Bernard Shaw’s guide to the post-crash world
By Polly Toynbee, Friday 12 October 2012 17.55 EDT
Lady Cholmondeley certainly got more than she bargained for when she asked for “a few of your ideas of socialism”. George Bernard Shaw‘s sister-in-law expected a brief summary, a simple user’s manual on his political and ethical beliefs. Instead, in 1928 she was presented with a great tome that encompasses the meaning of life and just about everything from marriage and bringing up children to how to run industry.
What she got was The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, one of the great, passionate and indignant expositions of how social injustice destroys human lives. Class and inequality create a rich and a poor – equal only in the obnoxiousness of both their stations – causing both the degradation of poverty and the idleness of wealth. Shaw has no truck with sentimentalists who romanticise the poor: “The blunt truth is that ill-used people are worse than well-used people.” “I hate the poor and look forward eagerly to their extermination. I pity the rich a little, but am equally bent on their extermination.” All classes are “each more odious than the other: they have no right to live”. Nor has he any truck with Rousseauian romantic views of nature. It is the tyrant to be vanquished by civilisation: “We are not born free.”
He begins as he ends: the only way to live is in a society where everyone earns and owns exactly the same, regardless of skill, effort, age, gender, character, intelligence, inheritance, merit or power. Women would at last be free of dependence on men: even now the gap between women’s and men’s earnings and wealth leaves most mothers with a choice between relying on a man or bringing up children considerably poorer without one. Absolute parity of income would mean merit and moral worth would be rewarded with esteem and not with cash. He has high hopes of humanity’s capability for moral improvement: “In a socialist state, economic selfishness would probably stand on a moral level now occupied by card-sharping.” The rosy prospect of his socialist future stands in stark contrast to his miserabilist view of present humans: “We have to confess it: capitalist mankind in the lump is detestable.”
It is capitalism that debases character and all human relationships, reducing everything to monetary value while misunderstanding the extent to which humans are not motivated purely by greed or acquisitiveness. This suddenly looks fresh in our post-2008 crash world, when conventional economics have come under attack for making exactly that error. What the economists got wrong in all their models and forecasts was their reliance on the odd notion that people are entirely driven by money. Look around you and it’s immediately obvious how many other forces and other choices people make. Humans are not perfect calculating machines making rational getting-and-spending decisions to extract maximum monetary gain out of all their transactions. Shaw’s call for the nationalisation of the banks and his highlighting of the need for local municipal banks has a pleasingly contemporary ring, too.
However, few would turn to Shaw’s Guide for a lesson in practical economics. Nor, alas, would this book make for a course in winning modern-day elections – though how our political discourse would be brightened up with platform speeches of Shavian quality. What you get here is as fine a debunking of all the myriad excuses for inequality as you will ever find. Give each what they deserve? That is what the well-off think they get, but once you try to devise a total audit of each person’s merits or faults, the idea is rendered absurd. Let everyone have what they can grab? That is partly what happens, but traders need law and justice to operate, and themselves need the collective state to mitigate brute force. How much is enough, he asks. His wise reply is that there is never enough: “Nobody can ever have enough of everything. But it is possible to give everyone the same.”
“Why do we put up with it?” That question has perpetually perplexed the left. Why is rebellion by the poor so rare? In this recession era of austerity and shrinking household incomes, Shaw’s answer is much the same as observers might give now. People earning so much less than others are kept going in the illusory hope of “pageantry”, winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune from a mystery relative. Charity, the dole – or nowadays the ever-diminishing top-ups to low pay from the welfare state – are kept just high enough to prevent destitution and revolution. The problem, Shaw says, is that the poor are kept ignorant, and without “trained minds capable of public affairs”, so they cannot see how “the evils of the system are great national evils”. Or if a few are plucked out and sent to university, they are “de-classed” and captured by capitalist thinking. Most people “tolerate the evils of inequality of income literally through want of thought”. That, I suppose, is what the communists used to call “false consciousness” as an explanation for the disappointing docility of the masses.
What makes Shaw so likeable and readable is the odd blend of soaring idealism and no-nonsense realism. He is a Fabian, a believer in the parliamentary route to socialism, yet has no illusions about the unsatisfactory deficits in democracy. “The millennial hopes based on every extension of the franchise from the reform bill of 1832 to votes for women have been disappointed.” He is disgusted at how women voters failed to vote for women candidates or for those on the left who had fought to give them the vote in the first place. Indeed, women’s votes, leaning more to the right than men’s until 1997, helped keep Conservatives in power through most of the last century. As for the candidates themselves, despairing of their quality, he suggests, half-seriously, that their qualifications for office be vetted before they stand.
By the time he revised the book for the 1937 edition, he was writing with fascism rampant in Italy and Spain. Though he was ambivalent and contorted on Russia, undemocratic communism looked unappealing to his Fabian mind. Without doubt a vote is better than no vote, for all its maddening deficiencies. “I advise you stick to your vote as hard as you can,” he tells his lady reader. “Meanwhile, heaven help us! We must do the best we can” – which was, more or less, also Winston Churchill’s conclusion on parliamentary democracy.
A great glory of this book is its grand peroration. With the lyrical eye of the playwright he casts all relationships – whether with lawyers, doctors, tradesmen, relatives, children or colleagues – as fatally tainted by everyone’s need to get money from one another. Only liberate money motives from the world by giving everyone the same, and imagine how people’s “natural virtues” would be set free from “trade union and governing class corruption and tyranny”. Human nature would be “good enough for all your reasonable purposes”.
Misanthropic visions in books such as Gulliver’s Travels or Candide, “which under capitalism are unanswerable indictments of mankind as the wickedest of all known species”, would be looked back on as “clinical lectures on extinct moral diseases which were formerly produced by inequality, as smallpox and typhus were produced by dirt”.
Shaw writes in a fine tradition of utopian optimism. His image of a world under socialism renders humans as unrecognisable (and maybe undesirable) as in those religious visions of harp-plucking human souls cleansed of sin and transported to heaven. All that holds us back from bliss is “pecuniary temptation”.
But people will believe what they want to believe. “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it and become blind to the arguments against it.” How true that rings in our depressed era bleached of political idealism, imbued with a “nothing works” despondency. Shaw’s clarity of argument and caustic wit prod and question the weary old reasons why markets are immutable, the world must always be as it is and nothing can ever change. Here are all the reasons why the way we live now, as then, is insupportable, inexcusable, immoral and unhappy for too many. All it would take, he says, is enough people who want to change it. All writers can do is keep making the case for something better.
Photograph of Australian children lining up for soup and bread, 2 August 1934, by Sam Hood. http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemLarge.aspx?itemID=52307