Tips for University by a Reformed Homeworkaphobe

I left school at seventeen. I never did so much as a shred of homework that wasn’t punitively extracted of me in ‘detention.’ The education at school was, to me, useless and boring; the thought of taking more of it home with me, after spending a thirty-hour week in small rooms stuffy with hormones and tedium, was out of the question.

But I would bring home with me, always and to varying degrees, guilt and fear at knowing that I had homework: that I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t going to do it, and I would again be subject to a bollocking for having not done it. It’s not a nice feeling, knowing that you’re due a telling-off, deservedly and constantly.

One can clear this cloud of guilt feeling at university, but there is a right way and a wrong to do it: you overcome it, or avoid it. I went for the latter at school, but it was terrible tactics, attempting to avoid all of one’s teachers when you see them every weekday. But at university, one doesn’t have this problem. Lecturers and seminar tutors don’t have a bollocking-spiel at the ready: if you don’t go, you don’t go; if you don’t read, you don’t read; if you don’t learn, that’s your own fecking problem. You are, formally at least, a ‘responsible adult’ and ‘independent learner.’

These words, independence, responsibility and learning, are foreign until further education. Until then, your responsibility is to learn, whereas ‘learning’ means actually retaining masses of information so that your capacity for regurgitating it may be examined in a series of stressful and stupid examinations—you don’t attain knowledge for yourself, you remember stuff for exams. Your independence is naught, you are given the lessons, the timetables, the teachers; you are told what to do and what to think, where to be and when, and you’re punished for any transgressions.

So university is as much unlearning primary and secondary ‘education’ for examination as (newly) learning how to learn for knowledge, for development, for you; this is difficult, involving a change in the objective sphere of education. But this task is tough on multiple levels, moreso on the subjective, as you tackle for the first time living independently, learning and researching independently, prioritising independently; in short, tackling university independently, without a teacher or a parent to kick your ass into gear or provide that cloud of guilt which spurs some to study.

What follows are the thoughts of a reformed homeworkaphobe approaching his third-year of studying something which interests him at university; points on living, learning and prioritising independently; additionally some personal points which don’t constitute universally applicable advice.

 

LIVING INDEPENDENTLY

Do different things with different people.

Having heard and seen some of the states to which houses and student accommodation can deteriorate, my first advice regarding independent living is to make friends. Don’t stick with your clique from back home or pair off with that dude you met on the open day, meet and speak with as many people as possible. Don’t allow your living situation to regress such that everybody bitches about everybody else, complaining, fighting, stealing and poisoning the food of others, all of which can be nauseatingly commonplace if a balance isn’t struck. And if it can’t be, for it may well go sour with or without your input, do not involve yourself, do not ally yourself and make enemies, rise above the bollocks and work around it. Worse come worse: move. But bear in mind, you may move but you still bring your own attitude with you, make sure it’s one that makes you tolerable to live with.

Avoid inscribing bad habits.

Yes, it can initially be an exhilarating novelty to drink in a bar full of fellow students on a weeknight, to have fast-food and weed delivered to your door, to avoid exercise and sports because, well, nobody is there to tell you otherwise. I’m not for a moment saying don’t do any of these things ever, just know that there is more to be gained from the first-year university experience than savings on Jäger-bombs at the SU and pizza at Dominoes; indeed, there’s much to be lost in habituating the consumption of junk-food, drugs and alcohol.

University life teems with other opportunities; you can join just about any society you can think of, like the Kung-Fu Society, the Beard Society, the Surfing Society, and the Philosophy and Literature Society (examples from my uni). Join a band, start a club, get a training partner or a study buddy—this support can be invaluable in routinising your life and motivating healthy habit formations. (Disclaimer: British university societies are much like British society at large: they revolve around alcohol and you’re likely to have more ‘socials’ than society meetings, beware…)

Help is always at hand.

There are government and university and student organisations dedicated to student welfare, for people struggling financially, academically, personally, etcetera. There are plenty of genuine people about who have the experience to help you—don’t be shy, they’ve seen worse situations.

 

PRIORITISING INDEPENDENTLY

Get your priorities straight.

If your top priorities are beer and the opposite (or whatever) sex, at least make university your number three, because one, two, ten years down the line, you’re going to be prioritising differently: don’t make future-you despise current-you. At university, enjoying yourself should be secondary, or at most equal, to enhancing yourself. What does this mean? That lecture and seminar attendance and reading should not repeatedly fall victim to hangovers and munchies and sheer lack of will.

You are in a superlatively privileged position, able to access the pinnacle of our culture’s knowledge in an institutional tradition the likes of which people around the world would and do quite literally die trying to reach. You could come out the other end a podgy, pot-smoking piss-artist with a few funny stories; or you could emerge an enhanced, humbled and learned human endowed with indispensable knowledge and experience, and yet still have a few funny stories to boot. In a nutshell: you will have to make the jump from doing what you want to do, to what you ought to be doing; if those align, which they seldom do without a mature work ethic, so much the better.

 

Your first year is about winning knowledge, not arguments.

You will go to university with your conceptions of and ideas about how the world is and ought to work, but, if you are fully surrendering to what education is, prepare for them to be shattered into a thousand insignificant pieces. Think of your little brother or niece and how they say things with total conviction—‘I’m running away!’ and ‘They’re disgusting, I’m never having a boyfriend!’—but we know, even if they don’t, that they will grow out of such silly opinions. What makes an eighteen-year-old different? Coming of age seems to me to be a period in which one should challenge oneself rather than others; especially if you don’t know what you are talking about, which you don’t.

What I am saying here is this, that you will invariably laugh at how stupid you were last year, and if you don’t you are either totally perfect or doing something wrong; if you sort yourself out and attempt authentically to learn without politically predisposing yourself to any outcome, it’s wholly likely that you will look back and laugh at your stupidity several times a year, and that’s a good thing.

So, one should go into a lecture ready to be immersed in the viewpoint professed by the professor; one should enter the seminar room not as a political gauntlet, but a philosophical roundtable, around which blossoming critical thinkers can bounce ideas off of one another without fear of consequence. Fellow students aren’t your competitors and still less your enemies—chill, be proud to be willing to learn and be open about what you’re struggling with, if somebody’s immature enough to scoff at your intellectual courage, fuck ‘em!

 

STUDYING INDEPENDENTLY

Again, know that you are stupid.

Socrates said, “I know one thing; that I know nothing.” Your first year should be spent revelling in and remedying this stupidity, but knowing that there is no endpoint to knowledge, you will never know everything and indeed will still border on knowing nothing when you’re done. The point is a little more profound than ‘you are destined for dumbness’: it’s about an attitude, a perspective: humility is prerequisite to learning that which you don’t yet know. Christ knows it is awkward and annoying to have somebody in a seminar, who has for some reason deigned to descend to university education, who knows everything already and need not be told anything by anyone. The thing is, one can see through it. If your outlook is ‘I know nothing’ rather than ‘I already know everything,’ you’ll go further than those for whom lectures are tertiary, lecturers are clueless and seminars are for deploying one’s intellectual smack-downs.

DO SOME FECKING READING.

This is key advice, sacred for those who give more than a toss about learning at university, so I implore you to heed it if you would like a challenging experience as opposed to a debilitatingly stressful one. First week, no excuses; as soon as your fall one week behind, you’re buggered. Playing catch-up might’ve worked for GCSE and A-Level, but say you’re knee-deep in Descartes then balls-deep in Hegel, you can’t feasibly race through and cram an understanding of both in a week. Readings, for my course at least, are usually extracts of several works, sometimes with a primary text with secondary materials supporting it. If you read but one of these, enough so that you can explain what you think they are saying to somebody, then that’s enough to ‘wing’ a seminar. If you want to ‘boss’ a seminar: read it through, no notes or underlining, then read it through again, noting and underlining key or difficult passages, then write on a separate sheet of paper what you thought it was on about, what you had difficulty with and what you would like to discuss further.

 

Read widely.

After historic sociopolitical upheavals, the likes of which are unimaginable to our most recent generations, society decided to carve years out of production time so that those who wish to pursue professionalised modes of education can do so. In the past seven years the cost of this time has been raised, in financial and the corollary personal terms, to a degree that precludes many potential students or leaves them and their parents shouldering unmanageable debts—is it even worth it? Well the answer is in your action, the proof in the pudding. Again, it can be a hazy, hedonistic blur of beer and bifters and late-night cramming on Sparknotes; or you could read. It’s hard to sell, and I’m not going to try, just merely say that these three years could be precious, priceless, if you can spend it wisely, reading some of the richest wisdom that has been retained in word form. It might not seem it at first, but is infinitely more rewarding than Twitter, and tequila.

 

PERSONAL POINTS

Write essays that you want to write.

Again, these are subjectively informed suggestions, some might be seeking the highest score possible for their degree; some the easiest essay for, well, their ease; a few others the hardest essay for a challenge. I find picking an essay question that I am interested in, rather than one I already know a lot about and can answer well, was most rewarding in terms of both satisfaction and marks. And sanity.

Get the whack hair-do’s over and done with.

 

Read philosophy and history.

I came to university to learn about politics. I ended up being immersed in a study of philosophy that eclipsed my interest in bollotics and precipitated a total disengagement with its vulgar and distractive manifestations in news media. At university you will be given fragments, tasters, essays and chapters to read; but it’s up to you to pursue a school of philosophy or particular philosopher as if you’re interested; if you keep doing so, you will inevitably find philosophy that interests and suits you—remember beer didn’t taste nice before you started drinking it all the time?

This study will allow you to don the philosophical-historical goggles worn by preeminent human beings: you see the world through the eyes of Saint Paul in the Bible, through those of Plato in Athens; Marcus Aurelius and Cicero of the Roman Empire; you see through Hobbes’ during the English Civil War, Jefferson’s during the American Revolution, Burke’s during the French; through CLR James’ on history’s only successful slave revolt; through Hegel’s during the Napoleonic Wars, Trotsky’s on the Russian Revolution, the list is as exhaustive as it is fascinating.

Which leads me to history: one can discern how ideas influence events, how philosophy affects history. Our ideas bring reality into being at least as much as reality stimulates our ideality; reading the philosophies alongside the histories of an epoch will elucidate this mutual transactivity.

One more suggestion, philosophy needn’t be going balls deep and, for your first year, may be totally out of the question. For example, Hegel, the philosopher on whom I will write my dissertation, has not the knack for pedagogical clarity:

“The infinite is in this way burdened with the opposition to the finite which, as an other, remains at the same time a determinate reality although in its in-itself, in the infinite, it is at the same time posited as sublated; this infinite is the non-finite – a being in the determinateness of negation. Contrasted with the finite, with the sphere of affirmative determinatenesses, of realities, the infinite is the indeterminate void, the beyond of the finite, whose being-in-itself is not present in its determinate reality.”—Hegel, Science of Logic

Balls deep is too deep, one will go into shock. So start by dipping a toe, read a Wikipedia article, watch a video on Youtube; advance to ankle-depth by reading an entry-level introduction; go up to your knees and attend a lecture, then attend another, then find some on Youtube; raise the level gently past the knee by advancing to secondary literature, then perhaps get back to ball-depth by reading it alongside a key passage or two by the author himself.

Meditate.

I bear in mind whilst writing this that not so long ago I would’ve scoffed at this suggestion.

Say, if you spent three years working on a building site, you’d make time in which you stopped physically working completely. It’s a little more difficult on the academic side of things, because your mind doesn’t stop whirring quite like your muscles stop working. But such is meditation: thoughtlessness. Without meditation, I would have burned out so much quicker than I did on days waking up to reading before attending four lectures on different subjects and then sitting down to write an essay; by which time I could either be too frazzled to concentrate, or, because I’ve meditatively calmed my mind, ready to read and write some more. Try just ten minutes, first thing in the morning before breakfast and coffee and phone, focusing on and slowing your breathing, do nothing else. There are plenty of meditation tips and guides about the interweb; Alan Watts is my recommendation.

Make a routine, make it sacred.

Make time by routinising it. I know I have lectures on these days, I’ll do reading at these times on these days, ready for seminars on these days; I’m going to exercise at this time on these days, go to these societies on these days, etcetera. Stick to it like it’s a job, which it is: it’s your job to become a conscientious and competent human being, not one forever ready to shirk the smallest of responsibilities. Keep a diary, keep a calendar, keep one or both handy.

Be wary of political organisations

I’ve come to find it amusing, that an education costing £28,000 can still churn out morons who go about sticking these stickers on university property. I mocked them in a seminar last year, because ‘ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS’ was stuck outside the building, and I had somebody defend it on the basis that “you can’t sacrifice a good slogan” to explain that, in fact, not every cop is a bastard, just the overwhelming majority. Another confronted me outside, rather less compromising, saying that all cops are bastards, to which I replied, “My friends and family are not bastards, actually.”

An apt aphoristic peach from Hegel will make my point: “Mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” And indeed you can become an instrument if your ‘enemies,’ be they UKIP supporters or the police, are assigned to you as part of whatever prepackaged political ideology you were sold by such nutjobs.

 

Education is outside the lecture hall and library.

Learn to cook. Which also means: learn to buy food. If you have a market, shop there, for they’re invariably cheaper than cornerstores and supermarkets. Then learn to cook the food: it can start easy and it’s fun. Then do the dishes afterwards. Then feel exhilarated at becoming a bog-standard adult; it’s really quite something.

Sort your bills now, or pay for it later. You will have to confront these kinds of responsibilities at some point, avoiding them and hoping somebody else will sort it is dishonest—because you know you should do something—and immature.

Learn to self motivate (read philosophy and history). Historical heroes and philosophical giants like Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche, CLR James and Hegel, will change the lens through which you interpret the world. There will no longer be insurmountable but avoidable obstacles, there will rather lie challenges, out of which you will emerge a better human; eventually you will compare your pathetic excuses for not attending a lecture or writing an essay to the inconceivable feats of humanity’s toughest, and they will inspire and motivate you.

 


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Stan the Man

Stan was bored. He’d been sat in a Kemptown coffeeshop all day, listening to humans babbling bollotics, when it was perfectly good weather outside.

‘Dear me, doesn’t she seem in a frightfully foul mood today,’ Stan thought in his royally posh accent. ‘Whatever might be the matter with her?’ He peered beneath the latest edition of Caffeine Magazine she had held before her, in which she so obviously faked an interest.

Francesca caught Stan’s eye, his eyebrow raised, the fawning love he held for her wholly apparent in just one of his puppy dog eyes. She lowered the magazine coolly, as if she hadn’t seen him at all. Stan lowered his head, dejectedly.

‘Christ, I need the loo,’ he thought to himself, ‘somewhat infelicitous of a moment to answer nature’s call, though. I shall have to hold it.’ Stan looked to distract himself, but found no means to do so; there were just people reading papers and talking politics, no one with whom he could make acquaintance, other than a fractious Francesca, who seemed intent on ignoring his very existence.

‘What might I have done? For what crime committed am I deserved this guilt?’ Stan considered restlessly, pathetically. ‘I shall have to make it up to her. But first, lord knows I need the loo!’ 

To get Francesca’s attention, Stan stood up and leaned on the table; he rested his chin on top of the Magazine, looking at her expectantly, and drooled over its pages. Fat flecks of saliva doused its text; Victoria grunted, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Stan, what is wrong with you!’

She proceeded to furl the magazine and wallop him around the side of the head with it, for the whole café to see, watching awkwardly looking over their own coffee and craft beer related magazines. Stan sat back down immediately, with a mute whimper.

‘She hates me! She hates me!—And I’m going to shit myself!’ Stan thought in exasperation, though not uttering so much as a murmur to Francesca, who was wiping the specks of salvia from the back of her left hand with a serviette, an expression on her face as if it were something much fouler. ‘Why does she despise me so?’

 ‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’ Stan realised, his usually measured inner-voice shrieking in emergency. He leapt up from his sitting position and leant over to Victoria again, this time resting on her legs.

‘Stan!’ Francesca slapped her magazine down onto the table, clinking the saucer of her coffee cup and allowing it to flop down on to the floor besides Stan, who sat down again fearfully. He trembled before the angry and excellently effective articulation of his name. ‘I can’t take you fucking anywhere,’ she huffed under her breath, blushing with the heat of the stares caused by the trivial commotion.

Stan agonised over Francesca’s outburst rather than trying to resolve his own impending outburst. He stayed sat down and silent despite shivering with urgency. ‘Oh! My dear Francesca’, he thought, melodramatically, ‘for why do you treat me thusly?’

Stan’s stomach dropped, quite further down than what was at that time opportune. ‘I’m going to shit myself,’ Stan thought, more decisively than worriedly, standing up on his shaking legs.

Francesca had composed herself, checked whether she was blushing on her smartphone, and leant forward to pick up her copy of Caffeine Magazine.

Stan shuffled onto the spit-covered mag before she could reach it, and squatted over it.

‘Stan! No!’ She barked at him authoritatively. Stan turned his head, looking Victoria guiltily in the eye.

‘Terrible sorry about this Francesca darling,’ he barked back for the café to hear, shitting onto a page of the magazine discussing the revolution of coffee-beer. ‘But dear, I beseech you tell me, please—why you are mad at me?’

Scribbles

“Oh you’re from Guernsey! Do you guys have internet over there?”—Every Tom.

Guernsey? Hmmm… I’ve heard of Jersey?”—Every Dick

“Oh you’re from Guernsey! Don’t you all have your own airplanes over there?”—Every Harry.

“Wotcher shag!”—Deadpan. Every time. Shearing the ‘shag’ off of the end the salutation, ‘wotcher’ still often elicits the odd, “Excuse me?” Or plain old, “What?”¹

You only discover just how much Guernsey resides within you when discovering yourself residing without it.

Fifty flights in 2015: I’m worldly and ready for city living! No, you’re not mate. You were an office-bitch tourist and now you are an anonymous student, educationally anchored to a city in which people avoid making eye contact as much as picking up their dog mess. City living can press such cynicism on you right from the off. Samaritans signs splashed across Brighton don’t help: at high points they coax the suicidal to “TALK TO US”, because the low point of city living is that no other fecker will. Helping haul a woman from beyond the railings, over which she’d just hurled herself almost-successfully, contextualised their numerousness.

Drug use and abuse is overtly ubiquitous. We in Guernsey, with our peculiarly draconian drug laws, see it a little less and mainly restrained to the rubberstamped pharmaceuticals thrown by the fistful at the restless and miserable. And, of course, there’s booze.

Brighton likes its booze and all. One drinker told me that his rugger team have a mantra they make well known before each visit to the rocque: Beware the Breda! I treasure that little claim to fame in an odd way, but on the flip side I’d like the bastardisation of this beautiful beer, which makes the morning after two mornings after, ceased at once—because I’m not going to stop feckin’ drinking it.

Brightonians cannot believe the state of affairs in Guernsey concerning the ‘daily bread’ of illegal drugs—marijuana. Hash is big in Guernsey, as old hats and young will know, but it’s still treated as if it were krokodil. It is an especially and perversely messy situation for a number of reasons. The ‘crack’ of Brighton isn’t crack, but legal highs, synthetic cannabinoids. These formerly legally vended poisons with which innocent islanders ruined their mental and physical and social wellbeing, lives on in the lungs of leper-like Englanders. Police treat its possession quite seriously—but you could smoke a joint of Jane in public quite comfortable in the knowledge that police have better things to do. 

Not so, in Guernsey. For the low-quality soap-bar hash dealt by the despicable dealers with whom our youth are condemned to contract, expect to pay higher a price than for its equivalent weight in gold (no shit); and a much higher price if you’re caught.

The Victor Hugo you see above, from www.visitguernsey.com, is possibly stoned, and on hash no less! Member of the Club des Hachichins (literally: Hash Club), Hugo was an avid hash smoker and used it, as many do, to both relax and think sideways: as his fellow hashie Gautier said, the “intellectual intoxication” was not even comparable to the “ignoble heavy drunkenness” of booze.

I wonder what Hugo might say: if he knew one would receive a fine and have their money seized and be imprisoned like some actual wrongdoer, for puffing on a little pot. In particular, I wonder why and how a cancer curing plant can still be considered so irrationally taboo, when Guernsey men and women fuck and fight each other like ferals every weekend on ye olde Breda, yer.

Verging on the political there—not where I want nor intend to be. I came to this city thinking I might become a political commentator or journalist, even writing an article imploring people to pay attention to politics. And I didn’t read a newspaper online or in print last year, nor will I in this! Life’s too short to be bothered about things that you can’t and won’t change anyway. I didn’t have anybody to speak politics to in Guernsey. Studying Philosophy, Politics and Ethics in Brighton’d be the ideal experience and outlet. But, alas, the whole charade rang hollow and hollower. The rich get richer; the poor poorer. Students are mostly busied by iPhones, identity politics and paying their way through extortionate existences.

Before calling it a day on bollotics², I would read about half a dozen news sites each and every morning, first thing in a coffeeshop. The routine was not just mine to perform solo. Seemingly purposively, I’d hear the echoes of the words which I’d just read, an echo chamber of bollitical aphorisms, having me question my sanity. People don’t even speak their own words because they’ve not their own thoughts to articulate. Like a broken record, but it’s not: it’s just one continually replaced with nigh-on identical ones; just press play and repeat. Like chart music—you hear it enough and you start taking it seriously.

Guerns, for the most part, are apolitical, and for that I love them. What a joy it is to return to a rock where people don’t harbour pretences of knowing what’s really going on. All one need know: that life’s a bitch for the best of us and striving and chirping your way through it, smiling as if it isn’t, is the best and only way forward. Not putting up signs at university proclaiming “ACAB [all cops are bastards]” and “Love Trump’s Hate” etcetera, we’re all so oppressed, and so on, ad feckin’ nauseam. (I’m not sure kids know how to have fun anymore.)

Early starts in Guernsey, if I can rescue one from out of Breda’s booby traps, are sublime. And I mean precisely that: sublime, wondrous, inexplicably moving. Rising to sights of humans sleeping on shit-strewn pavements, sounds of groaning buses, smells of the stale, stultifying city; falling to the monotony of car engines, the cacophony of British bawling and brawling; citynicism³ will inevitably chafe. Sitting on a bench overlooking Chouet headland at sunrise, feeling the waves crashing over and cleansing my city-frazzled consciousness, seeing not a soul but a lone dog-walker (taking the time to introduce himself and his dog), smelling fresh and salty air; lying in a bed to the first sleepy silence I might have heard in months. It’s eerie at first, peacefulness. It gives me goosebumps just writing it, but I do so to a chorus of cars chasing past my window; a derelict church hall just out of gaze, in which a couple, one of their parents and a dog have broken in and squatted. They were padlocked in there by the council yesterday.

I think I was fairly close to wrapping it up there, before receiving a call from a friend in Brighton who lives on the streets, telling me to come down (to their pitch) quick because someone’s attacked their dog. You couldn’t write this shit. Some drunk threw a kick and hit the dog in the jaw and made off. The owner is a superlatively kind and cheerful man, homeless for nearly the majority of his 40 years, learning disabilities, anxious about and obviously terrified for his dog’s life. The dog’s sound as the proverbial pound though, he proved by jumping on me, licking my face, biting my arm playfully—happy days. Sit at the pitch for a bit. Amongst the general Friday furore, a single and incessant manic-sounding voice can be heard shouting, distressing my friend. He asks me to go and look what’s going on. The man’s voice, beginning to break under the strain, is coming from a doorway across and down the road so I jog over and have a look. It’s a fully grown man wearing what looks like a dress, rubbing his hands together hysterically, shouting and gesticulating at, well, nothing. (It’s much more common than it might sound, Guernsey readers.) I walk over and offer a “Wotcher buddy!” Instantaneously, he desists, “Hello I’m Matthew”, and starts banging on about my beard and how his used to be ginger before he shaved it, “You must be a Celt man!” I reply, “Yeah, I’m half-Irish, from Guernsey, studying in Brighton.” Cue his own life story: homeless in a series of cities before settling here one year back. Hopefully not in that God forsaken doorway.

City life is interesting, one can at least say, but novelty doesn’t make social and financial poverty any the less jarring. Fuck me do I sometimes look forward to sitting on a bench, overlooking a bay, suffering for Breda and simply, peacefully being.

“Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips”—Adorno


¹ Interestingly discovered in a seminar on linguistics today that ‘Wotcher’ is likely derived from a medieval greeting ‘What Cheer’.

² Bollocks: politics.

³ City wrought cynicism.

After deleting Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which I used to publicise this site, visits dropped considerably. If you enjoyed this article, I’d really appreciate your sharing it on social media. Peace and chirps, Liam.

PART 3: Society Says Profit Over People: Dare to Think For Yourself.

“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


 

Post Scriptum.

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.

PART 2: Time Without Money: Society and Sleeping Rough

It’s just about light but cold as night, I’m popping up to the graveyard in which Drew sleeps rough. It’s his thirty-somethingth birthday, a couple of days after my own, so I’ve both the reason and means to gift him something other than shrapnel and cider. Opening the gate, I spot him cocooned in a dewy green sleeping-bag, head propped up against a tree and without a tent. I’m a little eager if he’s not yet awake, how he is asleep I don’t know. So I rock up again in the early afternoon, he’s sat chilling in his spot with a small group of homeless lads, a couple of dog-walkers, a young son of one, and their dogs. The dogs love Drew. He’s known and played with many of them since they were walked for their first times as puppies, there’s one who’ll only play catch with Drew, and another who often whiffs and wakes him up first-thing. There are owners whom he knows not their names—nor cares to—but I’m yet to see a dog pass him unidentified.

Drew’s a few birthday presents to say he’s shy to share his age, though not to share in celebrating said ageing. A dog-walker who daily chirps to Drew gave him a good’un: his sleeping-bag back after washing and drying it. To say it didn’t cost her anything, he’s certainly mentioned it a lot! There’s another present from another dog-walker, which he’s not mentioned, I only notice for one of the guys there is pestering Drew for some. It’s a victoria sponge cake bought on offer at Co-Op, it costs as little time as it does money—less so, even. You know the rack of food about to ‘go off’ near the counter? One of those jobbies. Under a quid spent and under the time requisite to consider it time spent: it’s less than an after-thought, it’s an add-on purchase because it’s cheap and there: it’s after-bought. If there were one cake in Brighton he’d refuse to eat, it would be the out-of-date polystyrene jam sandwich that recurrently tests his sense of gratitude each and every time it’s after-bought him. He gave it to the guy, eventually, who took and left with it.

The sun sets to a spot just below the trees, a scattershot of slanted rays give last gasp to the tolerable chill. Drew declares to the remaining dog-walker and his son, that, “There’s lots shit about being homeless, but—“, and flings his arm drunkenly toward the scene, which truly is beautiful, but a rarity and one evermore short-lived. Melancholy can be sublime.

Of the three lads other than Drew there, one looks conspicuously sharp-dressed: mid-twenties, collared shirt with a jumper worn over, trousers; no hat, coat, (proper) bag or beard. After enquiring how long I’ve been homeless, I ask him the same: Luke, twenty-something, sleeping rough in Brighton for half a year. Seemingly in some manner of denial, lacking a coat, hat and the temerity to ask for either despite his shivering. One of the old boys, 50ish, notices he’s cold and unpacks his rucksack to offer him the coat inside. Luke turns it down, again and again, until Drew, waving that gangly drunken arm again, says, “Keep your coat! He’ll learn!” The older man left shortly thereafter, had it not been for a naïve pride on Luke’s part it would have been without his coat.

The sun’s retire has left Drew, Derek, Luke and I to wine (a present received on my own birthday) to do the warming, which works, but November cold is a nagging cold. Derek, who’s fifty-four, has a nifty little portable speaker, but no-one a phone flashy enough to play music, so my same-old tune selection from however-many years ago is at Drew’s birthday mercy: he and all like Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age, so happy days. Drew whacks out another of his gifts: a box of biscuits, posh and ludicrously sweet, from M&S, courtesy of a friend from the bench—a prolifically effectual small-time shoplifter.

With the last vestiges of light and sound judgement fast fading, Drew asks for help with putting up his tent. He’s got the routine internalised, but dark and drink complicate actualising it, as any festival-goer might well have experienced. I shine my phone light and Derek kneels to lend him a hand. Drew is befuddled by the tent, and booze. Knackered after a day that he started underneath a tree, spent most of stood like a tree, branching his Big-Issue arm out to passers-by, he succumbs to complaint. Derek, ever the chirper but candid after a couple of cans, tells of his long-term stint in a jail up north, his heroin addiction, and a recent death in his close family. I think there’s something amiss: I don’t doubt he’s turned things around, but he’s so… chirpy. His family-member died the last week; he was a junkie mere months ago. Likes to drink—well, I say that, it’s somewhat necessitated by and for rough sleeping—and to have the odd smoke, but none of the hard stuff (meaning crack, heroin and spice¹). Caring for family on their way out, in his words, “changed me”. Cooking for and wiping the ass of a dying loved one is, in a word, formative. There’s inheritance to be had down the line and, more importantly for him, he’s as good and contented a person as he’s ever been for the experience. He’s a happy man and a good person—worth twice the twat looking down upon him. Drew’s complaining all of a sudden, by design, seems silly, remiss.

Being the only one with money and enamoured by these humans, I run down the road to buy a couple of four-packs. (Quick detour:) The guy at the cornershop is sound as the proverbial pound. In the evenings he blasts happy hardcore or drum and bass louder than any open venue, he forever looks high as fuck and we always have the chirp. He doesn’t like homeless people, though; he looks at and speaks to them like shit. I remember having thought in that moment: what’s separated me from them? Perhaps I don’t look as homeless as some of the homeless themselves suppose, maybe I’ve bought enough from him to be considered homeful, maybe I sound posh, or maybe he’s had issues before which’ve tainted his view? Maybe, one day, when his high-eyes aren’t bleeding at me, I shall ask him.

Drew’s set up shelter with him pleasingly inside of it. Sitting on the grass beside the one-man tent, the cold and conversation are somber but both wholly bearable. The cans coax a coy catharsis; hearing Derek and Drew’s past lives doesn’t feel in the least bit awkward, nor would it matter if I did feel so. One’s excess thought, be it in the form of worry or wanting to impress or thinking what to say, is highlighted in its absence. One can just be. Luke is looking less shivery, nursing a tin. Derek’s fiddling around with his late family-member’s flashy penknife; like my own, but double the size, with a magnifying glass, through which we all pissedly attempt to peer. Drew cracks a can in his tent and, with that arm, hurls some beer round the side of it. I’ve seen Drew in some states, but I’ve never seen him open a container without taking a second to pour one for those passed—six or seven friends he’s lost to the streets—fortunately for Luke, perplexed at his “wasting beer”, Drew’s in a state such as he can spare him with a growl, “for the fallen”.

I wish I could verbatim recall or even adequately paraphrase what words were thence spoke. But Derek, leaning forward, holding out his loved-one’s swanky Q-gadget penknife, says to Drew in his warm northern drawl: here you go lad, this is yours now, happy birthday.

 


  1. Spice is one of many ex-legal highs consumed in Brighton and is, with crack and heroin, considered at rock-bottom. It’s interesting to note, and will be a discussion for another time, how my generation in Guernsey could not legally purchase marijuana (non-lethal cancer-curing plant) but could and did legally purchase the drugs which now ravage the lives of Brighton’s underclass. I’ve witnessed officers at once confiscate spice and ‘blind-eye’ hash—respect!

Post Scriptum

This is the second in a three-part series.

The story here retold in part was of an afternoon and evening spent with some friends and friends of friends in Brighton, using pseudonyms for obvious reasons.

Part 1 is high theory; Part 2 the lowdown reality; both of which can be read on their own. Part 3 will be the philosophical convergence of 1 and 2 and will require reading 1+2 for context.

Your time in signing this petition would be helpful and appreciated.