Friday, April 15, 2016

Taboo (1982)

From the August 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sex, politics and religion are considered by many to be subjects of particular significance, but they are nevertheless often taboo. However, cleared of their fear and mystery, they provide an understanding of the way society functions.

Sex
Sexual relations have taken a great variety of forms in different times and places throughout history. Before the growth of scientific understanding, sexual intercourse was associated with religious ritual and the gods of fertility. Today, under capitalism, the whole world is enveloped in one social system characterised by the production of wealth by wage workers. Those who work for a wage or salary are not just producing commodities, however. Their ability to work is itself a commodity, bought by the employer to be used profitably. However private, intimate or “personal” sexual relations might seem, their development is, like everything else, subordinated to the capitalist considerations of profitable production. The nuclear family has developed in recent centuries as the vehicle for the reproduction of labour power. Today's workers have been produced, conditioned and prepared by our working-class parents for lives of wage-slavery. Whether a child inherits capital and is taught to shoot grouse and to rule, instead of to work and submit, will depend on which particular family produced it.

Last year, the Russian government announced that young, unmarried women need not feel ashamed to have children. This was because the abortion rate had been soaring, and the government was concerned about the future size of the army and labour force. Why is homosexuality illegal in Ireland? Enduring religious bigotries play their part of course, but generally the morality and legislation of these matters is based on the regulation, through the nuclear family, of the rapid reproduction of wage-labour.

In order to ensure that this should be carried out with all the enthusiasm that queen and country can inspire, and yet be controlled, two devices arise. First, the wage packet. Recent reports have shown that the effective cost of producing a child can be about £30,000 over the first few years. The wages we are paid are intended to be enough only to meet living expenses, without any accumulation which might rival the employer. It is understood as part of the wage-labour-capital relation that one living expense to be accounted for is the production of the next generation of workers. How many are produced, whether it is 2.5 or 5.2, depends to a large extent on the size of wages or salaries. Secondly, children are taught both directly and by example that the accepted norm of heterosexual monogamy must be rigidly adhered to at all costs. Through school, the media and advertising, ideal images of men and women are projected into the minds of young people, who are encouraged in this way to “live up to” these artificial ideals.

Politics
Most people consider "politics” boring, because what is generally thought of as politics is one set of professional politicians claiming to know how to make the lives of the majority even more profitable for the minority who employ us; another set quarrelling over how to do the same without it showing, and yet another set trying to do both. But politics is about power. At the moment we have the spectacle of struggle among those who now monopolise ownership and control of the production of wealth — debates over whether Labour is preferable to Conservative, or Reagan to Brezhnev, or Holmes à Court to Rupert Murdoch. For socialists, politics means the prospect of a majority of workers taking democratic action to end the domination of society by a minority capitalist class. The politics of Labour. Tory, Liberal and SDP, with its impossible promises, opportunist careerism and malicious backstabbing. reflects the unstable and chaotic nature of capitalism itself. The socialist movement, on the other hand, adheres to principles of class solidarity and democratic organisation which involve the rejection of all leaders. Politics is not profound or mysterious; it is the expression of class interests. The SPGB stands for the interests of the working class, and therefore has as its policy the abolition of world capitalism and the establishment of common ownership of all the forces of production in society.

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
Religion
Perhaps religion. the old myth offering “pie in the sky when you die”, is beginning to wear a little thin. Most people have looked and listened, sniffed and felt; and finding no evidence at all for the trickiest politician of them all, they have rejected the idea. But although institutionalised religion has long been on the decline, many people still cling to semi-religious ideas, as a final hope — a bit like doing the football pools. Invisible hands arc supposed to be busily doing “good” or “evil”. This false security holds us back from taking the action necessary to establish real security. Enough “miracles” have now been explained by science to show how things which we cannot understand today, we can learn to master tomorrow. There is no "supernatural”; it is something not yet known, not something "unknowable”.

The material environment gives rise to religious ideas in the same way as to hunger or thirst, and it is the hunger for knowledge, together with the fear of insecurity, which has led us up the crooked path of the garden of Eden. The feeling that, "no. it's more complicated than that, there are supernatural forces” echoes a prejudice which is thousands of years old and hundreds of years out of date. It is a rusty, weak argument for conservatism. Religion in various forms has generally discouraged people from behaving rationally and organising society in their own interests. The mysteries of the “soul”, the “afterlife” and “spiritual awareness” do not prevent hunger or war; but they do prevent the realisation of a system of society in which we can properly satisfy our need for both physical comfort and mental vitality.

We were introduced to these myths and mysteries at a young age, when we were most open to suggestion and ready to swallow whatever we were fed. Children are packed off to schools, placed in a hierarchy of classes, made to compete in examinations and thrown out in different uniforms to fight on the sports fields. They are given certain expectations about the “adult” world. Jobs are suggested, generally not including “multinational shareholder” or “financier”. Vicious competition, obedience and isolation are taught to children, they do not come "naturally”. “The world”, they are told, “is a cruel place". Not just working-class life under capitalism but "the world”, as if life has only ever been lived in one way anywhere by anyone. We arc taught to defend property we do not own. Morality to defend the status quo is presented and enforced by the fear: “thou shall not kill, unless the government want you to fight in a war; "thou shall not steal, even if you are starving, unless you are an employer living off the profits extracted from your workers”.

Young people go to football matches and shout the names of teams, letting off steam lined up in two opposing armies. In discos, human beings are herded together like cattle, dressed up by the fashion industry and looking for the sexual fantasies they lost somewhere between Jack and Jill and Last Tango in Paris. Pop groups like Abba sing about “Dancing, having fun. feeling like a number one". Do we really need this pathetic fantasy, dreaming of being the millionaires we work for? Is life on the dole, or nuclear war, really such "fun" that we want to dance about it? The only good thing about capitalism is ending it, and that can’t happen too soon.

We have been taught to organise co-operatively to produce wealth for a minority, and only the bare essentials for ourselves. There is nothing but our own fear and inhibition preventing us from organising co-operatively to establish socialism, to produce for the use of all. Socialists do not begrudge Abba having their "fun". But in changing society we must be prepared to look critically at every aspect of the prevailing norms of behaviour. The profit system would be hard to defend by rational argument, and so many different mysteries, from Butlins to Beethoven, are used as gloss for a system based on instability and violence. The struggle for a world of common ownership is the only struggle with a future, and involves the end of mystification and the beginning of history made consciously by people free from dogma. 
Clifford Slapper

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