Saturday, March 29, 2014

People (1998)

A Short Story from the July 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some years ago I stood at the top of a hill about to make my descent carrying a flimsy paper bag filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables I had just purchased, when the carrier bag split under the weight of the goods and within seconds apples, oranges, tomatoes, sprouts, onions, potatoes and a cauliflower went cascading down the hill at full pelt. There were several other people on the hill at the same time, either coming up or going down, and they each of them sprang into action whilst I stood transfixed. They gathered up armfuls of anything they could save to give back to me; one man even crossing a busy road at the foot of the hill, risking life and limb in the process of retrieving an orange which had rolled into the gutter. A mundane little story this I know, but an incident in my life that has stayed with me.

People by their very nature are helpful, sociable beings. We hear every day of acts of valour performed by people who, when asked why they risked their lives to save others, will respond that they didn’t know why, that they just did it and had they actually thought about it for any length of time they probably wouldn’t have dived into a lake to rescue a drowning child, climbed up the outside of a high building to save someone bent on suicide, or dragged somebody from a burning house. These are of course extreme examples and not everybody would be capable of such deeds. But what it does say is that given the right circumstances we humans can act altruistically. We can cooperate. We can celebrate the need we have for one another.

Personally I have always been more concerned with people than I ever have with Marxist theory or economics. I chose Marx because the insanity of a capitalist society drove me to it. The evidence for the alienation felt by people in the present world is now so glaring that it will never cease to astonish me that more people are not rushing to join the Socialist Party. The worrying question has always been for me what comes first, the chicken or the egg? We need to get socialism so that people will change but we also need people to change before we can get socialism.

People still revere leaders who will inevitably let them down, though many more people are beginning to realise that living in a world where some have everything and others very little and in consequence suffer both alienation and disempowerment is not good for any of us. We see this all around us or hear about it through the media. Drugs, alcoholism, families where kids are not cherished--parents being often too preoccupied nursing the wounds inflicted by the system.

There is an erosion of everything socialism requires and capitalism despises--cooperation, self-respect, love even. I hesitate to use the word "love" when talking about human relationships; the suspicious, sidelong glances I sometimes get makes me wonder if it is thought I am advocating multiple orgasms for everyone. Love to me represents the possibility of having such good feelings about ourselves and life that we can afford to have them about other people too. Yet in this miserable society where money and exploitation must come first, we are discouraged from showing too much concern for one another in case this detracts from our real purpose--to provide profit and power for the minority.

It has never been enough to have shelter, ample food and leisure. There is more to the human psyche than that. Even those who subscribe to a philosophy of "Bugger you, Jack and Jacqueline, I’m all right" must still be partially aware of the emptiness of their lives. Since we are born and then must perish, and as far as we know that is all there is to it, then it does seem a great pity that, in the interim, we cannot make more sense of existence.

It is distressing to see children beaten about the head in supermarkets, chastised for daring to whinge or cry. The chances are they will also reach adulthood and behave similarly towards their own offspring. We can only speculate on the frustration, misery and ignorance in the lives of people who viciously smack at little legs in pushchairs and issue dire threats about what is going to happen "when we get home". And we can only blame this on a system of society where "success" (often unwarranted) is accredited only to those who make money or, as is often the case, get others to make money for them. There is so much talent, so much flair in all people. It is all there and yet capitalism spurns it unless it can be seen to be profitable.

So all we can do is to look at the world and be glad that a percentage of people see what we see. And it could even be that they are not all members of the Socialist Party . . . yet.
Heather Ball