Freedom And The Divine Right Of Kings

“We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of Kings.”

So said Ursula Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014. And, as ever, she was right. Capitalism, as the prioritising of money over everything else, and the toxic cultures it creates has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, pushed countless people into poverty, sent countries to war, corrupted democracies, eradicated species and destroyed so much of the earth. Hand in hand with authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, aristocracy and a whole host of other unjust power structures the grip of capitalism is agonising. But beyond despair Le Guin believed in the possibility of change.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

However, as the UK endures another Conservative majority government so change is harder to imagine but, for those of us that can, we must do our best to try. We must imagine a time beyond systemic racism, beyond rape culture, beyond the devastation of public services, and beyond capitalism. We must imagine a time where the leading values aren’t selfishness, greed, prejudice and violence but compassion, empathy, kindness and resilience, the exact values we’ll need as we build the worlds we want. And if you need any tips on how to exercise and expand your imagination, Le Guin has more advice to offer:

“Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.”

Taken from her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, this quote reminds us that however sure we are of our truths – that all people are equal, that everyone has a right to free healthcare, that no one should face violence – we still have to communicate them well. Whilst the facts are vital and telling them is crucial so too is transforming those facts into stories which will engage people’s imaginations and emotions, allowing them to see and feel the change we care so passionately about. Stories are the bedrock of empathy, which facilitates our ability to care about others.

And the more of us that care the more of us there will be to take action and challenge the racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination that are on the rise. The more of us there will be to question our privileges and redistribute them so as to increase equality. The more of us there will be to actively resist the oppressive and dangerous policies of this bigoted government. Change and resistance are possible, we must never forget. Indeed, for many who lived during the reign of King Charles I of England and Scotland it might have seemed impossible to imagine a time when this divinely appointed despot wouldn’t have so much power over their lives. And today, it might seem impossible to imagine a time when Borish Johnson, who rules with all the arrogance of someone who has been divinely appointed, doesn’t have so much power over our lives. But, following two civil wars, Charles I was found guilty of high treason as “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy” and beheaded on 30th January 1649. And I don’t think it will be long before Johnson is metaphorically beheaded (probably by his own party) as he fails to deliver on the lies he promised. In the meantime, we must keep imagining, keep hoping and keep doing the work that needs to be done so we, like Le Guin, can be the recipients of that most beautiful of rewards: freedom.

Why Are The Nazis Still Here?

On 1st May in Borlänge, central Sweden, Tess Asplund walked out into the middle of the road with her fist raised. There were 300 men walking towards her. They were the Nordic Resistance Movement – a group of racist, anti-semitic neo-nazis. “It was an impulse,” Asplund said, “I was so angry, I just went out into the street. I was thinking: hell no, they can’t march here! I had this adrenaline. No Nazi is going to march here, it’s not okay.” The photograph of Asplund has gone viral and she has received a lot of praise for it as well as a lot of hate (full Guardian article here). I find what Asplund did hugely inspirational but it saddens me that she needed to. I just can’t understand why, in the year 2016, the Nazis still exist.

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The last time we saw the Nazis rise to power was in 1930s Germany. The Wall Street Crash happened in 1929 and the Great Depression ensued. The Weimar Republic (in Germany) slipped from prosperity into poverty as inflation rose drastically and living conditions plummeted. So fertile ground was created for hostility, anger and rage. Hitler and his party used the worsening economic climate to fuel hatred. They scapegoated Jews and other groups, and blamed them for Germany’s woes. We know the rest of the story. It is violent and tragic. And the legacy lives on. There are still far too many Nazis (and other far-right groups) who feel they can gain identity and meaning through hatred and violence. Following the financial crash of 2008, the ensuing recession, imposed austerity, we see living conditions worsen and the social fabric start to fray. Again, the Nazis are using this as an excuse to scapegoat others whilst purposefully ignoring the wider economic problem.

Capitalism is predicated on growth and speculation. As a market grows (say the housing market) so it gets speculated upon and a bubble grows. During this ‘boom’ time governments can spend more on public services and people have more cash in their pockets. However, markets can’t grow forever and eventually bubbles burst. During the ensuing ‘bust’ period cuts are made, austerity imposed and people’s ready cash starts to vanish. The system is unsustainable and no resilient society can be expected to thrive in the long-term on such shakey foundations. However, politicians and various political groups cynically use these worsening conditions not to critique the larger economic system but to garner more political power. They play on people’s prejudices and pretend that a certain group is the problem. This group, they argue, needs to face hostility and violence and then our problems will go away.

But it’s not true and we all know it, even the neo-nazis. We all crave meaning and purpose and it’s a very mad world in which people find that meaning and purpose in violence. Yet these narratives of hate can be challenged. Not only do these narratives lack economic and political validity they also, clearly, lack compassion. Yet the action of Tess Asplund, whilst full of anger as she says, was also full of compassion and hope – hope for a better world that does not tolerate violence. Hope for a world where democracy does not mean pandering to groups who wish for murder and genocide but empowering groups who call for justice and love. Asplund had no idea the video of her protest would go viral. She acted purely in the spur of the moment and has been hugely surprised at what has happened since. She doesn’t claim to be a hero and wasn’t trying to be, she was just standing up for what she thinks is right. We can all do this. However big or small our actions count. Resisting hate is totally worth it.

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“The lady with the bag” taken by the photographer Hans Runesson in Sweden in 1985. She’s hitting a member of the neo-nazi Nordic Reich party.

I will leave you with an extended quote from the German economist Silvio Gessell. He wrote the below in 1918 after WW1 yet its relevance still applies. “In spite of the holy promise of people to banish war once and for all, in spite of the cry of millions “never again war” in spite of all the hopes for a better future I have this to say: If the present monetary system based on interest and compound interest remains in operation, I dare to predict today that it will take less than twenty-five years until we have a new and even worse war. I can foresee the coming development clearly. The present degree of technological advancement will quickly result in a record performance of industry. The build up of capital will be fast in spite of the enormous losses during the war, and through the oversupply [of money] the interest rate will be lowered [until the money speculators refuse to lower their rates any further]. Money will then be hoarded [causing predictable deflation], economic activities will diminish, and increasing numbers of unemployed persons will roam the streets…within these discontented masses, wild, revolutionary ideas will arise and with it also the poisonous plant called “Super Nationalism” will proliferate. No country will understand the other, and the end can only be war again.”