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A Better World is Still Possible: Longing and Belonging in an Age of Transition
by David Morgan
As the Italian writer Amadeo Bordiga argued, capitalism is driven by a “ravenous hunger for catastrophe and ruin”. It is a system that thrives on destruction.
For far too many people in this global village life literally has taken on the condition of a living hell; it is not only the grinding poverty, starvation, insecurity, destitution, slavery in all but name in sweatshops, the bonded labour, the vulnerable who are trafficked, the anonymous “illegals” working unprotected by law in the twilight economies of the world’s great cities where they clean the smart offices of the law firms, banks and brokers; there are those who are even more vulnerable who are at the mercy of the market, those who are compelled to sell their bodies as sex slaves, child prostitutes and escorts, and finally those even more vulnerable who are forced to sell body parts, kidneys, blood, even eyes, to raise money to survive. For these people, the nightmare world portrayed in the futuristic novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, isn’t just an unsettling fantasy about farming humans for their organs; it’s very close to their own reality. For too many, the marketplace truly is a dystopian tyranny with little or no escape route.
Communal, ethnic and political rivalries apparently continue to spread like wildfire in the modern world. The mutual hatreds among neighbouring peoples, who seem to have forgotten that after all they are of the same species, sharing the same lands and relying on common resources for their own sustenance, is a shocking feature of modern existence. Tensions and divisions appear to be exacerbating and the mounting casualties of the ever lengthening catalogue of atrocities committed by human against human is tragic to reflect upon.
Indeed, there are other trends that give cause for hope and that demonstrate people moving closer together. This fragile but remarkable planet on which we all inhabit provides our common shelter and all the basic necessities and fulfilment that we require, amply sufficient to satisfy our appetites and enable us to carry on a very comfortable existence had we the foresight to realise this and were we able to set aside the greed, lust, animosities, petty squabbles and disputes that scar us all. Within the cosmic scheme of things, historic tribal conflicts are really little more than fist fights in a school playground, mere skirmishes of almost no significance, when examined within the context of the challenge of climate change that threatens the very survival of life on earth; why fight for a tiny patch of land when the full entirety seems poised for immanent destruction?
As I write I hear in the news that another historic site in the Middle East that should be cherished for all time as part of the glorious heritage of human civilisation is in danger of destruction from the zealots of ISIS (Islamic State). Ancient Palmyra in Syria seems increasingly at risk from ISIS fighters who have now captured the site. A true wonder of the world, Palmyra has been described as the “Venice of the Sands” and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire. What remains of Palmyra today is still magnificent and provides rich evidence of an ancient prosperous civilisation that thrived on the edge of an oasis of date palms and fertile gardens. For centuries the ancient city’s vast field of stone columns, arches and ruins astonished travelling traders and later tourists. It is remotely located in the middle of the Syrian Desert about half-way between the Mediterranean coast and the valley of the Euphrates. The site is particularly difficult to protect because of its huge size and remoteness. Palmyra was a cosmopolitan culture with an international outlook and as such it presents a challenge to the bigoted ideology of ISIS. It is feared that this important treasure will go the same way of ancient Hatra and Nimrud which were bulldozed when the rampaging ISIS took the territory. Of course, some understandably insist that it is difficult to become too emotional about the plight of a collection of stones while babies are dying in such high numbers, but the world surely cannot look on as a passive spectator as the heritage of humanity is systematically and so wantonly destroyed before our very gaze. The gleeful demolition of the treasures of Hatra and Nimrud were acts of mindless hatred and were a full-scale assault on our sensibilities. The threat to Palmyra is equally an affront to our shared values and it is now a living nightmare that such destruction is even being contemplated. ISIS remains a threat to humanity and we should not need the destruction of another ancient treasure to remind us that it represents anti-life.
We should not forget, however, that the US forces inflicted their own destruction on many precious sites during their saturation bombing of Iraq and during the intervention following the collapse of the Saddam Husein regime. In fact the US military had long made vandalism a central principle of foreign policy as the terror waged on Vietnam showed. So how can we expect the US – that land where culture is reduced to shallow entertainment and only the new is really valued – to protect ancient Palmyra now?
In any case, one suspects that ISIS in Iraq and Syria are simply acting like subcontractors in the global building industry while the world powers are main contractors biding their time. In taking their electric saws and bulldozers to priceless ancient monuments ISIS is literally clearing the ground for a future real estate boom when the ravenous speculators and developers in their smart suits arrive on the scene expressing a passionate determination to rebuild the country.
It is truly alarming that there is not more international outrage at the prospect of the threatened destruction of this marvellous example of a past civilisation. The destruction of the cherished common heritage that we are witnessing today in Palmyra, however, is not an isolated incident or act of zealotry unique to ISIS or to modern history. In the 19th century visionary intellectuals such as John Ruskin warned the public about the threats to fine old buildings posed by the processes unleashed by modern commerce such as the speculative developers, ill-planned renovations and shoddy workmanship. The commercial spirit of the age was seen to be highly detrimental to the health of people and their built environment. Greed and unrestrained profiteering are still wreaking havoc on the urban environment worldwide to this day.
Ruskin’s visit to Italy inspired one of his most important works, The Stones of Venice. Today that unique city remains under serious threat from developers and the desire of local businesses to profit from maximising its tourism potential. Venice is thus a victim of its own success. Once again informed observers are warning that the city is under threat. In an investigative report titled “The death of Venice”, published in The Independent newspaper on 14 May 2015, the writer described how “corrupt officials, mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city”.
The article went on to warn that poorer people are being forced out due to soaring house prices, a trend that is by no means exclusive to Venice but, actually, common to most modern cities: “What’s more, over the past two decades, property owners have increasingly converted apartments into hotels or rentals, driving up the costs of permanent housing. The result: only the wealthy can afford to live here. Three decades ago, more than 120,000 people called Venice home. Today, there are 55,000. By 2030, some demographers predict, there will be no more full-time residents.”
The wholesale destruction of both the built environment and natural landscape has been a continuing feature of human history since records began. It is a process that is often erroneously misnamed as “progress”. To illustrate the point, let’s turn our observations to English history where the experience of its suffering people illustrates very well the theft, vandalism, wanton destruction and ruthless greed inflicted by a very powerful against the wider community by the use of brute force, intimidation and the full power of the state.
The destruction of English monasteries under King Henry VIII was a huge act of vandalism and theft by the state of lands and property owned by the Church. Henry, like the Viking hordes who came before him, was another bearded fanatic wielding an axe and tragically such hideous zealots inflict similar destruction on our world today. Land grabbing, theft and the brazen abuse of power are the same processes doing the same kinds of damage although in very different contexts.
The dissolution marked the forcible transfer into private hands of lands which to an extent had been widely used by the community. The monasteries had been an integral part of village life for centuries and they performed important social functions at a time when there was no welfare state, no public health service nor any formal education available to the vast majority of people. From this perspective, the destruction of these institutions was a crime against the public and a great loss.
Simple greed and power motivated the King. A survey conducted by Henry’s minister Thomas Cromwell found that the monasteries held about a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. Clearly, this was a sizeable amount of land and an important source of power outside the control of the country’s secular authority. This was of course the era that marked the decline of feudalism and the birth of modern capitalism.
The Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England, signalling the separation of England from Rome. This act and subsequent legislation gave the Crown the authority to disband monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland, to appropriate their income and dispossess them of all their assets. All precious metals, all altar furnishings and other high-value items such as bells, candlesticks and roofing lead, became the King’s personal property to dispose of at its will.
The term ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ encompasses all the religious establishments that were appropriated by the Crown. Between 1536 and 1540 it took possession of some 800 monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries. Many were perceived as corrupt as they had accumulated great wealth and lands. But the establishments had offered a whole way of life to more than 11,000 monks, nuns, friars and canons. They were also centres of learning in a largely illiterate and poorly educated population. It was a major theft of church assets. Important monastic libraries were also destroyed and many valuable manuscripts were lost forever.
Many former monasteries were sold off to big private landowners, invariably friends and associates of the monarch. Many more were simply left to ruin, such as the picturesque Tintern Abbey, in Monmouthshire. Its ruins stand in an exquisite landscape and were later to inspire Romantic poets and painters such as Wordsworth and Turner. These buildings stand as monuments not to human vanity but to what was thought to be a greater power beyond our transient existence.
The very names of such places as Lindisfarne Priory and Glastonbury Abbey immediately instil a sense of enchantment and sublimity. With the rise of the Romantic Movement in the 18th century old ruins became cherished for their historical associations and spending time around remnants of a past age especially when found within a splendid natural setting gave them an almost a therapeutic quality. The profound respect for earlier civilisations going back to antiquity was an attitude that is also seen in the growing popularity of collecting. Ancient artefacts, pieces of masonry and antique statues became highly desirable objects as they remain so to this day. Sigmund Freud’s huge collection of ancient Greek and Egyptian figurines perhaps betrays an exceptional mania for collecting but it is representative of a modern obsession for collecting and preoccupation with the past which is widely shared among the population. It is a trend that lingers on and is part of the legacy left by the Romantics to future generations. Freud and collectors like him would no doubt insist that such objects were cherished not for any monetary value but for their intrinsic qualities as samples of human creativity and the grandeur of past civilisations. It is an attitude that is totally admirable.
This destruction marked the real and symbolic defacement inflicted on historic buildings. All items of property were stolen and the systematic stripping and dismantling of the removable assets of the buildings took place. Valuable lead and glass were ripped out to be sold off or reused, along with stones that made up the buildings themselves.
Henry waged a fanatical war against images that were deemed superstitious. In 1538 pilgrimages to shrines and the offering of money or candles to images or relics were prohibited. Many shrines were destroyed and references to the pope and St Thomas Becket were banned.
The process of destruction became more extensive under the reign of Edward VI when destruction became much more systematic. Many religious images were to be utterly destroyed ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’, which meant that public art such as ornaments, carvings and artefacts were defaced, whitewashed or obliterated to erase them from public memory.
In the 17th century the Puritan version of Protestantism became zealous in its aim to root out very last vestige of what was perceived as idolatry from the public domain and popular custom. These campaigns occurred with the blessings of Parliament. In the years 1643 and 1644 parliamentary ordinances were adopted against “monuments of superstition and idolatry”. Representations of the Virgin Mary and other saints were to be prohibited, as well as the carrying of crucifixes, plain crosses, angels and even inscriptions invoking prayers for the dead. Such things were to be utterly demolished by order of law.
Those who sought to enforce the legislation genuinely believed in what they were doing. They believed that they owed a duty to God to eliminate all evidence of idolatry as this was the only means of combating the dangerous spread of sin. As a result many paintings, stained glass, even music and religious ceremonials came under attack as they were seen as sinful and contrary to God’s wishes.
The campaigns of destruction during this period were comprehensive, systematic and very well organised. When one reads of such idiotic activities carried out by perfectly normal human beings one can easily despair of the destructive and self-destructive impulses displayed by humanity with alarming frequency throughout its history. Humanity is a true Janus with both a beautiful and an ugly face: it has been remarkably creative and built great civilisations, but at the same time, it has often carried out the most appalling atrocities against fellow human beings and all the other creatures who share this fragile earth.
The wars and conflicts that have continued unabated for a decade or longer in the Middle East, with a central focus on Iraq and Syria, can usefully be viewed as part of a history of enclosure movements worldwide. There has been a pattern of human conflicts involving land enclosure and encroachment on previously common lands throughout history in all locations and within every civilisation. Often great ruthlessness, up to and including genocide of entire populations, has been inflicted on people who stood in the way of the juggernaut of change, alternatively known as “progress”.
The Christian religion devised the myth of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, a glorious garden where no human was permitted to own any portion of land and where even the very concept of ownership was unheard of until Eve was seduced by the serpent and man began to yearn for possessions. This myth explained the human condition in a simple story to illiterate people who were in desperate need of some comforting thoughts. It was a myth that enabled communities in distress to make some sense of their sufferings in this world, to endure their lot while hoping for a better time in the sweet hereafter.
The process of enclosure of formerly common or waste lands took place over many centuries, in fact it has happened at least as long as there has been civilisation. The first enclosures occurred when the first cities were founded with the onset of urban civilisation. Landed estates likewise were also initially established on what had previously been land that had been held in common or had remained uncultivated. These appropriations, disruptions and mass displacement of peoples are all part of the dynamic of capitalist development where nothing is sacred.
The very concept of “ownership” as such was quite unheard of before the start of the process of codifying law when it began to be drawn up by those who had exercised their strength to overpower other members of the community and had used brute force against rivals to take control and accumulate wealth for themselves.
In the 17th century following the defeat of Royalist forces in the great Civil War (or “English Revolution” as historian Christopher Hill described it) many landed estates held by families who had fought for the deposed King Charles I were appropriated and handed over to those loyal to the Commonwealth.
As Hill says “The estates of all substantial Royalists were sequestrated, that is, taken over by county committees, which collected rents and fines and assigned leases. The lands of more than 700 Royalists were confiscated and sold…It was an upheaval comparable with the dissolution of the monasteries,” (The Century of Revolution).
Of course, not all lands changed hands and the law continued to be enforced with utmost severity against the “lower orders” who sought to argue for the rights of the poor to make free use of commons and waste lands. Brutal suppression was to be the fate of the so-called Diggers or “True Levellers” led by Gerrard Winstanley who had taken over waste land near St George’s Hill, Surrey. This popular action by a group of impoverished men and women, who had joined together to cultivate a barren stretch of land that seemed to be owned by nobody, was to be mercilessly suppressed. They had seriously misunderstood the intentions of Parliament’s rebellion against the King if they thought that they had fought for the land to be taken as a “common treasury for all”, which was how Winstanley interpreted the Christian message. Incidentally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, St George’s Hill is today a very expensive piece of private real estate.
The meaning of enclosure is to take over or take possession of land for exclusively private use. It means to take into private hands by force what was once held is common or by the community. The process of appropriating land and other natural resources into private hands is the basis of the entire modern economy.
In his book Keywords, the cultural critic Raymond Williams offers some fascinating reflections on the changing meaning of the word “common”: it meant commons as in common or ordinary people and a community as distinct from the lords and nobility. The enclosure movement gathered pace in the latter half of the 18th century with the onset of full-blooded capitalist commerce. Enclosure met with significant popular resistance which had to be carried out anonymously because of the severe punishments that would be inflicted on any act of defiance from the common people. The law was used to protect the “men of property”, not defend the rights of the ordinary men and women.
People can be taught to accept the world as it is despite all injustices being largely avoidable, the needless inequality, suffering and cruelty inflicted on fellow humans, accepted as facts because of the power of ideology. According to Raymond Williams any moment in time contains three strands of ideology: there are old ideas that are on their way out; also dominant ideas that are held by the majority of people; finally, there are emergent ideas fostered by avant-garde segments of the population and which may become part of the mainstream in generations to come. Today, it seems, the dominant ideology is becoming ever more facile. More and more people simply don’t believe what they are being told anymore. This is a positive development if it means that people are starting to think for themselves and make their own choices. The stunning election result in Scotland where a rejuvenated Scottish National Party campaigning on a progressive social democratic programme swept the board must be a cause for celebration, as is the Green party’s million-plus votes won.
Lost in Transition
Countries such as Libya and Tunisia that had to be rebuilt following the Arab Spring were defined by the IMF and World Bank as “countries in transition”. Huge conferences were held in the world’s capitals to draw up programmes of assistance led by the international community. Transition became the official term for an assisted reconstruction stage following a humanitarian intervention, such as the bombing of Libya – in fact, it might more accurately be seen as a rebranding of the old conquer and plunder methods of a bygone era. The outcome of dependency and exploitation seems very familiar.
The degradation of language in modern political discourse insists that human “aspiration” is simply about making money. People aspire to become “filthy rich” and want to emulate the excesses of the super-rich glitterati whose apparent constant partying is a fixation of modern journalism.
“Aspiration” has now come to dominate contemporary British political debate, a fact that was manifest during the recent general election campaign and has become even more dominant following the shock result which returned the right Conservatives with a slim majority, thus confounding all pre-election opinion polls which had been predicting a “hung” Parliament and another coalition government. The Labour Party is judged to have failed miserably because it had been unable to represent “aspirational” working people.
When in 1906 the first ever Labour MPs were elected to Parliament, numbering in total 45, each were asked to name which books and writers had most inspired them; overwhelmingly they replied John Ruskin and his work, Unto This Last. This anecdote is usually cited to show how little British Labour was influenced by Marx, who after all was a resident in London for much of his active life.
In 2013, when asked about their summer reading, Labour MPs replied with This Boy, the autobiography of their fellow MP Alan Johnson and Five Days in May by Labour peer, Lord Adonis, which betrays a definite narrowing of interests. And despite the fact that one Labour frontbench spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, was previously a historian and author of several bestsellers, and at least one of the runners for the current Labour leadership race, Liz Kendall, has a first in history from Cambridge, Labour politicians today seem totally incapable of projecting an inspiring vision that resonates among the public. They seem to know little of their own history or that of the people whom they seek to represent. Their remedies for political reform appear based on not much more than public relations and the findings of opinion pollsters; hence, all their talk of “aspirations”, the “politics of envy” and being “very relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, as Peter Mandelson once notoriously said. Not so long ago the British Labour Party, one of the world’s most successful social democratic parties, stood boldly for “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.” Sadly, that is no longer the case.
Surely aspiration should more broadly be understood as striving to do good in society, to help your fellow men and women, to care about the planet, to make a mark as a pioneer in a specific scientific field or creative endeavour. Human creativity has sadly been reduced to the ability to make lots of cash, rather than to appreciate art, express one’s creativity in various fields, painting, poetry and music. Art is no longer seen as a basic expression of what it means to be human, but as a means of entertainment or temporary distraction. The world of art and opera are too often seen as largely for the wealthy: “opera is not for the likes of us”, ironically stated by those think nothing of paying hundreds of pounds for a football season ticket or to attend a rock concert.
But at a deeper level there are aspirations that are shared by all humanity for a harmonious existence, free from harm and conflict, where they can be free to take pleasure in exploring life in all its sensuous possibilities. It is simply that in an ever increasingly unequal global community the opportunities for enjoyment and experiencing all that life has to offer will of necessity remain circumscribed to fewer and fewer people as long as the underlying inequalities are not seriously addressed.
There’s a democratic deficit and a deep contradiction in an advertising system that relentlessly promotes conspicuous consumption; it whets appetites that it cannot possibly satisfy. In the consumer society “exclusive” goods, luxury services and the best products are offered to everyone who cares to casually flick through the pages of a magazine (real or online) or walks into the local shopping mall; but how can a product be truly exclusive if it really were the possession of everyone? But to those people existing on a minimum wage, of which there are sadly growing numbers, these advertisements must appear like a very cruel joke. To people compelled to use food banks, it is the basics of life that are becoming elusive. That’s certainly true of social divisions not only in the national context of the affluent economies, of Europe and elsewhere, but all over the world there are millions who remain excluded from even the most basic opportunities to enjoy life, let alone to become conspicuous consumers.
But while there is life, there must be hope. The persistence of hope will continue while humans have a breath within them. The blue flower was a motif in German Romanticism mentioned in a novella by the writer Novalis. The search for the blue flower represented hope, inspiration, beauty, love and desire. It symbolised a metaphysical striving within each individual consciousness for the infinite and a constant questing for all that’s good. This is an existential quest and indicates a human yearning for quite a different order and quality of life setting it totally apart from the crude, materialistic “aspirations” for accumulating ever more wealth that obsesses British politicians evident during the 2015 election campaign and Labour leadership battle. This is the cult of materialism that is destroying the world.
There is evidence of the beauty of existence all around us but we need the free time to truly open our eyes properly and learn to see. Tiny tantalising intimations can be discovered in our mundane surroundings and in contemplation of the beauty of nature: in the magnificent radiance of a sunset in a clear sky; the magnificence of a mountain view; the rolling waves on the deep blue ocean; the rustle of a gentle breeze through trees; the natural music of the dawn chorus; and the intricate textures of new flowers in bloom. The wonders of nature are infinite and life can be glorious as we would realise if we but had sufficient free time and opportunity to enjoy and contemplate them fully.
The precious luxury of free time was systematically denied to the great mass of the people until onset of the 20th century when the social advances initiated by the organised workers’ movement forced concessions from the ruling order and welfare states were founded under an emerging democratic system and vastly improved conditions of working. The law began to work for everyone rather than simply upholding an unjust system. In marked contrast, we now find ourselves in an era when all these social gains are being eroded and even our free time is once again under threat to become a luxury enjoyed by the privileged few. That is, if we let it happen.
The traditional methods, vehicles and agencies of social transformation have mostly been widely discredited through historic mistakes and have thus lost much of their effectiveness; namely, the cadre party, organised labour, and in recent years the new social movements, the anti-globalisation networks and social forums, to name but the main ones, have all failed to challenge corporate power despite raising their dissident voices against injustice.
Nevertheless, we must stubbornly insist that a better world is still possible and our battered global village is simply threatened with redevelopment and can be shaped in whatever direction we choose. The world may be in transition but there is nothing inevitable about the conclusion. Perhaps the screams of agony that we hear echoing around us are really the birth pangs of a new world that is struggling to be born. It must be that there is still a future as long as life is not extinguished and the possibility of sharing the world’s resources on a fairer basis not just with the sustenance of all humanity but with all the living creatures which equally draw their sustenance from a common environment. That fragile blue flower long ago imagined by the Romantics represents the hope that is within our grasp if we would only wake from our enchanted slumber and seek it out. But there is a long struggle ahead before that point is reached. We will be getting to our destination when there is more public outrage at the imminent destruction of hugely important world heritage sites such as Palmyra. What is required is nothing less than a totally new sensibility.
© David Morgan
David Morgan in a London based journalist with interests in politics, human rights, international relations, history and cultural issues. He has been working in journalism as an editor and writer for three decades after he studied literature and history at university. He has edited several titles from the Socialist History Society (SHS) of which he is the Secretary. He writes regularly for the SHS Newsletter, occasionally for the Morning Star newspaper and for a range of other online and printed publications.