(Why is it okay to rent people?)
Anyone who thinks that strip clubs are nothing to be embarrassed about should be obliged to drop into their next ten conversations the title of this piece, which is the name of a table dancing club in Brighton. Aside from its demeaning vibe, who actually uses the word "totty"? The only person I can think of is Tim Nice-But-Dim, the hapless Harry Enfield toff. And isn't that precisely the point? The sex industry flatters its customers, or at least it imagines that's what it's doing, by trying to associate itself with Aristocracy. High Society, Mayfair, the phrase "Gentleman's Club"... anywhere a woman has her tits out you'll find some grubby bloke trying to pass it off as Lord Lichfield.
I have started to wonder what genuine Aristocrats think of this. How do residents of Mayfair feel about the eponymous mag? As embarrassed as I would if there were a porn mag called Bakers' Bottoms? Possibly not. To the bourgeoisie, getting people to do whatever you want them to by flinging a bit of wonga at them is the principle around which the world revolves. It is no less absurd to get into someone's panties through a bit of casual wad-waving than it is to offer them a living in exchange for driving your car, managing your investment portfolio, or sitting behind the till in one of your supermarkets. Let's face it, these people invented exploitation in the name of freedom – although, even as I write the ‘e’ word, which makes me feel like a ranting lunatic just committing it to silicon, I wonder what it means exactly. Is it only exploitation if you’re doing something other people disapprove of? Or something you wouldn’t otherwise be doing? Or is it exploitation whenever somebody else is creaming off the value of your work, even if you’re having the time of your life?
We all know that owning people is wrong, and there are laws against it. So why is renting people okay?
I suppose because it's hard to imagine what a world would be like without it. Money has its own inexorable logic, as we know; reducing to an act of exchange every human activity, from food production to sex to art. It dehumanises us all, but we seem stuck with it. The only alternative that ever seems to get offered is a return to barter, which is going backwards in a rocket. Barter may seem harmless and Earth-loving, cutting out all the financial bullshit, but there is a good reason why money was invented in the first place, and which won’t go away: its generality. I can only barter with you if we both have a commodity* the other wants. With money, the exchange becomes transferable - so while I might not have something you want, the money I pay you can be swapped with someone who does. And even barter has a whiff of "I'm renting you" about it: "Hungry Nude Girls! Hot lapdance for a hot meal!" So there really can be no going back.
What the hell do we do?
I would strongly argue that, left to our own devices, we mainly do the things we love to do. Anyone who has ever worked for the love of it knows what that feels like: not a burden, not a chore, but a thrill. Something other than work, in fact. This feeling lies behind the urge to play in bands, upload movies to newsgroups, write blogs, develop open source software, do other people’s washing up, encourage children, make fanfic, invent gecko-boots, edit fanzines, help the aged, .... All the things that make life meaningful, in fact. Without money, think of all the bankers, stockbrokers, cashiers, tax inspectors and accountants free to fly kites, make Firefox extensions, become pirate DJs, customize cars, write plays,...
I have heard it said by some imaginative but misguided thinkers that money is love incarnate. I couldn’t agree less. If I had to sum up the spiritual meaning of money in one word it would be “distrust“. Being paid is demeaning. Remuneration is a daily reminder of the lack of trust, the threat, upon which Capitalist society is founded – do what I want or starve! – an unequal exchange we're brought up to see as equal. Only by freely giving our talents, with love in our hearts, would we truly earn the fruits of our fellow beings’ labours.
To me most of what I’ve written here is obvious. We all know that work feels uncomfortable compared to giving. We know – unless of course we’re one of those oblivious residents of Centerfoldville, who already feel the world’s bounty is theirs for the taking – the horrible gut-twist of financial compulsion in some aspects (if we’re lucky), or all (if we're not), of our lives. The fear of losing your job; of not being able to pay the rent. Yep, that's right: the girl gyrating on your table really does want you to like her body, ‘cause – like everyone you know – she's worried about being thrown out of her house onto the street. Does that turn you on?
Perhaps it's even obvious that we can’t go on like this, that barter is an impossible backward step, and that sharing the value of the work each person loves to do would not only lift the horrid spiritual millstone of wage-slavery but actually function well as a social structure. Perhaps. But what is far from obvious is how the hell we get from here to there.
I don’t want to fall into despair over this, because amid what can look like a downward spiral into miserable selfishness some positive things are happening. The Freecycle movement, for example, is a healthy alternative to eBaying all your unwanted stuff. And, in Brighton at least, we have the beginnings of a sane car policy where you can sign up for a community car, to use when you need. The prospect of an end to all those unused cars clogging up the street injects a little happiness into my step whenever I pass one. And need I mention filesharing?
These developments are quite encouraging, but I don't want us to sleepwalk into the future. This is rebel stuff, albeit in a low key, slackerish way. Let's read up on Communism, Anarchism, the past's failed attempts to "imagine all the people, sharing all the world". And do it right this time.