Plato, in discussing the impact of education (or a lack of it) on a society used the idea of prisoners in a cave Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to illustrate his point that, without education, we can only ever be looking at “shadows on the wall”, rather than what’s really going on.
I was reminded of this when I recently heard the idea that, to know the future, we should “look at what the rich have.” The speaker elaborated this point: “The rich used to have personal chauffeurs, and now everyone does – it’s called Uber. The rich used to have private holiday homes, and now everyone does – it’s called Airbnb.”
But – and it’s a big “but” – Uber and Airbnb aren’t “what the rich used to have, and now everyone’s got.” The Uber driver is not employed by you. You pay what they charge you, not what you decide is a suitable salary. You may not have Uber in your area – and you don’t have the power to bring it there. Airbnb is just a digitalised version of what has always been available to those who aren’t “the rich” – lodging houses.
What we have is not “what the rich had before us” – what we have is shadows on the wall, poor impressions of what the rich had, which serve the purpose of keeping the majority of the non-rich quiet for the majority of the time.
Uber, Airbnb, Waitrose, Topshop… they’re all just placebo drops to make us believe we’re not doing too badly, that life really isn’t that tough. Netflix and Starbucks make up for the fact that many people find themselves in insecure employment, being paid barely enough to make even very basic ends meet. A cheap TV, the ability to get something that’s almost the dress or suit some catwalk model was wearing, soothes us away from thoughts about what kind of exploitation may have been involved in the making of such things, and gently closes our eyes to the declining living standards and abuses of power that are going on all around us.
It’s not really feasible, in most cases, to renounce cheap fashion and electronics, or to boycott every company with unethical work practices – the very poorest in Western society would be left unable to shop anywhere, as their income limits them, in general, to unethical companies, because those companies’ products are the cheapest.
Personally, while I don’t have a TV, I do need a laptop in order to work. It’s best I have clothes (although I mostly buy these from charity shops), and, as I don’t have a garden, or much space on windowsills my dogs can’t reach, I need to buy my food, rather than growing/raising it myself. (If anyone wants to give away a remote cottage with a nice bit of land, somewhere in the UK, let me know…chickens, a couple of goats, veggies and fruits…that’s the kind of life I’d like, with or without other people around!) Most months, I’ve only just made enough to cover the cheapest form of basic essentials (the joys of early stage, non-funded businesses started after several years of unsuccessfully applying for “traditional” jobs…) I’m looking into making my own, natural cleaners (lemon, white vinegar, and salt), and my food is fairly simple fare – pasta with something, couscous, chickpeas, hot or cold salads.
So, we need to take a creatively negative approach: we need to accept that we don’t have – and probably never will have – “what the rich have”, and look at the benefits of that situation:
. We don’t become reliant on any “labour saving” or “lifestyle” options. I recently got a second hand tumble dryer (useful, as it rains a lot in my part of the world, and I currently can’t afford to fix the central heating, so I can now guarantee getting clothes dry), but we still wash clothes by hand, in the bathtub. I’ve never had a car. In most cases, when things come to you as a result of having saved up, or got a better-paid job, rather than as something that is simply a “fact of life”, you’re better able to cope when those things break down, or you can’t afford to have them. It’s frustrating to go back to a more labour-and-time-intensive way of existing, but it’s possible. Life is a little more dull when you can’t get away on holiday, but you can cope without that specific, defined break away.
. We can more easily empathise with those who are less fortunate than we are – the current issue in the UK and America is that our politicians and journalists are people who have grown up with a certain level of “luxury” – holidays, cars, washing machines, tumble dryers, childcare – as a “fact of life.” It’s always been there, or they’ve forgotten the childhood in which it wasn’t there, and so they can’t imagine how other human beings can not have those things, unless those others are particularly stupid or lazy… These people have the loudest voices. They are everywhere, positioning themselves as the only voices you need to listen to. When you encounter people at some remove from the voices of media and politics, you see more awareness and compassion, in general, for people who are struggling – because most (though, sadly, not all) people know that their “everyday luxuries” didn’t just fall from the sky. My father was a very kind, considerate, and compassionate man, who would help anyone if he could, whether with words, deeds, or tangible things: he had grown up in a house without central heating of any kind, with a copper bathtub that was filled from the kitchen sink, and placed in front of the fire once a week, without a fridge or freezer – without even a kettle or toaster: toast was made under the grill of the oven, and hot drinks in a saucepan on the stove. Washing machines and tumble dryers were very late additions to his life (he was in his mid-thirties before he had either in his house), and he spent the first 45yrs of his life without a car, getting about on foot or by bicycle. He didn’t suffer fools, and was quick to (correctly) identify people who “wouldn’t take the effort to improve their life if you dropped it into their lap” – but he was never abusive, never hostile, never demeaning. Because he knew the struggle that was involved in “bettering yourself”, or getting things that made life a little easier.
.We will be the ones who will survive when the inevitable mass failure of technology happens. My father taught me the basics of trapping and fishing, as well as how to prepare what was caught, he taught me how to tell if a particular plant was good to eat, and what things could be eaten raw. He taught me the value of manual labour, and the importance of being able to absorb, understand, and simplify complex information. He taught me that in every managed forest, there will be logging roads that always lead to a main road, and that, if you follow a river downhill, you’ll reach some kind of port town eventually, which will usually have the means of getting at least close to where you want to be.
I didn’t grow up living in the mountains, or on some hippy commune – I grew up in a nice house in a nice village, in a reasonably wealthy county in England. A reasonably wealthy county with a LOT of “hidden deprivation.” Many of my primary school classmates left school unable to manage more than basic literacy and numeracy. Many were still in farming families, and were absent during harvest and lambing seasons. My father wasn’t a farmer – he was an electrician working maintenance at the local slaughterhouse. One thing everyone in that village had in common, even the older people who, in a couple of cases that I knew of, couldn’t read or write at all, was common sense, common courtesy, and an intuitive understanding of the world and patterns around them. They’re the “Gary In The Pub” that the middle classes love to mock, the “armchair economists/politicians” who are usually proved right in the end. They’ll never be recognised as such, but they are the real experts – and they are experts not because of any “natural wisdom” or the “wisdom of crowds” (which isn’t as wise as it claims), but because they pay attention to what is going on around them, and remember what has happened before. The current generation, with shortened attention spans and a preference for soundbites over substance, either forgets history, or doesn’t bother to study it in the first place. Patterns are “boring” and “pointless”, because they take time, effort, and attention to comprehend.
Back to the main point of this post, though: What is it, as a unified, whole concept, rather than the individual aspects of the concept, the rich have?
The answer to that question is simple:
The rich don’t have to go out to work – they have streams of passive income. They own companies in which other people work. They own property portfolios, and collect rents. They never have to ask where they can “afford” to holiday that year – they pick somewhere, and go – for a month or two, not a week or two.
The rich don’t have to run their households – they employ other people to do that.
When the rich come across a new thing that interests them, they get involved in it – fully and completely.
The chauffeurs and holiday homes and yachts – even the money – are all just aspects of the core concept of leisure, which is the one, single, defining difference between the rich and the rest of us.
And the easiest thing to genuinely acquire.
. Instead of getting a job that you go to every weekday, come up with a strong franchise concept. Okay, you can’t charge the £10-20,000 (or more) that established business models charge for their franchise – but you could charge a couple of thousand, and commission on each site’s profits on top of that. If two people a month – one person a fortnight – takes on a £2,000 franchise from you, that’s £48,000 in a year. And then you get commission on each site’s profits on top of that. Yes, this is turnover, not profit – you’ll be investing in marketing and promotion, in training, in recruitment, in maintaining the sites – but even if you only end up with £20,000 a year profit, you’re earning it in a way that allows you more leisure time than your 9-5 office job.
. Rather than paying a hotel for your next holiday, why not see if you can do a houseswap? Save up your leave entitlement, if you’re able to do that, and take off for a month.
.Give a neighbourhood teenager, or someone who’s struggling financially, a helping hand, and yourself a bit of free time – pay them to mow your lawn, or do the one-day-a-week main clean. Pay them to serve at, and wash up after, any parties you have.
These are small things – but they make a difference. And remember: “leisure” doesn’t equal “idleness” – someone with “leisure” may very well still be working – but they don’t see it as “work” in the same way many people often do – as something to be endured, and escaped from.