A Happy New Year ! Its empty meaning for the workers
It is usual at this time of year for each of us to greet all and sundry, friends, relatives, acquaintances, and the rest, with a wish that the ensuing year will be a happy one. One can read several lessons in this little practice. One can deduce the overwhelming power of custom which impels whole nations to utter the same commonplaces at the same time. One can be cynical and sneer at the empty meaningless formula that is so easy to utter and so divorced from actuality. One can also be fatuous, and jovially join in the universal quacking whilst also sharing in the universal forgetting which usually follows. But there is another attitude. Our lives are dotted with many such harmless and essentially useless little customs, and we can take advantage of them in just such measure as we can turn them to practical use. The phrase, ” A Happy New Year to you” dies as it is born, for it is just a wish. Few or none ever follow it by a single thought on what would constitute a happy year or on how such a period could be established. There are difficulties, of course.
Happiness is a condition which almost defies definition. Millions have sought it; in fact it might be described as man’s chief pursuit. Of those who claim to have been successful we are in grave doubt. Some have seen in the amassing of worldly goods the clearest road to happiness. Having achieved it scores of them tell us it was not worth the trouble. Others have held that happiness consists in making the fewest possible demands on life; on limiting one’s needs to the most frugal necessities. This view is always suspect. One always wonders if they are cutting their philosophic coat according to their very material cloth. Others speak of a via media, a middle road, perfectly level, and only mildly eventful. From its even surface one benignantly surveys the unhappy rich on the surrounding heights, burdened with great possessions ; and one gazes pityingly into the valley below, where struggle the millions not so burdened. Philosophers, teachers, orators, and preachers, all down the ages have counted their lives well spent in telling mankind how to be happy. Yet mankind is not happy. Like children, mankind usually imagines happiness to consist in the immediate satisfaction of some momentary need. That need satisfied, a short interval finds the elusive bird of happiness has again taken flight, and the eternal chase begins anew. One meets people to whom Fortune has dealt the most stunning blows, and who yet seem to find life a huge joke. One knows others to whom Fate has never been unkind, and who are profoundly miserable.
This is not the most scientific way of examining the question of happiness. One can multiply individual instances until the brain reels, and draw no valid conclusion whatever. So far as one can offer a formula at all, happiness would seem to consist in a frame of mind, varying with individual temperament, wherein it feels good to be alive, born of good health and nourished by good conditions. Complete happiness is too near ecstasy to be possible or even desirable, but we can at least examine the conditions that make or mar our lives, and render them reasonably happy, or the reverse.
First, being living beings, it is essential to happiness that primary necessities should be available for all. These prime needs are self-evidently food, shelter and clothing. Now without following any of the philosophers into obscure discussions on the nature and pursuit of happiness, let us see to what extent we are supplied with the first, elementary ingredients of creative comfort and existence. The columns of this journal have groaned with official figures, giving the numbers of those of us perpetually on the verge of starvation. There is no need to give them again. The daily Press gives constant illustration of wide-spread permanent poverty, and it is a commonplace that millions of Great Britain’s workers have but a nodding acquaintance with a square meal. Food, the first physical requisite of life, is scarce, adulterated, and of doubtful quality.
What of shelter ? Here the situation is more obvious. An empty house is more easily visible than an empty stomach. Our civilisation cannot properly shelter its people. It simply refers to their sorry condition as a “Housing Problem,” and speaks of gradually overtaking it in some 30 or 50 years. The “problem” is tacitly attributed to the war, but the festering slums of Hanley, Ancoats or Sheffield, of Glasgow, Lanark, or Belfast, existed long previous to the war. Just the same terrible tales of big families occupying one room, of verminous tenements, of crime, and immorality due to overcrowding, of dilapidated dwellings, of people living in cowsheds—just the same florid facts used to decorate the daily papers before the war as since. And they had just as much effect. Enough was done to keep capitalist society secure, and little more. The facts are not obscure. Even the Daily Express (Dec. 19), that staunch upholder of things as they are, gives its readers the thrill they love in a column describing present-day conditions in Southwark.
“Those who travel by tramcar or omnibus along Blackfriars Road or through Stamford Street, or the main roads leading from Blackfriars and the Elephant to London Bridge have no conception of the network of hovels, the jig-saw of warrens on either hand, in which thousands of people exist.
Warrens ! A rabbit would not live in them. Some of them are nothing more than sewer abodes for human rats.
Here is a court eight feet wide, with twelve so-called houses in it. No backs to the houses. Each house, two rooms. No place to wash, no place to cook.
At one end of the court are three open lavatories. At the other end one, and another in the centre. Men, women and children, tenants paying rent that should ensure good cottage accommodation, all use them. Tramps from the alleys, lewd women, anybody could have access. One was locked up. That left four to the whole colony of, say, 100 people.
“We women dare not approach these places after dark,” said one young wife whose life has been utterly damned in this network of misery.
“Look at my home,” she added in an agony of despair.
There were eight beings existing in the two small dismal rooms.
“If only I could get out of it!” she cried.
I went into house after house. There was no sign of alleviation anywhere. I was in miseryland. It was blank tragedy. One of the people spoke quietly in tones of utter despair. Others raved against landlords. Some cursed life itself.”
And so on for a column. And the remedy? None was mentioned.
And then clothing. No figures are needed here. One simply uses one’s eyes and supplements that by personal experience. Is it an exaggeration to state that the vast majority of workers are inadequately clothed and shod, and that most of what they do wear is shoddy?
Then with a perpetual paucity of the three primal necessities, would we not be better employed in searching for the root cause of this simple misery than searching for abstract definitions of happiness. Has there been a great natural famine? Is Mother Nature a niggard? Has some great catastrophe dried up the fountains of well-being? There is no evidence of it. Rather the contrary. We read about a month since of enormous catches of fish in the North Sea. We read also of boat-loads being thrown away so as not to spoil the market. We are told further that millions of acres of food-growing land have gone out of cultivation. We learn also that the Lancashire and Yorkshire textile workers are standing idle, waiting for their cloth to be saleable. Some time back the bootmakers of Kettering, Leicester, Northampton, were starving because of “overproduction,” that is, they had made too many boots. There seems to be something wrong somewhere. Nature appears to be doing her part. It is evidently in this “market” where lies the trouble. Obviously instead of goods being produced to supply human necessities, this can only be done through the medium of a sale. And if a sale cannot be effected the goods remain where they are and the would-be recipient goes without. Evidently, therefore, it is not sufficient for the farmer, the fisherman, the fruit-grower, the cattle-raiser, to know that hungry humanity needs their produce. The builder will not build simply because people want houses. The weaver will not weave solely because we shall perish without clothing. These needs must exist, certainly, but their satisfaction depends entirely upon a sale taking place. But is this not a reasonable state of things ? Do we advocate a system where goods are given away? We do not ! But we say a better system of supplying ordinary physical needs can be evolved than one that introduces starvation as a consequence of plenty. Than one that compels the producers of wealth to hire out their one possession—their power to labour—for the cost of their upkeep. Than one that condemns them to starve in the midst of the plenty they have created because they cannot buy back the whole of their product. We say that human society could be and should be a coherent whole. That all should take part in the necessary work of production, and that all should share in the common result. Can it be done? Let us conclude with an illustration.
Some few months back our astronomers directed their telescopes upon our beautiful celestial neighbour, the planet Mars. Several claimed to have discovered overwhelming proof of the existence thereon of sentient beings. Their difficulties were recognised even at a distance of hundreds of millions of miles, and they had overcome them in a highly ingenious way. Their great enemy, drought, had been met by the construction of tremendous canals that conducted the melting polar snows to the more fertile, warmer regions near their equator. Even the fact that the incidence of sunshine varied in the two hemispheres over a period of thousands of years had been provided for. But one significant thing seemed to escape the reflections of our astronomers. All their observations implied that the Martians viewed their planet as a coherent whole, a common possession. None was guilty of the lunacy of suggesting that the Martians were divided into separate, jealous, warring gangs, each gang subdivided into toilers and parasites. It is not impossible, of course, but all our scientists’ suggestions tacitly recognised that works of such magnitude, directed to a common end, would naturally be the work of beings who had risen superior to the stupid divisions with which we are familiar. Then let us take a celestial leaf from their (possibly nonexistent) book, and view our earth as a common heritage. Let all take part in the winning of wealth from Mother Nature’s storehouse. Then let all share in the result of a co-operative mutual effort. Let us banish slavery, poverty, ignorance and wretchedness to the limbo of forgotten things. You have nothing to lose but your chains : you have a world to win.
W. T. H.
(Socialist Standard, January 1925)