1960s >> 1969 >> no-780-august-1969

Do it yourself

Socialism can be practised only when a majority of the world’s population want it and are determined to make it work; in other words, when they are prepared to take equal shares of the responsibilities involved in running it. And working-class responsibility is something the capitalist class, consciously or not, does its very best to discourage.

It does this in various ways. One form of discouragement is the myth of the ‘politician’—a specialist in rhetoric, wit, parliamentary procedure, and vote-catching, who is obliged to play ‘a dirty game’, who has no choice but to sacrifice his principles now and then to his party’s interests or to pragmatism, and whose ‘political career’ is capable of being ‘ruined’ when his Cabinet colleagues or an ungrateful electorate stab him in the back. “I leave that to the politicians’* is a common phrase.

But unfortunately for the pure-minded who are ‘above such things’ there is no escape that way. An Ancient Greek would have scoffed at this Renaissance myth, which suited the wealthy merchant families of the Italian city-states, and still suits the class whose interests are served by the Westminster and Washington pantomimes of ‘political differences’ which consist of minor issues or differences of degree only. No, in running society each one of us has an equal liability. It is a pity that the political disillusionment so often talked about at present is in most cases an excuse for cynical inaction or incoherent protest rather than a spur to seeking a lasting cure.

Another way of ensuring that the working class lacks responsibility is to deny it opportunities for participation in controlling the means of living. Of course, ‘participation’ is another of those well-worn words in universities, industry, city planning, and all levels of government. But it consists merely of offering suggestions, giving specialist advice, lobbying on behalf of particular groups, or voting for one of a few alternatives —those alternatives which conflict with ruling-class interests having been carefully sifted out beforehand.

True participation means being given all the facts to consider (and Cabinet documents released 30 years after the event show how many vital facts and opinions are concealed) taking into account proportionately the interests of all the people who will he affected by the decision, and helping to work out and vote on all the alternatives.

When people are denied these opportunities it isn’t surprising that they become apathetic, irresponsible, and selfish and that there is political disillusion. We are told that the huge salaries paid to heads of giant companies and nationalised concerns are due to the enormous responsibilities involved, implying that responsibility is for the few, and that the rest are lucky to be able to escape it. their good fortune being expressed in the fact that their pay is a small fraction of that of their bosses.

Not their fight
Responsibility is inseparable from control, and control is in turn inseparable from ownership. “Why should I worry—it’s not my firm” is a common attitude, and not really a surprising one within the context of employment. One usually looks after one’s own property with great care, but to look after someone else’s demands too great an effort: one goes easy with one’s own car but punishes a hired one; landlords fail (surprisingly) to understand why their houses are neglected by tenants. There is an old Norse saying that “Few among bondsmen have heart for the fight”. . .  which is understandable, since it wasn’t their fight.

There is nothing unnatural in looking after one’s own. In Socialism there will be common ownership, and therefore everything will be looked after.

No direct voice
Many people will howl with protest at this statement, and point to the neglect of council houses, the dumping of rubbish and car wrecks on common land, and the fact that vandals attack bus shelters, phone boxes, woodlands, and street-lamps rather than objects that are privately owned. The myth that ‘human nature’ is not fitted for common ownership rears its head again. But these are not examples of common ownership, rather of state or municipal ownership —a very different animal. Individuals under existing allegedly ‘socialist’ regimes or municipalities can (in some, at least) express blanket approval or disapproval of this or that faction of the political, oligarchic, or professional elite who control (= own) ‘their’ property. But they have no more than the most indirect say in what is done with that property. Johnny Miner in D. G. Bridson’s poem celebrating nationalisation who urges his mates to

Gan in-bye an’ cut the Cooal that’s your oawn !
The pit is oors at lasst, man. — oors forivver . . .!

had a nasty shock coming. State and municipal property are vandalised more than most because their owners (=controllers) are ‘faceless’ and nebulous, or because the vandals think that society has cheated them (which it usually has). True examples of common ownership are rare indeed in our society; the Icelanders, however, who pool their sheep, are not reputed to neglect them; nor did the medieval monks deface the cloisters.

Trivial protests
Socialists do not pretend that the transition from capitalism to Socialism will be easy. It will be difficult. Millions of people must be persuaded to accept an equal sense of responsibility for the world—its people, its resources, its ecological balance, and so on—while they are still prevented from expressing it! Only when the number of socialists reaches a majority will the expression of this responsibility in the form of common ownership and control become possible. There are encouraging signs, of course, that many people are beginning to feel a sense of responsibility to the victims of war and starvation in distant places. But to insist on expressing concern in vague and even trivial ways, instead of attacking the root cause of such evils, is political masturbation. Socialists prefer to work calmly (though not quietly) towards the real thing.

Capitalism does not encourage its workers to be Cincinnatuses. Nor does it encourage the attitude familiar to ancient Greece, where a man might be a general in charge of one expedition and willingly serve as a common hoplite in the ranks on the next, without shame. Capitalism encourages its workers not to think too hard, but to get on with their TV and football pools instead. (In some countries, where people have become lazy and disinclined to think, dictators have been only too glad to deprive them of the necessity—and the right —to do so.) True democracy is hard work for everybody . . . but infinitely rewarding.

A. Barr