Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The World Around You

From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Someone employs you, and you work for them, and they control a big part of your waking hours.

Look around you at the world you live in. You may live in a scenic but desperately dull village, or in a lively but overcrowded city. You travel to your work, which is a mixture of routine and interest, and you enjoy a drink and a laugh with your work colleagues. Or you stay at home, concentrating on housework and childcare. Or you wish you could find a job but there are far more people searching for work than there are jobs. Most of the time you have enough money to keep your head above water and take a holiday once a year. But you know that your job is not all that secure, and a couple of your neighbours have been sacked in the last few months, as a result of the recession, and you realise that the same fate might await you or your partner.

You read the paper and watch the TV news, so you are well aware of the problems in the outside world. In fact, there seems to be little other than problems, from companies going bust and workers being laid off, to wars and riots and floods and electoral chicanery. At least, you think to yourself, it’s not as bad here as it is there (where ‘there’ might be any number of countries). You know that things are bad, but you’re too busy with work and family to do much about it, and in any case you don’t really have much idea as to what can be done. Putting a different political party in power doesn’t appear to make much difference, and maybe none at all. Some of the people you work with blame immigrants, or Muslims, or scroungers, or the unions, but you appreciate that these are just scapegoats, latched on to by those who want a simple fix but have no real clue what’s going on.

One weekend you have the chance to reflect a bit on your life, and to consider what’s wrong with the world. There are many good things in your life, especially your partner and the rest of your family, and you value your friends. Yet you’re worried about your future: will you still have a job in five or ten years’ time, will you still be able to afford a holiday and new clothes and furniture, might you even lose your home if things really take a turn for the worse? The internet, cheap flights, high-definition TV, these are all very well, but they aren’t really what make someone happy, because you just don’t feel in control of your life and your future.

Then you start to look at things in a wider perspective. You come to realise that most people manage to battle through the day, to get through their dull jobs and accept what their boss says while silently telling him or her to get lost. They look forward to their two weeks’ holiday and their time off at Christmas, in the knowledge that job cuts and a pay freeze may be round the corner. You soon accept that most people are unhappy with a great deal about their lives, and you start to wonder why this might be.

First you think about work and employment, and you discover that these aren’t quite the same. You enjoy the voluntary work you do at a local sports club, and get a lot of satisfaction from it, yet you don’t feel the same way about the job that brings in your wages. That’s basically what it is, a job to earn money. Once you had visions of a worthwhile career, but now you see that it just means working ever harder and accepting more responsibility and never truly being in charge of your work time. Others may have it worse – in jobs that are physically unpleasant and even dangerous – but yours is unrewarding except in financial terms, and even the pay isn’t as good as you were promised. Someone employs you, and you work for them, and they control so much of your waking hours. It’s not so much your manager as the big boss and other shareholders who own the company and take the profits. They, you decide, are the people who benefit from your labours.

Then you start thinking about your time outside the hours of work, where you spend the money you’ve worked so hard for. You’re still paying off your mortgage and it takes a big chunk of your monthly cheque, but at least you aren’t in negative equity or about to have your home repossessed. It would only take a month or two of unemployment, though, to leave you and your family in a very difficult situation. You become aware, too, that many people have real housing problems: their place is overcrowded or unsanitary, or they are homeless or sleeping on a friend’s sofa. But on your journey into work you see building sites that have closed down, as there is no way the houses and flats will be sold in the recession. And you realise that there is something drastically wrong when people are homeless or living in slums yet others who could be building homes for them are on the dole. The idea of profit rears its head again, and you see that houses and flats are built to make a profit for someone, rather than to provide places to live.

And profits seem to govern many other areas of life too. Cheap food at the supermarket is there not because anyone wants to buy it but because that’s all some can afford to buy and cheap stuff is the only way that a profit can be made by selling to the poorest. A light begins to go on in your head, and you can see that much of what is produced is poor quality, intended to be sold cheaply and still bring in a profit, so it’s often dangerous as well as shoddy.

Then you start to wonder about who benefits from the profits made as a result of all this labour and production. You already know about millionaires and heiresses and the landed aristocracy, and now you see that they are the ones who benefit. With their multi-room mansions, private jets and luxury yachts, they don’t suffer from the same problems that you and your friends and relations do. You haven’t quite worked out how they got rich, but you’re sure that it didn’t happen through their own hard work: nobody can work that hard, and your own parents worked hard all their lives and ended up with very little.

And other countries are no different, not in important respects anyway. Things vary a bit of course, but there are still problems of poverty and homelessness, while a few live very nicely, thank you. On your holidays abroad you’ve seen that the same problems as here exist more or less everywhere. And some parts of the world are far worse off, with famines and wars and heaven knows what. You aren’t sure of all the facts, but you’ve heard that even famine-stricken countries usually produce plenty of food, it’s just that the poor can’t afford to buy it, so it’s mostly exported. And wars often seem to be fought in areas with rich or potentially rich natural resources, and you wonder if that’s the real reason for them taking place.

All in all, you have come to see that the world is dominated by profit, and that a relatively small number of people, the owners, benefit in terms of wealth and power. The way things are run, you decide, needs to be changed. You think about it a bit and, while you don’t have anything like a full-scale plan in your mind, you do have some general ideas about how things should be arranged. There shouldn’t be this division into the rich and everyone else, and people should not have to be employed by others. It might even be like the sports club where you help out: everybody mucks in and contributes in their own way, without there being a boss or wages. You still don’t have a proper notion of what should replace what exists now, but the more you think about it, the more you become convinced that some new way of organising the world would be a big step forward.

Then one day, outside your local library, you see someone selling the Socialist Standard

Paul Bennett