Politics on the Rails

by Elias Blum

A guest post by Rick Eling

On a packed train swishing north through England’s summer a stand-off simmers: passengers without seats versus a train manager with several. Just one problem: class.

Standard class is jammed. You can’t even stand. Three lost travellers squeeze into a square metre of floor by the toilet, smells and all. One of them spots that most of first class, a coffee-scented oasis spied through company-branded perspex, is empty. But her attempt to claim an unused seat is blocked by a uniform.

“You haven’t paid. If I let you sit in here it wouldn’t be fair to those who have.”

“But we have paid for a seat. There just aren’t any back there. And these ones are empty.”

“I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do.”

A choice is made: the dignity and comfort of these toilet-dwelling passengers versus the integrity of the train’s internal class system. Their rights to a seat versus the rights of the first class passengers to feel a bit special. And, above all, a choice to assert that ‘ability-to-pay’ is sovereign.

It’s strange to me that, for all our talk about ‘freedom of choice’, arguments in favour of the status-quo are so often drawn as inevitabilities. We *must* cut government spending. We *must* sell off national assets. We *must* cap public-sector pay. There is no choice. Or else…

The ‘Or else…’ is usually tacit, but the air of bullying remains. Golems are summoned to give the threat claws: inflation, the 70s, the USSR, Venezuela, the twin demons of Debt and Deficit…or something darker, some sense that modern life faithfully reflects an immutable human core, a core obsessed down to its DNA with hierarchy, status, and personal wealth. Challenge this core- runs the logic- and you rip apart human nature.

And you don’t want to rip apart human nature for a seat on a train, do you, madam? Back to the toilets you go. Only three stops to a septic tank change. Thank you for travelling with us.

Their discomfort is not about the supply or availability of seats, or their need to sit in one. It’s a sacrifice, made deliberately, to honour a system. We are told that, without this system, we are doomed. That all possible alternatives have been tried and led to chaos. That no new ideas are conceivable. And this system must be defended at whatever human cost.

Time sitting on trains can be time for imagination; very little of that is needed to get from a door dividing first class and standard to Grenfell Tower, or to food banks, or to rough sleepers, or to vanishing services, or to whatever else. “I have the power to fix this this problem, but I mustn’t. We will all suffer if I try. Amen.”

And yet, back in standard class, a young man stands to let an old lady sit. He’s paid for his seat, too, but his legs can take it. A woman lets a stranger read her finished newspaper: the one she paid for an hour ago but no longer needs. Sips of water are shared in the heat with people who didn’t buy the bottles. Courtesy abounds…and nobody is paid for an ‘excuse me.’

It’s almost as if there are two sets of people on this train: those made of flesh and blood; and some rampaging ghosts conjured in the fuzzy glow of economic theory.

I no longer believe in the second type.

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