Do I Owe You Anything?

“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” This quote from the sci-fi novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin ended one of my previous posts. And now I want to take a closer look – what might it actually mean if we were to free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning?

To explore this I am going to get personal and focus on relationships. One sort of relationship is friendship and it is often governed by notions of deserving and earning. For example, if I give my friend a present for their birthday then I might think that I deserve to get one for my birthday, that I’ve earned it. But if we free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning how then can we describe this scenario? It’s obvious that my friend and I care about one another, which is why we’re friends, so I give them a birthday present predominantly as a means of expressing that care. I don’t have to give them a present but I do choose to. Now, I’ve done a nice thing for them but does that mean they have to do a nice thing for me? Well, if earning/deserving are out the window then the simple answer is no. There is no universal law or cosmological truth or fundamental principle that means every good deed deserves another. However, my friend, uncompelled by abstract principles, might still choose to give me a present because they also want to express their care for me and because they know I like getting presents.

The two situations I’ve described above aren’t hugely different – they’re both about giving and receiving presents. However, in the first we can fall back on ideas of earning/deserving – “I gave you a present, so I deserve one”, as if there are unwritten laws that govern how friendships work. In the latter, we cannot fall back on these invisible laws but instead must take responsibility for our actions and choose what we’ll do accordingly. To go back to the quote we can consider the ideas of earning/deserving from two angles: either, everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. The former suggests that we all deserve birthday presents and that sounds great but as soon as the scenario arises in which some people get lots of presents whilst others get none then the principle is undermined. Likewise if we all deserve nothing then we could use this to justify hoarding presents for ourselves whilst never giving them to other people. However, without the ideas of deserving/earning then the act of giving presents is about choice. We love our friend and might choose to express that via giving a present. And so, freeing our minds of the ideas of deserving/earning changes everything. Rather than being governed by rules or laws or decrees or commandments we are suddenly free to act however we wish – we can give as many or as few presents as we want. We get to choose. To put it another way rather than being forced to sing to another’s song we get to compose our own: we get to make our kind of music.

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How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.

Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

Sorry, That Job Went To A Robot

Back in the 1810s a group of skilled self-employed weavers bandied together to take a stand against the new wave of weaving technologies that was being introduced. These included the power-loom and the spinning frame and all would require less-skilled labour to be used. The self-employed weavers were worried they would be out of a job. So they got to breaking these technologies in calculated acts of protest and called themselves the Luddites – arguably a reference to Ned Ludd who smashed some stocking frames back in 1779. And now, hundreds of years later, it’s not a power-loom that will force many people into unemployment, it’s robots.

Drones will deliver post, robots will run warehouses, automated check-outs will bleat at you to ‘insert your card’, Excel will do your accounting, a new piece of software might even paint a picture for you and cars will drive themselves. And what for the people who used to do these blue and white-collar jobs – they’ll have nothing to do. Some call them ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ people, which is a glib way of acknowledging that history appears to be an endless case of efficiency taking precedence over people. But there’s nothing efficient about a society full of unemployed and unhappy people, the sort of people who might take arms against robots and start smashing.

Meanwhile, those with vested interests will laud the oncoming industrial revolution saying it’s the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had for advancement. I imagine similar things were said about nuclear energy. The zealots of this movement will barely be able to contain themselves knowing that their latest Amazon package will be flown to them via drone or they’ll be able to upload their memories into a robot (yup, Ray Kurzweil would love this). It’s worth remembering that these people will probably be rich and very far removed from the worries and realities of poverty and unemployment. They might also have not have asked if there are actually enough resources on earth to robotise everything.

So, what to do? Firstly, don’t take any of these stories at face values whatever the predictions – nothing goes as planned. Secondly, if the elites get what they want and society becomes increasingly automated (as it already has done) we must ask what it means to have a world without labour (or, at least, human labour) – what does this mean for feelings of self-worth considering they are so often tied to the work we do and what does this mean for the Labour party itself, founded on the rise of the working classes? Thirdly, this isn’t really about machines and robots, this is about power, people and how we treat each other. A Universal Basic Income is just one way of ensuring everyone gets paid even if they don’t work. Although the right wing, if they were to implement something like this, would probably use it as yet another excuse to strip back the state and weaken public services but what’s the point of a UBI if you can’t afford medical care and other necessities?

So the future is still there to be fought for. It’s not a foregone conclusion and the stories the vested interests weave don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies. We can challenge power, as hard as it is, and create a fairer world for all, with or without robots. Basically, it doesn’t have to end up becoming like this…

You Don’t Own Me

Grace, the Australian singer, recently covered Lesley Gore’s ace 1963 single You Don’t Own Me and it sure gets the feminist feet stomping. Each inspiring verse is interspersed with some sexist thoughts from rapper G-Eazy (Sl-Eazy more like it) as he tries to assert his male dominance over the woman he “would love to flaunt” as she’s not one of your average “basic bitches”. Indeed, she’s the “baddest ever…Never borrow, she ain’t ever loan, That’s when she told me she ain’t ever ever ever gonna be owned.” Then Grace blasts back with a booming chorus and puts Mr Misogynist back in his place. But all this singing of possession makes me wonder exactly what ownership actually is?

Why is it that Grace needs to assert that someone else does not own her? How could the scenario even have arisen in which people come to think that they actually own others? Part of the answer (and I reckon quite a big part) is, unsurprisingly, to do with money. As a brief scan of anthropologist David Graeber’s 500+ page book called Debt reveals, money has played an integral part of human society for hundreds of years. Economists tend to tell us that money came into being when barter systems got too confusing – if I give you ten oranges, three pigeons and a mug in return for a pair of shoes, two bananas and a kitten…but instead of all that faffing about with oranges and bananas a different system of exchange was introduced whereby something came to act as a store of value. It could be a coin, a rod of iron or a piece of paper, as long as everyone agreed that the values remained consistent and commensurate over time.

But, argues Graeber, that fictional land of peaceful and friendly barter didn’t exist, as least not on a large-scale. Instead, he argues that money grew out of debt. Take the Roman Empire for example – when they invaded a new territory they would often turn their captives into slaves. Slavery is the ultimate form of ownership as it rips someone from their social context and ties them to someone else. The alternative to being enslaved was basically death or slowly, slowly buying back one’s freedom by working long and hard enough. A slave owed their life to their master but only because the master had the power. Money itself is also debt. On a £10 note it says: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the some of ten pounds.” The actual piece of paper is worthless but it’s what it stands for – i.e. that these items or services are all worth £10. Money is one giant system of IOUs. However, it’s clearly not an arbitrary system because there’s a whole system of banking, policing and law-making  to ensure that people pay their debts.

So, concludes Graeber, behind money is debt and behind debt is power, and the history accords with this – the economic power of the Roman Empire depended on its military strength because it had to have a way of enforcing its debts, having a giant army helped with this. And something similar is true today, only those with power can call in their debts and this power usually involves violence or the threat of it. G-Eazy says that Grace is an independent woman “All because she got her own dough, Boss bossed if you don’t know, She could never ever be a broke ho”. And that certainly is one way of getting out of slavery, by making lots of money, but humans existed long before money and whilst we do put a price on freedom and maintain that price with force it’s still just a system of belief, albeit a very powerful and tragic one. But maybe there’s a different way. More ideas to come, in the meantime here’s the original, without G-Eazy offering us his sexist thoughts in between the good bits.

Was Agatha Christie An Anarchist?

A toffish cad. A louche adventurer. A religious spinster. A pompous war general. A Harley Street doctor. A private investigator. A self-important judge. A teacher at a private girls’ school. A supercilious butler. A jittery maid. Yup, it’s the characters of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s most successful murder mystery novel. Now, many of us will know Agatha Christie not only for her ingenious twists but also her racism, homophobia and sexism. She might have been ahead of her time in terms of plot devices but she certainly wasn’t when it came to values. However, it’s always the ones we least suspect and I think that behind all the casual bigotry lay an undercover anarchist. Here’s why (with big spoilers but I certainly won’t reveal whodunnit).

It starts with that cast of ten characters – between them they represent the British establishment: there’s inherited wealth, colonialism, imperialism, religion, the military, the justice system, private school, wilful/enforced servitude, the class divide and the law (perhaps there should be an MP there too but inherited wealth and private school pretty much cover that one). They are also predominantly male and all are white. So they’re everyone wrong with elitism and all are incredibly nasty people – not least in personality but also because each one of them is guilty of murder. Yup, as if being bigoted snobs weren’t enough they’re also killers and many of them show no remorse for it – turns out there’s such a thing as daylight murder as well as daylight robbery.

So this just basically sounds like yet another homage to posh, British people a la Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and any Tom Stoppard/Noel Coward play. But because it’s Christie and because she really couldn’t let ten terrible people get away with murder she does something your typical English-aristocracy-tribute doesn’t do – she kills them all. That’s right, one by one they get picked off, in increasingly brutal fashion, by an unknown killer on some sort of deranged vendetta. So that’s how Christie treats her posh people and for me nothing could scream undercover anarchist more loudly. Of course, anarchists don’t condone murder but they do condone a complete overhaul of the establishment and what better way to do that than metaphorically bump off all the usual, elitist suspects – the ones with the vested interests that keep society unfairly rigged in the favour of the 1%.

Convinced? Probably not. But post-colonial, feminist revisions are always fun, next time I’ll apply the queer gaze. Although before I do that I should probably lay my cards on the table and confess to being a huge Christie fan – whilst I can’t help but feel she had similar views to her characters (but perhaps not, Hercule Poirot was a refugee after all and made a habit out of standing over the dead bodies of rich Brits) she was the mistress of the red herring and surprise ending. The trick now is to take those plot devices and place them firmly in the 21st century, to ensure curtains for bigotry as well as all those nasty, murderous elites. Oh, and the BBC are showing this Christie classic at the moment, it even stars Poldark!

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/5d1f01b367318717fa96fb7d18d6ec5e6568d0d3/0_0_4284_2856/master/4284.jpg?w=620&q=85&auto=format&sharp=10&s=3edcc85717f2d2d6ac96224642c880f4
When Brits go abroad they don’t come back…

The Play: It’s Complete Anarchy

It’s show time for Universally Speaking! Opening night is tomorrow at the Bread & Roses Theatre, Clapham, and it runs each night until Saturday (7.30 – 9pm). The actors have learnt their lines, the final props have been bought (including a 6 pack of ready salted and three mini primroses) and the tickets are selling. I’ve been doing my bit as producer and I can safely say that the process has been utter chaos. Yup, complete anarchy of the best variety…here’s why.

Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), a famous activist, philosopher and geographer defined anarchism as “a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional…for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being” (and if you’re interested in etymology it’s roots stem from the Greek anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’).

No boss, a lack of hierarchy and lots of good will: yup, that sums up the production process for Universally Speaking. Whilst we’ve taken on different roles: Simon Jay directing, me co-producing, the actors acting, technicians teching, the writers writing and so on, there hasn’t been a ‘top dog’ telling us all what to do. We’ve taken responsibility for our own roles and brought our expertise to the table. We’ve formed an “interwoven network” and worked together to bring a piece of theatre to life. Kropotkin likens anarchistic organisations to organic life, “harmony would result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences”. And so the show has organically developed, often taking on quite a surprising life of its own (you’ll have to see for yourself).

Now, in an ideal anarchistic state (little ‘s’) there would be no money but sadly we haven’t managed to be that savvy. Instead, over 50 people donated to our indiegogo fundraising campaign and we raised £920. This is testimony to how great and generous people are. Kropotkin talks of mutual aid – “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit” – and its a nice counterbalance to Darwin’s relentlessly selfish natural selection predicated on greed and constant competition (not that Darwin really described it like that). And the level of support we’ve had putting together the play has been heartblowing. Alongside the financial aid we’ve had people offer to promote the play and help with the lighting and sound. Meanwhile, the cast and director have given so much of their time just so they can make new theatre and the writers have waived their fees from their pieces.  However, because we don’t yet live in Anartopia of the £920 raised £100 will go to each actor and to the technician (the rest will cover marketing costs and props) as an exceptionally small thank you for their hard work. We’re splitting tickets sales 50/50 with the theatre and any profits we make will go to charity – the UNHCR and Mind, the mental health charity. As for The Bread & Roses, they’ve been great and it’s fantastic to have theatres so supportive of new writing.

Another important guiding principle of anarchy is love. And that’s why we’ve all been working so hard to ensure Universally Speaking is a great night out. We all love the arts and the different elements of theatre – acting, directing, producing, writing, teching, staging – and are under no illusions that we’ll be quitting our day jobs any time soon. As for the final piece of the jigsaw, it’s you – the culture hungry audience members who have already bought a load of tickets! It’s only £10 for an incredibly fun night (cheaper if you book online). So I do hope you’ll come along to enjoy this theatrical slice of anarchy and unlike in a competitive, hierarchical capitalist system this really can be a win-win for all. Prince Kropotkin might just be proud. See you there!