Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

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.

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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.

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!

The Myth of Individualism

December 24, 2017

We are all products of our childhood. People who are born into poverty are likely to live and die poor. People who are born into wealth are likely to live and die wealthy. And those who are born somewhere in the middle are likely to live and die somewhere in the middle. This is why we find ‘rags to riches’ stories so fascinating, because they are so unusual; if they occurred regularly we wouldn’t care. For most people, in a society that is divided into socio-economic classes, birth is destiny.

The environment that we experience in childhood is crucial to shaping our future personality and behaviour. A caring, supportive environment in childhood is likely to produce confident, capable adults. A harsh, unpredictable environment is likely to produce angry, depressed, anxious adults. Children born to educated parents are likely to get a better education than those who are born to less educated parents. People who experience violence as children are more likely to become violent themselves. And so on.

There is a terrible irony to all this. Adults make children the way they are and then criticise the children for what they, the adults, have themselves brought about. Adults lecture children about taking responsibility for their actions and then take none themselves. Instead we live by the myth of individualism. This myth says that the kind of people we become, the education we have, the job we do, the money we have, and so on, is purely a result of our own efforts, of our own ‘hard work’ and ‘character’. The myth suggests that our parents, our peers, our school, the time and place we are born, the educational and employment opportunities we have or are denied, are all irrelevant to our status in life.

Why would anyone believe something so obviously false? Here we can ask the old legal question ‘cui bono?’ – who benefits from this state of affairs? Certainly the rich and powerful benefit, because they can claim that their riches and power are the result of their hard work and superior personal characteristics, and hence that they deserve all they have, and that no one has any right to object. The flip side of this assertion is that the poor and powerless owe their position in life to their lack of hard work and their inferior personal characteristics. The existing social order is justified by ignoring the different environments that people grow up in, the different levels of support that people receive in life, particularly as children, and the different opportunities that are made available or denied to them.

It’s easy to see why comfortable, privileged people would believe this myth, but why do the poor and powerless also believe it? Why do they so admire the rich and powerful people who oppress and exploit them? The answer is that they don’t know any better. Politics, the media, the education system, and the workplace are all controlled by the wealthy elite and they all repeat the myth over and over again, so it gets lodged in people’s brains and makes them accept the existing social order without question or complaint. People are trained to see the bad things that are done to them as their own fault; they are trained to see the things they are denied as things they don’t deserve.

You were born into poverty? That’s your own fault, says the myth. You grew up in an area with high levels of unemployment, crime and substance abuse? Also your own fault. You went to an overcrowded school, with stressed teachers, and lots of behavioural problems? If you’d just worked hard enough you’d have got top grades and gone to university anyway. You ended up with no qualifications and a low paid, low status job with arrogant, bullying managers? That’s because of your lack of moral character.

The myth of individualism says that our economic status is a matter of our personal efforts and characteristics. The truth is that we are social beings and we can only survive and prosper by providing each other with help and support. None of us is economically self-sufficient, none of us is the sole author of our own destiny, unless we live alone on a desert island and provide everything for ourselves. And even then the fact that we live on a particular island, with a particular set of natural resources, and that we have a particular set of physical and psychological characteristics, is beyond our control.

There is the myth of individualism but there is also the truth of individualism. The truth is that we are each capable of finding our own principles to live by, forming the kind of relationships that we prefer, and engaging in activities that we find interesting and worthwhile, without anyone else ordering us around and forcing us to do what they want. All this society denies. We are told that we must obey the people in power and behave as they tell us to behave in order to be loyal and patriotic citizens. We are told that we must sacrifice our own personal interests in order to serve the interests of ‘society’, which in fact means the interests of the ruling elite.

We are also told that competition, greed and selfishness are the natural driving forces of human behaviour, rather than the product of the sick and twisted socio-economic system that we live in. There is a great paradox here: we are told that we must be loyal servants, obedient to our political and economic masters, but also that we are utterly selfish and dedicated only to our own personal gratification. Individual freedom and the interconnectedness of human beings are both denied by the propaganda and ideology of capitalism.

If the freedom you desire is the freedom to consume lots of material goods and services, and you’re willing to dedicate your working life to obeying the orders of management, then capitalist society will welcome you with open arms. If the freedom you desire is the freedom to decide the course of your own life and to shape the society you live in through discussion and cooperation with the people around you, then you will find yourself at odds with the prevailing social order.

Fascism for Kids

December 11, 2017

When I was growing up, in the working class north of England in the 1980s, fascism was cool. Everyday at school I would see swastikas graffitied on walls or scratched into desks, or the letters ‘NF’, meaning the National Front, the most prominent fascist organisation of the time. I often heard pupils complaining that there were too many black people, Asians, and immigrants in the country and asserting that they should be sent ‘back where they came from’. Black and Asian people were referred to as coons, wogs, niggers, Pakis, and so on. Obviously the children didn’t spontaneously generate these words and ideas – they came from the adults around them and from wider society.

Never once did I see a hammer and sickle graffitied on a wall. Never once did I hear a call for the workers to rise in revolution against the capitalists. This brought home to me an enduring truth. Under capitalism the only acceptable form of working class dissent is fascism. The capitalists are quite relaxed about racism and fascism; what worries them is socialism and communism. Racism and fascism are perfectly compatible with the maintenance of private property and the power of the economic elite. In fact they turn working class people against each other, divided by the colour of their skin, making them easier to oppress and exploit. Socialism and communism, on the other hand, present the possibility of the working class united against their oppressors, threatening the wealth and power of the capitalists.

I first started paying attention to the news media in the 1980s. From then until now I have seen newspapers and television news programmes discussing the supposed problems of immigration and multiculturalism. Outright fascist publications like the Sun and the Daily Mail openly express their hatred of black and Asian people, whom they portray as terrorists, drug addicts, sexual predators, welfare cheats, members of subhuman races who ought to submit to the ‘civilizing’ rule of the white, Western elite. A conservative broadcaster such as the BBC simply reports the ‘concerns’ of racists and fascists without openly endorsing them. Of course to repeat their words is tacitly to endorse them and to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

The problems of capitalism, the class system and inequality are seldom addressed. For every trade unionist who appears on the BBC there are dozens of managers and economists. The trade unionists are presented as political agents attempting to improve their own conditions at the expense of wider society. The managers and economists are presented as impartial experts seeking economic prosperity. Wealthy business people are presented as ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ showering their blessings upon society. The workers who physically create the wealth of society, and who are robbed of this wealth by the capitalists, are almost invisible, or accused of being uneducated and unproductive.

Racism and fascism – unlike socialism and communism – are never spontaneous movements from below. They are always incited from above by the ruling elite who know that poverty makes people angry and that this anger must have an outlet or be turned against the rulers. Human beings don’t naturally hate people for looking or behaving differently. Most of us would happily give directions to a person with a different appearance and language to our own or help them lift heavy luggage on to a train. It takes a brutal society, and a steady stream of propaganda, to make people hate others simply for being different.

I mention the fascism I encountered at school because that’s where the problem begins, in childhood. Schools are hierarchical, authoritarian organisations that put great value on conformity and obedience, with swift punishments for those who step out of line. Teachers shout abuse at children, they enforce uniformity and regimentation, they encourage violent sports and turn a blind eye to violent bullying. All this prepares children wonderfully for the mindset of fascism, just as it prepares them for the hierarchical, authoritarian workplace and for unquestioning acceptance of the pronouncements of authority.

Everything is political. The way we are taught, the way we work, the way we consume, the way we spend our leisure time, the way we interact with each other: all these things are shaped by the socio-economic system in which we live. Consumer society is built on dissatisfaction, on convincing us all that there is something wrong with our lives and that only consumer products can put it right. The result is that most people live their lives with frustrated desires and feelings of inadequacy. In order to relieve their frustrations they look for someone else to blame, the scapegoat who can carry all their sins.

The ruling elite and the mainstream media are happy to oblige our desire to blame someone else for our problems, as long as it’s not them, and they provide us with a host of imaginary enemies – immigrants, ethnic minorities, people on welfare, single mothers, homeless people, drug addicts, gay people, transgender people, and so on. This is the everyday fascism that flourishes in our supposedly ‘liberal democratic’ societies. Capitalism inevitably breeds fascism. As the old slogan has it, the choice before us is clear – socialism or barbarism.

The Kids Are All Right

October 22, 2017

There are no troubled children only troubled societies that we force them to live in. Children didn’t invent violence, war, poverty, inequality, famine, racism, sexism, homophobia, or a thousand other injustices, but we bring them into a world where these things exist in abundance. And then we condemn our children for swearing or not washing their hands or some other petty, irrelevant thing. If any child does something we adults don’t like, whether it’s mild disobedience, petty theft or murder, the child is not responsible, we adults are responsible, all of us. We adults created this dreadful world, and we brought our children into it whether they wanted to be in it or not. No child is criminally responsible. We adults are the criminals for treating children the way we do.

We shout at them, criticise them, judge and condemn them, we call them angels one moment and monsters the next, we tell them to sit in silence one moment and condemn them for their inactivity the next, we tell them to be nice to each other then terrify them with our anger and unpredictability, we bombard them with advertisements for a thousand desirable consumer products then condemn them for being greedy and materialistic, we impose on them a thousand pointless, petty rules, force them into families they didn’t choose and schools they didn’t choose, we damage them in a thousand silent ways, and when this damage leads them to behave in ways that we disapprove of we gleefully condemn them, and bemoan the ‘youth of today’ and the ‘decline of values’, and congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority.

We adults are despicable, every one of us, whether we directly brutalise our children, or stand by and watch it happen, or simply live in a society where children are subjected to this treatment. But we were brutalised in our turn by adults who themselves had once been brutalised children. And so the misery is passed on from generation to generation, blindly and senselessly, until maybe one day a few of us wake up and alert anyone else who will listen. And maybe as the generations pass by the knowledge will spread through society and one day we will offer our children understanding and compassion and the whole terrible cycle of misery will come to an end.

Or maybe we’ll blow ourselves to kingdom come, or poison the earth until it becomes uninhabitable, all the while congratulating ourselves on the righteousness of our cause. All the problems of humanity can be traced back to the mistreatment of children and the lifelong damage it does to them. A hateful, cruel world produces hateful, cruel people. The problem lies in childhood and the solution lies there too.

Schooling

October 4, 2017

A basic assumption of all authoritarian societies is that children are born bad and need to be made good, or at least obedient, which is the same thing to the authoritarian mindset. This is why adults put great emphasis on obedience, conformity, hierarchy and discipline. Parents and teachers spend lots of time shouting at children, criticising them, threatening them and punishing them. They believe that if they don’t do this then the children will become ‘animals’ or ‘savages’. In fact it’s the anger that adults direct at children, and the hierarchies they force them into, that make them savage.

Children are great imitators. They are born ready to imitate the behaviours of adults in order to survive. The reason children bully other children is that they are subjected to anger, threats and violence by adults, so they repeat these behaviours with other children when they get the chance. It makes a nice change to be the one making threats rather than receiving them. Children are generally placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. When they are free of adult supervision they again imitate adults by creating their own hierarchies based on intimidation and violence.

Thomas Szasz said that childhood is an 18 year prison sentence that we are all condemned to serve. This is true for most children, although it doesn’t have to be. Childhood could be a time of joy, a time of love, play, adventure and curiosity. But in the authoritarian societies that infest the world today it’s more likely to be a time of criticism, threats, punishment, obedience and conformity, leading to a lifetime of anger and resentment.

At school children are treated like prisoners convicted of a crime, although it’s never explained what crime. Freedom is largely non-existent. Individuality is highly discouraged. Children are trained to sit in silence and await instructions. The underlying atmosphere in most classrooms is one of fear. Even when things seem to be going well the children know that this could change at any moment. The children know that if they fail to follow instructions swiftly and correctly, or fail to do automatically what is expected of them, whether instructed or not, they will be chastised and punished.

Authoritarian schooling teaches children to put on an appearance of humility and obedience while keeping their real thoughts and feelings hidden. What they really think and feel, all their hopes and fears, their doubts and dreams, is made to be a matter of shame, something to be repressed and denied. Children are trained to deny their individuality and their humanity and this creates a lifetime of psychological problems. Children who are encouraged to repress their feelings struggle as adults to create open and meaningful relationships. The habit of keeping secrets, the feeling of shame that surrounds our innermost experiences, stays with us for life.

Brutal schooling creates brutal people and a brutal society. Much of the anger, fear and hatred directed at vulnerable groups, because of their socio-economic status, their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical characteristics, and so on, can be traced back to the authoritarian education system in which teachers mercilessly identify and chastise anyone who deviates from expected appearance or behaviour. Children learn this lesson of judgement and condemnation very well and carry it into their adult life. They remember how good it feels when someone else is getting the blame rather than them. It feels good to point the finger at someone else, but that good feeling is short-lived and there is no real personal satisfaction in it. The result is that we live unsatisfying lives in an angry, miserable, divided society.

There is, of course, a tried and tested alternative. All schools should be democratic. There are different ways of implementing democratic education, but there are some key ideas that can be stated briefly. Schools should be run by a school parliament, in which all students and staff have an equal vote. Children should get to choose what they learn about, and how and when they do it, rather than having a curriculum imposed on them. Relationships among students and staff should aim to be relaxed, friendly and informal, with staff acting as facilitators rather than instructors. And this should all be presented not simply as a way of learning but also as a model for how society at large should be organised.

Children are not stupid. They know when they are being treated unfairly and they resent it, quite rightly. They also know when they are being treated with kindness and respect and they respond positively to it. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any problems in a democratic school. But it means that problems can be worked out in a way that treats everyone with respect, rather than assuming that the children are always wrong and the adults are always right. Adults must learn to accept that growing up can be difficult and sometimes children need to express their anger or frustration without automatically being condemned for it. Teachers are quick enough to express their own anger and frustration. They are the supposedly ‘professional’, ‘grown-up’ people, and they are the ones who need to learn more self-control, and to be less selfish, not the children.

Human beings are ingenious creatures. There are no problems we can’t solve if we make the most of the talent and energy available to us. To do this we have to start by really nurturing children, really helping them to discover their own interests and abilities, and by allowing them to develop in their own way, in their own time. If we do this then our children will at last have the chance to realise their true potential, instead of becoming more sick, twisted ‘grown-ups’ like the rest of us. And we might finally recognise that children are not animals to be trained, or savages to be civilised, or inadequate adults who need to be shaped and moulded, but unique, irreplaceable and extraordinary individuals who need and deserve our love and support.

Lazy Bastards

October 2, 2017

Sometimes the state of the world can make us feel hopeless. What can any of us really do to change things for the better? Well, we can start by joining a trade union and a socialist or left-leaning party. We can contribute a little of our time and money to the cause of social justice. But there is also a simpler approach that we can alternate with the more active approach. We can simply do less. We can even spend some time doing nothing at all. We can individually defy an unjust system by refusing to accept its values and by refusing to give it our best efforts.

Capitalism is utterly dependent on people turning up to work, producing lots of goods and services, and spending the money they earn, and the little free time they get, on consuming those goods and services. The more time we spend producing and consuming the more we are exploited by the capitalists, the greater the profits they make from our efforts, and the more power they have over us. The more time we avoid producing and consuming the less we are exploited, the weaker the capitalists become, and the freer we are.

Think of the great variety of goods and services available to us, if we have the money: all the food, drinks, clothing, housing, furniture, electronic gadgets, personal grooming products, cars, travel destinations, television channels, and so on. Most of it is completely unnecessary. We could be perfectly healthy and happy with much less stuff. In fact we would be healthier and happier. Human beings are social creatures with powerful imaginations and our happiness lies in human interactions and creative self-expression, not in doing as we’re told by the powers-that-be and greedily consuming whatever we can get our hands on. All the consumer products simply distract us from what really matters and make us feel inadequate if we don’t possess the latest fashionable item.

The advertising industry, and the media in general, exist to make us all feel shit about ourselves, to feel hopeless and impotent, and to convince us that we’d be happy if only we had the latest clothing or mobile phone, or whatever crap they’re trying to sell us this time. Our desires are twisted to generate profits for the capitalists. In order to earn the money to buy all this shit we are forced to work for capitalist employers, giving them the opportunity to exploit our labours twice over, when we produce the goods and services and when we consume them.

Hard work is the ultimate moral virtue under capitalism, for obvious reasons. The more time we spend working, and the harder we work, the more exploited we are, the more exhausted we become, and the less energy we have to examine or challenge the society in which we live. The harder we all work the weaker we are and the stronger the capitalists become. Exhaustion and apathy make us easier to oppress and exploit.

But the more we slack off, laze around, take a break, and shoot the breeze, the weaker the capitalists become. People who don’t work, or don’t work hard, are doing us all a favour. They’re undermining the capitalist system that imprisons us all, they’re consuming less of the earth’s precious and dwindling resources, they’re generating less of the pollution that poisons us all, and they’re reducing the amount of conflict in the world by refusing to join in the selfish competition for commodities and social status.

Busy people are the ones who cause all the problems in this world. Busy people consume lots of energy, lots of goods and services, they consume the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate, they generate more pollution, and they cause competition for resources that leads to conflict and war. If the human race ever dies out it will be the busy people who push us over the edge. Only the lazy bastards can save humanity.