Scott Macdonald, social media organiser for the SSP, contributes to our special week of coverage on the mental health crisis. He argues that precarity and isolation are the products of a social system that is not socialist enough.
THERE is a harmful, shameful sense that your value as a person is how desirable you are. In this atomised and broken society, you’re not alone in feeling put on. Throughout our lives, we run through a gauntlet of shame – of always feeling like less than our fullest selves.
Our modern Britain is defined by, amongst other things, very low wages, prohibitively high house prices, housing benefit cuts, the loss of secure employment, Education Maintenance Allowance cuts and the encroaching rise in pension ages. Taken together, these policies have made life increasingly uncertain and precarious for working people. Precarity – the state of having insecure employment or income – has been the defining characteristic of the post-2008 social and economic consensus. And this is by design, capitalists diminishing every aspect of social security – to keep workers over a barrel, and continuing profit above all.
Union membership is low and the worst laws in Europe which restrict their organising capacity has damaged them. Accordingly, workers lack the power to demand a fair share of abundant, but highly concentrated riches.
Social roles and spaces
Capitalism has dismantled and eroded all social roles in our caste. There’s no life-long job, no affordable homes to put down roots, few common social groups, little stability in life and no social role that young people can construct an identity around.
Accordingly, there is no proper coming-of-age.
Many young folk feel they have no role, place or value in society – living in a run-down suburb miles from anywhere interesting, few common amenities, libraries cut, youth clubs cut, public land sold to wealthy profiteers for buttons, the remaining community centres charging a fortune and real ways to meet and comfortably share time to meet peers, friends and partners demand ever steeper prices – in the middle of the longest real-terms wage stagnation since Napoleon.
The labour share – your and my wages – of national income has fallen off a cliff. And that is not fair.
Throughout this disintegration, we have sleek propaganda beaming into our homes and through our newspapers and magazines with continuous consumerist perversions of the good life – the lavish consumer lifestyles of the global rich to envy, served up in bite-sized morsels – while the means of achieving them have been radically diminished. Under capitalism, no workers are valued, there is only immediate value in your exploitation, to make the boss class wealthy.
Even the ever-reliable social lubricant, the pub, is under threat. Two close every day, according to the Campaign for Real Ale.
What’s left? Identity. Identities have value in our modern world. They give a sense of belonging when the rest of our social roles have been eaten away. While you can reinvent and shape identity, you cannot directly trade it. Therefore, there is social emphasis in social status and its tokens thereof. In capitalism, to build that status, you must pay a price to show it off. As Scottish media commentator Christopher Silver put it: “All value and all relationships must be marketised, consumed or accumulated.”
Places previously thrumming with social life and relaxation have been replaced by areas selling individual’s social status dreams through shopping, service industries, gambling, designer outlets, online video streaming services, stripped down gyms and minimalist tanning salons – all as individualised, atomised and disconnected from our social selves, stripped from us by capitalism’s inherent need for profit.
Many modern cultural products are marketed accordingly – they set out to undermine human confidence. Worried about your skin? Buy this moisturiser. Want a beautiful body? Get a gym membership in a package deal with the trainer and the pricey protein shakes. Worried about physical flaws? Get a plastic surgeon. Want to stand out? Get nice designer gear. Can’t afford it? Have this credit card.
In so doing, and beyond simple survival wages, capitalism warps identity for profit, by selling highly profitable social status tokens.
To be happy with your latent existence becomes a kind of revolutionary act.
The internet makes it easy to build devised individual representations of ourselves – even if these representations are not as we truly are. It’s simple to slip into fantasy – promoting our strengths, but hiding frailties and weakness. The anonymity from behind screens means liberation, education, but also social isolation.
Others, equally anonymous, can take advantage of very human weaknesses and capitalist injustices to evangelise further oppression, breed seething, twisted cauldrons of hate and mobilise it to lash out on other oppressed people. Donald Trump’s election tapped into strongly-held economic alienation, but unforgivably, chose to aim its ire and hate at other oppressed people instead – misogyny, racism and division is explicit policy, and electorally significant.
I might have turned out to be one of these self-loathers, swimming in space for an identity that gives meaning and purpose. I got lucky with my friends, a writer and political activist helped show there are useful, valuable ways of changing the world, and that people fight for it in politics every day.
Activism and comradeship
Becoming active in politics has changed that for me. It has demonstrated that I’m not alone. I’ve learned, grown and I’ve made more friends in the past seven years than in the previous 30. I have found no shortage of amazing teachers, young and old, who have a breadth of experience and understanding.
Activism can be a curse, in that there is always something new to do, saying “no”, is hard. There’s a pervasive feeling of if you don’t step up, who else will? Try to resist this feeling – burnout is common. So, instead of this, manage what you can.
Become a teacher, train others, and trust your comrades to help if you need them. And be aware if others are suffering, and look out for one another – we can all be personifications of a safe space.
It is through coming together, and building our common future together that we can build a society which will meet our human, social and economic needs. We can fight for a world which eliminates the worst of capitalism as a common poison and jailer of mental and social health.
A socialist society is about building a new, vastly improved world. A society which is borne on collective wholesome promises. Good health. Better working conditions. A shorter working week. Better public transport. Excellent education. Fulfilling work for good pay. Strong public services. Well-kept social spaces open to everyone. A sense of purpose and social solidarity.
Such a society will transform our social standing and relationships, where creativity and diversity are welcomed, normalised, ubiquitous and allowed to truly flourish.
A society ready to do this would repeal oppressive means such as the current anti-trade union laws, and seize your fair share of wealth back from the obscenely wealthy into a common treasury. This would be used to start a massive reorganisation of economic life and a huge expansion of education. Life-long learning, open to all, to build our own best selves fit for the future.
A society of co-operation and healthy competition – where we test our talents and skills and collectively strive to improve lives, rather than the miserable capitalist competition of humiliation, injury or conquest we endure daily.
We can build the material consequences and power to fashion the world of our dreams and make it a reality.
No one is entitled to this future. But you’re not alone. You can fight for a much better future, and do it socially. Organise your friends and educate. Study oppression and capitalism. Unionise your workplace, build worker power and win better outcomes. Join parties and meet fellow socialist travellers. Stop settling for less than you are worth.
A socialist society is the prize. The future and our collective mental health may depend on it.
Picture courtesy of Carlos Ebert
HELP US BUILD A COMMON FUTURE TOGETHER: Support our work at allofusfirst.org/donate