From the July 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
The problem of production has been solved long ago; scarcity is no longer a necessity. However, the vast productive forces of the world have yet to be harnessed to the satisfaction of human needs. Instead they are used only where a profit can be made, monopolised and controlled by a minority to the detriment of the vast majority of us. We who make up this majority do all kinds of work—in mines, on ships, in factories, shops, offices and schools—but we have one thing in common: we are every one of us sellers of working power.
This spirit of the market place and the accountant’s office pervades the whole of our social relations. We who operate the productive apparatus are regarded not as human beings but, first of all, as a part of that apparatus. Our basic needs are met only as a means to our productive efficiency and not for their own sake; they are measured as costs. Human beings are not ends in themselves; they are but instruments in the productive machine. Commercial and costing values takes precedence over human values.
The modern productive machine requires a very diverse labour force to keep it going. This force must be housed, trained, transported, maintained and entertained as cheaply as possible, in so far as this is compatible with productive efficiency. In housing this means that we must be as near to where we are needed as possible; we must be concentrated around the centres of employment in cities and towns. Our dwellings must be adequate for their purpose as places where we can recuperate our energies for the next day’s work and rear a new generation of workers to supply future employment needs.
In education it means we must be taught the rudiments of industrial discipline and its skills. We must learn to respect authority, work hard and keep fit and healthy to this end. A few of us may be selected for further training of a more advanced kind. Still fewer will be trained even more. In the field of health there must be an efficient back-to-work service for patching us up and re-starting our productive efficiency whenever it breaks down. Measures must also be taken to see that our efficiency is harmed as little as possible by an unhealthy environment. Sanitation and sewage must be provided; a few trees planted and green fields set aside as parks. A public transport system must be set up to carry us to our places of work as cheaply and quickly as possible. To help us recreate our working energy, we must be provided with entertainment on a mass scale.
This is life today; people treated not as human beings but as productive instruments. Even those workers who are treated with the care of precision instruments can’t escape this general inhuman existence. This would be objectionable enough were we maintained properly, but we are not. As productive instruments we are not housed and transported efficiently; the schools in which we are supposed to be educated are overcrowded and inadequate; the congestion in the cities affects our health and has by-products of crime and aimless violence. All this adds to our misery. Even so, most of us are still content to demand only a decent slave's existence. The capitalist political parties merely promise to solve these problems in keeping with our status as productive instruments. They think in terms of a more efficiently fed, housed, healthy and educated labour force. Productive methods are always changing and throwing up new problems for them to promise to settle. Thus there is a continuous housing problem, a transport problem, an education problem, an immigration problem and many others.
Socialists reject the present degrading social system lock, stock and barrel; we will have nothing to do with patching it up and making it more efficient. We want men and women to free themselves from this existence and set up a truly human society in which the productive machine will be used to satisfy the many and various needs of people. What we want is a new society in which the commodity and cost status of human beings will be ended.
Our whole miserable and aimless existence can be traced back to the social system under which we live. The basis of this system is the use of the productive machine to create articles for sale on a market with a view to profit; the other side of this coin is the fact that the working ability of those who do the producing is bought, sold and accounted as a cost. This two-sided relationship is the basis of our present social existence. Profit and cost count for everything. Human relations are bound up in the cash nexus. Those who monopolise the productive machine are dependent on the market; the rest of us are dependent on employment. Where there is a market and where there is employment, there people are gathered. The two, to a certain extent, go together since where many producers are gathered, there is a potential market in supplying the inputs necessary for the reproduction of working power. Thus a characteristic of the present system is the ever growing urban area; in 4 per cent of the total area of England and Wales, made up by the six great conurbations centred on London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, lives 40 per cent of the population. In Scotland nearly half the population lives around Glasgow on the Clydeside. This urban congestion presents the capitalist system with a cost problem, especially in the fields of housing and transport; but the housing and transport situations are only aggravating circumstances of modern existence.
One aspect of urban life on this scale, which has not escaped sociologists, is the absence of any genuine feeling of community or fraternity. People don’t feel a part of each others’ lives. We endure a fragmented and meaningless existence from day to day. We appear as separate, isolated individuals competing against each other. As befits our status as mere productive instruments of varying quality, we are divided and classified by a host of invidious social distinctions based on such criteria as place of work, type of job, accents or make of car. This is a part of the general degradation of the present system, of its enhancement of non-human values. We don’t treat each other as human beings in this status grading. We judge a person not for what they are, but for what they have.
Not only are we treated as productive instruments but we have to bear the added indignity of being treated as a market. We arc continuously subjected to a barrage of insulting and lying advertising, some of it for products of positive harm to the human constitution. This campaign encourages the invidious distinctions we make between ourselves. We are encouraged to ape our supposed betters. The world of advertising is a dream world in which we arc invited to escape from the miserable existence of everyday life by buying our way to security. Escapism too is the keynote in the field of entertainment: violence, “spectacular” films, film stars and pop idols—a lot of glamour and tinsel; bread and circuses. Bingo, horse-racing, the dogs and the pools are all attempts to escape from the rat race which existence for most of us now is.
And rat race is the word as the pace of life is ever quickening. Time is money. Instant this and instant that, see to it that we don’t waste time and energy as we rush about in our endless search for security. Quite what this endless rush and mass-produced cheap food is doing to our constitutions physically and mentally is hard to gauge but it is clear that, even from the point of view of us as animal organisms, our present existence is harmful and unbalanced. There can be no doubt about it: the society we live in is rotten to the core. This misery is not abating; it is getting worse.
Do we have to put up with this? Is such a life the inevitable product of an industrial society? A study of history and of society shows that our present plight is the product of the social system under which we live. A social system which degrades human beings to the status of productive instruments; a system which, by its nature, is only capable of providing a life of emptiness and falsity.
It is the very basis of society-the private property set-up which is responsible for the degrading life and atmosphere of today. No piecemeal tinkering will solve this problem; what is required is a social revolution—a change in the basis of society which will allow the productive machine to be used to satisfy our many needs. This is not a utopian dream. The productive resources of the world are quite sufficient to allow men and women to free themselves from their present degradation. We can construct a world society which will be a community in the real sense of the term, in which we can treat others as fellow human beings; in which we can assert the balance between human beings and society and society and nature; in which we can live a truly human life.