Saturday, December 27, 2008

Layer 106 Survivors, Syndicates, and a Couple of Cohens.

Survivors I

There was a feature on the news last week about a school for kids who’d been considered unteachable, and were being offered an alternative curriculum and different approaches to learning.

There was a clip of one of their outings, with kids walking in the sun across a broad expanse of sands. A very pensive looking girl, walking on her own, said to the interviewer, “It gives you time to think. Too much time to think!”

How incredible is that - we deprive these kids of the very thing they need most - time to unwind in silence, and be alone with their thoughts. The kids themselves know how important this is to them - and how scary it can be. All the same they see its value and its importance. Walking meditation. Spiritual growth.


Survivors II

‘Survivors’ came to the end of its run this week. Not a great series, but some interesting ideas. Not least, the notion of different groups of people forming after an annihilation and breakdown of society, in order to support one another and aid one another’s survival.

Naturally there’s someone who’s bent on establishing some overall ‘government’, and insists that the various groups (syndicates) accept the non-mandated authority of the so-called government.

She insists the individual groups must relinquish their autonomy and accept the will of the ‘government’, since ‘the alternative’ will be ‘anarchy and disorder’.

And here we have it - the old mantra which associates anarchy with disorder and chaos. Anarcho-syndicalism can’t be allowed to be put into practice, because it’s TOO democratic, it allows people TOO much freedom, and TOO much direct engagement with the running of their local affairs.

There’s always someone - in fact hundreds of individuals - who think they know best, and their ideas and preferences alone ought to decide what happens throughout regions, and whole countries.

The British political classes hate the idea of a Federal Europe, because it would dilute the absolute power of whoever controls Parliament. They know that the Establishment will always be in command in this country for as long as we have our quaint little elective dictatorship, with absolute Prime Ministerial power lightly and discretely hidden by the fig leaf of monarchy.

Most European states remain steadfastly Social Democratic in their approach to social welfare, industrial and commercial policy, etc, even under the supposedly right-wing governments of Merkel and Sarkozy. Under New Labour this country has remained steadfastly Thatcherite and Neo-Conservative.

My programme for change would be:

a) More local autonomy through syndicalism
b) More Parliamentary democracy through proportional representation, more small parties, and syndicalism
c) More European democracy through Federalism, which is a form of syndicalism
d) A World Council of the United Nations to ensure a Federal planet, run on principles of social and economic justice, peace, health and prosperity for all.


‘A Christmas Carol’ is a brilliant piece of work, but too often its message is taken to mean simply that we should be generous at Christmas time.

Whereas, it’s a far more radical critique of society. In the words of the young Ebenezer Scrooge’s sweetheart, who has fallen out of love with him - “One master passion engulfs you - MONEY! May you be happy in the life you’ve chosen!”

A Tale of Two Cohens

1) Hallelujah

Long-time Len lovers* don’t actually give a damn about what non-Len lovers think about him and his music.

(*Let’s not call ourselves ‘fans’. Len himself speaks to us as ‘friends’. McCain tried that approach at his rallies, but it didn’t sound right coming from ‘that one’ - the Great White Hope. When Len says it you know he means it. “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.”)

Lovers of Len never consider his music gloomy or depressing. We love the fact that it contains elements of sadness and melancholy, as well as sublime spiritual joy. Because that’s the way life is.

We love the fact that Len, like any true artist, deals with relationships, the human condition, and our inner worlds AS THEY REALLY ARE - not as we might like them to be in our dreams and fantasies.

Joy and sadness, laughter and misery, achievement and failure, justice and injustice, make up the yin and yang, the warp and weft of the universe.

The Buddha’s smile, like Len’s, is the outward manifestation of the inner state of satori, or bliss, that is attained by those who see life for what it truly is, and still believe that life is worthwhile and sublime, whilst acknowledging that it’s also absurd and paradoxical.

This is clearly not the smile of the nihilist or the cynic. Or, for that matter, the romantic or the religious.

Taoism and Buddhism seek truth through philosophy and science, in contrast to the religions, which depend on ‘revelations’ by Gods and prophets. The scientific truth about matter and spirit is that these two are one and the same thing, both part of the same continuum, and that pure energy, like electricity, depends upon oscillating currents, alternately negatively and positively charged, for its very existence.

Too much ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ energy and it simply goes off the scale, and ceases to exist. The flow of life, like water, cannot tolerate extremes. When water becomes vapour or ice then it’s no longer water, as such. There’s a fairly narrow temperature range within which it can continue to flow.

If human beings could accumulate nothing but positive energy then essentially we would just vaporise. The accumulation of nothing but negative energy leads to rigidification and rigor mortis.

Laughter and melancholy are two sides of the same coin. The artist and the poet know this, and smile, and say Hallelujah.

2) Tesco

Jack Cohen opened his very first market stall in Well Street, Hackney. Some years later he built a large Tesco store at the top of the market. I sometimes wonder what his motives were for doing that. Were his experiences as a market trader:

a) so bad that he came to hate market traders and resolved to wipe them out?

b) so good that he resolved to be a provider of quality food and goods for even the poorest communities at prices they could afford, i.e. rock bottom.

On Christmas Eve I was passing by Well Street and went into Tesco to do last-minute shopping. It was an interesting experience. There was no chaos, or disorder, or aggression, or unpleasantness of any kind. People were quiet, calm, considerate, and helpful.

We often focus on the negative behaviour we see in our cities, but it’s amazing really how much spiritual composure and emotional intelligence most people, especially the poorest and most hard-pressed, possess.

Which goes to show that you don’t have to be wealthy in order to be a warm, generous, highly evolved human being. What’s more, being extremely wealthy can be an impediment to the development of high levels of emotional and social intelligence. It can cut you off from others, as Scrooge was to discover.

Sometimes when you live cheek by jowel with others, and have to rely on the kindness of strangers, you learn quicker about human values. WE culture perhaps is more liable to produce better human beings than ME culture.

Perhaps you also find, in a supermarket in places like Well Street, more of the kind of people who, out and about dutifully shopping for families and partners, are the ones who provide and nurture, who take care of others, who have learnt and practiced empathy, self-restraint, ego-control and emotional intelligence.

How’s it go again? Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth . . .

Merry Christmas, and Hallelujah.


And looking ahead to 2009, Peter Preston in the Guardian at last has something interesting to say:

“How do we Brits . . . manage without Jon Stewart’s Daily Show around voting time?”

He makes the point that we need a daily comic commentary - but who’ll be brave enough to start one?

“It could be C4. It ought to be BBC2, because the Beeb will need to be brave as Mr Brown’s big moment arrives And who - no mimic, but a sharp-elbowed comedian - could play master of the revels?”

I think Jon Stewart is possibly unique, and a real treasure. A British Daily Show might need a team effort, something like The Now Show and featuring Jeremy Hardy, Ian Hislop, Paul Merton, Andy Hamilton, Russell Brand, etc.


Harold Pinter

One of Britain’s national treasures - Harold Pinter - died this week. Michael Billington wrote a masterly 2-page obituary in The Guardian. A Hackney lad made good, he possibly did some shopping in Well Street market.

I can’t say I know his work intimately, though I well remember going to see No Man’s Land at the National in either ’75 or ’76, with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud performing at their peak. It’s maybe time to get down to reading his plays.

His main concerns overall seemed to be human relationships, emotional illiteracy, sexuality, power, politics, human rights, injustice and dissidence. He himself was a lifelong dissident.

It was brilliant that he won the Nobel Prize. The obituary’s well worth a read.


The Shock Doctrine

News today that all of Gaza’s mortuaries have been filled with over 200 dead as a result of Israeli air attacks. No doubt we’ll find out in due course how many Israelis have recently been killed by Palestinian rockets, but I’d guess the 200 amounts to slightly more than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

This morning I started reading Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’, subtitled The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This doctrine is basically the doctrine of the bully and the over-mighty.

Rolling Stone magazine said, “Anyone who wants to understand how the world really works should read it immediately”.

Dow Jones Business News said, “You must read what may be the most important book on economics in the twenty-first century”.

The New York Observer called it “her compelling study of the dark heart of capitalism”.

Johann Hari said in the New Statesman said, “this brilliant book should stir a tsunami of shame - and of political action”.

Tim Robbins said, “It could very well prove a catalyst, a watershed, a tipping point.”

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