Photo by Amy Kenyon
Roll up, roll up. Sugar can be good for you. Here's how:
the simplest event - a woman buying a pound of sugar, for example - must be analysed... To understand this simple event, it is not enough merely to describe it; research will disclose a tangle of reasons and causes, of essences and 'spheres': the woman's life, her biography, her job, her family, her class, her budget, her eating habits, how she uses money, her opinions and her ideas, the state of the market, etc. Finally, I will have grasped the sum total of capitalist society, the nation and its history. And although what I grasp becomes more and more profound, it is contained from the start in the original little event. (from Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life, 1947)
I came across this passage long ago and have been liberally sprinkling it on life ever since. Humbly setting aside Lefebvre's larger purpose here (you can look it up if you wish), I like to imagine myself into his narrative. There I go. I walk down the supermarket aisle, find a bag of sugar, carry it to the till, reach into my pocket for money, smile and make small talk with the cashier, amble out into the grey of London, and head home for a cup of sweetened tea. I wonder who I am in these simple acts. I think about my life history, family, my age and location. I add in the big questions: class, race, gender and sexuality. I consider my work and leisure, my dreams and disappointments. I count my wins and losses. Each question raises more questions and each answer is inadequate. It's complicated, as people like to say on Facebook. Very complicated. But just as Lefebvre predicted, I see that it is all there "from the start in the original little event."
So, very quickly, that bag of sugar has become deeply challenging. I lack knowledge, the tools to explain myself fully. I don't even know if I made my life, or it made me. But then, I recall a helpful line from Karl Marx. "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
It's okay, I tell myself. Go back and think about that line. Find other lines. Read more. Listen and talk more. I remind myself that not knowing is good. We should practice not knowing every day. Not knowing keeps us human, keeps us awake. Makes us try. And when we try, we find there is help for our questions. Learning doesn't end. Education is a right for the whole of life, y'all. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
If my bag of sugar is challenging, it has also quickly become political, and this is not because I dug out some old quote from Marx. Rather, it is because my questions (and meagre answers) reveal a glaring initial truth: I have particular advantages and disadvantages brought about by the myriad conditions of my life, and relative to other lives.
What about the others? Now it's time to shift Lefebvre's narrative to the other people out there buying sugar. But there are so many of them! So I start with those I love - family and close friends. Then my neighbours. People at work. So I move outward, away from myself - until finally, I wonder how to consider the situations of strangers, people I have never met. People I pass on the street. People on other streets, in other towns, in far flung parts and circumstances. People with whom, seemingly, I have little in common.
Gradually, the similarities and differences between people seem to stand on shakier ground than before. How might we make things better for everyone? Now I am thinking beyond myself. Not losing myself or my own ideas and concerns, but inserting these into something larger than one. And this too, makes my bag of sugar political. Lefebvre has, once again, sent me into myself and back out again, looking for others and asking that age-old question, what should we do?
We don't really need Lefebvre or his bag of sugar to tell us that 2016, like every other year, is a good time to act. But the coming struggles should cause all of us to add political activism to our New Year resolutions. Tory policy will bring unprecedented challenges to people on benefits, to those who are unemployed or low-waged, and those who are homeless. The NHS and numerous other public services have been brought to breaking point by the dominant politics of austerity and privatisation. And right now, the North is under water.
So, take your pick. A group, party, issue or cause. It really doesn't matter. Just do something. And if you need help getting started, go out and find a bag of sugar.