Sink or Swim in the capitalist ocean? By William Bowles

9 April 2008

When a group of so-called Aboriginals from I believe Borneo (or maybe it was Papua New Guinea) visited the UK recently they were gob-smacked to find homeless people on the streets of London. The concept ‘homelessness’ simply didn’t exist in their vocabulary and reinforced by the vast wealth that surrounded them (the ‘Aboriginal and the homeless). So too was the idea of the ‘nuclear family’. The concept of ‘living apart’ is totally alien to them.

So anyway, somebody had had the idea of making a TV doccie series about their visit, Margaret Mead in reverse so-to-speak. We saw them living with a ‘typical working class family’ and also with a ‘well-off’ one and we followed them as they toured the UK, increasingly bemused by what they found. But is it simply reverse anthropology, having them look at us for a change?

As Western society disintegrates on every level, there has been an increasing fascination with the past and especially with pre-capitalist cultures, those that still survive that is. A search for innocence perhaps? Nostalgia for a simpler way of life? Obviously there are many reasons why this is happening many of which I’m sure you are aware of.

But basically it comes down to the fact that ultimately the capitalist way of life has not delivered on its promises, any of them. Thus all kinds of yearnings for alternatives from aroma therapy to eco-living but especially the search for a ‘lost innocence’ to which a plethora TV programs attest, from the plain stupid (Big Brother etc) to the desire to escape to some unspoiled Shangri-La.

Of course it’s a search for the mythical, not that this in any way alters the real need that is driving it, a need that the media, especially advertising, have been quick to exploit.

We swim in an ocean of capitalist values, such as they are, that for most of us determine how we live out our lives (mostly in debt). And as the allure of the consumer society palls, the state of course has been quick to try and drive us back onto their straight and narrow with its increasingly strident screeching about ‘family values’, ‘Britishness’ or whatever, and heaping the blame on parents for ‘binge drinking’, obesity, or whatever it is that is assumed ails us as a result of our own failings (the rich meanwhile, continue to consume with gay abandon without apparently a single pang of guilt or the accusation of setting a bad example to us lesser mortals).

Yet surely it’s obvious that capitalism is caught between a rock and hard place, driven there by the ecological crisis as well as the inherent crisis of capital itself as it seeks to find a way out of the mess it’s created and as in the past, it’s war, but now we are told, it’s to be an endless war not only against people but on the planet.

It’s not a comfortable place to be in for it requires that the circle be squared for how can appeals to curb our consumption when increasing consumption (or growth as it is euphemistically known) is the bedrock of the capitalist way of life? Even the much sought-after ‘efficiencies’ (that is, doing more with less) rather than decrease production actually increases it. Our ‘Aboriginal’ friends from Borneo or wherever, who live what we view as a ‘simple’ life at least on the material level (and even this assumption is questionable), nevertheless have an extremely complex existence when it comes to their relationship to the natural world, borne out of millennia of experience handed down from generation to generation. And it should be obvious that there can be no return to this mythical ‘hunter-gatherer’ society we admire so much (from a distance and mediated by some media maven).

Nor, for most of us will we be able to retreat to some ‘eco-friendly’ house in the country in spite of all the television programs exhorting us to do so.

Yet this yearning for the real is a genuine if misguided (or perhaps misdirected) desire to escape from the treadmill of capitalism. So much so, that it cannot be avoided by those who rule, thus the propaganda onslaught that tries to shift the blame for the mess from capitalism onto us!

Capitalism’s inherent inclination therefore is to try and make money out of our pain of loss but for how much longer can this continue? The so-called credit crunch has brought the urban chickens home to roost for either the system keeps going (after a fashion) by doling out even more credit or capitalism dies a death by its own hand. But lowering interest rates so we can borrow even more just leads to more inflation (or to put it in simple terms, the pound in our pocket buys less and less as the value of the currency in circulation falls through the simple fact of printing more and more of the stuff).

Yet in the middle of an economic crisis that rivals (or even surpasses) the ‘29 Crash, the big oil companies are making record profits even as banks are being bailed out with billions in public money.

And, as the situation degenerates from bad to cataclysmic, the media, as ever, conveniently moves the goal posts, so for example Channel 4 News on 7 April 2008 was telling us that the ‘credit crunch’ had spread from the banking system to the housing market, failing to remind the viewer that it started in the housing market. Nor was there any mention of the deregulation of the banking sector that allowed it to use its depositors money in all kinds of speculative ventures eg, sub-prime mortgages! Greed and yet more greed.

The yearnings we see expressed through the multitude of searches for an alternative to the current insanity is just the most obvious indication of the dire state of our predicament.

But it’s the impact on working class social life that is the most disastrous aspect of contemporary capitalism. The unitary family, the bedrock of capitalist economic relations since the 17th century is literally coming apart at the seams and with good reason: the nature of industrial production has changed beyond all recognition. The old, white, male industrial ‘aristocracy’ as it used to be called, no longer exists and with its passing went organised labour.

The export of industrial manufacturing, driven by the need to reduce the cost of labour in order to maintain profit levels for shareholders, has devastated communities across the land, leaving behind gutted communities which are predictably, afflicted with high levels of drug and alcohol use.

Now, there are more female workers than male in the UK (pay is lower and mostly it’s non-unionised and because women are socialised very differently from men, they tend to be more ‘manageable’).

Personal debts are so high people work all the hours the boss sends them (the UK has the longest working week in the EU and the lowest productivity). As a result, stress, mental breakdowns, alcohol and drug use is rampant (and we’re not talking about grass or cocaine here but downers of various flavours, courtesy the NHS, working hand-in-glove with the giant pharmas to narcotise the populace).

The state’s response to the disintegrating social order is to effectively criminalize the entire population but especially the young with ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) and all manner of punitive actions against the ‘work-shy’ and the sick (including the use of ‘lie detectors’ in so-called Job Centres). The parallels with earlier periods are unmistakeable as the state attempts to reconcile the fantasy promised by a consumer society with the reality of a society falling apart under its own contradictions.

Parallel to this, under New Labour [sic] the level of corruption and collusion between the political class and big capital has reached unprecedented levels due almost entirely to the privatisation of public services, with New Labour’s crony capitalist pals lining up to rake in huge profits and with the government hiding the real cost by cooking the books (the so-called Public-Private Finance Initiatives are a case in point, with the real costs being removed entirely from the accounting system).

And the reason they can get away with this gigantic criminal enterprise is the simple fact that we, the citizens have been removed entirely from the political process. Without a real voice via independent trade unions (independent that is of New Labour) and a genuine political movement of the left, we have no control whatsoever over those who rule us, and their cynical dismissal of our views is surely proof of the complete disconnection between the state and the people.

Is it any wonder therefore that we seek all manner of ‘alternatives’, alternatives that are essentially private and individual responses to the situation and as such pose no threat to the status quo, indeed the state is only too happy for us to take the responsibility for the failings of capitalism.

Many of those on the Left who care to ponder on the dilemma we confront wonder why it’s so difficult to involve people in some kind of movement for radical change given the circumstances.

In part it’s due to the failure of past attempts at building an alternative but this is not the whole story. In large measure it’s down to the fact that we have handed over the political process to a bunch of so-called professional politicians who represent no one except their own self-interests, interests purchased by big business.

Even the so-called left of the Labour government are more concerned with staying in power, their argument being apparently, better a right-wing ‘Labour’ government than aright-wing Tory one (spot the dif if you can and in fact, as past ‘labour’ governments have shown, they have been as fully reactionary or even more so than their Tory counterparts precisely because they claim to be socialist). Confused? So are the electorate.

The only way to alter this situation is to make a complete break with the past and this includes the coopted labour movement (what’s left of it) and disabusing ourselves of the fallacy that somehow we can alter New Labour’s policies (any more than we did in the past).

But what to replace it with? Frankly, I have no idea but whatever it is, it has to be a broad-based movement that incorporates both the working and the so-called middle classes. It has to have a socialist program that rejects consumerism entirely and one that aligns itself with the great mass of the world’s population. It will have to take currently unpopular stances on issues such as immigration and a woman’s right to choose and obviously reject war as a solution to economic woes. In other words it will have to be courageous and totally principled in its position.

Where will it come from? Again I have no idea except to say that there are millions of people who are currently seeking alternatives and who along with the many millions of the poor and disenfranchised surely need to find some common issues around which they can unite to halt the headlong plunge into barbarism.

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