Horatio Morpurgo is a reporter and a literary refusenik. He’s written about poets and philosophers, revolutions, road-building, marine reserves and much besides. See Lady Chatterley’s Defendant & Other Awkward Customers (Just Press) for details.

Teaser: 

Horatio Morpurgo is a reporter and a literary refusenik. He’s written about poets and philosophers, revolutions, road-building, marine reserves and much besides. See Lady Chatterley’s Defendant & Other Awkward Customers (Just Press) for details.

Orange rosette, anyone?

January 2014, Maidan, Kyiv.

Ilya Varlamov/zyalt.livejournal.com

Moscow was spontaneously ‘re-discovering’ May Day, after 23 years, as an orgy of chauvinist triumphalism. The event in Kyiv was lower key. Still, chestnut flowers were out, kiosks sold snacks and the day was bright as the crowd, a little tense but good-humoured, began to gather from mid-morning outside the Arsenalka Metro stop.

Watched by police, they collected round a monument to the factory workers who led Kyiv’s uprising against the Tsar in 1917. Bullet holes are preserved in a wall nearby. One man had even come as a Lenin look-alike, spicing the atmosphere with a blend of fancy-dress and political provocation.

If Lenin was expecting trouble, he got none. Neither did the woman distributing orange rosettes, each with a portrait of Joseph Stalin at the centre. I asked and she introduced herself as the editor of a magazine for Communist youth. ‘The real conflict in Ukraine,’ she explained, ‘is not between Ukrainians and Russians but between the workers and the oligarchs, the bourgeoisie.’ There might be truth in that, I said, and gesturing toward the rosettes I asked whether she thought Joseph Stalin had been a good Communist. ‘Of course.’ ‘How?’ ‘The country was weak. He made it rich and strong.’ ‘Which country?’ ‘The Soviet Union.’ She paused. ‘And Ukraine,’ she added. Another pause. ‘Both.’ She fixed me with a searching look. ‘And he defeated Fascism.’ To my inevitable follow-up question she responded with her account of the 1932-33 famine, for which the weather and the prodigal lifestyle of Ukrainian peasants were entirely responsible.

The language and arguments from the 1930s and 40s being recycled in Ukraine might seem improbable at first. The role of ‘Fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ in the ‘case against’ recent events in Kyiv has proved persuasive to many well beyond the Ukrainian Communist Party, whose line this distributor of rosettes was closely following. The charge has been ceaselessly repeated by Russian state broadcasters in particular. Indeed if, as Mr Lavrov claims, ‘Russian television is telling the truth in real time’, there would seem to be very little doubt about it.

'The real conflict in Ukraine is not between Ukrainians and Russians but between the workers and the oligarchs, the bourgeoisie’

In fairness, other things should not be in any doubt either. Such as the centrality of Hitler’s defeat to an often fragile post-Soviet Russian identity. This is especially true of ageing Russian men, like the ones currently in charge at the Kremlin. From the late 1950s, recognizing the need for ritual in an officially atheist state, ‘wedding palaces’ were built all over the Soviet Union. The first of them opened in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). At its entrance there burned a flame lit from the one which burned, and still burns, continually, at the city’s cemetery for its war dead. The resistance to and eventual overcoming of Nazi Germany took on, and for many Russians has retained, a quasi-theological status.

Notably absent from this narrative are the experiences of those countries between Germany and Russia, where the Red Army’s tanks were then parked (and taken on occasional outings) over more than forty years. Ukraine, like any other such country, has its own version of events, in some ways at variance with the Russian one.

From a Metro stop in the north of the city, my interpreter led the way through a crowded market, a dank underpass, along a thundering ring-road then over a railway line and down another street to the walled compound that is Right Sektor’s headquarters. A guard in a black uniform asked for my ID through a grille then opened the gate. The man we’d come to meet, the organization’s ‘Speaker’, told us curtly he had very little time then waved us into a large room with a long table and white walls. One of these was mainly occupied by two enormous flags, one Ukraine’s, the other that of the Second World War’s ‘Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ upon which was written ‘Right Sektor – Born on the Maidan’.

Tall, sullen and stooped, the Speaker took his place in a chair directly beneath the knot where the two flags met. Hands clasped before him, head lowered, he listened then answered my questions, mechanically, as if beginning each answer with an inward rolling of the eyes. ‘The aim of Right Sektor is to prepare the new Ukraine for independence from all foreign structures’, he said. ‘To support the family and national identity.’ What does Europe mean to him? ‘If we are to speak of the EU, it is an imperial creation. It is only here for what it can take out of the country. Its ideology is liberal, individualist, anti-Christian, evil.’ As my interpreter translates, he eyeballs this latest representative of decadent atheist Europe. And America? I ask. ‘The same.’ His answer to everything is infinite disdain. NATO? ‘It’s possible we might deepen the relationship with NATO but we do not want to work with people from outside Ukraine.’ What does he think of the accusation that Right Sektor is fascist? ‘Communism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, Fascism – these are ideologies. We are Ukrainian nationalists. We have nothing to do with them. They are enemies.’

The historian Giorgiy Kasianov tells me about his visits to Cambridge University and the London School of Economics as he drives me to a favourite café not far from the Ministry of Education and Science. ‘The Great Patriotic War is a central mobilizing myth for modern Russia,’ he tells me. ‘Russians as victors. This is part of the country’s official identity. For Ukrainians the Second World War was fought between Hitler and Stalin, between two dictators, not between the Nazis and the great Russian people. Ukraine fought against both these empires.’ Kasianov is tasked with helping to re-design the country’s education system. I ask him about Stepan Bandera, the controversial war-time leader, to whom monuments have sprung up, chiefly in the west of the country, in recent years.

‘For the Russians Bandera was a Nazi collaborator – which is true, by the way – until the Nazis decided he was no longer of any use to them and imprisoned him in a concentration camp. But what Ukrainian fans of Bandera talk about is not a real person. For them he is a symbol.’ How might his fans be introduced to the real person? ‘In secondary school, as the pupils acquire critical skills, I would give them the facts and the different versions. Tell them it isn’t necessary always to support one side. History is meant to teach you how to think.’

In Lviv, home to one of the largest of those new statues, I speak to Iryna Matsevko of the city’s ‘Center for Urban History’. The Center has been closely involved in a project to erect memorials, in and around the city, to the Jews who were murdered there during the Second World War. ‘There’s still a lot of local patriotism,’ she explains. ‘It’s true, Bandera is idolized by some historians here. And then there are other historians saying – let’s talk about this. He was partly guilty. At the start. It’s true that he fought for ‘his’ Ukraine, for its independence. But how did he do this? What instruments did he use? Do we want such heroes for our young people now? Maybe not. So many families here had grandparents who were in the UPA, who told us their stories. Some historians are already teaching this. That’s why we need a discussion now – to say to these people ‘your grandparents’ story is their story’. It’s time to listen more critically.’

At the Faculty of Journalism in the same city a recently formed ‘Discussion Club’, organized by students who participated in the Maidan, has organized just such debates, about Bandera and many other figures, the Russian nuclear scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov among them.

‘We need a revolution of historical knowledge, more research,’ Anton Shekhovstov, a researcher of Ukraine’s far right tells me. ‘There are already books by liberal historians in Ukraine or in the west, which tell you Bandera was not simply a national liberation fighter and that his idea for an independent Ukraine was far from democratic. But school text books in the west and centre of the country just don’t tell you he was a fascist. So people simply block this information. Or they see it as Moscow propaganda or liberal propaganda. That doesn’t mean people are still ‘for’ the 1941 pogroms or the anti-Semitism. It’s that the independence of Ukraine has become a value in itself, the highest value for some people. What kind of order or regime he wanted for an independent Ukraine, they don’t ask.’

Europe offers some prospect of a more reliable world than the one Ukrainians have been living in since independence

Ukrainian novelist Andrei Kurkov, who was born in Russia and still writes in Russian, places the emphasis elsewhere. ‘For a Russian politician it is very difficult to portray Ukraine as an enemy nation. They use these terms, like Fascist, to create in the Russian mind an image of the enemy. This is difficult because there are millions of Ukrainians in Russia. The Head of the Russian Federation Council, Valentina Matvlyenka, is Ukrainian! Putin is surrounded by ethnic Ukrainians who betrayed their people, became imperialists to further their careers. There is a long tradition of this. In Soviet times three out of six General Secretaries of the Communist Party were from Ukraine. Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Chernenko. Ukrainians were always trying to be more loyal to this party and they were appreciated.’

To him the idea of splitting Ukraine along a linguistic ‘divide’ is an absurdity. His view may not be universal but it is very widespread. A magazine editor from the east of the country, the half-Russian receptionist at my hostel, a young engineer still recovering from head injuries sustained last winter, all agreed. The so-called ‘language issue’ has been manipulated for political advantage at every election since independence, only to vanish the moment the election is over. The bulk of the population is as sceptical of it as they are of everything else about the official political culture which has ruled the country so cynically and so ruinously.

Lviv is a city portrayed in the Russian media as a city where Banderite thugs roam the transport system, assaulting Russian-speakers. Well, I roamed it too for several days and I didn't notice any Banderite thugs. In fact the whole city switched to speaking Russian for a day last winter, in an attempt to counter the way it was being misrepresented. The university’s Discussion Club hopes to debate via video-link with students from the east of the country.

It is true that nationalist sentiment was an active ingredient on the Maidan from the start. Everyone who was there attests to it. I’m suggesting this has more to do with Ukrainian history than sinister foreign orchestration. In interviews with members of Right Sektor, I found not one who had a good word to say about the EU or the US. The notion of these people as the CIA’s shock-troops is so wide of the mark that one can’t help wondering why those who insist on this thesis so publicly do so at all. If anything, American multiculturalism is even more distasteful to them than European federalism. That Right Sektor is being used, like Svoboda before it, by oligarchs, in order to control their opponents, is more plausible. But that theory assumes some elementary knowledge of Ukrainian politics, which immediately excludes many of those shouting loudest in the western media.

That the far right, more than any other group, defined the movement can be refuted simply by bothering to talk to any reasonable sample of those who were there. There were car-owners who organized transport and blockades, there were anarchists, there were socialists, there were football fans. All churches, with the exception of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, opened their doors to the protesters (the Orthodox Church has a Kyiv Patriarchate, too, which was supportive). A Jewish oligarch put his TV station at their disposal. There were romantic visitors and there were people who stayed the course. There were newspaper editors and philosophy teachers among the dead. It surely no longer needs saying that many different nationalities were present. As one of Ukraine’s best known counter-cultural figures, the poet Serhiy Zhadan, put it in an email from hospital, after being set upon by thugs, ‘A dictatorship is not normal, and people who don’t protest injustice, they have no future.’

What does it mean to describe a movement like this, in 2014, as ‘Nazi’?

The patronizing insta-expertise of certain western commentators has puzzled many. The bracing terms ‘coup’ and ‘junta’ are routinely deployed alongside ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’. The western public has shown a surprising appetite for all this vehemence, as if to keep in check the uneasy awareness of its own ignorance. Not incidentally, the accusation of Nazism is central to the way Russia sought to undermine the legitimacy of the interim government and Ukrainian state institutions in general, in the run-up to an election which was never going to return a Russia-friendly candidate.

'Somebody shouts ‘Nazi’ and we all drop whatever we’re doing and run to see if it’s true, which is just what the guy shouting Nazi intended us to do'

The resolutely know-nothing contributions of Seamus Milne or Simon Jenkins are two examples at random. But it is John Pilger who has emerged as heavyweight champion of Moscow’s right to slice chunks of territory off neighbouring states which have neither attacked Russia nor threatened to do so. One wouldn’t ordinarily think of these writers as having much in common. But one thing they share is that Ukraine is, for all three of them, a mysteriously difficult place to get to.

Pilger used to take his vocation more seriously and it is painful to watch him squandering his well-earned moral authority in this way. What would he say, I wonder, about a British prime minister who referred to Australia as a ‘dominion’? What would he call a journalist who described Australians, without needing to meet any, as incapable of determining their own affairs? Yet for Pilger Ukrainians can only be pitied, who persist in imagining that they deposed Yanukovich because he was a thumping crook and a murderer to boot. It wasn’t like that at all. The truth is Ukrainians were, and are, in the grip of a feverish CIA-induced delirium.

Exactly how much time has Mr Pilger spent in Ukraine since last November? How much time has any of these writers ever spent there?

Some of what Mr Pilger will find in Ukraine when he finally gets there will hearten him. He will find people on both the left and the right with very few illusions about the EU or the US. VAT exemption for medical and agricultural supplies has already been removed as the IMF and the EU set conditions for their loans. Mr Pilger will be surprised to learn that people don’t like that much. The price of gas is also rising fast as Russia sets about punishing Ukraine. That was never a trick Moscow was going to miss and Ukrainians know very well that IMF loans mean more pain to come. They know it and, for now, most of them think that turning towards the EU will help to phase in the rule of law, check the power of the oligarchs and offer some protection from Russia’s militant nostalgia for superpower status. Europe offers some prospect of a more reliable world than the one they have been living in since independence.

Thrilling talk of Fascists only serves to distract. Somebody shouts ‘Nazi’ and we all drop whatever we’re doing and run to see if it’s true, which is just what the guy shouting Nazi intended us to do. Shouting Nazi explains nothing about last winter and deliberately obscures the plural nature of the movement which overthrew Yanukovich. Shouting Nazi gets in the way of that grown-up discussion about Ukraine’s past which the country needs to have. Shouting Nazi distracts from the serious discussion about how, if at all, Ukraine can possibly cope with the conditions western financial institutions will set, while being simultaneously punished by Gazprom and manipulated by Russian TV.

Those in western Europe who also find Russian TV persuasive must have their reasons. Perhaps they feel, in Ukraine’s case, as a philosopher once put it, that ‘Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability’. The ‘Europe’ on which many Ukrainians are pinning such hopes is a project that ‘Europeans’ themselves hardly know what to do with. Take the British – successive governments have engaged in neo-imperial adventures, torture, spying on just about everybody, encouraging the rich who have never been richer, even as local hospitals ‘scale back’ and bus services are cut. From where does such a society summon up ‘moral support’ for people who want more of what we’ve got?

But just to shrug and call them names is to dodge the awkward question Kyiv has set. To endlessly disparage what Europe does (still) have is to cling to the complacent illusion that things cannot be much worse. Ukrainians know better and maybe they even have a thing or two to teach Europe about that, if it would only listen.

If you are ashamed of Britain’s recent foreign policy adventures – very good. You can show it by not backing the international bully this time. Express your support, instead, for a country which refused to be strong-armed back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Who precisely is better qualified to decide on that country’s future than those who faced down Yanukovich?

It’s true the country I’m talking about does not have the money for slick English-language ‘alternative’ news operations. But cackling about Ukrainian Fascists in 2014 is complicity in Russia’s longstanding effort to control the way its neighbour’s troubled story reaches the outside world. Even as an unhinged Joseph Stalin organized the famine in which more than three million Ukrainians died between 1932-33, he blamed Ukrainian nationalists.

Remember that before you help yourself to one of those orange rosettes.

What does locking up migrants say about society?

Verne prison

The entrance to Verne Prison in Dorset. Jim Linwood under a Creative Commons Licence

This year will see Britain’s 12th Immigration Return Centre (IRC) open on Portland, Dorset. The expectation may have been that re-opening the Verne (which is currently a prison) as an IRC would pass unnoticed down in the West Country, away from the largest migrant communities with their specialist lawyers, but this has not been the case.

With 580 places, the Verne will be Britain’s second-largest detention centre. According to Detention Action, it will house single males only, mainly transferred from prisons. During 2013 the Home Office increased the number of migrants arbitrarily held in prisons from 400 to about 1,000. It is these detainees who will be transferred to the Verne, which will provide a cheaper way to ‘warehouse’ them.

Community groups, faith networks, health-workers and independent media gathered at a meeting in Weymouth at the end of February to hear how they might help, whether by visiting, connecting detainees with local services or making more people aware of what is happening. We heard how the Verne’s inmates will be among the most complex cases cluttering up the present ‘system’. A large majority (73 per cent) of those detained for more than a year are later released into Britain, their detention having served no purpose whatever. Given that $127 million are wasted every year on holding migrants who are later releasedi, might it not be time to consider a system that works better?

One former detainee who spoke at the meeting had spent a total of four and a half years inside. Unused to addressing a large audience, he was unsure how close to hold the microphone. His voice seemed now very near, now very far. How closely does this concern you? it seemed to say.

‘I don’t think any of us who haven’t been in detention have any idea how isolated people can become,’ said one man, who had been visiting IRCs for years. He told us about some of the people he had met through this often harrowing, but deeply rewarding, work. It was these human stories, Ali McGinley of the Association for the Visitors of Immigration Detainees told me afterwards, to which everyone responds. That response reassured her that Britain’s tolerant traditions are still there, concealed beneath its present public culture.

Around 30,000 migrants are detained each year in Britain, which is alone in Europe in detaining indefinitely. From Belgium to Sweden to Australia, governments have been prepared to risk the ire of the tabloid press in order to install more rational arrangements. It can be done.

Just as the variation is wide between countries, so within them, too, centres differ in the hours of lock-up, freedom of movement, education provision and so on. The bland appearance and anonymous surroundings of these centres are deceptive in more ways than one: each place has different needs and it is these which civil society initiatives are uniquely placed to address.

For all that local variation, this global phenomenon has been studied as a whole, too. Some of what has been suggested may usefully inform the attitudes and actions of those living close to an IRC. A 2007 report detailed shocking levels of violence inflicted on detainees as they are deported. It didn’t prevent Jimmy Mubenga’s murder by G4S guards in 2010. In Italy, to take another example, the equivalent centres are considerably less secure than those in Britain – there the extreme violence takes place mainly during escape attempts.

This variation between countries is there and it matters. But why are we not only locking migrants up, which is bad enough anywhere, but then treating them as non-persons in this way, everywhere? In an eerie turn of phrase, Italians call the boat-people crossing from North Africa uomini tonno (‘human tunafish’).

Ruled ‘unworthy’
Asked where migrants ‘come from’, our mainstream news culture generally responds: they come from there.

The refugee, according to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, has ‘become such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state’ because he or she exposes a ‘rotten ambiguity’ at the heart of who we are, a contradiction in our own sense of identity. He traces this back to the Greeks, who had no single word for ‘life’. The term zoe referred to the vitality of any living thing. Bios, however, was human life as it is shaped by a particular community.

Agamben suggests that this distinction made for a fault line in Western culture, which has now come under enormous pressure. If it gave us habeas corpus and much else that we rightly value, it left us another legacy too. It meant that the sovereign authority could designate, as the Romans did, a certain person as ‘homo sacer’, a man viewed as falling somewhere between zoe and bios. A man without rights. A man whom it is no crime to kill.

He traces this flaw through its medieval, early modern and French revolutionary expressions, but it was in the 20th century that it finally caused the system to collapse. It was then that certain persons could be ruled ‘unworthy’ of citizenship, whether Germans in France or Jews in Germany or Bulgarians in Greece or Greeks and Armenians in Turkey. It became possible to suspend the rights of those deemed not to belong – and suddenly Europe was full of displaced people.

Today’s migrants are, certainly, from ‘there’. But they have emerged, he argues, just as surely from the history and unexamined corners of our own world view.

The government and the news-entertainment industry have between them generated the sense of ‘emergency’ which ‘justifies’ suspending the human rights of people who have committed no crime. Mad-dog journalism about asylum-seekers works just as well as terrorist attacks.

Agamben has his critics. Some wonder about his eurocentrism; others whether his version does not remove agency from those living inside the nightmare, leaving them no scope for resistance. Whereas, precisely through initiatives like AVID, they do.

There have been prisons on Portland since 1848. It isn’t the first time this ‘remote’ corner has been closely connected with larger questions about the way the world is run. After helping to start the Land League, the Fenian Michael Davitt, acknowledged by Gandhi as an inspiration, was imprisoned on the island in 1881, and voted in as MP for County Meath while there.

However embarrassing they may be to present power structures, human beings cannot, in reality, be excluded from history in this way. It doesn’t work. The stones of Portland know it, even if the Home Secretaries and the communications advisers do not.

i Survey by Matrix Evidence

Britain’s immigration debate stoked for political advantage

Daily Mail anti-immigrant headline

Scare-mongering headlines in the British press incite racism and hysteria. Gideon under a Creative Commons Licence

She is photographed kneeling demurely in a blue dress in the midst of an avalanche of envelopes. Each one is addressed ‘SAY NO TO NEW EU MIGRANTS / NEWS DESK / DAILY EXPRESS’. Blonde, blue-eyed, 22 perhaps, she holds up a random example and stares with a strange fixity at the reader. By a happy coincidence the standard second-class stamp in Britain is blue, so most of the letters are white with blue eyes too. Arranged next to this image are others, smaller, showing the Romanians and Bulgarians who are ‘taking over the West End [of London]’. These too are women: bare-footed crones, one of them on crutches, their backs turned. They wear black headscarves and black dresses and carry their possessions around in large black bin bags.

Such are the terms of the current ‘debate’ over immigration and it isn’t only Britain’s notorious ‘tabloids’. A former foreign secretary has helpfully predicted explosive outcomes in Sheffield, where the new arrivals are judged to behave disrespectfully. Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced that he is ‘sending a strong message’ by removing the right to out-of-work benefits before next January, when travel restrictions will be lifted on workers from Romania and Bulgaria. In fact an EU rule already ensures that any such benefits are paid by the home country to begin with, not the receiver country. Cameron’s ‘strong message’ turns out to be that he will play to the far-right gallery, or any other gallery, in return for votes.

The Romanian and Bulgarian governments claim there is no evidence that a massive exodus is imminent. To which the stock response is that the same was said 10 years ago, when working restrictions on Polish workers were removed and about half a million Poles moved to Britain, instead of the 12,000 predicted. But for now all that anybody knows is that nobody knows how many or how few will come.

While Cameron and others figure out how best to stoke and manage the hysteria for political advantage, and as EU Commissioners and BBC presenters earnestly rehearse the arguments on breakfast radio shows, I’m struck by the questions which never come up. Immigration from ‘new’ EU states is never discussed, for example, with any detailed reference to the ‘home countries’. The arrival of so many Poles after 2004, for example, is kept in a separate compartment from the disastrous ‘re-structuring’ after the collapse of Communism. Fifty-nine per cent of Poles were living below the poverty line in 2003. According to the World Bank, 40 per cent of young workers in Poland were unemployed in 2006.i Somehow this is (still) not viewed as relevant in the countries, principally Britain, to which so many Poles looked for an answer. What is it that these figures do not explain?

That is not a rhetorical question. A quadrupling of poverty levels and soaring youth unemployment were not the ‘freedoms’ Poles had in mind while they were carrying on their long struggle with a Moscow-backed Communist dictatorship. It wasn’t exactly capitalism in our sense of the term they wanted, either. The trade union which led that struggle, Solidarity, clearly stated that its aim was a mixed economy, with much of heavy industry remaining in state hands and many factories run as workers’ co-operatives. In this they had the support of a large majority of Poles. Washington had other ideas. It imposed re-structuring with the help of a compliant intellectual caste convinced that it was on the side of history.

In other words, if we are going to reduce this question to purely economic terms, let us at least attempt to tell the whole economic story, not just the local British one. Perhaps there is indeed cause for alarm, but perhaps that cause is not old women in black headscarves. What if the real cause is that the EU has come to serve too exclusively a particular version of capitalism?

Again, in the case of Romania now, how much discussion is there of the way pre-accession funds in that country served to sharpen inequalities?ii Of how little was made available for education? Of how much land, in a country where 40 per cent of the population still lives in the countryside, has been bought up by foreign companies? Will the tabloids shout from the roof-tops about that? The EU has consistently supported larger landowners at the expense of smallholders, triggering further rural poverty. This has played straight into the hands of the populist right, which duly passes its fury on to the Roma population. Is this irrelevant?

The sociologist David Ost has chronicled the way anger at rising inequality has been managed, in post-Communist Poland particularly, but elsewhere in the region tooiii. A similar approach might well be worth exploring in the context of current (West European) hysterics about migration. After all, those who point to declining living standards and pressure on jobs in Britain are not making it up. In Western Europe since the crash, as in Eastern Europe during the 1990s, serious criticism of capitalism is occasionally tolerated rather than fully included in the mainstream culture. Anger at what capitalism does must therefore find some other language. Ost argues that channelled along ethnic, cultural or religious fault-lines, this generates ‘movements of rage’. These serve to work off bad feeling but solve nothing because they by-pass the larger economic questions without which no full sense can be made of what is happening. If the post-1989 settlement in Europe essentially converted its eastern half into a reservoir of cheap labour for its western half, then that settlement should be replaced by a fairer one from which more people benefit.

To judge by much of the debate in Britain, this is a cultural issue too. These people must learn to ‘play by our rules’. Ost would see that as one more diversion, but that’s obviously not how it feels to those who explain the problem this way. So what happens if we take the cultural side of this at face value? What happens, for example, if we take the trouble to actually know something about it from the other side?

The Romanian case here is as instructive as any. Once again, the story is a longer one than the breakfast radio shows have time to tell. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels to the country in the 1930s continue to sell as well as ever they did in the run-up to Christmas. Romanian émigrés during the Cold War later supplied the West with some of its most distinguished writers and artists, and the West was only too happy, then, to play the generous host. The philosophers Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, the playwright Eugene Ionesco, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi were all Romanian. In Britain, Miron Grindea, born in a Moldovan village in 1910, ran his superb magazine, ADAM (Arts Drama Architecture Music), from his flat in London for 40 years from the 1940s to the 1980s.

How curiously absent writers and artists (and architects and musicians) are from the current debate. Can it be that this supply of talent abruptly dried up in 1989? Can it be that Romanians suddenly have no more stories worth telling? Or is it that their western neighbours no longer want to hear them? Again, these questions sound more rhetorical than they are. Perhaps philosophy or sculpture or absurdist theatre are a bit high-cultural, a bit passé? Can one reasonably expect, after all, in this day and age, serious publishers to translate Romanian writers?

All right. What about films then? Between 2000 and 2010, Romania chronicled its situation in a number of excellent films out of all proportion to the country’s size, never mind its GDP. These were, predictably, marketed as a ‘Romanian New Wave’. Their spare aesthetic was largely a function of the economic conditions in which they were produced. With no money for special effects or large studios, everything was down to the writing and the acting, the camera work and the direction. The world was reminded of how much films could still say without recourse to familiar faces or exotic locations or computer-generated imagery.

In fairness, if the ‘New Wave’ tag was meant as a reference to the realism of these films, it was not far wrong. They do indeed address very directly the concerns of the society from which they emerged. Do you think you’re worried about migration? Actually, they are too (Occident, 2002). You’ve heard worrying stories about organized begging? Try the blackest and funniest comedy you will ever see on the subject (Filantropica, 2002). Worried about our decaying health service? Stop blaming Romanians for it and watch The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). You might be surprised how much like us they are.

Not reassured? Still worried about immigration? It so happens some of the best people from the New Wave have just made a film all about it. I’m an Old Communist Hag (2013) also broaches the sensitive subject of nostalgia for Communism. It does so with a sly wit, and it does so by asking just the sort of questions our ladies and gentlemen of the Press so rarely get around to. It asks questions about memory, about how dreams, like economies, east and west, collapse. It asks about youth unemployment and the mirage of a better life out west.

These Romanian films were creating quite a stir just a few years back. But fashions fade. Causes cool. How quiet all those former enthusiasts for Europe have gone. Has that girl in a blue dress left them speechless? When I’m an Old Communist Hag recently received its first London screening, not one single British paper reviewed it. This sober and sobering film, about western and eastern delusions alike, could hardly have been more timely.

The film is, by the way, as stringent and as groovily made-on-a-shoe-string as any of its predecessors. But it does, you should be warned, include conversations about things that actually matter. Whatever you do over the next month, be sure not to see it. It's on at the Curzon Soho in London until 5 December.

i See Chapter nine of The Shock Doctrine, Noami Klein, Allen Lane, 2007

ii See p.354 Theft of a Nation – Romania Since Communism, Tom Gallagher, Hurst & Co., London, 2005

iii The Defeat of Solidarity – Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, Cornell University Press, 2005

Bringing the rainforest home

Feral front coverFeral begins with a recollection from Monbiot’s time in an illegal goldmine in Brazil 20 years ago. The glimpse he caught there, of the forest’s ‘trophic diversity’ and of the gangland atmosphere in his camp, clearly made a deep impression. He enjoyed both, whether or not he ‘should have’, and this book is an attempt to bring both of those insights home. To summarize a little unfairly: middle age, washing up and the school run are a drag. Let’s re-introduce wolves.

Dateable pollen from the Clwydian Hills recently provided the essential data from which this book sets out. Namely that the woodland which colonized Britain’s west coast at the end of the last Ice Age was rainforest, which can exist in temperate as well as tropical zones. Steadily cleared during the Neolithic, pockets of it survived as late as the medieval period. One or two of them still do.

The open upland areas we have learned to prize as ‘wilderness’, in other words, are nothing of the kind. They are the scenes of a human-made disaster. They should be ‘rewilded’, or fenced off and allowed to regenerate. In revering these landscapes we are the dupes of a colossal and collective failure of historical imagination. The proposed reintroduction of top predators like wolves will presumably generate most of the fuss around this book, but it really only follows from that earlier premise.

Monbiot is at pains to acknowledge the difficulties with this and all the wrong ways in which it could be (and has been) done. This readiness of his to face opponents’ arguments at their strongest is a likeable trait. He describes and interviews several people who do agree with him, but somewhere near this book’s core, for me, was his interview with Dafydd Morris-Jones, a young hill-farmer for whom ‘rewilding’ is a ‘post-Romantic ideology’. It would make of the Welsh uplands (his family’s home for generations) a visitor-attraction for outsiders, erasing the national, linguistic, religious and economic community to which Morris-Jones belongs. Monbiot claims at one point to be treating Wales as a ‘case study’. Morris-Jones’ response is, essentially, that people don’t live in ‘case studies’.

Soul-searching

This interview evidently caused Monbiot much soul-searching. Are the re-wilders not in an uncomfortable lineage, stretching back (at least) to the landlords who cleared the Scottish Highlands after Culloden? Any decision to re-wild, he counters, would be taken, in this instance, not by foreign or aristocratic overlords, but by the Welsh (or whoever) themselves. The economic basis of this kind of farming could also be maintained, in some instances, he argues, by tweaking the subsidy-system, allowing some farms to continue.

So far so sensible, but there’s an omission here that goes to the heart of what is wrong with this book. The national and economic questions have been addressed, but what about Morris-Jones’ linguistic or religious culture? We can maybe forgive Monbiot on the linguistic charge. But in recounting his high octane adventures in Brazil or East Africa, he is powerfully affected by ceremonies which were, for those directly involved, essentially religious. Isn’t there another ‘double-standard’ here?

We deplore deforestation in the Amazon basin, whilst marvelling at the wisdom traditions of its native peoples. Conversely, and perversely, surely, we delight in the ecological wastelands we (Europeans) have created at home, yet either deplore or ignore our own traditions. From the one (dismissive) mention of the Bible here you would never guess that it contains, among other things, some of the greatest nature poetry ever written. T S Eliot and R S Thomas were believers both. Setting tags from them as chapter-headings won’t do the work for you.

My argument here is not with rewilding in itself, but with the relative narrowness of the language Monbiot is using to persuade people. He would argue, I assume, that a fresh awareness of what, say, Wales was like as the ice sheets withdrew, the complexity and beauty of what was lost with those forests, that properly understood this might form the basis of something like a new spiritual vision. That idea contains the seed of something important, but he doesn’t allow it to germinate. His account of the Mesolithic site at Goldcliff, also in Wales (where human footprints are mixed with those of aurochs, wolf, crane, oystercatcher, heron) is one of the book’s best passages. But he launches from it into a purple passage, which he identifies as a ‘genetic memory’ breaking through.

Genetic memories

Heredity was being described as a form of unconscious memory well before genes were ever discovered (see Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit, 1878). But if this form of ‘memory’ is actually, or occasionally, conscious, then why is it so selective? Faced with a farmyard or a flock of sheep, Monbiot does not feel ‘genetic memories’ coming on, though the descendants of those who left their footprints at Goldcliff were rearing sheep within two or three thousand years, the merest ‘twinkling of an eye’ in evolutionary terms. It’ll be memes next.

I would recommend this book, though, not least as an antidote to much of what currently passes for the ‘Europe debate’. Feral is a brave attempt to find and grow here, and in the long term, the kind of environments and wildlife which are mainly available, at the moment, via air travel’s instant gratifications. Rewilding is indeed a ‘work of hope’, and much further advanced on the European continent than it is in Britain, from Romania and Croatia to Spain and Portugal.

As the first continent to lose its megafauna, Europe has perhaps a peculiar duty to examine what went wrong. Its record on attempted reintroductions is also a mixed one. Hermann Göring cleared the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland of its human population in order to restore the pristine forest of once upon a time. Monbiot is very thorough on the grim story of how rewilding has, thus far, actually happened. But the longer history of this surely worth exploring.

Britain is unusually reticent about rewilding: that it was the first country to industrialize may well, as Monbiot suggests, help to explain that. But across Europe the advent of science both triggered a massive population explosion and made available the means to destroy the last of these creatures and their habitats. Many thinkers have traced the crisis in modern human consciousness to ‘the Great Unsettling’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. To relocate the critical moment to the Mesolithic, as he sometimes appears to, is to place much of its implications beyond the reach of study. What we do know about the Mesolithic is very tantalizing, I agree. But we don’t know very much.

A more attentive engagement with more recent European culture might help in other ways. Göring’s crimes in Poland are easy to deplore in themselves, but his actions had their roots deep in the intellectual culture of his time. The Nazi Party enjoyed the support of major German thinkers who denied transcendence, vaunting ‘the biological’, ‘the mysterious urgings of the blood, the urgings of heredity and the past for which the body serves as an enigmatic vehicle’ (see Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer Part 3, 4.3, Stanford University Press 1998). The psychoanalyst Carl Jung noticed how many Germans seemed to be dreaming about lions and panthers and other dangerous big cats between the two world wars. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was struck, during the 1970s, by the way students would ‘shout out’ during readings, demanding the poems he had written about St Sava’s wolves. The English poet Ted Hughes, another curious omission from this book, once asked him what he thought that meant. Popa said he didn’t know, ‘but I fear – very bad things.’ (see ‘Poetry and Violence’ in Ted Hughes’ Winter Pollen, 1995).

The case Monbiot has made for rewilding is a strong one – and I haven’t even mentioned his excellent chapter on the sea, in which he reveals how little our ‘Marine Protected Areas’ really amount to. The terms in which he has chosen to make his case are narrower than they needed to be, that’s all.

Feral by George Monbiot (ISBN 9781846147487) is published in the UK this week.

What the surveillance culture will never see

man with binoculars
You are being watched... Gerlos under a CC LIcence
In November 2009 I hitch-hiked into the Correze, a  rural area in central southern France. Nine members of a community there, in the village of Tarnac, had been arrested and charged with ‘criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity’. I wanted to try to talk to them. You can read the article I wrote here.

Serious doubts had already then been expressed about the ‘evidence’ against them. It finally emerged last November that the arrests had in fact been made on the testimony of the British police spy Mark Kennedy. That it has taken the French authorities so long to reveal that their source was this reviled and utterly discredited figure is remarkable in itself. I also found myself reviewing my own experience there in the light of this new information.

I arrived in the village unannounced, soaking wet and very late. The reception was, as I had expected, cool at first. They had every reason to be wary of ‘journalists’ appearing out of nowhere with lists of questions. They must have felt even warier when, at 6am on my second day there, the police returned to arrest a 10th suspect. The camera crews and TV reporters were not far behind. They got their story, ate in the village’s only hotel and left.

The group gathered in their café that evening to see themselves on the news, to hear about the fate of their friend and eat together, to re-affirm their connectedness. To my surprise, I was invited to join in this party. There was some half-humorous ribbing about the British secret services and I naturally ask myself whether they already then knew who had informed on them.

After his exposure, Mark Kennedy hired the publicity agent Max Clifford. Interviews in the Daily Mail and a ludicrous documentary on Channel 4 followed as does the night the day. Indignant drooling over his serial affairs whilst undercover was the keynote of this tabloid reaction: ‘Unmasked as spy by beautiful Welsh red-head girlfriend’. Of the nine police spies ‘unmasked’ over the past two years, eight of them had engaged in sexual relationships with their ‘targets’. Ten women and one man are now taking the Metropolitan Police to court under the Human Rights Act, alleging, among other things, gross infringement of their right to a private life.

Claims in the media by senior policemen (and -women) that this tactic was never sanctioned clearly do not merit a response. The police are also now seeking to have these cases heard in a special secret court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Anyone would think they were worried about something. A recent ruling determined that some of the cases will indeed be heard in secret, of which more in a moment.

Kennedy also worked as an informer in Germany, where there have been protests in support of the 10 women, and where comparisons with the Stasi have been frequent. Lawyers and politicians are questioning Kennedy’s exact legal status. This was a foreign agent, apparently deployed with the complicity of the German state, to spy on its own citizens and also to commit arson.

The spectacle

The news that Kennedy also informed on the ‘Tarnac 10’ has naturally led to much comment in France. Here the emphasis is different again. As I described three years ago, some have seen in the experimental community in Tarnac the influence of Guy Debord. That his Society of the Spectacle appeared in 1967, and was required reading among the students who shut down Paris the following year, might seem to date him. It’s often forgotten that he published a sequel in 1988, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, which contains some very pertinent discussion about the role of the secret services.

‘The spectacle’, it will be recalled, was Debord’s name for postwar consumerism, though he traces its emergence to the 1920s. He saw in it a vast diversionary tactic whereby the prevailing economic order defends its interests in advance against any serious criticism. What the spectacle requires is a population which feels ‘indignant and helpless’. Nobody is more easily or more profoundly co-opted by it than those who make careers out of criticizing it. Such a writer (or reader) ‘might like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric, but he will use its syntax.’ Its language ‘is the one in which he learnt to speak’.

The purpose of the spectacle is to inject massive doses of incoherence into public and private life alike. It aims to bring about ‘an absence of logic, that is to say the loss of the ability immediately to perceive what is significant and what is insignificant, what is irrelevant…’ Its purpose is the abolition of meaning.

James Bond

It’s interesting that when the judge in the recent hearing found useful guidance in the character of James Bond, this didn’t feel nearly as strange as it manifestly was. Make enough money out of a series of films and experienced judges will cite the behaviour of its main character as amounting to a legal precedent. This kind of incoherence, and our complicity in it, is the spectacle in action.

Some have tried, more seriously, to explain the behaviour of the police in this case as protecting the interests of large energy companies, or as a form of intimidation. For some it’s a moral question about the private conduct of these officers. Others demand practical measures to bring about more accountable police institutions.

There’s value in all these approaches, no doubt, but perhaps Bristling Badger comes closest, in a recent posting, to what I have in mind here: ‘The set definitions [of rape or fraud] are for things we have ‘had’ to define. What happened to these women is so rare that we don’t actually have a familiar definition or name for what crime it is.’ I think this is basically right but misses a larger point.

Interviewed for a BBC radio programme, one of the climate activists now suing the police was at a loss to say what useful purpose this infiltration could have served. But what if the clue is precisely in the meaninglessness? When the spectacle, or capitalism, or the Daily Mail or whatever we choose to call it, serves up someone like Mark Kennedy as ‘hot news’, what is the real function of that story?

The spectacle must drive out any form of intelligence which seeks necessary change. For this it substitutes forms of ‘intelligence’ that only come close in order to monitor and analyse and then withdraw. So remember those 10 women and the Tarnac 10. Follow their cases closely. Support them. But Mark Kennedy in himself, and all his spooky friends, are not worth10 seconds of your time.

The community in Tarnac was also suspected of having written The Coming Insurrection (2007), a short book which argued that, for much of Europe and elsewhere, patience with the present order was wearing dangerously thin. Whoever wrote it, the book’s ‘theory’ has been amply confirmed. Its title was actually a nod to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (2001).

Influenced by Debord, and sharing his pessimism, Agamben has nonetheless argued that new forms of community, helped by the internet, are already forming. Their very uncertainty about how to proceed may not be the sign of weakness which the newspapers or the police see in them. In the ‘coming community’ he sees one which is seeking ways to render modern forms of power inoperative. ‘Without being tied to any property, by any identity’, it is indifferent to ready-made forms of belonging. He has openly backed the community at Tarnac against those who denigrate it.

I’d never heard of him before visiting Tarnac. It only occurs to me now that the act of putting on a meal, as they did that evening, and inviting a stranger they weren’t quite sure about – refusing to be suspicious – perhaps that said as much about their true purpose as anything that was literally ‘said’ around that table. But there is no microphone or camera, concealed or other, which could have ‘recorded’ the spirit in which that trust was extended to me. The surveillance culture can see so many things which aren’t actually there. What’s meant by a gathering like that passes it completely by.

Britain's town centres: let battle commence!

In the southern English county of Dorset, a short walk from Bridport town centre, the St Michael’s Trading Estate doesn’t, at first, look like much. The local industry (rope-making) moved out in the 1960s. The range of buildings left behind came to be managed by a socialist landlord who let the old factories as low-rent start-up units. His son still manages it. This is where Clippers Tea started, as well as Top Gear, a supplier of car parts. Still based nearby, these are now national companies. The biggest homeware store on the town’s high street also started here. It’s still home to many businesses, a youth club, artists’ studios, an antique market and a popular café.

In the current assault on the real economy, town centres everywhere have woken up to find themselves on the frontline

You might think plans to build more than a hundred dwellings on such a site, in the middle of the worst slump in 80 years, would be doomed. And the proposal was indeed rejected unanimously by the Town Council and by 98 per cent of those who responded to the consultation. The District Council’s own Planning Officer strongly recommended refusal, not least because of the impact on employment.

At a meeting held 17 miles away on a weekday afternoon, a so-called Development Control Committee waved the proposal through. Its most vociferous supporter excused himself from questions on the grounds that his deaf-aid wasn’t working. None of the other members was able to explain their decision. The hearing broke up in disarray.

Turning a deaf ear

This is how decision-making works on the ground in one of the world’s oldest and boldest exporters of ‘democracy’. Until recently I might have hesitated to draw larger conclusions from what is happening a five-minute walk from where I’m typing this. Independence Day put me right about that. Organized by a group fighting Tesco in Frome, Somerset, the event brought together businesspeople, writers and activists to start co-ordinating a response to what is happening in Britain’s town centres.

The British high street is under threat from out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets.

sermoa under a CC Licence

Because local government seems to be having trouble with its deaf-aid right across the country. The more we talked, the more there emerged a mysterious pattern to the way councils are experiencing this difficulty in hearing what people tell them. Unglamorous they may be, but in the current assault on the real economy, town centres everywhere have woken up to find themselves on the frontline.

And yet Independence Day was at its heart an affirmative event. The real conversation was about what the economy is for and what it means, now, to like the places where we live. Andrew Simms, author of Tescopoly, spoke about the common ‘background of values’ against which our different cases are being played out. Our economy understands value solely as maximizing return to the developer and / or remote shareholders. Mention of other values is met with polite (or not-so-polite) apologies as those who manage and maintain this system fumble with their deaf-aids.

What if an economy is really there to create and sustain livelihoods? As one manufacturer back in Bridport put it to me: ‘This place is a reality-check for the town. People make things here. If I want a metal bracket I don’t go online. I go to the guy who can make it, I get exactly what I want, and know I’m supporting somebody local.’ Local businesses, as Simms puts it, ‘build the micro-weave of your economy, making it denser, tougher, more vibrant.’

Our economy understands value solely as maximizing return to the developer and / or remote shareholders

The new capitalism, by contrast, chooses a moment like this to set about unpicking that weave, to scatter, erode. Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing, spoke to independent booksellers, grocers and café owners, all of whom are experiencing pretty much what he saw with independent music shops. The knowledge and social glue they all provide, their modest but longterm income, the face-to-face interactions, the personal relationships that are formed, all this is subtracted from the new business model. Places, it turns out, are not to mean anything to anybody any more.

Psychological resilience

Yet most people, given the chance, would prefer to live and work in a place they like. This is only natural. It’s also the reason why developers can only get their way by spending fortunes on publicity and quoting selectively from ‘studies’ they themselves have funded. It’s why the developer invariably runs some laughable campaign claiming that its scheme will boost employment and increase the ‘vitality and viability’ of the town centre. It’s why they have to buy supplements in the local press. It’s why developers have to (and regularly do) use case law to intimidate communities which resist them. It’s also why they launch personal attacks on the individuals who do so.

What all of this (very poorly) disguises is that the economic model being imposed on towns all over this country is chronically deficient in what human beings actually need. So in place of small-scale manufacturing with a future: a retirement and tourism economy with property speculation. ‘That’s just the way things are going.’ In the place of high-street businesses: charity shops, takeaways and funeral parlours. In the place of jobs in design, book-keeping, buying and selling stock, plumbing and maintenance – all of which a local business would source locally – dead-end shelf-stacking jobs and managers brought in from outside.

When supermarkets are cheaper it’s because someone else is being made to pay

Because what this ‘economy’ seeks above all is to undermine the psychological resilience people derive from being from somewhere. Just as it financially cannibalizes the communities from which it extracts its profits, so it feeds on the resulting disillusionment and apathy. ‘Supportive apathy is our worst enemy’, as Joanna Blytheman put it in discussion with her fellow journalist John Harris. ‘You know: I agree with you really but there’s nothing to be done.’ So in place of the cheap, fresh, nutritious fruit and vegetables which your local grocer supplies (Blytheman suggests people go and check before they rubbish that claim), a consumer-industrial complex plying us with advertising and over-priced goods, the inferior nutritional value of which was long ago exposed. As was the ruination of soils and rural livelihoods, by the contracts the big stores use to ensnare farmers. When supermarkets are cheaper it’s because someone else is being made to pay. Whether that’s a farmer five miles away or the smallholder in East Africa evicted from their living so that we can have roses all year round.

John Harris spoke of the built environment as a part of our identity, whether or not the value of such attachments can be measured by some accountant. He wasn’t opposed to supermarkets in themselves – he uses them, as we all do. ‘We have to transcend the No – to be not so much against this or that, but for town centres which are about being and making and doing, not just consuming.’

Ideas like this have yet to penetrate the deaf-aids set in authority over us. Perhaps somebody might like to switch them on. Because to those treacherous, well connected incompetents who currently operate the planning system, Independence Day had this to say: the spirit which informed UK Uncut and the Occupy movement is far from dissipated. It is liable to crop up in the unlikeliest places. And some of it has been doing homework on the way you arrive at your decisions.

Cometh the moment, cometh the movie: Paul Goodman Changed My Life

A protester outside St Paul’s: ‘There’s a reason why it’s called a depression, what we’ve got now. This isn’t a “recession”. Look around you at the faces in any small town, or any big town. It’s a depression. That’s what this system does to you and that’s why I’m here. I’m in a trap. Say you take home £400 [US$650] a week. By the time you’ve paid your rent, your rates, your food, utility bills, fuel – what have you got? £40 [$65], if you’re lucky. What can you do with that? I only work for cash in hand and there’s loads like me. I’m from the cash-in-hand generation.’


 Promotional poster from Zeitgeist Films

The camp in Zuccotti Park was just over a month old when a film opened in an independent non-profit cinema nearby. The film struck several reviewers as uncannily well-timed, but Paul Goodman Changed My Life took first-time director Jonathan Lee eight years to make. This is filmmaking learnt through doing – and through a passionate engagement with its subject, too. One reviewer reflected that ‘this marvellous documentary could certainly tell [the Occupy Wall Street protesters] a thing or three about what to do, as well as think.’

I haven’t been to Zuccotti Park but I didn’t meet any protesters outside St Paul’s who want to be ‘told what to do, as well as think’, exactly. Still, the talks and films in the Occupy LSX ‘Tent City University’ are well attended. Let’s assume for a moment that reviewer was right: what ‘thing or three’, then, might Goodman have told the protesters in New York or in London?

Growing up absurd

Goodman came to prominence in 1960 with a book called Growing Up Absurd. Originally commissioned at a time of youth unrest in the US, its analysis of why the young were so disaffected struck an immediate chord. The civil rights, student and anti-war movements of the 1960s were, for Goodman, all part of a single ‘crisis of legitimacy’. ‘What the American young do know, since they themselves are pushed around, itemized and processed, is that they have a right to a say in what affects them; that is, they believe in democracy, which they have to call ‘participatory democracy’, to distinguish it from double-talk democracy.’

He traced the development of this ‘double-talk democracy’ back to a betrayal of the original American idea. That idea had been authentic self-government for American people, as understood from the beginning by Thomas Jefferson. The same idea – and who was included in the term ‘American people’ – would be updated by Abraham Lincoln a century later, then once again a century after that, by Martin Luther King. Goodman always insisted, to the infuriation of his fellow-radicals, that he was an ‘American patriot’. The America he remained loyal to was that project of thorough-going liberation, through participatory democracy, with which it began.

‘My own persisting opinion,’ he wrote, ‘is that the only remedy for anomie is to give people more power to act effectively, and so to recreate morale and develop morals. This means at present to build into technology, urbanism, communications, politics, education a strong admixture of decentral organization, in which people can initiate, decide, and co-operate.’ His preferred economics were, accordingly, those of Adam Smith in their pure form, with their ideal companies ‘competing in a free market without monopoly’. It was called anarchic in its time, because it offered ‘a model of decentralist co-ordination, as opposed to the centralized system of mercantilism, royal patents, and monopolies it replaced’.

The modern US, with its ‘baronial corporations’ and advertising and war economy, was to Goodman a disastrous abandonment of that original idea. This had, and has, consequences – as that protester I began with saw so clearly – which run from the most elementary economic questions through to the psychological well-being of every one of us. In the rebelliousness of the young, Goodman thought he detected an awareness of this larger historic betrayal.

‘In their own action organizations the young are almost fanatically opposed to top-down direction… When left to their own improvisation the students seem surprisingly able to mount quite massive efforts, using elaborate techniques of communication and expert sociology.’

Newspeak and double-talk

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a protester helping to set up the power supply for the camp outside St Paul’s. An electrical engineer, what interested him about Occupy LSX was less its discussions about economics, though he had participated in those. He saw the camp primarily as an opportunity to connect small green businesses (say, providers of solar-powered lighting systems) with the sort of investors at whose doorsteps they are now camped.

Occupy London protest by Alan Denney

Occupy London protest. Photo by Alan Denney under a CC Licence.

Having himself worked in resource management for several banks, he had robust views of his own about the bigger economic picture. He didn’t think that any new regulation was needed: ‘The regulations already existed, even before 2008. They were just ignored. This is a legal issue: nothing will change until the people who were running those banks are prosecuted for fraud.’

That steely note of realism about how to actually effect change isn’t everywhere outside St Paul’s but then it doesn’t need to be everywhere – the camp is serving many different purposes. It is important though. As we’ve seen, Goodman talked up decentralizing at any and every opportunity, but he also realized, having studied and written at length about urban planning, that you can’t decentralize everything. Air-traffic control? Urban water supply? Efforts to control pollution? All of these work best on a scale which requires centralized planning. Food production, education, culture, scientific invention and most kinds of business – these, by contrast, for Goodman, were much better left to relatively small self-organizing groups.  

But how to get a sensible discussion about the right mix? The official conversation isn’t working any better now than it was then. ‘It cannot be denied that our dominant society is unusually inauthentic. Newspeak and double-talk are the lingua franca of administrators, politicians, advertisers, and mass media. Such people are not even lying; rather, there is an unbridgeable divide between the statements made for administrative reasons or the image of the corporation and what is intended and actually performed.’ That ‘unbridgeable divide’, between what governments and corporations say and what they actually intend and then do, has been re-discovered the hard way by a new generation. The camp’s attempt to weld the saying and the meaning back together again has proved very popular. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.

Paternoster Square

They have certainly chosen the right spot for this discussion. The London Stock Exchange is housed in a relatively unassuming office block situated, as all the world is now aware, immediately next to St Paul’s Cathedral. When Paternoster Square was closed to the protesters in mid-October, it was on the grounds that public access to the square had been revoked by the square’s ‘owner’. You might assume that owner, given the City’s antiquity, to be some duke or other, but it is the Mitsubishi Corporation – and the square in its present form has only existed since 2003.

At its centre stands a tall classical column set on a high platform. It has something like a large gilded pineapple at the top, from which item of tropical fruit rise large gilded flames. This column dates from 2008 and people have naturally sought to read some meaning into this focal point of the square. The architect, William Whitfield, has insisted that it isn’t a monument to anything – no historical reference is intended. The unusually high platform actually serves to conceal the ventilation shaft for a service road which runs beneath it.

Paternoster Square and St Paul's by Francesco Gasparetti

Pasternoster Square and St Paul's. Photo by Gaspa under a CC Licence

To build a square at the highest point of the City of London – an area continuously occupied for more than 2,000 years – and place at its centre a monument to absolutely nothing shows real determination. I hereby offer my own interpretation of that column: it is a suitably gilded monument to 2008 and wilful amnesia. This hill-top fairly teems with the memory of arguments past about what it means to be a human being. Some of them might surely play a part in the current discussion. Goodman mobilized the original purpose of the American Revolution for the purposes of his own decade. But he also came to feel that the crisis of legitimacy, in particular the nascent environmental movement, represented a wider shift in attitudes, or a ‘New Reformation’. ‘The times are like 1510,’ he wrote in what would be his last book.  

That analogy feels as if it is making a comeback around Paternoster Square at the moment. As well it might. A Dean of St Paul’s, the great Renaissance scholar John Colet, was summoned here in 1512, by King Henry VIII, to address the Bishops on how the Lollard heretics should be suppressed. The Lollards were a loose religious grouping, highly critical of the church’s wealth and hierarchical nature. Expected to denounce them, Colet instead delivered a stinging rebuke to the materialism, greed and ambition of the Bishops, and for good measure went on to criticize the King’s war-mongering foreign policy.

In the next century it was another Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, who wrote perhaps the most memorable evocation ever penned of what it means to be involved in the human community: ‘No man is an island entire and of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were…’

While we’re on the subject of islands, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published in a building where Paternoster Square now stands. And it was Defoe, again, in a book about his travels around Britain, who noted that the architect of St Paul’s, Sir Christopher Wren, originally wanted to build his great cathedral roughly where the Stock Exchange is now. He was prevented by vested interests.

There could not, in short, be a better way, or a better place, than General Assemblies on the steps of St Paul’s for our current re-think. Paternoster Square can opt for amnesia and meaningless pomposity: we are not obliged to follow suit. And neither, obviously, are we obliged to restrict ourselves to any particular precedent. Activists from Cairo have given talks. There have been the link-ups with Syria. I had a fascinating conversation with a young British Asian writer at the book table about how India’s constitution was drawn up in 1947.

How these protests will be interpreted, and what they will achieve, is entirely up to whoever wishes to participate. Paul Goodman enriched the discussion of his own day by bringing to it a carefully thought out version of how human beings and their communities actually function best.

The TV and the newspapers and the politicians can and no doubt will make of Occupy LSX whatever they wish. That’s their own business.

Director Jonathan Lee will be present at five UK screenings of Paul Goodman Changed My Life between 20 and 23 November:

20 November, Marsh Barn, Bridport, 8pm

21 November, The Cube Cinema, Bristol, 8pm

22 November, Magdalen College, Oxford, 8pm

23 November, Goldsmith’s College, Room RHB-143, London, 10am

23 November, University of Sussex, Fulton B, Brighton, 6pm

Horatio Morpurgo’s most recent book, Lady Chatterley’s Defendant & Other Awkward Customers (Just Press) includes a more general introduction to Paul Goodman’s thought, ‘Unblocking the Future’.

Tarnac and the Echoes

When you want to shoot the dog, you say it bit somebody – French proverb

Or, in this case, you say there is compelling evidence, which unfortunately you cannot make public, that the dog was just about to start thinking about biting somebody. The ‘Tarnac Affair’ has just celebrated its first birthday. This is, for now, largely un débat franco-français, a story followed little outside the French-speaking world. It is likely for several reasons to start attracting a wider audience.

This may not sound like very terroristic behaviour, but do not be deceived. The French State wasn’t. Some 700 hectares around the village were sealed off by local police at dawn on the day of the arrests, before 150 armed, door-smashing and balaclava-wearing specialists went in after the dangerous criminals

The first reason relates to the case itself. Of the nine young people arrested under anti-terror legislation in November 2008, five were then imprisoned. The last of them was released six months later but all are still awaiting trial. They are charged with ‘criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity’, specifically with an attempted sabotage of the high-speed rail network in eastern France.

The suspects belong to a loose grouping which settled in and around a small village in the Limousin region of central France, called Tarnac. They collectively run a small farm there and when the owners of the last shop in the village announced their retirement these young people took it over, together with the attached bar and restaurant. They fixed up a projector in the bar to show films. They deliver groceries by van to the surrounding hamlets and farmsteads. Their children have saved the village school from threatened closure.

This may not sound like very terroristic behaviour, but do not be deceived. The French State wasn’t. Some 700 hectares around the village were sealed off by local police at dawn on the day of the arrests, before 150 armed, door-smashing and balaclava-wearing specialists went in after the dangerous criminals. The military style of the operation extended to its timing as well: this was the morning of 11 November 2008. The dead of two world wars are remembered all over Europe on that morning, and the ceremonies which mark the occasion in every village in this part of France have a very particular significance.

Early resistance

The thickly wooded plateau in which Tarnac is situated was at the very centre of the earliest resistance to Nazi occupation. The area is also home to a long-standing rural communist tradition, from which that resistance movement initially arose. This is a fact which lay for many years uneasily on the conscience of the consumer-democracy installed in France after the war, and in the Limousin at least it is still not forgotten. The resistance here began by reorganizing agricultural production and was of course labelled a ‘terrorist organization’ by the occupiers for its pains. We will perish if the echo of their voices dies away, as one poet put it. Goons in bovver-boots and balaclavas are well advised to do a little reading before they start sealing off villages and rounding up ‘terrorists’ in a place like this.

You begin to see perhaps what is being played out symbolically in this remote village, and why the French media has been so transfixed by it. The story marked its first birthday by taking an even more shivery turn: a respected magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, has openly suggested, along with lawyers and politicians, that the main piece of evidence against these people was fabricated by the police, and that the witness 'X' who testified against them was manipulated. The police for their part marked the anniversary by breaking down yet another door at 6.30 am and holding a distraught four year old at gun-point while his father was arrested on the same terror charges as his mother had been the year before. Both sides are still raising the stakes.

Echoes of the past

So much for the Tarnac Affair and its continuing twists and turns. There are other reasons for paying attention to it. The ‘echoes’ it has put back in circulation are actually many and various. The writings of Guy Debord and the ‘situationists’ of 1968 have been invoked as a key influence on this rural co-operative. And just as there are policemen who specialize in breaking down unlocked doors, so there are their political and journalistic colleagues who specialize in name-calling. These bar-staff, shop-keepers and small-holders have, accordingly, found themselves described as ‘ultra-leftists’ or ‘autonomous anarchists’ or connected to the violent Action Directe movement of the 1970s and 1980s. For those I spoke to, it was not at all clear what these terms might mean as applied to them. Others see a link with the rioting of disaffected youth in the suburbs of Paris and other cities in 2005.

The affair has been connected in the public mind with a book, too, of which the English translation, The Coming Insurrection, appeared in July 2009. Written by a self-styled ‘Invisible Committee’, the people I spoke to in Tarnac had mostly read it – as have many young French people – but denied having written it. All had criticisms of it. Different criticisms, I might add. The book itself speaks of having been written ‘by’ the present situation, economic and political. Its anonymity is above all a gesture of defiance towards that inane star system which now characterizes every aspect of western culture, the media in particular.

Just as there are policemen who specialize in breaking down unlocked doors, so there are their political and journalistic colleagues who specialize in name-calling

This system was already, for Guy Debord and the situationists, a symptom of late capitalist nihilism. In his Society of the Spectacle (1967) the plethora of images, personalities and ‘news’ to which we are now subjected forms only part of a wider hollowing out of any culture subjected to the full rigour of the market. This spectacle ‘takes on an independent existence’ and becomes ‘the ruling order’s defence’, a reign of appearances under which no ‘central question’ can any longer be openly and honestly posed. To those who dissent from it ‘the spectacular system reacts… with incomprehension or attempts to misrepresent them’.

And they have had journalists up to here at Tarnac. The experience of being interviewed, then finding what you said totally absent from what you later read or hear, has only confirmed suspicions about the extent to which the media now refers to anything beyond itself. The welcome I received, nonetheless, was a generous, if at first a guarded, one.

Where is the group-think?

I saw people working together but I heard, if anything, rather less group-think than I hear, say, in my home town. Arriving here from elsewhere, with a variety of motives, some conflicting, trying a commune at first, finding it difficult, improvising new arrangements which seem to work better… It seemed to me they are trying above all to ask joined-up questions about the way we live now and answer them in a joined-up way, too, with the whole of their lives. Talk climate catastrophe less, find a place you want to live and work in more, with a history you identify with. Rummage about in the past for examples that still have some mileage in them, look clearly at the world around you for clues as to where it might be headed.

It seemed to me they are trying above all to ask joined-up questions about the way we live now and answer them in a joined-up way, too, with the whole of their lives

So far as I could tell, their crime is to be attempting to live co-operatively in a culture which now regards such attempts as inherently suspicious. Why would middle-class kids with education (some of them), a bit of money (some of them) choose to live in the middle of nowhere, make their own entertainment and fix their own electrics? Why don’t they want to be millionaires or celebrities or astronauts, like normal people? There must be something else going on.

That said, I heard objections as much to the way they are sentimentalized by those in ‘sympathy’ with them, as to the distortions of those hostile to them. It’s as if their experiment has unwittingly hit some funny-bone in our present condition, such that the legal and media representations of them cannot help becoming parodies of themselves. One of their number, Julien Coupat, is either vilified as the sinister ring-leader or hailed as a kind of intellectual pin-up, depending on whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’. Both views, as both he and others have insisted, are derived from a misreading of their intentions that is ‘spectacular’ in both senses.

This fiasco is instructive, I think, well beyond its immediate context. Try to join up what you really think with the way you live if you like. But do so, now, in the knowledge that the attempt will provoke at best an abstract support, bafflement more likely, at worst hysteria. The Tarnac experiment suggests that these are all any of us can expect until we each agree to install the machinery of permitted consumption at the centre of our lives. Until we think, that is, and want, and do, whatever the billboards and the television tell us to.

Merci à Monsieur Plazanet pour ‘le bon proverbe français’.

Global warming and the King’s Arms pub

On a brilliant April afternoon clouds of stone-flies, just hatched out of the river which runs through Downton, England, are winging to and fro along its main street. Rather weak flyers, they prefer crawling feverishly about on any vegetation they happen to collide with in their aerial wanderings. Stone-flies need clean chalk streams to breed in, so their emergence amounts to a clean bill of health for this stretch of the Wiltshire Avon.

But it isn’t the stone-flies that bring me to Downton. It’s the pub, in which the beer is very good. But that isn’t what I’m here for either. In the main bar of the King’s Arms a glass panel has been placed over one section of wall to display its internal structure. It is of ‘wattle and daub’ – nothing unusual – hazel, ash and willow branches woven between uprights, then plastered over.

Hazel ‘wattles’ from these walls have recently been examined by Dr Rebecca Yahr, a research biologist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Yahr has been making some remarkable discoveries lately. If a 14th century building like the King’s Arms is inhabited continuously – that is to say, if it is kept dry – the lichens which were growing on the hazel wands now embedded in its walls are still readily identifiable, with a microscope and the right person looking down it.

*Everyday language*

Lichens, of course, are excellent ‘environmental indicators’. Growing mainly on rocks and trees, depending on the atmosphere rather than soil for their nutrients, they are highly sensitive to changes in its composition. It turns out, then, that these buildings kept their own record of pre-industrial England’s air quality.

Which raises some very present-tense questions. References to ‘pre-industrial levels’ of this or that component of our atmosphere are by now part of everyday language. We rarely stop, however, to examine the implications of that phrase – not only scientific but historical, even philosophical. In a place like Downton, such reflections come naturally and have, I think, been neglected thus far in environmental debates, to their detriment.

The traditional role of intellectuals has been connecting – with people and places, to be sure, but not only. The philosopher Mary Midgley, for example, sees ancient Greece as a world growing ever more complicated: drama, mathematics, politics, history, poetry, anthropology – each was developing into its own specialized expertise. Philosophy arose as a skill that would set these divergent spheres of life in a pattern, as ‘the general clearing-house for resolving disputes by relating different kinds of thought’.

‘Man,’ as she has put it, ‘is a social being and a part of the fauna of this planet. When the architects of our present ethics were campaigning for individual liberty, this did not need saying. It could safely be taken for granted. Today, with the damage which unrealistic individualism is doing both to the physical life of the planet and to the personal happiness of individuals, it does need saying.’

*Nogoodboyos*

But who is saying it? ‘Freedom’ continues to equate with energy-obesity: clearly the assumptions behind that freedom need bringing up to date. But how many writers on the environment now, seeking the bubble reputation through remotest Wiltshire to climate talks in Bali and back again, find time to resolve the problems they report on ‘by relating different kinds of thought’?

There are other public intellectuals of this older stamp around. Warning: they tend to be, at best, ambivalent about environmentalism. I want to look at two of them, to ask why, and what we might learn from them anyway. Frank Furedi and Roger Scruton are usually defined by reference to their activities in the 1980s – summarized as: Furedi founds Revolutionary Communist Party while Scruton praises Thatcher in The Times. A right pair of nogoodboyos.

What their critics miss is that both were formed also – and crucially – by a wider intellectual context. Furedi watched his father participate in the Workers Council during the 1956 uprising in Budapest. His quarter of the city was wrecked by the Soviet Army. He was a student in Montreal by the time he attended his first political protest: against the fraternal assistance being meted out, Russian-style, this time to the Czechs.

So when the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke decried the French Revolution he was, for Furedi – now a Professor of Sociology – attempting to shut down the most inalienable human right of them all: the right to be master of our own circumstances. Through his memory of how Hungarians stood tall during those 10 days of genuine self-determination in 1956, through ‘the sense of possibility’ he felt in 1968, his quarrel with Burkean reaction continues. It is there too in his view of environmentalism as locked into a backward-looking and fear-driven narrative.

*Controversialists*

For environmentalists, obsessing over one prediction after another, it can feel a little strange – indeed, it is a little strange – to find ourselves characterized as people with no – correction, the wrong kind of – interest in the future. For several of Furedi’s colleagues at the website he helped to found – spiked.com – the legacy of the Enlightenment would seem to be best served by arguing that climate science might look like science to the unwary but it isn’t really. It can’t be, because it is now lending some plausibility to a view of the future which has been ruled inadmissible in advance.

What Furedi thinks about Edmund Burke isn’t ‘academic’. Intellectuals defeat an opponent’s argument by beginning with its strongest points. It is controversialists who pick on the weakest arguments of their opponents so as to achieve, with a minimum of time and effort, the appearance of a victory over them. Furedi’s version of the Enlightenment Project may be puzzling, but it is clearly a belief he holds in good faith.

Roger Scruton, prominent derider of 1968, again argues by reference to eighteenth century thought. ‘The mere “contract between the living” is a contract to squander the earth’s resources for the benefit of its temporary residents,’ he writes – echoing Edmund Burke, whose ideas he, unlike Furedi, applauds. Scruton seems happiest evoking those traditions and imaginative ties which bind us to both the dead and the unborn, to a locality. Environmentalists who can’t be doing with that Tory Scruton should read his account of Patocka’s underground lectures on ‘The Natural World’. These didn’t just report on the damage being done but attempted to explain our troubled relationship with that world. They found an explanation buried deep in the Greek idea of tekne (techne) and in the way this continues to affect our civilization. From awareness of what ‘techne’ has now grown into, arises our ‘care’ for the natural world and a re-discovery of what it might mean to ‘dwell’ in a landscape.

*Climate camp*

Which brings me to why I think this matters. At the climate camp opposing a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport last August, a banner reading ‘We Are Armed Only with Peer-Reviewed Science’ led the march. But were we? Many were local residents who didn’t want their homes demolished – and neither would I. Of those there to make a more general point, it would have been fairer to say: we know what has been written by people who are, we hope, the best-informed and most scrupulous in their field. ‘Look at the full range of the IPCC’s predictions and decide for yourself whether London needs more runways’ was our message.

That’s a legitimate position – indeed, it is one of only two positions available to people who aren’t themselves climate scientists: either this problem could be really serious and needs addressing, or it definitely isn’t, so the more runways the merrier – this latter being now the British Government’s official position in practice.

Harmondsworth is one of the villages which would be made uninhabitable by a third runway at Heathrow. As we entered it, a unit of riot police appeared from nowhere and deployed in the road ahead of us. I am no veteran of such protests, so perhaps it is only a measure of my ignorance, but that black phalanx positioning itself between ourselves and the village pub was more puzzling than frightening. The MP for that part of Middlesex was with us: we waited at a crossroads while he negotiated.

So I had time to observe the opposition to us before it exited stage right, at a trot. There was something about riot police being deployed ‘in defence’ of a village about to be devastated, something about those Perspex visors and long-shields lined up against a back-drop of Dream England, which just did not compute. Police defending ‘the right’ of this settlement to disappear? Whose ‘right’ is that? We’re back with Midgley.

Our goal attained, we stood on the village green, or sipped drinks outside the pub. The writer George Monbiot and the MP, standing in front of a row of Elizabethan cottages, gave speeches about the planned airport expansions, about the orchards which once covered this part of England. Apparently the breeder of the first Orange Pippin apple tree was buried next to the village’s medieval church, behind them and to the right.

*Mysterious occasion*

This occasion was all the more mysterious to me because of the porch on that church. I had never been in Harmondsworth before, but I recognized it immediately: it’s the porch my grandparents still stand outside in their wedding photograph. I knew they lived nearby for a while but had never asked myself where they married – why would I? Realizations like that show just how rapidly such places are accelerating away from us into meaninglessness. Those riot police were there to defend ‘our’ right to trash places like this, whether ‘we’ actually want to trash them or not.

Of course, most English people don’t live in villages. A village green is a symbol: of the way a particular landscape was settled; of that freedom of association and speech which its people are proud to enjoy. Yes, we need peer-reviewed science, and the detail about the planned airport expansions. But we need everything that places like Harmondsworth, or Downton, intrinsically mean as well. We need the cultural confidence to give the right weighting to each of these.

Frank Furedi might have seen in this gathering further evidence of soft-headed, irrationalist tendencies in the culture around him. I imagine Roger Scruton slipping through police lines to have a quiet look round the church perhaps, muttering about environmentalism’s ‘capture by the left’.

It’s a pity neither of them was there: it might have been just the occasion to argue differences from first premises, for once; to go beyond the system of gratuitous controversialism and governmental steam-rolling which we have at present. There is still time for a civilization – if that is what we are – energized by the findings of its best scientists, to search its entire cultural repertoire for answers adequate to the scale of this question. We’re going to need everything we’ve got.

*Horatio Morpurgo* is a regular contributor to the New Internationalist. Thanks are due to Joe Hope and Rebecca Yahr for their assistance with this article.

Hold Everything Dear – Dispatches on Survival and Resistance

book cover

‘The eternal,’ according to Spinoza, ‘is now’, and this book is John Berger writing to the moment. The ‘dispatches’ collected in it exemplify a rare, because brave, form of journalism. They are a way of taking history personally.

‘The present period of history is one of the Wall,’ he writes, for example. ‘When the Berlin one fell, the prepared plans to build walls everywhere were unrolled. Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls… The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to healthcare. They exist in the richest metropolises in the world…’

Written between 2002 and 2006, there are notes on a visit to the Palestinian Territories and on the America that now offers the world ‘shock and awe’. The fiction of Andrei Platonov, still little known outside Russia, is explored, as are the work of the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and the music of Dvorák. A film of Pasolini’s, never publicly shown, is reviewed 40 years after it was made.

‘[Berger] writes about what is important, not just interesting,’ Susan Sontag observes in the blurb and her distinction is, now more than ever, to the point. We ‘can choose within ourselves,’ he writes, ‘which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.’

It is this unflinching internalization of the bigger picture which makes this kind of writing different. Read Berger attentively for how much more words can do.

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