Monday, December 21, 2015

The illusion of social purpose (1984)

From the July 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a radio interview a representative of the United Biscuit Company was asked if, in view of the high level of unemployment in the area, the Company didn’t have a “social responsibility” to keep their factory open in Liverpool. Apart from the nonsense that factories are built to provide jobs, the question assumed some social purpose behind commercial and industrial activity. When events contradict this view, criticism is made in terms of a moral lapse. All would be well if only other workers would put the country first, or if the government would give priority to the needs of some group. People caught up in the contradictions of capitalism are blamed for their own problems. The 1960s have been described as a time of hope when it seemed that youth, armed with flower power, meant to change the world. It is perhaps too soon to judge the 1980s, though cynicism and disillusion seem appropriate adjectives. There are problems that people feel powerless to deal with, including some like unemployment, once thought to belong to the past. Why, in an age of tremendous potential for human society, should the reality be so disappointing?

Those who are deprived of everyday necessities, in an expensive environment, are outside the mainstream of even the limited present-day version of social life. But what of the general quality of life for those in the working class who have a degree of material comfort, modest enough by some standards, but which fulfils the aims of those who saw socialism only in terms of improved living standards? William Morris said in 1893 that while making a great many poor people more comfortable was not in itself “a light good”, yet it would be “a heavy evil” if it dulled the efforts of “the whole class of workers towards the winning of a real society of equals” (p.299, Political Writings of William Morris, Ed. by A.L. Morton). The point is that being more comfortable should not be confused with socialism, a completely different social system. In fact the real, and potential, improvement in working class life - the modest comfort - has not been matched by social wellbeing.

Stresses and insecurity are not new, and neither are alcohol and drug abuse, but surprise is expressed that these problems are also found among social groups assumed to be enjoying the good life. Many of the hippies in the sixties had turned their backs on the attainment of material possession as an end in itself. Today, demanding religious cults attract people seeking some purpose to life. Loneliness and quiet despair have featured in recent murder cases, for victims and killers alike. Samaritan centres are calling for more volunteers—an area of expansion in the recession. At an ordinary everyday level it is possible to travel and shop, in look-alike precincts, without speaking at all. Glass partitions and locked doors minimise contact between staff and customers in banks and post offices, and at stations. The sense of isolation is intensified for people who are afraid to step outside their homes. Even when the danger is exaggerated the fear is felt as real. There is suspicion and envy which may take strange forms, like thinking other groups are more successful at the DHSS. People experience a lack of choice in their lives, sometimes over what ought to be practical matters, like council tenants who may wait years to have urgent repairs satisfactorily carried out, and elderly patients who find themselves crossed off their doctor’s list because of their age.

There is no social cohesion. Emphasis is on individual achievements. People are admired and envied for their possessions, for how expensive their cars and houses are. Advertising equates love with the giving of material things. It is not the useful contribution made to society which earns respect for the most revered do no real work at all. In a television programme about Tower Hamlets, in London, men were shown clearing obviously obnoxious rubbish from the chute at the bottom of a block of flats. The presenter described this work as an example of “nasty jobs of real value to the community”—a fact not reflected in their pay packets or in the way they are regarded by others.

All of the wealth of society, in goods and services, is produced by human labour applied to raw materials. Those who do all of the work, in every category, fail to see their common bond, fail to value the contribution which they as a class make to society. Their class identity is obscured by the money relationship. Goods are made for sale and profit and everything has a price tag. The working class have to do the work to get money (as wages or salary), in order to have access to the produce of that work. Money, or the lack of it, dominates life and its role is assumed to be natural. In America those who have nothing can sell pints of their own blood and it is possible to buy babies from surrogate mothers. Money obviously has magic properties, since it seems that only investment can produce goods. The “task of feeding everyone adequately calls for an investment in the agriculture of developing countries of more than $100 billion” (Scientific American, September 1980). Three pounds can prevent a child dying from dehydration—the effects of disease caused by malnutrition and drinking contaminated water. In places as far apart as Swaziland and New York, there are hospitals with empty shelves which should hold medicine and drugs. No money—no medicine.

When we examine the quality of life which is the best that the majority can expect under capitalism, we must also include the worst; the tragic experience of so many. Hungry, emaciated and war- wounded fellow beings are very much part of the picture. In a competitive and sick world of accepted poverty and officially sanctioned violence, is it any surprise that individuals commit mindless acts of terror and vandalism? Perhaps the greater surprise is that, despite the ethics of capitalism, there are so many examples of kindliness, of people getting together to deal with local problems, of volunteers in every guise, including Samaritans and lifeboatmen.

Since it is material success, rather than contribution to society, which gets most acclaim—the clever people “get on”— there is in the working class a lack of self esteem. Politics is largely viewed as the province of other clever, better educated and wealthier people. Society could not run without leaders, experts and bureaucrats. Apart from polling day politics seem a separate aspect of life. The failure to appreciate the role of politics gives rise to claims that subjects as diverse as local government and war are apolitical. CND has boasted of support from all parties, and the initial appeal of the SDP was perhaps due to their apolitical image. (Get away from old fashioned party politics, let these nice, sensible people run the country for you!) There are contradictory views. While accepting that leaders are both necessary and superior, at the same time politicians are held in low regard. Scandal in “high places” is no surprise to the person in the street. Arguments between politicians are seen as representing self interest, and they are blamed for failing to solve problems. When it comes to elections the vote is used passively, voting “against” as much as “for”; because of some detail in party promises, or out of long-standing loyalty. The inability of governments to solve problems is interpreted as lack of intent. The result is a mixture of apathy, cynicism, and the seeking of remedies outside Parliament.

Yet there remains the mistaken belief that it is the job of governments to run the country on behalf of everyone. The majority have no understanding of their common interest as a class, identifying instead with “their” country. When everything else is bad you can still be proud to be British (or French, or Polish, or . . .). The household analogy of the state is accepted and with it the illusion of a social purpose identified with national interest. But national interest means the interest of the privileged minority who, as a class, own the means of production—the land, industries, transport, communications—and do not need to work. It is their country; their world.

Despite any improvements in working and living conditions, the working class remain in the same position relative to the means of production. The class which produce the nation’s wealth do so on behalf of the owning, or capitalist, class. In simple terms, allowing for raw materials and so on, the working class are paid less in wages than the value of what they produce. From that “surplus value” comes rent, interest and profit. The reason the potential for abolishing want and conflict has not been realised and modest comfort has not been matched by social wellbeing, is simply because these have never been the aim. There is no social purpose. The aim, the motive for production, is sale and profit for the benefit of the capitalist class. Without the prospect of profit the biscuit factory must shut down.

Ruling class domination of society is partly hidden by several important factors. In the past the connection between the wealthiest citizens and the rulers was obvious—they were the same people. Now the job of governing is carried out by professional politicians (some may also be capitalist). Different sections of the capitalist class have competing and conflicting interests and will support whichever party (or form of government) seems most likely to benefit them. Governments have to act in the interest of the ruling class as a whole and they are unable to make the system run as they wish. Last but by no means least, public opinion must be taken into account. Governments need at least the passive support of the majority, even in one-party states. Following the angry reaction of Polish people to the reintroduction of butter rationing last year, the government met in special session, apologised to consumers, and reprimanded the Minister—who sacked two deputies (Financial Times, 18 November 1983). Whichever party is in office must represent the interest of its national capitalist class in disputes with foreign capitalists, over sources of raw materials, and spheres of economic, political and strategic influence, and to this end must have the most up to date and destructive weaponry. Governments cannot opt out and nor would the electorate support them in doing so. At the June 1983 election the overwhelming majority of the votes were cast in favour of parties not only not opposed to war but committed to the “defence” of the country, to nationalism, and above all committed to capitalism.

It is the passive use of the vote by the working class, the overwhelming majority of the electorate, wrongly identifying ruling class interests as their own, which ensures the continuance of this system. Our class interest is crying out for conscious, political action to end it.
Pat Deutz

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