“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”–Nietzsche
This is the third and final instalment of a three-part series. Reading Part 1 and Part 2 is essential to best make sense of what follows and I suggest at least scanning through both (in reverse order: Part 2 and then Part 1) before reading this piece.
Part 1 was an attempt to condense the basis of Marxian economic and (therefore) social theory in one essay. I didn’t develop his consequential analyses—for I think exploitation is an open secret you needn’t Karl Marx or anyone else to break to you. In a letter to his friend and coauthor Frederick Engels, Marx wrote that one of the two “best points in my book [Capital]… [is] the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value. (All understanding of the facts depends on this.)” [My italics.] Whence my dedication to its explication in Part 1, on which I will recap shortly.
Part 2 was a storytelling: an anecdotal experience with some homeless friends from whom (as always) I learnt much, much I thought worth sharing.
Part 3, frankly, is going to be all over the place.
We’ll start where we started in Part 1—with commodities—and their value. In what sense are commodities/objects/items/things valuable?
They are use-values: the real, existent, useful value of a commodity makes it a use-value. These useful qualities are different for each thing, for each person and as such cannot be quantified. Their use-values are qualitatively expressed in particularity: this particular item has this particular quality; this spade’s used to dig, the pipe to smoke, etcetera.
Historically, this has always been the case. A caveman who sharpens a stone makes a use-value. He has a commodity. As was discussed in Part 1, this means by definition of it being a use-value in a society that recognises it as a use-value, it is also an exchange-value. All well and good so far.
So in this cave-society, Caveys are producing commodities. One caveman grinds a stone; another sharpens a stick; a cavewoman hollows a wooden bowl from a branch. They spend time producing value in the forms of these commodities. Their labour-time makes use-values out of these raw materials: the stone and the tree were not use-values until humans and their labour-time made them into use-values.
As mentioned, if they are use-values they are automatically exchange-values too. Say one caveman has a surplus of sharpened stones and a cavewomen a wooden bowl spare. The surplus commodities are use-values for the other, or exchange-values, so they exchange his two sharpened stones for her bowl.
All well and good, again. They made their commodities to use, didn’t require them and exchanged them for a use-value. Such is the case across the cave-society: each produces and where they have a surplus of a commodity vthat is required by another Cavey, they exchange.
Our cave society develops and develops until it falls into (known) history. Commodities are still produced for their use-value, just now there’s more of them. Commodities are still exchanged for the use-value, just now there’s more of them to exchange. Food and goods are farmed and made throughout the spring and summer seasons, before the autumnal harvest and seasonal festivities. The festival celebrates the culminating harvest and gives occasion to exchange the surpluses of the society. Each exchange what they don’t need for what they do: a social circulation-cum-celebration. Happy days—still all well and good.
Now here comes the trouble.
As more use-values are produced than is required by one family, making a commodity surplus, they are exchanged with other members of that society. You can’t quantify the amount of use-value of each commodity—potatoes versus sharpened stones versus a home—this society just knows that they are useful, so they are exchanged with one another as and when required, as would make sense to do. But as more use-values are produced than can be used by the society, a social commodity surplus is created, and can be exchanged with other societies.
Within the society, trading a half-cart of potatoes for some firewood and a wooden bowl is fine; they care not trying measuring ‘how much’ each is ‘worth’, it wouldn’t make sense to do so. They are useful, they are required—end of.
Outside the society, trade with the neighbours cannot be so laissez-faire a business as to roughly equate large quantities of totally different use-values with one another. So a standard of measure is created—money. Societies then have an equivalent basis on which exchange is made: such and such amounts of potatoes/firewood/sharpened stones equal a specific amount of money—everything now has a price.
Okay, why does this matter? Here’s the crux of the waffle: production, society and human history plunged us into an asocial abyss of systematised stupidity the very second that commodities were produced for their exchange and for profit, instead of for use—exploiting our habitat and the humans within it for private profit went from no-no to normal in no time. The ceding catastrophic centuries prove it: explosions in population yet war, abundance yet poverty, humans yet inhumanity. Our time became somebody else’s money; our handiwork for using, somebody else’s for selling; innumerable lives of quiet desperation lived for the sake of some sedentary suit’s salary. When use-value capitulated to exchange-value in toto, we systematically prioritised profit over people. We were communities producing and subsisting for and with each other; now we are individuals producing for our individual selves and some other individual’s profit—“there is no such thing as society’’, one can hear Maggie’s echo shrill. Deeper and more measured in tone we hear a Karl Marx say: “social power becomes the [unaccountable] private power of private persons. The ancients therefore denounced money as subversive of the economic and moral order of things.” Why? Because: “Hard work, saving, and avarice… [as] cardinal virtues” will not build a society as much as oppose its people to each other in competition and decimate community.
But one may justifiably think, what’s your problem? This society has provided for me and you with shelter, warmth, water, electricity, food, work and even play. The point, rather, is: for an alarmingly large and ever increasing minority, simply the opposite is the case. Housing, heating, water and electricity supplies and food are all commodities to exchange for monetary profit, not to provide for human use. So, how does this impact those without the dough? Where charitable shelter and/or services are provided in Brighton, indeed across the country, many of its service users are in housing—viz. they aren’t even homeless—they cannot afford to heat or light their homes, nor to buy the food to eat to live in said unheated and unlit ‘home’. For society’s elderly, they suffer in relative silence, too often dying cold and unimaginably lonely lives; out of sight and mind; many with memories of a time in which people talked to and even helped one another. For families, benefits or not, it’s more work or poverty: food-banks, debt, depression are commonplace. Debt breaks people, it breaks families: it sucks souls through necessitating servility (work, work, work) or (then) homelessness. Plenty of drink and lots of legal and illegal drugs are involved. But there we see a stupid—and I specifically choose the word, stupid—stigma against those suffering from the habits and addictions that often destroy them.
I refer to my home-island by way of demonstration. “I come from Guernsey”, I say, to which this (effect of) reply will be made: “Oh! That’s the tax haven! So you all have your own airplane?!” Rich my island is, one won’t see homeless people dotted depressed in every other doorway. To my knowledge people don’t freeze on its streets or in their unlit homes going to bed hungry. People have ‘good’ jobs with ‘good’ money—so why all the drink and drugs? Because, home or not, money or not, people need something to fill life’s lack. In Guernsey, the crème de la crème of cushy societies, drink and drugs are a constitutive weave in the social coping mechanism. My point is not made to prick, the opposite! These are made out to be individual issues, personal problems, familial failings; I’m trying to tell you that is bollocks. They are symptoms of the society.
Commodity-structured societies that necessitate competitive production and consumption of finite resources for personal profit and self-preservation quickly decompose, degenerate and disgust. Quality gives way to quantity; critical thought to crass cliché; society capitulates to the commodity. Inequality statistics stand mountainously stark in this respect. In fact, they end the debate. Who might attempt justifying a system which allows for the richest 70-odd humans on earth to own wealth equal to the bottom half of humanity, you know, three and a half billion. Incidentally, the poorest, without sanitation, safety, access to clean water and a stable food supply. For me, and I shan’t assume this radicality of my diddy readership: it’s as simple as seeing people shivering outside of empty shops; it’s unjustifiable. Skewing the situation such that they, and not the conditions that reproduce them, are repulsive is stupid.
Have I anything ‘positive’ to say? Plenty—I promise!—just not about the system upon which our societies are organised. People-wise, however, not everything’s ‘stupid’.
I look outside of society to find what’s a’lacking inside of it. Homeless people are our society’s excess: they aren’t value-producing commodities, therefore, in this society, they are worthless. But they’re worth more in what they’ve to teach us. I met a Somali dude in Paris. He fled from war in Somalia to spend one and a half years in a camp in Italy, “no good”, until an opportunity to high-tail allowed for him to travel north. He’s sleeping on the streets in Paris, and he’s ecstatically chuffed with it. Booming laugh, beaming smile, the man’s just happy to be alive. Couldn’t handle his vino, thought. My friend Drew, years sleeping on and losing friends to these streets, and he can wake up soaked and shivering under a tree, stand a half-day in the cold being blanked by passers-by; after all the throes a day’ll throw at this person, he can sit down and share what little he has, smile with what little he has, knowing it’s no impact on all that he is. Another older lad, Ado, ex-heroin addict who got the cancer: in remission, outta chemo, outta hospital, but out on his ass. “I int ad breakfast like this in years!” He tells me in awe of his full English. Waving at a homeless guy I recognise, forever talking to himself, I’m told that he’s fleeced of his disability allowance by the equally disturbed but wilier homeless. Desperation forces humanity to the extremes: of barbarity in accordance with the barbarous society, and kindness in spite of it. So Ado wakes up at 4am this same morning being kicked, he mentions in passing, as one would if the seagulls had done; then he’s the other extreme with a pissed student buying him a Burger King—then he hits his capacity for kindness realisable in one day, because I spend £7 on a full English. Another friend of a friend, ex-army, two tours in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, advertising for work at latter-said friend’s pitch. He’s guarding it for him whilst he’s off showering at a shelter. Homeless hocking has by comparison rendered fresher’s flu as delicate birdsong, but this guy’s in dire straits. Still, he sits and coughs and waits, suggesting the shelter to those who’ve not heard of it. Another mate down the road, ex-spice addict, saved a blind OAP’s life, snatching them from the path of a moving bus, and returned an iPhone to its owner in the same day. The owner of the iPhone he’d just asked for change, though, so as he says, “Excuse me”, the reply snaps, “I already told you, no!” He’s no time for hassle, says, “Here’s your phone”, and sits back down to be treated similarly by similar social symptoms. He was roused from his dawn-doze by a guy in a wheelchair not long ago, who rolled past and spat on him. “I was too tired to say nuffin.”
Tiring, it is, to be woken up at all hours, be it by police or private persons, harassing and assaulting and insulting you. The homeless are tired because they’ve no shelter, no money, no worth and suffer for it. The homeful are tired because they are working all the time for more hours and less money and suffer for it. Both are socially screwed. That’s an equivalence worth making, one worth realising, one worth consideration. But, we compete and we fight against each other in society’s stupid system; would it not make more sense to fight with one other against society’s stupid system? Or should tit-for-tat, left versus right, alt-christian-right versus anarcho-leninist-feminist, be the way to a prosperous politicking while society unravels itself? The squeeze creates extremes: you love or hate muslims, you are left or right, with or against: such binarism is the superlative stupidity. It’s George Bush saying, “You are either with us or against us”. Legitimate grievances of the homeless and the homeful are artificially rechanneled. You hear a lot about Brexit and terrorism but not so much about the yellow coats looking for perished souls in the tents sprawled in and about the city. More people have died just on these streets of cold, of the weather we smalltalk so much about, in the last two years than of ‘terrorism’ in the last ten in the whole country. All issues capitulate to the more urgent problematic of veganism in Hove, though.
What I suggest to you, oppositional to my own opinions of one year ago, is to do away with the superficiality of divisional politicking and to dare to discover humanity in yourself and others. The most revolutionary thing one can do in a commodity-structured society is to be human and not a commodity. Do something for nothing. Spend time with humans, not money on things. Society often necessitates a selfishness to survive, nurtured by and in the commodity-structure, so to be unselfish matters. To put seeing your grandparent on a Saturday morning above breakfast in bed; or your Sunday morning to volunteer rather than doze off watching Netflix; to help instead of hurry past; these things all really matter. Selfishness is nurtured by and in the commodity-structured society, so to be unselfish matters. Sparing undue and unconstructive judgements of those on the streets, on the right, on the whatever-preformed-political-identity, matters. Being human isn’t about uncritically assuming your opinions from the information purposefully fed to you in newspapers and on television, it’s to construct your own opinion from contact with real humans. Know that they cannot change the condition of their upbringing; or of their society, very easily anyhow. Empathise. Social media will prevent this immediate human relation; it will, true to its name, mediate it. Unfaithfully. A brief excursive example: what was fashionable on my newsfeed before I deleted Facebook was faith-bashing. I was fan. How could you not be? Hitchens and Harris and suchlike: faithfully replicating their rage was all the rage. From where I now stand in this city, apart from news and social media, the religious institutions here are the few with any pretence to dignity and humanity. They help helpless people thanklessly. Harris and Hitchens lent a vacuous verbosity to the evils of churches; but after the pretty wit of their one-liners, the church remains a concrete crutch to many; like meditation and alcoholism does and did for Harris and Hitchens respectively. What’s my point? Don’t think in binaries; but see and speak the good in all. Throwing your lot behind one or the other is, always, dangerous. Saying religion is evil is like saying science is evil, both have and realise their capacities to be good and evil through their practitioners, through people, but instantiations of the bad doesn’t make the whole either good or bad.
What to take from these musings. Right and wrong and good and bad are never just that. I only write of my experience in my little corner here in the UK. The point is to extrapolate, to think bigger. If I’m in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in world-history, what much of the world in famine and war and poverty and servility suffers must be unspeakable. So we, as people with a vantage point, from which we can see it’s a structural problem, not individuals or minority groups as is so important for those wielding power to stress; it’s our responsibility to speak of the system, not its symptoms. More than that I can’t offer, so a quote or two’ll do.
“The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.”—Adorno and Horkheimer
“Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it—not for personal advantages and revenge, but for their share of humanity.”—Marcuse
This is the third and final of a three-part series.
Part 1 is high theory; Part 2 the lowdown reality; both of which can be read on their own. Part 3 was to be the philosophical convergence of 1 and 2, but quickly went to pot (figuratively). I will look to document the issues with a series of interviews of current and ex-homeless people and those tasked voluntarily and officially with their assistance in the new year.
Again, your time in signing this petition would be helpful and appreciated.