The Gods of the Nursery

July 1, 2018

Various cultures have produced father-gods and mother-goddesses. The Greeks had Zeus and Demeter, the Norsemen had Odin and Frigg, and the Christians have Jehovah and the Virgin Mary. Religious leaders are referred to as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in the Christian tradition. Many countries have founding fathers and countries themselves are considered to be fatherlands and motherlands. People find father figures and mother substitutes among teachers, employers and political leaders, to whom they give the same obedience and emotional attachment that they gave to their parents. Human beings hold parents in great esteem, even religious awe. God Himself has told us to honour our mother and father, if the Hebrew Bible is to be believed, although we might suspect that it was a human father who took down God’s dictation.

During an angry exchange in parliament a recent British prime minister said that his mother would tell the leader of the opposition to ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’. It’s interesting that in a stressful moment the leader of a rich, powerful, nuclear-armed state recalled his mother’s petty, conformist advice. The previous prime minister on assuming office quoted his old school motto, ‘I will try my utmost’, as the guiding principle for his time in power, which had any self-respecting person reaching for a sick bag. These examples suggest that parents, and other childhood authority figures, are firmly lodged in the human mind.

I’ve often heard people utter sentences that begin with the phrase ‘my mother always said that…’ or ‘my father taught me that…’ or words to that effect. I’ve also heard people say that their parents gave them their values and their direction in life; that they wouldn’t want to disappoint their parents; that they want to make their parents proud; that they owe everything to their parents; that their parents are their heroes, and so on. All this is said with great emotion, and God help anyone who dares to contradict it. The idea that we might be living our own lives, not our parents’ lives, and that the goal of life is to realise our own potential, not please other people, doesn’t seem to enter most people’s minds. Even people who are critical of their parents still tend to worry about what their parents think of them and desire their approval. And people who rebel against their parents define themselves in opposition to their parents, and so remain tied to them. Human beings are utterly fixated on parents and parent substitutes.

The idea of a parent, or any other adult, being ‘disappointed’ with a child is utterly monstrous, because it assumes that children exist to please adults. They absolutely do not. Children exist to live their own lives, to develop their own values, and to realise their own potential in their own way. Children are distinct individuals, not the property of their parents or of wider society. No human being owns another human being. No human being has the right to dictate to anyone else how they should live. But most parents subject their children to a kind of emotional slavery by withdrawing support and affection if their children fail to obey them and conform to their wishes. This is child abuse, pure and simple, as it creates anxiety and frustration and denies children the right to live their own lives.

When we are young children we are utterly dependent on the care and protection of our parents. We take their power and wisdom to be limitless and they in turn encourage our deference and obedience. These experiences are burned deep into our souls; so deep that we aren’t even aware of them unless we reflect on the matter. The voices of our parents, and other childhood authorities, live inside our heads for the rest of our lives, telling us how we should think, feel and behave, and whether we’re doing right or wrong. Our own thoughts and feelings are often drowned out by this primitive chatter. Conformity to social convention and obedience to the desires of authority figures become the ruling principles of our lives, to the detriment of human freedom, creativity, and individuality. The mistakes of the past are repeated, over and over again, because children are denied the chance to do things differently.

The parent-child relationship is the pattern for all hierarchical relationships, most notably the teacher-pupil relationship and the manager-worker relationship. This pattern of domination and submission is laid down firmly in childhood and shapes the whole of society. Some children grow up to be authority figures and get to play at being parents; others must continue to play the role of children throughout their lives. Most people alternate between these roles as they go through adult life, sometimes dominating others, sometimes being dominated, in the family, school, the workplace, and even in so-called ‘intimate’ relationships. The idea of an equal relationship built on mutual respect doesn’t enter most people’s minds, or if it does they have no idea how to achieve it, since they have no experience of it. In times of stress most people either revert to being meek and apologetic like intimidated children, or they become angry and judgemental like their parents, depending on whether they feel themselves to be in a weak or a strong position.

It doesn’t have to be this way of course. Imagine a world in which parents allowed children to express themselves freely and to satisfy their own needs instead of satisfying their parents’ needs. Imagine that parents allowed children to develop their own individuality rather than manipulating and controlling them. Imagine that parents encouraged independence of thought and action rather than imposing their own ideas on their children. In such a world children would grow up with a strong sense of self, they would know how to treat themselves and others with the genuine respect that comes from an equal relationship, they wouldn’t be prepared for manipulation, and they would treat authority figures with the contempt they so richly deserve.


Discipline and Punishment

June 9, 2018

The supposed necessity of disciplining children tells us something important about human nature. Adults need to use discipline to make children obey them because children are naturally individualistic and self-directed, or ‘wilful’ and ‘disobedient’ in grown-up speak. Young children don’t simply await instructions from adults, and they don’t immediately do what adults want. They have an inner sense of purpose from the beginning of life; they have a strong desire to express themselves and to shape their environment rather than merely be shaped by it. Children are naturally curious and energetic. As soon as they become aware of some physical capacity – reaching, crawling, climbing, etc. – they want to explore that capacity. As soon as they encounter objects in the world they want to investigate them and see how they respond to manipulation.

Adults really don’t like this. They are forever telling children ‘No!’ and ‘Stop it!’ and ‘That’s naughty!’ and threatening them with punishment, whether that’s shouting, smacking, withdrawal of affection, denial of pleasures, limitations on movement, isolation from their family and friends, or some other ingenious way of inducing shame and fear. In other words, children doing what they naturally do, because of the inquisitive and explorative creatures they are, is considered ‘naughty’. This makes no more sense than telling a bird that it’s naughty for flying or a fish that it’s naughty for swimming. And then people are surprised when children becoming angry, upset or ‘moody’, to use a hideous word loved by adults.

Consider the extraordinary moral indignation that adults feel when children disobey them. ‘How dare you, a mere child, disobey me, an almighty adult! How dare you be an independent life form and hinder my purposes for even a moment!’ Perhaps if adults all had happy, fulfilling lives, if they all treated each other with kindness and respect, and the world was a place full of happiness, peace, love and sharing, then they might have some reason to consider themselves morally superior. But this is clearly not the case, and adults use the supposed necessity of discipline as an excuse for taking out their anger, frustration and disappointment on innocent children. Where does this anger come from? From their own miserable childhoods, of course.

It’s a striking achievement of so-called ‘child raising’, of parenting and schooling, that it can gradually destroy children’s natural energy and curiosity and make them bored and apathetic by the time they are teenagers. Children’s natural inclinations are repeatedly and cruelly thwarted by adults from the earliest age, until many of them see little point in making an effort. It’s not as if adults can claim that children’s behaviour comes as a shock to them. We all know that children are hugely energetic and demanding. If you’re not prepared for this, if you’re not hugely patient and tolerant, if you care more about your orderly life, your neat little home, your career development, and what the neighbours think, there’s a simple solution – don’t have kids, because you don’t deserve to have guardianship of a new and developing human being.

You may think that you’ll soon knock your kids into shape, that you’ll mould them to your desires, that you’ll impress your values and preferences on them, that you’ll teach them obedience and discipline. Well, you might do on the surface, but underneath they’ll be seething with frustration and resentment, and that frustration and resentment will seek expression somewhere. Maybe they’ll hit their siblings or other kids at school. Maybe they’ll steal or take drugs to spite you. Maybe they’ll have a relationship in which they emotionally, physically or sexually abuse their partner. Maybe they’ll get a job in management and treat their subordinates like shit. Maybe they’ll have kids of their own and bully them just the way that they were bullied. Or maybe they’ll let other people treat them like shit all their lives because that’s all they’ve ever known. Maybe they’ll cut themselves or starve themselves or hang themselves to escape their shame and fear.

The fundamental point is this: human beings are meant to be free and self-directed, not disciplined and obedient, and this is obvious from the way we naturally behave as children, until we are terrorised into changing our behaviour. All the social structures of the world – the family, school, work, the state – are organised on a hierarchical, authoritarian basis that contradicts and perverts human nature. Hence all the human misery, all the conflict, poverty, injustice, bigotry, environmental destruction, and so on, that blights the world. All this can be traced back to the mistreatment of children. Miserable human beings produce a miserable world; their misery begins in childhood, and that is where we must bring it to an end, if we are to have any hope of a decent future.

Dictatorship for Beginners

June 2, 2018

Schools, prisons and army barracks are essentially the same institution. In each case there is the same alleged moral purpose, the supposed disciplining, training or reforming of the inmates. In each case there is compulsory attendance, unquestionable authority, uniforms, invasive scrutiny, endless petty rules, self-righteous anger on the part of the authorities when they are disobeyed, harsh criticism and punishment without hope of appeal, simmering violence, and the pecking order among the inmates. Schools are the most important of these three institutions, as they create the conditions in which army barracks and prisons become possible, by training some children for obedience and causing others to rebel against the system.

Schools are dictatorships in miniature, and this is considered perfectly normal and acceptable the world over. Children don’t get to vote for their teachers or to vote on school policy. They are forced to attend school whether they want to or not. They are told what to do every minute of every day throughout their long years of incarceration. They have no right to appeal against this situation. If they fail to obey they can expect punishment. Even when they do obey they can be punished on the mere suspicion of teachers; they can also receive collective punishment due to the disobedience of other children. Threats and intimidation are standard means of control in schools.

This situation creates anger, fear, frustration and resentment among children. The fear is a deliberate product of the system, as fearful children are easier to control than self-confident children. Creating such unpleasant emotional states in children is a form of psychological abuse, and this abuse is the responsibility of all the adults who support and operate the education system, not just teachers but parents and wider society as well. Sometimes this abuse leads children to rebel against their teachers, other times they turn on each other in order to find some outlet for their painful emotions. Children are then considered to be ‘naturally’ aggressive and undisciplined, as if their emotions had no relation to the environment in which they occur, and this is used to justify even more of the adult oppression that created the problem in the first place.

In schools large numbers of children of similar age are crammed into a small area and subjected to oppressive control by adults during lessons. This control is periodically relaxed at break and lunch, and on the way to and from school. During these times it’s inevitable that some children will subject other children to verbal abuse and physical attacks, as they release the anger and frustration that has built up during the day, and which they are afraid to direct at adults. The adults who support and operate the education system know that this happens, they do little or nothing to prevent it, so they are utterly complicit in this abuse and violence. Adults may congratulate themselves on abolishing corporal punishment in schools, but they continue to create the environment in which violence occurs outside their direct supervision.

It’s no wonder that bullying occurs among groups of children as they are taught by their parents and teachers that anger, criticism, threats, intimidation, even violence, are acceptable ways of interacting with other human beings, as this is how adults often interact with children. Adults are happy to take out their anger and frustration on children, and tell themselves smugly that the children deserve it and that it’s ‘for their own good’, but they are furious if children follow their example. This is one of the key hypocrisies of so-called ‘child rearing’, an example of the old commandment beloved by all authority figures: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

Children are right to rebel against the tyranny they endure at the hands of adults, and their spontaneous rebellion demonstrates that they possess both self-respect and a sense of fairness, however shaky and fragile these qualities may be. These qualities display the true nature of children, and indicate what they might be if they weren’t corrupted by adults. If there’s disorder in schools it’s not because children are ‘difficult’ or ‘immature’ it’s because they’re desperately trying to hang on to their individuality in the face of the adult tyranny that wishes to bend them to its will.

Sadly children lack knowledge and organisation, so their rebellion is usually misdirected, futile and destructive, and simply brings down greater punishment, as it always does in a dictatorship. By the time they leave school most children have lost the fight; they are psychologically broken and conformist, and ready for a lifetime of exploitation in the capitalist workplace. If society is ever to be liberated it must involve the liberation of children, not by adults imposing a new and supposedly better form of education on them, but by allowing them as far as possible to determine the course of their own lives. To reform society without reforming childhood is futile, as by the time we reach adulthood the damage has already been done.

Violence for Beginners

May 31, 2018

Violence was a compulsory part of the curriculum at the high school I attended. To give one example, the boys were required to play full-contact rugby. It was played in the dark depths of winter on a muddy pitch at the side of the school. The weather was as cold and pitiless as the teachers’ eyes. The boys were expected to ‘get stuck in’, which meant throwing themselves into tackles, regardless of potential injury. As a result of this boys got cuts, bruises and teeth knocked out. The ability to give and receive pain was considered to be a good sign of their developing masculinity. Boys who didn’t show sufficient effort and enthusiasm were considered by the other boys to be ‘fucking gay bastards’. These rugby lessons involved the unquestioning obedience, organised violence and indifference to pain that is admired in every army and dictatorship around the world.

At the end of these so-called ‘physical education’ lessons the boys were required to strip naked in front of the teachers and go into communal showers. The teachers would insist that the boys must shower in front of them so that they could be sure that they were clean. Fully clothed, sexually mature adults would scrutinise naked children in order to ensure their obedience. If a child were considered to have come out of the shower too quickly they would be ordered back in. The water was often freezing cold, producing cries of dismay from the children, but this was simply part of the game for the teachers; they clearly enjoyed the power and the spectacle. This whole process was painful, degrading and humiliating. In this way physical and sexual abuse were made routine parts of school discipline and the ‘education’ of children.

The Nazis never shocked or surprised me. The kind of people who can send children into the showers to cause them pain and humiliation in a time of peace and prosperity are the same kind of people who can send children into the showers to be gassed in a time of war and dictatorship. Scratch the surface of any authority figure and there’s a black uniform with a swastika underneath. The brutal treatment of children ensures that there will always be a supply of these loathsome individuals, as people who are treated brutally in childhood tend to become brutal themselves.

In Defence of the Child

April 20, 2018

I’d like to say a few words in defence of the child, inspired by Alice Miller’s The Drama of Being a Child. It seems to me that most people don’t know what really happens in childhood, even though we’ve all lived through it as children and many of us have also been parents. We tend to repress bad experiences, exaggerate good ones, and idealise our parents and our own parenting. The truth is unpleasant and we don’t want to face it. Most of us were abused as children and left traumatised by the experience, which we tend to repeat with our own children if we have them. The personal and social consequences are devastating, as can be seen from the state of the world around us.

Most parents are woefully inadequate. Even the seemingly good parents often turn out on closer examination to be neglectful and abusive. I’m thinking primarily of emotional abuse, although there may be elements of physical and sexual abuse. Examples of emotional abuse include: personal criticism, threats, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, isolation, neglect, secrecy, emotional distance, withdrawal of affection, denial of opportunities, denial of pleasures, disregard for the child’s preferences, disrespect for the child’s individuality, excessive expectations, making love conditional on achievement, blaming the child for problems in the parent’s life, threats of abandonment, harsh and arbitrary punishments, refusing to hear the child’s side of the story, refusing to ever accept responsibility or apologise, frequently reminding the child of innocent mistakes, dismissing cries for help and understanding, and so on. Who can honestly say that none of these things sound familiar from their own childhood?

Most parents engage in behaviours of this sort, which they learned from their own parents, and which they repeat with very little awareness of what they are doing. As far as most people are concerned these things largely constitute correct parenting. Abusive behaviour is justified by calling it ‘firm discipline’ and saying that it’s ‘for the child’s own good’. Anyone who doesn’t do these things is likely to be considered ‘soft’ or to be ‘spoiling’ their children.

The occasional occurrence of these behaviours is probably unavoidable, as no one has limitless love and patience, but when these things become a repeating pattern, as they so often do, they are child abuse, as can be seen from the long-term negative consequences. Children are left traumatised by these behaviours, which is to say that they have long-term emotional disturbances as a result, although the disturbances may be hidden behind an appearance of social conformity and outward success. Conformity is itself a form of disturbance, a denial of who we really are because we fear rejection, since our parents rejected us when we failed to conform to their wishes.

Most children are profoundly wounded by the behaviours of their parents. They feel weak, powerless, ashamed, guilty, unloved and unlovable, due to the cruel and domineering treatment that they endure. But they can’t express this since they desperately need their parents love and support in life, however inadequate that love and support may be. They have nowhere else to turn. Most of us were in this situation once. As we grow up we know unconsciously that our parents have neglected and abused us, but it’s too painful to accept consciously, so we transfer our feelings towards our parents on to others. We often feel angry with the people around us but also want their approval, because secretly that’s how we feel about our parents. We desperately want to be loved but we have lots of conflict in our relationships for reasons that we can never quite understand. No matter how much money and how many possessions we have we’re never really happy. Material success is no substitute for the parental love that was rationed or denied in childhood.

Two key consequences of child abuse are depression and anxiety. Alice Miller argues that depression involves a lack of emotion. This may sound surprising. Don’t depressed people have too much emotion, too much sadness? No, what they had was a childhood environment that prevented them naturally expressing their emotions, which they were required to deny and repress in order to please their parents, leaving them feeling sad and empty inside. As adults trying to recover from depression it’s essential that we express the emotions that we repressed in childhood and allow ourselves the tears and anger that we need in order to heal.

Anxiety also involves a lack of emotion, according to Miller. As children we’re prevented from following our natural inclinations by our parents who require us to conform to their needs rather than to our own. Because our natural inclinations are unacceptable to our parents we come to doubt and question every feeling that arises spontaneously within us. This makes us indecisive and anxious. We lose touch with our sense of self and become uncertain what we really want from life or how we should react in any given situation. We find ourselves wondering what our parents would want rather than trusting our own feelings.

Even when we become consciously aware of these problems they don’t just disappear. The unconscious takes a long time to catch up; it’s effectively our younger self, the wounded child that we once were and in many ways still are, and we have to love and nurture our younger self in the way that our parents never did, or did only sporadically. And most of all we have to let ourselves feel whatever we need to feel for as long as we need to feel it. We begin to heal when we stop seeing everyone else as stand-ins for our parents. Then we can stop repeating the patterns of feeling and behaviour that we learned in childhood and which cause us so many problems in our life and relationships, and indeed in society at large.

The answer to the repression of emotion is the recovery and expression of that emotion. Freely expressing ourselves is about re-connecting with the healthy children we once were or could have been. So much of human society is anti-child, concerned with such dreary materialistic values as obedience, conformity, hard work and ‘productivity’. Society acts to crush the spirit of the child, all the natural joy, energy, playfulness, affection, spontaneity and creativity that children possess. The result is an angry, miserable world full of conflict and seemingly unsolvable problems. If children were simply allowed to be themselves they wouldn’t carry so much anger into adulthood and they would have the creativity to solve the dire problems that we face as a species. We urgently need to speak up in defence of the children we once were and the children who are alive today, because only then can the cycle of abuse and trauma be ended and humanity be freed from its self-imposed shackles.

The Tyranny of Adults

April 2, 2018

Children in America have recently organised and protested in support of gun control. Children in Britain, in the 60s and 70s, organised and protested against corporal punishment in schools. Apparently adults need children to tell them that shooting people and beating people are not good things to do. This is hardly surprising. Look at the world that adults have made, a world racked by war, poverty, famine, disease, bigotry, injustice, inequality, and environmental destruction. This is the world that adults bring children into and then they claim the right to ‘educate’ children, to tell them what they should think and feel, how they should behave, and what values they should live by.

And what values do adults prize above all? Obedience and conformity. Children are expected to do as they are told and be just like everyone else. To give a personal example, I remember being forced to wear a school uniform when I was 9 years old, and how ‘smart’ the adults considered it to be, and how important they said it was to not be ‘scruffy’. I kept my mouth shut through fear of punishment, but inside I felt utter contempt for these people. They seemed to think that children are little dolls to be dressed up as they please, not human beings with feelings and preferences of their own.

It wasn’t a fancy school that I went to. Even working class scum like me are expected to wear school uniforms in Britain, as it’s good training for mindless obedience in adulthood. Business executives expect the workers they exploit to subordinate their individuality to a corporate dress code, and working class soldiers are expected to look ‘smart’ before the ruling elite send them to get maimed or killed in some foreign land. Schools were created not for the benefit of children but for industry and war.

It was obvious to me as a 9 year old child that a person’s moral worth is determined by the principles they live by and how they treat others, not by how they look or dress, or by how obedient they are or how well they conform to social norms. Indeed, the refusal to follow an instruction you disagree with is a sign of moral courage. But this was beyond the moral understanding of the teachers who ran the violent, oppressive school I attended and who cared more about ‘correct’ attire than they did about the safety and happiness of children.

I knew then that all human beings, whether adults or children, should have the right to express themselves in their own way and to make all decisions about their own lives that they are capable of making, obviously including what clothes to wear. But adults could not comprehend these basic moral facts. They desired obedience and conformity, not freedom and individuality. Aged 9 I had more morality in my little finger than all the adults I knew put together, and yet the adults claimed the right to dominate my life.

Children are constantly subject to the tyranny of adults. At home and at school children are told where to be, at what time, and what to do when they are there. They are told what to wear, when to speak, when to be silent, when to sit, when to stand. They are told when to eat, when to go to the toilet, when to go to bed. Lack of enthusiasm for these commands results in criticism; lack of obedience results in punishment. Threats and intimidation are used as means of control. And then adults wonder why children become rebellious or apathetic. Adults like to describe children as ‘difficult’ or ‘lazy’, when they don’t immediately do exactly what adults want them to do, when in fact the children are sick of their mistreatment and have lost faith in the adult world – quite rightly.

In this world children are largely denied self-expression and self-determination. They are not allowed to decide how they look or speak or what they do with their time. If a child even looks unhappy they are likely to be told to ‘take that look off your face’. The utterly invasive and minute control of children by adults is taken for granted as being the natural order of things, when in fact it’s a historically recent product of hierarchical, authoritarian societies. Adults quite happily discuss how children should look and speak and behave and what they should do with their time without thinking for a moment of asking what children actually want or how they really feel about the way they are treated.

Children learn from an early age that they must avoid saying what they really think and feel; they know that adults want cheerful obedience not criticism. And so this dreadful world keeps rolling along, with misery passed from generation to generation, and the same mistakes being made over and over again. Children are never given a chance to do things differently; their moral potential is systematically crushed from an early age by parents and teachers.

Children are the victims of the last great unnamed prejudice. How often do you hear anyone mention or discuss ‘adultism’, the prejudice of adults against children? I suspect never. But how often do you hear adults expressing this prejudice? I suspect regularly. It’s common to hear people discussing, in everyday life and in the media, how difficult and demanding children are, and how hard life is for parents and teachers. The thought that life may be much harder for the children subjected to adult tyranny never crosses anyone’s mind. If white people publicly said that black people are difficult and demanding, or men said that women are difficult to control, or straight people discussed how to change the behaviour of gay people, any decent person would be shocked. But it’s perfectly fine to talk in this bigoted way about children.

Underlying adultism are two key beliefs: first, that children are naturally wild and need to be tamed by adults; second, that children are the property of adults to be used as they see fit. Both these beliefs are utterly false and do terrible damage. Regarding the first belief, children are born capable of both creative and destructive behaviours. If they become destructive it’s because they are born into a brutal world that denies them self-expression and self-determination. Human beings have a natural desire for freedom. This freedom can justifiably be curtailed in order to protect the lives and freedom of others, but not to control every aspect of a person’s life in the way that children are controlled. When children are tyrannised they quite rightly rebel, and since they have learned cruelty and violence from adults this rebellion is often destructive.

With regard to the second belief, children are not property: they are unique and distinct individuals with personalities that are developing from the earliest moments of life. Their personalities develop by the interaction of innate characteristics and the social environment in which they find themselves. If the social environment is highly restrictive this frustrates the child’s natural inclinations and leads to open rebellion or to apathy and resentment. Either way the child’s life is made miserable and all the problems of society are carried over into the next generation.

Children are not blank slates to be written on or clay to be moulded. If this were the case there would be no childhood rebellion and no need for harsh discipline, as children would simply accept instructions without question. The resistance of children – whether obvious or more subtle – is a clear sign of their individuality and the wrong that is done to them by the tyranny of adults.

The tyranny is made worse by the fact that children are morally superior to adults. Young children feel uncomfortable in the presence of cruelty or unfairness, whether they or others are the victims. They are naturally distressed when they see someone crying and want to comfort them. They are naturally upset when someone starts shouting and want it to end. When they hear another child being shouted at by an adult they feel anxious themselves. Adults are fully aware of this fact and use it to deliberately frighten children by ‘making an example’ of some of them.

I’ve already mentioned children’s opposition to gun violence and corporal punishment, but their concerns reach far beyond these problems to a wider social criticism. When children first find out that some people are hungry or homeless they are likely to be concerned about the unfairness and wonder why we can’t simply share our food and housing more fairly. Children are usually shocked by war and want to know why people can’t discuss their differences rather than killing each other. When children raise these concerns they are likely to be dismissed by adults as ‘naïve’ and told that the issues are too complicated for them to understand. But there’s nothing complicated about violence and injustice: children have plenty of experience of these things in their own lives. And there’s nothing complicated about compassion and fairness: children are born with a natural inclination toward these things.

All the natural impulses towards fairness and compassion that children possess are gradually crushed and perverted by the tyranny of adults. Parents and teachers tell children to ‘mind their own business’ when other children are distressed or being treated unfairly. They tell children to think only of themselves, of their own performance at school, of their grades and exams, and their own future careers and earning potential. Children are told to stop ‘making a fuss’ when they cry or protest. And then adults wring their hands when children become rebellious or violent and wonder how on earth it could have happened and why the world remains the violent, unjust place that it is. Instead of blaming the young for society’s problems the adults should look in the mirror if they want to identify the culprits.

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.