Telling It Like It Became

Towards the end of Robert Musil’s massive (and unfinished) novel The Man Without Qualities I came across, in quick succession, three quite unintentional prophecies. Musil no doubt meant them as fanciful reductiones ad absurdum or as-ifs, but they have all turned out to be true of our own world.

For example, he says that, “Wanting to live for another person is no more than egoism going bankrupt and then opening a new shop next door, with a partner!” The implication here is that such a business practice is immoral. But this is precisely what most of business life now consists in, hallowed by the Washington Consensus; the standard justification for the limited-liability company is that you can try your luck again, but in practice this is all preplanned – one goes into liquidation to escape one’s debts, whether to investors or suppliers and including the start-up outlays, and then creates another company to continue the same con-game.

When Musil writes, in what context I don’t now remember, “… the button to be pressed is always clean and shiny, and what happens at the other end of the line is the business of others, who, for their part, don’t press the button”, this might be the first use of the metaphor that entered the language around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and has stayed in it ever since. He seems also to be anticipating Stanley Milgram.

Again as a reductio, Musil scoffs that getting one’s personality-forming ideas from such-and-such a source is like “ordering oneself from an interior decorator”. But that is precisely what the middle classes nowadays do. The providers are called “lifestyle consultants”.

Leave a Reply