The People’s Narcissist…

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It is easy to sneer at Russel Brand. His shtick is just so cringe making half the time- that mix of awkward sweary truisms mixed in with 12-steps to recovery prophetic zeal.

Tonight Michaela and I took the kids to see the Guardian Live screening of Owen Jones and Russell Brand talking about revolution. There were many moments when I found myself cringing into my seat.

But I also cried.

Brand’s basic point is that having in theory won the celebrity/wealth/success lottery, he found that it was all hollow, shallow. He found that in consuming more than anyone could ever want he was destroying himself, and then as part of an on going process of recovery, he knew that he could not stay silent- he had to use the platform he had to raise some objections. He had to challenge the shallow emptiness, the unfairness, the unsustainability, the selfishness.

In many ways, he spoke like a religious convert, the other side his Emmaus Road experience. The meeting was screened from the Emmanuel Centre- a big church in Central London, and just above his left shoulder were the words of John 10:10 I have come to bring you life, and life in all it’s fullness. Brand himself has the words of Francis of Assisi tattooed on his arm Lord make me a channel of your peace.

And tonight, I think the prayer was being answered, in part at least. At one point he told all the audience that they were “..all Fucking Lovely, and it is all going to be OK…” if we just learn some humility and start to look for ways to help one another. Simplistic, emotional, naive even, but also a sweary echo of what Jesus was all about.

There were no real big ideas tonight- no complex processes of change, no economic alternatives to the Capitalist overarching evil narrative- but the clarity of the objection to what is, and the desire to change was all there.

There were 5 of us in the cinema in Dunoon. It was just like going to church. In a good way. The revolution starts here…

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Bruce Cockburn’s biography excerpt…

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What follows is an excerpt from Bruce Cockburn’s book which you can now pre-order on Amazon. It deals with one of his most famous songs, the controversial “If I had a rocket launcher”, written after a trip to the Guatemalan refugee camps on the border with Mexico.

The dreadful history of the massacre, torture and terrible atrocities done to poor native American communities by forces supported by American money and weapons (and to protect American business interests) is one that I would know nothing about, if not for this song. And we need to know. All these second hand wars fought in the the name of ‘freedom’ … 

You can read the full excerpt here.

It seems possible to view the genocide against Mayan people as an extension of thehistoric U.S. policies of extermination at home against Native Americans. The atrocities were not unique. They were part of a pattern of depravity that surfaces again and again all over the globe. In southern Mexico we found raw evidence of the banalityof evil. Not only was it horrible, but for the most part it wasn’t even creative.

Not much has changed in the realm of mass murder since biblical times. Though the tools of the trade have become more sophis-ticated, when we get down to it, it’s somebody bashing someone’s head with a hammer or a shovel, or herding folks into a church and setting it ablaze. Same old shit. The difference for me was that this aspect of us had leapt off the page and become flesh and blood.

Asking God how he could allow such brutality seemed like an irrelevant question. Here, splayed before me in ways I had previously only imagined, were the “juicy bits” from the Bible. Here was the horror, Conrad’s heart of darkness, Thanatos projected, all too real.
I felt the violence pulsing through our DNA. These actions are embedded in our social, religious, and political traditions.

A decade later, surveying the mine- strewn beauty of a Mozambican landscape ravaged by the same evils, it struck me that war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.In San Cristóbal I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and holed up in my bare hotel room. I needed the simple whitewashed walls. I didn’t want to see anyone. I kept reliving the terrible stories, trying to breathe them into some comprehensible order. The quiet courage, the fierce determination and dignity of the refugees, the children still
being children after all they’d seen— all of it hit me like an ice pick to the heart.

When I thought about the perpetrators of those deeds, especially the anonymous airborne ones, I felt all- consuming outrage, a conviction that whoever would do such things had forfeited any claim to humanity. I envisioned myself with an RPG, blowing them out of the sky. In the hotel room, through tears and under dim light driven back from night’s rippled windows, I began writing.

Here comes the helicopter— second time today

Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away

How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say

If I had a rocket launcherI’d make somebody pay

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate

I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states

And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate

If I had a rocket launcherI would retaliate

On the Río Lacantún, one hundred thousand wait

To fall down from starvation— or some less humane fate

Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate

If I had a rocket launcher I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice— at least I’ve got to try

Every time I think about it, water rises to my eyes.

Situation desperate, echoes of the victim’s cry

If I had a rocket launcher

Some son of a bitch would die
“IF I HAD A ROCKET LAUNCHER,” 1983

Let’s talk about inequality; blog action day 2014…

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We used to talk about equality a lot in the UK. After the war there was a political consensus around the need to flatten inherited hierarchies of opportunity, health and living standards. I was a social studies student in the 1980s, when even at the height of the Thatcherite government we still were interested above all in how we understood the causes of poverty and the perpetuation of wealth and privilege. We cared that women were disadvantaged in work, or that young black men packed our prisons and our secure psychiatric hospitals. It bothered us that poor people died younger and that if you had a particular accent you were not welcome on the BBC.

On a previous Blog Action Day post I mentioned the infamous Black report, that encapsulated much of the research around this time in these areas.

Something has happened since then however. The Blair government stopped talking about poverty, changing the language to ‘inclusion’. The focus went from the role of government to deliberately intervene in order to equalise, towards ‘Education, education, education’- as if we had to give up on the current generation and blame the next for their failure if they do not take the chances offered to them (we have learned nothing from the failure of every previous attempt to engineer through education; poor kids always do less well, despite individual successes.) The agenda changed- market and consumer forces now set the agenda. Economic forces became our master, not our servant.

The Market decides, so we are told. Equilibrium will always be found by The Market, unless we meddle with in in which case things will go badly wrong. So we watch a narrow selection of indicators of The Market’s healthiness (inflation/economic growth/unemployment/public borrowing) in order to gauge how happy The Market is. If it is not happy we feed it human sacrifices in the form of austerity packages, slashing at those unproductive leaches on the underbelly of the proud beast that is….The Market.

Although no-one quite knows for sure what keeps The Market happy (S/he being a capricious God) we suspect that The Market likes inequality. It keeps people hungry for more, and so The Market remains exalted. Without personal individual aspiration (sometimes understood as greed) how will we feed the voracious appetite of The Market? Casualties may fall by the wayside but The Market rises still…

Some ideas become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any challenge seems impossible; countering them seems foolish, dangerous even. So it is with those who want to de-throne The Market; those who see it as a kind of conspiracy against the common good in which profits are ruthlessly privatised whilst losses are socialised. We have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success.

The work of French Economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has taken the issue of inequality on directly- so much so that the book has become something of a sensation- entering the best selling list alongside the latest blockbusting novels.

He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

Piketty tells us that in a society where The Market is god, rich people get richer, and the poor get poorer. This was a short period after the last world war when this seemed to have been moderated in the UK- there was a convergence of wealth as progressive taxation and a rise in living standards of the lower classes overturned the power of The Market. However, this has now been totally forgotten. Now the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing and those who benefit from austerity are clearly the top 1% whose share of national wealth has greatly increased.

Oxfam, The Trussel Trust and the Church Action on Poverty recently released a report entitled Below the Breadline, the relentless rise of food poverty in Britain. It makes for sobering reading;

Although the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, it is also deeply unequal, and millions of families across the UK are living below the breadline.

Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14 by the three main food aid providers. This is a 54 percent increase on 2012/13.

 

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George Monbiot wrote this recently;

One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people: one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more, working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or the pensions our parents enjoyed.

Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, conditions deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?

It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.

A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.

So, is the battle for greater equality worth fighting? Has it not already been lost?

Research would suggest that there is little doubt that the more equal a society is, the healthier it tends to be for its citizens, whilst the more unequal a nation is, the more prevalent these things tend to be mental illnesses, obesity, ill health, crime, infant mortality etc. By enthoning The Market, we make ourselves sick it seems…

So, how do we achieve it?

My suggestion is that we need to look back, and look forward.

We need to look back to a time when people tried hard to achieve some kind of convergence within a liberal democratic tradition- using a consensus around progressive taxation, Market regulation and state sponsored health and welfare. We need to treasure this as part of our UK heritage- to be proud that our people achieved this, whilst learning from the mistakes we made too, in anchoring ourselves to an economic model based around unsustainable ‘growthism‘.

In looking forward however, we also have to remember that issues of inequality are not restricted to our own national borders. The single greatest threat to the stability of our planet is the destructive and exploitative effects of The Market on a global scale. Wars fought around oil deposits, mineral rights. Poor southern countries providing natural resources and a labour force in order to sustain the avarice of the rich north. Starting to tackle this kind of equality requires a much greater leap, towards living more simply, more sustainably, more collectively…

The first step however is to do one simply thing- dethrone The Market.

Start to imagine what we might exalt instead of The Market. What values do we want to live by- do we want our children to live by? What currency might we measure success with other than these inhumane  ones concerned only with finance/growth/consumption?

In this, my friends, there is a kind of grace that goes deeper into who we are as humans.

Monbiot again;

Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.

Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past two million years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed? Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?

We made The Market. It should not make us.

Aoradh meditation trail, Pucks Glen…

 

Aoradh meditation walk, start

We are just back after deconstructing the installations and stations in the lovely Puck Glen, which formed Aoradh’s contribution to Cowalfest. It felt like a real shame to take them down, as even today the Glen was full of people who were visibly affected by what they were encountering.

This is the second time we have used Pucks Glen in this way, and I have ideas about other things I would love to use this magical place for- watch this space to see if they ever come in to being.

As ever, if anyone wants to know more about what we did, or wants a copy of some of the resources feel free to get in touch.This time our contributions went something like this;

A water wheel spinning from a bridge in the darkest part of the Glen, asking people to think about the fact that it was energised by silver streams that had come from above.

Ribbons of all sorts of colours anchored to the top of a waterfull then fanning out over a pool. The path goes under the ribbons, in a way to make people part of the waterfall- with some suggestions to think about Streams of Living Water.

A way side shrine, with candles and a wooden carved cross.

‘Leaping’ silver fish on flexible stainless steel rods, anchored to the bottom of the stream, moving as the water rushes past. An image of freedom- where the spirit of the Lord is…

Large dry leaves (from Benmore Gardens) and pens at the top of the Glen, with an invitation to write on the leaves and drop them into the water- letting go, repentance etc.

Prayer flags, asking people to raise their own ensign- things that they want to be animated by the wind of the Spirit.

A wooden frame to look out over open country through.

A Loom, with an invitation to write names of special people who make up their community- the gifts of the Spirit being so much to do with getting on with each other.

Poetry on large PVC banners in and amongst the trees from another previous Aoradh event on a theme of ‘A time to…’

Speaking/listening tube- a long plastic drainpipe up into the tree canopy with a horn on one end and a speaking cup on the other- with an invitation to listen and speak prayers.

Also all the way through the Glen were small bits of poetry- what we called ‘messages’.

At some point over the weekend someone vandalised the installations- always a surprise given it’s location. Much of the poetry was ripped off or had disappeared altogether, as had the carved wooden cross. I can only assume that someone had a problem with the Christian starting point of what we were offering. This was balanced however by so many people who seemed to have found it so lovely, and had engaged with it using the materials provided. It really was a lovely thing to be part of…

Here are a few photos;

Time to look to the left…

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In the wake of the Referendum debate up here, we are all wondering if the remarkable upsurge of political engagement can actually lead to real change, and what new/old political or social movements might be the vehicle that will allow this change to take place.

My feeling is that despite all the noise and smoke, real change is not inevitable.  This is partly because maintaining momentum is a challenge, (particularly in the wake of the NO vote) and perhaps even more because there is no real clarity over WHAT people want to change. There has been a clear expression of dissatisfaction- both with the current socio-political status quo, and with Westminster (which was usually seen to be English) in particular, but the Yes campaign up here seemed to me a combing together of very great complexity under the deceptively simple duality of yes/no. People were able to invest hopes and dreams along with a way to vent their spleen, but consensus over the sort of society/economy/community that should replace the one we are part of now? This is a wholly different issue.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was not convinced by the nationalist argument, but that I am desperate for change. The process of engaging with the referendum has therefore been a painful one for me- one that I feel to have driven wedges between myself and things I hold dear- as well as people I hold dear. Aside from the personal aspects of this however, to a certain extent, what has happened is what always seems to happens in the UK- it has become another means by which the political left splits itself apart.

The challenge then for radicals on both sides of the referendum campaign is to find a way to come together again. If the real issue was not nationalism, but a desire to be in charge of shaping things towards our own destiny, then what happens now that these things need to be filtered again through the current political machinery? For the NO voters like me, now that we have rejected one possible change process, what are we going to put in its place?

I have spent hours and hours since the referendum reading stuff about alternatives, and how policy might be different. If you are interested, here are a few links;

The New Economics Foundation. A collection of ideas on how to achieve greater environmental, social and economic justice.

Countless articles in Newspapers (mostly The Guardian, which is the only one to give voice to persistent thoughtful radicals.) Including this one-

The big idea of the three main parties is the same: not capitalism, or neo-liberalism, or social democracy – but growthism. This term was coined by the author Umair Haque to describe the pursuit, above all other things, of economic growth. Never mind who it benefits, who gets left behind or what it destroys; never mind if its practices are unfair or unsustainable: if the numbers go up, everyone is happy, and if they’re not happy, give them a tax break.

Common Weal. “…a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First.”  A collection of reports on a range of political and economic solutions.

The Green Party. The only UK political party that has a comprehensive set of radical policies on everything from social welfare and defence- not just the environment! I confess that as a lifelong (albeit latterly reluctant) Labour supporter, I am on the cusp of making the leap towards the Greens. I am gathering a clarity over the changes I long for and the Greens seem to have most of these things as policy objectives. A change from Growthism to sustainability, and emphasis on social justice and progressive fair taxation, and a defence policy that is as radical as almost anything I have ever seen- a real movement away from the military industrial machine.

I had a long discussion with a friend recently- someone still heartbroken and raw from the referendum. One of the things we talked about was whether change had to be local or more global. My feeling is that it has to be both. Activism has to be rooted in real community, local connection, but it needs to be connected to something bigger- to leadership, creativity and passion that has a wider expression. This is what the Left has failed to achieve for some time- possibly because Labour (ostensibly a Leftist party, but actually as rooted in the accommodation of growthism as any party) was seen as offering all that the Left could offer. However, also this might have something to do with it too;

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”
― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

We need to forge local connections, but we also need to look beyond them. Part of this might well require healing some of those divisions with our political allies. When we look to the left, let us see people of hope, not people of division.

Cowalfest meditation walk…

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Aoradh are setting up another meditation walk around the beautiful Pucks Glen, to be part of Cowalfest, which starts on Saturday. We are meeting this evening to sort out who is doing what, but I am really looking forward to it.

This will be a series of stations, art and poetry up through the glen and back down to the car park.

We set up some similar installations there once before, around Christmas a couple of years ago- but unfortunately this coincided with massive storm that brought trees down and washed away a lot of the paths in the gorge. The installations were remarkably untouched, but getting to them involved some challenges and a bit of scrambling. Hopefully we will be a bit better served by the weather this time!

This is what it looked like last time;

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ribbons in situ