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The Ordering Of Modern Society 1

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What is it with politicians? I’ve been thinking political thoughts today, in fact I think them every day, but today it has set me off on one. It isn’t just politicians, it’s politics, economics, and the way society has changed and what to do about it. Well, not too much of what to do about it, I don’t know, it’s more what I think will happen willy nilly. No matter what we might hope to make happen, in the end things just happen and historians make a buck trying to explain it a hundred years or more later. I don’t have any particular political leaning myself, despite the tone of this or that that I write here. I just have political ideas, theories, concepts, call them what you will. This new subject isn’t just about Ireland, but I know where I’m going with it and it comes back here eventually… This is the first blog on the subject. It’s probably too long for a blog but see how you go.

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I read, as in studied, a lot of Karl Marx and his theories back when I did my History degree and I was always and still am impressed by the astuteness of many of his observations on Capitalism, but what has always been the most interesting part of his thinking for me is his analysis of the processes of our society’s development over the last several centuries at least, and I suspect probably over millennia. He called it Historical Materialism, referring to his theory. And what it all came down to, he says in so many (many, many) words, is that it’s all about the economy, stupid.

Well, perhaps a tad more complex than that. To put it fairly briefly, he took Hegel’s theory that philosophy develops through what he called the Dialectic, a process of argument that runs, an idea, the Thesis, comes into being (see below. It then creates and recognises its opponent idea, its Antithesis. In Hegel’s theory, these two combine, and thus they become the Synthesis, a new idea, and this then becomes the new Thesis.

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Marx took this concept and applied it to the social negotiations of the classes, but he got caught up in his anger at the injustices he saw in the society he lived in. He didn’t actually take part as such, he was unemployed (and probably unemployable!) and unpaid for most of his adult life. He scrounged off his friends, mainly Engels, but Engels probably gave his father’s money willingly to his grand friend and best companion in philosophy, dear Karl.

Bertram Russell suggests in his History of Western Philosophy that it was largely emotional reasons that fired Marx’s thinking and drove him to predict that in the case of the opposition between the Capitalist and Proletarian, things would be different (or could be at any rate). Instead of synthesising, the Proletariat for reasons of justice, not to mention numbers, would win, delete the Capitalists from society and put an end to history. And all that idiotic rubbish. But if we stick with Hegel, we see that the Synthesis of Capitalist and Proletariat is the Consumer, who both sells the product of his labour in the market and also has power of purchase over the products of the market, these being Adam Smith’s definitions of those two, at the time, utterly alienated classes, in his book The Wealth Of Nations. Marx read that book and used it a lot in developing his theories, not least because it so clearly illustrated the truth of Hegel’s system.

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Now this entity, the Consumer, this new Thesis, has a lot of power. Check out the Rabbit books by John Updike, he tells it beautifully. His hero the businessman Rabbit never goes anywhere without Which? magazine, because he needs to know what the Consumer wants so that he can, if possible, serve it. In this part of the world at least, the Consumer has managed to establish its rights to those things it most craves: privacy and a decent home to live a comfortable life, with All Mod. Cons as the agents say, in return for the commitment to work for the hours and days of the week agreed with the employer. But Capitalism, as Marx also told us, only ever gives as little as it must in order to make sure the employees show up for work in the morning and put in the necessary hours. So nowadays, the employers provide enough money for all the things we want like televisions and cars and houses and flats and food to eat and so on on and on and on, but Capitalism has not relinquished its basic beliefs. Instead of paying less, it takes all the hours it can get. Basically, in the Private Sector, it is generally accepted in the modern workplace that you are notionally available 24/7, as the phrase goes, with the agreement of management to try to make that reasonable but no promises. Hopefully the work will be managed well enough to allow you in fact to work maybe only ten hours a day. But as any working man knows I’m sure, if they say you they need you, you say Yessuh.

Unfortunately, none of this applies in the public sector, and there lies the divide between the majority of the working population, who are in free market employment, and the Public Sector. We listen to their representatives and they think what they are saying about working conditions and agreements and so on all sounds reasonable. The benefits they want for the labour they will commit to, and by Golly, it’s another world. They’ll clock off at five when they’re six months behind schedule on a project! They don’t know what it is to work a 48 hour day getting a business projection together, or a goods delivery fulfilled from the floor. Even factory workers who undertake the most dreary working patterns, are more involved, more likely to commit, than these doodlers (Of course, this is not the whole truth or entirely fair, but sometimes it just is the thought, isn’t it, if you’re not one).

More next week.

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2 Comments

  1. siobhanbeck says:

    I get the drift of your thoughts. I am interested to know where your thoughts are going to lead on the debate on private and public sector workers, working as a civil servant as I do. I wonder also if you have come across will huttons writing where he discusses community among other things in the book the state to come.

    • roryfellowes says:

      Well, my point isn’t that we won’t strive to live in a community and take responsibility for our fellow citizens, or some of them anyway. You’re right, I only mentioned the community work of politicians and left public servants looking like useless lazybones, but that was on purpose, a spot of provocation. I’ll get back to this and set it straight, give my broader view.

      My point is rather, that strive as we might, the Consumer will decide what it likes and what it doesn’t like, and the development of what is often abhorrently selfish individualism is a problem that is the result of the way we live and the system we live under. This is the start of the blog thread. Taken in its coldest blood, Capitalism and modern capitalist societies cannot be led from above, they will not be morally guided by governments. They just want it all to work, and they can be pretty indifferent if anyone doesn’t like what they do or think.

      Great that you are really reading this stuff! It’s only me musing. There’2-5 more in this vein though by the third one along we’ll be talking cases and that will probably modify the tone 🙂

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