Archives for posts with tag: Affluenza

an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

Never have I have invested so much so emotionally only to have been so heavily defeated.

It is with a heavy heart that I have mulled over Labour’s loss. I have been engulfed in shame and guilt that I didn’t work harder for local people and our local candidate Steve Parry-Hearn. Often I have been driven to anger. At other times I have been simply listless.

We fought the right campaign with the right candidate and – looking now at the new pretenders – the right leader. Our campaign was flawed only in its morally correct view of modern Britain. For me it was like Iraq all over again:  marching against the war, being on the losing side of the debate only to be proven right; to be on the side of the just counts for little in defeat.

And in my anger I know that it wasn’t Mark Harper or even the Tories who beat us, but by Murdoch and the Mail Group.

For sure there were gifts to the opposition of our own making. Our argument on austerity wasn’t strong enough. Scotland is proof of that.

And we failed to win the argument on the issue of the economy and the last Labour government’s rhetoric during the worldwide economic downturn. Damn that idle, stupid joke at the Treasury stating ‘There’s no money left’ which Cameron waved about with relish. If only it said ‘There’s no money left because we spent it all on building schools and hospitals and eliminating NHS waiting times.’

As Mark Serwotka said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ 3 weeks after the election, the narrative the potential Labour leaders have seemed to swallow is a need to move to the Blairist right within the Party. Because Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’. And yet as Serwotka makes clear under Blair and Brown from 1997 Labour lost millions of votes. With Ed Miliband that trend had been reversed, which suggests a different story. The success of the SNP and their anti-austerity and anti-Trident message also suggests a different direction of traffic.

Or to put it another way, John Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth pointed out that “The average income is £26,000 a year or thereabouts. The tax we were proposing was for those on £150,000 or more. People on £26,000 are not aspiring or expecting ever to get to £150,000. And yet we have leadership candidates arguing that it is an obstacle to winning an election.”

Steve Parry-Hearn and Forest of Dean Labour’s manifesto was a manifesto which Clarion readers would recognise as their kind of Labour candidate and programme. Anti-Trident, anti-new nuclear at Oldbury, anti-fracking, strong on the protection of our Forest, strong on apprenticeships and even stronger on anti-austerity than the national Party line. Di Martin repeatedly lamented the bedroom tax and she carried her local comrades with her. A Labour-controlled local council was set to pause the destruction of our District Council and scrap local car parking charges. Nationally Labour would scrap the bedroom tax, bring in a mansion tax, and protect the NHS from the clutches of TTIP. But we’ve lost all that. That is the sum of our loss, not our lack of electoral success. The danger to our NHS now is truly frightening.

And yet while support for Labour in other constituencies plummeted, Steve Parry-Hearn and his campaign team lead by the inexhaustible Roger Gilson slightly increased our share of the vote in the Dean, snatching thousands of Lib Dem votes only to see our working class support slip through our fingers to UKIP and the Tories.

We shared muted elation at the strong performance of our Greens, beating the Lib Dems and gaining their first District Councillor for the Dean, but we were furious that Harper survived selling off our forest by proxy alone: the Conservatives won here despite their candidate not because of him. Their successes were in the media, not at the dispatch box and nor in the TV debates, their campaign merely exploited the media’s insatiable appetite for nationalism and fear.

But what now? What’s left for Labour? Is there any Left in today’s Labour?

In these vital coming months for our movement my advice is that we swell our numbers: join Labour today and have your say in choosing a left-wing candidate for the leadership.

It could be the last chance we have to save our Party for at least a generation.

SIGN THIS NOW: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/we-want-an-anti-austerity-labour-party-leader

WATCH THIS:

We started by looking at architecture, noting that postmodernism is two fingers to the rigid, utilitarian elegance of modernist forms and structures.

Philosophically, it is a fashionable utopia of no utopias. It labels a stylistic zeitgeist of a certain time, now past. The V&A call the era that “defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.” [1]

It is an amorphous, wry dare to accept so many viewpoints and meanings as to be elusive and virtually meaningless. In its plurality of truths it resists a consensual truth upon which we can build knowledge, even if it requires a consensus to achieve its own existence.

Despite this ambiguous fluidity, it is remarkably linear in its succession of its predecessor. But this presents its first downfall. Where, for example, does one place the architecture of Gaudi? Was he a modernist, or a pre-Postmodernist? I don’t think we can just drop him into art nouveau on its own. Then compare to Hundtwerwasser’s building – is that postmodernism, or eco-modernism? Or new-wave nouveau?

And, at last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle, it struck me that its rise and fall is shadowed by the rise and fall of Western affluence.

Professor John Clarke, used the catalogue for the recent V&A exhibition on the art and style of Postmodernism as his starting point. Accordingly, postmodernism starts on 15th March 1972 with the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

This recalled Dominic Sandbrooks’ recent BBC2 series ‘The 1970s’ which touted a similar line and to some degree therefore corroborates the received wisdom that the decade of my childhood saw off the drab, utilitarian age of Modernism.

But this denies the purpose of many of those then-dream homes in the sky estates. Post-war Britain needed mass housing and the working class slums of the pre-war years failed to provide a model a modern Britain needed. As Le Corbusier says ‘The house is a machine for living…’ [2] In the same way you could say the NHS is a modernist idea: a modern state response to a problem facing society at large. And it was the right solution. It represented a modern yet utilitarian approach to healthcare, free at the point of need, invested in by the state – through National Insurance – to deliver a modern service for the modern age.

But postmodernism is a purely middle-class pre-occupation of the well-off and, as Prof. Clarke put it – it is often humorous and ‘superficial’. It cannot see the value in modernist expressions of utility, grace in form.

I can’t remember who it was (Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps) but a famous modern-era architect once suggested that they’ll never better the symmetry of the perfect utilitarian home: the snail’s shell.

For their part, a postmodernist would paint a ‘for rent’ sign on the snail. A witty aside. Perhaps even some well-placed cynicism of the commodity age. An expression. All these are well and good. But it pales compared to the natural symmetry of the snail ‘s home, which modernist strived to provide for fellow man.

So, what sounds like a permissive, liberal tendency comes across as a petulant, noisy show-off screaming for attention while the rest of us just get on with some work, try to make ends meet.

Even 9/11 – touted as the end of Postmodernism – is a uniquely Western perspective. Something dreadful has happened to us in the West so we arrogantly reassess our own preoccupation with the ‘designer decade’. And yet what was also missed by the postmodern story we heard last night, was that the year postmodernism begins (in  1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project), the two towers of the World Trade Centre are also completed. Here was see a very modernist structure.

Politically the anti-globalisation movement that came to maturity in Seattle 1999 tried the same amorphous approach favoured by the postmodernists, as has Occupy. Only to realise that without a programme, a shared vision of what is necessary then the demands of its movement will be lost in the noise of its complexity and variety. That is why the movement relented and finally published exactly that last week.

To be able to reflect oneself, one needs form. One needs a boundary that differentiates itself from the multiplicity of background.

Postmodernism is supposed to be liberal and a form of anti-authoritarian expression. It rejects the grand narratives. But look for a moment at cornerstone postmodern artworks like Mendini ‘s ‘Destruction of Lassu chair’ (photograph 1974) and you see a shouty rejection of the past, which seems to me remarkably authoritarian. Burning chairs OK? What about burning books? And if it’s not destroying stuff, it’s taking the piss. Does that make Monty Python pre-Postmodernists? The Goons? When does Dada end and postmodernism begin, then?

No this kind of anarchism exists without co-operation. It is self-indulgent relativism where every view of the world is valid but without consensus and coherence, useless and often meaningless.

Drawing on the NHS parallel I made earlier – where do we find ourselves now? In the boom-years of the 1980s, I imagine that private healthcare rocketed. People could afford to reject the state for something ‘better’. Conservative capitalism now reigns supreme. It even wants a slice of the state pie (and the Tories are giving it to them starting with the hideous Health & Social Welfare Reform Bill passed a couple of months ago).

To survive the post Postmodern age, conservative capitalism create an age of austerity. It must re-embrace the grand narratives of ‘isms. Conservatism.  Be it liberal conservatism or Christian conservatism. Professor Salvoj Zizek, meanwhile heralds the return of proper socialism – communism. But all these must seek out their place in the return of fundamentalisms.

THE TINTERN PHILOSOPHY CIRCLE MEETS EACH MONTH ON THE 3RD TUESDAY. WE ARE A PUB PHILOSOPHY GROUP, MEETING AT 7.30PM AT THE ROSE AND CROWN. WE ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHY PROFESSORS IN OUR GROUP, AS WELL AS A LIVELY AUDIENCE OF ACADEMICS, PROFESSIONALS AND LAY PEOPLE SUCH AS MYSELF.

NEXT MONTH’S MEET IS ON 18TH JUNE AND WILL BE LEAD BY PROFESSOR X OF CARDIFF UNIVERSITY (WHO LEADS THE PHILOSOPHY PHD PROGRAMME THERE, AND WHO IS A RESEARCH PROFESSOR ON DECONSTRUCTIONALISM AND A BIT OF A SPECIALIST ON JACQUES DERRIDA) BUT ON THIS OCCAISION WILL BE DISCUSSING THE TOPIC OF ‘PHILOSOPHY OF POETRY’.

IN JULY THE TOPIC CURRENTLY BEING CONSIDERED IS ‘MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES’.

 [1] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/postmodernism as at 16/5/12

[2] Vers une architecture, 1923

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between two texts (Tobias Jones ‘Utopian Dreams‘ see below and ‘The Survivors’ by Patrick Rivers’), one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.

{book review}: It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

(the  topic at last night’s pub philosophy meeting lead by Prof. John Clarke MA and Emeritus Professor of History of Ideas at Kingston University)

Some points I am still pondering – help welcome…

1. Can an argument, hypothesis or idea exist independent of the philosopher – as vehicle – who propagated it? When does a hypothesis become so consumed by adherence to an ideology by its vehicle that its value decreases? Is it when we get emotional about that ideology (as we rightly do with Nazism or Communism)?

Or, would Heidegger’s reputation be different were he not a Nazi?

What if he unconditionally recanted his Nazi Party membership? Does that actually matter? Is the hypothesis bigger than the man?

Many struggled with this last night, but other examples were offered – Wagner for example; have we dismissed his music because of his attitudes that seemed entirely compatible to his Nazi admirers? Jung has the advantage of admitting he was wrong to be involved with Nazis and their sympathisers and this appears to be hardly mentioned when talking of him and his body of work today and yet with Heidegger it is always mentioned as a defining context.

2. Did Heidegger really completely reject calculative thinking (in favour of purely meditative thought)? The answer from Prof. John Clarke was ‘no’, but it seemed to me that the attitude was more binary than not. This strikes me as somewhat asinine of someone purported to be among the most influential of thinkers in the 20th Century. Then again, I’ve not read his criticism of calculative thinking, but I am surprised he sees little value in it.

Instead, Prof. Clarke referred to Heidegger’s love of poetry and the almost Taoism of the meditative critique, but this is a paradox: poetry is full of rules, syntax, craft, a necessary mathematical pulse even – it’s more than aesthetic. I guess this is the danger of only a 45minute lecture on a complex man, especially when we warned that ‘Being and Time’ (Heidegger’s greatest work) is virtually unreadable.

3. The idea of anti-modernist attitudes was floated. It seemed to me from what we heard about Heidegger was that, actually, he would’ve been more at home/peace (and perhaps enjoyed a kinder audience) had he been born 60-70 years before and entered into the circles of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts bent of British socialism as opposed to the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s. The argument being that the zeitgeist at the turn to first-quarter of the 20th Century saw theological and philosophical challenges to meet modernism which was running away with itself – had taken the enlightenment too far. The volk were spiritually dissatisfied with modernism. Modern life is rubbish. It was technology-led and reinforcing a soullessness which was consuming faith, culture, socio-political issues as well as the aesthetic.

The example offered from our modern understanding modernism is the endless development of, say, TV from analogue to digital to micro gadgets replacing formerly cabinet-sized beasts of the lounge (and, I assume, the depreciation in quality content in light of the increase in means and technological advancement, which was implied but not actually cited). But, I objected, this criticism is not an aspect of Heidegger. In fact, I could not think of a single philosopher who actively embraces endless developments in pure technology and thus the implication of the contrary. And the reason is clear: it is not philosophers who occupy this realm, but the forces of economics.

Perhaps we could mention Marx, but I rather think we should separate his observations on economics from his pure philosophy. Marx philosophises on the exploitation at the kernel of capitalism, but capitalism is NOT a philosophy it is a socio-economic and political structure. So, still, can you think of a pro-technology philosopher? No. And I’ll tell you why because economics of this kind thrives on mindlessness not wisdom.

So I am not entirely convinced of the value of this if all philosophers are anti-technology by their love of wisdom alone; they can be against modernism and post-modernism, but not against pure technology just as they can’t be for it; it is a personal value judgement not a system of thought.

I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s ‘STATUS ANXIETY’, which is a great book.

Here is Alain on Rousseau and what others now call ‘affluenza’…

Was it possible, asked Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ (1754), that it might in fact be the savage and not – as everyone had grown used to thinking – the modern worker who was the better off of the pair?

Rousseau’s argument hung on a thesis about wealth: that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually own.

There are two ways to make people richer, reasoned Rousseau: to give them more money or to restrain their desires. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly at the first option but, by continuously inflaming appetites, they have at the same time helped to negate a share of their most impressive achievements. The most effective way to feel wealthy may not be to try to make more money. It may be to distance ourselves – practically and emotionally – from anyone whom we consider to be our equal but who has become richer than ourselves…

In so far as advanced societies provide us with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us richer. But in truth, the net effect of these societies may be to impoverish us because, by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open a permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford, who we are and who we might be.