“I’ll abolish second class trains…I think all people are first class, don’t you?” – Harry Perkins, A Very British Coup
While recently on holiday in Malta I took a picture of an infinity pool overlooking the Mediterranean. Proceeding to post it on both Twitter and Instagram I added the words: “I’m often asked to describe socialism in a sentence: Free infinity pools for everyone.” While partially flippant that comment was meant. Before elaborating why let’s start with first principles.
Formally speaking socialism is an economic system which redistributes resources and wealth so that everyone has the ability to lead a decent and happy life. In order to do that it necessitates a rupture with private property as the ordering principle of society, a situation which means some people must work to live while others do not. This is a world where, as Karl Marx put it, resources are distributed “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
Personally, I don’t just view socialism as a superior way of ordering society – but also as the intermediary stage between capitalism and the ‘mode of production’ which comes after it: communism. That higher form of social organisation, as distinct from capitalism as it was to feudalism, is a society where scarcity would vanish from view, labour and leisure blend into one, and where any distinction between manual and cognitive work would disappear. This is a world where, as Marx memorably put it in the German Ideology, one is free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner”. While socialism is a transformation in the relationship of workers to the means of production, and the value they create, communism is a new ‘mode of production’.
But such abstractions must be comprehensible. Which is why, when talking about socialism, we tend to highlight concrete expressions of it: a National Health Service where provision is based on need rather than ability to pay, or council housing – where homes are provided as a means to lead a good life rather than a commodity where someone is making a profit.
But while healthcare and housing are necessities – which explains their inclusion as Universal Basic Services in my book, not to mention their place in the 20th century welfare state, infinity pools are not. So what am I talking about?
The tweet, like the title of my book, intended to provoke but also make a serious point. Ideas of ‘communal luxury’, out of fashion on the left in recent decades, have been prominent in socialist thinking since at least the Paris Commune. In British culture the ideal was most memorably phrased by Labour’s Harry Perkins in Chris Mullins A Very British Coup,when the fictional Prime Minister is asked whether he will abolish first class on public trains. “No”, replies Perkins to the journalist who poses the question, “I’ll abolish second class…I think all people are first class, don’t you?” Mullins, himself a former Labour MP, almost certainly had Bill Heywood in mind when he wrote those words – the founding member of the IWW famously liked to say how “nothing is too good for the working class”.
In the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune Marx wrote how its greatest accomplishment, rather than the laws it passed or manifestos it published, was “its own working existence”. Because its daily life “inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions” among the Communards its primary power came in prefiguration, offering a glimpse of the world that was still to come. One powerful expression of that was the creation of day nurseries – liberating women, albeit temporarily, from their caring responsibilities. Another was how the distinction between manual and intellectual labour was undermined, most emblematic of which was how Gustave Courbet, the acclaimed realist painter, wasn’t just a prominent Communard but also a delegate to the Commission on Public Instruction. Thus he was very much an artist in the manner Marx defines it in the German Ideology: an individual who, among other things, paints.
This was a revolution in everyday life because, as Kristin Ross puts it, under capitalism the world is divided between “those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images.” Through re-structuring not only the economy but shifting social presumptions and identities, the Commune sought to dissolve such a binary – influencing generations of artists thereafter. It was this sense of individual liberation, coupled with a desire to take art into the everyday, which so inspired William Morris across the channel – a man whose defence of events in Paris would have been scandalous to many of his contemporaries. “We honour them as the foundation-stone of the world that is to be” Morris would later write in Commonweal. Elsewhere, in his poem ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’, Morris writes about the Commune offering a ‘Glimpse of the Coming Day’, appealing to that same prefiguration which Marx viewed as the insurrection’s most impressive feature. Here, as in the world that would replace capitalism, leisure and labour were progressively integrated, with the artisan, artist and worker no longer distinct social functions, but various aspects of human creativity into which any person could step.
While such practice stood in defiant contrast to the status quo, it also went beyond just that. Writing almost a decade earlier in 1864 Dostoyevsky wrote a pastiche aimed at the Russian nihilists which included the line, “A pair of boots is worth more than all the works of Shakespeare.” While aimed at a very different political tendency those words capture a sensibility within the modern left which was alien to Morris, Marx, Courbet and the Communards. What is more it stands at odds with the politics of socialism for much of the first half of the 20th century: the Attlee government, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, ploughed ahead with the Festival of Britain, the legacy of which was the Royal Festival Hall and London’s South Bank – which remains the most welcoming public space in the capital today. Meanwhile in the Eastern Bloc social life revolved around ‘cultural palaces’ – an excellent account of which was provided by John Dewey in his Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World:
“Here was a fine new building in the factory quarter, surrounded by recreation grounds, provided with one large theatre, four smaller assembly halls, fifty rooms for club meetings, recreation and games, headquarters for trade unions, costing two million dollars, frequented daily—or rather, nightly—by five thousand persons as a daily average.”
Dewey goes on to say:
“It is true that this House…has no intrinsic and necessary connection with communistic theory and practice. The like of it might exist in any large modern industrial centre. But there is the fact that the like of it does not exist in the other and more highly developed industrial centres. There it is in Leningrad, as it is not there in Chicago or New York”.
While certainly not embodying the ‘DIY’ practices of the culture palaces, perhaps the most audacious symbol of communal luxury in the Soviet Union was the Moscow Underground. Far from the utilitarian aesthetic often associated with 20th century socialism, here was a critical piece of public infrastructure – built in a still under-developed country – whose interiors more closely resembled aristocratic salons than an everyday mode of transport. One may like or dislike such decoration, but the point still stands – just as with Harry Perkins the aim was a socialism where everyone was ‘first class’.
Less ostentatious and explicitly political, but more relevant for the British context, was the program of lido-building that took place in the 1930s. Far from drab affairs these outdoor pools were often exercises in communal luxury with Tinside pool in Plymouth, Salt Dean in Sussex and Jubilee Pool in Penzance offering stunning examples. Each location provides views one would now associate with luxury living rather than an everyday leisure activity for working class people. This mindset endured after the post-war period and well into the 1950s. While it is the Barbican, built from the mid-1960s, that is commonly viewed as the outstanding piece of utopian urban design from the period, it is the near-by Golden Lane Estate – built from 1952 – which offers a better example of ‘luxury for all’. Complete with nursery, tennis courts, gardens and a swimming pool it was constructed as social housing for working class Londoners. Today renting a room on the estate costs £950 a month, with 50% of its properties in private ownership.
It is the revival of precisely such a vision, and the claim we all deserve those things which are increasingly the preserve of the rich – from spacious city flats to clean, beautiful modes of transport – that is critical in building a wider hegemony for socialist ideas. A break with market orthodoxy must not only mean our most basic of needs are met but our higher ones as well. It is this secondary aspect which means that socialism is the only politics which permits the fullest realisation of the individual. As Oscar Wilde put it in the final decade of the 19th century: “Pleasure is nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment…It (socialism) will be what the Greeks sought for, but could not, except in thought, because they had slaves, and fed them; it will be what the Renaissance sought for, but could not realise completely, except in art, because they had slaves and starved them.” Here socialist politics isn’t just the pursuit of improved economic conditions, but pleasure and spiritual nourishment. As James Oppenheim famously wrote in 1911, “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.” Indeed it is this phrase which inspired the logo for the Democratic Socialists of America – an organisation which has seen a significant revival in recent years.
The response of some to the tweet also provided an important reminder of the role of ideology. This was utopian, magical thinking – as if a pool of water in a nice location, available for all to enjoy, was impossible in a society capable of sequencing the human genome and creating space-based 5G internet. Of course that is absurd, or as one might choose to say ‘pure ideology’. If Britain could build such stunning outdoor spaces open to everyone in the 1930s surely it can do so now? Indeed given advances in technology surely they could be built to a much higher standard and at far lower cost? One particularly revealing response was that the provocation – as welcome as it was – hinted at a possibility which remained centuries away.
Such desiccated reasoning is what Mark Fisher highlighted so expertly in his book Capitalist Realism. As Simon Hammond writes in a recent article for the New Left Review examining Fisher’s legacy, its central claim was that an “effective challenge (to capitalism) had to start by showing that capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ was nothing of the sort.” Drawing on the work of Slavoj Žižek and Alenka Zupančič, Fisher made clear how capitalism’s defining mode of consent was to confuse political contingency – concrete choices that serve elite interests – for inevitability. Here the ‘reality principle’ expresses what it is in fact the highest form of ideology where, as Zupančič writes, we have “ideology that presents itself as empirical fact’. In other words it is precisely the ‘common sense’ we tend to perceive as being at odds with ideologically-driven thinking which is its highest form.
An adjacent to capitalist realism, especially on parts of the left but particularly ‘deep green’ thinking, is what might be called austerity ontology, where anything beyond the most basic of amenities is frivolous, unnecessary and of little interest to socialist politics. In part this is shaped by a set of reasonable presumptions: the present and near-future will be shaped by dramatic challenges, from demographic ageing to climate change and the continued breakdown of our economic model. But it proceeds from this to make mistaken conclusions, where solution-oriented thinking, of any kind, even that aiming at minimal mitigation, is framed as irrationally optimistic. What is naturalised here, instead of business philosophy, is a dull apocalypse, with the awareness of impending disaster, and accepting one’s own impotence within it, elevated as the noblest form of political action.
For Fisher the role for the left in the early 21st century was to “reveal the contingencies concealed by the appearance of business as a natural order”, this applying to our applications of technology as much as anything else. But since he wrote those words ten years ago that is beginning to change – we must now also resist that unreasoned pessimism which seeks to adorn itself in the cloak of sagacity.
Intriguingly, such voices will generally defend the idea of free museums and galleries – a policy introduced by New Labour. While that measure has, to some extent, widened access to the arts, it is also undoubtedly a ‘middle class subsidy’ benefitting the economies of metropolitan areas at the expense of elsewhere. So why shouldn’t precisely the same logic apply to national teams being broadcast on free-to-view television? Or the fan ownership of local football clubs? Why shouldn’t it apply to public swimming pools and gyms, five-a-side pitches and dance classes? The easiest answer, and probably the most compelling, is that some forms of culture take priority and that in defending some things and not others one is simply expressing personal taste rather a set of political commitments. That’s why you can watch the Proms on the BBC and gawp at Bocconi’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ at the top of Tate Modern (much recommended) for nothing, but will struggle to watch a football match on television or find a gym which isn’t a corporate, privatised experience. Why shouldn’t these activities too – extraordinarily social ones at that – be available for people to enjoy for either nothing or at very low cost? The answer is politics. To say it is otherwise, with appeals to ‘necessity’ or ‘outlandish Utopianism’, is again a form of consciousness which defaults to capitalist realism.
Carving a radical modernity for the left will involve undermining such a mistaken instinct, one that is partly the result of decades of defeat, and partly an austerity ontology which takes the exigencies of late capitalism at its word. This same ontology – almost intriguingly – also internalises market fundamentalism’s public relations, viewing the fruits of human ingenuity as in fact the accomplishments of capital. Thus any discussion, even about actually existing technologies which are already here, is described as ‘science fiction’ and the realm of speculation. Compare that once more to the socialists of the early 20th century, for whom being on the cutting edge of technological development was also a matter of political urgency.
I want to watch England win the next Football World Cup in a free, council-owned infinity pool where everything is entirely run on renewable energy. Why not? These things already exist – the political question is who accesses them, how and why?