August 7, 2017

The education of children in a capitalist system has two main purposes. First, to enforce obedience and conformity. Second, to impart the skills that will prepare children for exploitation by capitalist employers.

On the first point, students are required by law to attend a state-approved place of education, backed up by threats of force and punishment if they fail to do so. They are told where to be, at what time, and what to do when they are there. They are told what to wear, when to speak and when to be silent, what to say and what not to say, when to sit and when to stand, and what they must study, regardless of their own interests, abilities or preferences.

The instructions of school staff are beyond question. Failure to obey results in punishment, sometimes collective punishment, with little hope of appeal. The attempt to defend oneself is likely to provoke those in authority still further. The school staff themselves are divided into ascending layers of junior and senior staff, with orders flowing from the top to the bottom, again largely beyond question.

Schools are strictly hierarchical and authoritarian institutions. They enforce obedience and conformity on staff as well as students. Individual students do often rebel, of course, but it is generally a futile, destructive form of rebellion, which only makes their lives worse.

On the second point, in schools it is regularly emphasised to students that they must study hard and do well in exams in order to get grades and qualifications that will impress prospective employers. According to this outlook the fundamental reason for being at school, and for studying the various subjects the school offers, is in order to prepare children for the functions that will be assigned to them by future employers.

At work, as at school, people will be told where to be, when to be there, what to do, what to say, and how to dress, according to the requirements of their employers. School helps to prepare them for this. The crucial difference between school and work is that school only prepares people for exploitation while the capitalist workplace carries out that exploitation.

Workers in the capitalist system neither own nor control the wealth that their labours create. They are paid enough to get by from month to month, if they are lucky, while the managers and shareholders get richer and richer by control of the wealth the workers create. The workers’ lives are not their own. They live to serve. The education system helps to make this possible.

School is also a good preparation for war. Both schools and the military place great value on strict hierarchy, obedience, conformity and correct uniform. History lessons glorify war and assert the value of patriotism, self-sacrifice and the leadership of so-called ‘great men’. This is all useful when the capitalists want to invade some impoverished country to steal its natural resources and exploit its labour.

There are a few romantics who oppose this state of affairs. They think that education should be for the benefit of children rather than for the maintenance of the existing social order. They think that education should be about helping children to discover and develop their talents and interests. They think that children should be treated with respect and given a voice in deciding the course of their own lives.

I must confess that I am one of these romantics. The foundation of an authoritarian society is an authoritarian education system. We will never have a democratic society until we have democratic education. Democratic schools do exist, where all decision-making is based on the principle of one person, one vote. The concept of a ‘person’ includes both staff and students. The idea that workers and children are persons is, I know, a radical one, but its time may be coming.

Work and Play

August 4, 2017

We are most fully ourselves when we are playing. Play is what we do for its own sake, purely because we enjoy it, as opposed to doing things that have to be done in order to survive. Play is what we choose to do when left to our own devices, an expression of who we really are, as opposed to what we and others are forced to do as a matter of necessity or social convention. If a person struggles to play then they don’t really understand themselves, they haven’t learned to express their individuality, and their life has probably been dominated by conformity and obedience.

I’m using the word ‘play’ in a very broad sense to include arts and sciences as well as crafts, games and pastimes. Any activity that is done simply for the pleasure of doing it counts as play in this sense. An activity may have practical benefits as well as being pleasurable, such as the technological benefits of scientific enquiry, or the health benefits of playing sport. But it counts as play as long as it’s done primarily for the pleasure of it, as opposed to the practical benefits.

I’m not referring here to the simple pleasure of, say, a pleasant meal or a sunny day. I include, in my definition of play, the pleasure of setting ourselves challenges and overcoming the difficulties we face. But such challenges and difficulties are very much ones that we create or find for ourselves, they are not simply imposed upon us either by nature or society, and they are sought out for the ultimate pleasure of overcoming them, as an expression of who we are and what we are capable of, not as a demonstration of self-sacrifice.

Given this view of human nature it’s depressing to live in a society that worships at the Altar of Hard Work, a society where everyone loves to talk about how hard they work, and to judge others according to whether they work hard or not, as if human life has no other meaning or purpose. This hard work is, of course, work we are told to do by our so-called ‘superiors’, not work that we choose to do.

We live in a deeply hierarchical and authoritarian society. People who step out of line face ostracism and punishment, whether social, legal or economic. The Cult of Hard Work is a method of control used by the capitalist rulers to keep the workers in line. If the bosses can convince the workers that hard work makes them better people then the bosses will probably see their profits rise. They’ll also have fewer complaints about pay and working conditions. This is why hard work is lauded as morally supreme under capitalism.

The hallmark of hard work, as a moral concept, is that it involves sacrificing our individuality and subordinating ourselves to the social hierarchy. A society based on this concept of hard work can produce a great variety of alluring and largely unnecessary material goods and services, but it can produce very little freedom or happiness.

I have no objection to necessary work or competent work or efficient work. Obviously there are practical things that need doing and we should try to see that they’re done adequately. But to value work simply because it’s hard is perverse, a form of masochism or self-hatred. Suffering doesn’t make us good people, contrary to the twisted values of the Cult of Hard Work, it makes us slaves. What makes us good people is the ability to feel and express love, compassion and solidarity.

According to bourgeois morality a worker’s life is vindicated if they suffer for their society, which actually means suffering for the capitalists. The workers are encouraged to diminish their own individual humanity in order to obey and conform. The key institutions of capitalism – the family, schools, workplaces, armies and prisons – all place great value in obedience and conformity. The prison is the ideal to which all forms of capitalist organisation tend, a situation where conformity is at its most intense and freedom is almost non-existent.

We are sick animals. But we could be so much more.

Toward Freedom and Dignity

August 1, 2017

My conception of a decent human life is one in which there is as little coercion as possible. To coerce human beings is to inhibit their free and natural development, to twist their lives to fit someone else’s plan. In a fair and decent world people would have as much freedom as possible to decide how they live their own lives, drawing on their own resources or the advice of others as they see fit. And since so much of our time and energy is put into our working lives this freedom must especially apply to choosing the kind of work we do and how we do it.

Work should be a matter of voluntary and productive cooperation with others, in order to satisfy our practical needs and social inclinations, not a form of coerced and exploited labour. We should have opportunities to develop our talents and interests in creative and original ways, to think for ourselves and bring our own unique perspective to our collective endeavours. Of course we can’t expect others to agree with all our personal preferences, but we can discuss the alternatives available to us, make compromises, and hopefully reach agreed courses of action for mutual benefit.

Now contrast this with the experience of work that the majority of us have. We are given tasks we did not choose by people whose authority we cannot question, and must carry out those tasks in ways that satisfy not ourselves but our so-called ‘superiors’. Perhaps we can suggest alternatives, and decide the minor details of our daily tasks, but this is a very limited freedom that can always be overruled. In return for our labours we get the lowest wage our employer can get away with in the current labour market, the rest of our efforts being used to generate profit for shareholders and large salaries and bonuses for managers.

Ultimately we can, of course, resign if we don’t like this situation, and move to another job where the conditions are likely to be just the same, or sink into demoralised poverty. This doesn’t strike me as a way of life that brings out the best in human beings or respects their moral right to freedom and dignity. In fact it strikes me as a system designed to crush initiative and generate apathy and alienation.

We’re all trying to make the best of our lives, doing what we can to provide for ourselves and to improve our situation by means of our physical and intellectual efforts. It’s arbitrary and deeply unfair that some individuals should accumulate such wealth and power – by control of the labour of their fellow human beings – that they can dictate to the rest of us how we should live our lives. The result of this injustice is that we are forced to work in ways that best serve not the great majority of humanity but rather the interests of the rich and powerful.

It seems to me that the best way to address the fundamental injustice of this world is to reorganise our economic life on democratic principles, just as we once reorganised our political life on democratic principles. Absolute monarchs are mostly gone from the political sphere, but sadly they still exist in the economic sphere in the form of the chief executive with his court of directors and shareholders. This has to change.

So what am I proposing? Among other things I would like to see collective ownership of each business by all who work for it; regular meetings of all workers to discuss and vote on important questions of business policy; committees of workers, elected by the whole workforce, to investigate and advise on specialist matters; and allegations of misconduct to be assessed by a tribunal of one’s fellow workers, rather than at the whim of managers.

Let me be clear what this means: No more wages. No more managers. The two most unfair and dehumanising aspects of the workplace would be removed. Instead of wages set by management we would all have an equal stake in the business and an equal voice in determining how much of the profit is kept for ourselves and how much re-invested in the business. Instead of managers appointed from above we would have democratic management by all the workers together.

No longer would the results of our work be controlled by a small elite. No longer would we be set in futile competition with our fellow workers for pay rises, promotions and petty authority over a handful of our colleagues. All our energy could be directed to developing our skills and making the enterprise a success from which we all benefit. There are many possible variations on the type of organisation I am describing, but whether they are worker co-operatives, collectives, communes or self-directed enterprises, they all share the basic principles of voluntary membership, shared ownership and democratic control.

There is no need for a violent revolution to bring about the changes I am advocating. With the co-operative business model we could conceivably change the world one workplace at a time. For that to happen we would need popular support, the support of labour unions (who know a lot about worker self-organisation), and a progressive political movement that can win power and legislate in favour of cooperatives.

The transition could begin by requiring businesses to pay workers partly in shares, held collectively in a trust fund, until the workforce has a controlling interest in the business. At first this would take place within the current capitalist economic system, but as the popular movement grew that would naturally change. The principles of competition, greed, and selfishness on which capitalism is based would be superseded by cooperation, fairness and mutual respect, in other words by democratic socialism, as I understand it.

If we genuinely value democracy then it should be introduced into the economic sphere, into the workplace, where we have our most important, ongoing contact with society. Most people today would think it absurd that the rich should have more votes than the poor in general elections, as was once the case, and yet we think it acceptable that the rich have vastly more votes in business decisions which often have far more direct effect on our lives than the events in distant parliaments and congresses.

What does it profit individuals to have a small say in the choice of governing party at the national level when those individuals have little or no say over the form of their own daily activities? The work we do each day is the single most important and demanding activity of our lives. The true measure of democratic freedom is not an occasional trip to the ballot box but how much control we have over our daily life. By that measure our so-called ‘liberal democracy’ is merely a pale imitation.

We will be told, of course, that the workers controlling the workplace would lead to chaos, that they have neither the personal skills nor the strategic overview required to run things effectively. This objection to economic democracy is the same form of objection that was made to political democracy prior to universal suffrage, that the ‘ordinary’ members of society couldn’t be trusted to understand the complexities of policy or to choose their government wisely. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now, serving the same vested interests of the rich and powerful.

Our present form of authoritarian social organisation has led us into wars, economic crashes and environmental devastation as often as it has led us to peace, prosperity and sustainability. In contrast to this a truly democratic society would make use of the talents of all its people rather than relying on the wayward judgement of a small elite. Give people today the necessary education, information and power to run their own lives, let them participate fully in managing their own economic activity, and they will be able to develop the strategic skills required by citizens in a genuinely democratic society.