particularly the episode where he visits the oldest tribes of Papua New Guinea, to get a flavour of all this, but Taylor, Gimbutas, Campbell and many others have written eloquently and convincingly of the good life that we left behind when we abandoned certain “attitudes” to nature and life. I won’t go into these attitudes here but note that I do not refer to the creation of large cities. Catel Hayak, pre-Greek Minoa and many other large communities seemed to have functioned peacefully and leisurely, and, again like many recently surviving hunter-gatherer tribes, ‘looking askance’ (in the words of Jean Briggs, observer of early Eskimo tribes) at those who wished to abrogate lasting authority to themselves; i.e. the kind of people who now run the entire world.

In short the popular image of brutish monkey men in near constant war, slaving all day in order to scrape together enough mammoth meat to eke out a miserable brutish existence is an anachronism, and not a benign one as I believe your work, which, for example seeks to excuse immoral absurdities such as motivational mantras and dedication to the minutiae of marketing gimmickry on the grounds that they are what are needed to survive, suggests. These things, and many other horrors of modern work, are only necessary because the system that runs the world makes them necessary.

Your book, and your behaviour (I refer to your recent deal with Heathrow) seems to brush the conscious iniquities of wealth-acquisition under the carpet rather. I, like many others, enjoy your congenial open-minded style; but refusing to either recognise wrong-doing or, consequently, to do anything about it, is deception and an apology for crime. On p102 of The Sorrows and Pleasures of Work, for example, you say that societies that do not relentlessly produce and aggressively market ‘have been poor’. This is untrue; they have been immeasurably rich, as many accounts made by the first European arrivals testify. They have not been poor but defenceless. You then go on to say that “sugar built Bristol” – but how did Bristol come by the sugar? By leaving this question, and many like it, unanswered, you are deceiving your reader. They are led to believe that this, the way we live and work, is basically fine, that this is the way it always has been and this is the way it must be; all highly questionable.

I’ll conclude with a few summary questions. Why do you limit your analysis and evidence to a thin corporate-friendly and power-friendly sample? Why do you not condemn the way that the modern corporation works or offer a howl of pain in sympathy with the workers of the offices and factories you visit? Why do you not ask yourself how it could be or how it once was? Why do you make no mention of Bob Black, Ivan Illich, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, William Morris and other great commentators on the modern working world? Is it that you are afraid to bite the hand that has, all your life, fed you – even while it destroys your fellows?

Kind regards,

(This was an extract from a letter written to Alain de Botton after I’d met him at the Port Eliot literary festival. I went to see him after his talk and bought The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, mentioning that the problem of work in the modern world was an abiding concern of mine and asking if I could write to him about it. He replied the next day.)

ADB’s first mail

Good for you—I love your email and the good kicking you give me in it. I love morris and whitman and thoreau and rousseau—prophets and heroes i celebrated in Status Anxiety (have you read it?). its surely true that early life was not all grim, but nor was it all good. Just like today. Its the old argument between adam smith and rousseau. I am sympathetic to both sides. Modern society is neither sin nor saint, it veers constantly. Hence pleasures and sorrows – also rage and sadness. Im sorry i disappointed you—and hope you will take my errors as natural flaws. As for heathrow, this isnt a corporate puff, take a look, its a sharp critique of our addiction to kerosene and ‘holidays’. All best Alain

My second mail

Thank you for your very prompt and courteous reply Alain, but I fear it is friendly obfuscation.

You say, with trademark impartiality, that early life was “not all good” – but my point was that it was far better than the life led by most people today, which is miserable, pointless, depraved… I could add lists of adjectives and not just for stylistic effect. The rather tame words you use, ‘rage’ and ‘sadness,’ suggest completely subjective states, placing the responsibility… where exactly? Your neutrality reminds me of that of the BBC, another congenial apologist for totalitaria (a word I do not use lightly).

I do not take your errors as natural flaws but as a largely unconscious and extremely subtle pro-establishment outlook; acquired. I believe that naturally neither you nor anyone else is flawed.

I will take a look at Heathrow. In the meantime I’d love to know your response to this.

Kind regards

ADB’s second mail

Not all books do all things – read my status anxiety if you want an angry howl of pain. This book was doing something else.
I will respect medialens a lot more once they bother actually to read my heathrow book rather than imagining its contents. All good wishes Alain PS early life very pleasant in subtropical zones perhaps, not elsewhere – read jared diamond on this, guns germs steel. Read adam smith vs rousseau Read karl marx who hated the primitive nostalgia you sell.

My third mail

Thanks for replying Alain,

You are right of course that ‘not all books do all things’ – its just that I expected a book on the ‘pleasures and sorrows of work’ to explore the nature of work, particularly what it means to modern people in modern offices and factories, but also the wider context in which this suffering sits. Clearly my expectations are part of the problem here, but the point of my email was to question some of your views on what work means and what it can mean, based on the book you have written.

Saying that David Edwards and David Cromwell of medialens have not ‘bothered to read’ what they are criticising is a common accusation (see P163 Guardians of Power), one that is usually unfounded or besides the point. Here I believe it is besides the point. They are taking up the problem of corporations sponsoring writers and placing implicit limits on what they say; in your case limiting criticism of BAA’s impact on the environment and of the kind of consumption that fuels their success and the earth’s impending collapse. I will look at Heathrow, as I said, in the meantime perhaps you can give me a taster of how critical you are of BAA and how much your opinions of what happens at Heathrow is likely to adversely affect sales?

Jared Diamond’s book deals largely with agrarian communities, in which, as you say, the pleasantness of life varied across the globe. In pre-agrarian communities there seems to have been a much wider spread of egalitarian, playful communities relatively unburdened by the tyranny of toil, labour, slog, effort and travail. I mentioned the Eskimo Utku in my first email, there are many other examples. This isn’t to say of course that we need to return to pre-agrarian lifestyle to live well, simply that primitive life was not hell (quite the opposite) and has much to teach us about how working groups can function.

Is Adam Smith vs Rousseau a book? I haven’t read it. What points does it make about work and modern life? I imagine there are some significant differences between these two authors, but as far as I understand them they were both pretty unhappy with (in Smith’s words) the ‘vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people.’ What do you make of this quote?

Karl Marx may have ‘hated the primitive nostalgia I sell’ (do you have a source for this?) but he also drew inspiration from it, describing it as ‘primitive communism.’ The following might be of interest to you, from Steve Taylor: ‘In 1851 Lewis Henry Morgan published League of the Iroquois, reporting his anthropological observations of Iroquois society. Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels read the book, and were also inspired by what they saw as an example of a Utopian socialist society. As Engels wrote to Marx, “This gentle constitution is wonderful! There can be no poor and needy… All are free and equal – including the women” (Wright, 1992)’.

Kind regards

ADB’s third mail

You put me in an awkward spot. You provoke me to try and defend myself, and that clearly doesn’t satisfy either you or me (I’m not a self-righteous sort). But if I apologise for my authorial shortcomings, you tell me I am being BBCish. So here is a third way. There are lots of things which you felt that I should have written about in my book, but at the moment, you merely sketch them for me in the briefest terms. Inevitably, my view of the world is partial, so I’m keen to round it out. I’d love to hear more about how you see the world of work. How would you have written a book on work? We evidently don’t see the subject in the same light, but as I’ve had my say, it would be great to hear more of your side of the story. With very good wishes, Alain

My fourth mail

Dear Alain,

Thank you for writing again. It is true that I provoke you and that I am not satisfied with your defence. The reason is that there is no defence. I don’t think it is being ‘self-righteous’ to respond to criticism; surely its a prerequisite for human interaction, provided, of course, that it can be done with honesty, sensitivity, friendliness and perhaps a touch of insouciance. I thought I had made some good points and some incisive criticisms; you’ll forgive me for finding your response less than inadequate, in fact non-existent. I realise you are probably extremely busy (and am genuinely grateful for the time you are spending on this) so I can only go on the few sentences you write. Your defence seems to be ‘sorry’ and ‘read these books’. Fine, I’m glad you are sorry, but going from the few words you have written I am not sure what you are sorry for. Are you really sorry for, as I believe, misleading your readers in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by neglecting to point out how bad work is, or how good it could be?

I am not saying that you are being ‘BBCish’ because you apologise for not being extreme enough, but because you are hiding the crimes of corporate employers behind impartiality. I’m not saying you should have written a polemic either; the picture you paint (and I am aware that it was intended to be more of a painting than an analysis or an investigation) is attractive and your style is, I have to say, enviable… Nevertheless I am sure that your book is misleading and the way it is misleading, it seems to me, is tied up with what I feel is an establishment bias. You ignore prominent dissident writers on the subject, you ignore evidence that work can be unspeakably fulfilling and enjoyable, your historical analysis is limited and your assessment of how bad the working world is stops at ‘sorrow’. I feel that these are more than mere expectations. I’m sure you’ll think I exaggerate when I say that a book on work, if it is to be accurate, should be entitled ‘The Sops and Horrors of Work’.

It would, I’m sure you’ll understand, be quite surprising, and please don’t mistake this for ad-hominem, if a millionaire author, son of a massively wealthy corporate banker, wrote something that was anti-establishment, anti-power, called for the redistribution of wealth or exposed international injustice. Taking aside the fact that most people who are anti-establishment, anti-power, who call for the redistribution of wealth and who expose international injustice are often angry, bitter and narrow-minded, you’d have to agree, surely, that, on paper, it would be unusual if you did more than sympathise with them, if you felt the way the working world is run and organised to be appalling, sickening and morally outrageous? It would also be surprising if you write a book about Heathrow that seriously upsets BAA, accuses them blankly of profiteering and contributing to an unspeakable catastrophe or that urged its readers to boycott the company? I am willing to be surprised, eager, and I would like to engage you on these and other matters to see why we ‘don’t see the subject in the same light’ and, moreover, how far our self-criticism can go.

As for reading the books, I haven’t read most of them. I have made however, I think, intelligent comments on the authors you mention and how their views relate to our discussion, but you do not respond.

Finally you ask me how I would have written a book on work. The short answer is that I would have investigated the lives of many more workers (particularly third world factory slaves), in greater depth and given a much wider context for why they choose or have been forced to live the way they do.

Kind regards


(Alain De Botton replied to several more emails. The tone became friendlier, and he spoke very kindly of my writing. We talked over the phone for an hour about the above matters, but he avoided all the important points I raised, over and over again.)