Intellectual Graffiti

March 9, 2018

I love graffiti, and I don’t just mean the pretty, artistic stuff. I especially love the really rough, nasty scrawls that cover some urban environments. I love graffiti because it is, in its purest form, the cry of the oppressed and powerless, the voice of the unheard. Typically it’s produced by people who have been born into poverty, denied a decent education, denied employment opportunities, abused and neglected, and generally treated like scum. These people are told that they are nothing, that their lives are worthless, and that they have no right to complain. When they produce graffiti they are saying, ‘I exist. I am not nothing. I too am human. I too have thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. Do not ignore me. Do not tell me that I am scum.’ Or to put it more succinctly they are saying ‘Fuck you!’ to a brutal society.

Under capitalism graffiti is a crime, but it’s fine for companies to plaster advertisements for their products all over the urban environment, whether people want them there or not. It’s fine for companies to try to convince people that their lives are inadequate – that they look and smell wrong, that their cars, homes, electronic gadgets, holiday destinations, and so on, are out of date and contemptible – and that this inadequacy can only be addressed by buying the appropriate products. It’s fine for capitalists to manipulate and degrade us but it’s wrong for oppressed people to express themselves in the only way left to them. Advertising is the voice of the oppressors; graffiti is the voice of the oppressed. There’s more honesty and humanity in one unintelligible scrawl on a block of concrete than there is in a million advertisements.

This writing of mine is simply another form of graffiti. Call it intellectual graffiti, if you like, scrawled on the great electronic wall of the internet. I too have been told, from an early age, that I’m worthless, that I’m scum, but I too wish to say that I exist, that I am not nothing. And I too choose the power and safety of anonymity, because periodically I have to beg capitalists to exploit me in return for a pittance to live on. If those capitalists did a quick search and found what I’ve written they may be less likely to see me as a suitable candidate for exploitation. So instead I put on a tie and a smile, and bow my head with humility, and tell them how much I’d love to be exploited by them, all the while screaming inside.


Happy Holidays

March 7, 2018

99% of all conversation in Britain is about holidays, specifically foreign holidays, those that require travel to another country. People discuss in great detail where they have been on holiday, where they are going on holiday, and where they would like to go on holiday. They discuss how they reached their destination and how they got back home again. They discuss the weather, the accommodation, the food they ate, how they slept, how their digestion functioned, how much they liked or disliked the local population, and so on. When they have finished discussing their own holidays they start discussing other people’s holidays.

In the workplace the first half of the year is generally spent discussing where people are going on holiday in the summer and the second half is spent discussing where people went on holiday. Holidays are the main source of meaning and value in most people’s lives. A person works, say, 48 weeks of the year to pay for their 2 weeks of holiday, and this gives their work meaning. The more holidays a person takes, and the more exotic their destinations, the more they are admired and considered to be a success in life. Having been paid or borrowed sufficient money to move one’s body from one part of the globe to another, and having arranged and carried out this movement, is considered an admirable quality. The further the distance of this movement the more admirable it is.

The importance of holidays is evident from the amount of time that people spend talking about them, from the way that people congratulate others for going on holiday, and from the envy people express regarding the desirable destinations that others have visited. When a person says ‘I’m going on holiday to destination X’ their friends and colleagues are likely to reply ‘lucky you! I wish I were going there’ or words to that effect. When I was working in a high school a pastoral support worker expressed his contempt for a particular child whom he considered ‘difficult’ by saying ‘he’ll probably never leave the country during his entire life’. This was a spontaneous expression of the belief that foreign travel is the key sign of success in life.

It’s said that travel broadens the mind; in my experience it narrows the mind to a preoccupation with travel. It might be helpful to remember that travel is, under capitalism, a consumer product that is intensively advertised on television, in newspapers, in magazines, and online. This advertising is clearly very successful at influencing people and shaping their desires. It’s striking that the pursuit of profits by businesses can have such a huge impact on people’s thought and behaviour. The professional advertising to which we are all subjected is greatly aided by amateur advertising. When people discuss various travel destinations, and encourage others to consider these destinations, they are doing unpaid sales work for travel agents, holiday companies, and airlines; which is very generous, as they certainly don’t get their holidays for free.

It’s a clear demonstration of the power of the capitalist system that it provides people with a product that gives their lives meaning and value while also making a profit for the capitalists. Holidays are a key example of the way that consumer products shape people’s lives, but there are many others: housing, interior design, gardening, cars, fashion, personal grooming, food, drink, sport, film, television, electronic gadgets, and so on. Most people define themselves, to a large degree, by their preferred products and brand names. They spend their working lives acquiring the money to pay for various consumer products and spend their free time purchasing, consuming and discussing those products. Each new product that corporate capitalism devises is welcomed with excitement, envy and desire.

Most people are passive consumers of culture, not its creators. They spend their lives doing what they are told to do, by authority figures, the media, their peers and social convention, not what they have personally chosen to do. Their lives are a product of the socio-economic system in which they live, not an expression of their own individuality. It’s so much easier to base one’s entire life on material goods and services, things you can see, hear and touch, which are ready made for consumption, rather than having to exercise your own imagination or ponder the deep questions that have troubled human beings through the ages. Such is the genius of modern capitalism that it provides the final solution to all human questions.

The Children of Sisyphus

February 25, 2018

We are told that we live in a free society, but how free are we really? For most of us our main contact with society is work: this is the social activity to which we dedicate the largest amount of time and energy. We are told that we have a free labour market, in which we can choose what work to do, and how much to do. But in reality most of us have no choice but to take whatever work we can get simply in order to pay the bills and survive from month to month. In order to get work most of us have to send out many applications for employment, and attend many interviews, in which we effectively beg employers to exploit our labour in return for enough money to live on, if we’re lucky.

At work we are told where to be, at what time, and what to do when we are there; we are told what to wear, when to eat, when to piss and shit; we are told what to say and what not to say, we are told what standards of conduct we must adhere to. We are not allowed to decide any of these things for ourselves; they are dictated to us by management. If we fail to show sufficient enthusiasm we can expect criticism. If we fail to obey we can expect punishment. We may face docked pay, a wage cut, loss of privileges, less desirable duties, being passed over for promotion, disdain and harassment by managers, disciplinary proceedings, or dismissal. Even when we don’t face these things we know they exist; the threat hangs over us, making us anxious and obedient. We are controlled by fear.

If we don’t like the way we are treated we have no serious right to object and no real means of seeking redress. The best we can hope for is that one member of the managerial elite might take our side against another member of that elite; at best this alleviates our oppression, it doesn’t end it. The only other option is to leave and go to some other job where conditions are likely to be the same. No business would exist without the efforts of the people who work for it, but they are not entitled to any say in how it is run, and they can be dismissed at will by management, depriving them of any stake in the business they have helped to create and maintain.

We are told that we live in a democracy but we don’t get to vote for our managers or for the policy of the business we work for. These are much more significant factors in our daily lives than the actions of the politicians we do get to vote for. Most of us have little more influence over our work activities than we do over the politics of the state we live in. We might be allowed to decide minor details of the tasks we carry out, but those tasks are imposed on us by others, regardless of our wishes.

The workplace is a kind of state in miniature, a mini-dictatorship to be precise. The chief executive is the dictator with his cabinet of directors. The middle managers are state functionaries, and human resources are the secret police who monitor behaviour and keep files on everyone. Our working lives are not really our own since they are shaped by the preferences and choices of our so-called superiors, not by our own preferences and choices. And since work is the single longest, most significant, most demanding activity that most of us engage in, this means that our lives are not really our own.

We live in a network of petty dictatorships, not a democracy. Our relations with the society we live in are fundamentally hierarchical and authoritarian. We are divided into ascending levels in the workplace: junior workers, senior workers, supervisors, middle managers, senior managers, and so on. Each level is expected to obey orders from above and give orders to those below. Each person must know and accept their place in the hierarchy and show deference to those above them and contempt for those below them.

Contempt is not too strong a word for the attitude of people who ascend the hierarchy. They don’t have to be outright bullying, arrogant and condescending, although they often are. They may behave in a friendly, even kindly way towards the people over whom they have power, but that makes no difference. To exercise control over another person, to deny them the right to determine the course of their own life is, in itself, a form of contempt: that person is treated like a tool rather than a human being; they are forced to serve someone else’s purpose rather than pursuing their own goals.

The capitalist system of work is at odds with human nature. Each of us has a mind of our own, capable of thinking for ourselves and determining the course of our own life. We each have our own hopes and dreams, our own aptitudes and interests. To deny us the opportunity to express these things is to frustrate our potential and diminish our humanity. We are also, of course, social beings, and we depend on mutual support in order to achieve our fullest potential, but our social activity need not be organised in a hierarchical, authoritarian way. To do so goes against our nature, and breeds the stress, apathy and resentment that are so apparent in every workplace, beneath the veneer of obedience and conformity.

An alternative would be democratic, egalitarian organisation, in which everyone has an equal voice in determining the course of our joint activity. We must inevitably make concessions to the preferences of others, but these should be concessions to collective decision-making, in which we all take part, not obedience to the will of an individual authority figure. Even young children are perfectly capable of understanding the idea of having a discussion, listening to everyone’s opinion, and reaching a compromise, or taking a vote, just as they understand the unfairness of not being listened to. Democracy, in its most simple and direct form, is something that appeals to our basic sense of fairness. And so I say that a fair day’s work must be a democratic day’s work.

We are told, of course, that certain individuals are superior to others – they have more experience, more knowledge, better judgement – and so it’s right that they tell the rest of us what to do. But we might wonder who gets to decide who these ‘superior’ individuals are, and by what criteria they are chosen. Generally it’s other members of the managerial elite who do the choosing, and they have a personal interest in preserving the system, not holding it up to scrutiny. And we should note that as many businesses fail as succeed, and all of them have managers who were said to be the best people for the job, right up to the point where everything went wrong.

Most importantly of all – from my perspective, at least – it doesn’t matter whether some people have superior judgement to others: what matters is that we all get the chance to live a decent human life, which means living a life of our own choosing and not one that is forced on us. To be controlled by others is to not live our own lives but to live as the tools of the people who control us. This approach may have produced many impressive feats of empire building through the ages, and the growth of science and culture, for those who have the opportunity to enjoy them, but it ignores the basic human need for lives that are personally meaningful, that provide us with opportunities for self-determination and self-expression, as opposed to simply obeying orders.

In Greek myth Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a large boulder to the top of a hill, day after day, without end. At the end of the day the boulder would roll down to the bottom of the hill. This activity had no other purpose than punishment: Sisyphus was considered to be insufficiently deferential toward the gods. Wage labour generally has the purpose of producing goods and services that can be sold for a profit, but since most of us have no control over what goods and services we produce, or how we produce them, we are not so different from Sisyphus. His life was shaped by the gods, not by his own choices, just as our lives are shaped by the managerial elite, not by our own choices. All those of us condemned to wage labour are the children of Sisyphus.

The Illusion of Democracy

February 19, 2018

We in the capitalist West are told that we live in democracies, but is this really the case? Consider the three main social institutions that we encounter during our lives, and in which we spend most of our time: the family, school, work. Surely if we live in a democratic society these three institutions must themselves be democratic? So is the family democratic? No, children are required to obey their parents. Are schools democratic? No, children are required to obey their teachers. Is work democratic? No, the workers are required to obey their managers. So where is this fabled democracy? It’s an illusion.

Capitalist societies are, by necessity, not democratic but oligarchic; that is to say, they have a ruling elite. Capitalism is an economic system in which a minority (the capitalists) own and control the wealth and the majority (the working class) do the work which creates that wealth. Since most of our lives are dedicated to work, or preparation for work, and work is undemocratic, capitalism is essentially undemocratic. Insofar as there are democratic elements in a capitalist society this is because the working class has organised, campaigned, protested, and disobeyed, until they have won concessions from the capitalists.

Western capitalism has a broad ruling elite: politicians, business executives, media executives, senior civil servants, judges, senior academics, police chiefs, army chiefs, and so on. Together they control the wealth and wield the power of society. Most members of the elite are appointed by the elite itself, not elected. The few that are elected stand as members of political parties offering a set of policies that voters must accept or reject as a package. If voters don’t like what’s on offer there’s nowhere else to go. Western capitalist societies are not democracies, they are partially elective oligarchies.

As society in general is oligarchic it’s no surprise that the family, schools and workplaces follow this pattern and have their own miniature oligarchies, their own petty little ruling elites: parents, teachers, managers, who jealously guard their power and punish disobedience. Since we are all raised, live and work in hierarchical, authoritarian institutions it’s no surprise that we come to think this is the natural way for human beings to live, that there is no alternative, and that we must perpetuate this way of life. But there is a real, humane alternative: direct democracy.

An example of a democratic workplace is the worker cooperative, where the workers jointly own the business and democratically manage it. The workers regularly meet to discuss and vote on company policy; they elect committees to deal with specialist matters; they form panels to mediate in workplace disputes, rather than leaving judgement to the whim of managers; they are all entitled to an equal share of the company’s profits; and they all have an equal voice in deciding how to spend the company’s budget. From this the workers get a greater feeling of personal worth, power and commitment.

A democratic school is run by an assembly of all staff and students, where everyone has the right to speak, everyone has one equal vote, and school rules are decided. Positions of authority – teaching, pastoral, administrative, maintenance – may be elected by the assembly and scrutinised by it. Disputes in the school are addressed by a panel of staff and students rather than leaving judgement to the whim of individual teachers. The school day is designed to suit the children rather than the teachers, and the children learn by following their own curiosity rather than having a curriculum imposed on them. From this the children get a greater feeling of personal worth, power and commitment.

Making the family more democratic is an interesting problem: expanding it would probably help. The nuclear family is a deeply hierarchical, authoritarian institution, since it hides parents and children away in their homes, where parents are allowed to dictate all aspects of the children’s lives and the children have no one to appeal to if they object. It’s considered deeply impolite to enquire into or comment on the way that other people raise their children. Parents are encouraged to believe that they have a right to raise their children as they see fit, regardless of the preferences of the children, and to threaten and punish them if they disobey.

If children were raised in larger groups of people, with a group of adults taking care of their children together, and older children helping to care for younger children, there would be less opportunity for individual parents to tyrannise their children. The children would have other adults and children to appeal to in family disputes. The larger group would foster the view that children are distinct members of society, with rights and responsibilities of their own, not the property of their parents to do with as they wish.

Creating the situation in which childcare is collective is not so easy, as housing is designed to keep families, and people in general, separate from each other. The last thing the ruling elite wants is strong communities with people who help and support each other, as that would threaten their power, so they make sure to build housing that isolates us all in our own little units with no social spaces. The rulers want us all isolated and struggling alone, so that we are kept ignorant, anxious and obedient. Ideally they want us to be working, buying things, or sleeping, and training our children to do the same.

One possible solution to this problem would be the housing cooperative, in which housing is owned and managed by a democratic association of residents. Anything that brings residents into greater contact with each other, creating a sense of common purpose, and engaging them in debate and decision-making, is likely to relieve the pressure of living in isolated families. If only the people in each neighbourhood knew and trusted each other, they could pool their skills and resources in order to provide mutual aid and support.

I don’t say that democratisation is easy – if it were we’d already be doing it – but it is worth trying. For most of human history we lived as hunter-gatherers, with common property, collective childcare, equal work and democratic decision-making. We evolved to be democratic, so we should be able to do it again if we really want to. The starting point is a change in individual attitudes. The more people become aware that society doesn’t have to be so deeply hierarchical and authoritarian, that there is a democratic, egalitarian alternative, the sooner we can start building a better world.

The Origins of Inequality

February 18, 2018

I’ve often heard it said that rich people are good because they give poor people jobs. Yes, really. This is the standard defence that poor people make of the rich. Poor people feel grateful that the rich people have given them work to do. Of course this is bullshit. Rich people don’t give poor people anything – poor people give rich people their wealth. Where else do you think it comes from? Do the rich people work in the fields, mines, factories, warehouses, construction sites, shops, and all the other property they own? Of course not. They sit in their offices giving orders and counting their money. The poor people are the ones who do the work, who create the wealth, which the rich people take from them. And then the poor people are grateful because the rich people have ‘given’ them jobs.

The right to life is generally accepted as a sound moral principle. People shouldn’t, as a general rule, be killed or caused to die. The right to life implies the right to the means of life: that is to say, access to the resources that one needs to provide for oneself: food, water, fuel, clothing materials, building materials, and so on. No such right exists under capitalism, since all the resources are in the hands of the rich: the laws they make, the documents they write, the police and soldiers they command, give them control of the land, forests, minerals, fuel, buildings, factories, shops, and pretty much anything else that can be used to support human life. They can’t do anything with this stuff themselves, of course, that’s why they need all the poor folk to do the work: to farm the land, mine the minerals, extract the oil and gas, build houses, work in factories, fix things, move things, clean things, sell things, administer things, etc.

We the people do the work, create the wealth, and then turn it over to the rich to dispense with as they please. They allow us a pittance for our survival, keeping the rest for themselves, and then demand our thanks. Most of the human race is forced by necessity to work for the capitalists. To be forced to work for another person is a kind of slavery. In a traditional slave society people are bought, under capitalism they are merely rented. The slave masters bought people outright, but the capitalists pay for them in instalments, or ‘wages’, month by month. Either way, the lives of those who do the work are not their own; they exist for the purposes of others – the slave masters or the capitalists – and serve their needs, not their own.

Once upon a time things were different: we lived as foraging tribes for most of human history, held all goods in common, and all human beings were equal in wealth, power and dignity. We roamed the plains and forests and were free. Then population growth and climate change forced us to herd animals or settle on the land and become farmers. In order to defend the land a warrior elite was created. After fighting off rival tribes the warrior elite decided that they didn’t want to become farmers. Instead they set themselves up as a permanent ruling elite, demanding labour and obedience from the working population. If anyone objected the warriors would turn their weapons against their own people.

The ruling elite initially won power by their own personal violence. They passed their wealth and power on to their children and over time their descendents became the commanders of armies and police forces, which would carry out their violence for them so that they merely had to give orders and not trouble themselves with personal danger. This elite was porous and internally quarrelsome: its members would fall in and out of favour, some old families would die out, some new men would rise. While the individuals and families changed the basic class division – the rulers and the ruled, those who own the world and those who work in it – remained, as it does to this day.

I like to imagine that future historians, in some enlightened age, will look back on this period of history as the Great Aberration, a time when human beings briefly gave up their egalitarian, democratic instincts and became hierarchical and authoritarian. This world is a miserable place for most of humanity, with its wars and poverty, its tyranny and inequality. Human nature rebels against this state of affairs, hence the need for armies and police forces, for propaganda and the tight control of information, and for hierarchical systems of control in the family, in schools, in the workplace, in the media, politics and economics.

Without the iron cage of hierarchy human nature would burst free with all its energy, enthusiasm, spontaneity and creativity. I dream of a time when this will become reality, when the nuclear family is replaced by extended families and communities, when all housing is controlled by democratic associations of residents, when schools are run by democratic assemblies of students and staff, when the workplaces are jointly owned and democratically managed by the workers, and when politics is carried out by citizen-delegates chosen in communities and workplaces and serving at their pleasure alone. Will this ever be? I don’t know. Could it be? I believe so.

Work Sets You Free

February 16, 2018

There are two kinds of people in the workplace: workers and managers. The workers do the work, the managers tell other people to do the work. If you do the work then you get paid just enough money to get by on from month to month, if you’re lucky. If you tell others to do the work then you get paid more money than you need to live on and get richer month by month.

The people who grow food, make clothes, build houses, mine minerals, extract oil and gas, maintain the supply of water and electricity, drive buses and trains, fix things when they break, clean the streets and workplaces, deliver letters and parcels, serve people in shops, and do a thousand other physical jobs, are generally paid at the lower end of the wage scale. Those who sit in offices, write documents, make phone calls, attend meetings, compete for status and promotions, and give orders for others to follow, are generally paid at the higher end of the wage scale.

The workers, the people who physically build and maintain society, the people who physically create the wealth of society, all the great variety of goods and services that we need and desire to go on living as we do, get small shares of the wealth they create. The managers, the people who give orders that the wealth be created, get larger shares of that wealth.

We are told that there are good reasons for this unequal distribution of wealth. The managers, we are told, have special skills that set them apart and without which society could not function. They are ‘wealth creators’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ and apparently they can only be tempted to use their special skills by offering them high rewards. The rest of us must use whatever skills we possess simply in order to keep a roof over our head, food on our table, and clothes on our back. But then we’re not ‘wealth creators’.

However, this might lead us to wonder how much wealth the managers would create if there were no workers for them to order around. We might also wonder if the skills and efforts of the workers perhaps contribute a little something to the creation of wealth. No doubt a property developer is a ‘wealth creator’ and ‘entrepreneur’ when he orders that a housing estate be built. But we might have the nagging feeling that the bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians, labourers, and so on, do contribute a little something to this project, not to mention all those who provided the energy, infrastructure and materials that were required for construction to take place.

There is actually a much simpler explanation for the unequal distribution of wealth than the supposed godlike genius of the managers. While the workers are busy making things and doing things, the managers have control of the money and they decide where it goes. The managers decide what work gets done, who does the work, what’s done with the finished product, and what it costs. They control the budgets and the wages, they decide what everyone gets, and they decide to reward themselves the most. Surprisingly enough.

What I’ve just said is, of course, heresy in the capitalist system. The orthodox view is that we must all worship at the shrine of the ‘entrepreneur’ and the ‘self-made man’ without whose vision we would all be helpless.

These ‘self-made men’ are truly remarkable individuals. Each of them built the house they were born in, grew their own food, made their own clothes, educated themselves, provided themselves with health care, and all the other goods and services they have consumed during their lives. Because they are, after all, ‘self-made’. They don’t need the rest of us at all. But we need them, of course. Without their ‘vision’ and ‘inspiration’ we would, apparently, sit around all day until we starved or froze to death. That’s why the managers are entitled to get rich while the workers must remain poor.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we are being lied to. Perhaps the managers are thieves who steal the wealth that the workers create, thus causing poverty and inequality. And since poverty shortens lives, perhaps the managers are also murderers. Look at this world, wracked by war, poverty, famine, disease, injustice, and environmental devastation, and ask yourself what’s more likely. Is the world run by wise ‘innovators’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ who create the wealth of society and benefit us all? Or is it run by a gang of thieves and murderers who care only about maintaining their own wealth and power?

Despite all this I’m not actually prejudiced against managers. They do have some useful skills, such as administering, organising and co-ordinating, in addition to their mastery of arrogance, deception, secrecy and bullshit. If they’re prepared to do a day’s work like everyone else then I don’t think they should be paid any less than any other worker, but they shouldn’t be paid any more either. We create the wealth of the world together, so it belongs to us all together, not to a small managerial elite. Anyone who takes more than others is a thief; anyone who gets less than others is a victim of theft.

Little Rebel

February 10, 2018

The smallest child is morally superior to any adult. This fact was brought home to me with great force recently. I was passing through a local park and happened to see an event that pretty much sums up the human condition. A girl of about two was in the children’s play area – slides, swings, roundabouts, and the like – with a man in his thirties, presumably her father. The man said it was time to go and walked towards a car parked nearby. The little girl clearly didn’t want to go. She walked to the gate of the play area, still some distance from the car, and stood and watched. The man turned round and saw that the girl wasn’t following. He opened the car door and shouted, ‘Come on, or I’ll go without you!’

The little girl said nothing but stood her ground. It may be hard for an adult to remember just how frightening it is to be abandoned, or threatened with abandonment, as a small child. Any child of two will burst into tears if they are left behind, and for good reason: the world is full of dangers. Children have evolved to make it perfectly clear to adults that they must not be abandoned even for a moment. During most of our evolution a small child would be prey to wild animals if they were left behind. Children don’t consciously think about these things, of course, but they do feel them instinctively and intensely. To threaten a child with abandonment is one of the nastiest and most manipulative things an adult can do.

What’s remarkable is the way that this little rebel stood her ground despite the frightening threat made by her father. We as adults may know that the threat is hollow, but the child doesn’t know. There would be no point adults making the threat if they weren’t aware that there would be some doubt – and fear – in the child’s mind. That’s how we control our children, by exploiting their lack of knowledge and experience in order to create doubt and fear. But despite the tyranny of adults children still have the strength and courage to resist – at least for a time – and that gives me great hope. The moral courage of human beings is a fragile thing, and it’s easily broken when we are alone, but through collective action it could be nurtured and strengthened.

Seeing that little girl standing alone and defenceless with the man and his car towering over her caused another image to pass through my mind: the famous tank man in Tiananmen Square during the protests of 1989; the guy in the white shirt with his shopping bags who faced down a tank of the Chinese army. Every child who refuses to do as they are told, every child who stamps their feet and shouts ‘it’s not fair!’, shows a little of the courage that tank man showed.

Maybe you want to look at things from Daddy’s perspective? Maybe you think he’s tired and stressed and has lots of things to do, so his little daughter has to do as she’s told? Maybe you think it’s for ‘her own good’? All right then, but I have a few questions for you.

Does this justify the use of threats and fear to control a small child? Is it right to teach children that the use of threats and fear is acceptable when made by a person in a position of power? Does this justify the way that adults moralise the behaviour of children? I mean the way that adults equate disobedience with immorality. Is it really the case that children are ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ simply because they refuse to do as they are told, immediately and without question? Might there not be certain negative consequences if we teach children that being good means being obedient and being bad means being disobedient?

Is being powerful the same as being right? This would seem to be the basic moral assumption of most adults, hence their indignation when a child dares to question them or disobey their instructions. Adults are not merely inconvenienced by the individuality of children, they are indignant about it. ‘How dare a mere child inconvenience me, an almighty adult!’

So what happened next? Did our little rebel win her battle against tyranny or was she forced to submit? Did her father relent and allow her a few more minutes of play or at least try to explain why they had to go? Or did her fear overcome her and make her go running to the safety of the car? Or did she stand her ground until her father stormed over, grabbed her, and either carried or dragged her to the car, screaming all the way?

Sadly I’ll never know. I kept walking and didn’t see.

The Authorities

February 7, 2018

Violence and threats of violence were every day occurrences at the high school I attended. Some children carried knives. It was common to see kids with bloody noses, black eyes, cuts and bruises. The teachers were indifferent to this. If a child complained about their treatment they would be told to ‘stop telling tales’ and to ‘stick up for themselves’. The teachers referred to the children as ‘thugs’, ‘yobs’ and ‘hooligans’. We kids were working class scum, born into poverty, mostly living in an area of high crime, unemployment and substance abuse. The teachers were educated middle class people whose words dripped with contempt.

If a child went into class with a bloody nose or a black eye this would be ignored. If the same child went into class with their shirt hanging out, or their tie hanging down, or if they said ‘fuck’, they could expect to be yelled at, and threatened with lines or detention or even the ‘slipper’ – a form of beating. The attitude of the school authorities was clear: the safety of the children was of little importance, but their adherence to school rules was absolutely essential. A society that deeply concerns itself with appearances – with manners and dress codes – is a society that cares little for the safety and happiness of human beings, least of all children.

The most fundamental ethical and political question is this: Do people exist to serve the rules or do the rules exist to serve the people? At my school – and I contend at most schools – the people existed to serve the rules. I could have been stabbed to death and the teachers would have cried crocodile tears when I was gone. While I was alive my safety and happiness were irrelevant; all that mattered was my obedience and conformity, and that of all the other children. Anyone who speaks about the importance of ‘duty’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘respect for authority’ – as teachers so often do – is someone who prizes the rules above people.

As a teenager I had a travel pass for use on buses and trains. I renewed this pass for a fee each month. One month the ticket office filled in the details on the pass incorrectly and I didn’t spot the error, but a ticket inspector did. I was cautioned and interviewed by the police. I said the office had made a mistake; they said I was a liar and a thief. I was found guilty of travel fraud. This was an important lesson for me as a teenager. My safety was a matter of no importance to society; I could be physically attacked or threatened with a knife and nothing would happen. But the moment I was suspected of defrauding the train company of a small amount of money the authorities swung into action and quickly declared my guilt and proceeded to punishment.

The individual members of the working class are expendable – there’s plenty more where they came from – but the property of the rich and powerful must be protected at all costs. Private property is the foundation of the capitalist system. If the working class get their grubby hands on it – except when they are constructing, manufacturing, operating and maintaining the property – then the system is finished. The idea that the police exist to protect people is a joke; they exist to protect property and the people can go hang. Being working class is not something you are – there’s no such thing as the working class gene – it’s something that’s done to you, a way you are treated from the earliest age, if you are foolish enough to be born into poverty.

This is how the authorities work. They make it clear to working class children, from an early age, that their safety and happiness are of no importance, and that they must obey instructions without question or be punished. Even the suspicion of disobedience is sufficient to bring down punishment. The working class must not be allowed to get ideas above their station. If they are not broken early then they may refuse to do the low paid, low status, manual labour that is essential to society and that the capitalists require of them. Without the working class to abuse and exploit the capitalists’ wealth and power would be at an end. You can’t sit in your office, giving orders and counting the money, unless some poor bastards are outside actually doing the work.

Boys at the school I attended typically went on to work in factories, warehouses and building sites. As an adult I have worked, typically enough, in a factory and multiple warehouses and building sites. But I have also worked in a school, and there I saw that things have not essentially changed. Schools now have anti-bullying policies to which they pay lip service, but the violence and intimidation continues. The teachers don’t personally carry out the violence: they subcontract it to the children who have the most abusive home lives and hence the greatest anger and inclination to violence. By bringing together large numbers of similar age children, some of whom have been deeply damaged by society, and leaving them with limited adult supervision, the teachers can be sure that violence and intimidation will follow. The teachers know that this will inevitably happen and so they are utterly complicit, as are all adults who support the authoritarian education system.

As a consequence we see rising reports of depression and anxiety among children, along with self harm, eating disorders and suicide attempts. If we see rising reports I suggest it’s because these things are at least talked about now. In the past they happened but were nameless and ignored. They are still largely seen as personal idiosyncrasies, the result of ‘bad breeding’ (i.e. genes), or the fault of children who lack ‘resilience’. The cruelty and tyranny to which children are subjected, in the family, in schools, in society in general, is largely ignored. And so the adults go on handing out punishments, and condemning children who show any signs of defiance, all they while congratulating themselves for their moral superiority.

No One is Happy

February 3, 2018

I’ve met hundreds of people during my life, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who is genuinely happy. Of course they often look happy – they laugh, smile and tell jokes, they express enthusiasm for their social activities and consumer purchases – but I rarely see signs of real happiness, and then only fleetingly. Happiness is a difficult thing to define and there are different ideas about what it consists of, but while it is hard to define I think there are nonetheless clear signs of whether it is present or not.

Here are the personal characteristics that I consider to be signs of genuine happiness: openness, patience, tolerance, acceptance, spontaneity, magnanimity, flexibility. What I mean by this is someone who expresses themselves freely and creatively, who is open to new ideas and experiences, who accepts the variety and unpredictability of people and events, who takes pleasure in change and new opportunities, who can adapt to changing circumstances without undue distress, who wishes well to others and takes no pleasure in their sufferings, and who is slow to anger. In short, a person who is at ease with themselves and the world.

Why do I take these to be the most important signs of genuine happiness? Because I contend that a person who is genuinely happy could not be the opposite of these things. If a person is genuinely happy then they will not feel the need to hide their thoughts and feelings, to criticise and blame others or to take pleasure in their misfortune. They will not feel unnerved by others living their lives differently or having different opinions, since they will be confident of the way they live and see no need to impose their lifestyle on others. They will not feel unduly troubled by the future, since they will be enjoying life now and feel themselves to have the necessary capabilities and support to deal with whatever the future may bring.

To put it simply, a tendency towards anger, criticism and blame is not compatible with genuine happiness, since it demonstrates that a person is feeling threatened and not at ease with themselves and the world. Now look at the world in general. What I see is a world full of anger, criticism and blame. Consider all the wars and threats of war, all the violence and bigotry, all the inequality and injustice. The people on this planet seem, to me at least, to be full of anger and fear. They are angry with people who are different from themselves, who they find threatening and often blame for their problems. They are fearful of what the future will bring, fearful of losing what they possess.

We live in an angry, aggressive, competitive world, in which people are encouraged to be greedy and selfish. The existence of widespread competition is a clear sign that people are not happy. They feel threatened by each other. They feel that there is a limited amount of resources in the world and that they must try to grab as much as they can before everyone else does. In the family children are encouraged to compete for their parents’ attention and approval. At school they are instructed to compete for grades and for the approval of their teachers. As adults they must compete for jobs and promotions and the approval of their managers.

Surveys suggest, again and again, that most people consider themselves to be happy. And this is taken as true, as if we’d never heard of self-deception! It seems to me that the evidence of their lives contradicts their statements. I contend that when people say they are happy they do it because they think they should be happy, because they have the things that social convention tells them should make them happy: family, work, possessions.

It’s also likely that they have been told, from an early age, by their parents and teachers, to stop complaining and stop looking so miserable. We are discouraged from expressing, or even admitting, our negative feelings. We are encouraged to feel ashamed of ourselves if we are not happy, as if happiness were purely personal and we were not social beings at all. Authority figures – parents, teachers, managers – want us to put on a show of conformity and content, not express our genuine feelings. Genuine feelings are disruptive of hierarchy and authority, so a hierarchical, authoritarian society will naturally disapprove of them.

What I see is a world full of people who are weary and stressed at work, living for the weekend or the holidays, dreading Monday and the morning alarm. I see a world in which people struggle to relate to each other and regularly fall out with family and friends. I see lots of irritable people who are quick to take offence when none is intended. I see a world full of anger, criticism and ridicule directed at socially disparaged groups: immigrants, foreigners, people on welfare, single mothers, poor people in general, gay people, young people, and pretty much anyone who looks, thinks or behaves differently to everyone else. People are exhausted and irritable and looking for someone to blame, and they usually blame others who are suffering like themselves, rather than blaming the people with the wealth and power who control society and ultimately cause all its problems.

I see a world in which people claim to be happy but are never happy with what they’ve got and always want more. I see people desperately looking for a quick way out of their unhappiness through drink, drugs, smoking, overeating, gambling, and consumer products. They see no way to improve their lives through their own efforts, or to find pleasure through their own creativity or their relationships, so they look for a quick fix by consuming some ready made product. Or they spend their time passively watching other people enjoy and express themselves on television or at a sports arena or they obsessively follow the intimate details of the lives of celebrities. They pay to watch and read about other people living fulfilling lives while their own lives leave them feeling empty, angry and miserable.

No one is happy.

Human Nature

January 28, 2018

For most of human history our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, largely living off wild plants supplemented by the meat of wild animals. There were many different types of hunter-gatherer society, and scholarly opinion about them is constantly evolving, but there do seem to be some general remarks that can be made about how hunter-gatherers lived. This is an interesting subject in itself but it also gives us clues as to how human beings might live most happily, since we evolved to live a certain way and the further away we get the more unsettled we might feel.

Hunter-gatherers lived in bands of a few dozen people and specialization was minimal. Women tended to spend more of their time gathering plants and caring for children, while men tended to do most of the hunting, but everyone in the band was active in obtaining food and water, and making tools, clothing and shelter, and in caring for children. Since everyone had similar capabilities and responsibilities hunter-gatherer societies tended to be egalitarian, with men and women having similar status, and the band having no fixed leadership or hierarchy. Resources were the common property of the band and would be shared out according to need with extra care given to those who were more vulnerable due to age or illness. There was a great dislike of anyone who would try to take more than their fair share; greed and selfishness would be met with strong opposition.

The consensus seems to be that hunter-gatherers worked much less than people do today. They had fewer needs, and these were largely provided for by their natural environment, so they had more time for leisure, which they could use for developing their culture, such as storytelling, painting, carving, music and dance. They had a strong sense of belonging and a deep belief in sharing and mutual aid. This seems to have been completely natural and obvious to hunter-gatherers; they didn’t need special moral training, or a criminal justice system, in order to respect and care about their fellow human beings.

Childhood is the key to human development, the stage of life that fundamentally shapes who we are, so it’s important to examine childhood in hunter-gatherer societies. The most striking thing, from our perspective, is the lack of formal schooling. Children weren’t separated from adults and from children of other ages and sent to some special place for instruction. They lived in mixed age groups, constantly developing their social skills through interactions with children and adults of all ages.

Children would spend some of their time playing, during which they would often mimic the activities of adults, thus preparing themselves for adulthood without any compulsion to do so, just as children have always done. As they grew older they would help care for younger children and also assist adults in their tasks as they became able to do so, again through mimicry rather than through formal schooling or compulsion. Discipline was light or non-existent. Children didn’t have to be forced to learn and work, they did it naturally because they lived in a stimulating and encouraging environment. They wanted to learn how to survive and contribute to the band. They could see the practicality and relevance of everything they were learning. They would develop to adulthood in a natural and spontaneous way.

Compare this to childhood in our society. Children are taken away from their families for a large part of the day and segregated into single age groups with limited adult supervision. They are forced to carry out activities that are of little interest or relevance to them on the promise of some future reward or more often the threat of impending punishment. We insist that all this is necessary, but children are not stupid. They can observe the lives of adults around them and see that most of what is taught at school is purely theoretical and of no practical relevance to most people’s lives. Faced with this absurdity children often become bored and rebellious – quite rightly.

When children refuse to comply with the absurd system in which they are trapped they are likely to be described as ‘difficult’ or ‘lazy’ and told that they must learn ‘responsibility’ and ‘self-discipline’. It’s part of the deep absurdity of the education system that it can take children, who are naturally energetic, enthusiastic, curious, and imaginative, who have evolved over millions of years to be brilliant learners, and turn them into bored, idle, apathetic individuals. If it were really the case that children are naturally lazy and resistant to learning then we would never have survived as a species. The so-called ‘laziness’ of children is actually the apathy that arises when children recognise the pointlessness of most of the things they are forced to do and the stupidity and cruelty of the adults who force them to do it.

Similar points can be made about the workplace. How many genuinely happy people do we see at work? How many people look forward to Monday and the morning alarm? Apathy haunts the worker as it haunts the school child. We know that wage labour isn’t how we’re meant to live. We resent the fact that we are, again, separated from our family and friends, and forced to go to some special place where we are ordered to perform specialized tasks that are of no direct relevance to our own lives. Most of us don’t actually provide for ourselves. We don’t provide ourselves with food, water, shelter, clothing, and so on. Instead we do some very narrow, repetitive task that has no direct bearing on our own survival, in order to be paid the money that we use to obtain the things we actually need from a host of other people performing their own narrow, repetitive, specialized tasks.

We live in an age of anxiety. Look at the anger, conflict, tension and bigotry around the world, between countries and within them. Most people spend their lives feeling uneasy and on edge, wondering how long they can go on paying the bills, how long they can maintain the fragile social connections they possess, and how they will survive when they get old or sick. Does anyone really believe that the way human beings live today is healthy or happy or that this is really the best we can do? I contend that most of our anger and anxiety comes from the fact that we live lives that are so distant in character from the kind of lives that we evolved to live and that we are born expecting.

Domination is not natural for human beings; we evolved in a largely egalitarian and non-hierarchical setting. To force hierarchy on to us is to attack our human nature, to leave us feeling bitter and resentful. Specialization is not natural for human beings; we evolved to learn the range of practical skills needed to provide for ourselves in the wild. To force us to specialize is to leave us forever in a state of childlike dependence on the millions of other people who must do their own specialized jobs in order to keep society functioning. In a complex society specialization is inevitable, but much of our specialization is dedicated to producing unnecessary goods and services simply in order to generate profits for capitalists. A serious reduction in unnecessary production and consumption would allow time for more general interests, and thus for the development of happier, more rounded human beings.

In modern society our lives are largely beyond our control, our societies are too complex for us to really understand, and we are faced with regular artificial upheavals: being sent off to school, changing schools, passing exams, choosing a career, applying for jobs, changing jobs, and so on. We are largely segregated from each other: children from adults, the young from the old, the healthy from the sick, and those who do wage labour from those who do not. We come to feel strangers to each other. We come to feel suspicious and threatened by those who are different from ourselves. We face each new stage of life with trepidation since we have little understanding of what faces us and we are threatened with ruin if we fail to make the transition in the socially approved fashion.

Ageing comes as a shock to us; illness, dying and death come as shocks to us. In a hunter-gatherer band we would, from the earliest age, witness the whole cycle of life: birth, growth, maturity, ageing, and death. Illness and injury would not be strangers to us. We would know what all these things look like, how they progress, and how best to deal with them. We would know what to expect when we face these things ourselves. In our segregated, sanitized society, we are fed the illusion of eternal youth and beauty. Ageing, illness and death are considered ‘morbid’ or ‘impolite’ subjects or a problem to be addressed with the appropriate consumer products or by submitting to the instructions of another group of specialists.

Obviously we can’t return to being hunter-gatherers. We can’t support the population of the Earth without modern agriculture and all the other systems that support it. But we can make the world more egalitarian. We can consume less and share out what we do consume more fairly. We can move away from hierarchy and authoritarianism in families, schools and workplaces, toward voluntary participation, common ownership and democratic decision-making. We can move from a culture based on greed and selfishness to one based on care and respect. We know that we can do these things as we evolved to do them, and if we do them we’ll all be a lot healthier and happier during our brief time on this earth.