Sunday, 20 November 2011

Why capitalism likes us to behave irrationally
It’s a great irony that although human beings, as distinct from other animals, are characterised by their ability for rational thinking, so much of our behaviour is irrational. This contradiction has been unashamedly exploited by big businesses in marketing their products as well as by politicians trying to persuade us to vote for them. We are sometimes our own worst enemies because of this.

Understanding in what way and why we are irrational would help us avoid the worst pitfalls. It has been amply demonstrated that most of us, under no outside pressures, would behave according to social norms we have learned from the society around us. Thus most people in most circumstances wouldn’t steal, aren’t dishonest and would express solidarity with others. This was very well demonstrated in the former socialist countries, where social behaviour was the bedrock of society and the sudden introduction of market values after 1989 came as a profound shock. People were no longer sure how to behave and became easy victims for unscrupulous exploiters.

Most of us can be persuaded to abandon our social behaviour under certain circumstances and adopt irrational ‘market norms’. Let me demonstrate this with a key example. Few of us today can be unaware of the potential dangers of climate change to the very existence of mankind, however many if asked by pollsters on the street whether petrol should be taxed more will counter vociferously and argue isntead for a cut in petrol taxes and for the maintenance of cheap airfares. Instant gratification (our animal instinct) takes precendence over essential long-term planning (what our rational mind should be telling us).

Human beings also have a strongly inbuilt reluctance to kill or harm their fellow humans, and in order to overcome such essential social behaviour, these deep feelings have to be ‘deconstructed’. This is what armies have to do in order to train soldiers. That’s why they first destroy a recruit’s individuality, his civilian value system and sense of self-worth. It’s also the reason they show or allow recruits watch violent and pornographic films to desensitise them and turn them into killing machines. Brecht demonstrated this so magnificently in his play ‘Man is Man’. Irrational violence replaces feelings of human solidarity.

As Freud pointed out, we all internalise certain social values and these will normally hold good in most circumstances unless we come under undue pressure and temptation. Doing good stimulates the rewards centres of our brain, but this profess can be overridden given the right triggers.

Coalition cuts now being made to childcare, pensions and working conditions also come at a heavy cost to our social fabric. Additionally, they affect workers’ productivity as well as their sense of collective responsibility and of service to society. Workers are often prepared to work longer hours or increase production if it is seen as for the good of society and their fellow workers, but if they are treated only as mercenary employees, they will then behave as such. For the duration of our lives we continuously enter into social relationships, but on occasions we also enter into purely ‘market relationships’ i.e. when we buy goods or someone buys from us. Our behaviour will be conditioned by whichever.situation we think we are in.

Since Thatcher, who notoriously said ‘society doesn’t exist’ relationships that were primarily social have become increasingly transformed into purely impersonal monetary ones. Whether in education, healthcare or even in soliciting help or advice, all is being reduced to a financial transaction and the social element becomes marginalised. Performance-based salaries, targets, test scores and league tables for schools, all undermine social relationships, replacing them with monetary or statistical values.

Organisations, businesses and institutions used to talk of corporate loyalty, which was important to them. Most workers in the health service or education carry out their jobs as a public service they are proud of that. Of course they are paid for doing their jobs, but payment is often less than they could earn elsewhere in the private sector. It is their sense of public service, the rewards they received in terms of social status, gratitude, warmth, collegiality and generosity that gives them their sense of worth. Once you reduce all that to a purely ‘market’ relationship any sense of a wider loyalty will go by the board.

Even Ed Miliband in a recent speech (Guardian 18 Nov) stressed that ‘the morality of markets is fast becoming the next battleground of politics’. He went on to argue that a more moral, less predatory capitalism is also a more efficient one. This is undoubtedly true, but capitalism by its very nature, based on the profit motive, cannot become ‘moral’. The independent High Pay Commission in a recent report also stressed that inflated rewards for top bankers and businessmen lead to an ‘erosion of trust in the private sector’. Social behaviour is, of course, based largely on trust; once that is eroded, we do have a breakdown of such behaviour.

Capitalism plays on our irrational urge of wanting immediate gratification. Although we know rationally that by taking credit we are only delaying the painful payment process, and being required to pay more in the end, but our irrational selves take over and we do it anyway if the temptation is made attractive enough. Like ‘free trial’ periods for goods. The sales people know that once we have an item in our possession we are unlikely to give it up and send it back, whereas if we were told we had to pay upfront, we would seriously consider whether we actually want or need the item and also if we can afford to pay for it.

The sophistication of marketing today, with all the latest psychological insights at its disposal, can turn almost anything into a tempting opportunity – a must have possession. Advertising aimed at children and their parents implies that if you don’t purchase a particular toy for your child, then your love is deficient, thus manipulating our consciences and sense of love and duty towards our children.

In his book ‘Escape from Freedom’ Eric Fromm wrote that in a democracy people do not lack opportunity, but a confusing abundance of it. We are continually reminded that we can do anything and be anything we want to be. The problem is living up to this dream.

Although we all are fundamentally rational, our deeper-seated animal instincts can be played upon to ensure we make irrational decisions, particularly by those forces that see a quick profit in such irrationality. The only way to counter this anti-social system is to start in schools by helping students develop strategies and tools for making better and more rational decisions in their lives.

Monday, 7 November 2011

4 November 2011

If there were any doubts remaining about Poppy Day now being a largely jingoistic exercise, the present British Legion poster campaign will settle them. They portray celebrities like Helen Mirren saying: ‘The true stars are our troops’, and Katherine Jenkins:’ It’s our unsung heroes who deserve the applause’. It has always been said that 11 November is a day to commemorate those soldiers who died fighting to defend their country (primarily in the First and Second World Wars). I was unaware that it now means cheerleading for British troops under any circumstances. Those now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and bombing in Libya as well as those who humiliated and murdered innocent Iraqi civilians can hardly, I would submit, be termed ‘stars’ or be deserving of applause. I’ll be wearing a white poppy to commemorate all those, both civilian and military, killed in wars. It is the only possible honest and meaningful statement.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Exploiting our leisure time
How do companies like Diesel build a £1bn business on selling new jeans which already look worn out? How do junk food manufacturers convince consumers, against all scientifically-based health advice, to buy their products?
Despite the recession, sportswear group Nike beat analysts' forecasts to post a jump in quarterly profits for 2011 of 13.8% to £371m. Firms like Nike, with aggressive advertising, even manage to target children as young as seven, who already want that tick on their clothes.
Profits also jumped at fashion company Burberry. The group saw a 49% rise in first half pre-tax profits to £129m. They are just two of such ‘brand’ companies seemingly defying the recession. Slick and well-targeted advertising is the key to their success - what we buy and what we wear gives us status, particularly when these products are associated with the names of film and sports stars and other assorted ‘celebrities’. Global firms like McDonalds and Coca Cola realised ages ago that the key to bumper profits is to make your product as cheap as possible, but keep your advertising huge.
The intensity and pace of work is now at an unprecedented level and is unsustainable in the long-term. However the damage done in the meantime to workers’ mental and physical health, to communities, family life and leisure is enormous.

Have you noticed how the share price of public companies rises every time sackings are announced? This seemingly contradictory fact only demonstrates that the more intensively you can exploit your workers, the more profitable you are likely to be, so fewer workers working harder is the goal of the system. The facts and figures, however, don’t reveal the underlying dire sociological alienation that is buried under the welter of economic data.

The monopolisation of ownership of the media, the means of mass distribution and dispersal beyond previous geographical, cultural and political boundaries also has a profound impact on the way big companies operate; it is not just workers in the producing countries that are shamelessly exploited but so are the duped consumers, who are conned into valuing brand labels before quality.

Marx eloquently described how we become alienated from our own humanity by the exploitive capitalist system. Alienation from the work we produce and from our fellow workers or producers. Capitalism, he points out, reduces labour to a commercial commodity to be traded on the market, when it once was primarily a social relationship between people involved in a common effort for survival or betterment. Citizens are dehumanised by being valued for the function they perform, as surplus-value-generating units, rather than the all-round beings they are.

The competitive labour market in industrial capitalist economies is designed to extract as much value as possible from those who work, to fill the coffers of those who own the enterprises and control the means of production; these days largely anonymous equity companies, pension and hedge funds rather than individuals.

Not only are the producers alienated from their product – they have little control over the production process, the final product itself or its sale - they also become alienated from their fellow workers and their class. Worker becomes pitted against worker and their mutual goal - to get the best out of their employer, through combining in solidarity - becomes blurred. The owners of capital also control the mass media, so that we are fed a diet of trivia and titillation. The effect, if not the aim is to turn us away from politics, deprive us of real information about the world that could help us understand it and thus think about changing it. This produces an effect Marx called false consciousness: we fail to see ourselves as we are, as exploited and manipulated beings.

Alienation is not only profound at work, but also in our leisure activities. Exhausted from the working day, we come home to unwind, but often have little energy for mental or physical activities; it’s so much easier to push a button and have our means of relaxation piped into our homes. In the era before mass electronic communications, people did make their own entertainment and their leisure was enjoyed with family, friends and neighbours in an active participatory way. In the post-war era, with increased incomes, cheap consumer products and increased leisure time, a rich potential source of profit opened up. The result has been a radical commercialisation and leisure activities have become based more on passive consumerism than active participation. So that we now face a double form of exploitation and alienation, as workers and consumers.

This alienating process is, of course, not limited to industrial workers, but to every working person. Cultural workers – those who produce our entertainment, works of art, books and music – are also victims of the same process. Today, with the unprecedented mechanisation of reproduction, together with electronification, the process of cultural production has engendered an alienation far beyond that which Marx could have imagined.

Whether in television, music or film, there is now a globalisation and simultaneous downward levelling of taste. The creative input of cultural workers now resembles more a car assembly line than an artistic process. Television is dominated by cheaply produced game shows, soaps, and competitive gladiatorial competitions like X-factor, The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den, Master Chef etc. which perpetuate the worst aspects of an individualistic capitalist system: we are passive onlookers as individuals fight it out for fame and fortune. Soaps create virtual communities, based on the real ones of the past as well as a nostalgia for those that have been destroyed; there is a substitution of real life discourse for a virtual one.

Film is dominated by horror, violence and escapist fantasy stories, and music is monopolised by the big record labels, that promote bland, soporific muzak instead of real individual voices. Even in those leisure areas, where there is a level of participatory activity, like sport, we see a domination of designer labels and aggressive individualism over-shadowing the sporting activity itself. Football teams have become little more than global advertisers of consumer goods, while the players are live capital to be bought and sold like any other asset. Of course, there are still examples of genuine artistic creativity, participatory sport and individual voices, but they are marginalised niche activities.

Only by consciously rejecting ‘junk-food-entertainment’ and instead becoming more involved at a local level in community activities, in organising and re-connecting with our neighbours and our own humanity will we begin to overcome the worst effects of this alienation.
1 November 2011

Dear Sir
Stephen Pinker (If it bleeds, it misleads: why the Cassandras got it wrong; Guardian 1 November 2011) sets up an Aunt Sally to press a dubious argument. Surely the task today is not to solve the impossible and rather pointless conundrum of whether more people are killed by wars today than in previous eras, but to rail against the iniquity of war itself as a means of solving the world’s problems. Body counts, even if accurate, can never reveal the true horrors of war. The fact is that the world today is devoting inordinate and unafordable amounts of wealth on weapons of war instead of on education, health and well-being - that is the real horror. In a report for the British American Security Information Council, the US alone is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. This is how real destruction and killing takes place today.
What Pinker ignores is that all wars in history have, in essence, been fought for economic reasons. Today’s power-brokers have other means at their disposal than actual invasions or killing with weapons hardware. Hundreds of thousands are dying of hunger and poverty as a direct result of the wastage of weapons spending and imperialist policies of imposing imbalanced trading mechanisms; guns are a last resort to be used on those few incalcitrant nations that refuse to toe the line.

John Green