Drawing the line: Capitalism and Wrong Livelihood

(Image c/o Wikipedia)

The Worldcon that never should have happened has had a wild ride after an all-too-easy to call COVID outbreak, some shady business at the business meeting that seemed likely an attempt to influence the site selection process away from the (ultimately winning) Chengdu bid for next year and then, the piece de resistance, the revelation that a major sponsor for the convention, with a branded red-carpet photo wall at the Hugo Awards was the Raytheon corporation.

This raises an interesting question regarding the duty of participants in Worldcon to respond to the interface of their science fiction convention with a “defense contractor” that was supplying materiel to Saudi Arabia at least as recently as 2017 and that is a key supplier of the US military. Should a concom be held responsible for how sponsorships are used to launder the reputation of corporations? What about the ethics of working for such an organization? After all, it’s something of a received wisdom in progressive spaces that corporations are de-facto evil; if we cannot work but to work for an evil organization is there a gradient of evil to mark against? How far is, ultimately, too far beyond the pale?

Buddhism provides a very concrete starting point for what constitutes a boundary with the Aṅguttara Nikāya, in particular containing discourses accredited to the Buddha and his disciples on the topic of right livelihood – one of the eight subjects of the Noble Eightfold Path. According to these early Buddhist texts, a right livelihood is one that does not involve traffic in, “weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison.”

As such it’s clear that, at least from an orthodox Buddhist perspective, there is a very specific line and it is one that Raytheon is entirely beyond. Of course the same could be said of the butcher and the liquor store down the road along with any pet store proprietors and certain garden shops that sell plants that could potentially be used for the production of poison so we could, perhaps, argue that such specificity is somewhat unhelpful to a modern context.

The Buddhist proscription is bound, inextricably, to a Buddhist ethical universe that seeks to avoid the causation of harm. As such proscribed livelihoods are proscribed because of their specific interaction with the Buddhist perspective on what constitutes the Good. However what the Buddhist example is best for showing is that a boundary can be set. We can, in fact, say that even if all things are not intrinsically ethical some things, in particular, are unethical enough that they should be avoided as moral hazards.

No ethical consumption under Capitalism

There is something of a mimetic phrase within progressive circles that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. This phrase appears not to have a clearly fixed origin although it does seem to arise out of online spaces. Now this argument – that ethical consumption is impossible within Capitalism points in two disparate directions. First, it is deployed as a form of absolution. “Yes I know this product was made by an appartheid state in an occupied territory but there’s no ethical consumption under Capitalism,” at the extreme sure but also, “I’m aware that fast food restaurants deploy environmentally destructive agricultural practices to keep prices down but there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, I live in a food dessert and have few choices and ultimately I have to eat something,” would be closer to an ideal example of this absolutory use. The second is as a critique. A celebrity backs a T-shirt slogan – or some other commodified piece of political rhetoric – and critics point out that it was manufactured with exploited labour. Does a feminist really look like a white woman getting rich off of sloganeering at the expense of vulnerable workers in Bangladesh? There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism.

And so, effectively this statement means either, “I am aware of the contradiction in my position and cannot avoid it,” or “you should be aware of the contradiction in your position,” depending upon whose consumption is the subject of ethical assessment.

Now a fan convention is most certainly an example of consumption. In fact, fewer things are more purely consumptive than a fan convention – an event that seeks to lionize and institutionalize a category of consumption, to bring consumers into the proximity of producers so that they can consume more effectively. And with a fan convention being a form of institutionalized consumption, sponsors of a convention are certainly to be counted both as consumers of the product the convention offers (largely the attention of other consumers) and simultaneously as producers of the event. Raytheon is both a consumer of Discon III and also a product that Discon III attendees are being invited to consume. And anybody who took a photo at the Raytheon branded red carpet photo station, anybody who went to the Raytheon booth, they were consuming Raytheon. So when people respond to this consumption of Raytheon by attendees that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism our question then becomes whether this is the consumer being asked to be aware of the contradiction in their position or if it is the consumer aware of the contradiction claiming they have no choice.

It honestly seems mostly to be the latter.

Certainly, unless that consumer was on the concom they had no choice about whether to invite Raytheon to be a sponsor so we may be able to absolve most attendees of that specific blame. Although members of the concom should certainly be called to account for their funding decisions. However, while the attending membership had no choice whether Raytheon was to be a sponsor, this doesn’t mean they had no agency in this situation at all. And this is where things become even more difficult.


In her seminal work, “the Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir grappled with the fundamental problem of making ethical judgments in recognition of the inability of a person to have an objective understanding of all consequences. In this book Beauvoir remains consequentialist in her outlook, maintaining that the ethical value of an act had to do with its movement toward liberation but problematized consequentialist ethics by pointing out that it would be nearly impossible to judge, in a moment of action, whether any given well-intentioned action, in fact, moved in the direction of liberation. Antagonistic to the virtue-ethic of the Buddhists that would declare it is wrong livelihood, a consequentialist might ask to whom weapons were being sold and to what purpose. Beauvoir then points out that, no matter how great the purpose the consequentialist cannot possibly know what the ultimate consequences of selling those guns must be.

In the end, Beauvoir’s ethic proposes something of a Sisyphean life – one of constantly striving toward a greater freedom fully aware that it can never be obtained. The struggle for liberation is an endless and ever-changing task. All a person can do is their best. As Beauvoir puts it, “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods. Thus, in science the fundamental problem is to make the idea adequate to its content and the law adequate to the facts; the logician finds that in the case where the pressure of the given fact bursts the concept which serves to comprehend it, one is obliged to invent another concept; but he can not define a priori the moment of invention, still less foresee it.”

Beauvoir argues that meaning is constantly changing and that the movement of life with purpose, of a good life, is thus also constantly a moving target. But that doesn’t mean she provides no lodestone. Instead Beauvoir takes a nearly Epicurean approach, saying, “However, it must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is to will there to be being, it is to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness. If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.”

And, of course, this idea of a good life as being one that pursues some sort of genuine happiness both on our own account and through others is something of a shared quest between Beauvoir, the Epicureans and the Buddhists.

What then is the ethical weight of a red-carpet photo against the death of a child in Yemen? It should be such a simple formula – arms dealers bad – and yet it brings with it so much other baggage. Did the actions of the red-carpet walkers contribute to Raytheon’s ability to sell the weapons that kill? Were factors such as the ability of convention members to pursue a career in the arts (which received wisdom says necessitates participation in fan conventions) ones that moved their own actions, in that moment toward a concrete mode of liberation? Should an artist who discovers their participation might give a company like Raytheon access to an audience disengage immediately? How much burden to know what, in fact, Raytheon is and does should be ascribed to the hosts of a Science Fiction podcast or the creators of a popular semi-pro zine? I don’t think I need the certainty of the Noble Eightfold Path to say that Raytheon is ethically compromised. It sells weapons to many of the most aggressive and warlike militaries in the world. No country has as many extraterritorial military bases as the United State. Few states wage war as readily and egregiously as Saudi Arabia. That Raytheon partners with these militaries makes it obvious that there’s very little ambiguity at play with working in their employ or with deliberately selling them advertising space at your convention. A good Raytheon employee is an employee who quits.

But I think the “no ethical consumption” line creates more problems than it solves. Certainly it’s true in as far as capitalism is a system that pushes back against Beauvoir’s idea of a life of love on our own account and lived through others. It’s a system that depends, instead, on a zero-sum gamification of existence where every moment of joy we squeeze out of life must, at its core, be a moment of joy denied to another. But the moment of radical freedom we call revolution depends on a level of mass action that doesn’t reside with some atomized individual. Turning around and walking out of the Hugo awards upon sighting the Raytheon banner would have been a decent action. It would be what Buddhists call “right intention” but it would be ineffectual. It would not overthrow the rule of Capital; it would not unmake the missiles and the bombs. In order for it to be a truly revolutionary moment it would require a total desertion of Discon III – for every single person there to spontaneously refuse to cross that threshold. And absent that sort of spontaneous and revolutionary moment ambiguity rules here. Hugo awards make careers and it’s just a banner.

Ultimately the concom of Discon III has earned scorn. It was the height of irresponsibility to hold a convention in Washington DC in 2021. We all knew perfectly well the pandemic would not be over and I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume most people knew the pandemic would not be over in the United States specifically considering the disorganized way it responded to the crisis. Frankly there should have been no opportunity to pose in front of a Raytheon banner at all. And even if we set aside the irresponsibility of holding an in-person fan convention during a plague year the concom should not have sold its sponsorship opportunities to a “defense contractor.” Awarding a sponsorship to Raytheon was an egregious lapse in ethics by the standard of the Buddhists, the Epicureans, the standards of Beauvoir and frankly even those of Kant who would have fixed upon the concom the duty of acting in a manner that advanced respect and dignity of all people. Death from above at the hands of missiles manufactured half a world away is, at its core disrespectful. It is a death lacking in dignity to be snuffed out like an unwanted candle.

Capitalism operates through a diffusion of responsibility. People who have worked within the IT divisions of defense contractors talk about jobs that center around entirely abstract snippets of code – work toward abstract benchmarks where they haven’t the first clue what their code is even intended to do. This sort of diffusion permeates capitalist organization such that, ultimately, no one person is ever to be blamed for the cruelties of the system. And the concom could argue, in their defense, that then never dropped a bomb nor asked one to be dropped.

Ultimately the question becomes: where do you draw the line? As Jello Biafra said, “I’m not telling you, I’m asking you.”

For me, the line is drawn not at being an audience for Raytheon but it is certainly drawn before collaborating with Raytheon to give them an audience. But each person must construct that line for themselves. This is the ultimate paradox of collective spontaneity. We must each, alone, decide to act together in the moment. If a spontaneous moment is lost to ambiguity we should, rather than ripping at those people who, enmeshed in ambiguity, may have made a wrong choice, aim toward building better preconditions to make the right choice in the future.

As such my final word is this: No more arms manufacturers at fan conventions. And if anyone violates this clear line by inviting arms manufacturers to participate, let’s deem them outside what we see as the genre community. In that moment of collaboration they have put themselves beyond the pale. But let’s stop there and work to build solidarity around this line.

3 thoughts on “Drawing the line: Capitalism and Wrong Livelihood

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