Who’s going to clean the sewers?

When the idea of a society based on voluntary work is proposed, the question of who would volunteer for “dirty work” is often raised

One of the first questions asked when discussing socialism is “who’s going to clean the sewers?” This apparently simple question contains so many actual problems and mistaken ideas about not only socialism but our lives now that it is effectively unanswerable in that form. So let’s look at the actual situation, of sewers and work in them.

I saw a film recently, called Enemy at the Gates. One of the most striking things about this film is the amount of time they spend crawling around sewers and other crap-carrying pipes. In fact, in the book from which the film was made one of their comrades is overcome by the noxious gases within the sewers and suffocates. Nonetheless their lives are seen as heroic; they receive awards and medals from the highest sources; their comrades shower them with honours and acclaim; every soldier in Stalingrad wants to join them; and the unit itself has the highest morale possible despite its privations. We as the viewing public are not meant to see any contradiction in this belief or behaviour.

What’s going on here? They’re in a sewer for christ’s sake! They have to lie in crap for hours without moving, at great personal risk, for little material reward: in fact they have all volunteered for the privilege. Something is obviously wrong with the sewer argument.

Perhaps we can narrow down the problem with a real and tragic pair of situations. In the above example their presence in the sewer is secondary to their primary activity, sniping on the enemy. Let’s look at the case of cleaning up radioactive waste, which far exceeds the sewer as an unpleasant environment. On the one hand we have the heroic sacrifice of the firemen of Chernobyl who, knowing full well the risks of exposure, nevertheless laboured to bring the situation under control whilst under no perceptible duress. Many suffered from cancer; many died; many are still dying. On the other hand we have the situation of Turks in Germany routinely hired to clean out nuclear reactors under hazardous conditions, according to Gunther Grass. These two groups are performing exactly the same activity, i.e. cleaning an area from radiation, in extremely unpleasant and hazardous conditions, yet the fire-fighters are rightly remembered as heroes and received decorations for valour while the cleaners suffer their cancers in silence without even health care for their incurred diseases.

From this it becomes obvious that the sewer is the conditions of work, and a pipe full of crap is just a pipe full of crap. It’s the work that stinks. So what’s the difference?

Our heroes are labouring for the good of their community. Their activity confirms their humanity, to themselves, and their community confirms it to them in their respect and gratitude or love as Marx called it in his early philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Marx put it this way:

  1. They express and experience their own power to shape the world.
  2. They fulfil their human “nature”; they identify the needs of their society and fulfil them.
  3. They act for others; they are an essential part of their society, experienced directly by group activity as one acts for all.
  4. By expressing their own life they express the lives of their comrades, and of all within their society.

Their lives are like mirrors from which their natures shine forth.

Our Turks perceive their world differently. Their activity is a denial of their existence; they are slaves to their work rather than liberated by it. The purpose of their activity is to obtain someone else’s object, i.e. other commodities. They are self-enslaving, their production is a torment, they recreate their social world as one of commodities. Since their needs are only met by other commodities bought with their commodity which requires this torment to continue, they come, says Marx, to resent the well-being of another as their own ill fortune and to minimise their demands on life. Their own minds, mediated by society, become a hellish place.

It’s all a bit dialectical (Marx often is), but the meaning is clear. It is producing under the conditions of commodity production that creates work as an unpleasant chore, not the physical conditions themselves. Socialism has no sewers, only pipes carrying crap, since it abolishes this commodity production.

“We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. JFK

So, now we’re rid of the sewer, what of the pipe? It still doesn’t smell that sweet. Should we abolish the pipe as well? Obviously, modern technology has far superseded our Victorian drainage systems, which in the long term would be better replaced. Socialism will entail new applications of technology and the abolition of unnecessary routine work. But we need a focus for struggle, now as humanity to get the best from the universe rather than against each other. Otherwise how will we express our lives for each other? Our first few years, perhaps even the first generation, will have plenty to do, replacing old with new and tearing out the control systems of capitalism, ensuring all existing needs are met. And then? Desires must be cultivated to be fulfilled, struggles must be fought in order to be won.

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