1980s >> 1981 >> no-917-january-1981

Who is the odd person out?

Normality is the most widespread social disease of our age. By definition, it affects the lives of most ordinary people. All of the forces of modern capitalist propaganda try to persuade you that normality is to be strived for and that the abnormal are to be scorned, derided, even locked away. But who lays down the norms that constitute normality? Whose interests do these norms serve? Is there a case for the abnormal?


To be normal is to be socially acceptable. The process of normalisation begins at birth, with family life inculcating into the newly-arrived human the standards of private property society. From the start, the child is part of a social unit based upon independent possessions and competitive survival. Aiding the conditioning process from the age of five to sixteen will be the school, where the lessons of “normal social behaviour” are really driven home. The propaganda of the education-indoctrination system is reinforced by the media, which gives the developing adult a distorted picture of the world it lives in, and the Church, which lays down the norms of Right And Wrong. By late teens the new creature has probably been normalised, is “right-thinking” and “realistic”; has no time for “crackpots” or “utopians”; has both feet on the ground, has “human nature” in perspective, has that most precious of all requirements — common sense, which Albert Einstein defined as “those prejudices acquired before the age of eighteen”. In short, our fully conditioned human is a social bigot: challenge those prejudices about what ought to be and you are labelled “abnormal”.


We are all the victims of “normalisation” to some extent, even though some may have escaped the worst excesses of such propaganda. But we are not all victims of the same type of normalisation. This is because we live in a society where what is expected of us is determined by our relationship to the means of wealth production and distribution, for under capitalism the norms of social behaviour depend upon which of the two main classes one is a member of.


If you happen to be born into a family whose forefathers had plundered the land of the peasantry or whose bank account is healthy thanks to investment in the labour of others, then the process of conditioning which prepares you for a life of social parasitism is rather different from that of the working class child. The former will be given the undivided attention of a nanny during the early years; the latter will be lucky to get into an overcrowded, understaffed nursery school; the young capitalist will be sent to a school set in spacious grounds with Latin mottos on the walls to be prepared for a future of social uselessness; the young worker will go to the local comprehensive school to pick up something other than Latin mottos and be taught to be a wage slave.


The different social ambitions of members of the two classes indicate their acceptance of their opposing roles in society. The young capitalist can hope to enjoy the widest possible experiences during the course of life through possession of the money that enables access to the best. The worker is persuaded that it is morally and economically proper to accept the second best. At first, young workers have naive ambitions to fully contribute their talents to society: they want to be famous singers, dancers, footballers or boxers. By the time they reach the fifth form the “unrealistic” notions of actually being “someone” are repressed: they have come to accept wage slavery as their inevitable lot and all they can hope is that their job will not be too far down the social ladder. In times of crisis, it is the desire to be employed at all which constitutes working class ambition.


The belief that capitalism is normal involves an acceptance of occurrences which are objectively horrific. War is “normal” and soldiers are given medals for committing acts of terror and killing; anyone who indulges illegally in that which soldiers are trained for must be locked away as a “danger to society”. The legalised robbery which is the capitalists’ accumulation of surplus value by paying their employees less than the value of what they produce is “normal”; but let a hungry man steal some food from a supermarket and he will be having his next meal in a police cell for his “abnormality”. It is “normal” for “respectable” people to claim to believe in the mythology of the Bible, but should a worker claim to have heard voices coming from the sky, or seen seas parting down the middle, and they will be sent to a psychiatrist. Normality is about feeling an identity with areas of land that you do not own, conforming to roles that you do not want to play, repressing your feelings of goodwill towards others because it is not competitive to express them, being respectful to people you can’t stand the sight of because they are bosses or teachers or officials.


Under capitalism even dissent has been normalised. Because it is impossible for any member of a society to opt out, the only way to avoid the pressures of living is to try somehow to become oblivious to them. Suicide is the ultimate escape, but for millions a less drastic measure is the bottle, the needle or the tranquilliser. Capitalists make huge profits by providing illusory escape routes for dissatisfied workers.


And then there are the tricksters who run ‘confidence courses’ for shy people, “shyness courses” for confident people and guru-worshipping courses for people who would rather be sheep. These deviations from normality are accommodated within capitalism on the grounds that depressed, discontented, alienated people comprise a profitable market for the latest escapist rip-off.


Beyond the false assumption that you can escape from the pressures of normality is an awareness that the nature of the pressures is political. Once it is realised that the madhouse called capitalism is only sustained by the consent of the majority — albeit a passive consent in which conscious approval plays very little part-then it follows that saying “no” to certain traditions, beliefs, habits, taboos, rituals and character roles actually becomes liberating. When we consider the exciting possibility of creating a new reality out of the material conditions of modem society, then we are on the path which logically can lead to an understanding of socialism. To the “normal”, social revolution is a matter for suspicion and fear; for those who see that normality is simply the embodiment of those social prejudices which are the ruling ideas of capitalism, social revolution is seen to be the next step forward.


But such political dissent, however radical its pose and revolutionary its phraseology, is frequently accommodated within the system, rather than presenting a challenge to it. To most workers, the parties and groups of the Left wing present a challenge to the status quo. Most workers oppose the Left because of two illusory beliefs: firstly, that the status quo (capitalism) is in their interests, and secondly, that the Left is really opposed to capitalism. In fact, the Left is simply the radical wing of capitalism and those workers who join organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Party or the International Marxist Group, far from challenging the system, are channelling their discontent into what are essentially reform movements that the system can well accommodate.


In what ways do the parties of the Left serve as a means of diverting workers from real opposition to social norms? Firstly, they hold the view that class society will always exist (even though some may pay occasional lip service to the idea of a classless society). Accepting class division as an inevitability, the Left can only see the political task of the working class in terms of begging to, and wrestling with, the master class. The Left conform to the working class in its most pathetic political pose: as willing subordinates in the class struggle who can see no further than “demanding” (pleading for) a few more pence in the wage packet and a few more welfare reforms (government charity) to help the poor whom the Left believe will always be with us. Secondly, the Left aid the propaganda of capitalism by insisting that “normal” people need leaders to do their thinking for them.


Thirdly, the Left dismiss as “utopianism” any propaganda designed to show what socialism really means. Tell a Tory and an SWPer that socialists want a world without money and they will both laugh for the same reasons. The radicalism of the Left is as narrow as its acceptance of the norms of capitalism allows it to be. Similarly, there are feminists who have never begun to give thought to a society in which workers are truly liberated, squatters whose imaginations have never contemplated the possibility of a society where everyone will automatically have in the best houses that can be produced, “Right to Work” merchants who would laugh if they were told of a social set-up without employment. Because they accept capitalism, their dissent is sterile.


Given a society where the means of living are commonly owned and democratically controlled, why should humans act in the socially insane manner which passes for normality today? Why should they wish to form armies in order to slaughter one another when there is no more private property to fight over? Why would people refuse to contribute to society according to their abilities when they could freely take from the common store according to their needs? Why should children starve while food rots, tramps be in the gutter while palaces stand empty, people die of socially caused diseases which are too unprofitable to defeat? In capitalism these and countless other social crimes happen every day because the majority of people consent to the continuation of a social system that puts profits before needs.


Socialists propose a material change in social relationships to the means of wealth production from that of private or state ownership to common ownership. Unlike most advocates of a future social order. The Socialist Party does not have a blueprint for a model society which conforms to our prejudices. All that we can presently say for sure about the nature of socialism is that it will not have the historic characteristics of capitalism—classes, property, exchange, buying, selling, the state. Socialism will be democratic: once an informed majority has made a decision it will be carried out as a matter of principle. Nothing in socialism will be forbidden because it hasn’t been done before or is “abnormal”.


It follows from this that conservatism, whether of the Right or the Left, is the great enemy of all socialists. Beliefs that hold back necessary change must be criticised and exposed. The Marxist motto is “doubt everything”, even that which appears to be sacred. For it is only by being the most vigorous critics of all that serves capitalism that we can work to establish a society in which men and women will one day look back and conclude that the fools were those who were “normal” and it was the revolutionaries with their heads in the clouds who were sane.

Steve Coleman