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Then and Now – how we live and how we used to live

Part 1 – Then: A look back at the present day from a future time when socialism has been established.

It is strange to visualise now that the world up to and including the early years of this century was caught in a stranglehold of economic competition, national political boundaries and the overriding requirement to make a monetary profit out of the production and sale of property. Hardly anyone took seriously, or even much considered, the possibility of living as complete equals with collective ownership of the world’s resources.

Visions of a future society portrayed in the science fiction novels and films of the time were almost invariably dystopian: civilisation might move out to the stars, but the prognostications were of ever increasing extremes of rich and poor, harsher governments and soaring crime rates. Fictional colonisations of new planets – giving humanity a fresh start free from the shackles of Earth – were almost invariably based on money, employment and profits.

The vast majority of people were limited in terms of what they could do by the amount of money they possessed, since the only way to obtain food, goods and services that they could not produce themselves was to exchange money for them. Those who had little or no money lived very poorly in a way we can scarcely imagine now, indeed many of them died through lack of life’s necessities. A minority, on the other hand, those in control of the world’s major resources, had more personal wealth than even the most imaginative of them knew what to do with.

Many people were reasonably well off by the standards of the time. They would “work for a living” for around 40 hours each week, and as long as they were seen to be contributing to their employer’s wealth, they were paid a monthly salary with which to pay for the necessities of life – food, heating and shelter – for themselves and their immediate families. Many months they might have a small surplus to save for future use or spend during holidays from employment or on ‘luxury’ items.

Employers, the owners of capital, were ever seeking new ways of increasing their profits and attempting to draw their workers into their world, to get them to see things from their side, to be inventive in creating ways of packaging new products, or re-packaging old products, to make them appear ever more attractive. Workers were divided into a hierarchy, with the better paid ones, generally more imbued with the “company ethos” instilled into them by the owners, assuming authority over those lower down in the pecking order.

The vast majority of workers complied with their employer’s wishes through a need to carry on earning money. Employees at all levels were constantly encouraged to “think outside the box” in their efforts to please their employers; in reality worker and employer alike were unable to see the walls of the huge box that contained them all.

Money permeated the whole of life and almost nothing was exempt from the need to generate it, earn it or spend it. And because the owners of the world’s resources as a group controlled the channels of communication, the message expressed or implied to the population at large was that this state of affairs was necessary and unchangeable and that their leaders knew what was best for them.

Largely because of such propaganda, not all workers saw themselves as exploited or even hard done by. People were, for the most part, simply grateful to be among those whose skills and abilities were seen as necessary and hence saleable. And many, such as doctors, teachers and care workers, performed useful roles despite the often longer than average, stressful hours they had to work and, in some cases, the paltry amounts of money they received in return.

But others were not so fortunate. Millions worldwide were unable to secure or maintain the employment necessary to provide them with the money to buy life’s necessities. Many people were left entirely to their own meagre resources. Some were forced to work almost the whole day long to secure the price of a meal and a bed, while still others had no recourse but to beg. Many people understandably resorted to the peddlers of alcohol, drugs and religion, to the relative comfort of an anaesthetised life on Earth or the vacuous promise of a second life free of care after death.

As is no doubt evident, money was a form of rationing – the less you had, the less access you had to the best quality food and goods. This resulted in manufacturers producing a whole range of goods at varying qualities and hence varying prices, to ensure they catered for, and therefore profited from, the needy as well as the better off. And because personal possessions were hard-gained, people tended to be inordinately proud of them and jealous of others who had more.

People generally lived in a family unit typically comprising a married couple and up to three or four children. This restricted economic unit generally served its purpose in ensuring that children were adequately looked after until they in turn were ready to do service to an employer; if it broke down, however, say by the married couple splitting up or one of them dying, this could place an intolerable burden on the one parent left supporting the children, usually with very little outside help. There was very little left of the extended supportive family or community such as had existed even in earlier capitalist times. And if both parents died or were incapacitated, alternative care provisions for the children were rudimentary at best.

Dependence on money, and the stress caused through lack of it, meant that arguments and outbreaks of violence were frequent – “we can’t afford it” or “where is the money going to come from?” were often heard among the members of the cocooned family units, even among the more comfortably off. Buyer and seller, employer and employee, even husband and wife, inevitably regarded one another as sources of financial or material gain, and hence, in part, as one another’s possessions.

Sections of the working population were constantly played off and made to compete against one another, either deliberately or passively, on the basis of such irrelevant considerations as skin colour, nationality or even gender, in an attempt to keep them weak and divided. And the need for capitalist enterprises to compete against one another in their quest for profits inevitably led to wider conflicts, resulting time and again in failed businesses with the resultant loss of livelihoods and, in extreme cases, in bloody and ruthless wars.

Factories and commercial centres tended to be concentrated in large urban areas, to and from which workers would have to travel on a daily basis in crowded trains or on congested roads. Despite the limited adoption of variable working hours, peak travel times were unpleasant if not nightmarish.

It was also evident that capitalist society was incapable of addressing the problems besetting the environment which came to the fore in this period. As global warming increased, caused at least in part by man-made pollutants from wasteful, inefficient technology, with increasingly erratic climate systems resulting in the disappearance of much wildlife and an increase in the number of floods and fires, however well-intentioned the proponents of corrective action, remedies were always subject to the constraints of what could be done profitably and were therefore never adequately effected, to the extent that some of the damage to the environment nearly became irreversible.

To think of the world as it was only so few decades ago has been at best sobering and at worst traumatic; the conclusion I reach is that this period of man’s history is best left where it is…consigned to the history books or, better still, to the memory.

Next month Part 2: a look back from a future at the changeover to socialism.

ROD SHAW