Taking a Lego Brick for a Walk
I got thinking today about whether Lego is the most useful toy for explaining to children how the world really works, regarding the temporality of what you build, its entropic nature. Whatever you build with Lego (or Lego-like bricks) will have to be taken down (usually blocking access to something in the household) at some point. The child knows this, and becomes accepting of this reality. Even though Lego is plastic, and (unless burnt into toxic fumes) will outlast us, whatever you build won’t. All other toys break as well, but it is/was a terrible, unexpected event when they did.
Maybe Lego is a toy that helps us come to terms with capitalism’s imposition of an even more rapid impermanence on the world? Yet, as much as the so-called ‘creative destruction” that capitalism imposes on us makes everything impermanent, its reality-grip is seen as permanent through the dominant discourse and memes of the day. Yet, for this reason those who have the power to make decisions that affect us all treat whatever they’re planning on doing as something that will last forever; or that the world that they’re making these plans within will be like this forever.
Maybe those decision-makers had grander toys, bigger, faster, more expensive toys than other children, that solidified a sense of lasting, unthreatened entitlement in their young minds, never having their child-world reality altered by those doubts that most children have when their boundless wishes are left unfulfilled by parents struggling to do their best. Take HS2 (the proposed high-speed train network) for example. As well as its proposal being a publicity-gimmick, it is being planned around a reality, that isn’t just capitalist, but a particular stage of capitalism reliant on London’s financial empire, that necessitates an a nationwide-structure geared towards London-commuting, until towns as far north as Doncaster and Wakefield become commuter towns for the capital. But, regardless of the looming challenges to it in the form of frequent weather disruptions, a likely-continual hemorrhaging of workers, will this reality still hold sway by the time HS2 would be complete? I doubt it.
It is also an act of childishness. Competing against all other nation states that are desperate to be seen as one the big boys – to see who has the biggest, most fancy toys. From what I remember of childhood Lego moments, it was a far more co-operative toy, unlike toy guns, and of-the-moment action figures (made ‘must haves’ by popular cartoons/films) where it basically all boiled down to wanting it either to keep up with piers or the ‘beat’ them. No doubt today’s decision-makers had the biggest of toys, that would have blown our more lowly competing groups out of the water. Giving them an unchallenged feeling of having a right to things, lasting from childhood to Oxbridge, or any other Hogwarts-esq bastions of entitlement.
Ok, so maybe the Lego thing is a bit far-fetched, and a bit of a weak-link to put too much emphasis on. But it has here been a key that has unlocked a lot of my other thoughts that were bashing against closed doors in my mind as I made my way through a rainy Sheffield city centre that seems to possess more tragic figures existentially and financially displaced by ‘progress’ by the day. It helped here raise an important issue that people will undoubtedly respond to the world through the cultural values that are handed them as children; from the ways they play to what and who they play with.
Personally-speaking, before I my age was in double-figures, I lived in a car-less household, where walking was essential, and as a result a feeling of common-ownership for the surrounding environment ensued (hence the slow and muted horror as, year by year, interests with property rights to the landscape chewed it up for this and that purpose related to the aforementioned imposed hyper-impermanence by capitalist dynamics). However, I was also brought up in a, then, poor household, where, even though I initially felt I got a sufficient amount of toys, young friends around me (who’s families weren’t struggling as much financially) would love to show me that their toys were bigger, fancier, and more expensive.
Such things can foster low self esteem. Yes, friends hand down toys, lend you them (we were surrounded by generous family friends), but there remains this feeling that “you’re not the entitled one – that’s other children, not you”. I remember going to see an exhibition of the fossilised remains of dinosaur skeletons at York Museum aged 9, the first time I had ever seen such things through my own eyes; I remember that the excitement I felt was challenged by a sense of doubt that more or less said “I’m not worthy/I don’t feel special enough to view such things”.
Now this isn’t a self-pitying exercise, but remembering it has helped me understand how some people grow up feeling that they aren’t as good as others in a culture that is both driven by dynamic competition and at the same time an unshifting hierarchy of social privilege for some. When you feel less worthy, you feel less capable and thus your approach to life is infantilised. If one sensation stuck whilst out and about today, it was a refusal to treat-as-normal, and to lay down and accept my place, in a society at its most hierarchical since the Second World War. Some are born into an environment that makes them feel entitled to be in the high places in society, whilst most others grow up feeling inferior, constantly held back by an overriding feeling in certain situations that says “I’m not good enough to do that” or “I don’t belong in such a place”, with the further psychological pressure due to the increasing addition of household-anxiety over whether bills can be paid the next month.
At the moment we are being bombarded by a disproportionately-well-equipped right-wing media artillery, that has in its sights the destruction of the remaining social security gained by the lower sections of society during the past century. The word I used above, entitled, is used frequently here, but it is aimed at those at the bottom of a society, using grossly exaggerated propaganda (yes, propaganda) to make the working poor see the non-working poor as their enemy in trying to make ends meet. What we hear is “people think they’re entitled to benefits”. However, this is a section of society rendered surplus to requirements by capitalist dynamics once it destroyed the unionised industrial bases in western countries such as the UK. But the assault didn’t end there; an increasingly growing number of individuals are falling into this category, as paid work becomes rarer and rarer. These are the sections of society that have endured a systematic corrosion of self-worth, do not feel entitled, they have been made to feel that they offer no value to society, they feel the opposite of entitlement. I say feel, because, due to the demise of collective consciousness, they have no means to explain their predicament; they are trapped in a endless series of days, getting through them the best means they can; “being poor is a full time job” (David Graeber).
Is it surprising that child well-being in the UK is so low? I cannot begin to imagine what impact the contemporary level of competitiveness for the poor and privilege for the rich must be having on the minds of children growing up into lower income families especially. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘old boy’s network’ is visibly running the show again, for the first time in years it seems to feel that it can confidently show its face(s) – children who have been reared feeling they have the right to take the highest place/jobs in society, and have the confidence to do just this. It is thus not at all in the interest of the upper strata of society to take seriously, or even acknowledge, the damaging impact on self-worth, feelings of inferiority, that class injustice deals out (using the word ‘class carefully, as the lower sections of society are the only one who seem to be denied class consciousness in contemporary Britain); it is in their interest to promote the idea that the people highest in society are the most talented and most deserving, and have earned their right to do so, and they make a good-sell of this argument by using rare cases of individuals from unprivileged backgrounds who do fulfill their passions/childhood talents/interests. The term ‘social mobility’ wouldn’t even exist to be spouted at us by politicians and business gurus in a society where everyone began on equal footing to fulfill their talents/interests, and excellence wasn’t almost totally (mis)directed to entrepreneurialism in a sink or swim reality.
I apologise if the use of the word Lego in the title has brought people who were generally intrigued by the toy reference into a full-blown rant against the state of things; but the state of things is currently criminal and should be directed in front on our gaze as much as possible until we exit the psychological bunker of denial and start thinking about ways we can make things different. I also find a re-examination of my childhood often tells me more about the place in society I have found myself in than my current position. Not that it should be an excuse for remaining as a person who apologises to people when they’re the ones who’ve erred, and often cowers into a disheveled posture out of bouts of inferiority feelings, but it does allow for a clearer understanding of the injustices of growing up in a society where the children of the ‘winners’ (still) nearly always take all.