Send your love to Donald Trump

Dear friends,

I’ve not been writing any blogposts recently. I’m having a big moment in my life right now. I am trying to move to a higher level of consciousness, which has made me try to reflect on everything I do and the motivations behind all my actions.

As I recognise (intellectually if not yet fully spiritually) the oneness of all life, of all living entities, and the illusion of separateness maintained so powerfully by the ego, I have come to question the appropriateness or otherwise of blogging in this context. The inner dialogue goes something like this:

Joel 1: ‘Who are you to blog? What makes you so damn special?’

Joel 2: ‘I’m not. This is what my blog has been about – encouraging others to believe in themselves as intellectuals able to understand the world and as political ‘agents of history’ able to change it. But, I recognise openly now that my blogging was influenced greatly by my ego: a belief that, if I’m fully frank with myself, while everyone could understand and change the world, I had a special knowledge to impart; that I had a special part to play; that my destiny was to change the world; that readership would affirm my individuality and its greatness. I checked my viewing figures; I thirsted for likes on Facebook, retweets on Twitter, readers’ comments in an egotistical way. This egotistical part must stop.’

Joel 1: ‘So, blogging’s really been all about you, then?’

Joel 2: ‘I openly admit this dimension of it, yes, but it was also genuinely about seeking to give love through the way I was able to give it – through the knowledge and writing skills I have been fortunate to acrue. Through my blogposts, I have genuinely sought to encourage and support others. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s a good thing. I am touched by the spoken and written words of others – of philosophers, theorists, poets, friends, loved ones. They inspire me to live, love, grow. If others’ words can inspire me, why can my words not possibly inspire others? And if I believe in, I know of, a radical equality and unity of all human beings then am I not also one of those human beings? Just as I would encourage any human being to express their humanity, to make their voice hear, why should I not encourage myself also?’

Joel 1: ‘So, what are you going to do now, then?’

Joel 2: ‘I’m not quite sure. I have been blogging regularly for quite a while now. I know that people do read my blogposts, and I know that people have been inspired by them. Why should I not, then, continue to write? I will. I will continue to write. But, I will write in a way now that is centred not in ego, but more fully in love. Ironically, this may well mean writing more about myself because now that I recognise how we are not really very different at all, that all the demons in my head, all the fears and addictions, are those in the heads and hearts of my readers too, I should use this blog to try to break down the barriers that keep us all stuck in the illusion of separateness by writing openly about my fears, my addictions, my weaknesses. I will do this. Feminists have taught us that ‘the personal is political’, i.e. the ways in which we think, feel, speak, and act are shaped by our social environment. Thus, it’s also equally the case that ‘the political is personal’, i.e. that transformation begins from within ourselves and that the most powerful way to seek to help others transform is to be that change with all our hearts and souls, to lead by example. This is the only way. Love is the only way. I will do my best to write blogposts from a position of love.’

Yeah, that’s just a sample of the inner dialogue for you. But, on that loving note, I’ve just been inspired by someone and I want to pass that inspiration on. This person just told me that when she watched the news of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, she felt a pang of shock, and then decided that the only possible thing she could do then and there was to send him love. So, let’s all do just that.

I’m not saying that we mustn’t organise, defend rights and freedoms, oppose hatred and bigotry, and work together to create sustainable, just, democratic alternatives. I’m saying that we are consciousness and that Donald Trump has been given an immense amount of our collective energy – positive and negative – to get into this position of power, so if millions of people could send out love to Donald Trump right now this would, at the very least, create a huge amount of loving energy in the world and could possibly affect his consciousness and, consequently, improve the lives of millions of humans and other living creatures.

So, please just take five minutes to sit down, close your eyes, and picture Donald Trump. Picture him with loving compassion. Personally, I picture Donald as a frightened and vulnerable human being, desperate for approval, desperate for anyone and everyone’s love, desperate for the love of his father. Sit with your compassionate image of Donald and send him your unconditional love and compassion…
Then let’s pray – for those fearing reprisals from his election, for those people, families, children fearing expulsion, for the natural world fearing further destruction, for those who will feel greater hunger and poverty if he seeks to implement his plans.

And then let’s all get together and really catalyse what has already begun – the building of the new from the amassing ruins of the old.

With love

joel

On clowns

Hi there, dear reader!

I’ve been trying to make time to explore what I’m calling ‘ultimate contradiction’ on this blog, but I last wrote about Jeremy Corbyn and I’m gonna sidetrack again to write briefly about…clowns!

My 11 year-old daughter has just started secondary school. Apparently, the phenomenon of (mostly) young people dressing up as macabre, evil clowns in order to scare people has been a central topic of conversation around her school. This trend started in the US and has spread to the UK.

I want to think about what this phenomenon might signify. I’ll argue that it expresses deep-rooted feelings of fear and powerlessness in our society. I’ll contrast this evil clown phenomenon with the amazing Clowns Without Borders, a group of talented clowns who bring laughter and love to children and grown-ups alike suffering deep trauma in places like slums, disaster zones, war zones, and refugee camps. I’ll conclude by arguing that the evil clown phenomenon expresses a concentrated social fear and that its timing is not surprising, coming as it does in this time of crisis, catastrophe, and breakdown. But, as Clowns Without Borders show us, the only way forward is an embrace not of fear, but of love.

On evil clowns

I’m not going to give these odd characters dressing up like murderous clowns the air of publicity by linking to them. Suffice to say that the phenomenon involves people dressing up as evil clowns and stalking other people, sometimes young children. Mostly, they just stalk from afar. Sometimes, they chase others.

What does this phenomenon represent? I think it represents the current deep state of fear in our species inherent in our societies, in our personal and collective hearts and minds. What is the clown turned evil? It is the death of childhood: of innocence, of laughter; of wonder, of faith, of magic.  It is the triumph of the nightmare over the dream. The historical character of the clown, the jester, the joker is also the character who is able to poke fun at and speak truth to power. By lampooning the powerful – the king, the president, authority – s/he is the character who suggests that the status quo of domination and exploitation is unjust, grotesque, and illegitimate. Perhaps s/he was mostly just a pressure valve, but she was a source of hope. The rise of the evil clown, then, is the death of hope – the triumph of cynicism over utopianism. Above all, the evil clown is a concentrated, pure expression of fear. We are scared: we are scared of each other and we are scared of ourselves – as individuals, as societies, as a species.

On loving clowns

Clowns Without Borders was founded in 1993 by Spanish clown Tortell Poltrona as an organisation whose aim was to  use ‘humor as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma.’

CWB now have projects in dozens of countries. I met a CWB clown, Clay Mazing, in Aarhus, Denmark back in April this year. He had just been to the Greek island of Lesvos to perform for Syrian and other refugees there.

The situation that these clowns confront is, of course, one of profound stress, anxiety, uncertainty, illness and death. Aid workers and volunteers are there to provide material support. Clowns are there to bring relief, bring hope, bring love, bring people together through laughter. It may be a momentary respite from refugees’ trauma, but it seems to give parents such solace to see their children smiling and laughing even just for a while.

Clowns Without Borders are the very opposites of the evil clowns. They are clowns pointing us towards a brighter future for our species: a future of hope, of dreams, of laughter, of sharing, of unconditional love. They are courageous, loving clowns.

On loving evil clowns

How should we respond to evil clowns? How should we respond to fear? We should face our fears. We should face our evil clowns. But, we shouldn’t attack them. Let’s try to empathise. What kind of mental and social state would a person probably be in to do such a thing? Probably a painful one, one where s/he feels a distinct lack of power over her life; one where s/he herself feels fearful and hopeless; one where s/he herself has experienced violence. In short, evil clowns are just people experiencing more pronounced forms of the kinds of experiences and feelings we all have.

If you see an evil clown and feel a genuine sense of personal threat, run away. But, if you don’t then perhaps just a smile and a kind word might be the best response! Only by facing our fears can we, do we start to see hope.

On the contested symbolism of the clown

It’s crucial to recognise that both the persona of the evil clown and the people dressing up as evil clowns are us. They are in and of our society. They have social meaning. We have to recognise them, confront them, accept them, love them, overcome them. Everything in our culture, every symbol, has meaning. In fact, it has multiple and contradictory meanings and the power to determine which meanings dominate and shape our interpretations is a political power. There’s a reason why we’re hearing about evil clowns and not about loving clowns in our media.

So, the persona of the clown can mean various, contradictory things. The clown here is a symbol of fear (leading to hatred, violence, and separation) and a symbol of unconditional love (leading to unity). Let’s create a society in which the evil clown can be empowered to transform her/himself into the loving clown.

Cheers for reading!
Joel

On Jeremy Corbyn: let’s end cynicism and embrace (critical) hope

Dear friends,

Feel free to listen to a recording of this blogpost above…

I just want to make three points about Jeremy Corbyn and his re-election. I want to argue the following: (1) Ultimately, we should analyse Corbyn’s role in terms of its significance as part of a growing counter-hegemonic war of manoeuvre against capital – a role that has ensured nothing less, in my view, than the ideological death of neo-liberalism; (2) I am deeply sadden by those espousing socialist views and values who express feelings of cynicism and fear towards Corbyn. I will suggest that we should be able to empathise with such feelings, but will argue that they are misplaced and self-defeating; (3) I will emphasize that we must always remember that we are committed to struggling not for Corbyn, but for socialism. Therefore, our commitment to Corbyn should remain steadfast for as long as he and his team prove principled and, yes, competent leaders. But, based on its achievements so far, I’m convinced that Corbyn’s Labour can win an election.

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(1) The Corbyn movement’s historical achievement – the death of neo-liberalism

The first thing to say is that surely we are blind if we cannot see what remarkable things have been achieved since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election. We must not forget that, prior to the summer of 2015, people like Jeremy Corbyn were not just on the political margins; they were beyond the pale! For over three decades, social democrats like Corbyn, let alone socialists, were hardly ever allowed on the TV or radio. For example, after the riots of 2011, the BBC readily gave a platform for the overt racism of people like historian David Starkey and the tough repression of conservatives, but barely allowed social critiques grounded in class and racial analysis. Consequently, socialist ideas were easily ridiculed and their proponents demonised. Everything changed once a group of Labour MPs voted to include Jeremy Corbyn on the Party’s leadership election list – a move most of them only made to give the election a veneer of ideological breadth. The move backfired most spectacularly when Corbyn won the largest leadership victory in UK history, voted in by hundreds of thousands of new members and cheered on by huge crowds nationwide.

But, what explains this remarkable victory? It cannot be understood without recognising the depth of the economic crisis that capital and we are still mired in; the depth of the contempt with which vast swathes of British people hold its morally bankrupt political class; and the corresponding depth of the ongoing ideological crisis whose expression is taking its most concentrated form within the Labour Party. As articulation of ideological crisis, Corbyn’s victory expressed a negative feeling and move – the rejection of neo-liberalism and its proponents. Yet, it also expressed the rebirth of socialist, truly democratic, politics, hopes, and imaginaries in Britain. In short, Corbyn’s victory heralded both the ideological death of neo-liberalism and rebirth of socialism as a legitimate and viable ideology and potential organising function of society.

By ideological death, I refer to an ideology’s ability to perform its central function of legitimating the social order or, to put it in Gramscian terms, securing hegemony. Neo-liberalism cannot do this any longer, i.e. it can no longer secure widespread consent for the status quo. Here are two major pieces of evidence to support this claim. First, while Corbyn’s internal Labour opponents have tried to attack him wherever and whenever possible, their attacks have focused far less on policy and overwhelmingly on personal and strategic grounds. Indeed, Corbyn’s adversary in the recent second leadership election, Owen Smith, conceded pretty much all policy ground to Corbyn, choosing instead to reinvent himself as a radical, critiquing only Corbyn’s leadership and ability to win power. A second piece of evidence comes from Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. If neo-liberalism were still a functioning ideology, May’s speech would have been founded on the usual sanctification of the market, the insistence on its socially just and moral mechanisms, and a call for working people to work harder in order to succeed. Instead, in stunning fashion, May delivered a speech so focused on social injustice that, had Corbyn made it, he would have been savaged as a dangerous socialist. May argued that black people faced discrimination, that women faced discrimination, and that even people working as hard as they possibly can are failing to make ends meet due to low wages and high rents. And, all along, the media rallied around May and even supported ‘Citizen’ Smith in his failed attempt to dethrone Corbyn.

So, if you believe that: the NHS should be properly funded; that rich people and companies should pay tax; that we need to move to a renewable energy-powered society asap; that we need to build loads of social housing and to impose rent controls; that students should not be crippled by debt; that transport and energy should be renationalised and run by and for the people; that people should have far more power in their local communities and municipalities; that the UK state should not spend £200billion on nuclear weapons and prosecute murderous foreign wars; that people should be paid a living wage for their labour; and that workers should have more ownership and control of businesses, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that brought him to power. Before any criticism begins, we must all recognise that this list of, frankly, self-evident ideas and policies are once again on our TVs and radios, in our newspapers, in our community and family discussions – in short, back within ideological reality and political possibility – thanks to the Corbyn movement.

The previously impossible and unspeakable has become possible again. I mean, just pause and think for a minute! Jeremy Corbyn! Jeremy Corbyn!…is leader of the Labour Party! WTF! That, for people over a certain age, in itself feels like the world turned upside-down!…

(2) Understanding and transcending fear and cynicism

And so, yes, although the ideological power of the media, think tanks, and education system remains intimidating, there is no longer a stable hegemonic situation. The system cannot be reproduced through active consent and even passive consent is dissipating. Hence, the rise of violence – both physical and, above all, symbolic and semiotic violence – is used in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain order. In layman’s terms, we’re seeing increasingly violent words and images to attack all identified enemies of the state, the nation, freedom, prosperity, etc.

Faced with the capitalist system’s inability to reproduce itself without increasingly desperate and intensifying monetary interventions, mercenary parasitism, and ecocidal assaults, what is our response? We respond with hope and we respond with fear. Many key recent elections reflect this schism. What saddens me most, but does not surprise me, is that many people who espouse socialist values and views are condemning Corbyn, insisting on his unelectability, and even arguing that his election has destroyed any hope for left-wing politics in the UK. Not only do such views betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the political situation, more significantly, they express a cynical worldview, a subjectivity driven not primarily by love and hope, but by fear. What I would suggest is that this is entirely understandable after more than three decades of T.I.N.A. and the purposive and relentless attacks on our belief in ourselves and each other. We should have empathy with those expressing this cynicism; it resides to some degree in all of us. It expresses both a social and a personal fear – that our dreams are futile, that we are pathetic and powerless. It also expresses a deep conservatism driven by insecurity – if I take a leap of faith and try to change the world and fail, I’ll look naïve and foolish and there may be repercussions, but if I simply denigrate anyone trying to change the world I can appear as a clever ‘realist’ from a safe distance. But, ultimately, living in fear is paralysing, and hope, as Paolo Freire pointed out, is an ontological and spiritual necessity for every human being. Humans are not really beings; they are becomings. Ultimately, a leap of faith needs to be taken – in each other and in oneself.

Gramsci’s famous prescription is to have ‘pessimism of the intellect’ but ‘optimism of the will’. Far too often, I see not even pessimism; I see cynicism, which is a pessimism of both intellect and will. We have to work on ending this together. But, neither is a blind optimism of use either…

(3) Offering active and critical support to Corbyn

While we can readily dismiss criticisms coming from Corbyn’s political and ideological sworn enemies from outside and within his Party, we should not close our ears to potentially sympathetic Labour MPs and others who claim to have experienced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as incompetent. There are sufficient mitigating factors until now to give him and his team the benefit of the doubt, but there are frustrations among his supporters concerning the audibility and clarity of his strategic message.

JC as OBK 2

A year ago, I wrote an article comparing JC to Obi Wan Kenobi. I suggested that, ultimately, Corbyn’s fate may be similar to Obi Wan’s – he may initiate a counter-hegemonic movement and nurture that movement and new leaders, but he may be destined to give way to new, fresher leadership. The crucial point is that the goals are democracy and justice, not the election of Corbyn’s Labour per se. Consequently, I would suggest that those who want to promote the democratic and socialist cause, whether Labour members or not (I’m not), should offer critical (not cynical!) support to Corbyn and his team, while contributing to: growing the democratic movement, ensuring Corbyn’s team are competent in their communication and strategy, and pressuring them to be even more radical in their proposed policies for transforming our country.

Conclusion: he’s electable, our values and dreams are achievable

Jeremy Corbyn has faced and faced down the combined threat of the oligarchic media and biased BBC and the attacks and coups of the neo-liberal Labour factions. He has emerged with a larger mandate than before. Personally, I now want to see Corbyn not seeking compromise with those factions, but using his strong mandate to push for radical internal democratisation and to articulate a clear strategic and policy agenda beyond. The polls are rigged, as is the electoral system. He faces huge structural challenges and should quickly embrace a strategic cross-party anti-austerity pact with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, as recently proposed by Caroline Lucas. I’m not worried at all by the polls. When the election is called, because of his historic breakthrough, Corbyn’s Labour will have plenty of time and space to clearly articulate their manifesto.

Our future will be constructed fundamentally on either fear or hope. Corbyn categorically embodies and expresses hope. We have to overcome our fear and support him hopefully and, of course, critically. So, I say to anyone who wants to see a better world, that world needs you to build it, so get out there – talking, learning, working with others, building communities, movements, and parties – and let’s get behind JC so long as we deem, critically not cynically, that he’s the right guy to lead.

Thanks for reading!

Joel

Ultimate contradiction, Part II: Dialectical history, evolution, and consciousness

You can listen to a recording of this post here.

Hello, dear friends!

So, I started a series of blogposts recently by talking about my recent attempts to try to make sense of what is happening in our world right now. Clearly, some serious stuff is happening –  some horrifically, unbearably awful stuff…but also some incredible, mind-blowing, exciting stuff too. I suggested that we as humanity are experiencing what I called ‘ultimate contradiction’. It’s a contradiction because the old is dying and out of the old the new is emerging. It’s ultimate because this is contradiction on a planetary, species level.

I said that I’d first explain a bit more about the little I understand about the dialectical nature of history, social systems, and life. I’d then offer evidence for my claim of ultimate contradiction in several fundamental spheres of human life: economy, politics, social relations, and ecology. Of course, it’s vital to emphasise that these sectors aren’t actually separate at all, but are entirely intersected expressions of human life. But, we need to look at the separate jigsaw pieces first before we attempt to put them into a coherent picture of the whole later.

In this post, I’ll talk briefly about what little I understand of the dialectical understanding of history. I need first to be straight with you and tell you that I myself understand very little, that I’m at the very frontiers of my understanding and knowledge, and that, if you want to challenge, critique, add to this offering in any way, please do. I’m here not as teacher in the traditional sense. I seek to teach; I seek to learn; and I seek, through dialogue with others, to produce knowledge that can help us create a better world for all.

Dialectical history

The idea of the dialectic has a long and global history. For a long time, I heard this word in relation to Marxist philosophy, but couldn’t really get  it – a bit like the word ‘praxis’ too. But, now, I see it not just as a complex philosophical concept, but as quite an intuitive and  natural phenomenon.

At its simplest, a dialectical way of thinking sees human history as an unfolding, evolving process driven by contradictions in successive systems of social relations. I understand history to mean the evolutionary journey of human beings across time, but it is more narrowly defined as the time since human beings developed ‘civilisation’, above all writing, soon after the agricultural revolution that took place around 12,000 years ago.

In Western thought, Georg Friedrich Hegel is the modern philosopher most associated with modernising dialectical thought. For Hegel, history was driven by ‘Geist’, which can be translated from German both as ‘mind’ and as ‘spirit’. So, there’s this supernatural, metaphysical force driving history forward and the reason for the journey is the gradual unfolding of reason and freedom.

hegel_portrait_by_schlesinger_1831

Because, for Hegel, the driving force of history is Geist, he is known as an ‘idealist’ philosopher, i.e. ideas shape material reality. Hegel’s idealism was, crudely put, inverted by Karl Marx into an historical materialism that sees history driven by the social relations of production, consumption, and exchange. So, for historical materialists, human beings make themselves, each other, and history when they use their own and collective mind, bodies, and nature to make and grow other things.

(BTW, I don’t see Marx as a materialist in any crude way because he clearly argued that the production of ideas, beliefs, ideology – mental production – was equally a social relation of production and was inextricably connected with physical production. Subsequent Marxist thinkers have made huge advances in developing this vital area of understanding. Indeed, nowadays, any clear boundaries between economic and cultural production are clearly blurring online in the emerging realm of ‘immaterial labour‘. That said, it’s clear that changes in material relations prefigure and provoke changes in ideology and culture. For example, capitalism emerged before the major theorists and ideologues of capitalism and socialism did.)

Anyway, whether you’re an idealist or a materialist, the key dialectical insight is that every reigning ideology/system of social relations has been an imperfect system pregnant with contradictions. From an historical materialist perspective, for example, you can’t do better than to start by quoting Marx and Engels’ classic line from The Communist Manifesto:

quote-the-history-of-all-hitherto-existing-society-is-the-history-of-class-struggles-karl-marx-250999

What I understand Karl and Freddy to be saying here is that every system of social relations human beings have had so far in our history has been a class system – be it slavery, caste, feudalism, capitalism, or, indeed, state examples of ‘really existing communism’ too. Since the agricultural revolution when humans first were able to produce a surplus large enough to sustain large sedentary populations, i.e. towns and cities, we’ve had society divided into classes: the owners of land; the owners of the means of production; peasants and/or slaves to work the land; wage labourers and/or slaves charged with economic production; merchants for internal and external trade; financiers to facilitate economic activity; women and slaves to reproduce society and to pleasure men; and an intelligentsia and priesthood designated to give ideological legitimacy to the prevailing social order. And invariably classes were structured around hierarchical and oppressive institutions of racial and gendered divisions too, of course.

So, every form of class society is founded on interconnected class antagonisms and structural contradictions that must, did, do, and will lead to systemic crisis AND, eventually,…to the birth of a new social order. However, what is equally vital to emphasise is that there is no mechanical determinism at work here. Is it us, human beings, who make history and there are countless factors, factions, and fates at play. Let’s cite another Marx classic!…

quote-men-make-their-own-history-but-they-do-not-make-it-just-as-they-please-they-do-not-make-it-under-karl-marx-308129

So, we’re part of historic systems that we can’t act outside of, but we CAN absolutely respond to our historical conditions and contribute to either the maintenance or disruption and transcendence of our current systems.

Social antagonisms and structural contradictions

Let’s offer some clear examples to make this more concrete.

The debate among historians over the transition from feudalism to capitalism centred in Europe is a long and rich one that I only know a bit about. It’s generally agreed, however, that the transition took place over several centuries; that there were countless interacting forces at work; and that the transition in no way took place in any kind of linear fashion. But, we can clearly see the gradual increase and concentration of private land ownership that enriched large landowners and forces peasants into sharecropping; we can see merchants bound up with colonialism, violently forcing open and developing world markets and developing slavery-based forms of commodity production; we can see the origins of the modern corporation and the concomitant emergence of financial capital alongside this colonialism. These forces and social classes have their origins in the feudal system, but emerge, ultimately, to lead the rise against the bastions of feudal power – the monarchy and the church – in the 17th and 18th Centuries. So, here are examples of social antagonisms and structural contradictions driving dialectical history.

As for capitalism, we can see many structural contradictions within capitalism. Perhaps most famous is the insight that the rate of profit tends to fall, leading inevitably to a crisis. This is because, while profit (surplus value) can only be produced by workers and nature, individual capitalists try to win temporary higher profits and market share by mechanisation (replacing workers with machines). But, sooner or later, other competing capitalists follow suit and, over time, the general rate of profit begins to fall. Another contradiction is that workers are also consumers, so capitalists seek to minimise labour costs in order to maximise profits, but if they impoverish workers too much they don’t have consumers able to buy their products. That’s just two examples that can drive capitalism towards crisis. The biggest structural contradiction of all, of course, is that capitalism is a system that necessitates incessant growth in production, consumption, and, therefore, extraction, while we inhabit an ecosystem of finite resources that requires us to tend to its health and flourishing. More about that in a later post too.

As for social antagonisms in capitalism, in Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto, Marx (him again!) and Engels famously claimed that ‘the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) produces its own gravediggers’. The gravediggers in question, for Marx and Engels, were the working class, the proletariat –  a class of people created by the very conditions that developed capitalism. In Europe, the proletariat was created through the expropriation and enclosure of and clearances from common land, its urbanisation into the towns and cities, and its forging in the punitive factories of early industrial capitalism.

It is widely claimed that Marx and Engels’ prediction has been proved false. In the hubristic days of the 1990s, it was claimed that Marxism had died alongside the Soviet Union and that history itself was over. Francis Fukuyama, an academic-cum-US policy wonk, played the part of a revived Hegel, claiming that history had now culminated in the ultimate victory of American-style consumerist capitalism

And, yet, the contradiction, the antagonism, between capital and labour remains absolutely fundamental to our lives and futures. How else can we begin to understand the profound and, I believe, terminal crisis that capitalism now experiences today? Nowadays, to paraphrase Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the factory today is the entire world and we can see a crisis in which capital is seeking to impose ever harsher costs and pressures on human and non-human life in order to revive its continued system of accumulation. Evidence of this crisis I will provide in the next blogpost in this series.

 

Dialectics, evolution, and consciousness

I started this section by saying that the dialectic was at heart a simple, intuitive idea, but then I went off on a historical jaunt for a bit. But, it is just saying that the very structural forces that drive the system, because of social antagonisms and structural contradictions, also drive the system to crisis and the development of new social forces that lead the historical process of its ultimate breakdown and transcendence. Pregnancy is a good metaphor: the old gives birth to the new. Just like pregnancy, it can, sadly, be protracted and painful. But, where the metaphor ends is that children don’t generally try to kill their parents! Yet, it seems definitely fruitful to see evolution itself as dialectical – species evolve, hit problems caused by contradictions in their interactions with ecosystems, and resolve them, taking them to a more complex form of life.

The most amazing thing about dialectical approaches to history is that, of course, the people presenting history in this way have tended to argue that theirs is the great climax of history and that they are the prophetic voice of history made incarnate. And, unsurprisingly, they tend to be white men! So, when Hegel realised that the climax or endpoint of history was when Geist awakened to itself, he started to thinking that he was the embodiment of Geist and so the authoritarian militaristic Prussian state he lived in must be the ultimate social expression of freedom! And the racism runs deep here. Hegel had a lot to say about the French Revolution of 1789, but what did he have to say about an equally historically profound event – the Haitian Revolution that began two years later – an event described by Susan Buck-Morss as ‘the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment? He famously had lots to say about the master-slave dialectical relationship which he saw as driving the unfolding of human freedom in history, i.e. that slaves could only be liberated through their own resistance, but he remained silent over Haiti. Human history, it seems, for Hegel, was made only by white European men.

Haitian revolution

It could also be fairly argued that there has long been a religious eschatology imbued in Marxism. I can empathise with this in the sense that if you’re experiencing injustice and violence and think that you only have one life, but eschew organised religion, it’s very appealing to want to believe in and preach a utopian revolutionary vision. We all need utopian visions and we CAN build heaven on Earth.

So, yes, maybe everyone at every time in human history thought that theirs was the key period for humanity, but I am still convinced that this is the crucial moment because of the planetary scale and the very existential threat that our current crisis presents to us. I am also convinced of this by the emergent thinking of a growing number who are arguing, both scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually, for the oneness of life; for the Earth as a living, conscious, evolving entity; and for human beings as simply the most complex  expression of Earth’s evolving consciousness.

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So, again, there’s this breakthrough moment of evolutionary consciousness waking up to itself, and this breakthrough, combined with the scientific, technological knowledge and ethical and spiritual wisdom we possess, is the strongest source of my hope for our future. But, I’m only really learning about this now, so I’ll return to that in later posts.

 

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So, that’s my brief and limited understanding of dialectical history. It’s a starting point to explore what I’m calling ‘ultimate contradiction’, and I’ll continue this exploration in the economic realm in the next post.

Thanks so much for reading

Joel

WTF is going on?! Ultimate contradiction and the struggle for humanity

Dear friends,

I hope that you have enjoyed your summer. I have. I’ve been off for almost all of it – first, recuperating from my injuries and, second, looking after my kids. I can’t deny that it has been tiring and occasionally exasperating being with three kids all day in what often seem to be ceaseless processes of negotiation, mediation, disciplining, imploring, insisting…and relenting. But, the moments of true love and joy have been countless – moments of simplicity: of play, of love and kindness among siblings and with one and with multiple children, in summer fields, eating ice creams, stargazing, picking berries, and just being together. I cherish them. But, another summer is behind us and we’re back into the school routine.

I find myself currently without employment and in quite an uncertain position, but, as I work things through and find employment, I am not short of work to do and plans to hatch. I will be spending the Autumn writing up five articles based on my experiments in and experiences of radical democratic pedagogy both within and beyond the university. I will also be turning the website designed alongside students at Warwick earlier this year into reality. It’s called ‘Moneypedia’ and will be a site designed to invite users into participatory processes of learning about money – about the world of money, our lives within in, and possible alternatives beyond the current system. I’m also continuing to work with nine other people to build the foundations of the Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture. We’ve now produced a development plan/funding proposal and we are awaiting news from one potential funder. We’re also going to be trying to build a networked community of people and organisations involved in the very broad area of transformational learning and culture, so contact me if you want to join that group.

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What I plan to do in a series of blogs over the next couple of months are to write up some reflections on what I think is going on right now in our world. I want to argue that in recent months we have been experiencing the increasing intensification of the collapse of our entire living system and that, overall, on the level of humanity, this is being experienced as ultimate contradiction. It’s experienced as ultimate contradiction because it embodies the struggle between the old dying system and the new emerging system on a global level.

When we talk about systems far too often we overlook the fact that we are these systems – these systems are our relationships with each other and they live and function within and through our minds and bodies – so, living with ultimate contradiction is very tough indeed. It is toughest, of course, for those suffering the greatest pain at the expense of the old system who often experience their lives not as contradiction, but as intense and unambiguous pain. What I want to contribute to above all with my life is the pedagogical movement to help people suffering the pain of social injustice, oppression, and exploitation – whether receiving or inflicting this pain – to recognise the social and systemic source of this pain and to recognise themselves as agents in unison with others with the power to end this pain and transform their lives and world. So, one thing I try to do is write blogs like this.

What I’ll do in this series of blogs is the following. First, I’ll explain a bit more about what I mean by ‘ultimate contradiction’, systems, and dialectics. Then, I’ll offer real life evidence for this ultimate contradiction being played out and intensifying, i.e. evidence for the old dying and the new emerging. I’ll do this by breaking things down into blogs focused on economics and ecology; politics; and race, gender, and disability. I will basically try to show that the economic crisis is terminal and that people are already organising themselves in ways that herald a move to a post-economic system that is grounded in common trusteeship rather than private ownership. It is ‘post’-economic in the sense that economics exists because scarcity exists and the new system will transcend scarcity. One central expression of this is the move to sustainable ecological relations and the transformation of currently ecocidal ‘externalities’ of waste and pollution into new recyclable inputs into closed-loop processes of food, energy, and industrial production. In the political realm, I will focus not just on the breakdown of old political parties and the emergence of new, but I will argue that we are in the early throes of Copernican revolutionary transformation in leadership from a Ptolemaic practice (everyone orbits the big man) to the emergence of a truly democratic practice of leadership. I think that the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn in the UK represents this revolution in leadership and the rise of Donald Trump represents the fascistic response of the old. In the areas of race, gender, and disability I will look at the hideous rise of violent and other hate crimes by civilians and police against oppressed groups across the world and consider the recent emergence of the resistance movements this upsurge has spawned. I will explore the links between racism, patriarchy, and disabilism and capitalist and ecological crisis. Finally, in a blog on culture, I will focus on the crisis within our institutions producing knowledge and culture and argue that, while the current system does its best to repress it, the information revolution cannot be held back and is the technological catalyst for the new emerging social ecological system of humanity. I’ll try always to relate it to our personal lives to show how this ultimate contradiction is situated and played out within us all.

So many human beings have fallen into the egotistical trap of thinking that their period of history was the most crucial period. Mind you, if history is dialectically evolutionary, they were/are probably right. I do think, however, this is the most monumental period for humanity because now we have evolved our cleverness to a point where we are affecting things at a planetary level. The trick now is to convert our cleverness into wisdom. We need to wake up to the realisation that we are beings embodying and expressing universal evolutionary consciousness and that, since each one of us is (a unique and beautiful) part of the one reality of the universe, we need to use that realisation to create a life system in which both the system as a whole and each and every individual living part of that system can thrive and flourish. This is our historical task. We now have the scientific and technological knowledge to realise this. The obstacles are political and pedagogical. They are political because it is through politics that the old uses power to resist and repress and the new seeks power to transform and emerge. They are pedagogical because human transformation and emergence is a pedagogical process: we change through learning.

What is fundamental to emphasise, then, is that systemic change is no mechanistic process; that the old could well destroy the new (and the foundations of our social ecology with it); and so we need to recognise ourselves as living agents of universal consciousness with the power to take our species, our planet, possibly our universe to a way higher level of evolution. I will end with a call to all of us, but particularly young people, to get involved in catalysing and leading the processes that destroy the old and bring in the new.

In the meantime, watch these two talks. The first, by Daniel Schmachtenberger, is a more scientifistic perspective on WTF is happening; the second is an incredibly powerful argument by Aph Ko for the intersectional systemic nature of all forms of structural oppression, exploitation, and violence.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. Back soon

Joel

My Goldilocks injury

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for my silence. I haven’t written for over a month. Unfortunately, it’s because I had a bit of an accident about a month ago now and it’s put me out of action for a while.

It was the summer barbeque at my kids’ primary school. I was playing around on the play equipment. There was a rope around chest high and I guess I thought it would be a good idea to try to emulate the gymnastic prowess of my 7 year-old daughter. I stood in front of the rope and tried to lever myself up onto the rope. Instead, I must have only succeeded in pushing myself up high enough to then get enough momentum to propel myself forward down hard onto the ground.

I knocked myself out and an ambulance took me away. I broke my left metacarpal bone in my thumb in three places and pushed my right cheekbone into my face. I had to have two operations in which metal plates and screws were inserted both into thumb and cheekbone.

broken face

For two weeks, my brain felt like porridge. It was quite disconcerting and, indeed, when I forgot the name of my friend, Kate, downright distressing. For quite a while, I couldn’t read anything and just couldn’t work. But, gradually, my mental function came back. Also, I couldn’t, and still can’t, open my mouth very wide and there was and is numbness on the right side of my mouth which makes eating far less satisfying. Then there was the plaster cast. I couldn’t cut vegetables or wash up and so my already busy wife had to do my share of the cooking and cleaning up too. I like to sleep on my side but I couldn’t because of the cast on my left side and the swelling on my right side of my face, so I wasn’t sleeping well for a few weeks either. I wasn’t able to exercise and this factor in particular affected my mood. I felt down and felt guilty and also felt like a bit of a failure in terms of my work. But, I’m truly glad that it happened…

I’m glad that it happened because it has enabled me to learn several lessons that I could not have learned were it not for this accident. Here’s what I’ve learned…

  1. I’ve learned that my beliefs about humanity are correct – people are overwhelmingly kind and loving and ready to help strangers in times of need. When the accident took place, I and my kids were given kindness, care, and support by parents until the ambulance arrived. After the accident, I was inundated with offers of support and childcare and well wishes.
  2. I’ve learned that the NHS and its staff are amazing. The doctors, nurses, and support staff were all exceptionally good – not just highly professional, but wonderfully supportive and empathetic. If you’re reading this outside of the UK, it’s important to clarify that I’m talking about the National Health Service in the UK which remains free at the point of use to everyone, funded by general taxation. However, there has been creeping privatisation over the past two decades and we are fighting and must continue to fight this. The only bad part was the food provision – food produced afar in giant factories by low-paid workers for private companies and heated up in microwaves. To be fair, I was offered vegan food – chickpea curry and rice – and the simplicity of that food might have made it the best option for anyone, actually. But, it wasn’t fresh. It’s a remarkable, but tragic, element of modern capitalist UK society that the people who need nutritious, fresh food most of all – the sick, elderly, and children – get this mass-produced crap. But, there are exceptions. Nottingham University Hospitals, for example, have overhauled their catering system. All food is prepared on site and 77% of ingredients are sourced from local organic farms. Money has been saved instead by rethinking their food waste strategy. In short, I’ve learned intensively that we must fight for our NHS and much more.
  3. I’ve gleaned an insight into what it’s like to be disabled. Just an insight. The lack of control in one’s life; the practical difficulties of living one’s daily life – looking after my kids, washing up, paying for a ticket on the bus; the physical limitations that stop or make it much harder for you to enjoy things like sleep, exercise, intimacy with a partner. I hope to live and work with more empathy now towards disabled people.
  4. I’ve gleaned an insight into what it’s like to be in a system needing help but not knowing when you’ll get it. When I arrived at the hospital I was really helpless, alone, and frightened. I didn’t know what was wrong or when I’d get help. I felt feelings of fragility, fear, and a lack of control or power that I’d rarely experienced before. Sadly, a far more intense and serious version of this is the daily experience of many people trapped in poverty, in prison, in the benefits system, in the immigration or asylum system. It’s a daily struggle just for survival.
  5. I’ve learned that I can stay positive and find some inner strength when things go bad. I went in the blink of an eye from a strong person on whom others were dependent to being as dependent as a baby on others. It was a bit traumatic, but, thanks to strangers, doctors, nurses, friends, family – in short, society – I was ok. But, it was also nice to see myself not crumbling and able to dig in, find strength, and think the best. I was pleased to hear myself say to my wife just hours after the accident in the hospital that ‘something good will come of this’. You never really know who you are till things get bad, so I’m glad to see I’m alright 🙂
  6. Finally, I’ve learned that I’m 40 and not 7 and not to attempt risky gymnastics manoeuvres in playgrounds! But, I’m still going back to karate asap 🙂

I saw the doctors about both my face and thumb last Friday. Everything is healing well and I’m out of my cast and beginning to rehabilitate my stiff and painful thumb. But, the prognoses are for full recovery.

xray

See the right cheekbone (on left side of x-ray). The surgeons’ reconstruction is incredibly symmetrical!

So, it’s been a bit of a Goldilocks injury for me. Not too minor that I couldn’t learn anything from it and not too major that I’ll have lasting consequences to regret. I’m back in the saddle, i.e. desk chair, this week and have various blogposts planned, so stay tuned. Above all, this experience has just made me more determined to dedicate my life to making some small contribution to ensuring that everyone has equal access to the justice, freedom, health, education, and other opportunities that we all deserve.

face better

With love and solidarity

Joel

Why I burned my EU referendum ballot paper

You can listen to a podcast of this blogpost here. Otherwise, just read on 🙂

 

Dear reader,

Because I’m out of the country on EU referendum polling day, I received my ballot paper early, intending to vote by post. As you may have seen by now, yesterday I burned my EU referendum ballot paper.

burnt ballot paper

The photo shows a burnt ballot paper rather than a burned one. I was a bit inept. I took it outside to burn it and couldn’t destroy it. Turns out it was a serendipitous stroke because I’ve used it a bit more artistically now!

Those of you who have read my blogposts before will know enough about me to know that this was no flippant act of mindless petulance, but a decision and a plan that were the culmination of many weeks of reading and reflection. I have no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t assume anyone would watch it let alone think it would have any significant political effect. I’m not famous or powerful, but I, just like you, am just one person and I wanted to do the best thing I thought I could do with my one vote. All I had was a plan borne from deep reflection and a hope.
I still don’t know if I’m right. Even many of my closest friends think I’m wrong. I just wanted to put an alternative perspective out there. If, in time, I recognise the error of my judgment, I will openly come back and admit that as publicly as I burned my ballot paper.
With that said, I will now offer a list of reasons explaining why I decided to burn my ballot paper and what I sought to achieve by doing so. I’m going to give you two versions of my reasons – a very short version and a longer, more detailed version. If you don’t have the time or inclination, you can just read the short list of reasons. If you can, I ask you to read the longer version in which my arguments are given in far greater detail. The first reason I will give also explains why I didn’t give my reasons for burning the ballot paper immediately after doing it, but instead waited for a couple of days.

 

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The short version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
By burning my ballot paper I wanted to produce a work of art in the sense of producing something that provoked strong emotional responses in others. I wanted to create what Jacques Ranciere calls a ‘dissensus’, which is an act that disrupts the artificial and contingent ‘reality’ imposed each day upon us. I wanted to burn a hole out, to shine a light beyond, this spectacle of a society. This is a scary, brave move for me. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist before. I still don’t.

burning a hole through

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign. I’ve expected it from the right-wing Leave, but the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left Remainers have shocked me. Their pathetic vision and tactics – a combination of scaremongering cold economism and mythological romantic nationalism could never seduce me and has reminded me of the futility of reformism.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason is that I wanted to liberate myself from the unbearable and unfair weight on my shoulder foisted above me – a burden manifested as a binary choice between two unpalatable and toxic options. So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated – the class, patriarchal, racist war in which fellow human beings are imprisoned, left homeless, hungry, and even killed every single day. The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. To talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. To vote in the referendum, for me, is to give implicit support to this myth and to the nation-state – the embodiment of all forms of social injustice – as the foundation of our political system.
We must transcend representation. We are not citizens; we are passive ‘constituents’ in an ‘anti-political’ system. Real politics, democracy, is the politics of citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We already have begun.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
On both sides, the referendum is portrayed as a monumental historical event. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a credible analysis of how this process produced this event. The referendum was caused by a split in the Conservative Party provoked by the rise of UKIP, but the rise of UKIP expresses the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of people discarded, exploited, and demonised by this economic system. To call all Leave supporters xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis and by embracing the myth of the nation and the possibility of reform, cannot adequately respond.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of us, must take history into our own hands.

So, what is the alternative?
There is no roadmap for change. We make the road by walking. As my historical analysis shows, we first need to know where we’ve come from. But, we do need a sense of direction for the way forward too.
We should bury any minor differences and come together in our communities in dialogue to develop both minimal and maximal programmes for action. The minimal programme would detail what needs to be done immediately to meet the physical needs of everyone in our communities and of nature. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision for the world we ultimately want to create and live in. At its most fundamental, this means the reversal of privatisation of property and the reflourishing of common forms of ownership and management. Democratic dialogue must be the cornerstone of our new politics and society. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.
We stand again confronted by a choice between socialism and barbarism. Rather than engaging with this referendum, I believe that people with concerns for eco-social justice should, as Gordon Asher has put it, ‘be focusing our time, energy and resources on building and evolving broad networks of resistance and alternatives in the UK, in Europe, and beyond’. We must be brave; we must reject the status quo of state politics; we must become citizens and we must actively build our democracy and win our justice and freedom for ourselves, our children, our planet.

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The longer version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
What I sought to do by burning my ballot paper was to produce a work of art in the sense that I sought, through my creative labour, to engage other human beings by provoking a strong emotional response within them. I wanted this artistic act to be an act of what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls ‘dissensus’.
For Ranciere, what we commonly understand as politics is really the ‘consensus’ – a reality that is constantly produced and enforced by the whole gamut of the state apparatus (government, party politics, media, university, school). An act that disrupts this reality and reveals the artificially enforced and contingent nature of the social order it maintains is an act of dissensus. Central to any political moment, to any instance of dissensus, is, as Stephen Corcoran puts it, a ‘particular kind of speech situation’, often short-lived, in which ‘those who are excluded from the political order or included in it in a subordinate way, stand up and speak for themselves’. Rancière describes this speech situation as ‘litigious’ because it ‘refutes the forms of identification and belonging that work to maintain the status quo’.
So, the first reason I want to give for burning my ballot paper is that I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus that expressed my refutation of the forms of identification that the EU referendum imposes upon me and my unwillingness to maintain the status quo/consensus by being a good little voter. I’ll talk about these forms of identification later in reason no.4.
I was also inspired by the ideas of Guy Debord and the ‘Situationists’ who came to the fore in the student movement in Paris of the late 1960s. Debord described our society as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’. This (near-)totalised commodification of human experience is ‘spectacular’ because our experience of reality is overwhelmingly mediated semiotically via communications systems:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ (ibid: 132)

Drawing heavily on Marx’s theory of abstracted and alienated relations of labour and commodity production within capitalism, Guy Debord saw ‘separation’ as the ‘alpha and omega of the spectacle’ – a separation institutionalised within ‘the social division of labour, the formation of classes’ that ‘had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning’ (ibid: 152).
So, I see the incessant EU referendum media flow as evidence of our society as spectacle. I see how it unites us in division – in this case a strict binary division. And I saw and felt it as an almost absolute force out of which we cannot escape. But, this kind of fatalism is precisely the weakness in Debord’s theory for me. There is a way out, a way beyond. I sought to burn a hole in the spectacle to reveal some light beyond – for myself and, ideally, for others too.

burning a hole through

The reason for delaying giving you my justifications for my act is that I wanted to try to provoke that emotional response in you and I wanted to give you the time to feel that and to respond to it in your own way. I wanted to put that act of dissensus out there into our world and for people to make their own sense (or non-sense) out of it. I didn’t want to try to open up a space merely just to immediately close it straight back down again through explanation.
So, this was an artistic act. That might sound vain, but this is no egotistical act. It’s the opposite. Joseph Beuys said that all human beings are artists. I agree. I’ve never ever thought of myself as an artist before, still don’t. For me, in a polarised environment, this took courage.

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign.
I know the right-wing game – the consistent and deliberate lying repeated enough times to turn a lie into a fact; the playing on the fears of angry, scared, and hopeless people. What I wasn’t prepared for was the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left social democrat Remainers. What a pathetic vision they have offered. Their arguments have either sought to claim that the EU is a bastion protecting workers’ rights, that only the EU can save us from the Tories or that it’s only thanks to the EU that we haven’t had World War Three. Then there’s the woeful ‘least worst option’ argument – we know the EU is undemocratic, but it’s not as bad as leaving. The more positive reformist argument is better, but wrong, I believe. I’ll explain why later.
The Remain argument has been broadly founded on a simplistic economism framing trade as virtually the object of life itself. This has been complemented by cheap, tacky videos aimed at disarming critical faculties by pressing emotional buttons by conjuring up words and images of romantic nationalism.

I’ve been shocked by how many people I know who would probably consider themselves on the left have bought this sugary bile. I have been told to tolerate some utilitarianism, but, for me, tolerating any utilitarianism means sacrificing reason and democracy. You can’t sacrifice those in their name. What we have learned from history is that in politics the means are the ends.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason why I decided to burn my ballot paper was because I was sick and tired of the unbearable weight that I felt on my shoulders – a weight that was foisted upon me involuntarily and constantly increased by daily exhortations by Remain supporters about the profound, almost unparalleled, historical significance and possible consequences of the referendum. The nature of this weight is the apparent obligation to choose between two irreconcilable contradictions. I personally cannot reconcile the contradictions and reject having to shoulder that responsibility imposed upon me/us involuntarily. By contradictions, I mean that both options I am offered are hideously bad. Gordon Asher sums up this supposedly democratic choice eloquently:

‘…‘both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels’ (Hore et al., 2016) – and the nation state (Plan C, 2016). Neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes…..given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain’ (Murphy, 2016)
If the UK ‘Remains’ under present proposals there will be a further neoliberal intensification… – a deepening and expansion of ‘austerity’; of competition, privatisations, imposition of markets/market like imperatives, and ‘the rule of money’ (Holloway, 2016), alongside a continuation of attendant assaults on what little remains of democratic mechanisms, public services, collective protections and human rights.
If the UK ‘Leaves’ under present proposals, the left will have to contend with capital’s inevitable response exploitative of crisis: hostility of the markets, ratings agencies, corporations and financial institutions – as well as of other governments – due to the threat posed by such an example (Anastasakis, 2016). We have witnessed, most recently in Greece (and they weren’t actually leaving!), the response of the neoliberal system to those who would dare take a different approach (Varoufakis, 2016).’

So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
Earlier I wrote about an act of dissensus as a way to refute those ‘forms of identification’ imposed on me/us. There are two forms of identification I want to particularly reject here. The first one is nationalism. I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated. Each day we the people are being imprisoned, starved, and killed by this war in the UK. I am talking about the class war that renders increasing numbers of us homeless and hungry, some of us even desperate enough to kill ourselves or others, and many more of us depressed, anxious, and stressed. I am talking about a patriarchal war that excludes women from power and opportunity; that, through austerity, punishes women disproportionately; that, through the production of a misogynistic media and culture, objectifies women and creates social conditions in which women are subjected to physical and sexual violence; and that, through a male-dominated criminal justice system, rarely delivers justice. I am talking about a white supremacist war that demonises and criminalises people with darker skin, particularly black and Muslim people, constructing them as the dangerous other, the enemy within our borders and the savage horde beyond.
The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. The nation-state is the institution that perpetuates this myth – with every war and every memorial of every war; on every Queen’s birthday; through the media; through the teaching of history; and through the everyday language and images it uses. To accept this myth, to talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. This is not to say that peoples might not collectively agree to form as nations, but it will be as nations without the nation-state.
This leads me to the second main refutation of forms of identification – the entire current model of supposedly ‘representative’ politics. First, what we have is not representative. The arguments for this are well rehearsed – a system dominated by middle and upper class white men; an unelected upper chamber; an unfair electoral system; and the whole system dominated by corporate, financial, military interests. Beyond this, however, is my rejection of any model of state politics in which we are reduced to peripheral and part-time players. In state politics, we might be called ‘citizens’, but we are not. We are ‘constituents’ who are given a vote to choose which party we think will give us the best value for our money and who can seek to lobby our representatives to make better fiscal and distributional decisions. Fuck that! This system has no future. Instead, we all have to build a real democracy in which we are citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We are already developing the ethos and methods of this direct politics. We now need to take power of our local councils. Clearly, then, I’m not saying we should shun the formal system completely. We need to engage with it to win power to dismantle it. But, this referendum is no such opportunity.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
I am told that I must vote Remain to stop the racists. For me, this is an ahistorical argument: rather than seeing history as a process, it reduces history exclusively to events. The referendum has become this monolithic EVENT. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a history that clearly explains the process that produced this event.
So, let’s take a longer historical view of the process that got us into a situation in which the political class was forced to hold a referendum and in which it became possible for a majority of voters to choose to leave the EU. It is commonly said that the EU referendum was foisted upon us because of a split within the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, being a broad alliance of divergent bourgeois interests (financial, commercial, agricultural), has long been divided over its relationship to European supranational institutions. What forced the Tory government’s hand was the rise of a nationalist, explicitly anti-EU party – UKIP.
Do we end our historical analysis there? No? Of course, not. What explains the rise of UKIP? It’s clear – UKIP is fuelled by the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of working and middle class people. Where do these feelings come from? They are the product of four decades of a political, economic, and cultural attack by the ruling class on our livelihoods, economic security, health, education, culture, and self-esteem. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the deindustrialisation of UK towns and cities. The neo-liberal agenda has meant the decimation and privatisation of social housing, healthcare, education, culture, and justice. Imperialist wars have provided doomed employment and escape for many, but have devastated those societies from which desperate refugees come and have brought home UK soldiers with broken minds, spirits, and bodies. The crisis in capitalist profitability fueled an unprecedented global financialisation that brought the system crashing down in 2008. Eight years later and the next, far bigger crash is only a matter of when not if.
We only have a referendum vote and a vote that Leave might well win because we have a capitalist system that has discarded and demonised millions of people in this country for decades nows. This is where the anger, fear, and hopelessness of so many people comes from. To call them all xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis, cannot adequately respond. And this is why I reject their reformist position. Capitalism is a system of social relations structured in exploitation, oppression, and violence. It cannot be anything but. History shows us that reformers seeking change from within an institution end up themselves being changed instead.
We are at an historical moment of profound crisis expressed as an intensified social war in which the current system cannot reproduce itself any longer. It has reached its material, physical, evolutionary limits. 2008 was the first heart attack. This system has to crash again and soon. The crash will be triggered by an event. The event might be the referendum. I don’t think it will be, but it might be. But even if it is it would be a mistake to somehow blame the crash on Brexit. Brexit is the inevitable consequence of this current terminal neo-liberal phase of capitalism.
This is like watching the slowest but scariest car crash in history (Again! i.e. like being in 1930s and the only way out of that crisis was genocidal war). It’s socialism or barbarism again. And this significant event, Brexit, might just wake some on the left up about the actual nature of the historical situation we’re in.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of you, must take history into my own hands.

So what is the alternative?
‘There is no alternative’ is, of course, that infamous Thatcherite mantra that ruled supreme and imprisoned our power and imagination for three decades. When we look at the way more and more areas of politics and policy are being put beyond democratic control into the hands of ex-banker technocrats, we might feel that the ‘TINA’ era continues. The EU is the best example of this kind of ‘post-political’ institution. Nevertheless, the ideology of the supposed free market is no longer hegemonic and those with their hands on the levers of political power can make their moves, but their time is ending and their system is collapsing.
What shocks me is when I hear the TINA line from well-meaning liberal/social democratic types. A neighbour of mine actually said ‘I’m as anti-capitalist as anyone, but show me the roadmap’. As if there was ever a roadmap from feudalism to capitalism! Such notions betray a fundamental ignorance of history. ‘We make the road by walking’, as the Zapatista saying goes. And those of us who are building the new society that is already emerging out of the collapsing architecture of the current system have already begun down that path.
While Karl Marx was rightly adamant that there was no blueprint for the future society, we do need a clear sense of direction and we also need to know where we’ve come from in order to know where we can and should go. This means understanding our history. So, one central task is not to dismiss Leave voters as, as one Facebook ‘friend’ put it, ‘unthinking fools’, but to engage them, listen to them, and try to work with them to reveal an alternative, reasoned history for why they are suffering so much. The second task is to bury any minor differences and come together in dialogue to articulate a minimal and maximal programme of objectives and actions. The minimal programme would express what we believe is needed immediately to satisfy the material needs of everyone and nature in our community right now. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision of the world we ultimately want to create and live in. The next task is to decide on a political action plan for getting these things achieved. Some actions might require action within the system – winning electoral office to democratise power and change laws, for example; Many other actions can be done outside – for example, establishing new co-operative commonly-owned and managed ways of producing and distributing resources, energy, food, money, etc. The foundation must be new radically democratic ways for interacting, learning with, and deciding with each other. Dialogue is the corner stone here.
Both Remain and Leave campaigns are founded instead on an anti-democratic cynical view of human nature. This is clear for Leave, but by Remainers arguing that only the EU can save us from the Tories they betray a similarly cynical lack of belief in themselves and others – in our capacity to act. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. The crisis has to deepen, the shit has to hit the fan. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.

Last week, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in an act of fascist terrorism. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable, beautiful, and wholly good human being. While I praise many of the stances she took, she was for Remain and within the Labour Party. I am neither of those things. I am a radical socialist. While this is a fundamental difference, it is a difference irrelevant to the far right. Above all, what we must recognise is that before the Nazis and much of the German population killed the Jews, the homosexuals, the Roma, the disabled, and others, they killed the trade unionists, the socialists, the social democrats. It is the murder of socialists, those who stand first and firmest against hatred and for justice, that paves the way for genocide. Once again, we are confronted with a stark choice between socialism and barbarism.

What does the economy look like, Part Two: Developing the view from below

A brief summary of Part One of this post

In an earlier blogpost entitled ‘What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?’, I critiqued mainstream graphic representations of the economy, giving the examples of the commonly spotted GDP chart and supply-demand curve.

GDP ONS

demandsupplycurve

Without dismissing the usefulness of graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors, I argued that ‘when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent’. In short, economics depoliticises by hiding the deeper reality which is that the economy is ultimately made up of social and natural relations, that is relations between ourselves and nature. I gave the example of something as everyday and essential as a plate of food and asked readers to think about all the human and non-human life that contributed to producing and delivering this food. It is almost impossible to account for all contributing lives here. Yet, they are real and we are bound with them in global systems of relations of production, exchange, and consumption. There can be no more materially real relations to us than the ones between the lives that make our life possible and yet these people, these natural elements are invisible to us. If we wish to change our economy, we need to somehow see our economy, and this means making the invisible somehow visible. We need to see, to some degree at least, the social systems structuring our economy.

I then introduced a recent book by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel called Cartographies of the Absolute. Don’t let the title frighten you! It’s a good one actually because it refers succinctly and directly to the central issue. How can we make visible something that is both at the same time everywhere and seemingly nowhere? How can we render static that which is constantly moving and changing? Toscano and Kinkel are interested here in the absolute that is capital, that ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed.

1439234375_Cartographies

Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’. But, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, this mustn’t paralyse us. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. If, as Frederic Jameson contends, ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’, why not start from the bottom instead?

In the final section of Part One, I proposed that if the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see. I then introduced what I call the ‘Flo Chart’, a pictorial representation of the economy produced by a wonderful woman called Flo who participated in a learning group I ran in Hodge Hill, Birmingham. Here’s the picture of the Flo Chart.

The Flo Chart

You can read Part One to see what I wrote about it in detail. Suffice to say here that the Flo Chart shows us that, even without the technical language, people can demonstrate remarkable insight and have much to teach others about our world. In this case, what Flo captures, beyond the charts and graphs, are the social relations of the economy, the exploitative nature of those relations, and our ultimate interdependence.

Finally, in Part One, I argued that, beyond merely recognising and including the knowledge and insight generated by people at the bottom of our society, the view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central and vital to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

Seeing the Economy, Part Two: Learning inspired

In Part Two of this blogpost here, I offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society. I focus on role-playing exercises that I have conducted with two groups of people in recent months.

The role play

Ken Loach is a now legendary film director who has spent six decades making beautiful and brave social realist films. He has allowed us to see them all here. His films have directly influenced society and politics in this country and beyond. I haven’t seen Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake yet. The film recently won the ‘Palme d’Or’ award for the best film at the Cannes Film Festival. What I have seen, however, is a two-minute clip from the film which you can see here.

When I saw this clip I was immediately struck by how similar it was to the role play scenarios devised and performed by the participants in the learning groups I facilitate. In two separate learning groups, I have worked with participants to devise role plays set in benefits offices/job centres like this one. Our sessions go from sharing our stories, performing a role play, discussing the experience of the role play, and then, finally, analysing the role play politically.

Sharing our stories and performing the role play

The sessions begin with each other sharing their stories. I then invite participants to use their own experiences and stories to imagine the setting of the benefits office or job centre, to take roles within the office, and to perform these roles. I then allow the participants themselves to develop the scenario. My job is only to ask them occasionally if they think that what they are performing feels realistic, authentic to them. I loosely use the techniques of ‘Forum Theatre‘ developed by Brazilian dramatist and educator Augusto Boal. Hence, I invite other participants watching to take the place of the current actors in order to try to develop, or ideally resolve, the situation.

In one group, a young father whose benefits have been frozen for missing an appointment tells a benefits officer that the reason he missed his appointment was because his son had broken his arm and he had to take him to the hospital. The benefits officer, in a similarly officious and detached manner to that displayed in the film clip, informs the young man that he should have written a letter to that effect and will now have to reapply. The young man protests, saying that he is here in person now, that he has no money at all and two hungry kids at home. He appeals for understanding, for empathy, and for support. He is told that he can apply for a hardship fund, but that this application would still take two weeks.

In another group, the scenario is of a young man with learning disabilities who needs to be accepted for a particular disability benefit in order to qualify for assisted housing. When his case is rejected, he meets a similar bureaucratic wall. In this group’s case, it ended up with an emotional and irate applicant being physically removed from the building by the security guard just like the scenario in I, Daniel Blake!

The final step in our process was to ask participants, still in their roles, about their lives and their position in the scenario. We then ended our role plays and discussed what had happened in them.

The discussion

We focus very much on feelings in our discussions. There are feelings of fear, anger, frustration, and powerlessness, of course, on the part of those playing the roles of the applicants. I recall people saying how they just wanted to be understood, to be recognised, to be treated as a human being. For the applicants it is a very dehumanising experience. But, what of the benefits office staff? When I ask the people who played those roles, I get similar responses too. They speak of the stress, the pressure of their jobs; the long hours and low pay and the constant line of ‘clients’; and how they feel they have to disconnect from the people they serve in order to protect their own sanity. This is a fascinating and important insight. It’s easy enough to watch the film clip above all come away thinking that the benefits office staff are the bad guys, but are they? They too are suffering, they too are dehumanised. In a recent meeting with my friends at My Life My Choice where we watched and discussed this film clip, one participant did a quick internet search to find out what a security guard in the North East of England might earn. She found an advert for a security guard in Middlesborough with G4S offering £7.50 per hour! So, if not one of the people present in that situation is benefiting, who is? What is going on?

The analysis

From our discussion we then moved to analysis. We focused our analyses on the issue of power. Who has the least, who has the most power here? In our MLMC meeting, we agreed that those with the least power – those most silenced, unable to speak and act, and most threatened by the material consequences of the situation – were the young woman’s children. Then came the young woman herself, then the security guard, the benefits officer, and finally the manager. Yet, we also agreed that the manager himself had very little actual power and was just implementing rules and laws set from elsewhere. You can read a summary of this session here on the MLMC website.

So, in all these sessions, we start following the power and that leads us upwards – to regional managers, yes, but then to the Department of Work and Pensions, the Minister in charge of the DWP, the government, the Prime Minister, the political parties, the Houses of Commons and Lords that make the laws and decide the budgets. But, then who are the people in these institutions? What backgrounds are they from? Are they rich or are they poor? Are they black, brown, or white? Are they male or female? Able-bodied or disabled? Do they know what life is like on the bottom or not? From where do they and their parties get their financial support? From the people or from the large corporations and banks? What about the media that is so important a political and cultural force? Who owns and populates the highest ranks of the media?

Asking such questions leads us to draw ‘maps’ of power like this one from our recent MLMC session. Sorry this one’s not a great example – it was hastily drawn and is incomplete, but it gives you enough to see where it can and does go.

Power-and-job-centre-diagram

We begin to draw a map of one small area of the capitalist system and we begin to see how it is linked to political power. But, we could go further and we must. We must also ask why. Why does this woman have to claim benefits? Why do we have a benefits system? Why are benefits being cut so savagely? This brings in economic power – austerity and its roots in the global financial crisis. We could go further and further, wider and wider, geographically, historically, socially. There is a limit and we cannot, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly say, actually map the absolute. But, just to make a start here is crucial. We can actually see how relations of power, very real and violent ones, are not always, indeed are rarely, between people in the same place at the same time. Power flows through us in systems of relations that connect billions of human beings over huge distances, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

One final thing of the utmost importance to point out is the function of the security guard. The security guard’s presence shows us that this is a system that is always ultimately underpinned and secured by physical violence. The security guard represents violence and the violence is that of the nation-state. In turn, the nation-state is the embodiment of all social relations of domination that we experience. The person selling their labour-power as the security guard may have little power in their own lives, but as a security guard s/he embodies the violent power of the state. This is a painful schizophrenic life to lead for anyone.

The power of role play-led analysis

I find role plays really powerful, potentially transformative, exercises for several reasons. First, as I say, it helps us to see invisible but very real systems of relations of power and violence. Second, by using our bodies as well as our minds, we come to embody this new understanding in deeper, more sustainable ways. Third, and related, we learn with an energy and we work to produce our own knowledge based on our own experiences and insights. Fourth, by inhabiting the lives and roles of other people, even supposed enemies, we can develop our understanding, our empathy, our humanity. This is what makes such exercises and analyses potentially transformative.

The big challenge, however, is the next step. Seeing the vastest of the system can be helpful and is necessary, but it can feel disempowering, of course, and we need to all feel empowered so that we can change things. I will write more about this in future blogs, but, for me, the general approach is three-fold: First, we can take things back to the level of our own lives, to our own local communities and ask ourselves what we can do for ourselves and each other right now; Second, we can explore the system more, see the contradictions within it that lead to crisis, see how historically contingent it is and that there was a world before it and will be a world after it; Third, this leads us to think in more utopian ways about the world we actually want. We have to develop a shared sense of what we want, both in the short-term and in the long-term. This is the work we all need to do.

Conclusion

In Part One of this blogpost, I emphasised the importance of social theory – that even without knowledge of social theory, people’s intelligence, insights, and creativity shine through, but that social theory can give us all a richer language to cultivate our own intelligence and understanding. It’s the combination of experiential knowledge (that we all have) and scientific knowledge (that social theory can give us) that can produce transformational knowledge.

A central focus of developing this transformational knowledge that we need for our new lives and society must be on our economy. Here, the question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Only from this foundation can we start to reimagine and recreate an economy within our society in a truly democratic fashion. Democratic work always starts from the bottom-up. It is challenging, but truly rewarding and socially necessary work and it brings me into wonderful relationships with amazing, intelligent, and creative people. I am very fortunate to be blessed in this way.

In support of Roy Ngerng

Dear all,

Please read the following taken from a Facebook post today by Singaporean campaigner and friend Roy Ngerng:

Roy Ngerng

‘Got home only just. Spent nearly 8 hours being interrogated and held by the police today. Have not had a proper meal yet.

Was at the police station at 10am. Left close to 6pm.

Police took out 14 posts on Facebook and blog to question me.

But there were posts completely unrelated to the election. One was on the funding update for the defamation suit that I faced from the Singapore prime minister. Another was just thoughts about how tax should be calculated in Singapore.

The Election Department reported that I posted articles on the day before election – which to let my foreign friends know, is illegal in Singapore.

But personal views are allowed. Still, I am being investigated for posting my personal views.

The police told me a few times this is an arrestable crime and I could be arrested. I heard they threatened to arrest Soh Lung – the other lady being investigated with me.

When I thought I was done, several police officers surrounded me. I was to be brought home. They were going to “raid” my home, I was told.

My phone was taken away from me.

When I wanted to speak to Jeanette – the lawyer who was representing Soh Lung, they refused to let me. And dragged me away.

I insisted I wanted to know my rights and whether it was legal for them to do what they were doing. They would not let me speak to Jeanette.

My mom was at home when the police came. She was in shock. I have never seen my mom so traumatised before.

I do not remember how long the police were there. Two activist friends came to check on me. The police would not let them into my home.

When the police finished the raid and I had to head back to the police station, the police pulled me away before I could speak to my friends further more.

I was told that after I left, my mom broke down. My sister said my mom could not take it. She did not know how to handle things anymore. Mom has been trying too hard to put up a brave front for these 2 years since the government has been attacking me.

What can I do at that point? For being a useless and unfilial son?

Mom made me some oat to drink before I left again. When the policeman asked me what I ate, I told him it was a mother’s love from her broken heart.

I told him – I stood up for justice and I lost my job. What did you lose?

It is very tiring. You fought so hard for equality. And who cares?

I spent nearly 8 hours with the police. I was not scared. Because my conscience is clear. But I kept thinking – why am I being investigated for a crime that I did not do – that should not even be a crime?

When I got back to the police station, the police told me that they wanted my all my passwords to access my phone, my laptop, and my Facebook and my WordPress accounts.

I asked why. They said it was because they wanted to check the IP address. They wanted to be sure I was the only person operating the account.

Funny, the government does not believe that just with one person, I can write nearly 700 articles on my blog and exposed how the government was taking our CPF pension funds to let GIC without telling Singaporeans?

I must be really honoured.

The police downloaded the archives from my Facebook. I overheard that Facebook taught them how to read the archives.

I asked them what they would do with my phone. They practically have access to my whole phone now and can access everything.

I have no more privacy.

I am angry. But tired. Exhausted. Sad. It is mixed emotions.

When I left the police station, I did not know what to feel.

I was reminded of what a PAP MP shared on his Facebook – democracy is like gang rape in action.

I felt raped. I felt raped when the police surrounded me to raid my home. I felt raped when they did not let me speak to my friends. I felt raped when the police searched all my devices and accounts in front of me. I felt like I was stripped and searched.

I lost my dignity, even as I tried hard to maintain it.

Having said that, most of the officers I met were nice enough. But one was not and was throwing his weight around. But I told the police – I do not hate them. They are doing their job. Singapore needs them for the real crimes. But it is in times like this, that I wonder if the police still remembers why they joined the police force for – to bully and intimidate or to protect people like me?

I have not eaten a proper meal until now. I told the police I wanted to get the interrogation over and done with quickly and did not want to eat. I did not know it would drag on for so long.

One policeman brought me two bars of cake. I thanked him but I did not eat them. He asked me why.

I said I do not trust this place. I do not trust what they would put in the food they give. They gave me two mineral water bottles. I did not dare to drink them. I did not trust the place, I said.

I told them – I have learnt not to trust because of what the PAP has done to me.

The police said – but we are nonpartisan.

Yeah, but the PAP makes use of you sometimes, I said. (PAP is the ruling party in government for the past 60 or so in Singapore, for those of you who do not know).

When I needed to go to the toilet about 5 or 6 times throughout the day, the police would stand watch over me like I am hardened criminal. They did this even when they raided my home. Imagine this – being guarded in your own home.

I stood my ground today but I did not know my rights, I did not know if what the police did was right or legal. I was pushed and pulled around.

I understand Soh Lung did not want to give her phone and laptop and asked for a search warrant. But the police threatened to arrest her.

Is this the kind of state we are in now – where we have to fear the very law and people who are supposed to protect us?

I am finally going to eat my first proper meal now. I am tired.

I wonder why I am doing all this. I am fighting for justice but it is tiring carrying the burden on my shoulders, alone.

When I stood my ground and faced the fire, I realise only I was there.

We want justice and equality for this country but we let just one person fight for it.

I asked the police – is your conscience pricked?

Is it?

I am sorry, mom and dad. I have let you down. I tried to be brave but what have I done to you? Have I done my duty to you as a son?

But it is not over yet. Tomorrow, I have to pay the prime minister the next installment for the defamation suit. I have to pay him S$180,000. And I still do not know if I will be charged for this “crime”.

I told an activist who met me when I came out of the police station, that finally today has ended. He joked in a half-serious manner and said it has only just begun.

Perhaps, it has, the rot to our nation.’

When I lived in Singapore in 2014, I started researching the political-economic situation out there for some blogs I was writing. I soon discovered the blog of Roy Ngerng who was using the official data of national and international agencies to reveal just how extreme inequality and how high poverty rates were in Singapore.

We got to know each other and then the you-know-what really hit the fan for Roy. Roy was investigating the ‘Central Provident Fund’ – the national pension fund into which Singaporeans are compelled by law to pay over 1/3 of their monthly income. Roy wanted to understand why Singaporeans were paying more than the citizens of any other nation-state, but were receiving one of the lowest returns. In posts like this and many others, He found out that most of the money pooled by the Singaporean government was being invested into Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek Holdings. He found that, while GIC and Temasek were delivering returns of over 9% per annum, the CPF pays only 3.5% returns. The government claims that there is a complete separation between itself and the sovereign wealth funds, but the boards of the wealth funds are led by the leaders of the government.

In one post, Roy’s passion pushed him just that bit too far and he made allegations of corruption on the part of the Prime Minister. While in the earlier years of the Republic, dissenters were imprisoned or exiled, the preferred method of repression today is rendering troublemakers bankrupt by legal means. This allegation was enough for the PM Lee Hsien Loong to use the preferred option and Lee (the son of Singapore’s found father Lee Kuan Yew!) duly sued Roy for defamation of character. The judge duly found in Lee’s favour and Roy was ordered to pay $150,000 SGD (£75,000) to an already very rich man. Roy was also ordered to leave his job by Tan Tock Seng Hospital where he worked on programmes aimed at supporting HIV/AIDS patients. He was given an hour to clear out his things and leave. This was in 2014. He hasn’t been able to find another job since.

Many Singaporeans have contributed to Roy’s support fund. As well as covering the legal costs of, I believe, around $100,000, ordinary people have now donated over $30,000 to Roy’s fund. International statements of solidarity and support for Roy have come from many places including the International Court of Justice which criticised the Singaporean state’s use of civic defamation suits to silence opposition figures.

Roy is now being harassed and interrogated by the police for allegedly breaking an obscure election-related law. It sounds as if his poor mother is being interrogated too. Please read this Facebook post.

You can see more about Roy in his own words and donate to Roy’s cause at https://thehearttruths.com.

You can watch an interview I conducted with Roy in 2014 here.

Please forward this and let people know the repressive reality of life in Singapore.

Thanks

Joel

A tale of two cities: An open letter to the people of Oxford…and beyond

You can listen to this blogpost as a podcast recording here…

Dear all,

I make no assumptions about you having missed me, but, nonetheless, I want to offer an apology for my prolonged silence. I haven’t posted a blog in over a month. I’ve been blogging here for a couple of years now and I’ve consistently put out around three blogs each month. I would imagine that one of the ingredients of success in blog-writing is surely consistency in output, so I’ve been remiss here. That said, there is an explanation. Over the past month, I’ve organised my own weekend ‘Unconference’ (for Transformational Learning and Culture) and I’ve participated in events in Aarhus, Denmark (which I’ll write about here) and in Vancouver, Canada (a forgettable academic conference, sadly, where I met some unforgettable people). So, I’ve been busy organising and travelling.


In this blogpost, I want to tell you about and show you some photos of the Dokk 1 building, the new ‘Library and Citizens’ Services’ building in Aarhus that hosted a 3-day event called Counterplay that I was fortunate enough to attend last month. I want, then, to contrast this architectural experience with the huge Westgate shopping centre redevelopment happening right now in Oxford. I want to invite the people of Oxford (and beyond) to think about what might happen if something like Dokk1 were being built in Oxford instead.

 

Dokk1 – ‘A Space for Change’

Counterplay – play when things get difficult was an event dedicated to exploring the fundamental importance of play and playfulness in human (child and adult) learning and living. Here’s how its organisers described the event:

‘CounterPlay is a tribute to and an exploration of the many ways, in which a more playful approach can help us live better lives. We focus on the excitement, intense engagement and rich experiences of people involved in all kinds of playful experiences. This sparks an investigation of how play can be transformative, change our thinking, push our boundaries and lead us places, we never imagined’

I learned a great deal at Counterplay and the experience has given me a greater confidence to use play and to help people to be playful in the classrooms and other learning spaces I inhabit. What gave me as powerful an experience as the event itself, however, was the building that hosted it. I felt an incredible energy in this building.

DOKK1-Cut

The building is called ‘Dokk1‘ and it opened on the dockside in Aarhus, Denmark in June last year. According to Wikipedia, it cost 2.1billion Danish Kronas (£220mill) and was funded by the Aarhus Municipality and Realdania, a ‘private association in Denmark which supports philanthropic projects in the realms of architecture and planning’.

The building is a ‘Library and Citizens’ Services’ centre in Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus. It’s an incredible space that really does seem to meet the needs of all generations. The library is interspersed throughout the building with other areas such as reading rooms, function rooms, meeting rooms, computer gaming areas, and children’s soft-play areas. There is an incredible amount of light and feeling of space inside. This is particularly important in a place where the climate sends you inside for many months of the year.

Gongen_1000x468_2

Usually, when you read the official bumf describing an architectural project it sounds like what it is, a lot of faux-democratic hot air. But, having spent many hours over a couple of days in this building, this feels like the real deal. So, I’ll let the Dokk1 website describe its own principles and goals…

‘Dokk1 should be a flexible and dynamic sanctuary for everyone in search of knowledge, inspiration, and personal development – an open and accessible learning environment supporting democracy and community.’

‘Dokk1 provides space for contemplation and knowledge. It is an attractive, intelligent and interactive building, which supports the desire to learn and experience.

Citizens, politicians, staff, experts, cooperation partners and networks have contributed to establish the seven core values for Dokk1.

  • The citizen as key factor
  • Lifelong learning and community
  • Diversity, cooperation and network
  • Culture and experiences
  • Bridging citizens, technology and knowledge
  • Flexible and professional organisation
  • Sustainable icon for Aarhus’

2016-04-15 12.08.25

The designers of the building have given much consideration to the issue of accessibility: ‘Special attention has been paid to allergy sufferers, wheelchair users, people with prams and strollers and people who have visual, hearing, mobility, or other functional impairments.’

As for sustainability, amongst other features, Dokk1 has a giant 2,432 m2 solar panel on its roof; uses seawater to cool the building; and all lights are LED and are off unless triggered by movement.

The whole experience of being in Dokk1 was really profound for me. I felt an incredible energy; I felt inspiration and hope – that another world was entirely possible and this was the physical manifestation of something that at least took us hugely in the right direction towards it. If you want to read more about Dokk1, you can in the aptly named book ‘A Space for Change‘.

 

WESTGATE OXFORD – Plus ça Change

I now want to contrast the Dokk1 project and experience with the major reconstruction and expansion of the Westgate Shopping Centre here in Oxford where I live. This is a serious undertaking and is going to produce a very large mall right in the centre of the City. Here’s what the Westgate Oxford website says about itself:

The Westgate Oxford Alliance is a joint venture between Land Securities and The Crown Estate, created to deliver together the most unique opportunity in the UK, a new destination in Oxford City Centre. Westgate Oxford will be the new retail and leisure destination set to attract world-class retailers and leisure facilities to the world-renowned and historic city of Oxford. It will create a brand new shopping and leisure experience in the heart of the city, scheduled to open in Autumn 2017, in time for Christmas.’

(FYI The Crown Estate is the huge property management and development entity that manages and develops property on behalf of the British Monarch – not the actual Queen personally, but the institution of the Sovereign.)

So, when did yet another massive shopping mall filled with the same old multinational brands constitute ‘the most unique opportunity in the UK’? And, that’s just the start of the marketing BS. Here’s more…

‘Relaxing and buzzing, intellectual and hedonistic, stylish and comforting, Westgate Oxford will deliver a game changing experience set to reinvent the city of Oxford as the ultimate retail and lifestyle destination.’

Here’s the video selling us this vision of Oxford’s future…

Westgate Oxford launch trailer from Westgate Oxford on Vimeo.

 

A tale of two cities: An open question to the people of Oxford (and countless other cities and towns besides)

”Change life! ‘Change society!’ These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space… new social relationships call for a new space, and vice versa (Henri Lefebvre)

We have a tale of two cities. In one city, ironically, known worldwide for its relationship to knowledge, you have a carbon-copy massive shopping mall built by big corporate and state money, using the symbols of elitist luxury to advertise the latest temple of materialist indulgence to the aspirational, yet ever more indebted, middle class and poor. In the other, we see a building for learning and culture and with the explicit goal of personal and social transformation designed out of an almost two-decade-long participatory process with the citizens of Aarhus.

As Henri Lefebvre’s quote shows us, we are confronted with the most profound questions about space, power, and the kind of relationships that spaces cultivate.

The questions I want to ask you are: What do you think would happen to our city if we built something like Dokk1 instead? What would it mean for the relationships we had with each other? What kind of relationships do we have with ourselves, with each other, and with Nature in a large shopping mall? What kind of knowledge, what kind of culture is produced? What kind of relationships do you imagine might be being cultivated within Dokk1? What do you think might be the consequences of these two very divergent paths?

Finally, whom is all this knowledge produced in Oxford for? What if we started to accept the judgments and decisions of the so-called ‘experts’ no longer and sought to create spaces for ourselves to come together and to produce our own knowledge and culture that satisfied our needs and demands? If our City Council is committed to what I believe is fundamentally an ecocidal and genocidal vision for the future of this wonderful city then are we not obliged to build our own alternatives? Are we not obliged to take back political power together from our councillors and to take power ourselves so that we can build spaces and relationships of a biophilic (life-loving) nature?

Thanks, as ever, for reading. I welcome all comments, responses, ideas.

Love and peace,

Joel