Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Banality of Everyday Life (2003)

From the September 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

"As poverty has been reduced in terms of mere material survival, it has become more profound in terms of our way of life . . ."

6.30am. Get up, get dressed, go downstairs. Put the kettle on and tune in to the relentless drone of the TV. Some reporter in battle fatigues is bringing the dead victims of corporate America to you live, right to your breakfast table. Sanitised images of a dirty war wash over you while you eat cornflakes: smiling men in uniform, tanks crossing a desert, explosions at night, thin, barefoot children petted by US marines. You're not quite sure whether this is real or a re-run of some old propaganda film; you can't quite make the connection between blasts in the sky and people dying. But you haven't time to think or feel: you wash, brush your teeth, put on your coat and are out of the door.

"The crowd commutes in a brutish weariness . . . "

Getting on the bus you ignore the woman struggling with a pushchair and the madman who tells you to fuck off. On public transport you meet your fellow workers in an atmosphere of shared tedium that stifles communication. Sitting next to a face as blank as yours, you protect your body space and avoid eye contact. Jolted around on a grimy bus, you keep your head down and blend with the herd. Welcome to the morning rush hour.

Already you're thinking of what you'll do when the daily grind is over. Outside work, you can be yourself. Outside work, time is your own. Except that it's packaged up, advertised and sold back to you as free time: time to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, time to drink Budweiser, time to wear Adidas, time to holiday in Ibiza. A measured amount of time freed up for consumption.

"The obligation to work alienates the passion for creation . . ."

At work, time is money. You work hard, performing your tasks efficiently but with a bored detachment. Tapping at the keys of a computer, you churn out meaningless words and numbers; on the assembly line you churn out shoddy goods in the name of mass production. It never occurs to you that before it became labour, work was creative, the pleasure taken in it offsetting the hours of effort. It never occurs to you that once people had control over how and when they worked. Lacking creative work and control, you have only wages to ameliorate your labour.

But money buys illusions. You don't just buy a car, a washing machine, a pair of trainers; you buy self-expression, individuality, contentment, a way of life. Created by marketing gurus and peddled through the media, lifestyles come conveniently packaged at the local department store. Happiness is carried home in a plastic bag. You consume illusions. Retail is therapy.

"Forgetting life, one identifies with a range of images . . ."

The evening rush hour: same as the morning, but in reverse

You get home, make something to eat, put up your feet and turn on the TV. The familiar round of soaps, game shows and reality TV, schedule your week: Monday, Coronation Street; Tuesday, Who Wants to be a Millionaire; Wednesday, Big Brother.

On the small screen, celebrities enjoy romance and adventure on your behalf. You watch passively as they compensate for your inability to lead a fulfilling life. Relating more to a character in a soap than to your neighbour, you're under the illusion of sharing a real human relationship. Separated from your fellow human beings, an illusory connection is better than no connection.

Waking from a doze, you turn off the TV and crawl up to bed. Before sleep you consider tomorrow's routine: same shit, different day. You don't think that there's a better way to live. You don't think you have the power to change things. Yet the house of cards is built on your complicity. We have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but boredom. You sleep. You don't dream.
Lynn Wright

An Open Letter to the Workers of the World (2004)

From the May 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fellow Workers,

The world we live in at the beginning of the 21st century is one that is fraught with contradiction. Some 800 million of our fellow humans are chronically malnourished and at least 1.2 billion will, on any one day, go without food. At the same time, the governments of the world order the destruction of vast mountains of food to keep prices high, stockpile food until it rots and pay farmers to take land out of production because the laws of supply and demand insist that overproduction is bad for the market.

Some 600 million of our fellow humans are homeless, many sleeping rough on the streets of the worlds cities, yet there is no shortage of vacant buildings countless millions of acres of empty living space in the major cities of the world and certainly no shortage of building materials or skilled builders and craftsmen presently out of work. Again, we find that the market not only dictates who does and does not eat, but who does and does not sleep comfortably.

Well over one billion of our fellow humans have no access to clean water, while its growing scarcity is calculated to spark many wars across the globe this coming century. Meanwhile, the technology exists to desalinate millions of gallons each day and to set up treatment plants capable of cleaning the dirtiest water. However, there is not much profit in selling something which covers five-sixths of the planet, so the investment never comes.

While millions of children die each year of curable diseases and while we still await breakthroughs in medical science that can cure the presently incurable, we find there are literally thousands of scientists around the world employed in weapons programmes paid by their respective governments to devise new methods of murder, including germ warfare.

The list is as endless as it is insane. At every turn we find evidence of how capitalism destroys us physically and mentally, retarding real human development. At every turn we come smack up against the iron law of our age cant pay, cant have. At every turn we find capitalism running wild like a rabid dog, infecting all it comes into contact with.

Credit where credit is due. Capitalism has enabled us to carry out some pretty fantastic technological and scientific feats. Advances in warfare sparked a race for rocket technology that has enabled us explore the furthest limits of the solar system. The search for oil and other resources has allowed us to plumb the deepest oceans and map out the ocean beds. We can split the atom, map the human genome, and perform the most amazing organ transplants. Nothing, it seems, is beyond us. Our productive powers are unprecedented. Our capabilities are awe-inspiring. Sadly, however, and in spite of the technology at our disposal, the never-ending battle for profits means that we have entered the 21st century dragging with us every social ill that plagued the previous century.  War, hunger, poverty, disease, and homelessness are still making the headlines, and each of these problems is, to a lesser or greater degree, rooted in the way we continue to organise ourselves for production. The terrible irony is that we are already capable of solving the major problems that face us. Indeed, we have been capable of solving them for quite some time though obviously never within the context of capitalism.

Over 20 years ago, the World Health Organisation revealed that the technology existed to feed a world population twelve times its (then) size. Five years ago the UN reported that Africa could easily feed a population six times its current size if western farming technology was introduced. Science and technology are in fact so advanced as to enable us to solve all these problems. However, the requirements of profit everywhere act as a stumbling block not only to the full use of the productive forces, but also to the full and unhindered use of science and technology in the service of humanity.

Socialists long ago realised that the problems we face are in fact social problems, not natural ones or the vengeance of gods social problems because they have their roots in the way our world is organised for production, that is production for profit, not need. If you think seriously about it, youll be hard pressed to find any aspect of our lives that is not subordinated to the requirements of profit. This is the case the world over. We are all of us at the mercy of the anarchic laws of capitalism.

What is to be done?
If this is the case, then what can we do about it? Socialists, real socialists, believe the only way forward lies in abolishing the money/wages/profit system that we know as capitalism and establishing a world socialist society or, in other words, a world of free access to the benefits of civilisation. Only then can we gain real control over our world and reassert control over our own destiny. Only then can we produce without polluting our world and only then can we enjoy a world in which there is no waste or want or war.

Since 1904, the Socialist Party has been advocating the establishment of such a world system: a global system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth, by and in the interests of all people.

We advocate a world without borders or frontiers, social classes or leaders, states or governments or armies. A world devoid of money or wages, exchange, buying or selling. A world in which people give freely of their abilities and take according to their own self-defined needs from the stockpile of wealth. A global system in which each person has a free and democratic say in how their world is run.

Human nature no barrier
Of course, many we come into contact with agree that such a world would be a beautiful place to live in, but that human nature will always be a barrier to its establishment, because humans are by nature greedy, selfish and aggressive. It quickly becomes apparent that what they are describing is not human nature as such, but various traits of human behaviour exhibited under particular circumstances. Socialists maintain that human behaviour is shaped by the kind of system people are brought up to live in that it is not our consciousness that determines our social existence but our social existence which determines our consciousness. Nobody is born as a racist or a patriot, as a bigot or with a belief in gods. Nobody is born a murderer, a robber or a rapist, and our alleged greed for money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were slavery or witch burning.

In general, the ideas the common people hold have been acquired second-hand, passed down from the ruling class above us. This is because the class which owns and controls the productive process, also controls the intellectual life process in general. Any anti-social behaviour is likewise influenced by our social circumstances at any given time, i.e., when we are poor, depressed, lonely, angry and frustrated.

In most cases, those who produce the worlds wealth (some 95 percent of the worlds population) have had that second-rate education that makes free-thought difficult an upbringing that conditions us to accept without question the ideas of our betters and superiors. Indeed, the education system is geared to perpetuate the rule of an elite, insofar as it never encourages children to question and take issue with the status quo. Children may well cite that 8 times 8 equals 64, but how many will ask about the cause of wars or query the destruction of food?

Socialists hold that because we can adapt our behaviour, the desire to cooperate should not be viewed as irrational. We hold that humans are, by nature, cooperative and that we work best when faced with the worst and that our humanity shines through when the odds are stacked against us. There are millions of cases of people donating their blood and organs to complete strangers, sacrificing their lives for others, of people giving countless hours of their free time to charitable work all of this without financial incentive. There is even the case of a man throwing himself on top of a grenade to protect children in a school yard. He died to protect children, none of which were his own, and in the instant knowledge that his action was suicidal.

Today, world capitalism threatens the human race with extinction. The reason this obnoxious system survives is because we have been conditioned to accept it, not born to perpetuate it. Rest assured, no gene inclines us to defend the profit system.

Not been tried
Many we come into contact with tell us that socialism has already been tried and has failed. They then point to the former Soviet Union, to China, Cuba and a dozen other states that claimed to have established socialism. What they fail to grasp is that socialism has existed nowhere, and that what existed being passed off as socialism was in fact state capitalism, not socialism or communism (which mean the same thing). A cursory glance at the affairs of these countries reveals they never abolished the wages system. The rulers exploited their workers and outlawed dissent. They produced when only viable to do so, maintained commodity production, traded according to the dictates of international capital and, like every other capitalist state, were prepared to go to war to defend their economic interests. Moreover, in all of these countries, it was believed that socialism could be established by force, that socialism could exist in one country. The Leninists who carried out the Bolshevik Revolution maintained that the revolution could only be carried out by a minority vanguard party, that the masses were too ignorant to understand the case for change.

Since 1904, our movement has maintained that socialism, like capitalism, can only exist on a global scale, and that it will only come about when a majority of the worlds people want it and are prepared to organise for it peacefully and democratically, in their own interests and without leaders. No vanguard can establish socialism the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

We can do it
But who are the working class? Agreeing with Marx, we believe that there are two classes in society the working class and the capitalist class, each one determined by its relationship to the means of living. The capitalist class own and control the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth, living as parasites off profits, rent and interest. The working class, other than possessions we have purchased with our own sweat, own little more than our ability to sell our physical and mental abilities to the highest bidder. There is  no middle class as the working class includes land workers, doctors, lawyers and teachers anyone, indeed, who must sell their mental and physical energies to survive.

This class, the working class runs the world and it is important to grasp this fact. It is we who fish the oceans and tend the forests and till the land and plantations.  It is we who build the cities and railroads, the bridges and roads, the docks and airports. It is we who staff the hospitals and schools, who empty the bins and go down the sewers. It is we, the working class, who produce everything society needs from a pin to an oil-rig, who provide all of its services. If we can do all of this off our own bats, then surely we can continue to do so without a profit-greedy minority watching over us and, more, in our own interests.

The ruling class, of capitalists and their executive, the governments of the world, have no monopoly on our skills and abilities. These belong to us. Moreover, it is we who are responsible for the inventions that have benefited humanity and the improvements in productive techniques. Most inventions and improvements are the result of those who do the actual work thinking up easier and faster ways of completing a task, the result of ideas being passed down from generation to generation, each one improving  the techniques of the previous. If those who work have given the world so much, in the past say 2000 years, then how much more are we capable of providing in a world devoid of the artificial constraints of profit?

Capitalism must go
It is easy to cite the advantages of capitalism over previous economic systems. Many people believe that capitalism, though not perfect, is the only system possible. One thing is certain, though if we follow the capitalist trajectory, were in for some pretty troublesome times. Capitalism has undoubtedly raised the productive potential of humanity. It is now quite possible to provide a comfortable standard of living for every human on the planet.  But, to reiterate, capitalism now stands as a barrier to the full and improved use of the worlds productive and distributive forces. In a world of potential abundance, the unceasing quest for profit imposes on our global society widespread artificial scarcity. Hundreds of millions of humans are consigned to a life of abject poverty, whilst the majority live lives filled with uncertainty.

Our ability to imagine has brought us so very far, from the days when our ancestors chipped away at flint to produce the first tools, to the landing of someone on the moon, the setting up of the world wide web, and the mapping out of the human genome. Is it really such a huge leap of the imagination to now envisage a social system that can take over from the present capitalist order of things? Is it just too daring to imagine humans consigning poverty, disease, hunger and war to some pre-historic age?

Do we really need leaders deciding our lives for us? Do we really need governments administering our lives when what is really needed is the administration of the things we need to live in peace and security? Must every decision made by our elites be first of all weighed on the scales of profit, tilted always in their favour? A growing number think not and have mobilised to confront what they perceive to be the major problems of contemporary capitalism.

In recent years there has been a world-wide backlash against neoliberal globalisation, corporate power and the iniquities of modern-day capitalism. Everywhere where the worlds ruling elite have assembled to decide their next step they have been met with protests and demonstrations that have attracted hundreds of thousands. Demonstrations at Seattle, Gothenburg, Prague and Genoa, for instance, have fuelled the ongoing debate on the nature of modern day capitalism. Thousands of articles have been written on the subject and hundreds of books have been published that explore the alternatives offered by the anti-globalisation movement.

What is now clear is that the anti-globalisation movement, however well-meaning, does not seek to replace capitalism with any real alternative social system. At best it attracts a myriad of groups, all pursuing their own agenda. Some call for greater corporate responsibility. Some demand the reform of international institutions. Others call for the expansion of democracy and fairer trading conditions. All, however, fail to address the root cause of the problems of capitalism.

One thing is certain: capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the worlds suffering billions, because reform does not address the basic contradiction between profit and need. The worlds leaders cannot be depended upon because they can only ever act as the executive of corporate capitalism. The expansion of democracy, while welcome, serves little function if all candidates at election time can only offer variations on the same basic set of policies.

Capitalism must be abolished if we as a species are to thrive, if the planet is to survive. No amount of reform, however great, will work. Change must be global and irreversible. It must involve all of us. We need to erase borders and frontiers; to abolish states and governments and false concepts of nationalism. We need to abolish our money systems, and with it buying, selling and exchange. And in place of this we need to establish a different global social system a society in which there is common ownership and true democratic control of the Earths natural and industrial resources. A society where the everyday things we need to live in comfort are produced and distributed freely and for no other reason than that they are needed. Socialism.

It is now no utopian fantasy to suggest we can live in a world without waste or want or war, in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilisation. That much is assured. We certainly have the science, the technology and the know-how. All that is missing is the will the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible; a belief in ourselves as masters of our own destiny; a belief that it is possible to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to fashion a world in our own interests. And how soon this happens depends upon us all each and every one of us.
John Bissett