On Living in the Real World
for my brother, Phil Kelly
You have to live in the real world. You have to be realistic. These are the mantras of neo-liberalism. They are trotted out when people defend what is left of the Welfare State or push for further equality in this society or around the world. According to neo-liberalism it is unrealistic to grant people the most rudimentary dignities such as free access to decent health care or a free education. It is unrealistic to demand a society in which pensioners don’t freeze to death in their own homes; where children are not left to perish from preventable diseases; where people don’t starve to death in a world so full of plenty that its most privileged citizens have come to worship waste and excess; where the poorest and most disenfranchised inhabitants of this planet are not liquidised or burned to cinders by bunkerbuster bombs or missiles fired from unmanned drones in the name of their own freedom.
The prevailing way of the world is not merely morally repugnant. It is also contradictory nonsense that is not even worthy of the term hypocrisy. For the very same neo-liberal capitalists who told those who work in schools or hospitals that they must be realistic, that they must obey the laws of the market, were not so stringent with their hollow directives when the institutions of global capital imploded. The logic which was used to close hospital wards, steelworks, mines or factories was singularly absent when ordinary people were required to prop up the banking sector and finance capitalism. It seems the rest of us must live by the law of the market, while those who espouse the doctrine and enact its decrees can subsidise their own failure by debasing the principles behind public spending. Public funds, which should be used to strengthen our society and our collective support for one another as fellow human beings, are being used to save a system which has for decades waged war upon the whole notion of society and public spending. Everything must obey neo-liberalism except neo-liberalism.
When the IMF claims to be saving Greece or Spain or the Republic of Ireland it is doing no such thing. It is protecting an economic system that fosters the worst kinds of greed and irresponsibility by making ordinary people pay. It is destroying each of these societies and many others besides. It isn’t even a case of turkeys being asked to vote for Christmas. Who elected the IMF, who voted for them? They are unaccountable but yet require others to be held to account for the corruption, failings and ultimate untenability of a system over which they have no control. This situation is by any standard a dictatorship. How can it be termed anything other than tyranny when people are governed by a system that dominates them and for which they have no democratic redress? The freedom offered by such a system is couched in consumer terms – the freedom to choose between McDonalds or Burger King, between one rip-off energy company or another.
There is another, more powerful and empowering kind of freedom – that of democratic citizenship – which is being remaindered. This defilement of democracy indicates a further contradiction in neo-liberal economics. With the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship, figures in the USA such as Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992) proclaimed that liberal capitalism had won and that this system would be the guarantor of a newly democratic world. In the UK this line of argument crystallised in the so-called Third Way as espoused by Tony Blair and his onetime advisor Anthony Giddens – a new democracy beyond archaic ideological divisions in which we all enjoy, as stakeholders, the benefits gleaned from a benign, progressive capitalism.
Anyone who genuinely believes in democracy would have celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union: it represented a particularly tyrannical form of state capitalism which purloined the term socialism. I wouldn’t let Joseph Stalin monopolise the name of socialism any more than Hitler. It’s a shame that the Soviet dictatorship wrongly convinced many that socialism doesn’t work, or that socialism is reducible to this kind of state capitalism. But it is equally galling that democracy seems to have been monopolised by neo- liberalism. Oddly, given that it positioned itself as the alternative to tyranny, neo-liberal capitalism now denies any alternatives to itself. This stance is totalitarian. Raymond Williams once wrote that no dominant ordering of the world fully exhausts the full range of human endeavour and activity (nor indeed should it ever be allowed to do so). That hopeful insight should not only apply to Stalin, Hitler and Apartheid South Africa, for example; today it also stands good in relation to capitalism. How can it be that people enduring the most brutal circumstances had the courage and imagination to think of something other than the way of the world, to dissent, to oppose, to come up with alternatives, while (apparently in the name of democracy) these days we are instructed that capitalism is the sum total of what we can achieve? That really is a totalitarianism of which other forms of dictatorship from the tin- pot to the most ruthless could only dream: to rob people of the capacity to think differently, to challenge the way of the world.
Hence, in the demand that people are realistic, capitalism seeks to become synonymous with reality. Why should capitalism be allowed to possess reality totally, why should we submit to its monopolisation of democracy? It is madness to allow an abstract system of exchange to define the real world. Financial speculators who react to fluctuations on computer programmes are being allowed to tell others what reality is. And on the subject of insanity, it is noteworthy how many of the key thinkers who defined neo-liberal, market- driven economics were utterly nuts. They must have been astounded as they laughed up their sleeves when their invidious offerings were enacted gospel- like as policy. Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré who settled in the US and who penned Atlas Shrugged, sought to aggrandise selfishness as reason. According to her, altruism is bad and personal gain is good. Unfortunately her slavish, incestuous followers (clearly ruggedly self-reliant individuals unswayed by the needs of others) included Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve in the US between 1987 and 2006, who made catastrophically real the delusions of Rand’s heroically selfish individualism. You could also add here Milton Friedman whose monetarism influenced Reaganomics massively and who believed that profit and personal gain outweighed all other things. Again he seemed to claim some higher purpose to this creed – that the world was a better place for this greed which could rationalise unemployment and dispossession as necessary consequences of this version of progress. And standing behind all of this is Friedrich Hayek – like Friedman a Nobel Prize winner – who had a transatlantic and ultimately global influence, the British ramifications of which (via Keith Joseph) resulted in Thatcherism.
These vile, failed human beings provided ideas which have been used to legitimise the suffering of billions of other human beings. One of their most abiding myths is that of the self-made man or woman. Popular culture is saturated with examples thereof – pick your own example, The Apprentice or whatever, the lauded entrepreneur. Even at a very basic human level, no one is purely self-made. Did these people give birth to themselves, did they feed and nurture themselves in the hours and days and months and years after their birth, did they teach themselves to speak, did they clothe and house themselves? We are of necessity social creatures – we all rely upon one another at some point, we all need one another at some point. What a travesty that we live under an economic system that would corrupt and destroy what is best about us: our capacity to care, to help one another, to relate to each other. And at a wider level, the apparent freedoms these people enjoy: did they carve them out for themselves? Would they not find, on closer inspection or even at a cursory glance or something approaching thought, that what we have was fought for, that millions upon millions upon millions of people suffered and sacrificed so that these libertarian individuals had the time and leisure to pursue their personal gain and to build a philosophy around it? It was the selflessness of the many which protected the selfishness of the few in World War I and kept the latter in their stately homes and boardrooms. The standard narrative of the Christmas truce in 1914 is that of a touching moment of camaraderie before everyone returned to business, but many soldiers were much more radical than that and wished to turn around – on both sides – and march back home with the weapons and training they were given to make a few changes back home. The world would be a better place if they had. Many people volunteered to go and fight Franco in Spain long before official European history retrospectively decided Fascism had to be fought in World War II – the deaths and valour of millions are demeaned and made meaningless if it counts for nothing.
It has to matter and it has to be something which is lived and palpable every day in society: namely, that people deserve equality and dignity and respect. So far those democratic freedoms which people can partake in are ones which required a struggle. The begrudging, diluted and circumscribed extension of privilege (which is what humanity currently lives under) is not truly freedom or democracy. Both remain to be fully enacted. Never before in the history of this planet has there been wealth on such an obscene scale, never before such a discrepancy between rich and poor. These mythic self- made entrepreneurs live in many mansions on earth, holiday on various yachts and private islands. Their workers do not – so clearly their personal fortunes are not so self-made but require the systemic exploitation of many others. The pursuit of personal gain is not some neutral, utopian sphere devoid of consequences. It is a deeply crowded and political realm in which a few profit from the many. If you want to be a self-made man or woman then go and make your own trainers or computers or phones with your own hands.
The limits of neo-liberalism’s claims upon freedom and democracy are easily shown by what it opposes. The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and the Zapatistas in Chiapas have been actively fought by the US state and its lackeys. Only the most nefarious, malign and evil forces on the planet could seek to undermine a fundamental and dignified effort by dispossessed people to reclaim ownership of their societies. These people have fought against all the forces of hell arraigned against them for one another; they have fought for freedom, education, wellbeing and dignity for all in abeyance of profit for the few. When the Right in the US sought (in its own terms) to discredit Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, one of the leaders of the Zapatistas, by insinuating he was gay – as they have attempted with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro despite with another face claiming they are homophobic – he replied as follows:
Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable – this is Marcos.
This is solidarity at a very generous and profound level. Those who have nothing are prepared to stand up for everyone, while an elite which has everything can only offer the world nothing.
I’m writing this in the days after rioting and looting in England. Mainstream opinion seems to have taken a swing to the right (no change there then). These riots are not an aberration; they are in fact quite mainstream for this part of the world. While those taking part might be socially peripheral their actions are resoundingly and slavishly adherent to the dominant logic of neo-liberalism. Hayek, Rand and Friedman would be proud: self-interest and personal gain placed before any other considerations. These are consumer capitalists who didn’t go to the right schools but who have now seized their opportunity to grab what they could when they could, as their masters always have. So there’s not much to redeem that activity – people beating to death a pensioner for trying to put out a fire is not redeemable. They are enemies of their own class just as much as the IMF is.
However, much as the term ‘underclass’ will doubtless be bandied about in an effort to put distance between these actions and the governing logic of the world, this riotous consumerism can only find its full meaning when placed inside the way of the world. These people destroyed parts of their own communities but on a scale that is negligible when considered alongside the effects of global capitalism. It is a shame that these young people are willing to affirm the political genealogists who say we are all Thatcher’s children (and now grandchildren and great grandchildren). Those wanting to blame the parents might usefully trace that family history. When these people are labelled criminal scum then the same rules should apply across the board. David Cameron talked about a generation with a wrong-headed sense of entitlement, obsessed by their rights rather than their responsibilities. If he and his Bullingdon Club pals trashed a restaurant it was just high jinks whereas this lot are considered criminal. In terms of false entitlement, he might want to consider where his landed privilege came from – was it given to him by God? All that land was stolen and something that is wrong doesn’t become right by being transmuted into a family heirloom. Otherwise looters could hang on to their widescreen TVs or trainers for a few generations and it would all be okay.
If people who take what they can for themselves without care or compassion are criminal, then that fact should indict capitalism itself. It is the full embodiment of bourgeois ideology. ‘Alles bürgerlich’ (everything is bourgeois) wrote Marx in the mid-nineteenth century. Hopefully not everything – there are still sites of resistance even if illegitimate consumers make themselves at one with their masters. James Murdoch said not so long ago to his gathered employees and corporate friends that the only way to guarantee a free society was the pursuit of profit but, as recent disclosures have made plain, the pursuit of profit guarantees nothing but the pursuit of profit. This oxymoronically insane rationale justified Thatcher’s statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families (although even families are being jettisoned, leaving us solely with individuals); it justifies the rabid greed of financial speculation, the selling of newspaper copy by exploiting the emotions of grieving mothers, the supplication of politicians who are meant to be representatives of the people to the likes of the IMF, Donald Trump or the Murdochs.
It used to be the standard attack if you were from working-class background that if you got an education you were some sort of class traitor. This argument is based on false premises. Firstly, it assumes that education and learning are not within the remit of the working class and thus reserves these for other, nominally better types. Furthermore, it simplifies the politics and emancipation of education. Lord Salisbury once said of the working class: ‘they don’t want libraries, just give ’em a circus’. Anyone via Simon Cowell or Big Brother who would want to prove Salisbury right has completely ingested bourgeois ideology in all its philistinism. One argument to draw from the present is that the real contemporary traitors to working-class politics (and the politically organised working class which successive governments have sought to destroy) are those who fetishise consumerism, those who would parade as populism their capitalist servitude.
If culture shares anything with politics then it is this: both at their best resist the dominant logic of the world, both remain irreducible or non- identical to that logic and offer pathways to other possibilities of living. That is the only hope for a better world. There are so many examples: Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Lionel Britton’s Hunger and Love, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, to name but a few. These works deserve not to be forgotten in an era where a spurious fidelity to keeping it real would demand that working-class people assent to all that consumerism can adorn. Most of those who looted in England were poor and disenfranchised. But not as poor or disenfranchised as those who made the products which were stolen. Don’t forget about them either. This is where common purpose resides. Not everyone has been consumed by consumerism. If there is one thing to be garnered from the neo-liberal tenet of being realistic then it should be that we confront, expose and challenge the realities of the world. Any freedom which is currently enjoyed is bounded by its own opposite: unfreedom and slavery. And any freedom worthy of its own name would be a universal one shared equitably by all. In other words, one not paid for by the servitude of the many for the benefit of the few. Such a dispensation would require something both difficult and straightforward: the revolutionary transformation of reality. Which is to say, something more than just the perpetual change that has always been capitalism’s constant (‘all that is solid melts into air’, as Marx and Engels reminded us in The Communist Manifesto).
Bertolt Brecht used to say, rightly, that it is a good thing change happens at all for those not already sitting at golden tables. But of course revolutionary change would bring about the democratic ownership of transformation, rather than a passive assent to the whims of an abstract system and its ongoing dislocations. One of the circuitous ironies of a film like The Truman Show is that it feigns to celebrate the overthrow of illusion by tracing precisely the return of its main character to the world responsible for that illusion in the first place. As such, this film serves as a template for capitalism’s attempted stranglehold on reality and possibility: our apparent little victories, empowerments and freedoms are only ever a cyclical acquiescence to its dominance. Despite the fanfare and rousingly emotive soundtrack, the film’s message is actually devoid of hope. It offers an escape that it not an escape at all, a liberation from illusion that is itself an illusion. In a similar way, capitalism encourages an escape that is merely a re-entry into its planetary limit on what is possible. Instead of allowing an arbitrary system to govern our sense of what is real, we need to bring our realities (including future and possible ones) to bear on that system. Other horizons exist and can be imagined and realised beyond the circumscription of financial speculation.
Note: For those who wish to read more of Subcomandate Insurgente Marcos, Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings is available from Seven Stories Press (2000).