Human Problems

When discussing the problems of the present social order (or rather disorder) we usually concentrate on those whose cause is most easily traced to the property basis of society, problems such as malnutrition, disease, bad housing. But there are other perhaps more subtle but none the less widely-felt sources of human misery. They are the “human” problems, in the sense that they appear to have little or no connection with material things.

Tell a man he needs a new suit or a better meal or a larger home and he will readily agree with you. But tell him he needs to be appreciated by others outside his family circle, to feel a sense of belonging to the community, and he may well reply with something like “I don’t worry about what other people think—I can look after myself all right.” The world of Capitalism is a hard one, and (as the “successful” gentry never tire of repeating) jt has no time for weaklings or fainthearts. Yet it is an undeniable fact that the vast majority of people are treated as mere cogs in the system that, in Marx’s words, has resolved personal worth into exchange value. In spite of attempts to make it appear otherwise, the market place is still essentially impersonal.

Now the worker’s energies bought by the capitalist are not something abstract—they are part of a human being who is deeply influenced by the process of which he is part. Small wonder that someone who answers an advert, for “skilled hands” is easily led to believe he is valued by society at large, as by his employer, only for the skill he possesses. Not unnaturally he tries to come to terms with his environment to fit into society as it appears to him, and in doing so his thoughts tend to be moulded into the pattern that ensures the continuation of the existing state of affairs.

The nature of the system, then, has its effects on the natures of the individuals who support it, actively or passively. It is based on exploitation, on the survival of the slickest, and on the doctrine that some men are naturally inferior to others. Therefore it is not surprising that these concepts are reflected in people’s outlook on all aspects of life. Although it is unquestionably offensive to human dignity and self-esteem to feel oneself exploited by others, it is perhaps some compensation to believe that that’s the way of the world. Some have been lucky, some haven’t, some have “got what it takes,” others have only themselves to blame for their failure to make good—these are very comforting views for the privileged minority. But what is the price paid for thinking in this way by those who cannot hide from themselves the fact that they have got hold of the dirty end of the stick and are never likely to be able to leave go?

To the extent that the great majority of people desire approval and appreciation by others they also try to avoid being hurt by the absence of these things. They do this by building up a sort of self-defensive armour which protects them to some extent from the insults and injuries inflicted on them by strangers or even by “friends.” This is how Hortense Powdermaker, the anthropologist, describes the calculating Hollywood outlook, the capitalist mentality par excellence:—

“To the casual observer all relations seem to be on a remarkably personal level. But this is merely a sugar-coating for a deep impersonality. This impersonality comes out in two important ways. People are property in no uncertain terms, usually valuable property, and everyone has his price. Underlying the endearing terms of every conversation are the questions: ‘What can I get from him? ’. . . ‘What does he want from me?’ . . . ‘Will I need him in the future, if not now? ’Human relationships are regarded as basically manipulative and are lacking in all dignity.”
By and large the attitude of present society towards its members is not calculated to restore the feeling of adequacy and personal worth that is lost by those who fail to “make the grade.” The greatest tragedy is that the cult of success is worshipped not only by those on top but by those underneath too. Intense individualism, the desire to stake one’s claim to recognition in the same way as to property, overlays the social feeling in man. As Barrows Dunham sums up capitalist morality, “The bricks which are to build my happiness I take from the wreckage which was yours.”

The effect that all this has upon the individual is to set up the same sort of conflict within himself as exists in society as a whole. The bankruptcies in the business world have their counterparts in the degradation of men, who are often led by their unfortunate experiences to believe that they are incapable of making a success of even the simplest relationship or job. Being thrown out of a job not only means greater poverty for people but it also shatters their confidence in the stability of their world. Far from being the natural state of affairs that its defenders claim it is, Capitalism goes so much against the grain of humanity that some doctors now believe that most physical illness has its root cause in forms of neurosis resulting from suppressed desires, anxiety and worry.

Many of the readers’ letters and advice bureaux that have become such regular features in the mass- circulation newspapers and magazines are concerned with human interest problems. The frequency with which a few basic types of question arise—on frustration, boredom, loneliness, marriage failures—is too great to justify dismissing them as individual or personal affairs. The writers only mirror the thoughts, feelings, desires and ambitions of a large section of the community. One thing stands out clearly—there is a great difference between the good intentions or social feeling of most people towards those they come in contact with and their attitude to the wider problems of humanity as a whole.

But this difference is becoming less and less and at the same time the receptivity of socialist ideas is increasing. The case for Socialism amounts to saying that social affairs ought to be planned and intended in the same way that man’s control over nature has been planned and intended. Society ought to be pursuing a purpose that is broadly human, not narrowly individual and class-based. The development of Capitalism as a world system is fast breaking down old barriers of prejudice and parochial thinking that have divided mankind against itself. People are more and more questioning the glib explanation of war as being due to the Eastern (or Western) mentality, or of business success being due to the inborn superiority of all capitalists. Man’s knowledge of himself is at last beginning to accelerate, and soon it will convince him that he can be an agent in making the world he wants instead of a patient suffering the one he has got.

Production solely for use will not only solve material problems but will also give a fresh outlook on life to those whose horizon has been limited by subservience to private property and all that goes with it. The changing of the economic base of society will mean the changing of the human relationships that arise from it. No longer will people suffer an environment that often convinces them that every man’s hand is against them, and no longer will the superficial differences between man and man overshadow the common interests that unite the whole of humanity.


Leave a Reply