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ADOLESCENCE [image, unknown] Reviews

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Body-popping is more than a teenage dance fad: it makes a political statement. We find out more in a film that brings home the street-dancers’ message. And we review an anthropologist’s search for a society that survives without a ruler.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Street dance politics

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Political dance movie
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[image, unknown] My kids dragged me off, mildly protesting, to the cinema last week to see a teenage film called Breakdance. I expected to be marginally entertained by the ‘body-popping and breaking’ and terminally bored by the plot.

Not so. Like War Games, which sounded like a film about computers and turned out to be an unambiguous call for nuclear disarmament, Breakdance too has a clear and urgent political message, expressed through a competition between two kinds of dancing.

The first kind is represented by Franco: lean, mean, always talking about discipline and training. He is far more than a character - he exemplifies an ideology. White, élitist and chauvinistic, he stands for the pursuit of excellence and old-style ‘masculinity’: a guru figure, a master, a ‘real man’ who bullies, flatters, manipulates with his sexual and professional power to get his own way. And his own way is the way to the top - that is, to recognition and reward from the rest of society as ‘the best’. His addiction to perfection sets him apart from society. That’s where he wants to be - apart, as long as that means above, everyone else. But above is a lonely place: to get there means sacrificing human needs, repressing especially the need for contact. So he tries to force a pupil from his dance-class, Kelly (the teenage heroine), to be up there with him.

Confronting him are the street kids. They sweep up in grocery stores after closing time. They can’t afford - and don’t need - expensive lessons: they’re taught themselves to dance in their own style. Orlando is our hero, black and beautiful, but with a warmth and vulnerability that the cold Franco denies. He too wants to do it ‘his way’, but he’s not imposing it on anyone. Nor is he interested in middle-class approval. His way isn’t élitist: everyone is eligible. Orlando shows Kelly how street dancing too can be excellent - without being exclusive. They watch a disabled boy with the emaciated legs of a polio victim dance flamboyantly with his crutches - and then throw his crutches away, and continue to dance. The crowd cheers, not out of patronising kindness, but out of genuine enthusiasm: the boy does dance wonderfully. The fact that he can never be ‘perfect’ in physique, in Franco’s terms, doesn’t matter. He is a marvellous dancer on his own terms. He demonstrates that imperfection doesn’t mean a loss of ‘standards’ - what he does is to call into question what those famous standards actually stand for. Do they stand for bringing out the best in everyone - or of holding out a pre-set idea of ‘the best’ and fitting people into that mould?

What was particularly interesting for me in this movie was to see how the old polarity of ‘individuality versus group’ had moved on a stage. In the Sixties, when my friends and I were in our teens,we argued vehemently against competition in any form and pro an amorphous and indiscriminate acceptance. ‘All you need is love’, sang the Beatles, and we agreed. It was a necessary statement for its time: a strong counter to. our parent’s generation, whose watchword seemed to be ‘getting on’ in society. But our naive polarisation brought us a lot of difficulties: if ‘individuality" implied selfishness, then did we always have to give in to the group’s wishes? Was saying ‘no’, or being assertive and ‘demanding’, wicked?

In time, during the late Seventies, a new ideal started to surface: self-realisation, the empowerment of the individual. It was a dicey idea, because it could so easily be hooked by either left or right it could encourage even more drive to individual perfection, a la Franco, resulting in more competition and alienation: the ‘Me’ generation, cut off from social responsibility. Or it could mean more empowerment of everyone, à la Orlando, less dependence on a social norm, more freedom to be different, equality without uniformity.

The danger in the old polarity was that the diffused energies of those who believed in ‘love’ were too wishy-washy to stand against the concentrated force of those who believed in individualistic power. The kids in Breakdance have the best of both worlds - their own individuality and an anti-élitist sense of the value of every other individual.

And as for the dancing - it was terrific. Witty, spirited, inventive, it made me long to join in, where Travolta-type dancing had just made me feel old and creaky.

Anuradha Vittachi

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Where there is no ruler

People Without Government an anthropology of anarchism
by Harold Barclay
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Kahn & Averill with Cienfuegos Press (pbk) £3.75
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People Without Government is a work of anthropology with a political message. It deliberately sets out to expose the myth that no society can exist without government; that life without the state will inevitably be, in Hobbes’ words, ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Placing his discussion within the context of anarchist theory, Barclay shows with convincing arguments and a wealth of data that for the greater part of their history human beings lived cooperatively and peacefully without rulers.

Barclay classifies his societies under study according to their primary mode of subsistence into hunter-gatherers, gardeners, herders, and agriculturalists. The first type is the oldest and most egalitarian type of human society. They include Eskimos and Bushmen as well as pygmies - who approach most closely the anarchist ideal. Amongst the gardeners, the Tiv of central Nigeria,who number over a million, show that anarchy need not be limited to a small group. As in all the groups, the Nuer herders solve disputes through mediators who invite the disputants to agree: the aim is not to establish guilt but to restore peace.

Even amongst agricultural societies, which can create a surplus for a ruling class and often have governments, there have been a number of highly decentralised federations. The Berbers throughout the Middle East, and especially the Kabyles in Algeria, manage themselves through autonomous village councils which form temporary alliances with each other for mutual defence. Again, the Santals, over three million of whom dwell in eastern India, decide their affairs in free and open meetings with the village headman merely being the voice of the consensus.

But, as Barclay makes clear, ‘anarchy’ or a society without, rulers need not mean freedom in the sense of making available a wide number of choices to the individual. Modern anarchists would be unhappy with the widespread sexism and ageism - the power given to men and elders - which characterise many traditional anarchic societies. In place of laws, there are strong sanctions to reform the wrongdoer, both religious (for example, the threat of supernatural punishment) and diffuse ostracism (ridicule, gossip and fighting). The force of habit and custom can also perpetuate ignorance, intolerance and prejudice.

Barclay is perhaps at his weakest in his treatment of the self-conscious attempts to create an anarchist commonwealth in the modem world. He leads us breezily through the Russian Revolution, where peasants in the Ukraine organised themselves into anarchist communes, through the Spanish Civil War, which saw the greatest experiment so far in urban and rural anarchism, to the more recent small-scale liberation communities in the West. In his last chapter ‘Do Anarchic Politics Have a Message?’, he calls himself an ‘anarchocynicalist’ and suggests that anarchism will always be the ‘politics of perpetual protest’.

But while the main thrust of history has undoubtedly been towards centralised states, the dying breed of indigenous anarchies can tell us much about how to organise society without the policeman, the judge and the executioner. They show that the state is only a recent cancer in the body politic and that its withering away need not be a pipe-dream. Above all, they remind us of the important truth that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.

Peter Marshall


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
...being the book that showed how the poor line the pockets of the rich

SIR GRABALL D’ENCLOSELAND, Member of Parliament, decided to make sure of getting the votes of all the poor men in the town by giving a teaparty to the town’s schoolchildren on the occasion of his daughter’s tenth birthday. ‘And for several weeks,’ writes Robert Tressell, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, ‘everybody in the town was in raptures over this tea’.

Never mind that Sir Graball’s charity was only self-interest in disguise - as in Tressell’s view was virtually all charity. Never mind the blatant inequality paraded by a society where one man can afford to feed. luxuriously all the town’s children, while their humiliated fathers have jobs so meanly paid and so precarious that they can’t guarantee their own children a decent supper. Everyone was bamboozled and grateful for the crumbs from Sir Graball’s table.

Everyone, that is, except a small band of socialists. But who’d listen to them? Edwardian England utterly disapproved of socialism. Socialist speakers risked stoning by the public they were trying so zealously to save. Nonetheless, Tressell did everything he could to educate his fellow workers, from organising a lending library of books on political thought from his own bookshelf to inventing a four-sided, illuminated sandwich board to advertise the socialist cause.

None of his marketing tactics caught on as spectacularly as his novel - although Tressell was never to know that his book would become a legend. He died in a workhouse far from home three years before the book was published in 1914 - destitute, aged only 40 and buried in a pauper’s grave. But his book was passed admiringly from hand to semi-literate hand, until it became known as ‘The Painter’s Bible’.

Tressell had been a house-painter (despite rather more genteel beginnings) and this was the key to the book’s success.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the first good novel about the British working class written from the workers’ point of view. Middle-class reformers had previously touched other middle-class heartstrings by visiting the hovels of the poor and recording the misery they had shudderingly witnessed. But Tressell lived the life he described.

When the house-painter hero of the novel, Frank Owen, despairingly wonders whether to struggle on scratching a living for his half-starved wife and son or whether it would be kinder and more responsible to kill them and himself and put an end to their misery, Tressell wasn’t writing a wild melodrama. He knew from experience what it was like for a father to watch his child silently bear hunger. Long after Tressell’s death, his daughter confessed that when there had been only enough food left in their house to make one thin bowlful of soup, she would rinse the soup around her bowl and then poor the contents into her father’s bowl. She’d leave her ‘used’ bowl unwashed as ‘evidence’ that she had eaten before his return from work.

Besides the authenticity, there is analysis: much of the book is devoted to an uncompromising, relentless explanation of why poor people starve in a land of plenty. For Tressell the answer is clear-cut: capitalism. The system demands that selfishness rules: ‘One must either trample upon people or be trampled upon.’ There is no room for gentleness or sharing: humane qualities are derided as weakness and naiveté and greedily exploited.

The "strong’ are those who are most adept at cheating their fellow’ citizens. Tressell’s chief targets are the employers who blackmail the poor into accepting starvation wages (don’t complain or you’ll be sacked) while preening themselves for ‘benevolently’ providing jobs. He loathes the middle-men, the foremen and supervisors,who choose to toady to the employers rather than stand up for the welfare of the men. And he is vitriolic towards clergymen who pontificate about Jesus giving all to the poor, since they abuse the teaching as a means of raking in the widows’ mites to fill their own overstuffed bellies.

The ‘philanthropists’ of the novel’s title are the workers who guilelessly give away their power and thus help line the pockets of the rich; they’ve bought the myth that they are too stupid and useless to survive better than they do under their masters’ yoke and they make no effort to rebel. The book despairs of such servility: Tressell knows that they are lost until they realise that freedom would serve them better than dependence. Now they are ‘like a pack of sheep placing themselves under the protection of ravening wolves’.

The book has few conventional literary virtues: little characterisation, less plot. It gains massivity episode by episode like a failed dieter grows hips. A good sub-editor could prune it to twothirds its 600-page size. But though it sometimes lumbers, it remains powerful: who would quibble about lack of elegance in an angry elephant?

Anuradha Vittachi

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell (1914)
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Granada (pbk) UK: £2.50/Aus: $9.50
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