Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

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.

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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.

Hierarchy

October 1, 2017

Hierarchy is a despicable thing, whether it’s in the family, schools, workplaces, the state or anywhere else. It’s despicable that anyone wants power over other people. The only legitimate power is power over one’s own life, the power to choose one’s own principles, activities and relationships. The desire to control others is a type of sickness. If people are satisfied with their own lives then they will put all their energy into living those lives and feel no desire to control others. If people do feel the desire to control others then there is clearly something lacking in their own lives, some frustration, some feeling of powerlessness, which they are attempting to compensate for by controlling others.

Why on earth would anyone want to tell other people how to live? We might want to give advice and make suggestions, to persuade or encourage. Which is fine, in moderation. But what pleasure is there in shaping other people to meet our own preferences? How does that make our own lives any better or more fulfilling? What have we personally achieved when we force someone else to serve our needs and desires? Surely the only way we can ever be satisfied with our own existence is if we concentrate on making the most of our own lives rather than interfering with the lives of others.

I despise anyone who wants power over others and I also despise anyone who wants others to have power over them. I feel contempt for people who want to rise up the hierarchy and I feel contempt for people who willingly obey the hierarchy. William Hazlitt said that some people love having power and that makes them tyrants, while others admire powerful people and that makes them slaves. I couldn’t agree more.

I have no problem with organisation in itself. We’re social creatures and we need some way of organising ourselves, but it should be democratic organisation, such as worker co-ops, housing co-ops and democratic schools. Democratic organisations pool our individual talents, and encourage consensus and compromise, while hierarchical organisations crush our individuality and twist our lives to the will of the people in power.

It seems to me that we’re dealing with mass neurosis here. People who desire to control or be controlled are unable to accept their own individuality. They feel uncomfortable with their distinctness and separateness from others, their personal responsibility, and their vulnerability as fragile, mortal beings. In order to compensate for this discomfort they convince themselves that they’re not really individuals at all, that their identity is formed by their place in the social hierarchy, as patriotic citizens, as husbands, wives, pupils, teachers, workers, managers, and so on. Personal responsibility, with all its challenges and opportunities, is rejected in favour of social conformity and obedience.

All the people in a hierarchy are defined by their roles in the hierarchy. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the people at the top are any freer than the rest of us. The rulers have to adapt their behaviours to meet social expectations just as the ruled do. The people at the top have to appear confident and commanding just as the people at the bottom have to appear humble and obliging. The power of the rulers depends on the obedience of the ruled. The ruled live in constant fear of punishment while the rulers live in constant fear of disobedience. Everyone, from top to bottom, is imprisoned in the iron cage of hierarchy.

The highest ideal of a hierarchical society is self-sacrifice. What could be clearer than that? We’re told that the greatest thing we can do is sacrifice our selfhood, our distinctness as individuals, in order to give service to our ‘great’ country with its ‘great’ traditions and its ‘great’ leaders. The pressure to think for oneself and act on one’s own initiative is reduced at the cost of denying one’s individual humanity. This is a refusal to accept reality as it is – a clear indication of neurosis.

Here’s a little suggestion. Instead of sacrificing our selfhood why don’t we each try to really nurture and explore it? Let’s each try to discover principles that we really believe in and try to live by those principles. Let’s each try to find a variety of interesting and worthwhile activities that we can engage in to enrich our lives and contribute to the community we live in. And let’s each try to form a range of relationships in which we learn to appreciate each other’s distinctness and respect each other’s choices. Doesn’t that sound more appealing than simply following social convention and doing what we’re told by the powers-that-be?

Most of us have no choice but to obey, at least some of the time – since the hierarchy controls the money, the police and the prisons – but we don’t have to like it. We can at least have enough self-respect to resent our slavery rather than taking masochistic pleasure in it. We can also limit our support for the hierarchy in various small ways. We can subtly undermine it by refusing to fully conform and refusing to make our best effort to meet its demands. If we spend our lives doing what we’re told we might as well never have existed. Someone else could have filled our place just as well as we did.

Depression

September 27, 2017

Depression is like a black hole. When a certain amount of negative or traumatic events have been experienced by an individual the weight of these events becomes so great that they collapse inward on themselves, like super-dense matter collapsing into a black hole. The gravitational force of this black hole is so great that no light can escape, no positive event or feeling can last long without being swallowed up. This process usually begins in childhood, although the effects may not become fully apparent until difficult events in adulthood reveal just how badly the individual has been hurt.

Bowlby remarked that love in childhood is as important as vitamins. Without vitamins we become physically ill and the effects may stay with us for life. Without love we become mentally ill and the effects may stay with us for life. Bowlby’s research suggested that people who get adequate love and support in childhood generally grow up to be healthy, happy adults. People who are denied adequate love and support in childhood generally grow up to be unhealthy, unhappy adults.

There’s no great mystery here. Obviously parents should hug their kids and tell them they love them, as much as possible, and they should help their kids when they’re feeling frightened or alone or struggling with some problem. Confidence doesn’t come from being left to struggle alone, it comes from knowing you can get help if you need it.

Human beings are highly evolved members of a social species, with a long period of dependency in childhood, and they are born expecting the love and support that will be necessary for their physical, social and emotional development. If children are denied the love of an adult carer they will tend to feel themselves unworthy of love and become depressed. If children are denied support in difficult situations they will feel themselves to be unable to cope alone and become anxious about future difficulties. If the lack of love and support persists through childhood then the child is likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in adulthood, whether ongoing or triggered by particular events.

The sad thing is that we’ve known all this for decades, since Bowlby and his colleagues did their work, and yet still people are condemned to a lifetime of depression and anxiety because their parents didn’t know how to parent properly. It seems that the child instinct, the instinct to seek out an adult for love and support, is strong, but the parental instinct, the instinct to provide this love and support, is all too weak and subject to perversion by social factors. I mean, for instance, the belief that discipline and punishment are the essence of parenting, or that children should only receive love in return for meeting social expectations, such as being polite or passing exams, or that love will ‘spoil’ children.

I don’t mean this to be an attack on parents as individuals. I mean it as an attack on a particular form of parenting, as it so often occurs in an authoritarian society such as ours. Parents are themselves simply grown-up children, products of their own childhoods. Their parents screwed them up in various ways and they generally repeat their parents’ errors with their own children. They have my sympathy, but in any conflict between adults and children I’m on the side of the children, since they are the ones with the least power and freedom, and they are the most vulnerable.

The main hope for those who suffer the after effects of childhood trauma is that they might come to understand the cause of their suffering and realise that they are not to blame. Of course this is only the start. We’re a social species and we can’t be healthy or happy entirely on our own. The problem is getting the positive interactions that can help a person heal. How many people regularly have open, genuine, caring interactions with the people around them? And how many people spend their lives concealing what they really think and feel, playing different roles in the hope of gaining approval or seeking ways to manipulate others?

We’re a sick species living in a world full of ignorance, cruelty, anger and fear. But there is a way for us to get better, if only people knew it. As the poet said, we must love one another or die.

Wealth and Poverty

September 26, 2017

We are all dependent on each other for our survival. None of us produces for ourselves even a fraction of the goods and services that we need and desire to go on living as we do. I mean such things as food, water, clothing, housing, heating, lighting, transportation, education, health care, and the various leisure goods that we enjoy. Millions of other people, at home and abroad, have to do their jobs in order for these things to be available to us.

These millions of people spend their working lives growing food, making clothes, building houses, mining minerals, extracting oil and gas, maintaining the supply of water and electricity, driving buses and trains, fixing things when they break, cleaning the streets and workplaces, delivering letters and parcels, serving people in shops, and doing a thousand other jobs. In order for each of us to live as we do, and to do our jobs, millions of other people must do their jobs too.

The wealth of society is created by all of us together. Basic fairness demands that what we create together belongs to us all together. We are all entitled to an equal share of the wealth that we collectively create. The question is how to arrange this. History suggests that it’s impractical and undemocratic for there to be a single organisation (i.e. the government) that owns and manages the whole wealth of society, but there is the practical alternative of the worker cooperative, where the workers in each workplace jointly own and democratically manage what they create together.

But of course this isn’t what happens under capitalism. Property law, created by the rich and powerful, says otherwise. It says that the vast wealth of goods and services that the great majority of human beings create does not belong to them, that it belongs to the capitalist elite, to the managers and shareholders, to the bosses, bankers and landlords. The labours of the workers count for nothing against the paperwork and legal processes of the capitalists.

The bosses control the budget at work, they decide what everyone gets paid, and they decide to pay themselves the most, surprisingly enough. Bankers and landlords don’t build houses, the working class build them, but the working class are nonetheless required to spend their lives working to pay the bankers and landlords for the privilege of having a house in which to sleep at the end of the working day.

The workers under capitalism are allowed ownership of their own bodies and this raises them above the level of slaves. But in order to survive they must work for the capitalists and they are denied ownership of the work they do with their bodies, putting them back on the same level as slaves. The workers are paid ‘compensation’ (i.e. wages) for having the fruits of their labours taken from them, but the value of these wages is less than the wealth taken, giving the capitalists their profit margin, and there is no compensation for the freedom and dignity that is also taken.

Poverty is caused by one thing: wealth. It is only because some people are wealthy that others are poor. Wealth and poverty are two sides of the same coin. There is a finite amount of goods and services in the world. If some people have more then others must have less. This is clearly unjust. The wealth of the world is created by us all together, so it belongs to us all together. Anyone who takes more than others is a thief. Anyone who gets less than others is a victim of theft.

A critic might object that some people work harder than others or that they have special skills that deserve a special reward. The problem with this objection is that judgements about who works ‘harder’ or who is ‘special’ are largely subjective. Personally I’d say that physical work is harder than mental work, so people who do physical work should be paid more, but that’s certainly not how things work under capitalism.

As for people who have ‘special’ skills that few possesses – e.g. doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, etc. – I would point out that they could not have acquired their skills, or had the opportunity to use them, without the support of the rest of us, providing them with food, water, clothing, housing, education, health care, etc. Economic individualism is a myth. No one is ‘self-made’. We are all dependent on each other and no one should be getting rich at anyone else’s expense.

Human society is a collective endeavour, not an individual one. The only reason to deny this obvious fact is to protect the wealth and power of the ruling elite. It flatters the rulers to pretend that they are uniquely valuable and uniquely worthy of their position. Anyone who does this is presumably either a member of the elite themselves, one of their more fortunate servants who have an interest in preserving the status quo, or someone who has been brainwashed by the education system and the media.

Childhood

September 26, 2017

Childhood in this society is built on fear. Children must obey their parents or they will be punished. They must go to school or they will be punished. When they are at school they must obey their teachers or they will be punished. They must wear what they are told, sit when they are told, stand when they are told, speak when they are told, be silent when they are told, eat and sleep when they are told. If they fail to obey they will be punished. The threat of punishment hangs over childhood like a toxic, choking fog.

This threat creates enduring fear in children, and the fear continues into adulthood. Children are told that if they don’t work hard and do as they are told then they won’t get a job, they’ll have no money, and their lives will be terrible. This fear haunts adulthood. It makes adults obey their bosses, and dutifully pay their bills, their rents and mortgages, for the rest of their sorry lives. Their outward conformity masks their inward resentment.

Adults hate children and want them to suffer. Just think how much time adults spend shouting at children, as well as threatening them. This is seen as the normal, acceptable way of raising children. Parents claim to love their children and yet they are constantly dissatisfied with them and trying to alter their behaviour. Teachers claim to like children but they spend their time filling children’s heads with useless facts instead of allowing them to develop naturally.

Adults tell children to ‘grow up’ and to ‘stop acting like children’. They praise children for being ‘mature’ and ‘grown up’. Could anything be clearer than this? According to adults, being a child is bad, being an adult is good. Adults want children to stop being children as quickly as possible and to become little adults. This is why they dress children in little suits and ties and send them to sit at desks at school. The children’s lives are made to be just as miserable and conformist as their parents’ lives.

Children are naturally playful, curious, imaginative, energetic, challenging and rebellious. These are all qualities that are hated by adults and the conformist, authoritarian society in which they live. Adults and wider society want children to be obedient and conformist. They want children to fit neatly into the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are terrified that children will challenge their lives and values. They are terrified that the meaninglessness of their existence will be exposed.

Of course all adults secretly wish they could be the things that children are when they are actually allowed to be children. So periodically adults get drunk, lose their inhibitions, and behave like children in their most hyperactive and destructive moods. This is the socially acceptable outlet for our repressed humanity. Soon enough the alcohol wears off and the adult returns to miserable conformity. Adults don’t have the courage to live lives of genuine freedom and creativity so they take out their frustration on their children and make them just as miserable and conformist as they are.

Most of what parents do is done for their own sake, not for their children. When parents worry about their children being polite, or getting into a good school, or getting good grades, they aren’t thinking about their children’s well being, they are thinking about their own reputation as parents. If a child gets a good grade in an exam its parents are proud of themselves for raising such a child, and keen to tell everyone how wonderful ‘their’ child is. What the child wants or feels is irrelevant. As long as the child appears happy, and appears to be succeeding by the standards of society, then how the child really feels is of no importance.

If a child appears unhappy its parents are likely to take this as a personal criticism and become angry. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ they will demand. ‘Why are you looking like that? What have you got to look so sad about? We do everything for you!’ Bullshit. The parents do everything for themselves, to cover their own fears and insecurities.

Here are some simple moral facts that usually go unrecognised. Parents do not own their children. Children do not belong to their parents. Parents have no right whatsoever to shape or mould their children. The only responsibility of parents is to help their children to discover their own interests and abilities and to find their own way through life. Everything else is bullshit.

I have no absolutely no interest whatsoever in hearing parents whine about how hard it is to be a parent and to raise children. I have no interest in hearing their worries and fears. We have all heard far too much about these things already. When will we hear about how hard it is to be a child and to grow up in this cruel, competitive world? When will we listen to the children’s worries and fears? I mean really listen, without anger, without judgement, without trying to impose our preferences on them.

If you think it’s hard to be a parent there’s a simple solution: don’t fucking do it. You have a choice, children don’t. If you think it’s hard to be a parent, with all your years of experience, all your knowledge of how the world works, try imagining what it’s like to be a child with no experience and no knowledge, thrust into this vast and complex world, expected to obey and conform immediately and without question.

Of course parents need and deserve lots of support and encouragement. But not for themselves, not because being a parent is hard, or because children are so demanding, or for any of the other selfish bullshit excuses that parents come up with. The only reason that parents need and deserve lots of support and encouragement is so that they can give lots of love and support to their children. And I mean genuine, unconditional love and support, I mean helping children become who they want to be, not moulding them to meet society’s expectations.

Education

August 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work and Play

August 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward Freedom and Dignity

August 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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