Posts Tagged ‘Socialism’

The Illusion of Democracy

February 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Work Sets You Free

February 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalist Holocaust

January 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.un.org.au/2014/05/14/who-hunger-statistics/
2.www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/lang–en/index.htm
3.www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

Class War

December 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631533-500-austerity-cuts-to-nhs-blamed-for-120000-excess-deaths/
2.www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/lang–en/index.htm

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.

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.

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.