David Cameron visits NuneatonWhen the British Conservative Party announced at its 2013 conference that it had the interests of “hard-working people” at heart, they invoked a mantra long propagated by an out of touch political class. “Hard-work”, we’re often told, is a positive thing in and of itself, regardless of its social effects or the impact it has on the individual actually carrying it out. The term, employed in the rhetoric of both the left and the right, is rarely challenged and forms much of what is viewed as “common sense”. Hard work is seen as a virtue, a service to the nation and an ideal to aspire to.

Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us hate work. It’s why Mondays are grim and Fridays are awesome. It’s why we spend most of our week days watching the clock in eager anticipation of 5 o’clock, all the time wishing our lives away. The person who claims to enjoy “hard work” is either a liar or intensely boring. A recent Gallup poll found that, across the globe, only 13% of people actually like going to work. This is unsurprising, given that work for most people under capitalism is often low paid, unrewarding, stressful, degrading and tedious.

There is nothing noble about coming home from work mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Neglecting your friends and family in favour of helping your boss make more profits is not virtuous. And restricting the time you spend on developing talents such as music, art or sports because of your excessive working hours is not only detrimental to you personally, but is also detrimental to wider society. How many people with the musical potential of Jimi Hendrix have been unable to develop their talents because they had to spend the majority of their life in a factory? How many potentially great writers have been unable to express themselves like George Orwell or Oscar Wilde because the bulk of their energies were channelled into working in a supermarket?

Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, trade unions and the left have argued for the creation of more jobs to tackle unemployment. Yet, in doing so, they have failed to highlight one of the most absurd contradictions of capitalism; the fact that there are 200 million people unemployed across the globe, while those who are in employment are generally overworked. Rather than increasing the number of jobs, we should be arguing for existing jobs to be shared out while simultaneously reducing the length of the working week.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently outlined a strong economic, ecological and social case for reducing the standard working week to 21 hours – something that has the potential to resonate in the 21st century. Less work can assist in the fight against climate change and allow us to live more sustainable lives. The fast-pace of our working lives forces us into many environmentally and socially destructive habits. We drive cars because they are deemed to be more “convenient” instead of using less carbon-intensive public transport. And instead of growing our own food, many people consume nutritionless ready meals and packed vegetables which, as the NEF shows, are grossly more damaging to the eco-system.

Trips abroad can also become more ecologically friendly than the carbon-intensive short-term holidays of modern capitalist society. As it stands, most people can only avail of two or three weeks away from their jobs at any one time, meaning slower modes of transport, such as trains, are not a viable way of visiting a foreign country. If workers were given the opportunity to take a number of months off at one time, in exchange for working extended hours at another time of the year, what is to stop them getting a train to Beijing or a ship to New York? The mass use of airplanes merely emphasises the sheer rush and intensity of modern life, as people seek to maximize the amount of leisure they manage to squeeze into the meagre time they have away from work.

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would allow people in the 21st century to enjoy a 15-hour work week. Leisure time, it was suggested, would become so plentiful that people would struggle to find enough activities to occupy themselves. Yet, despite a rise in productivity and the abundance of material goods, these predictions failed to materialise. Across Europe, the average working week stands at 41.6 hours, and that doesn’t include time spent commuting to and from work.

The ‘work ethic’

Negative aspects of any class society, such as inequality, ecological degradation and social deprivation, need to be justified or excused by widely propagated myths in order to be sustained. The excessive working hours endured by most people is justified by the work ethic, as exemplified in the Conservative Party’s condescending slogan lauding “hard-working” people (the inference being that those deemed not to be “hard-working” are less deserving and less eligible for political representation).

The worship of work is as old as capitalism itself, and it is under the unique characteristics of capitalism as a mode of production that the work ethic takes hold. Under slavery and feudalism, work was seen as a negative thing, something that was bestowed upon humans from God as punishment for ‘original sin’. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome saw human labour as something to be avoided at any cost. Work was for the slaves — the lowest rungs of society. Before capitalism, most labour was done out of necessity. In feudal Europe, for example, peasants produced their own food and the surplus was passed onto the lord who owned the land. Since the production of huge surpluses was not necessary, people enjoyed extended periods of leisure once they produced what was needed. Work did not define individuals, as is the case today; work was merely a means to an end.

The Protestant Reformation challenged the traditional idea of work, with Martin Luther arguing that God’s Will could be fulfilled by individuals working hard. Labour was seen as a service to God, an outlook which helped to normalise the long, gruelling working hours which defined the Industrial Revolution. These ideas proved useful for an economic system which was based on, as Marx wrote, production “for production’s sake”. Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the Protestant work ethic’, argued that the rise of these ideas ensured that capitalism would surface in Europe before it would in any other part of the planet.

The work ethic transformed over time, gradually becoming more secular to reflect societal values. Where people once served God, we now aim to be seen as “contributing” to society, a perverse form of social Darwinism under which humans beings must justify their existence through “hard work” before they can benefit from the fruits of civilisation. The unemployed, the elderly and the disabled are seen as a “burden” on society, living a life of luxury at the expense of the mythical “taxpayer”.

In the United States, the ‘American Dream’ played on the unrealistic aspirations held by many working people, who were conned into believing they could one day be millionaires, provided they put in the work. During the World Wars and the subsequent recovery, the population was called upon to work in the ‘national interest’, a term which has been resurrected by the right following the global financial collapse of 2008. Today, as Sharon Beder pointed out, “the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility both to the family and the nation”. She went on to explain:

“As we begin the twenty first century work and production has become ends in themselves. Employment has become such a priority that much environmental degradation is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.”

The capitalist work ethic is often used as a vicious weapon of class warfare. It dehumanises us and commodifies our very being. We are not seen as individuals with aspirations and interests; we are mere beasts of burden, with the sole life purpose of “working hard”. Our lives should not be defined merely by productivity nor should we have to justify our existence by proving to others our ability and willingness to “work hard”. Human progress is about overcoming the need for human toil as much as is practicable, and this is a case the left needs to make. As the great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid once quipped: “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings.”

This article was published in the Morning Star

Scores Of Travelers Depart For Long Holiday Weekend

Like many other aspects of society under capitalism, the automobile appears to be a standard part of life; something that has been and always will be with us. Learning how to drive and acquiring a car are viewed as obligatory stages of our lives, through which we all must progress in the process of growing up. Almost everyone has a car. Many households even have two or three.

I hate cars, and I always have. However, due to the nature of my job, I am required to own a car, and I hate having to own one. I hate the impact mass car ownership has had on society: motorways clogged with oversized vehicles grinding by at a snail’s pace during “rush hour”; petrolheads driving at reckless speeds endangering their own and others’ safety; ever widening roads encroaching into the countryside; horrendous pollution caused by the expulsion of toxic fumes; countless road fatalities; wars started by great powers to secure extra resources for oil companies, such as the bloodbath in Iraq. I also detest the impact it has on individuals: people atomised into vehicles designed for five passengers but, more often than not, containing only a solitary occupant; the financial hit people are forced to take to fork out for fuel, insurance, vehicle testing and engine faults; the health effects of sitting inactive in a driver’s seat for several hours a day; the misery of navigating through heavy traffic and the hassle of finding a parking space in urban areas. Most of all, because of an expensive, underfunded and inefficient public transport system, I hate the fact that I have little choice but to own a car.

Our reliance on these bulky, awkward, impractical, expensive, dirty and exceptionally dangerous machines is rarely brought into question.  According to the World Health Organisation, cars cause the deaths of at least 1.3 million people a year, a major health crisis by any standards. It is one, however, which goes largely unmentioned. Even without counting the hundreds of thousands of people killed every year as a result of traffic pollution, the automobile is still the ninth largest cause of death worldwide. What an indictment of a supposed symbol of “success” and “progress”.

It was no mere accident that the rise of mass car ownership in the second half of the twentieth century coincided with the demise of public transport. Huge profits for auto companies and oil cartels were there to be made, and cheap, clean public transport stood in the way of that. This is clear to be seen in the United States, among other places. Before 1945, Los Angeles had an efficient system of streetcars, which was later scrapped to make way for cars and busses – all at the behest of General Motors. Since citizens were forced into switching over to private cars, the city now has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted in the United States and one of the most congested in the world. Similar processes took place around the world with the aim of adopting cities to the needs of the automobile.  Decades of under-investment in public transport have led to trains and busses becoming more infrequent and notorious for their steep prices.  Car use was increasingly, and still is, seen as a more affordable and practical method of transport. On a planet that is warming every year, this is a perilous state of affairs.

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher revealed her attitude to public transport when she said, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. This was an outgrowth of an ideological dogma which preached that all things private are good and all things public are bad, a dogma which still influences political decisions today.

The automobile is a symbol of everything that is rotten about an ever increasingly nihilistic capitalism. Rabid individualism takes precedence over the common good. Advertising companies manipulate people into believing that consumerism is the path to fulfillment. The planet is destroyed so a few people can make astronomical amounts of money. Wars are waged to ensure our fuel guzzling engines stay full. Through the construction of roads, motorways, traffic lights, car parks, and road signs the auto industry enjoys continuous subsidies courtesy of the public purse – a parasitism that has become endemic under neo-liberalism.

It can be argued that car ownership has, in part, helped to politically shift large swathes of the population to the right. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote: “I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.”

There is nothing inevitable about road deaths, congestion, pollution and all the other nasty side effects that come with mass car ownership. Political choices were made which got us into this predicament. Political choices can get us out of it. Enormous investment is required to boost public transport. That almost goes without saying. Train and bus fares have to radically drop to incentivize people to use these much cleaner, more comfortable and safer modes of transport. Cars should be seen as a last resort, not as an essential to everyday life. They should only be used when travelling to a more remote place not serviced by a much expanded rail and bus system. Cars could be rented from state owned depots when required. City centres should be off-limits to private cars, with exceptions made only for those with disabilities. Priority in urban areas should be given to busses, trams, cyclists and pedestrians. Cities need to be designed for people rather than clumsy machines. Instead of using public money to widen motorways and arterial routes, funds should instead be directed to expanding the rail network. These are just a few steps we can take with the view to eventually phasing out use of the car.

Cheap, safe and clean public transit should not be seen as a leafy aspiration. With rising global temperatures, planetary contamination and carnage on our roads, it should be viewed as nothing less than a social necessity.

This article was published in the Morning Star

A common theme running through much of the world’s history is the prevalence of often bizarre and outrageous ideas that would never be granted any credibility in the modern age. Some of these ideas and doctrines, during certain periods of history, were seen by most people alive at the time as undeniable truths. For much of the last millennium, the divine right of kings was used to justify the perverted reign of Europe’s many monarchs. Those who questioned it were seen as seditious radicals on the fringes of society. Likewise, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny declared that the United States had a God-given right to expand westward on the North American continent, even if it meant the extermination of the native population.

Today’s prevailing delusion is not a peculiar religious dogma or indeed any crazed racist political doctrine; it’s the belief in the necessity of unending economic growth. Championed by almost all politicians and economists, the notion that the world’s economy can grow indefinitely comes up against one huge stumbling block; Earth’s finite resources.

The scientific consensus is that humans are causing our planet’s climate to change. The only thing that is really contested here is the degree to which it is taking place. And our collective obsession with never-ending economic growth, coupled with our addiction to heat-trapping fossil fuels, is a recipe for environmental disaster. Future generations, if there are any, are likely to be bemused at our economic system’s reckless short-termism.

Growth is a central component of the current economic system and is necessary for its normal functioning. It’s generally accepted that capitalism requires the economy to grow by around 3% every year to avoid a crisis, as we now know today. When growth stops, millions of people are thrown onto the scrapheap. However, when growth continues, the environment suffers. It’s an unfortunate fact, but when GDP increases, so do greenhouse gas emissions. This is an enormous obstacle which humanity needs to overcome in the very near future.

Economics is perhaps the most over-mystified field in modern academia. Many people feel intimidated by the figures, strange-sounding financial terms and, ultimately, its sheer dullness. Consequently, most people feel that they should leave major economic decisions to those “who know best”, much to the detriment of the rest of society.

Boiled down to its most simple form, economics is about human beings labouring to produce and exchange things that they want or need. In a sense, “economics” has existed for as long as humans have populated this planet, even if the term wasn’t articulated by our earliest ancestors. However, economics today is a very different beast. The attacks on living standards across the world, carried out on behalf of the powerful, testifies to the fact that people are now seen as objects whose sole purpose is to serve the interests of “the economy”, rather than the other way around. Environmental lawyer Gus Speth highlighted the blindness at the centre of this fanatical money worship when he said: “Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing – underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those in affluent societies, now creating more problems than it is solving.”

Economic growth, we are told, is the only way to improve our lives and to raise millions of people out of poverty. It’s believed that building and consuming more things makes our lives more fulfilling and enjoyable. But this view, although widely held, does not stand up against the evidence. Although the global economy has grown many times over the last few decades, very little of the wealth created has went towards lifting the world’s poorest people out of poverty. And in western countries, whose populations are the supposed beneficiaries of economic growth, depression and anxiety levels have increased massively as a result of stress and longer working hours.

Economic growth does not necessarily lead to increased life satisfaction. Indeed, most working people saw little benefit from economic growth over the past forty years. Since the 1970s, wages in the western world have stagnated as a result of the demise of effective trade unionism. So, while the economy was growing year-on-year, those who were creating the growth in production and wealth received nothing extra for their labour. To fill the gap in demand left by falling wages, working people were encouraged to obtain credit cards in order to buy things which otherwise could not have been sold. Thus, a growing consumer economy is necessarily built on huge amounts of debt, which clearly brings about its own set of personal and social problems.

The wisdom of promoting western consumer-based economies as models of development for the rest of the world is questionable at best. In their 2006 report, Growth Isn’t Working, the New Economics Foundation pointed out the stark unfeasibility of continuing to grow the global economy indefinitely: “For everyone on Earth to live at the current European average level of consumption, we would need more than double the biocapacity actually available – the equivalent of 2.1 planet Earths – to sustain us. If everyone consumed at the US rate, we would require nearly five.” Aside from the ecological impossibility of using growth to tackle poverty, the actual results have left a lot to be desired. The authors of the report also discovered the following:

“Between 1990 and 2001, for every $100 worth of growth in the world’s income per person, just $0.60 found its target and contributed to reducing poverty below the $1-a-day line. To achieve every single $1 of poverty reduction therefore requires $166 of additional global production and consumption, with all its associated environmental impacts.”

Rather than the wealth “trickling down” to the less well off in society, as Margaret Thatcher infamously believed, the tendency in capitalism is for the wealth to trickle in a most definitely upward fashion.

Beyond a certain point in any society’s development, economic growth ceases to contribute to general public well-being. Once people’s basic requirements are fulfilled, such as health care, a good social and family life, purposeful employment and adequate shelter, the urge for material goods diminishes. This is exceptionally demonstrated in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, which points out that people generally value having a productive role in society more than they value material commodities. Following the initial buzz of buying a new iPad or catching up with the new fashion fad, there’s little to suggest that we are any happier when we consume things. Indeed, the most visible facet of growth-based consumerism, advertising, encourages us to be deeply unsatisfied with our lives and with what we own. Life is never good enough unless you go out and purchase the latest crap the capitalist has to offer.

Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their 2010 book, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, made an important point when they wrote: “The emphasis on consumption has even brought about a change in everyday use. Instead of talking about the “people”, the “general population”, the “public,” or “humanity,” it is common to use the term consumer.” They continued: “Our humanity is being defined as our connection to commodities instead of to each other and our communities”.

Shopping is central to the workings of capitalism. The powerful need us to buy their junk to keep their system ticking over. That is why, in the days after the 9-11 attacks, US President George Bush urged terrified Americans, who were worried about the prospect of another Al-Qaeda attack, to get out their credit cards and start spending again in a bid to prevent an economic slow down.

Not only does economic growth fail to improve our happiness and wellbeing, it assists in the destruction and cooking of our fragile planet. The fetishisation of growth gets more cult-like by the week. There is no alternative, we are told. Any other system which has been tried out has failed. Capitalism gives people what they want. We must appease the markets. History ended when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. So goes the mundane mainstream narrative.

The task of this generation is to move the world beyond an economic system which views both people and planet as mere “externalities”. We need to build a system which views these things as more than trivial side issues which warrant only an afterthought. There is nothing to suggest that a non-growth economy, organised in a non-capitalist way, of course, would not prosper. The key is to reorganise the priorities of the economy and to plan production in a way that meets the basic needs of everyone while at the same time not destroying our species’ chances of survival on this planet. Of course, it will require a change in the way we currently live our lives and will present an immense challenge, but it can be done. To continue the way we are going risks disaster.

Kenneth Boulding wonderfully summed up the madness of the current economic paradigm when he quipped: “Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”