“Why waste your life on this foolish quest?”, we are asked by anti-socialists and sceptics. “Why invite us to do the same? Why fight for a cause that may suffer nothing but defeat, in your lifetime, or forever?”
Our new book Socialism Makes Sense replies: Are we nothing higher than a commercially-conducted and regulated edition of animals, amongst them primitive humankind, spending an entire lifetime browsing and grubbing for food? That is the “shop until you drop” ethos which this society glorifies and depends on for economic dynamism. Leavened maybe with a bit of religious uplift, a half-tongue-in-cheek consultation with a horoscope to see what “the stars” are going to do to you? Maybe the small and tame bacchanalia of a pop festival once a year or so? If you are a worker, are you content to spend most of your life doing work you don’t care about — or do care about, but are forced to do in a way you can’t find fulfilling — for an employer whose only concern is to coin profit out of you and the work you do?
Will you settle into being a docile wage-slave, breeding and rearing children to be the next generation of wage-slaves? Or will you rebel? Will you be content with the story the bourgeoisie and their media tell of themselves, and of you, or will you inquire for yourself, and study the literature of the rebels against capitalism, the Marxists? Will you join the labour movement, help build it up, fight for it against the masters of capitalist society?
If you are a student, what are you going to do when you leave university? If you are a one-time left-wing student, now working, what do you do? live Of course, you have to live, and you live in this society, not in the sort of society you might choose. You will have to get a job. If not an ideal one, you may still get a better job than you would have without your studies. Maybe one where (as some people say) you “love your work but hate your job”. But can you, should you, put your best energies into “making a career”?
Will you teach? In a school in a low-income area, where you will participate in the heart-breaking reality of kids going through school and emerging semi-literate? When you know that only changes in society, not just the efforts of individual teachers, will change that? And where you will have to use more energy on complying with the box-ticking, exam-obsessed, impositions of school management and exam boards than on responding to the needs of your pupils?
Will you become a university teacher, retailing second and third hand opinion and received capitalist wisdom, with a bit of academic-Marxist criticism, perhaps, for leaven and for the sake of your conscience? If you get an academic job with more scope, will you be a left-wing academic consumer of “revolutionary” anti-capitalist theory, but not do anything about it in practice by spreading understanding to the people at large, specifically to the working class, and helping them organise to fight for it?
Will you be a nurse? A doctor? You’ll see the heartbreak of a National Health Service in chaos, with desperately needed medical care “rationed” by way of waiting times and increasingly by markets, and the enormous and crippling amounts of money paid out to the pharmaceutical companies. Will you become a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company? You might help invent a great medical step forward — and see it used as an expensive commodity, available only to those who can pay or have the welfare state pay, in order to make profit for the bosses and shareholders of the company.
Will you go to a poorer country and make life a little better for people who, in a rich and supposedly civilised world, are dying for lack of money to buy food and even comparatively cheap medicines? Will you be a social worker? You will be providing inadequate help to the victims of poverty, poor education, unemployment, and migration far from home. At best you’ll help them organise their lives a bit better, with inadequate means and devastatingly arid prospects.
Will you be an immigration official? Help regiment migrant workers and their families; sort out the “legals” from the “illegals”; be part of a system which demonises, hunts down, imprisons, and deports the “illegals”?
Be a journalist? You won’t be a privileged columnist, with some right to express a personal opinion (within the limits regulated by the choice of the newspaper and TV owners who can grant you that privilege). There are very few such jobs. As a run-of-the-mill newspaper or TV journalist, you can’t help but contribute in some degree to the selection, slanting, and “balancing” of the millionaire-owned opinion-forming machine in which you will be a voice in a chorus singing what the others sing, what you are told to sing from the bourgeois hymn-book. You can’t help but participate in a biased selection of what is “newsworthy”, in presenting capitalism and “all its works and pomps” as something immutable and fixed; in suppressing discussion of the socialist alternatives that the crisis of capitalism has given a relevance which they seemed not to have in the days of the long capitalist boom before 2007-8.
Will you become a professional politician? Go from school and university, perhaps through office in a student union, on to be a “researcher” and maybe then a parliamentary candidate? That is, mould and shape yourself to fit into the political machinery that runs the system? The modern mainstream politician is a rancid mix of actor, reciting prescribed lines, and lawyer, arguing a brief from whichever side of the issue is indicated, without real conviction or real concern for what is true or best for society.
Will you become a trade union official? You will be in the labour movement, but “professionally” barred from being able to tell workers openly what you think about the issues that arise and about the union leadership and its policies. Will you limit yourself to helping workers get a little more wages in the labour market — some of the time! — but also inadvertently helping the union machinery and the top leaders regiment and limit working-class responses to their own exploitation, bamboozlement and degradation?
Will you become a civil servant and keep your head down? Become some other sort of official, functioning as a cog in a bureaucratic machine, serving capitalism?
You have to get a job. But to put your best energies into any of those jobs, or similar ones, is self-serving in the narrowest financial and consumerist sense. It would be, for you, self-submerging and self-destroying in the sense of destroying your critical overview of what is right and wrong. It would, I put it to you, be deeply irresponsible. Most students — most rebellious students too — go on as they get older to excise parts of themselves so that they can fit in to a career like those I’ve just surveyed. Don’t you think that we socialist militants have a better idea?
You have to live in society as it is, but you don’t have to fool yourself and, as you get older, mutilate and repudiate your better, younger self. You don’t have to prostitute yourself. You can be better than that. You are better than that! You can be an enemy of capitalism and of its political machine and its opinion-industries. You can study the Marxist critique of capitalism — and maybe develop it — and be active, in your workplace, in your everyday life, on the streets, to prepare the working class to rise and make a better society, a far better society, one free from the evils that make capitalism an abomination, and all the more abominable because something better is possible now. Individual life should not be clad in narrowly personal and familial asbestos-skinned egotism — “I’m all right, Jack, fuck the others” — conscience-salved perhaps with a donation here and there to charitable institutions such as War on Want or Oxfam.
Anyway, “society” may not leave you alone. An awful lot of people hypnotised by the values of commercialism have had to wake up from that sleep to the fact that they have been like the legendary St Brendan, the Dark-Ages Irish monk who made his camp on a solid island in the sea, lit his fire to cook, and found it moving under him: it wasn’t an island, it was a whale. I put it to you that a better philosophy of life than the prevailing one is to face the fact that we are, each of us, part of a broader social entity, and that we should concern ourselves with its well-being as a necessary way of securing our own and our children’s and grandchildren’s wellbeing.
I recently came across the following words, said to a journalist by the actress Marilyn Monroe, a woman of the left who had had to fight her way through the sewers of capitalist society. She summed up much of what socialists seek in simple words that might have come from William Morris: “What I really want to say is that what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody, stars, labourers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs: we are all brothers. Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe”.
We should concern ourselves with the moral climate around us, if only in the interests of our children and their children, and do something to counter the mind-rotting morality bred in us by capitalism and reinforced by it. The morality for which, as someone well said, everything has a price but nothing an intrinsic or transcendent value. We should not peacefully exist in and with a society in which the precondition for workers to live is that they submit to being wage slaves, and accept that their productive energies are owned and controlled by employers who take a large part of the new wealth the workers create. We should not settle into accepting fatalistically that a large part of humanity, including many in whose midst we live, suffer in hunger, ignorance, and needless disease. We should not live without trying to do something about the slaughter of millions of children in worse-off countries on the altar of capitalist necessity. We should not be passive consumers only, but also try to create something better, or contribute to its creation.
All that aside, the root argument why you should join us is that you know that humankind under capitalism lives in a world of savage exploitations, inequalities, and profound injustice. Needless, shameful, damnable injustice. At stake here is the future of democracy, of equality, of all that is good in the society humankind has so far created, and of humankind itself.
Have the courage to hope and to fight to realise your best hopes and desires. Slough off and break your paralysing sense of irony, unworthiness, absurdity, and, as James Connolly used to put it, dare to hope and dare to fight. Entrench yourself in the attitude expressed by one of Connolly’s comrades of the 1916 Rising: “Did ye think to conquer the people, Or that law is stronger than life, And than our desire to be free? We will try it out with you, Ye that have harried and held, Ye that have bullied and bribed. Tyrants... hypocrites... liars!” As the early socialists said: “A full, free, happy life — for all or for none! Hope, and fight.