Friday, February 14, 2014

Anger (1986)

From the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The TV licence man came today. I nearly fell down with fright. He looked grim. He could see the borrowed set on the floor behind me, no use denying it. With a two month old baby it's the only thing that has kept us sane. Now it will have to go. We can't afford the fee.

It rains a lot in the north country. Mum used to say it was the angels weeping. Eighteen miserable quid to keep your sanity. I could weep. Of course there's no work. All the mills have shut. Around here you're more or less expected to be on the dole. Around here we're all scroungers. It's a laugh really. I've told so many lies to the Supplementary Benefit office I practically have to keep records. You can't afford the truth. You'd starve. Of course I live with my wife and two kids. If they found out they'd flatten us. They don't even want us to have that. It's the system.

Some of my friends shoplift. I'm too scared myself. There'd be a terrible stink. Mostly they steal food, the interesting sorts that cost too much, or baby clothes for us and other people. Or books. Even criminals read books. Sometimes a book's the best thing.

Of course we're in debt. I wasn't taught to manage money when I was a kid. There wasn't any. When I get a bit I spend it. We got this house during a bright patch, but we're behind four months now. But at least it's ours, in a manner of speaking. We don't have any bloody landlord anyway.

We pool resources. My wife gets child benefit, Supplementary Benefit and four pounds single parent benefit. I get the minimum single allowance. Both of us have about five pounds a week spending money—we both smoke and that takes care of that. The rest has to cover everything. Clothes, bills, mortgage, food. We have fifteen pounds a week to buy food. Imagine that. Three people, not counting the baby. Every week it seems to buy less. It's nothing unusual. I've got a friend who's taught her kids to hide on the landing when the doorknocker goes in case it's the milkman. They think it's a great game.

It's a nice town though. Open country a short drive in any direction. And don't get the idea we're all skint in this town. That's quite wrong. There's lots of money about. There's a lot of fine cars and nice houses and rich types with BBC voices who stroll around and act like they own the bloody place. Which they do. The Tories always get elected. The developers are giving the town a face-lift, there's new investments going on, the department stores are moving in. Everyone's happy and everyone's content.

Except me. I still can't pay my bloody TV licence. The only meat we get is bacon scraps. I still have to explain to my three-year-old why she can't have ice-cream from the van that stops every day in our street. And in the end she won't understand about money and sometimes I want to hit her for making me angry only I don't because it's not her that makes me angry and it's not her that deserves the blame. But I'm angry just the same. Like a knot that tightens and tightens until I want to scream and break something. I'm angry when I have to walk past the good food and buy the bad, and when I have to switch off the heater even though it's cold because of the bills and most of all I'm angry because I know damn well it's not going to get any better whichever party gets in next time and all my kids have got to look forward to is the same bloody dreary existence I've got.

But it doesn't do any good. Being angry I mean. What if I burnt down a department store> I'd go to jail and nothing would change. They'd build it again. It's all taken into account. It's all catered for. Even strikes. And I wouldn't even mind if I thought this system was necessary. But it isn't. Only people think it is. They think it's here to stay. And all those people who think it's here to stay are the reason it's still bloody here. So it goes on.

Maybe one of these days I'll land a job that'll pay its way. Chances are I'll hate it, but we might have enough then to save for a two week holiday away from it all. That's a laugh isn't it. Fifty weeks on, two weeks off. But I'll be a "proper dad" then. The breadwinner. I'll pay rates again. I won't be a scrounger.

They say scroungers are ruining this country. It shouldn't be allowed. It's got to stop. I reckon that's about right. Only I can't be much of a scrounger because I don't even make a living out of it. I'd like to be one of the scroungers in the country houses. They don't work either but everyone thinks that's alright. And it is. They don't need to. They've got suckers like us to do it for them.

I don't really hate them. What's the point? I wouldn't give all my money away either. It wouldn't change anything. It's the system. That's my answer to everything it seems like. But it is. It's the bloody money system. I'm in Sainsbury's in front of a freezer full of lamb. I don't remember when we last had lamb, and what's between me and that freezer besides pure air? The money system. It might as well be a stone wall. I can't get through it.  They even throw stuff away sooner than let me at it.

I don't mean to go on, I know it's not much different anywhere, except where it's worse. You go down any street in the world and look at the faces. All the same. Pinched and worn-out. Some starve, some get fed. None of them enjoy it. Nobody's really happy in the money system. And no-one knows what to do about it because no-one listens. They're too busy chasing rainbows.

And here's me on my tacky MFI sofa that's already coming apart at the joints, trembling. I'm still trembling on account of the TV licence man that came today. Bit I'm also trembling because it makes me think of all the money we haven't got and all the things we need it for and it gets me like that sometimes. And I'm trembling now because I've remembered we're four months behind with the payments and I'm wondering if tomorrow it's going to be the bailiff who knocks on our door.
Paddy Shannon

Living in the Past (2014)

Book Review from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Penguin £8.99.

This is another wide-ranging book by Diamond, following Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. By ‘traditional societies’ here are meant those living in small groups and subsisting by hunting-gathering or agriculture. This covers a spectrum from bands with just a few dozen individuals, through tribes with hundreds of people, to chiefdoms with several thousand people and more complex social organisation. All humans lived in one of these systems till around 11,000 years ago (which, in evolutionary terms, really is ‘yesterday’) and many have done so far more recently.

Traditional societies of course differ, and not just in terms of the size of the group. Thus many such societies have engaged in quite bloody inter-group warfare, but plenty have not, and Diamond argues, ‘All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances.’ War may take place over resources such as land (and women). But nobody fights all or even most of the time, whereas we have to co-operate in order to survive. And even those who fight have to co-operate with each other against the enemy.

This theme of co-operation is returned to when discussing childhood and play: ‘Whereas many American games involve keeping score and are about winning and losing, it is rare for hunter-gatherer games to keep score or identify a winner. Instead, games of small-scale societies often involve sharing, to prepare children for adult life that emphasizes sharing and discourages contests.’ This illustrates one of the book’s strengths, its recognition that the way people live now is absolutely not the only possible way.

Diamond does claim, though, that almost all human societies have had religion or ‘something like it’. Religion is claimed to fill various functions, such as providing comfort (‘the heart of a heartless world’, as Marx said), which may explain why, on the whole, poorer countries tend to be more religious than wealthier ones. The US, of course, is an exception to this tendency.

In his epilogue, Diamond makes the point that modern-day hunter-gatherers who encounter Western life-styles are keen to adopt them, as they are understandably attracted by material goods, education, healthcare, longer life-spans, and so on. And some traditional life-styles have advantages and shortcomings which may be two sides of the same coin: nobody is lonely but there is little room for personal privacy.  So earlier social forms were not versions of paradise. But, for instance, traditional societies had few or none of the non-communicable diseases that kill most Westerners today, such as hypertension and heart attacks.
Paul Bennett