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Formerly London

October 6th, 2016 | Posted by David in Literature - (0 Comments)

London was wiped out shortly after the USSR perfected their H-Bomb. It could so easily have happened in real life, but thankfully it was only to be on British Civil Defence plans that our capital city was erased and replaced by “Area 5a”.

It is extraordinary how quickly the ubiquity of Civil Defence planning has been forgotten, yet it contributed a huge amount to our contemporary way of life, and an explosion of commuter suburbs oriented towards cold war aeronautics and economics. A volunteer Civil Defence Corps, which never quite got to full strength, prepared, drilled and enjoyed pot-luck dinners and dinner dances. It was manned by joiners-in, optimists, patriots, and the kind of aggrandised social secretaries who George Orwell feared might pervert the course of English Socialism towards Totalitarianism. The CDC is a much better fit for 1984 than a cut and paste job between the USSR and UK. But Dystopia isn’t the only treatment World War Three gets on film and in literature. Surrealistic Satire is particularly suited to depicting Mutually Assured Destruction.


This song’s airplay was restricted for fear it would undermine morale. I’m not sure if it is Satire or just plain silly, but Satire has attracted legal action for millennia. Litigation is its litmus test. It’s silliness is altogether different to the absurdity of officially approved images and advice offered to citizens by Civil Defence; Civil because the Home Front is the new Front Line in nuclear conflict. The Family fall-in to prepare for the fallout.

One thing you should take away from this presentation is that it takes 16” of books to protect you from the fallout. There is no point cowering behind a Kindle. If you find Finnegans Wake hard going, be thankful that the gamma rays will too. Yet how many families have this many books? Perhaps a Civil Servant might, or a Professor. The central thing we should take away from this slideshow presentation is that official Civil Defence advice for surviving M.A.D. was itself insane. Insane in a cold-blooded clear-headed calculated kind of way. But what was the real agenda? Look at this man:


He doesn’t really think you stand a chance, but he has a job to do. A story to tell. In the USA, approved plans were available from Civil Defence, in the UK the unhinged advice was that a door turned on it’s side would do the job, yet you too could have built your own fallout shelter in the basement or bought one from a contractor. Or what better way to return to the Dark Ages than in your very own barrow.


You could try role-playing as King Arthur, returning to rescue Albion, to keep up morale.

Depicting this as an Ideal Home Exhibition for the nuclear family enabled the authorities to create the fiction that everything will be alright. That the institutions of government, family and law and order would survive. Everything is under control.

But it wasn’t. Our technical ability had outstripped our humanity. Governments were being dragged towards disastrous conflict by their nuclear weapons like two men taking too many pitbulls for a walk.


These slideshows are obsessed with morale. The family enjoys a game. Later, how about a nice game of chess? Plan a varied diet for interest: pasta, pulses, dried fruit, or a stray dog, perhaps? While the male constructs a shelter, the housewife undertakes stockpiling with the children. The fixed benign grins in these slides are like the ones you find in safety advice leaflets you get on a plane, yet here we have Olympic level denial. And endless stacking. Keeping organised, prepared, civilised.


It’s like a miserable family holiday. With parents who are making the best of it, chirpy and chipper, and clinging on desperately to institutions that have become null and void.


The Bed-Sitting Room, a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus adapted for film by Richard Lester, exploits this disparity between reality and defeated institutions brilliantly. Their characters feed off those institutions like rations stockpiled in their memories. Memories of London – the City only exists in their heads.

The authorities are now two madmen in a makeshift hot-air balloon (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), yet the survivors constantly submit to them and the bureaucratic language that is mangled by their jobsworth tongues. The survivors often ask where in reality they are.

If this is Regent’s Park, then to the South..
I must get to Belgravia..
Don’t you know your London?
Why, this is Paddington!

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argued that the Patriarch that once ruled the household in Greco-Roman society was replaced in the modern nation state by Bureaucracy. She describes a mental picture of a table that has vanished yet leaves everyone seated in the same position.


So we see ancient household concerns, like wealth and health become elevated to a kind of national housekeeping, the Economy and Healthcare system. Yet the difference is hard to spot because individuals occupy so many of the same roles as before and labour to satisfy similar needs. At one level Civil Defence was just this kind of interference, one of the many bureaucratic structures that filled the void where the patriarch once stood. But what happens if the unimaginable happens and Bureaucracy itself is destroyed, leaving a few atomised families to encircle a power-vacuum?

In the Bed-Sitting Room this is precisely the kind of shift that takes place. The authorities have created the conditions for their own destruction and the family they have failed to protect fail to grasp that Britain is over. American disaster movies often revolve around a family unit (or surrogate) pitted against distant odds. The Bed-Sitting Room is far more British in that it is about institutions. “I am the BBC,” intones the telly man.


The characters are Nurses, Doctors, Soldiers, Police, a Priest, all covering themselves with the signs of institutions that have been destroyed, “because we’re British?” One could even say that a film depicting a family buffeted around a political vacuum, shambling around a china clay pit obsessing over the past is a perfect parable for Britain today. It is what happens when the social structure described by Foucault (or Hobbes) wherein people practice mutual oppression through a sovereign, through uniforms and rituals, loses its centre, its elastic tension, and it slaps them in the face with official clobber. Their sovereign investment is returned with insufficient postage paid. Either they get dressed or they admit that it’s all over. It is all over. The charade has become an obvious charade.


But why is Satire so appropriate for imagining nuclear war? Or World War One for that matter? There are several references to it in The Bed-Sitting Room. Oh What A Lovely War is a very similar film in its surreal imagery and biting satire.


The connection is the unthinkable destruction. After World War Three the past, present and future would all have been destroyed. Satire works in the opposite direction to the Civil Defence slideshow. Satire’s hysterical absurdity makes the viewer more sane, not less. It removes delusion by revealing its contradictions. The slideshow, however, invites you to share a collective delusion and ingrain it in yourself through pointless activity.

This has always been Satire’s agenda. Indeed, the purpose of all Greek plays was to protect society from corruption. A tragedy like Antigone was performed by and for the politicians of the city state to remind them that tyrants like Creon will always lead them to disaster. The Old Comedy of Aristophanes, satires such as The Birds, had the same job. But they did it through shaming those who were already corrupt.

Every theory needs a control sample, so let’s take a straightforward thriller like WarGames from 1983. Ferris Bueller has an even more disastrous day off when he hacks into the Pentagon and plays Thermonuclear War. The computer locks out the authorities and it looks like World War Three is unavoidable.


As we know, the US Govt. takes a very tolerant view of hackers, so they allow him to give it one more good old college try.


He makes the computer play itself at noughts and crosses, which always ends in a stalemate. The computer cross references this with thermonuclear war and realises that it can only win by not playing. This is the intended message of the film. However, satire is lurking in the wings and subverts the final scene with this:


“How about a nice game of chess.” Chess? The game based on grinding seasonal medieval warfare? Chess is the home game of Henry V! This film ends up subverting itself and asking, what do you do when you can’t play nuclear war? Play proxy war! *The military history of the post-war years explained in a single unintended joke about chess*. A joke that says you can’t ‘not play’ nuclear war – you can’t turn the clock back. The truth is that nuclear weapons are not a mistake. They are a perfect expression of what we are like as a species. They are what you get when you multiply our accelerating technical ability with our inhumanity to man. This is what happened in World War One. The only way to get rid of these weapons for good is for all of us to become the kind of creature that can make them, but chooses not to. But I fear this work is overdue and nuclear weapons will not be abolished. Rather they will be superseded by weaponised Fusion Power. Our chance to not create this is fading, and another technology that should spell free energy for all will spread ubiquitous fear, just in case “the others make it first”. Can we ever unlearn this logical fault?

Satire is one of the arts that allows us to imagine a way out. The Bed-Sitting Room invites us to become more humane by laughing at our self-destructive self-delusion. But this makes it even more worrying that our politicians are so uncultured and unliterate.

The Maximum Wage Magazine is now available to buy!


A 72-page A4 full-colour glossy magazine splashed on every page with photos from the live show and packed with brand new art and articles on earning a living.

Only £3.50 & FREE delivery within the UK.

Where Are You?

Performance combining hectic game-show silliness, satirical bite and economic critique – David Collard, The Times Literary Supplement

East London has become a prime example of the divide between the UK’s richest and poorest. It’s also where a group of artists are teaching people about income inequality. – Helen Amass, The Times Educational Supplement


Gainful Unemployment

“The times I’ve felt most employed, society has deemed me unemployed.” Eddie Farrell

An Insider’s View of The City

Investment Manager turned activist Clive Menzies explains how the rich transfer wealth from all of us to the top 10%

The NHS: A Private Investigation

Artist Marion Macalpine reveals a new and unreported threat to hospital estates.

The Metabolic Economy

David and Ping collage texts* and imagine a resurrected R Buckminster Fuller crashing an East End Artists’ studio. “Energy Is True Wealth! Survival for all, not just the fittest, is now a fact!”

AND Julie Rafalski shares out the commonwealth pie. Ladies Of The Press subvert lifestyle magazines to sell you back to your Self. Sophie Herxheimer collects life stories. Janice Macaulay‘s treasure trove of thrifty tips. Julie-Rose Bower dismisses the CV. Four pull-out posters Smash Hits stylee. Orwell vs Osborne on a living wage, Salary Amnesty and more!

Where Are You?

Inside the venue, it’s hectic, a little ramshackle, with a DIY, handmade aesthetic. It’s as far as you can get from the white cube art gallery experience. Although the art world may be driven by money, you feel a little uncouth if you actually ask how much something is. Here the mechanics of making and spending money are in the foreground and in your face. You’re being asked to think about wealth and value, and how these are not objective facts but constructed ideas. – Anne Black & Katherine Dike, galleryELL

*Utopia or Oblivion, 2008, Lars Muller Publishers
Critical Path, 1981, St Martins Press
The World of Buckminster Fuller (DVD), Robert Snyder, 2010, Microcinema International
R. Buckminster Fuller, Everything I Know

One of the most common gut reactions to the idea of a Universal Basic Income is unfairness. It seems unfair that someone’s taxes would be redistributed to everyone else regardless of need. That would indeed be unjust if it were necessarily at the heart of UBI, but ‘redistribution of wealth’ in the old sense is not what is intended by many UBI theories discussed over the last fifty years. This post is about redistribution of commonwealth.

Redistribution of wealth is a ‘corrective’ feature of the current monetary system, perceived as taking from one person’s pocket to give to another. Key to R Buckminster Fuller’s description of a Fellowship To Think (UBI) was a redefinition of what wealth actually is; a redefinition from Physics. Social status and ‘income’ help us to group people together who are earning a wage, but this doesn’t reveal if they are actually Productive in an economic sense. Adam Smith described how servants earn a wage by consuming on behalf of their masters, but do not actually produce wealth. Fuller’s idea of Energy Wealth is one key idea for finding fair ways to establish UBI from true commonwealth.

Three years ago Ping and myself wrote an as yet unpublished book about Money and Income Inequality. With current interest in UBI increasing after policy changes in Finland we decided it is time to share an extract of the draft online, especially as we will be launching a live event and publication early next year as part of our project. More later.

In this part of the book we imagine what would happen if R Buckminster Fuller were to appear today in London. There are some direct quotes, but much of it is imagined conversation on his part with a group of artists in a studio complex:

..I remember when I was in the Navy…
‘What? Joel, is that you? Listen honey, I can’t hear you –’
..all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘I’m so sorry,’ sighed Marcia, ‘It’s all a big misunderstanding.’
..all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘What bubbles? Joel?’ Esther was glaring at her phone, ‘What? Some kind of interference, look honey, can you just –
..I would look off the back of my ship…
‘Ship? Honey the rain isn’t all that bad- all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘I hope you haven’t been drinking. I need you to PICK ME UP IN THE CAR-
..In the schoolroom we are taught…
‘Oh shit!’ exclaimed Esther, ‘My phone is really hot!’
..that spheres are made with pi…

..I don’t think nature is using pi…

..for all the millions of beautiful bubbles…

Everyone immediately turned, tracing Esther’s phone as it arced through the air. Alex turned too quickly and fell suddenly against the scaffolding, causing it to list to one side and the polythene to billow upwards. The rest of them turned where they stood, following the trajectory of the phone. Xiao Gua stepped forward and caught the flying phone softly in both hands like a cricket ball. The air was shimmering above the phone as something that looked like wisps of smoke came together and began to glow. What looked like an array of tiny fluorescent tubes was organising itself into a rapidly increasing number of triangles. Alarmed, Xiao Gua reverently lowered the phone to the floor. Then the mass of triangles became brighter as it increased in density, suddenly ballooning outwards like an object falling into water, then upwards, creating the figure of a man. Some of these triangles then concentrated themselves inside the man’s throat into two great chains that began to rub together, generating a rasping, binary sound, like a row of glass bottles trying to talk. And it became clear that the figure was in fact talking, and with a little effort, everyone in the room, perhaps with the exception of Xiao Gua, could understand what it was saying,

‘Now I don’t want you to be afraid.’

Chapter Three

Freedom for the Wage-Slave!

‘I know that my appearing in this form is quite unexpected and alarming. It is in fact a very new experience for Man, that I stumbled upon through trial and error. An experience that many Men may have already had, but been unable to control or articulate. But I am a man, as you will understand presently. To this end I’d like to explain how I got to be standing here with you now, apparently a spectre of some kind and quite suddenly entering the room from nowhere.

‘My name was and still is Richard Buckminster Fuller. Without the animation of my first physical body, which I had the use of for eighty-eight years, my life was seemingly at an end. But fragments of my drifting consciousness found a foothold within another complex carbon structure somewhere, and I must have undergone a simple kind of synaptic experience at that level. My working hypothesis is that, like a knot passed along a rope, our person is a very complex pattern in space. The knot is not a part of the rope, but a pattern that moves along it. Now it may be that the complex of vectors we call “mind” or “personality” is in fact the most complex pattern integrity ever created. Perhaps what we are used to thinking of as our lives is just such a length of rope, and this pattern integrity can continue into new forms? All just speculation on my part so far. But as I was saying; as my thoughts were able to coalesce and deal with greater levels of complexity I found myself having some memory of who I was and my environment.

‘I found I was able to have some small influence upon the natural materials around me, and constructed for myself a rudimentary brain system to support these thoughts. Thus I learned to stand aside from the work and, gaining perspective, to use only my brain to rearrange the flows of inanimate energy-transformation patterns external to my own integral “body” energies. I have no idea where this was, as it would be some time before I was able to gather sense data. The principles I learned from Nature in my lifetime were still ingrained in my pattern. For example, one of my earlier motor experiments in the field was to hinge myself around a single point. A more successful version of this was to create a gossamer net out of tetrahedra, to hook myself onto the wind. This way I was able to travel much greater distances. I was able use these principles to pick up where I left off in life and construct a highly mobile and efficient body for myself over time. Before too long I was able to gather whatever energy I needed from nature to have complete freedom of movement, and rearrange my elements at will to my own advantage. How mistaken men are in assuming their days are going to be short and filled with struggle! Who knows how many have made this discovery, perhaps very few, but maybe we are in a position in time where it can be disclosed for the benefit of all men everywhere.

‘During one of these experiments, I was able to appear in front of the Dean of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where I had been professor in the School of Art and Design, in the form of an octet truss. He recognised me immediately and, aware that something interesting was happening, he had SIU assign me a small corner of the faculty where I was able to continue with my experiments, including compounding elements, increasing my mass, accumulating a number of internal protein processes to channel energy from the sun, and improving my mobility. I had already travelled some hundreds of miles westwards, despite my primitive condition at that time. It was as if I entered the world naked, ignorant and helpless for a second time, but because I had already lived a whole life once, I was able to rapidly regain ground.

Meanwhile, there has been a world-around leap forward in technology. Man now communicates at the speed of light, using fibre optics and a computer-processing power that doubles every two years. My current experiments are in transmitting this manifestation of myself around the world through these energy-transmission networks. Actually my destination today was meant to be elsewhere so I don’t mind telling you I am a little surprised to have arrived here. But there is much I have yet to understand about this process. The story I have just described to you in a few seconds actually took me over 20 years.’

R. Buckminster Fuller’s appearance had, at least to begin with, mesmerised everyone in the room. His authoritative, tumbling, buzzing speech and electroluminescent glow lent to the room a sense of occasion, like the début of cinema. In fact Tom and Xiao Gua had actually begun talking over what the Professor was saying towards the end of his speech, like people sometimes do in the middle rows, apparently unaware that this figure may be more than just a hologram. Esther kept hushing them out of respect, because she understood the spectre to be saying that he was in reality Professor Fuller himself standing there in the room, and yet he made no bones about the fact that he had died in the 1980s. This had to be a trick right? That was obviously the most likely explanation. After all, people who have died don’t generally come back after thirty years. But then, who had created this illusion, and why? They couldn’t deny that the holographic creature projecting out of Esther’s phone, from his abstracted tetrahedral feet up to his geodesic head, was apparently interacting with them as fluently as would any other person in the room.

None of this fazed Fuller, who simply carried on with his train of thought, as if it were the startled onlookers who were of questionable reality; ‘Perhaps I have experienced the same thing as when lightning passes through a conductor?’ But while he considered the means of his arrival, the others continued to wonder what he was. Was he alive somewhere else? He might be a ghost. Or a projection from another time? A recording that can respond robotically from the archives? Bibs asserted that “collective hallucinations” are a myth, and oxymoronic. Even ergot in the bread only gives a town simultaneous private visions, like smartphones do. So it was Marcia who, as chairperson, welcomed the necronaut to their little symposium and congratulated him on his interesting researches into immortality.

‘Why, thank you for your welcome,’ replied Fuller, ‘but my research is much broader than that. Immortality may be an application of my work, but there is other work, much more important work I would not leave undone. Consider how many of those currently living, even, are not truly permitted to live. In spite of the facts. That is what concerns me.’

Fuller was used to causing a disturbance when he entered a room, particularly since he had died. Almost out of habit he took hold of these prone minds and, like a pedestrian taking a moment to straighten a street-sign, began to teach.

‘Yes, I regret that in spite of the scientific facts, even so many decades after revolutionary discoveries, many people are not truly permitted to live. But what are the facts? It is now normal for man to be a success. Some of you may not agree with that statement. Some of you may think, in this harsh world it’s just “you or me.” Many people would say so. Just before I went to Harvard in 1913, before the start of World War I, a very rich “uncle” gave me some counsel. My “uncle” said, “Young man, I think I must tell you some things that won’t make you very happy. Those few of us who are rich and who really have the figures know that it is worse than one chance in one hundred that you can survive your allowed days in any comfort. It is not you or the other fellow; it is you or one hundred others. And if you are going to survive – and have a family of five and wish to prosper – you’re going to have to do it at the expense of five hundred others. So, do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how and as your conscience will allow. At any rate, that’s what you’re up against.”

‘But it’s now normal for man to be a success. We have to abruptly accept that it is now normal for man to succeed. The abundance produced by industry has made survival of all, and not just the fittest, a true fact for all humanity. In 1927, I decided that man was operating on a most fundamental fallacy. He was operating on the basis that man was supposed to be a failure and therefore he had to prove his right to live. And each man then thought he had to say “I can show how I can earn my living and the other people are supposed to die.” No, I thought, this was no longer true. I decided that man was designed to be an extraordinary success, his characteristics are just magnificent.’

‘But isn’t it just common sense that there isn’t enough to go around?’ protested Sarah, looking a little surprised to hear herself speaking.
‘It’s a common opinion, but it doesn’t mean it’s right’ said Esther.

‘The problem is people don’t share it,’ added Hannah, eager to add to the normality.

‘Yes,’ said Laura, doing her bit, ‘these Dictators and their cronies get fat while everyone is starving. And 70% of Americans eat everything.

‘Well, something like that,’ said Esther, cringing. ‘But it doesn’t have to be like that. I mean, Professor Fuller has been suggesting this for the longest time, way before the idea that we could Make Poverty History. That was unthinkable twenty years ago, but most people have some idea that we could feed everybody today.’

‘Right,’ said Tom, ‘it’s the distribution that is the real problem, and corruption, war and debt that keep people hungry.’

‘Yes,’ continued Esther, ‘most people now no longer simply accept that failure to reach the normal standard of living should be the inevitable outcome for the unlucky majority. That’s what Professor Fuller means when he says it should be normal for Man to be a success, isn’t that right, sir?’

‘But “success” is a weird word to use for this isn’t it?’ asked Tom, ‘I mean it could mean so many things other than being fed and clothed. I mean, it doesn’t sound weird to talk about someone being a “successful artist.” But it does seem strange to refer to someone as being a successful human just because they have enough food. Surely having enough food is just a basic right?

‘Of course nobody wants to just be on life-support.’ added Esther, ‘The Professor means that Man is successful when we all have enough for our daily needs but also freedom and opportunity. You can’t have one without the other. Perhaps the Professor could elaborate?’
‘Yes,’ added Marcia, ‘we would be most honoured if you would continue, sir. Humans Rights is what we are all about, even for artists.’

At this Fuller smiled and closed his eyes. ‘There is a lot you will need to understand first if my answers are going to make any sense to you.’ Placing the palms of his hands together and the tips of his fingers against his chin, he looked intently at everyone in the room, as if taking in and processing the expression on each face in turn.

‘If we choose the most basic, strategic point to begin from’, began Fuller, pausing periodically and looking up and around as he composed his thoughts, ‘We should ask ourselves the question, “what is industry?” From what we know of energy and the principles Nature is using, we find that Industry is a working model of Nature. Not some otherworldly reality imposed upon Nature, no, Industry is instead a working model of Nature herself. An extension of the principles of Nature. Industry uses the same principles as Nature, obtains its energy from Nature, and satisfies the repeatedly, regularly occurring energy needs of Mankind. We could think of the energy of the sun being stored in crops season after season, the energy of any given mass being released in nuclear fusion, the harnessable ocean tides, wind, sunpower and alcohol producing plants. This energy can be made to flow through wires and pipes. The connection between Nature and Industry is direct. And it can be more, but not less, efficient, because we can only learn more, not less, about re-routing this energy.’

During this, everyone present had found their way automatically to their chairs as if following their migration routes. Hannah produced her jotter and Sarah likewise clicked her mechanical pencil into action like a gas hob. Otto even returned to the comfort of his smoking-window. Alex too retreated to his alcove, perhaps more deeply unsettled than anyone else there, not quite able to get into the normality the others had erected together, like the makeshift polythene tent that still rippled overhead and reproduced Fuller’s glow in every wave-crest crease. Ever helpful, Xiao Gua considered offering a chair to their, obviously distinguished, but also possibly supernatural speaker. Eventually, deciding he may offend the electric spirit, Xiao Gua sat down in the chair himself, and periodically asked Tom to explain what was happening. Fuller was saying,

‘Science states the entire physical universe is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed – it is one hundred percent accountable. It is energy that satisfies all of our needs, giving us heat, light, nutrition and also driving all of our machinery, therefore energy is true wealth. With energy you can meet all material needs, without it, you can do nothing. But that energy has no design of its own, it is constantly moving in every direction and transforming from one form into anther. So energy must be directed if it is going to be of use to Man. Wealth is therefore of two constituent parts; the first is energy and the second is knowhow. Wealth is energy compounded with intellect’s knowhow.1

‘But there is more. Energy cannot decrease, and knowhow can only increase. It is therefore scientifically clear that wealth which combines energy and knowhow can only increase. This is true wealth, it increases as fast as it is used. The-faster-the-more! Those are are the facts of science. Those are the facts of life. The proper accounting of wealth is now scientifically feasible. Man is now learning through the repeated lessons of experimental science, that wealth is explicitly the organized tool-articulated energy capability to sustain his forward hours and days of metabolic regeneration. In other words, true wealth is channelling energy through machines to supply our needs.

‘And there is still more! Because energy is wealth, the integrating of our world’s industrial networks promises access of all humanity everywhere to the total commonwealth of earth.’

At this, Fuller paused, and in the gap, Hannah put up her hand, as if in a formal lecture.

‘Yes, lady in the blue?’

‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ said Hannah, ‘but I just can’t help but think – I mean, doesn’t it cost money to produce energy? Wealth doesn’t just come from nowhere.’

‘Thank you, young lady, for your constructive question,’ replied Fuller eagerly. ‘The kind of wealth we’re actually dealing with – the industrial wealth – has nothing to do with the old monetary gold. That kind of accounting based on speculation and credit is the mark of an innocence of society, and an economic expansion cancer. This is not the kind of accounting that can measure true wealth. We should come to accept that our present real wealth is exclusively the tool organised capability to take energies of the universe, and shunt them through channels onto the ends of circularly arranged levers, so that the energy turns wheels and shafts to do all the work. We can measure these values exactly, and we find that we are taking nothing from the energy capital of the universe. The physicists make it very clear that energy can neither be created or destroyed. You can’t exhaust that kind of wealth.

‘But, as your question has revealed, our present wealth-accounting continues to be unrealistic and does not reflect the actual conditions for humanity. These entirely obsolete world accounting systems fail to disclose the exclusively increasing wealth of Industry. The old economic accounting begins with Thomas Malthus’ assumption that there is and always will be only enough of the essentials of life to support a minority of mankind. This view made failures normal. This concept, as I said, is now acknowledged by science to be invalid. This obsolete accounting is based on Newton’s assumption that “at rest” is normal for the universe, and that the universe will eventually “run out of juice” and “run down” or “stop.” But Einstein’s continual evolution norm says 186,000 miles per second is normal. The speed of light is normal. Change is normal. Twentieth Century physics discovered that energy would escape from one system only by joining another system – that energy was therefore always one hundred percent accountable, and can be directed to man’s advantage. The old economics assumed that metals mined and put to use would always “rust” or oxidize and eventually become disintegrated and vanish from the cosmos. But now we discover that all metals may be remelted and reused. The old economics assumed that “you can’t lift yourself by your own bootstraps,” ergo flying by man was impossible. It cannot explain what we know from practical experience, from commercial industrial processes, that the synergetic tensile strength of chrome-nickel-steel – 350,000 pounds per square inch – is entirely unpredicted by even the sum of the tensile strengths of its constituent materials. That’s over 90,000 pounds per square inch that old economics cannot account for when it assumes “you can’t lift yourself by your own bootstraps.” No wonder that in the old economics, no man could fly.’

‘But that’s science, Mr Fuller,’ said Tom, ‘we were talking about money here. I mean, they’re not the same thing. Money is more of a cultural thing, I would have thought anyway.’
‘That’s right, they aren’t related,’ agreed Laura.

‘Ah, but they are,’ said Fuller. ‘In the old economics, the world is finite and a closed system, resources are scarce, failure is the norm and everything in universe moves entropically to a static norm. But in the Twentieth Century, we learned that energy is one hundred percent accountable, continual transformation of energies in universe is the norm. The old economics cannot account for this because it is based on lack – lack of time, lack of resources.. so when it comes across abundance instead of lack, it can’t account for it.’

‘Absolutely!’ agreed Esther, ‘Scarcity is bunk! We spent heaps of time talking about this in the seventies. But I had a frustrating time talking about this working in an NGO context in the Eighties. In health, agriculture, and development circles – ‘

‘But why isn’t that the way the world works then?’ said Hannah. ‘Surely people would have noticed?’

Fuller smiled,

‘Young lady, that is another good observation. I’ll tell you why; because politics is a blockage. To start with, here is an educational bombshell: Take from all of today’s industrial nations all their industrial machinery and all their energy-distributing networks, and leave them all their ideologies, all their political leaders, and all the political organizations and careful study shows that within six months, more than two billion people will die of starvation, having gone through great pain and deprivation along the way. However, if we leave the industrial countries with their present industrial machinery and their energy-distribution networks and leave them also all the people who have routine jobs operating the industrial machinery and distributing its products, and we take away from all the industrial countries all their ideologies and all the politicians and political party workers and send them off by rocketship to forever orbit the sun – the result will be that as many people as now will keep right on eating, possibly getting on a little better than before. It may even remove all barriers to complete free-world-intercourse and thereby permit realization of enough for all. So you see, when people like my “uncle,” or politicians assumed it was either YOU or ME, they were wrong.’

‘That’s seems like wishful thinking, if you ask me,’ said Bibs. ‘A totally hypothetical argument. When would it be possible to ever put such an idea to the test? Are you seriously proposing a technological solution to every problem? How would you remove politics completely? Apart from shooting politicians off into space of course. It may appear inefficient, but people have achieved a great deal through the power of debate, especially internationally.’

‘Yet no political leader has a mandate to make the whole world work,’ continued Fuller, ‘consequently, we cannot look for political help in making all of humanity successful. Politicians only have a mandate from their home countries,’

‘Or even just the Home Counties – ‘ Tom sneered,

‘They create boundaries for industry which are national and compete country by country. This is not a way of making the whole work. It is a way of making some people successful at the cost of others. The fact is that for the last half-century, all the political theories and all the concepts of political functions – in any other than secondary roles as housekeeping organizations – are completely obsolete.’

Bibs was having none of it,

‘Oh, it is quite the reverse. For a start, if competition from company to company makes them more efficient and productive, which I assume would be your point of view, why does this suddenly not work country to country? And in fact, true diplomatic politics has created and preserves a degree of freedom, even encouraging it globally. Far more freedom that corporations would grant.’

‘It is the first time that this abundance has been provided in the history of man,’ replied Fuller, faltering a little, ‘so I understand that it may be surprising to you, but all of these political theories we are referring to were developed on the you-or-me basis. This whole realization that mankind can and may be comprehensively successful is startling.’

With this Fuller opened his palm towards them and a small crystalline form blossomed from it, becoming a globe, complete with continents and ice-caps.

‘I once invented a game, a strategic game, which was a kind of wargame against need. I thought, instead of these wargames where superpowers rehearse nuclear oblivion, what if we were to turn these computers to face Nature and stage a World Game, where the aim is to achieve success in making the world work. I invited a lot of very smart people to play it, for many years on various university campuses. We published a lot of very interesting results. A couple of versions are still played today in schools and offices but, when I returned to society, I was disappointed to find these versions focus on allocating lack rather than engineering abundance. I had even hoped the World Game might even become a popular spectator sport. But never mind. We’ll continue our discussion along the lines of our original version, in the light of the realisation that there is enough to go around handsomely.’

He moved his free hand above the globe and a figure appeared on its surface, walking about. And then another person and another until there were hundreds of them busily doing things.

‘The essence of “success in making the world work” will be to make every man able to become a world citizen and able to enjoy the whole earth, going wherever he wants at any time, able to take care of all the needs of all his forward days without any interference with any other man and never at the cost of another man’s equal freedom and advantage.’

A line of energy snaked across the top of the globe to the foot of every continent.

‘We have seen that wealth is our tool-organized capability to deal with the forward metabolic regeneration of humanity in terms of forward man-days of increasing mutual enjoyment of the whole of the earth without interferences and without the gains of one to be realized only by the loss of another. But has anybody noticed, as this young lady put it earlier? 2

Six decades ago there was a meeting in Geneva of all the world’s leaders, and by chance the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations was meeting at the same time. What I have just been reporting to you came so clearly into scientific view at that time that the leading world politicians could even acknowledge it to be true. Gerard Piel, then publisher of the Scientific American, reported unequivocally that for the first time in the history of man, it was in evidence that there could be enough of the fundamental metabolic and mechanical energy sustenance for everybody to survive at high standards of living – and further more, there could be enough of everything to take care of the increasing population while also always improving the comprehensive standards of living. Granted the proper integration of the world by political unblockings, there could be enough to provide for all men to enjoy all earth at a higher standard of living than all yesterday’s kings, without self-interferences and with no one being advantaged at the expense of another. In other words, for the last fifty years at least, it has been known in political and scientific circles that Malthus was indeed wrong and there now could be enough to go around – handsomely. But, inasmuch as I have found that the majority of people around the world have still never heard of Malthus – add to that our observation that not more than one percent of humanity read what Piel said – it is easy for me to understand that what I am saying to you now must be jolting. Yet sixty years ago, Utopia became for the first time feasible.’

As Fuller spoke, a small percentage of the figures on his globe began to glow with an orange light.

‘On the false working assumption that there is nowhere nearly enough to go round and never will be, that it has to be YOU OR ME, man has then said “You must earn the right to live. You’re supposed to die. You must show you are better than the other man.” This is the basis on which society has been assuming that it’s a handout or a Socialist system if you’re not earning a living in some job somebody has set out for you. So we have the idea of a job as something that you have to do, that you don’t like to do very much, in contrast with what your mind tells you needs to be done, or what you would like to do. So the idea then – this is the earning-a-living idea – this is what they said: “we don’t want you to do a pick and shovel kind of a job, we do that by the bulldozer, we don’t really want you to be blue jeans, that kinda gets your hands dirty, we want everyone to be white collar.” But now; what we’re going to do instead, and this is to simply make some sense of the situation now, what I propose we say now instead is: “I don’t want you to be taking a job where it’s not really what you like to do, I want you to go back to when you were a kid. What were you thinking about when they told you you had to earn a living?” I’m going to give everybody a fellowship to think. Out of every 100,000 you give such a fellowship to one will make a breakthrough that will pay for everybody, so we’re going to afford it easily.’

‘Just a moment, Mr Fuller,’ said Bibs, ‘I think we could do with a recap. First you were saying that there is enough to go around for everyone. But what was your next idea? People should move out of labouring jobs into “white-collar” jobs?’

‘That’s a good question,’ he replied, ‘but no, I was explaining that we shouldn’t require people to have either a white-collar or a laboring job to prove their right to live. That is the obsolete idea, and it should be replaced with a “fellowship to think.”
‘But even people in factories don’t want to lose their jobs, do they?’ said Hannah, ‘I mean when they want to replace them with machines it can be disastrous for whole communities.’

‘But note,’ Fuller replied, ‘Labour opposes automation only because everyone is scared about their jobs. It’s perfectly logical for them to be scared about their jobs. It is logical that we think of unemployment as a negative, rather than realising that it is signalling that society now has the ability to free people from the necessity of demonstrating their right to live by gaining and holding employment. That logic is mistaken. That is why I was saying it is an obsolete idea. What makes our “fellowship to think” possible is that it is probable that for every 100,000 people we “educate” through a bachelor’s degree, there will be a science-technology accomplishment by one of these 100,000 so world-advancing that it will pay for all the other 100,000 people’s education and livelihood without their direct contribution to any scientific breakthrough.

‘We might as well make up our minds to the fact that we are, all of us, about to go back to school. For the first time mankind does not have to say, “How do I earn a living? How do I prove my right to live? How may I keep my family going?” For the first time in the history of man we are going to ask, “What would you like to do? In what direction do you have some spontaneous urge to develop or make social contributions? If some people say, “Well, I would just like to go fishing” – very good. If you go fishing it is a good place to do some thinking about what else you would like to do. You don’t expect a man to come up with his best long-distance thoughts right away. And even if he doesn’t come up with the thought that provides for the other 99,999 no matter. One of the other 99,999 probably will, that person will pay for the 100,000. And meanwhile at least our fishing man has spent his life doing something he enjoys, instead of being white-collar, or blue-collar, or any collar at all.’

‘Well, if I made an amazing discovery, I don’t see why I should be forced to share my earnings with a million other people,’ said Sarah. ‘People are always doing that, sponging off the rich. They must think just because you have lots of money you’re just dying to give it away.’

‘No, it’s the people who have to do all the work, and the bosses just try and keep all the profits for themselves,’ said Laura, ‘They should share it out more, because the people who actually do the work are entitled to their share, not the fat cats on top.’

Tom was puzzled,

‘But if they’re not working anymore, which is what Mr Fuller is suggesting, then they’re not entitled anyway. I don’t understand how everyone can be out fishing, whilst one poor bloke is in the lab slaving away for the discovery that pays for everyone else?’

‘And they’d better be successful on their fishing trips,’ sneered Bibs, ‘ because there certainly won’t be any food in the shops.’

‘He’s not suggesting that an inventor, er,’ Esther thought for a moment, ‘James Dyson! All right. The professor isn’t saying someone like Dyson should be forced to give away all his profits from his inventions. Inventors and entrepreneurs like him are among those who benefit from the sort of blanket discoveries we’re talking about, the kind that the 1 in 100,000 will discover. You know, what we call “gamechanging” discoveries. For example, Einstein discovered E=MC2, and that changed the way the whole human race thinks and has lead to so many discoveries that put so much more energy at our disposal as a species, that the standard of living has increased around the world on a level that doesn’t register accurately in any one national economy. So we’re not saying that money made by one person is redistributed to 99,999 other people, but that the discovery made by one person has the power to raise the standard of living for themselves and everyone else on a global level. It goes on to be worked out in various ways by lots of people.’

Aware of the wall of frowns now facing her, Esther searched hard for examples from her previous working-life, eager to make her point clearer,
‘Erm.. ok, I got one! Take Norman Borlaug. He has literally saved billions of lives. Actually billions! In ’68 a biologist called Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-seller called The Population Bomb in which he said the battle to feed the world’s population was already over because mass starvation was going to “deal” with the problem. But he didn’t know that at the same time Norman Borlaug’s team was working on a new high-yield form of wheat which is hardier. The concrete example of this was in India where millions of people were hit by droughts in ’66 and ’67. When the Indian government heard about what Borlaug was doing in Mexico they took the plunge and flew in 16,000 tons of seed as a last ditch attempt to save their population.’

‘Wow,’ said Tom, ‘why hasn’t this been made into a film?’

‘I know! And it has more than one happy ending. They didn’t just save millions of lives in the short-term, but they went on to feed a population that then doubled, and even went on to export cereals. They went from starvation to surplus in less than ten years! India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Borlaug’s work is even now being carried out all over Asia and Africa.’

‘And I suppose it doesn’t even have to be just particular inventions that do it,’ added Tom. ‘Showing the world that something is even possible makes a huge difference.’
‘That’s right. But of course Norman Borlaug could have been a clerk in an office somewhere waiting for his pay check to roll in instead, if we all prefer that way of doing things.’ said Esther.

‘Crikey!’ said Tom, ‘How many Normans are stuck “actioning” and “appraising” things when they should be in a lab somewhere! I mean, if you tell a careers advisor you want to be a researcher or an inventor, they immediately discourage you. I did an aptitude test at school and it told me to become a policeman or a fish-farm manager.’

‘I was told to be a dog-walker,’ said Laura.

‘You?’ said Sarah, ‘You don’t even like dogs!’

‘I know.’

‘Or walking!’

‘We must do away with this absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living,’ said Fuller, smiling. ‘We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors and so on, and so on. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.’

‘Obviously I am behind saving the starving millions,’ said Tom, ‘but I still don’t see how people will end up with cash in their pockets unless they’re working, even if their job is a bit pointless.’

To Be Continued



Reading T.S. Eliot’s pageant play ‘The Rock’, I mistook the statement Make perfect your will to mean one’s Last Will and Testament. Yet reflecting on my mistake it seemed apt, first that Eliot’s play should reveal my preoccupation with money, and secondly that I had imported the essential Capitalist pact into the play. Our Will confers ownership of the hearth and wealth that outlasts us onto our children, simulating permanence. It is not a Blessing, which predicts our fate and passes on the wisdom needed to outwit it. It isn’t Immortality because we do not experience its outcome,

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

‘The Rock’ was performed in Sadler’s Wells Theatre between 28th May and 9th June 1934 to raise money to build churches. It is an argument in favour of churchbuilding in a Modern world; despite Modernity. New churches for new converts, yet perhaps a few in attendance already suspected that Modern air raids would necessitate the rebuilding of churches, which Jonathan Meades points out would be gleefully undertaken by Modernist architects with atheistic pretensions. Eliot in 1934 was coming to see Christianity as the only viable alternative to Nazi paganism. Anglicans today, still giddy from the good fortune of having one of the greatest poets of all time on their team, sometimes turn to ‘The Rock’ to harvest quotes that may vicariously endorse Anglicanism. They look for sentiments that support the simplicity of spirituality over Materialism, and superficially the choruses that Eliot wrote for it do house some wonderful juxtapositions of that kind,

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

In a crowded Palestine square Jesus was asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ but the same question has an alarming literalness when it pops into a vacant head sitting in a stuffy suburban sitting room. Yet this Anglicanism a la Amazon, those who bought Eliot might also buy Christ, overlooks Eliot’s ambivalence towards Modernity. He had a state of the art typewriter. This weak reading is at the expense of Eliot’s economics; his analysis of the spiritual dimension of finance and labour that is the true central concern of ‘The Rock’ and a theme that has stimulated great art for centuries,

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
There are hands and machines
And clay for new brick
And lime for new mortar
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

But ‘The Rock’ is not consistently great art. His collaborator Mr E. Martin Browne wrote some awful Cockney scenes for it,

ETHELBERT: ‘Arf a mo’, ‘afr a mo’. It’s lucky for you two as you’ve got someone what’s done a bit o’ lookin’ into things to keep you in line. What’s wrong with you is, you’re a lot too cocksure. Ain’t you ever ‘eard me speak o’ the principles of Social Credit reform?

I kid you not.

Social Credit promoted a solution to a problem that may or may not have existed. A perceived imbalance in production and consumption which, in today’s consumer society is even less likely to be a problem. Eliot wisely claims in the preface ‘of only one scene am I literally the author’, and that he was ‘submissive’ to Browne’s ‘direction’ and ‘expert criticism’. It wasn’t me guv, it was ‘im wot wrote it. Oh, go on then, I know he was probably being sincere about his friend. Maybe people really spoke like this in the Music Halls he visited, even. But it still lacks the subtle overheard quality of Working Class voices in ‘The Waste Land’, and there’s even an apology for the Crusades in here, the wrong kind of apology; a justification for the unchristian undertaking.

As soon as labourers obtained the vote everyone wanted to own them. They were given bread and uniforms, the raw material for Fascism. They were given dreary lectures by Communists, equipping them to manufacture their destiny. They were sober footsoldiers for the Sally Army, which Orwell vilified because he too wanted them on his side. Their voices lack this overheard quality in The Rock because Social Credit Theory is being shoved into their mouths. Just like a battleship an ideology needs stokers below decks to reach full steam, yet if we keep Eliot’s religion and economics in binocular focus as we read it, ‘The Rock’ has something important to say to the labourers of 1934.

The Rock says emphatically that if the State denies labourers opportunities to labour through foolish financial planning, or the City does so because of greed, it denies them fulfilment as human beings. There is a spiritual dimension to labouring, therefore unemployment causes spiritual poverty and alienation. The unemployed here begin with words taken from Matthew’s Gospel,

Now а group of Workmen is silhouetted against the dim sky. From
farther away, they are answered by voices of the Unemployed.

No man has hired us
With pocketed hands
And lowered faces
We stand about in open places
And shiver in unlit rooms.
Only the wind moves
Over empty fields, untilled
Where the plough rests, at an angle
To the furrow. In this land
There shall be one cigarette to two men,
To two women one half pint of bitter
Ale. In this land
No man has hired us.
Our life is unwelcome, our death
Unmentioned in “The Times.”

Chant of Workmen again.

The river flows, the seasons turn,
The sparrow and starling have no time to waste.
If men do not build
How shall they live?
When the field is tilled
And the wheat is bread
They shall not die in a shortened bed
And a narrow sheet. In this street
There is no beginning, no movement, no peace and no end
But noise without speech, food without taste.
Without delay, without haste
We would build the beginning and the end of this street.
We build the meaning:
A Church for all
And a job for each
Each man to his work.

This alienation is the aspect of Modernity that Eliot bemoans in the play, not that Modern life is somehow inherently rubbish. There is a kind of Modernity, Eliot is saying, that promises a godless utopia over the next hill but leaves much of importance behind, such as the poor, the young and elderly. Surely we can have a Modern world that does not dispense with all the durable institutions and rhythms of life? That does not dispense with unprofitable people? That,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Eliot was never the kind of Modernist that wanted to flood the museums, whose material could be perpetually reinvented. Eliot is a Modernist poet defending Modernity from a half-finished counterfeit.

Social Credit theory urged redistribution of wealth among labourers specifically to balance production and consumption. In this detail The Rock is out of date. Yet our limited demand for labour and the incoherent benefits system, a crutch that becomes a makeshift prosthetic limb, these create a similar problem of income inequality. This is the root conundrum of British politics today. From it fears over immigration, benefits and housing begin. This problem was partially updated in the Nineties in Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo‘, a book which, like Eliot, called for labourers to be given work to do on a fair basis, but globally. A vague aura of honesty and individuality surrounds labour for Klein, opposed to corporate (low) standardisation. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Wimpy. Eliot’s evocation of labour as an activity that allows people to internalise enduring values and disciplines goes much further. St Paul loved making Hellenes uncomfortable with the idea that both he and his God got their hands dirty. He claimed slaves could redeem the imposed futility of their lives by silently offering their diligence to God. Socially regenerative graft is seen by the Apostles, like St Paul and St James, as an embodiment of resurrection empowered by The Resurrection. In the English past Eliot points to in the play anyone could access labour quite easily, and one of the injustices of the Industrial Revolution is that it uproots people from their parish and prevents them from entering the soporific, draining, yet ultimately life affirming cycle of labour. It puts them in a queue. It makes them a surplus. Nobody should be made to feel they are a surplus. “We have only our labour to give and our labour is not required.”

Yet is this true? Haven’t we got something better for labourers to give? The energy that can now be harvested directly from the Sun, or by unlocking the fissile energy of dead suns, makes the claim that a muscle class is necessary unjust. We no longer have a Proletariat, this is another facet of The Rock that is out of date. We still have labourers standing and looking about on the highways and dockyards, waiting for robots to arrive, but much has been outsourced overseas. Instead we have this complex mixture of consuming classes who also produce in difficult to define ways. Old Labour fought poverty on behalf of people like me and opened new opportunities, New Labour gave me the chance to discuss last night’s Grand Designs over a cappuccino in a free Museums’s cafe, the terrorist threat level outside ‘heightened’. Miliband’s Ye Olde Labour is currently prioritising the simulation of a working class, trying to make itself needed by compelling bright young people to work long pointless hours for corporations, which also pleases the vindictive sort of older people who feel everyone should have to suffer what they did. They address ‘fears’ created by UKIP rather than shooting them down. Labour’s ‘controls on immigration mug’ should be a Situationist prank, yet it is real, emblematic merchandise.

While The Rock was on at Sadler’s Wells Theatre there were Clergy and Greenshirts calling for workers to receive a share of automated wealth – the fruits of Industry. The latter were the urban expression of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a pacifist offshoot from the Scouts; woodcraft folk. Today the Green Party have written an economically savvy manifesto, one we might once have expected from Labour, and the Church also criticises chaotic redistribution of wealth and greed in the City, greed facilitated by Government. We need to put as much thought into enabling people to consume as to labour. Take away someone’s spending power in a market economy and you diminish one of their freedoms. They have less say about what should be on offer in their community. They have to take what they are ‘given’. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Greenshirts demand the wages of the machine

Ergo it would be a mistake to extract Eliot’s economics from The Rock and dispense with the churchbuilding. For him Christ is the cornerstone of community, and community is served by the economy. It is tempting to remove Christ for the sake of inclusiveness, but a vaguely spiritual idea of labour is both patronising and analogous to Klein’s mere ‘honesty’. For Eliot there is a precise link between Christian churchbuilding, justice and freedom of expression, the fruits of which can be shared with all without compelling submission to the Church.

One of the few remaining institutions tackling income inequality on a large scale in Britain is the Church of England. The City’s ethics and the Coalition’s ‘war on the poor’ have attracted criticism from Lambeth Palace, and it looks to be a choreographed and long term priority for the Church, and we can expect to see the kind of alliances with other secular organisations and faiths that you find in most parishes these days. Universities are also engaged but, unlike the Clergy, Academics are facing their own enemies within. Marina Warner warns that Higher Education is less ‘accessible’ to the poor and the marketisation of University is eroding its civic value from within. Academics, on short contracts, are defending the Nation’s ability to think critically. Managers on huge salaries impose ‘efficiencies’ on them, a model allegedly taken from Business, but evidently not Stanford success stories where the Market and University have been in mutually advantageous conversation for decades and both make space for specualtive thinking.

Not all bright young people want to work in startups, however. If they are looking for a job with status, fully funded, accommodation provided, freedom to improvise, oversight that isn’t overbearing, working with community groups, thinking through social problems and tackling them on the ground, publishing their findings with mainstream presses, campaigning on social justice, historic buildings with a bit of ceremony – I won’t be at all surprised if many refugees from Academe head for the Church of England, especially now the issue of female Bishops has been settled and they are moving forwards around the issue of income inequality. The Church was traditionally a job for qualified Naturalists, Meteorologists, Historians, Poets and Social Engineers, the difference today is that Vicars tend to collaborate with expert agencies. Many British people would in turn be surprised to find that Eliot’s vision of a Church for all is more realised than they thought if they went into one, often with a community garden providing food for the homeless, homeless shelters, debt counselling, toddler groups, groups for the elderly, homework support for migrant families, seminars on Humanities in the Protestant tradition, genuine links with non-Christian faiths and friendly with other Christian denominations, all supported by a congregation who would build the beginning and the end of this street. The Church of England – now hiring in your area.




Letters Home
The First World War Poetry Kit

Letters Home Poetry Kit

Letters Home Poetry Kit

Henningham Family Press and The Saison Poetry Library
14pp, ISBN: 9780956316615

The exhibition of An Unknown Soldier at the Royal Festival Hall that ran from November to January has now come down, but it will have a legacy in the Poetry Library for a few years yet.

We have collaborated on a book of exercises in writing Modernist poetry with Librarians Chris McCabe, Lorraine Mariner and Pascal O’Loughlin. This all ages resource (6+) introduces some of the movements in poetry that the First World War helped introduce to the world, such as Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, Imagism, Vorticism, Surrealism and Dada. It will primarily be used to guide school groups or individuals visiting the Saison Poetry Library off the more familiar paths through war poetry, but hopefully it will have legs far beyond the Royal Festival Hall.

Most of the letter games reference the enormous amount of correspondence between Home and Front; 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels. In keeping with our exhibition, inspired by the recent use of DNA on letters home to identify casualties, the book culminates in a game we devised that takes the rules DNA uses to build our bodies to build a strand of visual poetry that can be split and rewritten by a group. The negotiation and collaboration involved is intended as a contrast to the abuse of language and power that war entails. Just like a human body is built through the writing and reading of base-pairs, solidarity in a body of people is achieve through the honest use of arts and language. The pieces punch out of a die-cut sheet and are assembled as part of the collaborative writing process.

If you are interested in using this resource at the Poetry Library you can just pop in and ask for it, they are free and the Librarians can help. Bigger groups can arrange a visit with Chris McCabe via the form on the Library website. If you are interested in acquiring a batch of these for educational use offsite you can also contact us here directly, or Chris McCabe at the Library.

The Letter Games use simple steps, chance and basic word pairings that enable people of all abilities to do the book solo or as part of a group. So next time it is cold and rainy, remember you have been invited to take your children, spouse or literary best friend up to the Poetry Library and ask them for a Letters Home booklet:

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

photographs: Harpreet Kalsi

Letter Game 1: Calligrammes

Letter Game 1: Calligrammes

Letter Game 6: 3D dna poetry

Letter Game 6: 3D DNA poetry


Dazzle Foiling


You are an Artist. You graduated from art college more than two years ago, but opportunities seem to be drying up, or at least are a bit chaotic. Occasionally local things come up, but you fear involvement with ‘community art’ will effect your credibility with the gallery system. You haven’t achieved gallery representation yet and you suspect you never will. And you’re probably right; research shows that two years on your chances are basically nil. You keep a studio, but it isn’t much more than a status symbol, you barely get there two days a week, what with your part-time job. You still call yourself an artist when you meet new people, but you are beginning to believe you have failed.

Zuidervaart sees things differently. He says that an Artist’s gifts have benefited from training in our Institutions. This creates a calling for all Artists to spend at least some of their time in the paid service of Civil Society, even if they have gallery representation. This is also appropriate because the greatest demand for art is located in Civil Society. Zuidervaart’s version makes sense of this situation by exposing the fact that Art in Public is extremely important and a more natural workplace for most contemporary artists coming out of art school; itself a Civil Society Institution. In fact Civil Society always needs more artists and provides opportunities encompassing local and national institutions. Zuidervaart also dismisses the notion that Civil Society is second-best to the private gallery system, it is more likely to be the other way round, even. This claim is a bit of a wake-up call when you consider how market obsessed Art Colleges have become. It is possible to graduate with a Fine Art MA without the slightest idea of the existence of anything outside the Contemporary Art Gallery System, despite the fact that it will deliver so few opportunities to their alumni. Zuidervaart offers a better standard against which to judge if you are an artist, than selling your art. Consumer choice isn’t especially good at ratifying good art. People often love art, even, that they wouldn’t consider taking home. And collecting art is very difficult. People quite rightly prefer public institutions they trust to collect art on their behalf.

Zuidervaart, instead, refers Artists to the concept of Relational Autonomy and asks them to hold their Autonomy in tension with their Social Responsibility. ‘Art in Public’ asks of us, are you capturing the public imagination to create solidarity, not mere sensation? Are you communicating in a way that simultaneously equips the audience to be able to speak?

Is your art turning conformity into solidarity?

At last! A definition of success that looks at your work, rather than your bank balance. It appears a little vague at first, but I think this partly explained by our dependence on economic qualifications, and also because it is a relational measure rather than an individualistic one. But then measurement is all about relativity.

Yet it won’t be an unqualified relief for artists to be measured against their work (in public), rather than the flow of their personal wellspring of genius or their proximity to the summit of the gallery system. An Artist in Public is thrown into a vortex of political and personal relationships. Artists can’t function like this alone, garret-bound; they need the support and mediation of Arts Organisations. You see Zuidervaarts argument suggests artists be paid for public work, not just for being artists. This satisfies the best of the arguments on the left and right in the States, one demanding public spirit, and the other autonomy. Robust Arts Organisations provide colleagues for an artist. They are essential because they:

  1. connect the artists with Civil Society groups and communities.
  2. make public money accountable, but also free from government interference
  3. give the work credibility as a cultural, non-economic, undertaking

Zuidervaart was president of the very impressive Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. A group begun by artists that included non-artist members. His experience helps him identify what makes for a good Arts Org:

  1. Involve local residents at every stage of the planning
  2. Democracy is messy and time-consuming, but yields the best long-term results
  3. Think globally; Act locally
  4. Artists shouldn’t be left on the margins, but involved in making a compelling vision

But to conclude, here are some of my own observations of assumptions we can make about Arts Organisations. First, we often assume that artists need to get together for mutual support, which may be helpful. But what Zuidervaart reveals is that this is unlikely to be where an artist achieves most. It is more important for Artists to be spread out and active amongst other citizens, where directly or indirectly their art can create solidarity.

We also tend to see Artists as charity cases, and Arts Organisations as a way of helping them. But the truth is that artists usually have the lowest commercial rents going. Often a fifth or tenth of what a design studio would be paying. There are certain aspects of an Artists work that could actually benefit from a dose of market forces. Exhibiting an Artist’s work in your building isn’t going to help them get a gallery unless you have a great touring reputation and a list of art collectors. What you have isn’t a gallery; it’s a room. What would really benefit an Artist is your purpose. A chance to discharge their responsibility as an artist towards Society with you.

Which leads to our last observation; we assume that Arts Organisations are organisations about art. Organisations to preserve art or make it happen. These do and should exist, but Arts Orgs often tackle a social agenda but are active through art. UICA is a non-profit organisation that ‘fosters’ art in public. They are a public gallery, workshop and film theatre. But their purpose was cultural regeneration of the downtown area. They didn’t want redevelopment at the expense of residents creating a heartless non-community. They wanted a resurrection. They wanted economic improvements accompanied by meaning and purpose, and artists provided that meaning and purpose.

Art in Public, Lambert Zuidervaart
Edited from a lecture I gave in 2013 recommending this book at a symposium on Sphere Sovereignty. The link above will help you buy this book.

So far Zuidervaart has argued that the Arts are needed, but who should pay for them? And what is the economic argument for doing so? This is what Zuidervaart calls his Public Justice Premise, the second premise of the three found in his book ‘Art In Public’.

Zuidervaart argues that Civil Society should be given the money and space it needs to do its job properly – the resources it needs to produce Solidarity.

The government is only fundamentally satisfied when it knows it has dispensed public justice. For its own fulfilment, the government must discharge its obligation to protect Civil Society from any encroachments on its natural tasks, and provide the resources to undertake them properly. Another example; a judge may demand that prisons be adequately supplied to send people to for punishment and to ensure they don’t appear in front of his bench again. This principle leads to premise number three, the Arts Organisation Premise. Zuidervaart claims that Arts Organisations are the best channel for discharging this government responsibility, which means they deserve some protection from Market Forces and enough money to produce authentic Solidarity.

I like these premises for two reasons. They allow public money to be used for public service without creating a refuge for elitist art at National Lottery player’s expense. Under the current system the arts are paid for by people who neither experience them directly nor can they really afford to pay for them. Their lottery money is capital that could indeed change their lot, if accumulated, but is instead wasted on a fantasy that they might effortlessly escape their lot. The profits subsidise arts that those involved with could afford, but would rather not pay for because they don’t like them that much. But this system continues because it is also true that a system of consumer choice would not improve quality or ‘participation’, and the ghost of something valuable is detectable in the arts. With a consumer choice, if there is a problem you remove yourself and choose a different supplier. But within Civil Society if there is a problem you have to get more, not less, involved.

But most importantly, Zuidervaart has described art as a public good worth paying for, which is my personal litmus test for this topic. Even if art costs money, it is money well spent. Even without attending the arts, all citizens benefit from a climate of freedom. And this is the only book I’ve ever read to argue this persuasively. He dismisses all the efficiency, equity, merit good or market failure arguments, which just try and find an economic excuse for subsidising arts. Despite the good intentions, these excuses just put the arts at the mercy of market values, and remove them from the protection of their own internal logic, like an endangered species put into an economic logic-zoo deprived of its own natural philosophical environment. Instead, Zuidervaart exposes a philosophical reality that we have to protect from urgent demands on the budget or we risk becoming less civilised in real terms.

If you are in doubt as to Civil Society’s importance, in keeping the democratic air we breathe unpolluted, let me refer you to the alternative. In May, a memo from the new Chinese president Xi Jinping was leaked (Taipei Times Wed, May 22, 2013). It referred to “seven evil subjects” to be driven out of Chinese universities. Included was the phrase “civil society”. Today’s debate, which we take for granted, will not be permitted in China. It will, however, be debated at Harvard where Prof Michael Sandel teaches, and it is rumoured Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze has been studying since 2010.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). One more part will follow.

Imagine this scenario. Two children come running into your kitchen, screaming and shouting over each other. The first child is shouting ‘He pushed me! He snatched my scooter!’ And the second one is shouting ‘It’s mine, it’s not his. He shouldn’t be touching my scooter!’ Now on the face of it, these children are totally opposed to each other. They certainly aren’t conscious of any agreement between themselves. But if we take a big picture view, we see things a bit differently. Just one example: they both have a claim for ownership. One says the scooter is his by title, the other by use, so they agree that it is possible they can own a scooter. But these children don’t have jobs, where did they get the money for a scooter? They don’t know how to get to the shop, and even if they did, how would they get there? I think if we suggest that the scooter really belongs to the person who bought it and drove it home we might suddenly reveal some agreement between the two children.

A similar type of argument exists in the USA and the UK over government arts funding. The American National Endowment for the Arts, and Arts Council England, both face arguments over their budgets. In America, the Left wingers argue that autonomous artists are essential for free speech. No consumer will pay to hear their critical voice, so they need government funding. The Right wingers reply that these artists are not impartial; they are misanthropic degenerates who deliberately try and offend the public and undermine the values that they rely on. And if you are going to spend public money on art it should be for art that the public likes. Now, neither of these positions are completely without merit. In the UK things are less clearly defined, but we have, on one side, the artistic elite who claim that if the refined arts are going to survive they need economic protection, and others on that side argue that art is a vital x-factor for redevelopment of cities and, given the small amount invested by the government, we make a massive profit as a country from the arts. We can call this the ‘culture is our biggest export’ argument. On the other hand you have a lot of people who claim that art diverts money needed by more necessary budgets. We can call that the ‘how many incubators could that have paid for’ argument. It is an idealistic argument; you’ll notice that nobody ever asks how many abortions a piece of art would have paid for.

These arts fuding factions disagree as violently as the kids with scooters did in our scenario, so if we take a step back, what do we see? Well, Lambert Zuidervaart in his book Art In Public suggests that if we examine all their competing economic justifications, we see

“A binary political-economic system where government funding pump-primes an art world dominated by corporate business interests.”

This means that these factions all assume that the Artworld is a kind of market or industry that needs government stimulation to encourage investors, such as museum sponsors. So the Unilever series of commissions in the Tate Modern is normal for the contemporary art system. Or the large art collections of major banks are normal. So the only useful questions one can ask become about how much money the government spends or how much access sponsors can get. And where is the artist in all this? Well he seems to be an edgy individual, a celebrity floating in space, who lives on cigarettes dipped in red bull. You’ll notice that there is a lot of confusion about boundaries in this debate. Zuidervaart points out that the most striking omission from all of this are the mainstream museum activities, academic institutions, libraries, arts trusts and charities, religious groups, and so on. The non-economic institutions that are variously called Civil Society, the Third Sector, or Non-Profit Organisations. Zuidervaart settles on the name Civil Society to describe these Institutions for which financial gain is not the main ambition. So let’s look at what happens when Zuidervaart includes Civil Society in the argument. This also introduces the first of three premises that Zuidervaart defines, which justify government arts funding; the Societal Need Premise. (In subsequent posts I’ll describe his “Public Justice Premise” and “Arts Organisation Premise”).

Societal Need Premise:

Let’s imagine this time that you have three children. They are going away to stay with relatives, and are travelling alone on the train, so you need to give them rules that will get them there safely and help them settle in with the relatives.

The first I’ll introduce is Verity, the middle child. She is very honest and fair-minded, so you tell the others that when they have discussed everything together, Verity will make the final decision. And it is Verity who will make sure everyone has what they need.

The second I want to introduce is Adam, the youngest. He is in charge of the purse. Adam is a natural choice because he is very gifted with money. He gets good value for money, keeps a good account, and isn’t afraid to use money. With holiday time and hapless relatives at their disposal, they will almost certainly come home with more money than they left with.

The third child is the oldest; Sophie. When people first meet her they sometimes think she’s a bit of a daydreamer, but although she isn’t very decisive, in reality she is actually very perceptive, and is very good at remembering what it was they were doing when they get distracted. She is even very perceptive about herself. The kids always enjoy each other’s company if Sophie is there.

These three kids represent the three macrostructures of our democratic Society, as Zuidervaart describes them. Verity represents the government, and her priority is Public Justice. Adam represents the Economy, or Markets, and his priority is Resourcefulness. Sophie represents Civil Society and her priority is Solidarity. Our judgements about these three parts of our Society should be based upon how well they attain their own priorities. The government seeks public justice, the economy seeks resourcefulness, and civil society seeks solidarity.

We can see that these three parts of our society are not subordinate to each other. Verity needs money to ensure justice. Adam needs the other two, because without consumers, there is no business. Adam and Sophie benefit from the freedom Verity protects. Without Sophie, the other two lose their perspective and their purpose and become argumentative and frustrated.

But Zuidervaart emphasises that even while they need each other, they inevitably encroach upon each other’s territory and undermine each other. Adam thinks he can do Sophie’s job much more quickly and efficiently, and he is willing to do it for the right price. Sometimes he doesn’t want to give Verity her share of his profits, after all, she relies on a cumbersome voting system, when consumer decisions are much more rapid indications of what people really want. These are both examples of what Professor Michael Sandel calls our shift from having a market economy to being a market society, where the ultimate values are market values, and everything must mirror the speed and productivity of the market economy (What Money Can’t Buy).

So these kids rely on Sophie to constantly remind all three of them of their priorities. As they bicker in the train station she re-introduces solidarity by capturing their imaginations and describing where they could be and the wonderful time they will have there. She reminds Verity to pursue Justice rather than popularity, Adam to pursue resourcefulness instead of pure profit, and herself to pursue Solidarity, even when she herself hankers after power or plenty.

But this is where we find the chief weakness of Zuidervaart’s book. He wants Sophie to redirect Adam to ‘Resourcefulness’, but Adam thinks the purpose of the Economy is to seek ‘Profit’. They are liable to bicker. Zuidervaart admits to a lack of economic expertise, and points us to Bob Goudzewaard and Harry de Lange’s book Beyond Poverty and Affluence to fill the gap. What Zuidervaart’s short-cut misses out is the way that our consumption accelerates the process of providing for more people with less wastage, in an industrial cycle. In short, pursuing profit inevitably leads to pursing efficiency; but pursuing efficiency alone can very easily restrict prosperity to the richest countries. There is a reason for pursuing profit that benefits everyone indirectly, which is why we no longer have British famines. However it is true that pursuing profit will also increase pollution if laws are inadequate or badly enforced. So my question for Zuidervaart is this: why bother to constrain the economy’s territory if you are then going to constrain its purpose? Yes, Capitalism without limits must be redirected to Resourcefulness. But regulated Capitalism is free to pursue profit. That’s the whole point of limits. Normal behaviour on the rugby pitch is frowned upon in the aisles at Sainsbury’s. However, inequality and exploitation are fair targets for criticism. But I would suggest they are also indicative of very poorly executed Capitalism.

The reason I’m identifying this is that it calls the whole idea into question. How are Arts Organisations supposed to redirect our Society if artists don’t understand other people’s business? We see lots of examples of this over the years, of artists who have grasped their obligation to speak, but not done so from an informed position. I saw one artist make a project attacking the pollution caused by Capitalism where the example she used was from a natural disaster that occurred under Gorbachev. Yet the answer is quite simple. Although our society will have to rely on commonplace assumptions minute by minute, these are challenged or supported by professionals who use reason, science, or imagination to change these assumptions over time. This is part of a process of turning conformity into solidarity. These professionals, including scientists and artists, must research what it is they want to talk about exhaustively. Not just confirming their opinions, but challenging them. They can then innovate productively. But on everything we haven’t researched we must have a professional vow of silence. No matter how stupid it makes us look, or how obvious a thing seems to everyone else, if we haven’t gone and looked, we can’t speak.

So, with this qualification, I think Zuidervaart’s depiction of simultaneous need and conflict between the government, economy and civil society rings true. And it forms the basis for Zuidervaart’s ‘Societal Need Premise’; that our Society needs robust Arts Organisations within our Civil Society that will redirect our institutions to their priorities. They provide the imaginative communication that succeeds in helping us examine ourselves and remember where we are going. However, Artists must take this responsibility seriously.

Zuidervaart is arguing here that by nature, what he calls “Art in Public” belongs in Civil Society. It is Sophie’s territory. Solidarity is the best fit for the purpose of the Arts in our Democratic Society, because they help people discover meaning and purpose. But it is not just that they redirect society on our behalf. Instead, as the arts are practised in public they renew our ability to take part in Society. For example, when a Shakespeare play is studied in a school, the pupils aren’t just taught by rote to remember the plots of the plays so they can pass an exam and get a well paid job. No, the teacher asks them to also look at their own life in the light of what happens to Romeo and Juliet. And in the process of doing so, they become able to articulate themselves generally, so they are now able to form views and describe them without resorting to violence. The arts are like one of those road-building vehicles, with the same tracks as tanks. They bring their own path with them, falling infinitely in front of them, and they leave a polished road behind for others to use.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). Two more parts will follow.

The recent collection of WG Sebald’s biographical writings, entitled A Place In the Country, invites us to consider the influence of six great writers that were dear to Sebald during his life, the implication being that he too belongs on the list. The six greats are ‘tormented souls,’ and it is ‘their absolute failure to accommodate life and art, to which Sebald returns again and again.’ The priority for this collection is the window it may open onto Sebald’s own corpus through his analysis of ‘those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words.” Caught between a ‘nostalgic utopia’ and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’. But I was surprised to find there was a far more definite connection running through these essays than that of the clairvoyant Romantic artist cliché, who apparently risks being claimed by this generation of scholars as a sort of first-trimester-Psychogeographer. The floppy word ‘life’ in the introduction obscures the word economics, a concern which comes up metronomically in these essays; the chief repetition that makes it clear that they form a complete work together.

This is economics in the specific sense of coming to terms with the demands of nature upon us; οἰκονομία (household management). Sebald meditates on how the artist should arrange their living while the shifting terms of our truce with Nature exacerbate an already precarious position. This very valuable book oscillates between two poles, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As we pass (roughly) chronologically with the six authors through these paradigm shifts Nazism looms, of course. But when we reach it Nazism is viewed through the lens of a German Agricultural political heritage, managed with a mailed fist.

Yet what is most interesting is the way in which Sebald returns so deliberately to this economic theme in each essay but completely fails to interrogate its significance, like a face-blind man confidently and repeatedly showing you a photographic portrait. What is absent is an account of the role capital has to play in making utopia affordable; some would say inevitable. The commemorative arts in antiquity encircled the Polis, and belonged to a way of life where ‘household management’ had been taken care of. For the Greeks this was when you could enjoy the scrutiny of your peers, or in the Modernist era, when you could afford a room of your own. Literature is life After Wealth. In these essays Sebald erroneously applies the Romantic Sublime to the overbearing endurance of capital; wealth that outlives its accumulators; a financial process that has been impiously elevated to the immortality of nature. The tiny human figure in this new picture doesn’t stand on top of a mountain – he stands on a mezzanine overlooking a vast Chongqing factory floor.

What inspires Sebald’s vertigo inducing vision of capital is his conflation of the Terror of political revolution with the Industrial Revolution:

There lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control. When the young Mörike (1804-1875) begins writing, he has at his back the revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, while the terrors which herald the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon, the turmoil unleashed by the accumulation of capital and the moves towards the centralisation of a new, cast-iron state authority. The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is – like all the Biedermeier arts – a kind of instinctive defence mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.

In the short-term this is an opinion that has its merits. The uprooting and redistribution of muscle power around the British Isles was a social calamity with effects that some argue are still felt today (I have no idea if the same was true in Germany). Political revolution and Industrial revolution both open up periods of innovation and experiment that bewilder and exploit those that live within them. Yet it seems clear enough that Sebald sees this ‘spinning out of control’ as an inherent and enduring property of Capitalism, rather than an extension of the disdain that landowners had already felt towards the working classes for generations. Yet the ‘precariousness’ of life in this new paradigm seems to me to be nothing more than the experience of its novelty.

Sebald’s view that capital is destabilising and spiritually corrosive is unconvincing given all the energy that has been harnessed and labour saved so far. I doubt any system has liberated more individuals to be able to enter education and spend time on the arts as Capitalism. I am one of those fortunate enough to have received the general life-long bursary of industrial commonwealth. Even unsuccessful artists like myself can persist in making art without starving to death. Mörike’s ‘defence mechanism’ is merely an inability to understand the forces at work, and the same nostalgic ‘wishful utopia against progress’ we find amongst the Stoke Newington Set.

But Sebald is not without insight into the ways that humanity can practice old sins with new capital. Keller’s character Heinrich describes the elaborate domestic rituals by which his mother lives on almost nothing. Sebald demonstrates ingeniously how this tale, which deliberately evokes saintliness and the legendary, does not provide an alternative to capitalism as it first appears, but is an exemplary case of capital accumulation. Keller (1819-1890) was ‘obliged to experience first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt.’ The mother has created a perverse kind of ancestor worship whereby she can watch over Heinrich for the rest of his life even though they both know she cannot see him beyond her grave.

Yet Sebald goes on to repeat the erroneous mantra of this book, ‘Keller was one of the first to recognise the havoc which proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.’ The irony is that Keller’s critique does not go far enough for today’s reader. If one were to scale up the mother’s mode of living on almost nothing, as we find in the slums, we would discover it is in fact a highly inefficient and polluting way of life. Not only does she hand over an emotional debt to the son, these legions of modest dwellings deforest and pollute the natural world. What Sebald fails to appreciate in all of these essays is that Industry is the art of making a high standard of living available to billions, while reducing their effect on the environment. Capital creates thriving cities which reduce the area humanity occupies, while providing for their needs with far less energy. Capital dissolves social castes and provides myriad alternatives to prostitution in deprived zones. Capital allows people who were destined for the production line to obtain an emotional, intellectual life. The question isn’t how capitalism can be slowed down to an acceptable pace for middle class Europeans, but rather how we can get over ourselves more quickly while capital gives access to commonwealth for these others we once, perhaps we still consider inferior to ourselves. The more people involved in this process globally, the sooner climate and conflict can be resolved.

The middle class fear is that if all mod cons are given to everyone the planet will choke, but this is wrong-headed. The process of delivering technologies to the masses demands their constant reinvention – new forms that do the same work with less effort.

True gold, for Keller, is always spun with great effort from next to nothing… False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.

No. These common sense instincts are factually flawed, just as the observation that the sun goes round the earth is an anthropocentric illusion. Keller’s alternative to capitalism is a system of barter exemplified by Frau Margret who owns a junk shop. Junk is brought by customers who pay tribute to her with consumables, their pre-capitalist Matriarch (also idealised by Engels). No, Keller can keep his tribal obsequiousness. And his junk can be sorted into the fruits of Work and Labour, the latter to be scrapped and recast in better, life-affirming forms.

This praxis of living on nothing is reprised in Sebald’s praise for Robert Walser, (1878-1956) a transient exigence imposed to some extent by the Nazis. Walser’s life story testifies that when the world goes mad you must enter the asylum. Walser was key to Sebald’s realisation that ‘everything is connected across space and time’, which is the true kernel of his writing practice; currently being trudged into the mud by the new breed of professional psychogeographers. They can even obtain a Chair in Psychogeography in a respected university, not that they would dream of sitting down. One such synergy is ‘Natural history and the history of our industries’ – this is a profound connection of two categories usually treated as opposites, prominent in After Nature, and this is surely Sebald’s most rewarding observation about capital – that the rigours of nature, harnessed, are at the heart of Industry. This seems obvious, but most people behave as if nature is a gentle equilibrium that needs to be defended from our interventions. Sebald sees nature as something temporary on the face of the Earth, a senseless botcher that undoes the marvel it achieved blindly moments before. Industry exports this chaotic genius from the automatic operations of our cells. Motor proteins are directly related to motor cars. Sebald’s error is to be intimidated by this and join with these other great authors who claimed Agriculture as a stalemate; a compromise with nature. The allotment garden seems a good place to get off, and it is no accident that many academics hope to be allotted a quiet room where they can tend their books and papers like vegetables in a greenhouse. But there is ‘never a stop’, and as successive generations of engineers take it in turns to kick Malthus in the balls, we will find widespread equality, freedom and cooperation demand automation.

It is hard to explain why Sebald sees frustrated wisdom in these agricultural obsessions. He even goes on to explain that allotment settlements in Berlin in Mörike’s time were created as an expression of a desire to extend the Fatherland and create German colonies in Africa and Tahiti. In this case it is Agricultural idealism, not the manic stock market, which is fertile ground for nationalistic tyranny. Nazi Germany hid a beating industrial heart behind an Agricultural screen of blood and soil. German factory workers would mail-order peasant outfits from Nazi periodicals to wear at the weekend. So why does Sebald double-back and describe centralised state authority and capitalist accumulation as bedfellows when they have an inherent antipathy? Surely Germany was a very peculiar case in harbouring both. Without the failure of capitalism, stock market crashes and war reparations, it is hard to imagine Nazism would have had so much appeal. The slavish sameness of the Nazi production line isn’t one of productivity worship – it is emblematic of the death of the individual, consummated in death on the battlefield. The robot is their ideal citizen. The Nazi attitude to butter is famous: I can’t believe it’s not bullets.

This German heritage of agriculture and aristocratic authoritarianism is hinted at in Sebald’s essay on Hebel (1760-1826). He was the editor and principal contributor to an almanac, the Hausfreund, which can be considered emblematic of the importance of ‘household management’ to that particular writer.

At no point were his hopes and philosophy directed at a violent and bloody reversal of the status quo. His concern was only ever for the practical improvement of the living conditions of the people, such as promoted by Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden.

This member of the Aristocracy advocated the ideas of the French Physiocrats, whose ‘economic philosophy’ centred on Agriculture. Sebald’s judgement is that this group wished to inoculate the German Aristocracy against revolution with a dose of ‘Bourgeois rationality’, conserving the natural order of benevolent despotism. Germany would become ‘a large and flourishing garden’, where the lower orders were too blessed and busy to think of a revolution that could only return to terrorise them in turn.

Everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign, “If only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves with the work of their hands”. In such nostalgic utopian views was the educated middle class wont to articulate its discomfiture at the rapid spread of the economy of goods and capital it had itself created, and which was now proliferating year on year.

These astute comments on middle class hypocrisy remind me of the comments of Engineer D in After Nature, who has lost his belief in the science he always served:

the revolutions of great
systems cannot be
righted, too diffuse are
the workings of power,
the one thing always
the other’s beginning

Again both Industrial and Political revolution are invoked in one stroke. But further, in Sebald’s marvellous poem the natural process of evolution, both iconographer and iconoclast, becomes identified with the technical ingenuity conjured up by the human mind. Industry is an extension of Evolution in the mass of interconnected entities. This is true. Metabolism is at the heart of cells, combustion engines and household management. Sebald demonstrates that evolution is not the more gradual, comfortable cousin of revolution; great systems cannot be righted. Nature has always threatened to overwhelm Civilisation, but now the same powers have been invited within the city walls by Industry.

Perhaps the life of Rousseau (1712-1778) weaves these threads together best. He shared the Physiocrat faith in Agriculture. When invited to draft a constitution for Corsica his ideal was to create a non-hierarchical society administered through rural communities. Bartering, again, would replace the monetary economy, and agriculture was seen as the ‘only possible basis for a truly good and free life’. Luckily for Corsica, Rousseau couldn’t face the journey from Ile St-Pierre that would be necessary to realise this dream. ‘A utopian dream in which bourgeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth, is promised a return to more innocent times.’ But by depicting this as an ‘inherent contradiction’ between utopian nostalgia and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’, Sebald overlooks the possibility that the powers unleashed by capitalism may improve the standard of living generally, and that ‘private wealth’ may increase individual freedoms. The question is really how these benefits should be managed with equity, and it seems inevitable Rousseau’s rural communes would become a way to distribute lack fairly rather than create prosperity.

Even the Bible, the handbook of so many Agrarian idealists and Adamites, bars the way back to Edenic innocence with a flaming sword. The future is a Holy City, furnished with parks; Eden was always a peaceful garden surrounded by wilderness under the rule of nature; its natives plucked fruit in the equatorial fashion; Adam didn’t need to delve or Eve to spin until they were in the muck. Agriculture has just as much toil about it as Industry, and the labourers in both field and factory either receive a safer, easier working life from machinery, or the chance to go to University. The word unemployment implies that employment is the natural order of things. I suggest disemployment. It makes it harder to justify these elitist tuition fees.

I was embarrassed by the cover of a DVD I borrowed recently from my local library.  The DVD cover design was totally different from the one I had seen online, giving the friends I was with the impression I had just hired a Rom Com starring George Clooney, when the cover I had seen online had promised alienation, satire and punchy dialogue. See for yourself:

Library Rental Cover

Library Rental Cover

cover viewed online

The latter turned out to be the case when I watched the film. So I wondered, was the rental copy given a different design to target a different kind of audience? One more afraid of commitment, perhaps, just like the jet-set central character Ryan Bingham? No, what the Library has unwittingly uncovered is not just an alternate cover; it is the cover of the film playing inside Ryan Bingham’s head while we watch his life unwind.

Bingham feels at home on long-haul travel, preferring its flux, isolation and homogeneity to intimate relationships. He experiments with teasing his polythene wrapped life open a little and falling in love with fellow high-flyer Alex Goran, the woman drinking with him on the rental cover. They assume the roles of screwball comedy lovers, a story Bingham writes, directs and stars in himself. The rental copy is the cover he chooses for his own version of the film, where they meet, sass each other into bed, and reacquaint themselves with the homely lives they have rejected. Bingham expects prodigal childhood nostalgia and the synchronised ticking of their biological clocks to deliver them to the church on time. They will have their wedding cake and eat it. But the director, Jason Reitman, has other ideas.

Reitman exposes the vacuity of Bingham’s life, everyone except Bingham can see it coming, and by the time he meets ‘god’ (airline mascot Maynard Finch) he already knows his life’s work has been a poor investment. A Neitzschean cycle of eternal return thrusts him back above the clouds, yet a long way short of heaven. Assuming the role of a Bodhisattva, if you like, he turns back from Nirvana to help his novice, Natalie Keener, escape the hell of long-haul travel herself. (Dear reader, does any other blog use obscure Buddhist references to avoid film spoilers?) Perhaps Reitman dropped the ball here by not including a scene where Bingham ignores the safety advice found in the leaflet and attaches the oxygen mask to Natalie’s face first? But anyway, you can see why Reitman chose the cover he did for his film, where the bankable Clooney is reduced to an inch-high silhouette facing away from us, a one-man black hole, a shadow to be scraped from the interior of a cut-price reactor. Glass panes reflect his compartmentalised life. A floor, polished, is ready to slip him up.