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Let’s change the world, not ourselves: Laurie Penny on a new New Year

The idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary.

New year custom requires us to repent our seasonal overconsumption and embark on a round of dieting and overhauls of personal hygiene. A couple weeks ago, the editor of this magazine called, asking New Statesman writers to submit their new year's resolutions for the edification of our valued readers. I had a think and came up with the closest thing to a mantra I've fixed on for this year: following recent travails, upon which I shall not elaborate, I will no longer be involving myself romantically with any young man who does not own at least two pairs of shoes and who has lived for more than a week in a skip in Camberwell. One must have some standards.

In truth, though, the idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary. It is tragic that a significant proportion of us will be quitting smoking, starting a diet or revamping our wardrobe this January, not only because smoking, snacking and wearing strange clothes are all perfectly decent things to do but because the whole ritual of making resolutions yokes us back into the pernicious cycles of consumption and guilt that sustain corporate profit and make most of us miserable most of the time.

I'm quite happy to be an unfit, dishevelled and socially awkward roll-up smoker if it means that I have extra time to devote to more important things. I could promise to become a better person, to do everything in my power to help smash the global crypto-capitalist oligarchy and to stop biting my nails to the quick like an agitated toddler -- but I do that every day anyway.

Binge and purge

Every day and in every way, we all could change ourselves for the better and become cleaner, more productive, less monumentally messed-up individuals. The question is, why should we? Why should we improve ourselves? Wouldn't it be a lot more useful -- and a lot more liberating -- finally to accept our own filth and fallibility and try instead to change the world for the better? Very few people who make new year's resolutions stick to them but that is hardly the point. The ritual is all about setting individual goals and missing them, all about the orthodoxy of self-improvement.

The inevitability of failure is part of that orthodoxy. You are supposed constantly to be trying and failing to become a healthier, less weird version of your imperfect self and, when you fail, there will always be consumption to console you in your lonely guilt.

It's as if we are no longer allowed to celebrate something as joyously and collectively human as the turning of another year without promising to isolate ourselves yet again within the cruel, binge-purge cycle of private consumer neurosis. The spiritual logic behind these liturgies of self-indulgence and self-denial -- their place within old religious schedules of fasting and feasting -- has long since lost emotional relevance for most of us, but, in fact, the rituals have only become more frantic. Most of us don't gorge on chocolate on Christmas Day because of Baby Jesus or give it up for Lent because of Zombie Jesus, but we need only the barest of excuses to starve and stuff ourselves, wasting our energies and atomising dissent.

So let's do something useful this year. Let's decide that we're OK the way we are, after all, and that we don't need to try to become thinner or prettier or more productive. Let's refuse to make ourselves better, and make the world better instead. In this critical year, in which the very nature of politics and citizenship could change utterly, there is only one resolution that we should be making. It's the same as last year and the year before that: be brave, be kind, speak truthfully and fight the power. Apart from the one about not dating tramps, it's the only promise to which I'll ever hold myself.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.