Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Learning To Be Free

I was watching Newsnight, last night, which was featuring a discussion with young unemployed people ahead of today's inevitable rise in unemployment. It made me think about the attitudes, and modes of thinking that now pervade the society we live in; it made me realise the extent to which, people are not just wage slaves of the kind that Marx described, but that they are often not even free in their own heads, in those aspects of life outside the wage relation.
One of the things that people who have faced real limitations on their liberty, such as those in the Gulag, have emphasised, is that no matter how much their bodies were in chains, they could still maintain freedom in their thoughts. If we lose the ability for that, then we are truly lost. At a time, when the issue of freedom in places like Libya, and via the Arab Spring has been highlighted, its important that workers should learn to be free, in those aspects of their life, where that is possible.

What made me think about this was comments that many people made about how being unemployed made them feel. All those responding talked about a feeling of hopelessness, of seeing no point in getting up in a morning, and so on. Think about this, and what it is really saying is that, as individuals, we see ourselves as having no self-worth, no existence, no reason for being, outside our role as providing Wage Labour for Capital. That is a statement about the strength of bourgeois ideas within the working-class, but it is also an indictment of Marxism, and the Labour Movement, that it has provided no alternative view to workers that could break this slave mentality. In fact, in the past, even during periods of high unemployment, it has not been the case.

Mandel, in his “Marxist Economic Theory” talks about the Alienation of Labour. In it he speaks about the different ways in which workers look at the expenditure of their Labour Power in different situations. Expended as part of the wage relation, it is “work”, but the same kind of expenditure undertaken outside it, is often seen as Leisure, as a hobby etc. He quotes the growth of people engaging in DIY, for example. But, in the past, the Labour Movement has always provided workers not just with these kinds of individualistic outlets for their free time – which increases substantially when they are unemployed – but with collective forms of activity.
The Brass Bands, Choirs, Cycling and other Sports Clubs that sprang up during the latter part of the 19th century, and early part of the twentieth century, were not just for the employed workers. They were part of the fabric of working-class communities, that helped bind them together as collectivities. They were also a fundamental part of that necessary aspect of the development of the working-class that Marx had identified, which was its ability to engage in its own self-activity, to organise itself collectively, free from a dependence upon Capital and its State. It could be seen in terms not just of these kinds of activities, but in the number of people with allotments and so on. It is an indication of the effects of the Welfare State, that dependency upon it, which in turn means dependence upon Capital, means that workers have now been enslaved in other ways outside the wage relation. Now not only do large numbers of workers see no alternative but to sell their Labour-Power to Capital, either to private capitalists or to the State Capitalist, but even their free-time they now see as dependent upon provision by Capital too.

When I left school, the post-war, Long Wave Boom was coming to an end, but had not yet ended. It was still possible to get a job relatively easily. I went to work for my local Council as a trainee. Coming from a militant, trade union background, I was not happy to just sit back. When I was not happy with the way the training was being provided, I complained. A week later, I was given a permanent job as a cost clerk. I received a pay rise, which meant I was earning about twice what some of my friends were earning who had gone to be apprentice engineers. I was told I was to be getting another rise, which would have amounted to nearly an extra 20% - from £11 to £13 a week. When it didn't come I began to complain, and asked about pursuing it through the union. At the time NALGO, did not allow ordinary members to Branch Meetings, so the only way I could proceed was by writing to the NALGO Branch Chair. The problem being that he happened to be the Chief Engineer, and his assistant was my boss. You can see the problem, and guess what the outcome was. Fairly quickly, I found myself working in the bowels of the Town Hall, before being asked to look for another job. In fact, one day, after that, at lunch-time, I just decided, it was a nice day, and chucked it in. I'll always remember the feeling of freedom, and relief I felt as I walked through the Park on that Spring Day.

After that, I was unemployed for several months, but the feeling I had was the opposite of not wanting to get up in the morning. On the contrary, it was when I had to sell my Labour-Power that I felt most miserable, most unenthusiastic, and least wanting to get up in a morning. It has been when it is time to clock-off, especially on a Friday, or prior to a holiday that I have felt most enthusiastic. But, there does seem to have been a change.

When I was a kid, we were never at a loss for something to do during the holidays. I suppose it helped living in a village surrounded by fields, but frequently we would play football in the street, or in the Community Centre Car Park. Today, I rarely see kids out playing collectively like that. I do hear parents complaining that they have to find their kids something to do, which invariably involves spending money, so it becomes obvious why, if you do not have any money, you come to believe that there is “nothing to do”, and with nothing to do, you may as well stay in bed. But, that again is an indication of the extent of the pervasiveness of bourgeois ideology, reflected in consumerism, that having something to do, involves spending money to purchase some form of leisure activity, when in fact, most Leisure activities require little or no money whatsoever.

In the weeks after becoming unemployed, on sunny days, I used to take the dog for a walk across the fields behind my parents house, up to the Churchyard at Newchapel, where the great canal builder, James Brindley is buried.
From the age of 14 I'd been teaching myself Yoga, from a book by Ernest Wood, and used the additional time to do those exercises, and improve my breath control, and mind control. Several nights a week I'd DJ at the local Youth Club. The only small amounts of money I'd spend was going dancing at the weekend. A couple of days a week, during the day I'd go up to the Workingmen's Club, and play snooker. That cost nothing, because I was good enough to normally be able to play for the table and a couple of drinks, and win.

I suppose it helps that although I am a materialist, I have never been materialistic. Most of the clothes I wear are up to 20 years old, and many of those that aren't, are ones, my lads have discarded. I don't have a mobile phone, because not only do I have no need of one, but I find them an encumbrance. Its not that I can't afford them, I just have no interest in buying things I don't need. I think there is great merit in the Buddhist notion that unhappiness can only come from continually striving for things you do not have, whereas it is a source of joy to obtain something you had not counted on.

This is important for another reason in relation to what came out of the discussion last night. As in the 1980's, which was the last time the Tories created mass unemployment, there was a lot of nonsense spoken about what the young people should do to improve their chances of obtaining employment. Given that many of those in the audience were themselves unemployed graduates, this was even more ridiculous. The simple truth is that if each and every one of the 1 million plus young people out of work, had a First Class Honours degree from Cambridge, had impeccable CV's and so on, it would not create one single extra job for them to apply for. The stark reality is that under those conditions, if there were only 200,000 jobs available, 800,000 would be unsuccessful, no matter how employable they were.

The answer cannot be for each of these individuals to simply try to make themselves more employable. Rather, it would be better to use their free-time to organise collectively to change that situation.
It would be better, for example, to act collectively to support the Occupy Movement, to become active in local anti-cuts organisations, in occupations and so on. It would be better to engage in other forms of political activity, which might actually change conditions so that more jobs were available.

Of course, it doesn't have to just be these kinds of collective actions. When I was a kid, on the derelict land behind our houses, we always used to have a bonfire every year. Mostly, it was the kids who put it together, but all the parents were involved too. Today, you still see such bonfires in places, but here too, we've been persuaded that we should spend money going to some commercial or Council fireworks display.
But, if its possible to organise collective activities like Bonfires, its just as possible for communities, especially those of its members who are unemployed, to organise many other such collective activities, for example, cleaning it up, and making other such environmental improvements. The idea that we cannot do this because it is the responsibility of the Council or someone else to do it, is to enslave ourselves in that mentality that things can only happen if Capital organises it.

The irony is that, where in the past, such Collectivism was seen to be the feature of the working-class, which held out the prospect of the socialist future, today, it is frequently the Middle Class that engages in such collective activity, for example in establishing Free Schools. What is more ironic is that often the Left puts forward the argument that workers cannot engage in such collective activity, because it requires the motivating force of the State! That is the extent to which Welfarism has succeeded in developing a culture of dependence, which has acted to create an atomisation of the working-class. Dependency can only mean a lack of freedom. The first step in learning to be free is to break that condition of dependence upon Capital and its State.


Jacob Richter said...

Politico-ideological independence, yes, but total economic independence is illusory.

Re. structural and cyclical unemployment, why is nobody in the UK discussing this much?

Boffy said...

I agree. Nevertheless economic freedom/independence is a function of property ownership. The greater the ownership, and control of property you have, the greater your economic freedom.

The qualification to this is obviously to do with the productivity of that property. Ownership of a given amount of unproductive property, such as home ownership, does not provide as much freedom as the same ownership of productive property.

Even Primitive Communism cannot provide the same amount of economic freedom as Capitalism, because the productivity of Primitive Communist property is a small fraction of that of Capitalist property. The restriction on freedom in this instance arises not from the form of property ownership, but from the content i.e. the Law of Value itself determines the limited choices that are available, and the more restricted productivity, the more restricted the choices. hence Marx's comment in the CGP -

"Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby...

..after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

On cyclical and structural, too much of the Left is tied up with the catastrophist notion of a "Crisis Of Capitalism", to make this distinction. Most of the analysis I have done has been precisely to make this distinction, and to emphasise why in the EU, only longer-term structural solutions can work whether we talk of Capitalism or Socialism, else workers living standards will have to fall catastrophically.

Jacob Richter said...

So you do support direct government employer-of-last-resort programs, after all?

Boffy said...

I don't understand what you mean by this comment. Please explain.

Jacob Richter said...

Minsky's ELR program was explained in my e-mailed work. In addition, my first comment above provided a short article by L. Randall Wray on the subject.

Boffy said...

I was asking why you were saying that I supported such programmes. I don't believe anything I have said leads to such a conclusion, so I was asking you to explain why you were making such a comment.

Jacob Richter said...

My original question was, "Why is nobody in the UK discussing this much?"

Then you answered, "only longer-term structural solutions can work whether we talk of Capitalism or Socialism, else workers living standards will have to fall catastrophically."

It was from this that I thought you were open to discussing this policy.

I was also making the point that here's another example where Self-Help cannot end structural and cyclical unemployment, unlike State Aid.

Boffy said...

Not at all. The fact that I beleive that only such longer-term structural solutions can work without there being a substantial fall in workers living standards, does not at all commit me to advising Capital on what those solutions should be, or co-operating with Capital in implementing such solutions, which would imply assisting Capital to save itself!

I am happy to advise workers on the type of solutions they could implement themselves within such a framework, as indeed I have done, by suggesting that Workers Co-ops should focus on thsoe areas of high-value production, where also the known advantages of Co-operative production can best be effected.

I also have no problem in setting out that simply replacing Capitalism in Britain, or even much of Western Europe, in itself does not answer the question for workers, because even workers states in these economies would still have to address the question of the essentilly uncompetitive nature, within the context of the global economy, of large parts of those economies. A similar shift to high value production would still be required.

I am also happy to set out the basis upon, which Capital COULD proceed along this road as an alternative to austerity, and atatcks on workers living standards, so that workers can see that such an alternative is available, and that if they had control of the means of production they could pursue such a course.