A Short Story from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
As a socialist I have always found myself slipping quite naturally into what I think of as “ethical” behaviour when dealing with other human beings and life generally. I don’t make my ethics up as I go along; they are more to do with an insecurity in me which says I desperately need people to be decent to me and that requires me to be decent to them. It has nothing to do with any religious creed on my part, nor is it an attempt to exhibit a smug do-goodism. It is more a need to survive a system which teaches us to “Do others down the way you would expect them to do you down” and another one of those commandments I shall disobey with relish whenever I get the opportunity.
An article, “The Car” by G.T. in last March’s issue of the Socialist Standard illustrates this to some measure. G.T. sells his car knowing fully well that it is dodgy, but is oddly relieved when the people he sells it to do him out of a hundred quid when they hand over the envelope with the money in it. He says “I was initially relieved as if the lack of honesty on their side somehow reduced the guilt on ours.” He admits that he later felt depressed every time he thought about it. And I’m not surprised. Who wouldn’t?
Ethics are not easy to practice daily. I mean you can’t get out of bed and do an hour of them like you can yoga or Chinese exercises and immediately feel the benefit of them. The social mess we live in reminds us to look constantly to our own survival and we have to work hard at that. In my book though, this does not give us carte-blanche to cheat others or to turn a deaf ear when sympathy and understanding are called for. It means trying to be a psychologist and applying this to the way we live—which is what most of us do all the time anyway.
For example I live in one of a row of terraced houses, all stuck together, cheek-by-jowl, the walls so thin that even the turning on of a light switch by someone next door can sound like the faint crack of a whip. I can hear my next door neighbour sneezing, sighing and belching, and a quarrel between he and his spouse can send me scuttling to a part of the house where I hope I won’t be able to hear them. Yet these very same neighbours would not dream of disturbing my peace with very loud music or of turning up the volume of the television to an uncomfortable (for me) pitch. This is because they are on the whole decent people but more to the point they know that if I wished to I could retaliate and so we share an interest in keeping the peace. There is in this arrangement an unspoken acceptance, an acknowledgement of mutual existence. The basis for socialism.
But there is another example. For some reason (probably to do with the ethos of capitalism) there are those people who view another’s ethics as some kind of dreadful weakness and exploit it. They are those obsessed with their own existence. The system has taught them that the individual (to the cost of all other individuals) is the most important and so to them behaving in an ethical way is what someone else does. The other person is often the listener, the helper, the provider, the sympathiser. Then they look into another’s eyes they see nothing but their own reflection. They seldom see that another human life has its heartaches and problems. They are the same people who never seem to buy a round of drinks in a pub when it is their turn. Their pocket or purse always contains a twenty pound note and they don’t wish to break into it. Such mean-spiritedness! Money, plus self-obsession has become their God and it is a God we could all do without.
Once when offering a homeless person a small amount of money I was told by a well-heeled acquaintance of mine “I had to make my own way in life. Why can’t they?” It is precisely this kind of attitude that helps to promote capitalism. It is a deeply-engrained notion that we can all get along without each other. We can’t and we don’t and our lives would be a good deal happier if we all realised that. The influence of the capitalist system has ensured that many do not yet understand the necessity for the working class to free itself from slavery. It is a slavery not only of the body but of the mind too and that must be the worst enslavement of all.