Shaw


I first discovered Shaw in the final year of high school, with one of the compulsory English texts being Major Barbara. Undershaft the munitions manufacturer and his views on poverty and charity, and the dig at the Salvation Army all interested me. Who would criticise the Salvos?

This led to several years of devouring nearly every word Shaw wrote. He was one of those seductive writers whose wit can convince you, especially at that tender age, of just about anything. Like Lawrence his real strength was in essays and critical writings, with the plays sometimes being a bit laboured and a slave to certain ideas, rather than the characters really seeming alive. This was a criticism he always attracted, of being more a polemicist than a dramatist, with the plays suffering at the hands of the various causes he was agitating for at the time. But to him this was one of the roles of art, to work towards necessary change. We've had folk and now rock trying to do the same sort of thing for the past 40 years.

Shaw was also a famous socialist, one of the founders of the Fabians. He was the Fabian's Sundance Kid, the quickest brain in the West. Socialism is a bit of a lame duck politically now, having been tarred and feathered by the spectacular excesses of communism. In the past year it's become clear that the triumphalism of capitalism was partly hot air, with so much of the social progress attributed to it likely not much more than the running up of huge, unsustainable debts. Whether that leaves the field open for a reinvention of socialism remains to be seen, there isn't much of a sign of life.

One of Shaw's most striking lines of thinking was around distribution of income. He began his Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (a woman's guide because this was very much a time when women were supposed to know one thing, and that was their place - so Shaw was as always impish, looking to offend the men in power) with a long discussion about how much people should be paid for the work they do. He trots out all the usual distributive ideas, rips them all to bits, and ends with - everybody shoud be paid exactly the same amount. The horror! Even today you'd struggle to find people to think this was good sense, the old aristocracy often pilloried but replaced with a just-as-vicious meritocracy who believe dosh is apportioned according to merit.

Over the years it's seemed to me that Shaw's argument here was actually profound. Politically it lacked any sort of realistic mechansim to be brought into effect, although progressive taxation was a step in the direction, even if euphoric booms tend to bring about a flattening of the tax scales, as the dream of riches for all suddenly seems achievable, to the stupid. At the back of Shaw's idea is an assumption that there is some sort of great paymaster in the sky who does the actual distribution, so that of course one of the first practical problems with it is, OK, good idea, but how will it happen? How will we make sure that each person is paid the same amount - who will collect the common-wealth and then dish it up? This was the main thing that sank socialism, because the answer was inevitably some deadening bureaucracy. (In the case of Russia, with the emphasis firmly upon the dead.) The Soviet experiment showed that ideals don't slide effortlessly into reality, and Mao surpassed them in bureaucratic ruthlessness, which survives even to this day.

Not that bureaucracy is in itself bad, it's always necessary, but the flirtation with Stalin and Hitler showed that the Fabians couldn't imagine a way of rectifying distributions without creating some over-arching control mechanism to bash everybody into line. A benevolent dictator, that was their best hope. (Of course Shaw was far too funny and compassionate a human to stick with this for long, seeing the fascist slaughters not long before his own death.)

If you read Shaw's book, it's very difficult to come up with any problems with the principle of equal distribution. Another time I'll talk about the mechanism they may have been missing in implementing such a thing. But we don't address these sorts of principles anywhere near enough, today. There are a wide variety of prejudices dressed up with stereotypes and caricatures parading as principles. In fact it's an interesting topic to throw into conversation at times, to see the wide range of views you'll hear. Many feel that people are mostly paid according to what they deserve, despite the so many glaring excpetions anybody could list in about two breaths. Doctors is always a favourite of mine, being the new priestly caste, people feel they deserve every cent of the several hundred thousand taxpayer dollars they each suck from the public teat each year, talking about their great responsibility and the difficulty of the work. (It doesn't occur to people enough that doctors are public servants, being paid by the taxpayer, and yet unlike every other public servant, they get to set their own fees. Which as a result are usually astronomical.) Of course it's actually the residents and interns and nurses who do most of the shit work in health, and I bet you wouldn't get a doctor to swap with a DOCS caseworker or primary school teacher, both of whom earn as much in a year as a specialist would make in a month.

We need to get to the first principles underlying some of our political ideas most of all. Rather than launch culture wars based on unexamined, tired old ideas. Like the Good individual and the evil collective.

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