4. The personal sphere

Ch 4

The state of the personal sphere

It is extremely presumptuous, and must use gross oversimplification, to try to briefly describe the state of the personal sphere in the world today.  Actually, it’s presumptuous and simplistic to try to describe any of the spheres.  But I’m going to do it.  I’ll pretend that what is actually very complex and interconnected is simple and separable.

The excuse I’ve got for doing this is that it is how we humans do things.  The only way we survive in this infinite and infinitely complex world is by being extremely selective in how we perceive and deal with it.  Our physical perception, and our brains, are arranged to filter and prioritise information so that we respond (with any luck) in a way which maximises our chance of survival.

The reason I’m going to do it is because I believe it fairly represents some of the key things I want to talk about in this book.

And it’s only trying to be a high level overview, as you’re about to see.

The affluent world

In the affluent world, the personal sphere for most of us who are in paid work is time-deficient.  Most are working longer hours for less money than the generation before us was 30 years ago.  And we are assaulted on all sides by trivia from all forms of media which interfere with our ability to think, to enjoy, and to act as good citizens.

For the increasing number of us not in work, or in less stable or more part-time work, the personal sphere is value-deficient.  I believe deeply in the dignity of work.  It is where the personal sphere intersects with the economic sphere.

Work provides a sense of contribution, of self-worth, and of community.  Under the current economic arrangements, it also provides a wage or salary, which most of us find quite useful.

Many of those unable to find paid work – mostly because the work isn’t there for them any more – struggle to find value in their everyday lives, and are increasing ostracised by the outrageous narrative of “welfare bludgers” – apparently they are too lazy to work, and have chosen to live “comfortably”, as deadweights on the efforts of their more useful (because employed) fellow-citizens.

So here we have this situation where those in paid work are working long hours and struggling to create useful personal time, while those out of work are just surviving – and also struggling to create useful personal time.  There HAS to be a better way to organise work!  But as long as the capitalist race to lower costs and raise profits for the owners is predominant, we won’t do it.

And this problem is rapidly being compounded by the destruction of human work through automation and roboticisation[i].  The apologists for the current system say that, as automation takes over direct production, this sort of work is being replaced by “service” work.  This has some truth to it.  But “service” work is done by servants.  What the current system is doing is demeaning human labour and creativity by automating the mass-production of goods and services, and moving the displaced people into roles (at lower wages) which are basically designed to make the wealthier among us more comfortable.   Welcome back to the world of “Upstairs, Downstairs”[ii].

For a brief period in the mid-20th century, labour movements and the shocks induced by the Great Depression and the Second World War led to greater income equalisation and fuller employment in much of the affluent world.  These economically fairer societies rapidly became politically and socially more tolerant, with gains made by feminism, black and indigenous rights, and some spread of democratic principles.  But within a generation, this movement was being reversed by Reaganism and Thatcherism, by the neoliberal revolution[iii] which has put us into our current state.

So the blossoming was short lived – the political and social gains made by various oppressed groups were not accompanied by economic gains or redistribution, and this has slowed their journeys to full equality with the wealthy (who are predominantly white and male).

And inequality of income and wealth is socially corrosive – even some of our more conservative international institutions have recognised this recently[iv].  In the affluent countries, we have increasing numbers of working and non-working poor, from whom wage-slavery and the slime oozing out of our TV sets (thank you, Frank Zappa) are stealing the time which would be more happily and rewardingly spent on other things.

One of the worst consequences of this income inequality is increasing child poverty in many affluent countries, including New Zealand.  A recent report by our Children’s Commissioner assessed that 29% of New Zealand children live in income poverty[v].   Child poverty is not only an appalling abuse of the children themselves, it is also a guarantor of higher costs, less productivity, and less social cohesion in the future, as the children become adults who are mostly unhealthier, less educated, and more socially disaffected than they would otherwise have been.

Meanwhile, the wealthy reinvest their money in luxury goods and services which offer little or no value to the overall human condition.  Gated communities, personal jets, and art works selling for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, are signs of a class of people increasingly remote from “normal”.

The United States is both the wealthiest country in the world, and the country with the greatest inequality of wealth distribution.  I rather like the graphic illustration of this prepared in 2013 – pay close attention to the red dot:

Ch 4 illus 1

Obtained from the Internet, prepared by an artist for the “Occupy” movement

Certainly, there has always been unequal distribution of income and wealth.  However, not at the extreme levels we are now seeing them and, more importantly, not because the wealthy have somehow “earned” it or “deserved” their wealth, but because they have been lucky enough to benefit from the current or earlier situation or work of others in their human community.

As Ursula LeGuin has one of her characters in “The Dispossessed” say,

“..we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger.  Have we not eaten while another starved?  Will you punish us for that?  Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate?  No man earns punishment, no man earns reward.  Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think (my emphasis added).”

Yes, many people create or organise things in new ways which help generate additional wealth, but there is no moral law that says that the wealth generated should be theirs alone.

We are not solitary geniuses who single-handedly create value, but creatures of the community which has nurtured us, and given us the opportunity to add our contributions.  As a slightly flippant example, if human development is 50% dependent on nature and 50% on nurture, then, after we’ve fed, clothed and sheltered ourselves, perhaps we should pay our parents 75% of any remaining income (for contributing all the nature and half the nurture), and the community 25% (for the rest)?

Once we have adequately fed, clothed, and sheltered ourselves and our immediate dependents, what adds to our quality and length of life, and our happiness?  Research has consistently given a resounding answer to this question.

Not wealth, not possessions, not fame, but the range and quality of our relationships with the people all around us.  The wealthy and isolated are far less happy than those with moderate income and rich relationships.

As a recent presentation from a long-run Harvard study on happiness put it[vi], we ignore this “old wisdom” because we like quick fixes.  Creating and maintain good relationships is hard work, but that’s what’s needed to sustain us.  Instead, we are besieged, and inveigled, by messages that the latest phone/cereal/drink/car/ diet/game is what we need to be truly happy.  We fall easy prey to the marketing of luxury consumer goods.

You may have noticed that this section, on the personal sphere in the affluent world, rapidly turned into a discussion of the problems of work, wages, wealth and consumption.

This was quite intentional, as an illustration of how the economic sphere (the world of work and production) has been crowding out the personal sphere.  First, by reducing real wages and working conditions over the last thirty years, leaving many with less income and wealth to use in the personal sphere, and second by building the narrative that all that matters is the economic sphere and the creation of goods and services for consumption.  Both these themes will be developed further in later chapters.

And there is a further consequence of growing inequality in the affluent countries.  There are two key roads to domestic terrorism, personal alienation (the “loner” road – think Anders Breivik) and despair (the “poverty” road).

The 2015 killings in Paris remind us of the French “banlieues” and their equivalents in Belgium.  Whole communities, often immigrants, have been forgotten and left behind by the rest of their society, often becoming heavily criminalised, and eventually erupting with rage and anger at their exclusion[vii].  One comfort we have is that only very small numbers from these communities decide to, or are persuaded or brainwashed to, commit very extreme acts such as the 13 November 2015 and subsequent attacks.

The general point is that these are often not the acts just of “evil foreigners”, but of the oppressed and neglected people of our own societies.  The Irish Republican Army had its roots in the Irish potato famines; Nazism was born in the enforced depression of the 1920s and 1930s; and the modern far-right movements in Europe are heavily based on the poor and excluded.

The non-affluent world

In the non-affluent world (which encompasses a wide range of levels of wealth and income), there are at least one billion people in extreme poverty, as previously noted. 

The United Nations Human Development Report for 2014[viii] says that 1.2 billion people are living on less than $US1.25 a day.  And most of these are more than just economically poor – they live short, hungry and uncomfortable lives at daily risk of severe illness, brutalisation by others, disruption or dislocation, and/or death.  The UN report  says that 1.5 billion live in “multi-dimensional poverty”.

And another 3-4 billion have lives characterised by various degrees of vulnerability, hunger, discomfort, illness, brutalisation, discomfort or dislocation, and brevity.  At the lower end, the UN report also says a further 1.5 billion live on $US1.25-2.50 a day.

So a total of 2.7 billion (37% of the world’s population) live on less than $US2.50 a day.  And $US2.50 a day does not constitute a living wage.

When the poor attempt to escape their unliveable conditions, they are exploited by their transporters, and made unwelcome by their wealthier neighbours if they survive the journey, as we are seeing in the current North African/European “refugee crisis”.  Europe is increasingly attempting to make distinctions between “true refugees” (for example, from war zones or oppression) and “economic migrants” (those who “just” want a better life).  The reality is that there are common underlying, systemic causes for these migrations, primarily caused by the “four great thefts” by the affluent world which I will expand on in Chapter 14.

In a single word, the lives of people in the non-affluent world lack dignity.  All the members of the United Nations signed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and then clarifying codicils on economic, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights, in 1966.  But a high proportion of the world’s population live in conditions which violate this Declaration to a greater or lesser extent.  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find a direct assessment of the levels of violation of the Declaration.

Welcome to the world of “progress”.

Apologists for capitalism argue that there are a greater number of affluent people than previously.  But why some and not others?  And why “us” instead of “them”?  When the groups concerned, from all sides of the situation, were debating the sort of future they wanted for a post-apartheid South Africa, they agreed that their preferred scenario was the “flight of the flamingos”.  All would rise together, rather than preferring one group of people or values over another.  This has not really happened, because of the assault of neo-liberal economics and the corruption of power, but it remains for many the preferred vision for a truly civilised future.

Personal freedom

A chapter on the state of the personal sphere would be incomplete without some words on the state of personal freedom.

The previous pages have implicitly described the state of “freedom from” (hunger, cold, disease, and pain) in the personal sphere, by focussing on wealth and poverty.  But “freedom from” is at the lower end of the human hierarchy of rights and needs.  It is a largely necessary, but not sufficient, condition, for human development, achievement, and happiness.

“Freedom to” expresses those human rights and needs which take us beyond mere survival.  Freedom to believe and to act as we desire, to learn, develop and express our personal potential, and to act as responsible and valued members of our communities.

A key role for society as a whole is to create the conditions for these “freedoms to”.  First, by ensuring the “freedoms from”, and second, by reducing threats, increasing tolerance, and fostering celebration of the “freedoms to”, which gives us the space to express them.

Please note that “freedoms to” are not an unlimited set of rights.  They always have boundaries associated with the rights and freedoms of our fellow human beings.  These boundaries are most succinctly stated in Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”  Substitute “human being” for “robot”, and you’ll get the idea.

So, the current state of “freedoms to”?  Clearly, in the non-affluent world, there are severe basic limits on them – as long as people are not free from hunger, cold, disease and pain, they will be handicapped in developing and expressing their potential.

In the affluent world the “freedoms to” are better developed.  Most affluent countries have at least adequate education systems, are democracies (in form at least), and the more affluent among us have enough wealth to purchase desirable or luxury goods, and to support the artistic endeavours of themselves or others.

Affluent countries vary dramatically, however, in their tolerance of differences of personal situations, beliefs and behaviours.  My country, New Zealand, has been described as one of the world’s more tolerant countries with respect to religious, racial and gender freedoms, but even here the situation is far from ideal.  For example, gender and racial equality, while their institutional bases are strengthening, are still far from a “natural” set of beliefs and behaviours for many New Zealanders.  In other words, if we scratch the surface, we still find some deeply ingrained prejudices about women, and about Maori (who had settled New Zealand centuries before Europeans arrived).

And other affluent countries each have their own peculiar biases or cultural mindsets which limit their citizens’ “freedoms to”.  The wealthy Middle Eastern countries are particularly striking in this regard.

The rapid growth of the “surveillance state” in many affluent countries since “9/11” has also had an impact on political freedoms.  Citizens are increasingly subject to both open and covert scrutiny, based on rapidly developing technologies which are becoming more intrusive, and are not often subject to proper public scrutiny.  This situation is compounded by the collection of data by private companies with limited or no permission, in the guise of “market information”, which is also sometimes voluntarily shared with governments.

There will always be tensions between collective and personal rights, and between the wishes of those in power and those not.  There is no ideal state of personal “freedoms to”.

But in the non-affluent world they scarcely exist, and in the affluent world, while the situation is far better, personal “freedoms to” are limited by being concentrated among the most affluent, by historically prejudiced or biased mindsets, and by the abuse of state and commercial power.

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Footnotes
[i] See for example the World Bank’s recent report on the economic effects of digital technologies, “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends”

[ii] A BBC drama/soap opera originally broadcast between 2010 and 2012, with the middle/upper classes above the stairs and the servant classes below

[iii] For further discussion of neo-liberalism, see Chapter 17

[iv] See for example the text and reports referred to in https://blogs.imf.org/2017/09/20/growth-that-reaches-everyone-facts-factors-tools/

[v] “Child Poverty Monitor: 2015 Technical Report” by the New Zealand Children’s Commissioner

[vi] See https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en

[vii] See for example “Grim estates that offer no hope to inhabitants”, Allister Heath, Dominion Post, 21/11/2015

[viii] On pp71ff