Friday, August 19, 2011

Layer 479 . . . Towns, Cities, Communities, Big Lunches, Urban Riots, Gandhi, Hazare, Tim Smit, Heligan, Totnes and Naomi Klein

There's been an interesting series of programmes on BBC TV this summer on the subject of towns. As something of an amateur geographer it was compulsory viewing for me, in spite of the irritating presenter - his false bonhomie & chumminess, and his ridiculous shortie double breasted macintosh that he'd insisted on wearing throughout the series and had about nine pockets and two epaulettes too many.

Previous programmes have focused on towns such as Ludlow and Scarborough - last night's was on Totnes, which is becoming well known as the first of the 'transition towns' in Britain. The key idea in these programmes is that it's possible to live more on a human scale in a town, which is less of an anthill than a city, but has more to offer than a village.

This final programme, however, floated the idea that people need to rediscover a sense of community within cities, or within particular communities within cities. A typical London borough, therefore, such as Hackney or Islington or Tottenham, can have its own sense of community, and within those boroughs there are specific areas that can generate their own sense of community - Stoke Newington, Clapton, Dalston, Canonbury, Barnsbury, Angel, etc.

We can even take it down to street level - and I've written in the past about brilliant street parties that have taken place in my own locality - in response to the brilliant Tim Smit's idea of a "Big Lunch".

In a typical street of Victorian terraced houses there as so many people and so many families it's possible to generate an amazing sense of community if people live there long enough. There are many wonderful streets where people love living and do indeed stick around for many years.

Tim Smit was also featured on TV this week in a superb documentary - beautifully filmed and edited - about the Lost Gardens of Heligan. It was Tim who discovered the abandoned estate in Cornwall, and who brought it back to life - which he subsequently wrote a book about. It was also Mr Smit who raised the money for and built the Eden Project.  He's quite a guy.


The last time I went to see Naomi Klein speak at a public meeting was a few months ago  in Totnes. She was there to study the Transition Town concept. Unfortunately the meeting was spoiled by a few typical locals who insisted on turning the meeting into something resembling a hall full of small discussion groups so that they could listen to themselves talking rather than pay attention to what the sublime Ms Klein had to say. Ordinarily I wouldn't have cared particularly - and if the 'workshops' and the 'brainstorming' had turned out to be dull then I'd gladly have gone down to the nearest pub and left them to it. Unfortunately, when the guest speaker lives in Canada and rarely gets to England, let alone Totnes, then it just seemed like a missed opportunity. What a pity there were no civic leaders present who had the presence of mind to stand up and say to the gathering that they really could listen to one another at any old time, whereas Naomi Klein was in town just for the day . . .

Naomi wrote a brilliant piece this week on the subject of England's urban riots:

Looting with the lights on

We keep hearing England's riots weren't political – but looters know that their elites have been committing daylight robbery

Argentina's mass looting was called el saqueo – the sacking. That was politically significant because it was the very same word used to describe what that country's elites had done by selling off the country's national assets in flagrantly corrupt privatisation deals, hiding their money offshore, then passing on the bill to the people with a brutal austerity package. Argentines understood that the saqueo of the shopping centres would not have happened without the bigger saqueo of the country, and that the real gangsters were the ones in charge.

England is not Latin America, and its riots are not political, or so we keep hearing. They are just about lawless kids taking advantage of a situation to take what isn't theirs. And British society, Cameron tells us, abhors that kind of behaviour.

This is said in all seriousness. As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G8 and G20 meetings, when the leaders decided, collectively, not to do anything to punish the bankers for any of this, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. Instead they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable. They would do this by firing public sector workers, scapegoating teachers, closing libraries, upping tuition fees, rolling back union contracts, creating rush privatisations of public assets and decreasing pensions – mix the cocktail for where you live. And who is on television lecturing about the need to give up these "entitlements"? The bankers and hedge-fund managers, of course.

This is the global saqueo, a time of great taking. Fuelled by a pathological sense of entitlement, this looting has all been done with the lights on, as if there was nothing at all to hide. There are some nagging fears, however. In early July, the Wall Street Journal, citing a new poll, reported that 94% of millionaires were afraid of "violence in the streets". This, it turns out, was a reasonable fear.

Of course London's riots weren't a political protest. But the people committing night-time robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. Saqueos are contagious. The Tories are right when they say the rioting is not about the cuts. But it has a great deal to do with what those cuts represent: being cut off. Locked away in a ballooning underclass with the few escape routes previously offered – a union job, a good affordable education – being rapidly sealed off. The cuts are a message. They are saying to whole sectors of society: you are stuck where you are, much like the migrants and refugees we turn away at our increasingly fortressed borders.

Cameron's response to the riots is to make this locking-out literal: evictions from public housing, threats to cut off communication tools and outrageous jail terms (five months to a woman for receiving a stolen pair of shorts). The message is once again being sent: disappear, and do it quietly.

At last year's G20 "austerity summit" in Toronto, the protests turned into riots and multiple cop cars burned. It was nothing by London 2011 standards, but it was still shocking to us Canadians. The big controversy then was that the government had spent $675m on summit "security" (yet they still couldn't seem to put out those fires). At the time, many of us pointed out that the pricey new arsenal that the police had acquired – water cannons, sound cannons, teargas and rubber bullets – wasn't just meant for the protesters in the streets. Its long-term use would be to discipline the poor, who in the new era of austerity would have dangerously little to lose.

This is what Cameron got wrong: you can't cut police budgets at the same time as you cut everything else. Because when you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance – whether organised protests or spontaneous looting. And that's not politics. It's physics.


The correct response to the political situation, as I've said so many times, is peaceful, non-violent protest and demonstration - walk like an Egyptian. Talk like Tahrir, or Tiananmen.

Gandhi was the first to use non-violent mass protest as a means of making political demands. There's a new movement happening in India based on Gandhi's ideas and example. And a man called Anna.

Indian corruption: Gandhi's mantle

Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement is posing an increasingly serious challenge to the Indian government


The practical and sometimes dirty business of power-seeking and deal-making has in the past been countered in Indian politics by periodic impulses to transform society root and branch. This dualism was famously embodied in the divide between Nehru and Gandhi, partners but also rivals in the Indian independence movement.

The two men had profoundly different ideas on the direction in which India ought to go, Nehru seeing a future India as a great industrial and military power, while Gandhi wanted a society which would keep the worst aspects of modernity at bay while transcending caste, class and religious differences.

Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old former soldier whose anti-corruption movement is posing an increasingly serious challenge to the Indian government, has certainly borrowed both style and technique from the Mahatma. He wears plain white clothes, if not the actual homespun on which Gandhi insisted. Like Gandhi, he fasts. Like Gandhi, he goes to prison – and sometimes refuses to come out. Like Gandhi, he has a model village, in his case in his home state of Maharashtra. Like Gandhi, he is against tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. Like Gandhi he has mobilised large numbers of Indians, many thousands of whom have been demonstrating in New Delhi and other cities after Manmohan Singh's government made the mistake of arresting him two days ago. Anger at corruption, of both the grand and the petty kind, has never been so intense.

The basic issue is simple. Mr Hazare and his followers want a powerful anti-corruption agency established, something that various governments had promised in the past. The prime minister pushed legislation to create such an agency, but without giving it powers to investigate the senior judiciary and the prime minister's office, or to pursue the lower- level officials who make life an expensive hell for Indians seeking driving licences, passports and other documents. Mr Hazare will not accept this, while Mr Singh says democracy is being subverted.

Mr Hazare does not have, or aspire to, anything like Gandhi's stature. He does not confront, as Gandhi did, his followers' complicity in social evils, an aspect of his career underlined by the subtitle – His Struggle With India – of a recent book on Gandhi. But Mr Hazare has found an issue – and is exerting a leverage which on balance must be good for India.

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