Now, for a short bit of of professional criticism.
Not from me, mind you, but from one Ishmael, who has noticed a few problems with how this whole whaling operation is being run. Like all insider suggestions, born of hard experience, it is very specific and points to something I noticed before, which was probably just me remembering this specific chapter and blurting it out like it was my idea.
SUMMARY: Ishmael makes a short note about something in the last chapter. The harpooneer, Tashtego, had to row the boat, then throw the harpoon, and then switch places with the made, Stubb, who was sitting a the back of the boat, just giving orders. In the midst of the chase, right when the harpoon struck home, they had to pass each other in the middle of the rocking boat. Furthermore, it was incredibly difficult for Tashtego to actually make that shot with his harpoon, since he had been yelling and rowing as hard as he could just moments before. It’s no wonder that whalers have a miserable catch rate! This whole situation is absurd. The harpooneer ought to be the one who doesn’t row, and also the one who actually does the killing. Making them row is just plain inefficient, not to mention cruel and pointless.
I wasn’t kidding about this chapter being a suggestion dropped in the great suggestion box of the world. Well, more of an open letter, since it is part of a published book after all. Ishmael is not exactly being discreet.
This chapter seems to be touching on some themes that have been explored a little bit before. Namely, the idea of hierarchy at sea, and the strange habits that it instills in sailors of all kinds. This specific bit of Whaling Lore is, at first blush, just a straightforward complaint: The way things are done is stupid, and should be changed. But this book is never simple, as with everything else in the world, when you look hard enough.
Let us think, then, about what the reason for this foolish practice could be. The way Ishmael describes it really is ridiculous, with the harpooneer bearing both the burden of all the hardest toil, and all the blame in the case of a missed throw of his deadly dart. And who are the harpooneers? They are the highest-ranked crewmen beneath the officers. Those same officers who lay back in the stern of the boat, giving “encouragement”, who then leap up and trade places with the harpooneer once the hard work is done.
It speaks to some uncomfortable fundamental truths about life in this period in history, in America, and everyone in the Western, “civilized” world. The wild, “savage” harpooneers must have their physical activity closely controlled when they are in a moment of high passion. They are to be corralled and exploited to the utmost, their bodily comforts are no concern to the white officers. They are only valued for these physical powers, and this is also why they are most feared.
So, they are burdened with the hardest jobs of anyone on the whole crew. They are set up to fail, and denied the glory of their own hunt in the end. It was Tashtego’s skill that caught the whale, but Stubb was the one who killed it.
This sort of setup, with an in-group of “brains” controlling a sort of underclass of “brawn” is a fundamental unit of capitalism. It is the basic premise on which the whole system rests. Why are CEOs paid millions while their employees barely subsist on thousands? Because they are just so skilled and intelligent that they must be paid such princely sums or they could never be hired.
We are told that these specialized, rarefied skills are only held by the absolute top of the managerial class. There’s some sort of special black magic, some sort of mix of gumption and secret sauce that allows them to lead the ship. But, if things go wrong, they can simply gracefully exit with another big payout, and move on to the next company, or retire with their wealth. The cost of failure is felt only by the workers, the employees, who have their whole fate resting on the capricious decisions of a handful of evil men.
Well, that’s where the analogy breaks down a bit, I suppose. As Ishmael noted in the past, a whaling voyage is joint-stake type of affair, with everyone’s paycheck depending heavily on how much of that sweet, sweet sperm they are able to barrel up and bring back to port. No, there’s a different point being made here, about how tradition and uses can harm even such a relatively egalitarian enterprise.
Let me state the question plainly, for posterity: Why is it that the harpooneer must row and also throw? Why is the mate allowed to lounge in the back of the boat while the harpooneer churns away at the sea, and then must make his million-to-one shot and hit a whale with a pointy bit of iron?
As Ishmael says, it actually makes it harder to catch whales, which is bad for everyone involved. One explanation that is dismissed right in the text is that the harpooneer’s brawn is necessary for the speed to catch up to a whale, so that the shot is possible at all. Hogwash, saith one Ishmael:
I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them.
It is far worse to have a completely exhausted harpooneer than to have a slightly slower boat. Indeed, one could easily make up for the other, and the accuracy of the harpoon cannot be enhanced effectively by wearing out the harpooneer to get just a little closer.
So, why haven’t things changed? Because this is the way things are done, and tradition is very difficult to dislodge. And the only way to dislodge it would be for the mates to decide that they would rather have more money than be upstaged by their harpooneers. It’s more about things like decorum and authority than it is about efficiency. These are the real gears on which the engine of capitalism turns, at the end of the day.
The greatest lie about capitalism is that it is all about efficiency. That it is merely an engine for exploiting and distributing resources in an efficient manner, using markets as a medium for automatic judgment. A marvelous system that doesn’t need anyone controlling it, which can simply run on its own and bring great prosperity to everyone involved.
The truth is that it is all about power. This is becoming more and more obvious in the modern context. You see billionaires throwing away boatloads of money on vanity projects, buying up media companies and running them into the ground to prove a point, trying to destroy industries just to extract a bit more value for themselves. Why would these things happen is such a supposedly perfect and efficient market? Because people do not action rationally. They do not subscribe to perfect notions of self-preservation and mutual aid.
Capitalism claims to flatten the world into simple, easy-to-read graphs that can show you the flow of goods and the health of markets, which represent everything that exists in the world that is worth caring about. But in truth, all they do is hide the real dimensionality of life, they put a pretty cover over all the petty grievances, all the horrible little fiefdoms into which modern society has been carved. The roiling, inarticulate, irrational emotionality at the core of every CEO and corporate board’s decision-making.
The truth is that we are all emotional animals. We all have little inefficiencies in our own lives that we would never do away with. It would be more “efficient” to drink some sort of Soylent-style sludge instead of eating a bagel covered with peanut butter for breakfast every morning, but I will never do it. And that’s the other thing: people have different priorities based on a million incidental aspects of their lives which can never be accounted for. Some people are so devoted to the ideal of efficiency that they will sacrifice some small comforts in order to achieve it.
Context is important, and ephemeral, but it can be gleaned, as if through some sort of darkened glass. I hope that is what I have been able to accomplish today, looking at this short, seemingly irrelevant and petty complaint.
Ah, now I’m back in business. Went off on a nice old fashioned anticapitalist rant, which tied in directly with the chapter at hand. The more I read it, the more I see the deep philosophical underpinnings of this book. I am interpreting them in my own way, but they could really be applied to many different types of organizations and institutions.
There is simply a deep vein of introspection and skepticism running through this book. Everyone has doubts, and you learn to mostly put them aside, but this book asks you to pick them back up again. Your deepest, most fundamental doubts about the nature of existence, as well as your common, everyday doubts about how your boss is runnin’ this operation.
Until next time, shipmates!