We’re often told that we can’t afford a better society. Even the most modest of reformist proposals, like those contained in the UK Labour Party’s 2019 election manifesto, are presented by our media and institutions as absurdly utopian. Despite the fact that many of its proposed policies would only have restored 2010 levels of public spending (with some, such as arts spending, falling short of even that), Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), claimed in an interview with ITV News that it was “impossible to overstate just how extraordinary this manifesto [is] in terms of the sheer scale of money being spent.”
The IFS’s own analysis of the Labour manifesto repeatedly presents all public spending initiatives as “giveaways” (a word mentioned five times in their initial response alone). This echoed the criticisms leveraged by former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable. In an article for the Independent, Cable urged politicians to “stop pretending to be Santa handing out shiny presents.” Despite the performance of sensible neutrality, Cable’s reference to “the generous man with the white beard” made his intended target plain.
What were these “giveaways,” these “shiny presents”? A properly-funded healthcare system in which sick children wouldn’t have to lie on hospital floors? An end to the punishing austerity regime that sees precious lives extinguished all too early – like Errol Graham, who slowly starved to death after his ESA payments were stopped?
A chance, a glimmer of a chance, that we might be able to mitigate the ongoing ecological collapse? A functional, affordable transport system? An end to homelessness and the mental health crisis that claims so many lives? A complete overhaul of housing policy to ensure that the sort of wilful negligence that caused the Grenfell fire could never happen again?
What kind of system could consider these things unaffordable luxuries, and why?
“Cheapness,” Jason W Moore observes, “is violence.” Capitalism “expresses the ethos of the cheapskate;” it “feeds on the bodies of finite lives and labours.” The bean-counting logic of capitalism has no column in its ledger that can account for joy or flourishing, or the affirmation of life. And, as Andrew Key has pointed out, “to delimit the possible in advance, with a world-weary shake of the head, is also to imbue the status quo with powers of permanence and inevitability.”
It is in the interests of all those who benefit from the status quo to convince us that this is just the way it is; that economics is not just a law of nature, but the law of nature. To the powerful, market fluctuations are more serious than hurricanes and floods. This is why the World Economic Forum has only now, in 2020, declared climate change a serious (economic) risk, even though measurable and harmful effects have been experienced in the global south for at least 30 years (and the present ecological collapse arguably began in 1492).
People are starving, dying, getting sick; our non-human kin are suffering too. Again and again, we’re told by those responsible that to mitigate this suffering would be too expensive. The transactional logic of profit and loss, efficiency and scarcity, renders life disposable, possibility impossible. Countless lives are quite literally priced out of the market. But as Marx reminds us, “no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in a pearl or a diamond.” Price is a social relation, not an immutable law. So many lives, sacrificed for an idea.
If price is just a social relation, albeit one that’s been singled out and given the appearance of pure, unconditioned reality, what does this economic attitude do to other types of social relation? In Capital 1, Marx quotes from a contemporary report produced by the Chief Inspectors of Factories, which quotes a factory boss as saying (in defence of the deliberate shortening of workers’ rest-hours), “moments are the elements of profit.”
Language like this reveals the ways in which, in order to sustain itself, capital needs to expand ever further into our lives, for our lives are nothing more than an accretion of moments, ready to be monetised. We see this not only in the actions of the powerful, but in our daily conversations; the ways our discourse so often takes wage labour as the only form of work; the way we’ll ask one another, ‘so what do you do?,’ meaning ‘how do you sell your life?’; the ways we’ll ask children, ‘so what do you want to be when you grow up?’ – meaning, ‘to whom will you sell your life?’
We see this on the left too, in the ways our discourse so often carelessly conflates the working class (i.e. that barely-cohered, heterogenous group of people whom the social order designates as a resource to be exploited) and workers or working people. We can argue all we want for an expanded definition of work, but it remains the case that in everyday language many people will likely take ‘working people’ to mean people who undertake wage labour. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with disabled and long-term unemployed comrades who’ve shared their feelings of exclusion when met with this rhetoric, not to mention those whose labour is not currently recognised as work.
The forms of deprivation and marginalisation experienced by proletarianised people – the working class – are, as Jules Joanne Gleesonnotes, “distinct from direct participation in exploited labour, and far more decisive.” The condition of being working class is thus not dependent on whether or not one’s labour is actively exploited in the wage market; rather, as Gleeson continues, “to be part of the proletariat can only be to have one’s creative potential constrained and delimited by more rudimentary forms of fulfilment being rendered starkly conditional.”
While it is unarguably the case that the transactional logic of wage labour structures this conditionality – in that its main purpose is to discipline unruly subjects into offering up their labour for exploitation – for the left to accept this logic uncritically is to refuse the possibility of a better world. To relate to our comrades only as workers risks shading into a narrow form of solidarity that reifies the same conditions we seek to resist. The economic attitude thus inflects and infects our relations to the world, to our work, to our own imaginations; to our understanding of time, and even to one another.
And so we assert ourselves as our productive capacities (‘worker’) or our reproductive capacities (‘mother’), because that’s the system of value in which we are formed. To value something: to attach a price to it. One form of social relation and identity construction elevated above all others. Perhaps this is what makes some people feel suspicious when promised four extra bank holidays, universal basic services (including internet access, already considered a basic human right in seven countries), or stronger protections for our leisure time. The transactional logic of profit and loss has rendered possibility impossible. A politics grounded solely in the economic is a politics incapable of addressing this difficulty. Nor, however, should we settle for a politics that treats the cultural as something politically necessary, but separate from and secondary to the economic.
Rather, as Iris Marion Young says, culture should be taken as “one of several sites of struggle interacting with others.” I would add that our relationships and affective lives – the ways we construct, express, and actualise ourselves and one another; the ways we feel – these too are sites of struggle. Our goal must be, as George Padmore wrote in 1944, not to “wring concessions from the ruling class,” but to undertake “a fundamental transformation of the existing social order.”
To imagine that this can be achieved only through economic means is to mistake the part for the whole, whilst also overlooking the many parts – the many selves – that make up the whole of the proletariat. To acknowledge our shared condition should not automatically mean that we accept the flattening universalism of the economic attitude. Aimé Césaire, in his critique of European humanism, discerned the exclusionary basis of much universalism. Building on his work, I want to call for a socialism that is “equal to the world.”
How might we do this? What could this mean? How would it feel? The answer is this: militant kindness, or radical love – a wilful kind of love that refuses and resists injustice, passivity and exploitation. It’s how we recognise one another in all our vulnerability and pain and complexity, our perfect imperfection; and how we recognise that the only form of power worth having is the power we create together.
We actualise our capacities – our creative potential – most fully when we are truly together, in recognition and in reciprocity, and in mutual liberation from proletarianisation. This is the beginning of solidarity, the beginning of love, the beginning of the end of the economic attitude; and the end of that reduction of everything to a resource, even love and care, even one another; the end of capital’s false scarcity and the beginning of forgiveness, of promise, of possibility. In joyful togetherness.
This world is already here, between us. It’s in every moment of softness, of gentleness, of vulnerability, of love. I may not feel that I deserve goodness or joy, but I believe that you do. And that’s enough for me to believe that a socialism equal to the world, to all of us, is not only possible, but inevitable.