Muhzik America


How to tell this story? Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi in their America This Week podcast, review the news of the week and also a bit of literature. (The start of each podcast is available on YouTube, but a subscription is required to hear entire episodes.) This week the “bit of literature” was a short story, How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials, by Mikhail Saltykov Shchedrin. It truly is short, so I’ll wait for you to read it and come back.

Ok, now. The basics are that two Russian bureaucrats, now retired, are magically transported to a small island. Being bureaucrats they have lived a life in service to the powers that be, involved in education and credentialing, but with no real knowledge of how to survive on their own. Their status as bureaucrats insured that there would always be people around to do things for them so that they were clueless as to how to do anything productive, that is, contributing to the daily necessities of life and living.

This becomes apparent when the bureaucrats on the island become extremely hungry and roaming about they see all manner of things that can be food, but which require a certain level of capability and skill to be made into food. This they are not prepared for and cannot do.

After spending frustrating time seeing all these things beyond their “reach” they determine that the only course of survival is to find a muzhik (peasant) on the island. If there is all this potential food, there must also be a muzhik, they reason, because “muzhiks are everywhere”. And sure enough after looking about they find a very large muzhik sleeping under a bush.

They rouse the muzhik, put him to work, and soon enough the muzhik is catching fish, snaring game, picking fruit, and preparing meals for them. These two starving bureaucrats are restored and the fact of their imminent starvation and the desperation it created is removed from their minds.

Totally sated the bureaucrats have the time now to cast their minds back to their homes in St Petersburg and pine for the life they lived there. And so it is that they task the muzhik to build them a boat with which the three — the muzhik at the oars — can return to St Petersburg. And so they do, the muzhik as always doing all the work. The two bureaucrats rejoice upon arriving home, go to the pension bureau to collect their accumulating pensions and resume their lives. Is the muzhik and his work forgotten? No it is not:

Nor was the Muzhik forgotten. The Officials sent a glass of whiskey out to him and five kopeks.

Now, Muzhik, rejoice.

Shchedrin exaggerates, of course, the demarcation between an unproductive overclass and a productive underclass. Civilization requires, in fact creates, a stratification associated with specialization. But civilization works best and is most secure when people understand how the structure fits together and respects the contributions by all. The great irony of the philosophy that calls itself “socialism” is that erodes the social ties essential to civilization by devaluing the individual and assuming that it can simply (and eternally) command productivity. And in so doing, over time, productive knowledge itself is devalued and lost. In contrast, capitalism demands that everyone gain some productive knowledge to make their way in this world. It is this knowledge that is the foundation for exchange. And hard as it may be, once gained productive knowledge secures freedom for the individual so long as that individual demands it and others see the benefit to themselves in respecting that freedom.

The unproductive person cannot value the freedom of the productive. In the mind of such a person, there is no need for that freedom. Further, such freedom is a threat. This week we may see that threat made visible:  truckers are considering halting deliveries in NYC to protest the decision of NY supreme court judge Engeron to assess a penalty in excess of $300 million on Donald Trump for no objective crime or wrongful conduct.

And so we find ourselves at a pivot point. America, a country whose foundational structure is based on the productive capacity of the individual, is being operated more and more like Tsarist Russia. Shchedrin’s story was well understood by 19th Century Russians. It needs to be understood by 21st Century Americans. As George Orwell wrote in 1984

It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same—everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same—people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay in the proles!

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  1. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill

    Shchedrin’s tale is true in a universal way.

    Like so many Russian authors, he spins a crucial allegory inside a simple outline that employs poetry and satire.

    But I wonder how he would spin the tale of our current lives, where the non-productive do not need muhziks to do hard labor, as after all, that stuff can be done by machines even they can operate.

    But the non-productive are awarded plush jobs inside bureaucracies where they have only two jobs:

    One: to continue the capturing of governmental agencies such that the agencies are managed   by the industries that the agencies were created in order  to regulate

    Two:  to issue edicts that must be carried out inside the society. These edicts insure  that the productive portion of the population have their lives destroyed once their  businesses and careers are ruined by these edicts, and secondly by the loss of their health due to being forced to take a made up product that provides  all risk and no benefit.

    PS I love the humor that the author uses.

    • #1
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