Guest Author

No such thing as a free lunch?

Guest Author

Susan Watkins in a piece in the New Left Review (November/December, 2016) makes the excellent point that capital seems to want everything for free.  If you think about it, we pay our taxes for education and health and capital is presented with educated and healthy workers for free!  State-led public investment supports R&D that is delivered to capital for free. We even subsidise our employers by paying our own fares to work, or in buying cars and paying for petrol to get there, so perhaps a left wing democratic socialist alternative should offer some things for free too, such as free public transport.

But with driverless cars, robotics, driverless trains, trams, tube trains and possibly even ships steered by computers, and if Amazon gets its way the end of checkout staff in supermarkets, I think it is time for the left to seriously consider 20 hour working weeks with good pay for all, to free time-poor working humanity. Perhaps a whole new industry could be created as ‘empathy workers’ - professional friends - and this may address issues such as loneliness in society and could help regarding dementia and adult social care. But this is dependent on working people making new technology work for us instead of working people serving big business - it is the labour of the working billions which really creates the wealth and makes societies work.

At present we have a Tory Party pretending to rule for working people, when in fact everything they do is for the rich and powerful. The Tory Party are setting citizens against citizens to divide and rule over working class welfare, whilst the more invisible upper class welfare state flourishes with tax cuts for: millionaires, corporations, private landlords with multiple properties, hedge funds (hedge funds gave the Tories £50m before the last election and the Tories and Lib Dems gave £145m of tax cuts to hedge funds), tax relief for the rich on practically everything including public schools and of course increased tax relief for grouse moor owners.

So our job is to articulate to working people what is really going on and to make the invisible rich visible as they are distant from most peoples’ lives. We need to fight austerity which the Tories say will be here until at least 2021 and fight low pay with the IFS saying that wages are also likely to be static until then too! And of course we need to fight for bread and butter issues like the NHS, poverty, adult social care, education etc. We further need to fight for state-led public investment, more democratic public ownership with staff and communities having a say and serious taxes on the rich and corporations. We also need to work with global partners to shut down the illicit offshore banking industry - some estimate over 50 trillion dollars is stashed there: imagine the good we could do with this globally. We could fund solar panel farms around the world and solar panels on the roofs of the poor to harness the free energy of the sun to help address climate change - and why not throw in free laptops so the poor through massive open on-line courses can try to educate themselves.

And another thing.....

My working class mother was left to bring five of us up in our council house in East Leeds in the 1960’s after my dad had left and we really struggled. But, although I passed the 11+, I rejected Grammar School – there was no way I was going to a school with posh kids and was very wary of what I might experience. It was only years later as an adult education tutor on the excellent Unison ‘Return to Learn’ course that I read a working class woman’s piece on her educational experiences. She and her friend had also passed the 11+ and went to a Girls’ Grammar School in a nearby city but they were bullied by the middle class girls over their clothes and were virtually driven out by them.

Of course capitalism needs a wheat and a chaff – a minority to manage (but not to particularly question) and a majority to do the important but often mundane if not soul destroying jobs which make capitalist societies work. And of course often middle class and upper class families do everything they can to intervene to create an un-level playing field to give their kids a much better chance in the ‘competition’ of education, such as paying for extra tuition and coaching prior to exams as well as using informal middle class and upper class social networks. But some argue there is no such thing as intelligence and if I could count the number of times as an adult education tutor that I heard working class students say that they were “thick” when we all have ideas and formal exams like GCSEs are but elaborate memory tests. Perhaps all you need to be open to learning is to feel comfortable, safe, loved, supported, encouraged, and happy (and ideally have your own room and computer), but if you live in poverty perhaps teachers trying to fill your heads with stuff may mean nothing to your life at the time.

I have always felt uncomfortable about formal academic exams and feel you learn more about developing human beings through continuous assessment, giving students continuous feedback on what they are doing well and what could be done differently to reach a higher standard. Whichever area of study young people choose, we need to nurture them as critical citizens of tomorrow.

It would also perhaps help if we had democratically run schools, accountable to local authorities and school governors elected by the whole community. We may not be able to abolish private education but we can cut all tax subsidies and let the often wealthy, mainly Tory-voting parents stand on their own two feet. We also need free Higher Education for all and massive campaigns to get more diverse working class kids into universities where they belong. Universities too need to be made more democratic, giving all staff and students a greater say, instead of being run by top down managers. We also need to promote the idea of Life Long Learning more and free Further Education (and bring back the Educational Maintenance Allowance) plus have free adult education for the poor and more community workers following the ideas of Paulo Freire to empower the ‘left behind’!