Friday, February 14, 2020

Alright, John? (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Alright?'’ Every day, millions of people are greeting each other with this friendly enquiry. "Ça va?" "Wie geht's?". And every day, millions of people are giving a dishonest answer. Think how unpopular you would become if every time someone asked "how are you?'' you pointed out that your position as a wage or salary worker is insecure and degrading. "I'm alright, but what's going on around me isn't. Even if we survive the decade without a nuclear war (which is by no means certain) we're still living in a ridiculously outdated system of poverty for the productive and prosperity for the parasites . . ." Think what trouble you could cause, and what thoughts you could provoke, by interrupting the flow of small talk in this way.

In actual fact, if an individual person suffered from the same in-built contradictions and insanity as our present social system, they would be far from "alright". The present social system is based not on satisfying people's needs, but on producing a profit and capital accumulation. This increases the power of those who possess capital. As part of this process, the whole of human society has become enslaved by the world market. Every item, every service, even every human emotion and activity becomes turned into a commodity, an object of commerce to be bought and sold. In the September 1986 issue of International Management Alan Sugar, who owns the Amstrad computer company, stated: "If there was a market in mass-produced portable nuclear weapons, we'd market them too". A man who understands capitalism.

Within this world wide capitalist system of society nothing is ever produced or distributed unless it can be sold at a profit. And this means that if people s needs are not backed up by sufficient buying power  — "cash demand" — then the system dictates that those needs must go unmet. As a result, many thousands of human beings are starving to death daily, according to sources such as Oxfam. the United Nations and even the World Bank. When food is produced which is surplus to market requirements, it is stored or destroyed rather than being freely distributed, as free distribution would lower price levels and reduce profit margins. So we get the revolting spectacle of people starving to death on the one hand and on the other, so-called food surpluses being referred to as a “problem" to be disposed of and avoided in future:
  There are more than 20 million tonnes of unwanted food in the community's bulging stores, including 15 million tonnes of grain, around 1.5 million tonnes of butter and about 600,000 tonnes of frozen beef. . . The parliamentary inquiry was first mooted in September . . . The brief would be not only how to get rid of the food mountains, but also how to ensure, through price policy and production controls, that they never reappeared.
(Guardian, 1 November 1986).
This conflict between human needs and the needs of the buying and selling system can be seen throughout society today, together with the universal insanity which it breeds. There was a period of human history when time was just time: the fourth dimension. Now, it has become not only the means of measuring the "exchange value" of goods by the amount of labour-time embodied in them, it has even become a commodity itself. If you dial the talking clock ("Tim", as it used to be so affectionately named) you will hear the startling statement that: "The time, according to Accurist. is . . ."

Over the past few years, one of the few boom industries in Britain has been the service offered by personal telegrams. Again, there was a time when the communication of feelings between human beings was regarded as a personal and sensitive matter, to be approached delicately by the people involved. But the capitalist social system, in its fanatical drive for profit, continues to wipe away all discrimination or subtlety of feeling. Sentiment is made uniform, just like fashion clothes or indistinguishable pop records, in order to exploit a mass market more cheaply. So in the 19 May 1986 issue of Ms London magazine there is one page which contains adverts for as many as seventeen different "Kissagram" companies. For a cash fee ranging from £16 to £45. a message or greeting can be sent to a friend by one of these professional intermediaries, dressed up (or undressed) in the most bizarre range of supposedly shocking outfits. Those on offer include Margaret Thatcher. Ronald Reagan or Prince Charles lookalikes (nice birthday surprise), as well as various sexual stereotypes. "Quasimodo", nuns and frogs. This kind of gimmick might be regarded as a piece of harmless fun but it is in fact another instance of the corruption of basic human relationships by the money god.

We are encouraged from an early age to have priorities which will enable us to put up with the insane social system we live under. At Northwood, in Middlesex, there is one of the biggest NATO bases in the country which, in the event of a nuclear war. would be a prime target. The local residents' association. whose members are kept awake at night by their deep but secret fears that Thatcher might really be a "wet", started campaigning a year or so ago on this issue. Had they finally decided to question the symbolic siting on their doorstep of one of the world's two biggest machines of mass murder? Had they felt compelled to discuss how we might rid the world of all war and all of its weapons? Not quite. The campaign was to oppose the building of a helicopter landing pad on top of the local NATO base, as the noise from the helicopters might cause some disturbance. And nowhere in any of the literature generated by this campaign was there any acknowledgement of the terrible danger and threat, the ultimate disturbance, represented by any large military base of that kind.

Workers in every country are being employed to build the weapons of their own destruction. Instead, technology could be adapted for useful purposes, to satisfy human needs in health, housing and food. The real choice in the world today is not between one power bloc and another, or one type of government and another, or one kind of weapon and another. International conflict is not like a football match in which the crowds of spectators must choose which side to support. People who want peace should not concern themselves with the question of whether nuclear destruction is worse than conventional destruction, or chemical warfare more palatable than biological warfare. The real question which faces us is how we can abolish all warfare.

The only way this can be done is by abolishing its cause. You cannot remove an effect permanently without getting rid of its cause. Religion spreads the fatal myth that the problem lies in the in-built wickedness of human beings. Because Adam, presumably bored to tears by the perfect paradise of the garden of Eden, took a bite out of the apple of knowledge, they say, we are on the verge of the most horrific destruction imaginable. Most people who talk about the innate aggression and violence of humanity are themselves servile wimps. The real cause of war, regardless of which weapons are used to fight it, is social. War is generated by the conflicts which exist in property based systems of society. But the property which is at stake does not belong to the millions whose lives are sacrificed on its altar. Wars are fought over the material interests of the powerful and parasitical elite which dominates in every country, including those like Russia where instead of shareholders, they are called Party officials.

Within the next eighteen months, there will be a general election in Britain. The Labour, Conservative and Alliance campaigns will each be at great pains to show how different they are from the others, and that only they possess the magic formula to solve the problems which continue to plague us. In reality, though, none of them even begins to confront the major issues of class and poverty, hunger and health, housing, energy, war and so on. They never will be able to, because they are all founded on a false assumption: that the profit system, in one form or another, must drag on forever. This belief is based on ignorance: the present social system has only lasted for a few hundred, out of the many thousands, of years of human existence. It will end. just like all previous social systems have ended, when they became outdated.

The other political parties all stand for the perpetuation of capitalism. The bankruptcy of their ideas is obvious from the basing of their campaigns on negative attacks on each other. They say they will, if elected, be not quite as terrible as their evil opponents. Not quite. They even seem to have realised that there is some limit, nowadays, to the number of lies that workers will let politicians get away with. For example, in the past, every Labour government came to power promising to solve the unemployment problem and every Labour government since 1924 left office with unemployment higher than when they went in. So now Neil Kinnock is making the half-hearted offer that if he is elected and if their plans all work, they might be able to make some reduction in unemployment, after some years. And even this tentative promise rests on Keynesian policies of increased state spending, which were tried and failed miserably during the seventies, when government spending increased from about £20 billion to £80 billion but unemployment virtually quadrupled as a result of the inevitable periodic recession in the trade cycle of the world capitalist system.

At election time, we are presented with the spectacle of stale and sterile ideas being sold to us by slick, hi-tech advertising agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi on the one hand and trendy bandwagons like Red Wedge on the other, with Neil Kinnock having made his pop debut some time ago with his appearance (only a cameo role) in a Tracey Ullman video of a song originally done by Madness (pure coincidence). Now. it appears, never far behind when there is a chance of some opportunist vote-catching, the SDP have decided to ditch their stuffy image and get hip. They have recently formed a youth campaign called "Sound and Vision" and the organiser has been quoted as saying that the reason for the name is that the SDP is "sound" in not making false promises, and has "vision" because "we reject the bitterness of confrontation between management and unions" (National Student, November 1986).

It may be true that SDP politicians make fewer false promises. Their way of achieving this is very clever: by making fewer promises, true or false. They must know the secret of how you tell when a politician is lying: because you can see his lips move. As for rejecting the bitterness of class struggle, that is simply a very old trick of persuading the exploited to link arms with their exploiters — very good for business. More entertaining, however, is the "Sound and Vision" promo video, which apparently features David Owen as "Max Headroom" (wonder if you could pay him to do it as a kissagram), complete with vocal distortion and trendy computer graphics in the background. Making some of those false promises which the SDP never make, he claims they will "improve" jobs, "help" the Health Service and oppose nuclear energy "unless it's safe" (better just drop a line to the CEGB then, and ask them). It seems that the script, as well as the pop image, was taken from the "zany" Max Headroom show.

These politicians are the jesters of modern society, the jokers and clowns. The last laugh will be on them, though, when a majority decide to reject their rotten social system, which has planted a policeman and a cash-register in every head and which sours all human relationships and productive activities. So next time your mate asks you, "Alright?", why not give a straight answer? We need to change the world; produce wealth to satisfy human needs, not for the market. We need socialism —now.
Clifford Slapper

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