On the Certainty of Uncertainty

“Coming apart” by Mike Tewkesbury. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NoDerivatives.

“Coming apart” by Mike Tewkesbury. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NoDerivatives.



. . . if virtue, as being subject to such various and uncertain accidents, were but the slave of fortune, and were not of sufficient ability to support herself; I am afraid that it would seem desirable rather to offer up prayers than to rely on our own confidence in virtue, as the foundation for our hope of a happy life. [Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, Book 5.] You could look up the Tusculan Disputations in a few seconds on your smart phone right now, and that simple fact alone could give you the impression that you were better off than Cicero or any of his friends. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. You can even use your smart phone to lock your front door just in case you forgot in your hurry to get to work, so you’re not leaving anything to chance – or fortune as Cicero would have it. We don’t have to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune the way they did in Ancient Rome. There are times, however – usually at around 4:00 a.m. – when I find myself wondering if fortune has become more outrageous than it ever was.


“. . . when a child is born in Ghana . . . “


When I started graduate school in 1962, one of the men in my cohort was from Ghana. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child, a baby girl born on the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A few days later I told Sam about the new arrival. He shook my hand and said, “and you will have other children.” I wasn’t sure if it was a prediction or a piece of advice, but in any event I said we might have one more, but we weren’t planning a big family. “My wife and I have five children,” he said, and he went on to add, “when a child is born in Ghana, we cannot take for granted that it will live – we have many children, hoping that some of them will survive.” It’s not that the thought had never crossed my mind; every parent is acquainted with that fear. What I had not considered up to that moment was the certainty of uncertainty. They understand these things better in less wealthy countries.


Manuel Valadaõ

At the age of fourteen, Manuel Valadão signed on to a whaling ship in Flores, a small island in the Açores, roughly in the year 1855. Of his experience at sea nothing is known. At the end of a three-year voyage his ship made port in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Now seventeen years old, Manuel Valadão abandoned the sea-faring life and walked from New Bedford to a small town in Maine, where he found work with a local farmer. A year later he enlisted in the 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry as the only foreign-born soldier in the Regiment, which saw combat for the first time at the battle of Fredericksburg. He wrote to a friend back home: “the soldier’s life is not as good as I thought. I was in battle at Fredericksburg and I don’t think much of it.” During the Battle of the Wilderness, Manuel Valadão sustained a bullet wound in the leg. He survived the war.

At about the time Manuel Valadão was making his way up to Maine, another young man named John Davison Rockefeller took his first job as an assistant bookkeeper for a produce firm called Hewitt & Tuttle. He and his wife would have five children, including a daughter who died in infancy. A number of his descendants have become well-known public figures in the United States, but that’s another story.

When Manuel Valadão mustered out of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1865, he married and bought a farm along the Presumpscot River where he grew corn and kept sheep, along with a few dairy cows. Between what they could grow for themselves, a military pension of $12.00 monthly, some cash income from selling milk to the local dairy and corn to a nearby processing plant, the family were able to satisfy their modest needs. A small subsistence farm might not make you rich, but then you are not relying on a single commodity to sustain your family. You maintain a vegetable garden, keep chickens and maybe a hog, you exchange services with your neighbours. There are berries to pick in the summer. In late spring, the women and children shell peas, serve them up with butter, and that’s your supper. You get by. Manuel Valadão drove the hearse for funerals in the local community, he helped his neighbours in cutting timber, and his sons worked at the local barrel factory after school, hacking and hauling barrel staves. Judging from the account in a diary kept by his twelve-year-old son, the family did not suffer from economic hardship, although it could hardly be said they were prosperous. Sickness was a more pressing concern.

At the age of twenty, John D. Rockefeller went into the business of refining kerosene, competing with whale oil to provide cheap fuel for lamps he liked to call “the poor man’s light.” He eventually became the richest man in the world. Rockefeller’s success in supplying kerosene was not destined to continue for very long; his principal market was about to be obliterated by Thomas Edison and the emerging technology of electric lighting. Fortunately for Rockefeller the internal combustion engine was developed at about this time, creating an even more lucrative market for gasoline than there ever was for kerosene. And thus are great fortunes made. The confluence of Rockefeller and Henry Ford would eventually have a damaging effect on horse trading, carriage manufacturing, livery stables and in the long run on the future of the entire human population of planet Earth.

Manuel Valadão refused to countenance the very idea of the automobile. Of course by the time any motorcars would have been seen on the roads anywhere near Manuel Valadaõ’s farm, he would have been a man in his sixties. For him, cars weren’t progress, they were just a nuisance and possibly a threat to the only kind of life he ever knew. Rockefeller and Ford did not seek out Manuel Valadão’s opinion about this, and it probably would not have made any difference if they had.


A Thousand Natural Shocks

Manuel Valadão and his family existed in a form of life that had grown old. That life possessed its own kind of dignity but there is no way to know what he thought about it or whether he would have considered himself to be thriving. It would be dishonest to wax nostalgic about family farms or to idealize the social existence of a small close-knit rural community. If you asked him if his life was perilous, he might show you the graves of the four children he buried. By the time he died in 1919, the year after the First World War ended, his oldest son had moved on, attending college and then settling in the suburbs of Boston where he taught science in a high school. His surviving daughter and her husband kept the farm going but they ploughed their fields with a tractor instead of having it pulled by a horse. The small close-knit rural community they lived in persisted for many years, but in a new kind of world created by John Davison Rockefeller and Henry Ford. The owl of Minerva takes flight only with the falling of dusk.

A man who has watched his young comrades die in a war likely understands that he is living against a background of uncertainty. And then there are uncertainties in running a farm. You could think of it as playing a game, where the opponent is “nature,” or fortune if you prefer, playing by its own rules. We all know this game in its simplest form whenever we have to decide whether or not to take along an umbrella on a cloudy day. In farming there are many “natural shocks” to consider, mostly in the form of unforeseen weather conditions. A strategy of maintaining a small scale, low overhead and modest ambitions might be a good way to buffer yourself against another kind of uncertainty, namely fluctuations in the market price of corn or dairy products.

In June, 1911, Manuel Valadão presented a claim to the federal government to have his military pension increased from $12.00 a month to $15.00. About a month earlier the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil Company, ruling it was a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust act. This was a shock to John D. Rockefeller, but thanks to astute legal counsel, he was able to hang on to most of his capital. In building up Standard Oil, Rockefeller created a more precarious structure than he apparently realized. Uncertainty for most people basically had always meant the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But in large-scale economies there is, in addition to risks such as catastrophic illness or planes crashes, a further structural uncertainty that can’t be eliminated because it is one of the necessary conditions for accumulating capital. Uncertainty is precisely what’s driving the market economy or, as my nephew once put it, businessmen are gamblers. You don’t work hard because you love stress and tension and feeling exhausted at the end of your day. You work hard because you’re worried about losing your job.


Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head . . .

It has become commonplace in election campaigns to say “people need jobs.” In one recent election the winning candidate was the one who promised people they would be able to have jobs working in coal mines. Let that one sink in for a minute. So let’s set aside the various job-creating proposals and whether or not any of them has even minimal validity, because I want to raise a more fundamental question. Is it not preposterous to say that people need jobs? The preposterous is a rhetorical figure of reversal, putting first things last and last things first, or in other words doing things ass-backwards. To suggest that a person “needs” a job is to suggest that a person is incomplete without one.

What people actually need is sustenance, physical well-being, peace of mind, a pathway (not just a purely abstract “opportunity,” mind you) to the full realization of their capabilities and their gifts. People need skilled world engagement. People need to work in reasonable conditions. Instead of asking how to satisfy a “need” for jobs, why are we not asking how a job can satisfy the needs of a person? I would agree that people benefit from doing work that satisfies their deeper aspirations. Unfortunately, the existential costs of holding many jobs –in the form of stress, chronic anxiety and burnout – have become prohibitively high.

When I first came to Montréal I used to see a dentist who would hum the first eight bars of “raindrops keep fallin’ on my head” over and over and over again as he performed the arts of dentistry. And then one day, apropos of nothing in particular, Marty suddenly stood up, looked out the window and announced, “The Canada Health Care Act was the greatest thing that ever happened here. For the first time in my life I had real peace of mind.” He stared off into space for a minute, nodded and went back to humming. It has taken me a long time to see the connection between the humming and the peace of mind. Even with Québec Medicare, raindrops keep fallin’ on my head, children die of untreatable illnesses, young adults at the peak of their creativity get a diagnosis of terminal cancer, cyclists are run over and killed by motorists. You can’t stop the raindrops from falling, and you can’t even accomplish the more modest task of getting your dentist to stop humming that annoying tune.

Manuel Valadão left things more or less as he found them. Eventually farming on his land came to an end; the forest took over and a rare wildflower was discovered growing where he once grazed sheep. Rockefeller and Ford created the technological eco-system we inhabit today. The implied promise in this transformation was that our lives would be cushioned against the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and unburdened from debilitating labour. Better technology was supposed to create greater abundance and more leisure time to enjoy it. And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to achieving this. Instead of widespread peace of mind and time to think, there seems to be a pandemic of generalized anxiety. Many kinds of work have disappeared, leaving people whose work has been taken over by a device without a reasonable way to earn a livelihood. Has this now become a form of life that has grown old in its turn?



A Rock and A Hard Place

After my last check-up, my doctor told me I was doing everything right. “If the fates are kind you could have 20 more good years.” I did not have to ask him what would happen if the fates weren’t kind. Even with significant advances in medical care it seems that just living is ontologically precarious. A piece of building on Peel Street might fall on your head from a great height and kill you while you’re enjoying lunch with your boyfriend, a bizarre event that happened right here in Montréal. Even if no bad things happen, you are constantly being reminded, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, of the myriad diseases that might afflict you, assuming they are not afflicting you already. The good news is that drug companies will have a cure for whatever ails you. The bad news is that the cure might be just as bad as the ailment it is supposed to remedy. Beyond that, however, we have to recognize that ontological uncertainty is not the only thing that ails us.

In Latin, precarius is something given to you as a favour by somebody else, or in other words it describes a bond of dependency. In that sense a job where you work for wages is already precarious by its very nature. It is an imbalance in the allocation of power defined by persistent insecurity on one side of the relationship. Whenever I think about a job, the first thing that comes to mind is a clock radio. You can’t take your time getting up, because the industrial economy has already taken your time. And as if the clock radio wasn’t bad enough, waking you up at 6:00 a.m. so you can drag yourself to work, now, thanks to your portable device, you’re still on the job wherever you go. People even boast of their ability to stay connected, forsooth. But this attitude is preposterous. If electronic media makes things easier for you, they make it even easier for employers to enforce a higher standard of industrial discipline – productivity they like to call it. We end up acquiescing in the condition of our own alienation, and accept that alienation is the best available possibility for living a good life.

So that’s the rock. You might just be inclined to say “no thank you” or “please don’t do me any favours.” But just consider the alternative.

The hard place is where you are when your job doesn’t provide you with sufficient compensation to keep body and soul together, or you don’t have a job at all. In that case you might feel envious of people who have gainful employment because they probably are better off than you are, notwithstanding their submission to the rigors of industrial discipline. Governments have begun to abandon their role in promoting the welfare of its citizens, dismantling programs that support activities taken to be unprofitable and limiting the scope of emergency protections, in order to create a more favourable environment for businesses. This then serves as an incentive for the rest who are getting paid for the work they do, motivating them to adapt to ever more exacting standards of hyper-productivity until technology advances far enough to render whatever job they might be doing obsolete.

There is a connection between the rock and the hard place, because taken together they represent the structure of the precarius, an overarching strategy of domination that prevails everywhere in our present economic reality. We are always faced with ontological uncertainty. In our present circumstances we’re facing something even more ominous. The new kind of uncertainty that’s keeping us awake at 4:00 a.m. is both intentional and artificial, an artefact of uncontrolled capital accumulation. If my nephew is right and businessmen are gamblers, then we’re all of us hostages to the risks in whatever game they are playing. Do any of the big players addicted to this pursuit really understand the rules of their game or what’s at stake for them and for everybody else in continuing to play it? Are there any rules? And why do the rest of us let them get away with it? Ontological uncertainly cannot be eliminated from our lives, but its effects can be mitigated. Artificial uncertainty created in the service of power is in fact unnecessary uncertainty. It’s time we put a stop to it. Because if we allow our own governments to persist in giving ever greater sovereignty to the gamblers, disguising what they’re doing by calling them “job-creators,” then our economic uncertainty is never going to end. If not now, when?


Michael Bristol is Greenshields Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at McGill University.  Mike, as he is better known to his friends, landed in Montréal as an immigrant in the fall of 1970, just in time for the October Crisis.  He taught English literature at McGill for 37 years, specializing in the works of Shakespeare, before happily retiring in 2006. In addition to his teaching activities he has published extensively about all aspects of Shakespeare’s dramatic art, most recently addressing questions of politics and moral agency. Since his retirement he has taken advantage of the many opportunities for enjoying classical music in Montréal, visiting the botanical gardens in every season, and working on a very small flower garden in N.D.G.