Tag Archives: Marxist

Toys (Women’s Voice 1981)

Standard

IMG_1536

Millions of toys will change hands this Christmas. In money terms they will represent about half the £700 million which it is estimated that the British toys and games market is worth. But this year the Christmas offensive by the toy firms will be more desperate than usual.

The British toy form Lesney has announced that it continues to make a loss, while Japanese toy exports are up 96 per cent.

Radical changes are occurring in the kinds of toys which children (and their parents) buy. Traditional toys are being replaced by space age gadgets and electronic games and this has a devastating effect on the British toy industry. Airfix—the firm that makes Meccano and Great Model Railways—has collapsed, to be taken over by the American firm which makes Action Man and Star Wars. And while Lesneys trebled their losses, the American firm Fisher Price announced that it is to treble its factory size in Britain.

Toy imports from Japan and America have been rising steadily ever since 1975. But there is little mileage to be gained from simply seeing this as yet another area in which outmoded British industry is being over taken by the Americans and the Japanese.

What is interesting is to look at the kinds of new toys that we are buying now and thinking about how that affects children.

Toys have existed in every civilisation. Remarkably, there was little variation in the basic kinds of toys which appeared in different societies in the past. Balls, rattles and even yo-yos turn up in different places, not in sequence but often centuries apart as do dolls.

The first toy industry developed in Germany. Craftsmen began to produce toys for sale, making the newly invented optical toys and mechanical models of the period, as well as traditional dolls’ houses and dolls. Gradually factories for manufacturing toys were built. By the beginning of the twentieth century, toy making was one of Germany’s most important industries. One quarter of the toys were exported to America.

The embargo on imports from Germany during the First World War sparked an independent toy industry outside Germany. In America mothers even destroyed toys with a ‘Made in Germany’ label on them.

After the war, in the 1920s, there was a move away from war toys and tin soldiers. This trend was to be reversed during the 30s when re-armament stimulated the production of toy anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons.

But an important development was taking place at the same time. The work of the educationalist Froebel in the latter half of the nineteenth century and of Maria Montessori in the 1920s stimulated interest in toys and their effects on children’s ideas. Froebel stressed that children learned through discovery. Maria Montessori believed that children wanted to ‘work’ rather than ‘play’. Such ideas led to the production of the first educational toys.

Firms like Fisher Price now flourish producing just these kinds of toys. Fisher Price are famous for their bright coloured and durable toys for nursery age children. The successful formula is no accident. The toys are designed after intensive investigations and observations of children’s play. The company runs a nursery in New York where children are observed playing with Fisher Price toys through a one-way mirror. The observations are interpreted and passed on by a psychologist employed by the company. The result—an immensely successful ‘scientific’ commercial venture.

This scientific approach to toys is worrying. The problem is not the slick high-pressure research and marketing techniques—capitalists use such methods everywhere. What bothers me is that this approach to toys profoundly affects the way our children experience the world. Toys are essential to children’s mental and physical development. Some aspects of this are obvious—learning to manipulate and handle various materials for example. What is less obvious are the ways in which toys enable children to adjust to society.

If you think about it the limitations of the world imposed by rigid models like dolls’ houses or toy hospitals are infinitely greater than those imposed by balls or tops which leave children a great deal of scope for learning about the world through experiencing it, rather than seeing its values in miniature in their toys. That’s not being anti-toy. But the more complex the toy, the more rigid the set of ideas it imposes upon a child. And the trend as shown by the profit figures, does seem to be toward more complex toys.

Feminists have long pointed to the way that ‘dolls for girls’ forces sexual stereotypes onto young women. The solution to that is not simply ‘dolls for boys’. All the toys we give our children reflect the values of the society we live in. When buying toys for children we should bear that in mind. Kids need room to think as well as being in touch with the latest developments. Complicated educational toys could stifle rather than help our children precisely because they are so exactly researched.

Anna Paczuska

How things were; how they should have been

Standard

“It was a solemn moment at Millennium House (as the main square of the Canary Wharf complex had been renamed when roofed over after the Second Great insurrection of 1998). The delegate from the Seattle Convention of the Western Republics, Citizen Prairie Gates, had just finished speaking of the historical links between the American Revolution and the new Republican Federation of North East European Islands. ‘We in Amerika, in honouring the spirit of Tom Paine, send greetings to the descendants of Citizen Connolly, Citizen Larkin and Citizen Pankhurst. We remember the British cotton workers who supported the struggle against slavery and we salute the inventors of regicide, hunger strikes, civil disobdience, and the reggae-punk fusion.’…”

“In fact, the Harold Wilson-King Charles National Government’s final collapse was not in revulsion at the hated Lord Hattersley’s brutal repression (rioters had their hands cut off by privatised surgeons. The real damage was done by the Swuppies, an elite cadre of disgruntled City dealers who had joined the SWP and spent their time sabotaging what was left of the international stock market by making loans and siphoning payments into workers’ groups. Curiously the Swuppies, while intensely loyal to the general line of SWP philosopher Tony Cliff, also claimed loyalty to the cosmic re-embodiment of the Levellers…”

David Widgery again (from ‘World turned upside down’, published in the Guardian in November 1991)

from “Why do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” (1972)

Standard

“Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety. Time alters. A gasp lasts an hour, a night separates into heaps of minutes, a conversation from bar to bed to bus stop and has it been a fortnight or a day? Objects floor you with sudden meanings; a weed becomes a flower beside a canal that is an ocean. A shell swells with feelings. Touches echo, nerves misbehave, hands ricochet. Eyes kindle and melt in a world of constantly altering surfaces. Love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.

To love in capitalism has an especially bitter intensity. It is to repossess feelings to which we have come foreign. Emotions without rules or prices or power attached to them. In love’s bed, mutual subjectivity allows absolute altruism. The precious is given without price, the delight lies in delighting another. We recover that which we have been taught to withhold or avoid or simply have shaken out of us by parents and teachers and each other. It is a state of revolution against the discoloured flatness which is ‘normal’, sleep-work-play life. Lovers win a short parole permission to trail after the ditch-flowers, to stare through the swirls of harbour water to the stone and become entranced by the dart and hover of storm clouds. Sexual love cannot be hoarded, accumulated or displayed. Neither moth nor rust can corrupt it.

In general, the individualism so avidly developed in us by the capitalist system is for external application. We are persuaded to distrust our emotions when they conflict, as they usually do, with competitive success. If we are going to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘make something of ourselves’, education not experience should be our guide. The adverts school us, the slogans batter us down. Get without giving. take what you can. Look after No. 1. ‘The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being’, wrote Marx. But even the bourgeoisie flounders on love which it is obliged to honour however much it loathes its expression. For love is a zone of subjectivity which also has official approval, a precarious holiday where feelings and finance are supposed to rule. Love allows you, briefly, to return to what was once yourself…

It is not hard to see why such an unruly state of mind has to be strictly rationed and kept controlled with greeting cards, marriage licenses and marzipan cakes. It is unpredictable, disorderly and bad for industrial relations. It’s too simple and too difficult and doesn’t consume enough. For the effective growth of commerce, it should only occur once in life, its emotions must be surrounded with regulations, icing sugar and lace, made as well-behaved as possible. It would be easier of it didn’t exist, this love, and for many it never does. But it has proved quite impossible to remove the gnaw or eradicate the itch. So it has been turned into something quite different, a mouldy, consoling sort of emotion which, for men, is made palatable by bouts of ‘sexy’ sexuality which must be purchased of forced rather than discovered. Sex itself must be turned into work, with its own rules and games. It is forced back into the black sack of marriage, a contract to feel in a matter whose very essence lies in its voluntary nature.

It is not just a case of love ‘withering under constraint’, as Blake, one of the first rebels against the laws of trade, marriage and scholarship, put it. Love is buried by love’s forms and sexual love becomes an acted insincerity …

The echoing sense and unbreaked subjectivity are made silly and impossible to sustain, for such love needs leisure and more space than five football fields. That kind of love becomes, in practice, a privilege for the rich. The rest of us are left to read about the affairs of ballet dancers and the loves of princesses. Ordinary love is locked up in its own company, given guards called Jealousy and Fidelity, taken out in public once a month, and stifled to death beneath the TV and the nappies. The underside of love surfaces and passion now wants its penalties. A once equal love capsizes and itself becomes the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to determine the terms of the emotional bargain. It’s the woman who fits it, placates, anticipates, mollifies, sacrifices and then becomes bitter and made lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.

Love can quickly become a species of tyranny, a word offered and withheld like a dog’s biscuit. A word that turns suddenly into a slap, a trap, a threat. ‘Do you love your mummy?’ means reward me for your dependence. ‘Mother knifed baby to prove she loved it’, says a local paper. Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true, the intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smarty young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.

Violence is the occupational disease of a wife. Men beat their spouses regularly who would never harm their dog. But the slow death of love is a different sort of pain, full of guilt and dread and exhaustion. Love becomes an oath or a pang or a regret; the grease in the spoon, the hook in the tune. Women are less keen to forget that is why they are called sentimental. But mulling over memories while contriving to be lovely-to-come-home-to is apt to produce a mawkish and sickly romanticism, no use to anyone. The evidence of loveless marriage lies concealed and unrecorded doorstep grumbles and corner shop intimacies and smoothed-over-rows in public bars, to be kept from the outside world if it can be…

How the economic set-up of the family mutilates the emotions of love and the unequal relations of the sexes turns a particular pair of lovers into sparring partners are not the most important crimes of a system which can starve whole continents and destroy and make ugly entire cities. But it is one of the saddest. Feelings which have regulated life itself are relegated to a mere memory. A glimpse of something which has become a taunt. Once mixed up with marriage and corrupted with cash, love is bent into a certain shape which no longer fits feelings. People are sorted into twos and marched up to the wedding cake while relatives make bitter jokes behind their backs and hire purchase agents lick their pencils. The family is a convenient self-financing unit of competitive consumption and indoctrination, the original sweatshop where production and repair and reproduction are carried out by an unsafe, unpaid and under-appreciated women workforce. For the state it is cheap at the price. How much easier than spending on good public transport or comprehensive group care for young children or community centres and restaurants which provided much better and cheaper food and entertainment than the commercial outfits if everyone does it at home one by one. Exhaustingly, inefficiently, expensively. And then sits in front of the TV to watch still more invented happy families serving out their Shreddies. The family provides certain certainties and keeps us all well wadded with stupidities. If it is breaking down, that is the occasion for rejoicing not dismay. We need to start finding alternatives and demanding the facilities to make them work, not trying to force the broken pieces back together again.”

by Dave Widgery (previously unpublished)

The Olympics: how neo-liberalism makes for a joyless Games

Standard

I will come on to the crimes of the London Olympics organisers in due course, but I wanted to begin, seemingly a long way away from Stratford, with two ideas which I think are essential to any compelling explanation of the present Games.

The first is the distinction between sport and play. (Anyone who has read the article I posted recently by Gareth Edwards will spot that these next two paragraphs are based on conversations I’ve had with him).

Anyone who has an interest in the politics of sport will be aware of the extraordinarily different reactions that different groups of adult shave towards competitive sport: half of us love it, half loathe it. Very few indeed sit anywhere between these two extremes. My explanation is as follows. Together with art and literature, sport is one of a series of activities that emerges from childhood play. For those unfamiliar with the concept, play is the word used by Marxists, and indeed by non-Marxists who write about childhood development, to describe the self-directed activity of toddlers and young primary school children, and to describe what happens when they make up a game, experiment, and use their discovering to learn about the world. Educationalists love play because they believe that it is the period of anyone’s life when we are learning most quickly and effectively. Marxists are interested in play because we see play as the opposite (even under capitalism) of alienated labour.

Now, the difference between play and sport is that sport is a regulated and therefore “alienated” activity (in the loose sense of the term in which Marx used it in the 1840s). Without going into this in too much detail: in all class societies sport is alienated from play in at least the following respects: i) it belongs to special time of its own (for example, under feudalism: what made village football an alienated activity was not the rules of the game but the fact that peasants were only allowed to play it on a couple of days each year), ii) it is competitive (which I think explains why PE tops any list of the subjects that adults recall with least pleasure from their school days: it’s pretty obvious that if you compel 20 young people to run a competitive race – the person who wins is more likely to remember it with pleasure than the 19 who don’t), iii) it is rule-bound (unlike play, the participants don’t set their own rules), iv) sport is increasingly something that people watch, not something they do, and v) sport is over-determined (especially under capitalism) by the subtle relationships of domination that we associate with the market (think of the increasing price of going to football, or the marketisation of activities such as swimming, which were once what people just did and are now what people have to pay to do).

The reason, I believe, that many people love sport is in part that they are remembering backwards in time to the sporting activities they did as children and enjoyed and which were closer to play than sport, and in part that they are “remembering forwards” to a time under a different sort of society when most of what we now think of as sport will be much more like play. The reason, conversely, many people hate sport is that they see it through sport’s, and their own, alienation.

The second idea I want to introduce is neo-liberalism.

I believe that when historians look back at the last 120 years, they will divide it into three epochs. During the first, to 1917, the dominant form of capitalism was private capitalism. During the second, till 1989, the dominant form was state capitalism. We are back in a private capitalist moment. In every country, state capitalism was characterised by (amongst other things) bureaucratic welfare states, engaged to a greater or lesser extent in redistributing wealth very slowly from the rich to the poor. (At the time, most socialists emphasised the slowness of this transfer, these days we acknowledge the fact that there was any transfer at all). The point about neo-liberalism as a variety of right-wing politics is not, as Thatcher used to pretend, that it sought to scale down the state. In fact the portion of state spending in most countries is about the same as it was thirty years ago. The difference is that taxes are not being used to redistribute wealth down, they are being used rather to redistribute up: to bolster companies and their owners who are already fabulously wealthy.

So, the distinctive neo-liberal “reform” is something like PFI which involved the state deliberately choosing to build schools, hospitals etc on long-term contracts which guaranteed the private companies four to fives times more than the “ordinary” value of their work. It was as if you could walk through a building site where a hospital was being built, and arrive at the other end, to find a manager by a van, simply doling out large bundles of cash to any suitable capitalist who walked by.

Under neo-liberalism, there is inevitably also a general move away from spending on the “nice” bits of welfare state capitalism (education, hospitals, etc), the bits that make people identify with the system, and a relocation of resources towards the “nasty” bits (policing, the military, etc)

Coming finally to the London Olympics; my argument is that they Olympics mark a new stage of the distinction between sport and play, a stage that could only have been reached in the neo-liberal moment.

I will give five examples of aspects of the Olympics which strike me as new:

1. Their use to concentrate riches in the hands of those already wealthy

Huge contracts amounting to £12 billion have been awarded to the construction companies building the venues. Sixteen Olympic managers are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year. Meanwhile the typical Olympics jobs, cleaning, guarding, etc, are being done by workers on short-term insecure contracts, usually for an hourly rate of £10 or less. InStratford, landlords’ dreams of an “Olympic windfall” are being used to justify the eviction of large numbers of private sector or insecure public sector tenants. The Olympic boroughs are increasingly willing to offer housing to homeless people, not only just out of borough, but even out ofLondon. People are being moved, families broken up, only so that the landlords can make more money.

2. The Games’ militarisation

13,500 soldiers are being deployed at the Olympics; the navy is deploying two attack vessels, including HMS Ocean, the largest boat in the fleet. There will be Eurofighters and attack helicopters, missiles stationed inEast Londonand around the capital. We are seeing armed police becoming a routine sight at many ofLondon’s train stations. The army has bought in additional technology for the games, including a sonic cannon, a form of crowd dispersal technology used in occupied Gaza and Baghdad, which is now stationed on HMS Ocean on theThames.

3. The promotion of some of the most unscrupulous units of capital

The Olympic Games has long been associated with Nike, Adidas, etc. What’s different now is the adoption of sponsors such as Dow (responsible for theBhopalchemical leak) and Rio Tinto (responsible for extensive air pollution in theUS). The worst single sponsor is undoubtedly BP, the games’ official “sustainability partner”, and responsible not just for Deepwater (the worst oil leak in world history) but also the mining of the Canadian tar sands, probably the single greatest instance of unsustainable resource extraction taking place anywhere in the world today.

The Games’ organisers have also been busy protecting the intellectual property of the sponsors – ie cracking down on companies, people and protesters associating themselves in any way with Olympic (or even anti-Olympic) words or images.

4. Their extravagance

The bid for the Olympics specified that the total event of the budge would be no more than £2 billion. The true figure has crept up, according even to the limited scrutiny of the House of Commons Public Account committee to £23 billion, of which the public subsidy will be no less than £11 billion, and in all likelihood rather more.

5. Very specifically, the organisers have allowed the Games to be associated with companies who exist only to leech money from the public sector

This includes the sponsors G4S and Atos, the former of which has received in return a large slice of the total £500 million that will be spent on security guards.

Finally, what can be done about the Games? There are a lot of small things that people could be doing to reverse parts of the alienation process from play to sport that the Games represents. I see a positive trend in people turning out to watch the Olympic torch relay – almost the only part of the Games that will be held sustainedly outsideLondon. And I would be all in favour for example of a similar process of wresting back control of spectating around the Olympic cycling: a sport which is almost universally free to watch, save at this year’s Games.

We will see hints of struggle even during the Games itself. There are athletes whose participation in the Games represents moments in their individual struggles against oppression (I am not thinking of the organised Paralympics, which most disabled activists regard as patronising in the extreme), but there are athletes, the Palestinian competitors, the intersex runner Caster Semanya, who I wish well.

Some local groups are talking organising counter-Olympic sporting or cultural events, there will be a Fattylympics against body fascism, there is already a fantastic anti-Olympic exhibition at the Free Word centre in Farringdon. Where the events take place, socialists should welcome them, and spread the message of how mass left-wing sporting movements have organised play differently – such as through the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s, which involved more athletes and more spectators in different kinds of activities from their rival the official Olympics, and which are a part of the immediate context, for example, to the Civil War in Spain.

Finally, there will be a main, single anti-Olympics demonstration taking place at 12 noon at a venue in East London on 28 July, and organised by the Counter Olympics Network, which I hope will bring together people from all the different counter-cultural and anti-Olympic movements. This will be the biggest and best chance for all of Red London to make our opposition felt.