The Wood for the Trees Column from the July 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Living in a prosperous part of South England I occasionally encounter people who claim to be happy with their lives. They seem not to be suffering alienation in their work and are content with the standard of living it provides. What is a socialist to make of such an individual and is our call to revolution impotent in the face of such contentment? Certainly the traditional Marxist case depends on developing and politicising the pre-existing frustration and unhappiness that usually accompanies wage slavery. What does socialism have to offer such people?
Although initially taken-aback by the self-centeredness and political myopia of such individuals socialists can still offer them personal and political liberation by pointing to the perspectives of ‘time and place’. In terms of time we will refer to the struggles of the past that have enabled them to enjoy the relative material and political freedoms they have and point out that these can be eroded and/or destroyed by the instability of capitalism at any moment. The economic crashes that define capitalism can destroy jobs and savings just as its wars can murder its children. Anyone who is content to leave the future of their children in the hands of politicians whose only loyalty is to those with wealth and power is surely guilty of both extreme naivety and neglect. And if they are fortunate enough to personally escape these wider inevitabilities then even the most optimistic among us would be in complete denial not to be concerned about the dangers of pollution and global warming that will be their inheritance.
As I grow older I become aware of just how fragile our individual world is. Even the most successful and healthy individual can succumb to accident or illness at any time. Although socialism could not prevent such vicissitudes of existence it will end the added stress that accompanies loss of earnings in capitalism. Falling into poverty because of illness or bereavement is a common enough phenomenon in our present society. Living in a culture of such great inequality of wealth and opportunity creates crime. The relatively affluent among us are very fortunate if they do not fall victim to crime at some time. As Gil Scott-Heron memorably said about injustice in his song Angola Louisiana: ‘It can walk into your living room as long as it surrounds your home’. They might equip themselves with state-of-the-art security but all this does is foster the feeling of being ‘under siege’ and further alienates the individual from the wider community.
In terms of the ‘place’ element of our subversion of any feelings of smug contentment and complacency we need only point to the ease with which such a person can get on a plane and within hours be in the company of parents who have to watch their children die for the want of clean water. This is not some unrelated and alien ‘third world’ but a world that our actions and/or inaction have created. The components of the electronics (for instance) that a ‘first world’ consumer enjoys may well depend on the low wages of a sweat shop on the other side of the world. Because capital always flows to the area of production with the highest rate of exploitation this quite often means, in the underdeveloped world, very low wages and so contributes greatly to maintaining regional poverty.
And you don’t have to travel far to be ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ since the very act of travelling can kill or maim you. A staggering 1.3 million fatalities occur on the roads every year as part of the overall 50 million injuries per annum. In this country alone there is an average of 2,000 fatalities per year among the 200,000 injuries. Given the speed and power of contemporary vehicles together with the desperation to meet delivery deadlines combined with long and monotonous hours involved in commercial traffic, this is hardly surprising. Every time you start your car you take your life into your hands.
There is an endless list of potential everyday hazards created by capitalism that can put you ‘in the eye of the perfect storm’ including: food adulteration, dangerous working conditions, tired doctors and nurses, faulty domestic appliances, etc., etc. I thought, at one time, that I had finally come across a purely ‘natural disaster’ when I heard about the terrible tsunami in Sri Lanka some years ago; only to discover that the local council had turned off the early warning system because of ‘financial considerations’!
Life is fragile enough without the additional threats inherent within capitalism. We are so interdependent that we are all, by default, ‘our brother’s keeper’. The ultimate perspective was first provided by the Apollo 8 spacecraft back in 1968 when it emerged from behind the moon to see our planet some 240,000 miles distant. If life is fragile then just how much more is its host; a tiny blue jewel hanging in the midst of nothingness. It is the shared inheritance of us all and no parasitic minority should be allowed to destroy it. At the moment the majority of our species inhabit this world like ghosts haunting it instead of truly living as a part of it. We urgently need to realise this and resurrect ourselves as politically conscious and interactive members of the human family so that we may protect each other and our planet – that is our challenge to those who profess to be content with their lives.