My Identity, My Socialism, My Job
Many of us, myself included, feel a strong pressure to identify personally with what we spend most of our time doing. This, I think, is understandable. We spend a large part of our life in our labours and it is important to feel that our lives are being well spent. In creating value for others, even under conditions of exploitation, we hope to also find worth in ourselves.
If political power plays an important role both in defining what labour society needs doing and, subsequently, who will perform it, political self determination plays an equally important role in how we feel about ourselves in the doing of it.
But the relationship between political self understanding and work has changed in recent decades. In an older, lost world of labour, people trapped in boring, menial work that not only paid pittance, but often ruined their health in the process, improved both the material and spiritual conditions of their existence through political organising. There is a reason why the banners of the British coal mining unions are beautiful. Being a coal miner, or a factory worker, or a railway worker, a docker or a clerk was an ugly sentence which people made beautiful through the struggle for their own emancipation.
The Communist Party went even further. They imbued the figure of the worker with an almost mythical status. This imagery, now associated more with propaganda than reality, has been easy to mock since the failure of Soviet communism. This is, in my view, a mistake. Individual organisations, and even whole societies, can be held against the values they claim to espouse, even if they are more often honoured in the breach than the observance. As Hungarian dissident and anti-communist G.M. Tamás wrote:
‘Actually existing socialism’, although it was not socialist, was unique in operating a terrific moral switch by asserting the superiority of manual labour and putting the worker at the pinnacle of the moral hierarchy. It is seldom understood what a tremendous cultural coupure this was.
For similar reasons, huge significance is placed on the liberating potential of American democracy, even when it is made conspicuous by its failure. If you can tell more about a system by what it does than by what it says, what it says about itself still has a huge impact on its own self imposed priorities and boundaries.
This emphasis on the heroism of labour applies at the level of the individual too. Historically, working class representatives have endeavoured to emancipate themselves within the scope of their identity and function as workers. Britain’s shop floor trade unionists, self educated and assertive, were once a shadow aristocracy, an elite among the oppressed, the people who translated the idea of self government into reality in the age of mass democracy.
In our lifetime, following deindustrialisation, the decline of organised labour, the collapse of European socialism, something has fundamentally shifted. But what has not changed is the desire of ordinary people to find meaning, purpose and agency in the things that they do.
More often, people now look for liberation through mental escape from their daily grind. They create a reality outside of the oppressive circumstances of their labour and they inhabit it with what they consider their real selves. The millennial idea that there are two realities — one which seems real but which is not real and one that seems unreal but which is real — is captured perfectly by the 1999 action movie, The Matrix, one of the defining cultural moments of the decade that followed. What low paid service worker isn’t really, in their self esteem, a temporarily disadvantaged actor, sportsman, model, musician, artist or writer? Behind how many ostentatious instagram accounts is a dreary desk job hidden shamefacedly out of sight?
Once these two lives have been successfully split apart, and more and more personal resources are switched from one to the other, the pressure then mounts to merge the two back together in a more desirable configuration. This manifests in the huge competition for jobs in glamorous, “creative” industries like fashion, sport, the media, the arts, or politics. This competition then translates into terrible working conditions and a sharply class based stratification between who can afford to make the necessary sacrifices in order to compete and those who can’t. Instead of an aristocracy of labour we have an aristocracy of, well, aristocrats.
This encroaches onto our activism on the left. How many of us who threw ourselves into Corbynism didn’t wish we could be full time activists, not only creating a better world outside, but inhabiting a better world within? Although there are some — either via the academy, third sector NGOs, or professional political bureaucracies — who have more or less successfully fused professional occupations with their personal preoccupations, the vast majority of us have misled ourselves. Instead of trying to make ourselves worthwhile by making our work worthwhile, we have entered into a war of all-against-all for access to an ever narrowing strata of jobs which promise to confer that worth onto us. The ideology of consumer choice is applied to professional fulfilment, except while our system enables everyone to purchase goods, it does not actually require very many graphic designers.
By trying to escape the world of work into a world of idealism and a related personal, creative fulfilment, we have accepted that political self-actualisation requires an escape from labour, or at least an escape into a different, more edifying labour of our choice. Except, in doing this, we have not escaped at all. In trying to decommodify our labour, we have commodified our politics, and fortified the atomisation of society.
There is no going back to the world of labour which made coal miners into literary critics and dock workers into cabinet ministers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson we can learn from this lost world. To mine an old cliche, we should aspire to rise with our class, not above it. We should seek political self-worth within our environment, not outside of it. Whatever it is we find ourselves doing in life, let us try and be leaders where we are, among the people we find ourselves with. If there is an escape into an enlightened, self-selecting club of professional activists and intellectuals, it is not one that leads to socialism.