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.

Capitalist Holocaust

January 26, 2018

We in the West are not self-sufficient; we are dependent on a steady flow of goods and services from the rest of the world: food, fuel, minerals, manufactured goods, skilled and unskilled labour. If you doubt this take a look at the labels on your clothes, the packages your food comes in, and the boxes your electronic gadgets come in. Look for the ‘made in’ label. Ask where the people that clean your workplace came from, or where the doctors and nurses came from if you find yourself in hospital. Look at the world’s major oil and mining companies, with head offices in the West, and find the countries they operate in around the world.

Our wealth and privilege is built on the labour and natural resources of countries poorer than ours; they suffer so that we can be comfortable. Western banks, corporations and investors have a controlling influence over land, resources and factories around the world, and use them to supply Western countries with goods and services and to generate a profit for themselves. The wealth and political influence of the West keeps this system in operation, backed up by the threat of economic isolation, sanctions and war.

This is how economic imperialism works. This is a product of centuries of invasion, conquest, slavery, robbery and murder. Take a look at a map of the world and generally you’ll find that the richer countries ruled empires while the poorer countries were imperial colonies. This is no coincidence. When you’ve been oppressed and exploited long enough you have little chance of recovering without some kind of compensation, and if the oppression and exploitation continues in a new form then you have no chance. The West used to rule poor countries as colonies, now it controls them through the global economic system.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 3.1 million children die from the effects of malnutrition every year [1]. Millions more people live their lives with the physical and mental harm caused by malnutrition. At the same time the West suffers from growing levels of obesity and throws away uneaten food. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that 2.78 million people are killed by work-related illnesses and injuries each year [2]. These deaths occur disproportionately in poorer countries where there is less money to spend on safety equipment and people are under more pressure to work or starve.

It’s striking that these deaths, which occur every year under global capitalism, add up to around 6 million, the same as the number of Jews killed by the Nazis in the holocaust. The holocaust of the Jews is often mentioned in the media and in schools – quite rightly – but the capitalist holocaust that occurs every year is never mentioned. An unimaginably horrible crime for which people today cannot be held responsible is given a great deal of attention while another unimaginably horrible crime in which we are all complicit is given little or no attention.

There are good reasons for this silence. First, the capitalists don’t want serious examination of how they run the world; they don’t want their crimes to be exposed. Second, the Nazi-perpetrated holocaust is used, in Britain and America at least, to foster the idea that evil is something done by other people and that we are good and stand against evil. This idea is very useful when the British and American governments want to start yet another war, because they can say, ‘We’re the good guys! After all, we fought the Nazis. Therefore, you should support our war or you’re no better than the Nazis!’ These lies are comforting and self-righteous, hence their appeal. The truth is not so pleasant.

Current Gross World Product (GWP), a measure of the world’s wealth, is around $75 trillion [3]. With a population of around 7.5 billion that equates to $10,000 for every person, adult or child, if it were shared out equally. With that amount of wealth available we could all have enough to eat, a decent home, and a job with safe working conditions, if it were shared out fairly among the many rather than being hoarded by the few. But the wealth is stolen by powerful countries and individuals, and so millions have died and go on dying.

The cycle of misery goes on, but we are not powerless to change things. We can join a trade union and a socialist party. We can stand up to injustice collectively. We can refuse to go on supporting wars and obeying the orders of the ruling elite. We can refuse to go on wasting our lives producing and consuming unnecessary goods and services. We can simplify our lives and live within our means as individuals, as a society and as a species, demanding less of the working people of the world and less of the environment. If we are to have any hope of a decent future we must do these things.–en/index.htm

Children’s Liberation

January 2, 2018

Throughout history women have been considered inferior to men and hence subject to their domination. People of colour have been considered inferior to white people and hence subject to their domination. Gay people have been considered ‘perverted’ and ‘unnatural’ and hence subject to punishment. As a result there have arisen the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. These are all positive developments. They have achieved some success and I hope they will achieve much more.

But where is the children’s liberation movement? Throughout history children have been considered inferior to adults and hence subject to their domination. Is this the one form of oppression that will go forever unnamed and unchallenged? Perhaps you think it’s perfectly obvious that children are inferior and that adults ought to control them? If so, remember that misogynists, racists and homophobes have the same confident feeling of superiority over the targets of their bigotry.

Childhood in this world is deeply authoritarian, even fascistic. Children are told where to be, at what time and what to do when they’re there; they’re told when to speak, when to be silent; when to sit, when to stand; what to wear; what to eat; when to sleep; when to piss and shit. Failure to obey results in punishment. Even when they do obey they are reminded of the punishments they would receive if they failed to obey. In this world childhood is built on fear.

Parents, teachers, and adults in general, behave as children’s jailers, rather than as their guardians. An authoritarian childhood, with authoritarian families and schools, trains people for obedience and conformity, resulting in an authoritarian society. This perfectly suits the people in power, whether they are parents, teachers, employers, police officers, judges, or politicians, as they are all desperate to hang on to their power and increase it if possible. We will never have a democratic society until we have a democratic childhood, which means children having an equal voice with adults in the family and in schools.

Adults hate children. I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion, given the way that they treat them. They pretend to love them but what they really love is a fantasy image of children as little angels, submissive to adult commands and desires. This is the paedophilic heart of our society. In practice adults treat children as prisoners or animals or ‘savages’ who need to be civilized, when in fact the adults are the savages who create this violent, divided, unjust world.

In order to love someone there are two crucial requirements: 1) you know who that person really is, and 2) you accept and love the person as they really are. I contend that most parents do not meet these two conditions for their own children. Firstly, they don’t know who their children really are because they are constantly telling their children what to do, managing every aspect of their appearance and behaviour, so their children never get to truly express who they are. Secondly, when their children do express what they are really thinking and feeling, what they really need and desire, they will usually be criticised, told that their behaviour is ‘rude’ or ‘inappropriate’, and told to stop being ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding’.

Children quickly learn to feel ashamed of their natural inclinations and to keep them concealed, to become secretive and evasive, to put on an appearance of conformity in order to please adults. This sickening, degrading conformity continues into adulthood with the desire of workers to please the managers who oppress and exploit them. The model for the employee-employer relationship is precisely that of child and parent; hence employers deceive, control and manipulate their employees, just as parents deceive, control and manipulate their children. Shame and secrecy poison human relations throughout our lives.

In an authoritarian society human relations are built on criticism. Parents, teachers, and other adults, endlessly criticise children, for every aspect of their appearance and behaviour. This teaches children that criticism is the normal basis for every human relationship. So they in turn criticise their family and friends and the other people around them. When they grow up they are likely to have intimate relationships that involve lots of personal criticism, preventing them from knowing who the people around them really are, and leading them to make futile attempts to change people to meet some absurd idea of their perfect companion.

The hatred and criticism spreads out to the social and political spheres, leading to all kinds of bigotry: racism, sexism, homophobia, body prejudice, class prejudice, etc. Children learn at the earliest age that human beings relate to each other primarily by criticising each other, by picking on every aspect of appearance and behaviour to determine whether it is acceptable or unacceptable according to the prevailing social conventions. As children we are largely on the receiving end of criticism. How good it feels to be the one doing the criticising as an adult! How eagerly we look for people to criticise and reasons to criticise them! How ignorant, miserable, and fucked up we all are!

No wonder kids rebel. They are right to do so; it’s always right to rebel against tyranny. Sadly the rebellion of children is usually individual, futile and destructive, rather than collective, purposeful and constructive. This futile rebellion is given such names as ‘tantrums’, ‘the terrible twos’, ‘naughtiness’ and ‘teenage moodiness’. How telling it is that when children refuse to meekly obey adult orders, when they begin to assert their individuality, adults consider it an unequivocally bad thing. As I said, adults hate children. As a result they love to punish them, sometimes violently, always with threats and fear, thereby teaching children the violence and tyranny of the adult world. We pass on our ignorance and brutality to our children and call it ‘discipline’ and ‘morality’.

In a free and fair world adults would celebrate children’s growing individuality and their refusal to simply obey orders. Of course this rebellion creates difficulties for adults, since it thwarts their plans, but a reasonable person adapts to circumstances and seeks compromise, rather than relying on threats and force to impose their will on others, whether they are children or adults. In order to get to this free and fair world we desperately need children’s unions, on the model of trade unions, organised in schools, in order to give children the solidarity and collective bargaining power that unionised workers possess. Such organisations have existed, and do exist, and they need to grow and spread if there is ever to be a better world.

Children are morally superior to adults. Isn’t this obvious? Children are horrified by war, poverty, and homelessness, for instance, and want to know why they’re allowed to continue. Adults, beaten down by school and work and debt and capitalist propaganda, become jaded and cynical, and simply accept these things, and think of themselves as ‘realists’ and ‘pragmatists’. And then adults are put in charge of children to give them moral guidance! The education system instructs children that their goal in life is to get good exam results for themselves, so that they can get a good job for themselves, and purchase lots of consumer products for themselves. Schools crush the original altruism and social criticism of children and foster greed, selfishness and egoism.

No oppressed people were ever given anything by their oppressors until they organised and demanded it. The workers and oppressed peoples of all lands must unite to end their oppression, but so too must children. Without the liberation of children there can be no liberation at all, since we are all grown-up children, carrying around with us the indoctrination, the memories and the wounds of childhood. If we ignore childhood it won’t ignore us, it will control us until the day we die. And so I say, children of all lands unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

Class War

December 30, 2017

They make a desert and call it peace, as one barbarian supposedly said of the Roman Empire. We might say the same thing about modern capitalism. The New Scientist recently reported on academic research into the effects of economic austerity in Britain [1]. The research suggested that 120,000 people have died in Britain in the last seven years due to cuts to health and social care budgets. This figure was reached by comparing death rates before and after the policy of austerity was implemented.

Whatever the supposed economic benefit of this policy we can say for certain that the poorest people have suffered most from austerity. While the poor have seen cuts to the public services they depend on the rich have seen cuts to their taxes. The burden of the economic crisis has weighed most heavily on those least able to support it while the richest people, who have the greatest economic power and hence the most responsibility for the crisis, are as comfortable as ever.

If 120,000 people died in seven years during an armed conflict in a single country it would be considered a major war. These people died in their homes and hospital beds and so their deaths are not considered significant or newsworthy. But they were killed by the government’s policy of austerity just as surely as they would have been had the government launched a military attack on them. The casualties are hidden from sight so the media don’t call it a war; they hardly even report it. But it is a war – class war, the war of the rich against the poor. What’s happening in Britain is a small battle in a global conflict.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 2.78 million people are killed in the workplace each year, while 374 million are injured, often resulting in extended periods of absence [2]. These deaths are not ‘tragic accidents’ as the mainstream media likes to portray them: no one has to die at work. These deaths are the result of such things as dangerous working conditions, too few people and too little time to do the job safely, lack of training, lack of safety equipment, and poorly maintained equipment. All these things could be corrected by investing in more workers, more training, more equipment, but this would reduce the profits of the capitalists, so it doesn’t happen.

We are all interconnected and we are all dependent on each other. Every country in the world imports goods and services from other countries, such as food, fuel, minerals and manufactured goods, as well as skilled and unskilled labour. The worldwide deaths of workers are the collective responsibility of us all, since we all consume goods and services produced by the global workforce. Even if a particular commodity is produced without loss of life it is still part of the global economic system that does take many lives, and there is likely to be death and injury somewhere in the production and distribution of most commodities.

The more a country, organisation or individual consumes the more they are responsible for the global death toll. The wealth of the richest people and richest countries is built on the exploitation of labour at home and abroad. Millions of workers have died, and go on dying, in order to provide the privileged few with their luxury items, with their fast cars, foreign holidays, large houses, designer clothes, exotic cuisine, electronic gadgets, and so on. The material trash that leaves us forever unsatisfied and alienated from each other is a product of human misery. We all have blood on our hands and the more we consume the thicker the blood becomes. This is the brutal reality of class war – the longest, bloodiest war in human history.–en/index.htm