Editorial from the December 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
In their bleaker moments, socialists might be excused for decrying social progress as measurable in ideas which move with the speed of glaciers when what is needed is a universal earthquake. Unless there is a sudden, dramatic—and at present unforeseen — change, it will take a long time for the social landscape to be gouged out anew. For socialists do not think in terms of a few minor changes — the withering away of an intellectual copse or a small landslip which might superficially recast some relationships. We aim at a basically different social geology in which life will be thought out anew, on assumptions which the human race has not before needed.
What are the obstacles to such a change? There can be no dispute about its urgency; after a couple of hundred or so years capitalism presents us with a horrifying prospect. Throughout the world, people begin and end their lives under the shadow of repressions which vary between grinding poverty and unmanageable destitution. Denial of full access to the world's wealth is a constant, readily accepted factor, built into the life ambitions of the socially useful people — the world working class. Of course those who are merely impoverished count themselves the lucky ones; they know too well that at the other end of the spectrum capitalism starves tens of millions to death every year. Dying through starvation is slow, painful and degrading; that so many people should so remorselessly be subjected to it is a comment on the priorities of this social system. Then there is the fact that capitalism's first concern, for most of the states of the world, is the production of weapons of war and the organisation of armed forces which now have more than the capacity to paralyse modern society. If (some think when) a nuclear war is fought, what is then left of the world promises to be hardly worth living in. There is no chance that the services which keep working class existence at its present unluxurious level will survive. It has been well said, that life will be so miserable and bewildering that the living will envy the dead — another commentary on what capitalism has done to human beings.
That is an impressive list, particularly for a social system which has been justified on the grounds that it provides a world of rationally-based security and abundance and is. all in all. the best possible society humans can devise. What usefulness capitalism has had in human development has now expired; on the verge of 1984 it is abundantly clear that the system’s social relationships hamper the progress which is now necessary to the human race, perhaps if we are even to survive.
But however strong the case for its abolition, capitalism will not surrender of its own accord. It defends itself in the field of ideas and that is where it must be defeated and where the Socialist Parties of the world operate. Capitalism will be ended, and socialism established, only through the democratic act of a politically aware working class who have come to an understanding of why this must be and what will emerge from it. That means, in other words, through a massive change in ideas.
At present, working class concepts about the social system they support are expressed intermittently at elections but there is also a continuing acceptance of the agencies, the arrangements and the priorities which capitalism needs. Thus workers in the majority support the notion that the production of profit and the accumulation of capital are desirable in themselves. Even when this notion is to some extent modified — for example most workers probably think that, say, hospitals should operate on slightly different priorities than making money — its underlying assumption that to survive things must at least “pay their way” is generally approved of.
On this basis workers accept an enormous range of degrading and restricting provisions in their lives. There is first the fact that very little of the wealth we produce is turned out as the best we are capable of. Food is devitalised, flavoured out of its nature, preserved in chemical brews, portioned and packaged and stacked colourfully onto the supermarket shelves — and millions of people agree that this must be so and that it is good.
The towns we live in feature row upon row of jerry-building, of cramped dwellings which have been jig-sawed into a space whose limits have been set by the cost of the land where they stand. They are filled with characterless, mass-produced furniture and fittings, all chipboard and veneer and do-it-yourself assembled. At the kerbside rests the family car, a wasteful polluter which could have been built to outlive its owner but which in a few years will be fit only for the scrap-heap. And all of this also is accepted as good and necessary because to do things in any other way would not pay — it would jeopardise the profits which accrue to the capitalist class.
From our earliest days, what is miscalled our education is a process of measuring us up to fit ourselves into a moral straitjacket of compliance with our place as wage-slaves — as unquestioning, profit-producing members of the subservient class in society. We are taught to hold our social betters in awe, to look on royalty and aristocracy as superpeople, to grovel in gratitude and admiration of rich and powerful capitalists without whose wisdom, we are taught, the world would be little better than a wilderness. We are instructed that capitalism's family represents the true and immutable human morality, even if it entails a huge distortion of human drives. Happiness within capitalism, then, is an assured place in the exploitation process until death us do part, a mortgaged home where the curtains are neat and the hedges trim, an average family — and it all is to end in an uncomplaining, unmessy death in a poverty untroubled by ambitions about a more humane and satisfying existence.
The acceptance of capitalism's profit-orientated morality leads workers into the most extraordinary acts of self-damage. They willingly place themselves into the police and the armed forces, undergoing training in the most advanced methods of coercion or of destroying homes and killing their fellow workers. They come to this through something called discipline — which capitalism prizes highly — but which is really a form of controlled insanity.
And that is how capitalism will historically be regarded, when the world’s workers have come to consciousness and have overthrown the society which keeps them in subservience and which deprives them of the fruits of their labours. The establishment of socialism will see a new morality in the world, based on the assurance that wealth is to be produced for free human access and full human benefit. Socialism will be a society in which human interests take first place; only in an unavoidable extremity will anything be considered, let alone carried out. which would go against those interests.
We can have that society now. As 1983 comes to a close, with all that has happened in this dismal year alone, one thing is abundantly clear. The working class have only their chains to lose and a world to win.