“Do it Yourself”: something worth thinking about

The Post-War cult of “Do-It-Yourself” gained most of its newspaper publicity through the effect it had upon home decorating and repairs. The process of making up for colossal war-time destruction and continuing to arm for the next war produced a period of unprecedented full employment. This was the immediate economic situation that kept the repair and redecoration of working class houses at their maximum market price—a price too high for working class families to afford—even with full employment..

And so we have seen the growth of scores of journals and newspaper features devoted to papering ceilings, pointing brickwork and unstopping drains. Firms have made fortunes manufacturing and marketing power tool kits for enthusiastic handymen; and the rate of borrowing from public libraries of books on “useful arts” has doubled..

But “Do-It-Yourself” has more interesting origins than even this novel economic situation. Some of its causes are deeper, more obscure, and may not on the surface appear to be economic at all. If you ask the man who tells you he has just tiled his bathroom with the latest plastic tiles and easy-to-fix adhesive why he did the job himself instead of paying a tradesman to do it, his second reason (after the cost) will be the quality of workmanship. He cannot trust the workers in the decorating firms to “make a good job of it.” Now, the standards of professional decorating for working class houses has never been high, as Robert Tressell’s book, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,” makes quite clear. Materials and work are pared to a minimum to keep costs as low as possible and produce a job that will pass muster on a casual inspection. It has little to do with conscientious workmanship because, where the contractor’s price can be paid, as in the office suites of growing industrial companies, picture houses, and the most expensive private houses, the “ professional job ” cannot be bettered. But in the cheap trade there does seem to be justification for saying that standards are falling even below the old penny-pinching level.

The High Cost of Repairs
The reasons are not hard to find. Full employment and the growth of mass production have made repairs of all kinds relatively dearer because of the higher proportion of hand labour they consume. The exploitation of the repair man cannot be stepped up to any great degree by mechanisation as it can in manufacture. It is small wonder, then, that firms whose sole business is repairing and refurbishing shoddily built houses should be forced to lower their standards in order to avoid pricing themselves out of business entirely. Nevertheless, the combination of higher prices and lower quality has forced thousands of working men to arrive home after a full day’s work in the factory or office and then put in a full evening’s work with a bucket of distemper in the kitchen.

Mass production has done something else. Although it can never produce the finest quality of workmanship, it has raised the standards of design and finish of a number of commodities produced for the working class market. And so the ordinary working man and his wife have begun to apply these standards that they have obtained from mass-produced television sets and crockery and clothes to the homes in which they live. In the majority of these homes the mass-production standard of even the cheapest “ telly ” makes the rest of their furniture and decorations look ludicrously squalid. In addition, the furniture and fittings used in the plays and shows on the telly makes them even more aware of what material comfort can be. The workers have had a slight taste of quality and they find that they like it. The struggle to keep up with the Joneses has begun in earnest and “ Do-It-Yourself ” offers about the only chance for the pay packet to stretch to a set of built-in cupboards, even though they must be made mostly of hardboard and rather thickly painted. The working class family has to put up finally with their own rather poor imitation of quality.

The Tedium of Mass Production
But it is economic conditions also that have made many of these home handymen actually enjoy bringing their total working hours up to twelve or fifteen a day. Wage-working has always been drudgery but it has taken modern mass-production and office organisation to reduce factory work and clerical duties to a deadening tedium. The last vestiges of pleasure in making something or performing a personal service—the real pleasures of work—are gone .A man who attends half a dozen autos all day and every day while they churn out screws gets nothing but boredom and weariness from his work. It is therefore small wonder that in his “leisure” time he should get a certain amount of pleasure out of putting in a new kitchen sink, since the job has got to be done anyway. It really means, however, that working hours have not been shortened very much in the last hundred years.

“Do-It-Yourself” has thus helped to prop up a number of the minor weak points in the capitalist social system: but. like many another social trend, this movement has to some extent overshot the mark already. It has more than filled up the immediate economic vacuum which brought it into being and, far from keeping working class attention fixed safely on private household problems, has begun to spread into wider fields. Acute business men have recognised in this craze a deep underlying need in working men to do something constructive in a social system which, when it is not destroying things and people, is forcing such a high degree of organisation and atomisation upon production and living that the ordinary man feels he is no longer in contact with real things or real life. As with every other potential market, capital has striven to exploit this one to the full. Apart from “ Do-It-Yourself ” kits for making furniture and boats and—in America—rockets, it is possible to take up part time study in all sorts of skills and fields of learning. There are correspondence courses for almost everything except a medical degree: and on a less strenuous level there has been a sharp increase in radio and television programmes with a bias on learning and active participation. “Network Three” is the plainest example of the trend, but it is now also possible to be your own archeologist with Sir Mortimer Wheeler, your own big game hunter with Armand Denis and his wife, or even a marine biologist with Hans Haas.

Much of this is of course spurious or at least superficial participation in such affairs for the ordinary working man; but his appetite has been whetted and occasionally he is given a broadcast programme or a newspaper article that is even daring enough to suggest that he should think for himself.

Do your own thinking
This is really the end of the ride, however. This is where the powers that be want to call a halt to the craze for “ Do-It-Yourself.” It may help the worker to put up with the monotony of factory life if he can do a bit of house-painting in his spare time. That is safe. What he does at home does not seriously offer competition to the mass production he does for the major part of his day. When it comes to thinking, however, the mass media of propaganda—television, films, radio, advertising, newspapers, pulpits, classrooms—could be seriously upset if ordinary working men started doing their own thinking. They might pause from accepting the opinions of professionals on the state of the world and start trying to make their own. They might start asking their own questions instead of leaving it to the Questionmaster. They might begin to ask why, in a world with such vast productive resources and capabilities, with mass production in fact, they have to work eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week, fifty weeks a year, fifty years in a lifetime, just to maintain a barely sufferable standard of living (when there is no slump), and then be pensioned off with a pittance when they are too old to work.

They might start asking why, in a world where nobody wants war. they should be called upon, every generation or so, to leave home and family to go and hurl death and destruction at other working men and women who also don’t want any part of it.

They might even ask how on earth it came about and —what is equally fascinating—how it is kept up that a very small group of people in the civilized world own the land and the vast accumulation of property and wealth upon it, while the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of these countries own nothing but a few meagre, personal trifles.

When working men and women start asking their own questions, they will start putting two and two together for themselves and that, to the propagandists and to the class and system they strive to keep in power, would be intolerable. That would be political thinking; and if there is one thing that the working man is expected not to do for himself, it is to trouble his head about politics. All the agencies of propaganda agree upon this that there are plenty of expert politicians and historians and economists who are far better equipped than the ordinary worker at political thinking. All that he needs to do is to put one or other of the reputable types of representative into the Commons every five years and leave it in their capable hands.

The only trouble is that these professionals have an unbroken record of failure. “Do-It-Yourself “—both the practical and theoretical kinds—has begun to show people that many experts are not so different or so infallible as they used to appear. Some of these jobs and some of these ideas are quite easy when you know how, particularly this business of politics, for which no special training or degree is given, and in which a man doesn’t have to be particularly bright, as is plain when some politicians appear on television.

When the ordinary working man has begun to do his own political thinking and has realised that all the business of present day politics, all the mad mass production and competition for profit, the insane wars for economic and strategic advantages, are only important issues for those who really own the world and only arise because of the social system in which he and his fellows own nothing—when he has thought this himself—then he and all those like him in the world will decide that such a social system must be done away with as soon as possible. And, having acquired a healthy distrust of experts and professionals, he will decline all the offers of those who contend to do the job for him. We will have become aware of what this party has been telling him for fifty- four years: if you want a job well done—if you want Socialism—you must “ Do-It-Yourself.”


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