1970s >> 1970 >> no-786-february-1970

The Vicious Circle

If society is to advance, or progress, or improve, or whatever you like, it is necessary that somewhere along the line men think about it and decide that it is a good idea—not just in an abstract, moral way but in material and concrete terms. The importance of this seemingly unexceptional statement is that the absence of man’s agreeing that a particular bit of progress is useful or necessary will delay or even destroy that progress.

At present, ideas are really the only obstacle to do the great social advance which will end capitalism and all its contradictions and replace it with the saner, more humane society of Socialism. Ideas alone are holding us up—human beings have developed the material necessities, a means of production which can feed and clothe and house us as well as we can want, but at the same time human support for capitalism maintains a social system which is at variance with those means of production. In other words, ideas are lagging behind material conditions.

To bring this down to an everyday, concrete (in more ways than one) example, we may consider what motor transport is doing to our lives. Used in a rational, humane manner, motor transport could bring great benefits to us. In itself, it is evidence of our ability to protect ourselves against our environment and to overcome obstacles to a better organised existence.

But the same people who design and build the motors, and the roads which carry them, also support the social system which imposes on it all an order of priorities based on the need for profitable wealth production. Because of this, those symbols of our abilities — the motor car and the roads, intrude on our environment to an intolerable extent. Very often, this means that a flyover passes within feet of somebody’s bedroom window so that all day, and for most of the night, the noise and the vibration and the smell of traffic is a companion to their lives.

Naturally, the people who suffer this complain bitterly about it but, as the authorities justify it all on the economic arguments which carry most weight in capitalism, the sufferers think that nothing can be done about it and from that assumption it follows that nothing is done. And that brings us to the point of this article, which is the Self-Fulfilling Prophesy.

Among the many ideas which keep capitalism in existence, the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is one of the most potent. In essence, it involves postulating certain conditions and, when these have produced the expected results, accepting those results as the justification for setting the original conditions. It is what is known as a circular process of reasoning. All of this sounds very remote and complicated so perhaps it is easier to take one or two examples.

Take colour prejudice. In this country, whatever the official story, coloured immigrants, no matter what their qualifications or abilities, are confined in their choice of employment. Often, this means that they do jobs which “white” workers have rejected because they are badly paid, or dirty, or arduous. In addition, because they are immigrants, coloured workers find it difficult to qualify for council housing and meet discrimination when they try to buy a house outside certain parts of the town where they live. The effect of this is that some jobs, and some areas, are overloaded with coloured people. It is not difficult to see here the cause and its result. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, however, sees it differently; it sees a majority of coloured workers in certain jobs and certain areas and concludes from this that anyone with a dark skin is only fit to live in a ghetto and to work as a bus conductor or a factory cleaner.

Coloured people are not the only ones whose responses are judged in accordance with pre-arranged prejudices. One of the big problems facing intending reformers in the field of crime is the simple fact that treating a criminal or a delinquent like a social deviant will produce deviant behaviour in him. Yet a person is bound to be treated in that way, once they have offended against capitalism’s laws. What it boils down to is that capitalism’s reaction to crime does little more than produce repeated crime, which is then assumed to prove that a greater, stronger reaction is needed. Sentences are escalated, the offender is rejected even more emphatically and finds it harder and harder to adjust. He is part of the hard-core problem which baffles them all—the recidivist.

Such prejudice need not be confined to colour, nor indeed to class. It is only just over fifty years ago that women in this country won the vote, after a long struggle against the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. In this case, women were excluded from almost every activity except the most menial — were excluded, in other words, from all opportunity of proving themselves. Well-to-do women sat at endless hours of needle work, the less fortunate struggled with the job of governess or slaved as domestic skivvies. The very fact that women were kept out of certain jobs was used as evidence in support of the idea that they were incapable of doing these jobs. This opinion was supported by many highly qualified men — scientists, philosophers, politicians — and by not a few women as well. It took a massive act of defiance by a minority of determined women to dent this idea, which is now considerably shrunken in popularity.

Although this prejudice is not confined to class, it does operate in this field. At present, society is divided into two classes, one of which owns the means of production while the other does not own them. The first class (the capitalist class) employs the other (the working class) to work the means of production and distribution, which means that the working class really run society; without them the modern world simply would not be possible. They produce our food, build our houses, operate our transport system and design and conceive everything that is needed for this to happen.

But the working class, white collar and blue, high salary or low wage, are convinced that their rulers hold their superior social position by virtue of some innate, almost supernatural, abilities. They fall for the myth of the man who built an economic empire all on his own, who did it because he is millions of times more brilliant than the rest of us. They believe in the fraud of leadership and spend a lot of whatever time they devote to thinking about politics in searching for another myth — the honest, capable, effective leader who will deliver them to the promised land. Thus the working class condemn themselves to think, and to act, like a subject class. They proceed from this to accepting their own behaviour as confirmation that they should remain in subjection.

This can be seen most clearly, when a worker is confronted with the socialist alternative. Here is an idea which represents nothing less than an historic step to end the problems of capitalism. Yet when this idea is put to workers, their reaction often amounts to no more than objecting that, as it is a solution to their problems, it must be impossible. A society without leaders? We must have leaders, say workers, for the simple reason that we have them now. Without money? The world would stop without it, simply because money is so necessary to capitalism. Without war? Wars are unavoidable — simply because capitalism has conned them into thinking that war is a distasteful necessity.

Now so long as the working class think that Socialism is impossible, then it is impossible. And as they accept the very existence of capitalism, and the priorities and fundamentals of the system, as evidence in favour of keeping it in being, they continue to think that Socialism is impossible, undesirable, insane . . . Even when capitalism does its best to show them just what an impossible, undesirable, insane system is like — when capitalism sticks a flyover outside their front door, or herds people into stinking slums, or beats us all down in an obscene armed conflict — they are not convinced.