What are you for ?

What are you for ?

Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.

The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.

During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.

These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.

However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.

One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.

Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.

I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?

Equilibrium (2002)

Equilibrium (2002)

My wife was away visiting the sick yesterday and I had the evening on my own. The demands of milking and feeding the animals mean that it is well nigh impossible for both of us to go away at the same time. It took negotiations, and the coordination of two groups of neighbours, to let us away overnight last year for our annual holiday (to a hotel over 10 miles away). As the sick relatives were closer by blood and marriage to my wife, it was felt best if she was to go to visit.

This left me on the sofa last night, searching for a film to watch. On these occasions I try and find a film that my spouse would not want to watch; it seems wrong to watch a film on my own that she might enjoy too. If I did, I’d probably not want to watch it again so she may never see it, and I’ll miss out on discussing the film, which is a large part of the pleasure of film viewing. She tends to be less keen on Science Fiction than I am so this is often a safe choice. A further factor at play in my choice,  is that I tend not to want to buy a film, spending money is usually a joint activity, so I need to choose from the free-to-air channels or Amazon Prime. All of these factors combined lead me to settle down with a bag of popcorn and watch “Equilibrium

The premise of the film is quite simple : thFWDOJDNSafter the devastation of a third world war it is agreed that the world and humanity can not take the risk of a fourth, it is recognised that emotions fuel the violence that drives wars and therefore society is constructed to ensure people do not experience emotions and feelings.  To curb their emotions and help them avoid feelings (and thus committing “sense crimes“) the people take Prozium regularly, a name obviously chosen to allude to the current antidepressant (Fluoxetine, or Prozac). To police this, and to apprehend sense offenders, the state of Libria (This is the same reason chlordiazepoxide got the brand name Librium) have an organization of grammaton clerics who are trained in the  art of Gun Kata. One of these clerics stops taking his Prozium and, after a convoluted set of twists and turns, ends up leading the resistance towards a finale of the individual overturning the authoritarian state.

The premise in interesting and the camera work, visual effects and story progression are all quiet satisfactory. There is a tendency to be heavy handed on the puns , the underground resistance literally live underground, in the “Nethers”, but the story line is engaging. The cast are able and there are some big names in here, (Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson) and they, and the rest,  perform well. But, unfortunately the film tends to fail as a whole.

The film doesn’t really get to grips with the importance of emotion and feeling to the individual. When it does try to deal with emotion in characters it tends to end up being mawkish or kitsch (One cleric is lead off the straight and narrow by looking into the big eyes of a puppy). While it is visually well made it pays homage to many better films. The clerics and firemen are from Fahrenheit 451, clothing and fighting styles are from The Matrix, the architecture and landscapes are from Metropolis. Even the major plot devices are echoes of better films : the imperfect human fighting the state was handled better in Gattaca and 1984 was much more effective in discussing the state’s control of the individual even though it only had a ‘Big Brother’ rather than a ‘Father’ figure.

As you watch ‘Equilibrium’ these visual and plot devices remind you of much better films and lead to a growing feeling of dissatisfaction. All the elements are there but they do not coalesce into a good film. Indeed sometimes the handling of elements is quite jarring. This is a film whose target demographic is young men, I’d imagine, and thus the stylised and  choreographed fighting plays a central role. This and the copying of fascistic imagery in the outfits and architecture lead it to the edge of glorifying violence and the strong man. There can be a fine line between  parody and glorification (see Leibach) and this film sometimes crosses this line.

So overall, a lot of able cinematographic work has been  has been hammered together in a rather heavy handed fashion rather than thoughtfully crafted. The end result is passable rather than good. The same ingredients, in a cook’s kitchen, can produce a great meal which in the fast food store merely make something to ‘fill a hole’. This film filled a hole but, either it or the popcorn, left me with indigestion. However, I can feel confident my wife would have enjoyed it even less.

 

More burqa madness.

More burqa madness.

This week Denmark’s parliament voted to pass a law which effectively bans Muslim  women wearing either the Burqa or Niqab in public places. In this they have joined a number of other European countries in introducing such a ban ; France, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland have similar bans, or partial bans, in some areas. The reasons given for these bans, including the most recent one, is always the apparently sensible need to have an uncovered face during some interactions for security or clarity of communication. However, despite the protestations that these bans are not aimed at the Muslim populations particularly it is clear that this is not the case.

The Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen was quite clear that he though these aspects of religious observance by Muslims were not welcome in Denmark when, in 2010, he said

“the burqa and the niqab do not have their place in the Danish society. They symbolize a conception of the woman and of the humanity to which we are fundamentally opposed and that we want to fight in the Danish society,”

I also think it is unlikely that any undecided voters could have mistaken the intention behind the poster used by the Danish Peoples’ Party who supported a stronger version of the law, including prison sentences, which quite clearly has Muslim women in its sights :-

DegrUbdW0AAHbR1It is clear that, despite all the protestations that these laws and bans are in place to improve communication and safety and that they have no particular religion in mind, these laws all stem from a desire to make life difficult for Muslim women in these countries. It is disingenuous to say otherwise and to try and present them acts of a liberal society.

Across Europe there have been many changes to societies and these have included the effects of mass migration. Cultures which were previously Christian now find themselves largely secular and populations which were previously homogenous are now much more mixed. While there are aspects of these changes which are welcomed and beneficial there are also many aspects which people find disadvantageous and worrisome. This is particularly so to the elderly and the working class.

The elderly see the erosion of faith and religion in their culture and the growth of new, and strange, faiths. Often these religions appear hostile to each other. The well published wars raging in the middle-east and the importation of terrorism to European cities will cause, more than just the elderly, to become fearful. And in this regard the term islamophobia may be correct, they do fear the growth of  Islam, and are not reassured when they see the persecution of Christians in the Middle East or local police activity oin their capitals.

The working class believe mass migration has allowed their wages to be undercut and living standards to fall and made them fear for their and their families future. In times of stress they see their welfare states failing to meet the demands placed upon it and start to question whether it is being spread too thinly. Welfare states survive because we all feel “we are all  in it together”, it is the governmental form of our collective identity, and it operates best when people feel a sense of social cohesion. We all want the best for our neighbours as we can understand  them and their predicaments. However, as societies become increasingly diverse that cohesion is loosened and the willingness to share with those we don’t recognise as “like us” is reduced.

These groups, and others, think on the group level. They think about “them” not about the individual, not about their specific neighbour, not about A’ishah and Zarif and their kids next door. The more people know people from other cultures the less they fear them. Those who report the most hostility to strangers are those who have the least interactions with them. It is true to say that those living in the very diverse cities tend to have less xenophobic feelings to those living in small rural backwaters.

Day to day, first hand experience, does a great deal to counter prejudice and bigotry. Knowledge is the best antidote ignorance and the best source of knowledge is communication. Unfortunately communication in this particular area has been bvery poor. The major migration shifts were never discussed and now the problems people perceive, rightly or wrongly, are not discussed either. When attempts have been made to question aspects of migration which are seen to be adverse all too often the response has been to shut the debate down with cries that “You can’t say that. You are being racist“. While this does effectively shut down conversation it does not sort the problem. Those with concerns still have concerns but now know they are not allowed to discuss them.  They know that they are no longer seen as part of polite society.

Unable to discuss their concern they have to try new strategies. They switch from unacceptable concerns (“I’m worried about my job prospects”, “I worry there are not enough maternity beds”) to proxy concerns “I think it is terrible the way these womens’ faces are covered” which allows them to attack the group without appearing to do so. This is what is happening with these clothing bans, although with very little that obscures the true intention.

As an aside, a further danger of this refusal to discuss these concerns, is that it actually creates the problem that is feared.  If someone can’t discuss their worries, and feels they are defined as a racist for doing so, may come to think  “I’m as well hung for a sheep as a lamb” and start listening to those who wish to foment racial tensions and divides. Much of the success of Brexit, Trump, and the populist parties in Europe can be seen as a popular response to a ruling class which will not honestly debate concerns – they are then forced to listen.

I fear that this Danish ban, and the others preceding it, are signs of the tension that arises from problems with our social cohesion. The European Court of Human Rights  has allowed these bans as they (Denmark, Belgium, France) stating that it is reasonable to infringe the individual’s right or religious freedom for the sake of “living together” and “community values”. The hallmark of a tolerant society is that it people live together despite having different views of the world and different habits and behaviours. A tolerant society is one in which the minority is tolerated and not forced to bend to fit the majority’s wishes. The EHCR ruling flies in the face of basic Human Rights by supporting the idea that some individual human rights can be jettisoned for the benefit of the greater good. This approach is always fine when you are one of the majority. Those who support this strategy should consider their future. Their delight at banning the burqa might in hindsight seem misguided, if (although unlikely) 50 years from now the majority population were Islamic. Sometimes our mistakes are much clearer in retrospect.

This ban will also fail to do what we need. We need more integration and this only comes from communication. As we intermingle and interact with others we learn of each others beliefs and opinions. Through this we adopt and change, we integrate. Over time cultures live side by side and benefit equally from each other. I look at the many Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and other who are fully integrated members of my community. Certainly they practice a different religion but otherwise you could not tell them form any other member of our society. They are shopkeepers, doctors, plumbers, taxi drivers, neighbours, friends and , increasingly, family much more than they are Jews or Bhuddist or whatever.

These bans push us apart and cause us to see others as “them”. It increases the divides between us and increases the fears and worries that are there. If we really were worried about the woman’s role in Islam this is completely the wrong way to proceed. An observant woman is not going to abandon her faith just because of an ill-thought law.  This law may mean that the woman doesn’t venture out now in public places and be less influenced by aspects of our culture which promote female equality and liberation. It may keep her in the home, where she is much more so under the influence of her cultural leaders. If we really wish to help woman relinquish the burqa the way to do so is by showing that living a good and moral life without is entirely possible and discussing the issue. Unfortunately you are unlikely to discuss things with people who seem to be attacking you.

You can not compel someone into a religion.  Obedience is not observance. If we wish to see religious and moral beliefs change it will occur by example. By showing that an open culture is a successful culture, by showing that equality and religion and good bed-fellows, people may start to think. If your moral beliefs and religious ideals are superior to others then your life and actions will showcase them. You will become the example and encourage others to follow. Many people come to Europe because it is a liberal and tolerant culture. We must display that tolerance and openness if we want it to continue. This is especially important at times when we feel uncertain or afraid, it is when we are tested that our true metal is revealed. If we think freedom and religious expression are important we need to defend them. Not just for ourselves but also for others.

 

 

Intellectual Dark Web

Intellectual Dark Web

Today’s daily prompt of “rebel” was timely as I realised I would be able to offer a little bit of public service to those of you who wish to rebel against stifling conformity and try a bit of free thinking. In an excellent article in the New York Times Bari Weiss discusses the new intellectuals who are changing the face of current debate and starting to offer some hope that free thinking and debate have not died. She suggests that there is an Intellectual Dark Web where rebellious debate is gathering momentum, it is really worth  a few moments of your time to check this out.

 

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The Learning Disability Mortality Review was published this week and it has largely gone unnoticed in the press and news. While we flaunt the successes of our health service, and describe it as the “the envy of the world“, we have ignored the fact that there is a serious problem with how the NHS treats one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. The report looked at those with learning Disability dying in NHS care and found that in about one in eight of those deaths neglect, abuse or incompetence had “adversely affected” the care that the individual had received.

The report makes harrowing and upsetting reading. It is clear that this group of people are being sold short by our health service, that they are often felt to have lives not worth saving. There are reports of staff failing to recognise the worth of the individual and thus they are discriminated against. This utilitarian view of life is very dangerous and particularly dangerous, in a system such as the NHS, where the client is not the patient but the state itself. The state will have the tendency to value some lives are more productive than others, more valuable than others, and thus worthy of more attention. This group of people find themselves at the bottom of the pile when priorities are being drawn up. When the calculus of how much someone is worth is reckoned their values – the pleasure they bring to their families, the love they express, the friendships they make – don’t weight well in the scales and they loose out.

Staff recognise this and start to behave accordingly; they care less for the patients and come to view them as obstacles in the path to giving better care to more deserving patients, and, in extreme cases, unworthy of using the resources which could be better used by someone more valuable. All of this has echoes of the film “Dasein Ohne Leben ” (“Existence without Life”), the 1942 Nazi propaganda film which was intended to soften the public’s opposition to the euthanasia, or murder, of the physically and mentally handicapped.

Although this group of people almost certainly suffer the most from this neglect they are unfortunately not alone. When I was working I was repeatedly shocked by the contempt that medical and nursing staff could express for patients with dementia seeing them as nothing more than “bed blockers” who were misusing scarce resources. Recent scandals about breast screening errors again show that ageism is still prevalent. Older women have higher risks of breast cancer but screening is avoided because it is “not worth it” in this group. Were the NHS an insurance system, as it was initially intended, then people who had been in the scheme longer, and contributed more, would expect better dividends not a scheme which rewards their involvement by reducing their entitlements.

But advanced age is not necessary to be a victim of this type of calculation. The high profile cases of severely disabled children being removed from their parent’s control causes further concern. In these awful cases, the parents asked for nothing extra from the NHS other than to get out of the way and to let them try what they could for their babies. Their hopes for their offspring were almost certainly futile but it may have helped the parents to know that they had done all that was humanly possible for their sons. But the system felt is was important, having assessed the importance of these infants lives, to stop the parents and other systems doing what the might lest they squandered resources.

When systems become too large they often become inhumane. When the patient and their family is not the focus then the system operates on economic principles of value for money. It stops being an insurance scheme to protect us form the high costs of health care, by aggregating risks, and becomes a system to ration care. In a rationing system the vulnerable groups of the disabled and elderly always loose out particularly in times of scarcity. As the NHS becomes increasingly unable to meet the demands put upon it it will start to ration ever more strictly. Then it matters not a fig, whether you paid your taxes diligently, or worked productively, or are a valued member of your family and community, if you are deemed too expensive and too unproductive then your services are going to be poor. You will get the minimum that can be offered if a callous system allow even that to happen.

Our sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters, with learning disabilities are not lesser people than us. They have every right to care and we should feel ashamed that a system what we hoped would provide universal healthcare  is failing to do so for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

 

Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.

 

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

thestatehistrolesmall

There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .