“Degradation! What degradation?”
The neatly-dressed grey-haired woman at the edge of the lunch-time crowd at Tower Hill had seemed genuinely surprised at the use of such a word by our speaker to describe her condition and that of the other office workers listening to him. Engrossed in his topic, he had not heard her interjection; she had not pressed her point; and so it had been lost.
The scene came back to my mind some weeks later, when I found myself with time to kill in a suburb of Nottingham. I had called in the morning at the house of a comrade—only to find that he was out. As it was a lengthy bus-ride back to the centre of the city and I had no other commitments, I had decided to await his return. The local branch of the Public Library was in a pleasant, spacious building, furnished with some imagination, and it was well stocked. An hour or two passed in browsing.
I had already had a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the only cafe in the district, and did not in any case feel like a hot meal on this warm summer day. I decided to buy some fruit and sit outside somewhere in the sunshine to eat it. I was soon looking for a small park or road side seat with perhaps a patch of grass around it. Half an hour later I was still looking, having walked up and down almost every street I could see.
I began to realise that I had been brought face to face with a fact which the everyday familiarity of the suburban scene normally causes one to overlook: that with rare exceptions, suburbs have nowhere for the passing stranger to sit. They have parks, commons, recreation grounds, yes—but these are usually some distance from the centre of the district, and are provided for specifically recreational purposes. The neighbourhood as such makes no provision for the stranger. If he is lucky he may find a Public Library in which to pass his time; otherwise he must pay for the space he occupies, by buying something to eat or drink.
That this is a fact I was able to confirm several times over in other parts of the country; and anyone can see it in most of the suburbs he knows. But it is more than a curious fact; and it is certainly no coincidence. We have all around us, the first kind of human community in history which makes no collective provision for the traveller. The village has its green, with a seat or two; the most primitive and the most transient of past human settlements considered it a general duty to greet a stranger (unless he were believed to be hostile) and offer him hospitality. How it is that this small but age-old community function has been able to disappear almost unnoticed from the typical dwelling-area of the affluent society?
The answer can only be that these areas are not communities at all, in any but a shadowy and nominal sense. The local-authority housing estate or the collection of private “desirable residences” is not built for human beings to live together in; it is an aggregation of living-boxes for the purveyors of labour-power—places to and from which they can be shuttled before or after making their energies available to the owners of capital.
So conditioned are workers to capitalism that they have come to accept this state of affairs as normal and natural, and can usually think of improvement in their mode of living only in terms of getting a bigger box with a bigger bit of land around it. The house-builders, concerned only with the profit to be obtained from their operations, find this all to their advantage: far more money is to be made from putting up mazes of indistinguishable dwelling-units for the Council, or from selling the featureless semi-detached to the socially isolated white-collar worker, than could possibly accrue from creating a well-planned community with adequate amenities. The social expense, in loneliness, neurosis and the sense of leading a meaningless, frustrating existence, does not hit the builder’s pocket or affect the Councillor’s political security.
The woman in the Tower Hill crowd probably lived in just such an area; yet she did not see that it involved her in a degradation of human existence. It is just possible that she had an enjoyable, useful, meaningful job; but if she did she was fortunate. The degradation of having to devote our talents and our powers of concentration to boring or ultimately futile activities was presumably no more to her than the inevitable daily round of everyone’s life.
This is, perhaps, the ultimate degradation itself of the working class; that they are induced to believe that the kinds of lives they lead, the houses they live in, the clothes they wear, the work they do and the way they travel to and from it, represent the best that any reasonable person could hope for. Yet it is at best a pitiful, and at worst an insulting mockery of the potential of human nature and wealth and society, this life that we are condemned to live; we could sweep it all away if only we could see that it has ceased to be in any sense necessary.
So I mused, trudging up and down the streets with my bag of apples and oranges. Eventually I did find somewhere I could sit and eat them—on a stone in a graveyard. The moral was all too plain: only the dead occupy space they don’t pay for. Only for them is there no degradation.
P. R. Collins