1980s >> 1988 >> no-963-november-1988

Work and play under capitalism

There are a lot of good reasons for being a socialist. Poverty, pollution, nuclear weapons are enough to make anyone want to change the world. Even if you try to ignore unemployment, homelessness and urban decay, it’s clear that capitalism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Even in the so called affluent countries the system makes our lives needless, petty and unpleasant.

For example, we’re always being told that now we live in a “leisure society” where our free time can be more and more filled with fun and enjoyment. Affluence is supposed to bring us satisfaction through more videos, take-away food, hi-fi systems, shopping centres and bingo. Now although socialists are not kill joys—we all like a few consumer goods and services—it;s important to see the human costs at which these things are produced.

What do we mean by this? Well, for one thing, our freedom to enjoy all these goodies (providing we’ve got enough money to buy them) contrasts dramatically with our lack of freedom when we’re in work. As we wander round the shopping mall on Saturday morning we’re certainly free to ask ourselves “what shall I buy, wear or eat?” On the other hand, when it comes to Monday morning at nine o’clock, very few of us are free to ask “How shall I run this company”, “what shall I do to solve the problem of mass starvation?”. or even “when shall I go home?” In work the message is normally “do as you’re told”, or “no profit, no jobs!” The alternative of being without work is often a lot worse.

Under capitalism our well-being in the workplace is sacrificed to the great good “Profit” because our work satisfaction doesn’t figure in the balance sheets. We don’t normally get to choose what we produce, how it’s produced, or who gets what we produce. It’s only when we get home that we’re supposed to have choice again, and it’s here that the TV ads tell us to treat ourselves, and “Relax in a warm Radox bath”. And though this freedom as a consumer is certainly overrated in the media, our alienation in work is barely even mentioned. The customer may always be right when firms are trying to sell us things, but if you believe the popular press, workers are only ever right when they toe the management line.

The tabloid newspapers know that work is a four letter word for most people so they tend not to depress us all by writing about it. Instead, their pages are packed with suntanned models, unspoilt beaches, gossip about pop stars, bingo and saucy vicars – preferably all in the same story! In fact compensation for the lack of colour in our profit-dominated working lives. Fortunes and dream holidays won in banal competitions capture our imagination because they are things that most of could never have even if we saved for the rest of our lives. Free money and endless holidays seem magical in comparison with the way that every penny is normally earned through wage slavery.

But it’s not just the problem of the days spent in boring work to afford goods. There is an awful lot of boring work that goes into making goods for our recreation. Holidays, meals out, stereos, and newspapers don’t come from heaven. They’re certainly not the result of the magical power of money, profit or Robert Maxwell. They are the product of workers just like us.

In the main, capitalism is not too anxious to publicise the human cost of all this production for profit. This is especially true of the poorest countries; not many adverts say “children worked round the clock on tread mills to make this carpet”. Although the Socialist Party would not agree with Nigel Harris’ conclusions, he sums up clearly how capitalist production works:

The spoonful of tea that you pop in the pot does not cry out because the Tamil fingers that plucked the leaf in Sri Lanka were weak with malnutrition. Fortunately commodities are mute.
(Of Bread and Guns, p. 10)

So when adverts tell us to relax with a cup of tea they certainly don’t shout about the poor work conditions of tea pickers. Instead they tell us that “we could do with a D” or “It’s to do with the little perforations” or “chimpanzees drink this tea”.

And equally, these same workers who make leisure goods are going to look to their free time to make up for lost time in work, and will in turn want more leisure services and goods to escape from their work. And as stressed earlier, these goods in turn are advertised as having nothing to do with the miserable conditions in which they may have been produced. So the system makes us carry on looking to leisure to make up for what’s missing in work, but in doing this, we inadvertently buy consumer goods and services made by other people in the very work conditions from which we’re trying to escape!

Now even when it’s acknowledged that the present system causes profound problems, the solution is always more of the same. The answer to the chaos and misery brought about by production for profit is always seen to be more production for profit. Stress through work is dealt with by tranquilizers or biofeedback, the unemployed are told that they must learn to train and sell themselves better, and people fed for years on fatty, additive-filled food are sold expensive diet programmes. Capitalism is very good at finding money-making answers that don’t get to the root of most of our problems—capitalism itself.

Health foods, mediation and nature holidays are taken up by the very system that creates our longing for them in the first place. Nuclear shelters and medical insurance become sources of profit in a society that cannot even offer us security and health. Even peace of mind itself becomes something to be bought over the counter. For example, here’s Luke Rhinehart talking about the value for money of the psychotherapy, EST:

When one considers other programmes that people seek to revitalize their lives . . . one can only conclude that for most consumers, both before and after trying EST training it is a good buy

He goes on to make the bizarre statement:

more aliveness is achieved at less cost than by other seemingly related offerings.
(The Book of EST, p.215)

One has to question the sanity of any society that creates a need for people to search for “aliveness: as if it could be bought from a shelf like a packet of soup.

So we can see how the present system’s need to produce a profit makes work mostly a chore and means that our leisure becomes an escape from and a compensation for this misery. It also spends a lot of time and effort persuading us to buy things produced by other workers under similar misery.  Finally it sells us more goods and services for profit as palliatives to problems caused by this very system of production for profit.

In the long run it’s important that we see how under capitalism, neither work nor leisure offers us the chance of real fulfillment. The mad see-sawing between arduous work and passive leisure needs to be replaced by something altogether different. Only when all goods and services are produced for need and not profit will things change. And under this new system—socialism, if leisure goods were awful to produce we might not make them at all, we might make less and share them in common, or more excitingly, we might make them in a totally different way. We certainly wouldn’t waste resources persuading people to consume things they didn’t want. In a socialist world our leisure might become more active and creative, and work itself might even become a form of leisure!

Keith Aubrey