A brief commentary on prisons of flesh

Recently, I've posted a video on YouTube talking about how, even though coming into existence is always a harm, and not coming into existence is never detrimental to a would be person precisely because he or she won't exist to miss the good things in life, things aren't equal for those who come into existence. Borrowing the vocabulary of ancient Gnostics, we can say that we are all born into prisons of flesh — except in our case there's no belief in a real metaphysical essence being imprisoned by a malevolent Demiurge, there's only a biological consciousness that didn't ask to be created. There are, however, different prisons of flesh.

Painting by Xue Jiye

Some prisons of flesh are way less terrible compared to others, at least for some time. And those in the least terrible prisons tend to be a specific minority: the privileged, the rich, and those who have amassed a significant amount of political power. In the video, it seemed that I'd be pointing towards the same things I've been writing about for a while: existence is pain, we shouldn't impose it on anyone, but let's try and change the system for those who are already here so the majority isn't exploited by a few who hold great wealth and political power. And although I still support that message, that's not the route I took.

What I did was explain how the country I'm from and live in is currently going through a process where the democratic institutions are being attacked by the current president, his supporters, and a significant portion of our military, a historically reactionary and paranoid institution. And in the midst of this process of democratic erosion, I saw a married congresswoman and man, both members of an opposition political party, having a child. They posted the news on social media, and it was followed by comments about hope, about not giving up, and other positive platitudes. To me, it was as if they were saying:
I'm in forced labor camp where diseases are tested on me, where I can be randomly beaten up, and one day I'll be executed. But there's hope and emotions, so I'm making another inmate! Besides, the future will inexorably bring about a better version of this forced labor camp.
This, of course, is a caustically sarcastic take on it. But it's not off the mark, especially if we assume that the correct stance regarding conscious and sentient existence is that it is always a harm, regardless of how good one perceives existence to be. So, if even in the best possible scenario it is a harm coming into existence, imagine in bellow average scenarios. Imagine in horrible scenarios. That's what I mean when I say that not all prisons of flesh are alike.

Anyway, it has been a couple of weeks since I posted that video, and things haven't gotten better in my country. In fact, things have been getting worse at an alarmingly fast pace. I've written extensively on this blog about the political situation here in Brazil, and in the world in general, so forgive me for assuming you are already aware of how the current administration is supported by ultra-conservative evangelicals — our fastest growing demographic — and by a big chunk of the military.

This nation has a history of suppressing even modest socioeconomic changes that would benefit the working class and the poor. The few labor rights acquired during the 20th century were hard to get and have been consistently taken away in the name of “economic efficiency”. Supposedly, doing away with workers rights would make the economy grow at an unprecedented rate, which would stimulate hiring, which would increase wages. None of that has happen. Instead, there's an overall “Uberization” of labor. Tens of millions are now part of the gig economy, with no rights, and little to no income. But try saying you oppose that, or say that we should at least have a strong welfare State or social security net, funded by taxing the super-rich, and you'll be accused of being a communist.

Among Western or Westernized nations, we were the last to abolish the slavery of black Africans, and the last to abolish physical punishment of slaves. Beatings and public floggings of blacks were only deemed illegal a couple of years before the abolition of slavery in 1888, and even so, it only happened after several horrific public executions. The law that ended slavery was met with great resentment on the part of the economic elites, who stopped supporting the Emperor and the royal family, the last major institution that Brazil inherited from Portugal. Our royals were eventually ousted in 1889, when the first republic was proclaimed. The elites then started to support mass immigration of poor white Europeans from Italy, Germany, Poland, and other places. These, in their turn, were instigated by the elites to hate blacks and natives, who were considered to be inferior and blamed for societal ills.

Generations later, and a few coups and dictatorships later, we were finally able to have a pretty decent Constitution in 1988. The ratification of that document established a new republic. From then on, little by little, things were improving. Our economy grew to be the sixth largest in the world for a couple of years, even with all the inequalities and poverty. During this time, the poor gained a little more than they were used to. But class resentment grew once again in the mid 2000's, and by the mid 2010's this resentment reached insane levels among the wealthy and the middle class, the latter informed and indoctrinated by the wealthy. Like in other countries, even developed ones, a significant portion of the middle class sides with the rich, believing to be closer to them than they are to the poor.

Making a long story short, in 2016 the center-left president was impeached based on flimsy charges, and in 2018 the majority elected Bolsonaro president. Bolsonaro used to be an obscure, corrupt, conspiracy touting, far-right Congressman for almost 30 years. But he saw an opportunity to ride the wave of resentment against the “communists” (that is, against anyone who defends that poor workers have a right not to be serfs or slaves), so he took a gamble during the presidential elections which paid off. The military, most of which resented the end of the dictatorship that lasted from 1964 until 1985, now provides support for his government. Some top generals have already come forward saying they won't allow the 2022 elections to happen unless Bolsonaro wins — or, in the very least, they won't allow any leftist candidate to win, no matter how moderate, because they “fear the return of communism”. 

The thing is, we never had a communist revolution in Brazil. The justification for the 1964 coup was the same: communists are (supposedly) going to take over, even though there were barely any real communists in the country, and even though the president at the time, a center-leftist named João Goulart, was an upper class moderate. Meanwhile, military officers actively participate in Bolsonaro's administration. They have amazing salaries, and some of the best retirement pensions in the world. Just to give example: when our officers retire, they get paid the same amount they made while on active duty for the rest of their lives, and the unmarried daughters of high ranking officers get to inherit this privilege, so they never legally marry anyone — they just have religious ceremonies instead. Even when we correct the values to euros, pounds or dollars, our retired generals make more than American, French or British generals.

But why am I saying all of this? What does this have to do with prisons of flesh? I keep thinking of other nations in the world, especially in recent history, who had periods of stability, growth, and relative progress. Imagine Poland in the early 1920's, before World War II. Imagine Iran, before the Shah — and as bad as the Shah was, imagine Iran before the Islamic Revolution. Think of Brazil in the 1950's. Sure, none of these places were amazingly stable during the periods I mentioned, but there were glimpses of betterment. People had hopes. And those hopes were crushed by political strife, which resulted from foreign imperialist interventions, yes, but also because there are always enough autocrats, blood-thirsty and power-hungry groups within every nation, regardless of how stable they are. And some nations are more unlucky than others.

Note that I didn't consider the fact that each one of us is born with a particular body from which our consciousness cannot escape. Some of us are born healthy, others are born unhealthy. Most of us will eventually become gravely ill, and we all lose our health at some point in life, no matter how much we try to maintain it. The historical, social and political aspects of our existences belong to categories such as when and where. When does one serve the sentence of existence? Where will he or she serve their sentences? But regardless of the historical, social or political situation, which can make one's life better or worse, we are here for a limited amount of time, created by the hands of others who wanted offspring, or who just wanted to have a good time, and we inhabit one specific meat vessel.

However, for the sake of simplicity, let's not take into account diseases, getting old, and random tragedies like accidents or natural disasters. Let's pretend everyone's bodies are pretty much equivalent in terms of health. That still leaves a never ending world of horrible possibilities for one coming into existence because our species, like the natural world around us, isn't stable, but in constant violent flux. We can easily imagine an eastern European couple in 1926, living a relatively stable society, having a son, hoping he would inherit the family business — only for him to perish painfully at the hands of nazis on some ditch by a freezing road in 1941.

We can think of other examples. A couple in south America having children in the 1950's, before the region saw a multitude of military coups stimulated by the United States in order to control the region and ward off Soviet influence — they couldn't guess that in 1976 their daughter would be brutally tortured, murdered, and have her body incinerated by the secret police, leaving no trace of what happened to her. Even when we don't consider natural or random misfortunes, the fact is that we can never know what horrors await us just around the corner. That's when the sarcastic made up quote I wrote earlier comes to shine a light.

In this existence, we are forced to do some kind work, and if not, have someone else work for us, which in itself is an activity that needs to be done. All of us are exposed to diseases, and even the healthiest human being is going to eventually get sick. Every human will die, either by disease, old age, accidents, murder, and whatnot. In a universe that seems to be pointless the more we learn about it — as the late Nobel winning physicist Steven Weinberg once wrote — what keep us from realizing our overall misfortune are our emotions and the hope that something in the future will justify all of this suffering.

Many hope that there's a justification awaiting us after death, but there also plenty of those who believe that the future will inexorably bring about some sort of Utopia, or something close enough to a Utopia, and that will justify everything, especially the sufferings humans went through at hands of political strife. No. It won't.

by Fernando Olszewski