Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Capitalism: the sick society (1980)

Editorial from the July 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

To paraphrase the famous words of Marx: The experience of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of tragedies. And for every tragedy there is someone with a proposed palliative—a protester, a reformer, a counsellor—who are often described under the collective sneer of “do-gooder”.

“Do-gooders” come under the lash because they are more than patient reformers; they are busy-bodies, seeking everywhere for trouble to deal with. They excavate society’s misfits and force them, square pegs though they may be, into round holes. They flush out lame dogs and dump them, willing or not, over precipitous stiles. They are all over the place, insisting on the inherent goodness of people, even if they have to probe for it like some surgeon exploring the farthest recesses of an etherised patient’s bowel.

The reformers might argue that they are at least better than the “do-badders”—as if that were all there is to the argument. It can be conceded that “do-gooders” are anxious to involve themselves in social problems, which is preferable to trying to ignore them. They talk about a “caring society” and, although they may be confused about what that means, it can be taken as evidence of their desire for a world which looks after its people.

But further than that the “do- gooders” begin to fall apart at the theories. In many cases they attribute someone’s particular problem to some individual shortcomings or misfortune. There are, for example, still social workers who explain poverty, and the inter-reaction of this upon family relationships, by referring to an insensitive toilet training in infancy. A worker who, having been raised in a slum where only the toughest survive, is quickly aggressive will be pigeon-holed as “anti-social” or “lacking confidence in forming personal relationships” or (most damning of all) “anti-authority”.

Another glaring fallacy is the theory that social ailments can be dealt with in isolation. Bad housing, for example, is not seen as an unavoidable product of capitalism's poverty but as a mass of separate families or persons each of which has a peculiar difficulty and must be treated separately. Mental illness is regarded as arising from one person’s stressful situation when it is truer to say that it is a small fragment in the kaleidoscope of remorseless pressure in the everyday process of trying to exist in capitalist society.

The “do-gooders”, as they trudge their weary way among capitalism’s chaos and dereliction, are blind to the fact which is there in every vagrant’s eye, every city slum, every mental hospital ward. All of these problems are inter-connected; they have a common root and can be eradicated only by attacking that root.

The first matter to be considered by anyone who is concerned with social problems is the nature of society: what is its basis, how does it determine its social relationships, how does it operate? Capitalism is more than an immense collection of individual problems; it is a social system, with the basis of the private ownership of the means of living—the means of producing and distributing wealth.

The owners of the means of life are a privileged class, who employ the rest—the non-owners—in the processes of production and distribution. This privileged class are always alert to preserve and extend their superior position. Assaults against their position are outlawed by capitalism and there is a massive machinery to punish those who try to accumulate wealth outside the system’s legalities. Crime is a problem of property society.

The non-owning class depend upon selling their labour power for a living and their restricted access to wealth expresses their poverty. No member of the ruling class has this problem; none of them suffers from poor housing or involuntary’ malnutrition or vagrancy. Workers’ poverty sours their personal relationships — friendships, marriages, break up under the stress of poverty. Children are rejected and battered by parents who are unable to cope with capitalism’s demands upon them. It is hard for affection to survive in a slum.

It is not surprising that so many workers react to these pressures by trying to escape. Youngsters look for an identity apart from the uniformity of wage slavery in the mob—punks, teddy boys, football hooligans. Or they seek an outlet for their frustrations, or some mark of distinction, in a fantasy of violence. Others retreat into drugs, which can dull the effects of this insecure world and for a while offer an apparently stress-free personality.

Like any attempt to escape from reality, this response is unhelpful. Yet when it is faced, the reality of capitalism is not so hopeless; all that is needed to end this tragic state of things entirely is for the very people who endure it all to cry enough. It needs the working class to resolve to abolish the root cause of their misery and to replace capitalism with socialism, a society based on the common ownership of the means of living and free access to wealth. Socialists have faced this reality and we are confident that only socialism offers hope.

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