Sunday, 7 May 2017

Paying Not to Die

My water bill came a few weeks ago, I thought it might be an idea to pay it.  So I did, because that's what you do with bills.  The bill was for £98.40 and covered the period from 17th December to 21st April, which is 138 days.  138 ÷  98.4 = 1.402439, meaning it cost £1.40 a day to have clean, running water plumbed into my home for the period in question.

This all seems reasonable enough, until you start looking at it without conventional capitalist blinkers. United Utilities made an "operating profit" of £567.9m last year.  Think about that: for collecting, processing and providing water, and (presumably) playing some role in the maintenance of the infrastructure required to do so, United Utilities made over half a billion pounds.  Water is something no life would exitst without.  It is, by definition, essential.  Periodically, it falls out of the sky above most of the populated areas of the planet,  indifferent to our concerns, and totally outside of our control.  And profit-making corporations charge us money to access it.  It makes total sense, but it's also totally insane.

Of course, what you're paying for isn't really the water, but the convenience of having a reliable supply of clean water immediately accessible to you at home.  Having to collect, process and recycle your own water would be enormously laborious - impossible, to all intents and purposes for most of us to fit into our everyday lives.  The average person in Britain uses 149 litres of water a day.  Here is a picture of a person standing next to containers of approximately that size. How would you, in your own life, fill one of those every single day, without access to any of the infrastructure or services provided by the likes of United Utilities?  Well, you don't really have to answer that question, precisely because United Utilities exists.  Apply the same logic to other goods and services you use daily.  Division of labour.  Yay capitalism.

So what's insane about all of this?  Well, it's difficult to articulate - at least for me, unversed in the technicalities of economics as I quite evidently I am.  But I think many of us have a sense that something's wrong here.  The "free market" enthusiasts of the world (and they're never insufferable, are they?) won't hesitate to trample on any seeds of doubt and explain that the "natural" human drives and forces of competition, entrepreneurship and the profit motive are intrinsically benign, and mutually beneficial.  And of course, as far as their logical train of thought goes, they would be right.

But that isn't really very far. Homo economicus may be logical, but homo sapiens are not.  Or not entirely.  The point here isn't whether the free market can provide an essential service more "efficiently" than the state - whatever that means in the context of utility provision, as any provider,  public or private, would be using the same resources and infrastructure - which in the 21st century strikes me as a rather antiquated bifurcation anyway. The point is more whether the real necessities of life really need to be services at all. "Service" usually implies someone doing the serving, and I can't imagine most of the 5,000 employees of United Utilities truly find their work fulfilling at the deepest level of their being.   Many would much rather, I'm sure, spend their days with family and friends, pursing their own interests - imagine how many unrealised ideas, dreams and untold jokes pass through the minds of 5,000 people in a single day, never shared or lived out simply because there isn't time - or even just not getting up so early in the morning five days out of every seven to play some small role in processing other people's shit.  There's 5,000 people whose lives would almost certainly be happier if they didn't have to work for an organisation (one that appears to behave like a fairly typical employer, at that).

That isn't really the point either, but it's getting us closer to it.  Let's look at it this way.  Since moving to this flat in September last year, I've had two water bills.  The first was larger than the second - which I attribute largely to the fact that the shower, which didn't work when I first moved in, now does, meaning I'm using less water by showering instead of bathing when I need to clean my body.  I've since been taking small steps towards using even less water, in the hope that this will bring bills down further.  That's less money for United Utilities, and more money which I have no intention of returning to "the economy" unless I absolutely cannot avoid it.  Many other people (encouragingly many, as it turns out) are turning towards a frugal, minimalist, off grid, zero waste way of life; sharing creative ways to spend and consume less and less.  That's less and less money for all the other profit-driven companies providing goods and services to the convenience-addicted masses.  Demand is dropping.  What, then, of supply?  How low can we go?  Companies unable to make a profit eventually collapse.  When companies go bust, other companies take its place and life goes on just as before (yay capitalism, again).  But if demand is so low that nobody can make a profit by meeting it, then in a market economy, nobody will.  (Boo capitalism?)  Or so it seems to me.

So the situation is this.  The less I use, the less I pay.  As an individual, it's in my interests to use less, but as a member of a society (that sound you hear is Margaret Thatcher cringing in her grave) I have an incentive to continue using at least enough to allow the likes of United Utilities to make a profit, even if this is more than I actually need, so that they will continue to provide the convenience of clean, running water to the likes of me.  This logic applies to anything "provided" in exchange for money.  Hence why profit-driven corporations have an interest in encouraging excessive and/or unnecessary consumption, and hence why the world is being driven to brink of catastrophe.  All of this, as we well know by now, under the capitalist myth of endless growth in a world of unlimited resources.  Sorry, not "myth".  Delusion.  Lie.  A lie that almost all of us are living; as someone once so pithily put it, "working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need".

I know that something's wrong here, and I think you do too.  I don't know exactly what it is, but I feel that together, humanity is starting to get an inkling of what it might be like to move beyond a purely capitalist, money-based, logical, individualist understanding of what economics should be about: namely, human beings, and the world they live in.  The world they share with millions upon millions of other lifeforms, and without which we would not exist at all.  Something is wrong with working in exchange for money, which we then exchange for the things we need simply not to die.  But what?  Is the answer complicated, or simple?  Might it be just that we're all too scared to make the first move?  I need money because you do, and vice versa.  I need a job because you need a job, because we both need money, just as those who "create" the jobs do.  Is the answer really so simple as just finding a way to really work (in all senses of that word) together instead of for ourselves?  Is that all?  Maybe not.  But if it is, what are we waiting for?


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