Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. Unfortunately Shawn has no dialogue in the video clip I’ve chosen above, from the film My Dinner with Andre (1981), which altered my consciousness during a drunken evening with cousin Don in 1986.
For more on the film, scroll to the end of this page.
Shawn’s essay Why I Call Myself a Socialist (Is the World Really a Stage?) dates to 2011. Intriguingly, the word “socialist” does not appear save for the title. It’s a lengthy essay, so let’s begin after the beginning.
… In the old days of the Soviet Five-Year Plans, the planners tried to determine what ought to happen to the babies born under their jurisdiction. They would calculate how many managers the economy needed, how many researchers, how many factory workers. And the Soviet leaders would organize society in an attempt to channel the right number of people into each category. In most of the world today, the invisible hand of the global market performs this function.
I’ve sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a “selection,” choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these “selections” are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.
As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she’ll sleep in the factory’s dormitory, she won’t be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she’ll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she’ll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she’ll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory. She will have devoted her hours, her consideration, her energy and strength to increasing their wealth. She will have lived and died for that. And it’s not that anyone sadly concluded when she was born that she lacked the talent to become, let’s say, a violinist, a conductor, or perhaps another Beethoven. The reason she was sent to the factory and not to the concert hall was not that she lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so she was assigned to be one.
And during the period when all the babies who are born have been sorted into their different categories and labeled, during the period when you could say that they’re being nourished in their pens until they’re ready to go to work, they’re all assigned appropriate costumes. And once they know what costume they’ll wear, each individual is given an accent, a way of speaking, some characteristic personality traits, and a matching body type, and each person’s face starts slowly to specialize in certain expressions which coordinate well with their personality, body type, and costume. And so each person comes to understand what role he will play, and so each can consistently select and reproduce, through all the decades and changes of fashion, the appropriate style and wardrobe, for the rest of his life.
This must be read in full, but here’s the conclusion.
… If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.
Actors understand the infinite vastness hiding inside each human being, the characters not played, the characteristics not revealed. Schoolteachers can see every day that, given the chance, the sullen pupil in the back row can sing, dance, juggle, do mathematics, paint, and think. If the play we’re watching is an illusion, if the baby who now wears the costume of the hustler in fact had the capacity to become a biologist or a doctor, a circus performer or a poet or a scholar of ancient Greek, then the division of labor, as now practiced, is inherently immoral, and we must somehow learn a different way to share out all the work that needs to be done. The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.