Chapter 9 (Part 1)
Chapter Nine – Recreating Community (Part 1)
Community is the natural state of human beings: dependent upon each other, working together to ensure the stability and success of whatever collective form we take. Community1 is the antithesis of how civilization wants us to live. Sadly, as we seek the company and mutual assistance of others like us this need is exploited by civilization to devastating effect. As we have seen throughout this book, the Veil of Ignorance places us in a position of dependency far removed from our natural state – instead chained to a system that only wants to take what we can give for the system’s benefit. If we can learn to embrace genuine forms of community once again then we not only remove the “need” for civilization that has been instilled in us, we create a situation that is far more resilient than any city, any government, any corporation and any civilization, however large and powerful.
“In a way, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m going to take my toys and not play with you – to the industrial masters; I’m going to take my toys and go play with my neighbours, and my family, and the natural world that supports me.’”2
The future of humanity – how we live, work and thrive as a species – lies not with civilizations, but with communities. We have to undermine the civilized (and divisive) ideas that we must at once be homogenous, global citizens and atomised, selfish individuals. This chapter is about learning to live together once more.
What Isn’t A Community?
One of my favourite spots as a child was a tree in the middle of a broken up asphalt parking area where my sister and I used to play imagination games and hunt for slow-worms among the grass edges. It was a crappy spot that appeared like so many other bits of “wasteland” to hold no pleasures, but we thought it was special and would head for it in preference to the municipal park that would take 10 minutes to reach rather than a sharp sprint to the end of the road. The park was fine if we asked first and stayed together. The tree on the asphalt was within the limit our parents defined as “just round the corner” so we could visit it whenever we wished. Its closeness was part of its appeal: in a way that tree was ours. Friends used to come and play from the houses along our little street. Sometimes people we had never seen before came too and they were made welcome. What made this place special was its proximity to our home; it was indeed an extension of our home, and anything that fell within that space was, by association, part of the community in which we played.
In summer holidays thousands of students from Northern Europe go over to India, Thailand and Vietnam to experience something they then place on their Facebook and Flickr pages in the form of albums of joy – or perhaps gloating. I sometimes come across these, or others from American students in Machu Picchu; Australian students in London; X students in Y faraway place…all taking similar experiences and memories from somewhere the appeal of which seems to lie in its distance more than anything else. The saddest thing of all about these forays to faraway places is the lack of connection. There is a close relationship between community and connection. Community is, in its most basic sense, meaningful connection with other people. But it must be tangible – we have to “touch base” if we are to forge and strengthen links between people, just as our brains have to fire off messages along neurons if memories are to be made.
For some, these visits to strange lands with odd but invigorating cultures may be a moment of mental realignment, but most visitors are merely acting as observers in a place alien to them. Whether the visitors are consciously trying to make connections with these ephemeral resting places is relevant because unless you are prepared to make some kind of emotional investment in a place, in effect to make that place and nowhere else your home, then any sense of community you feel there is make-believe. Once you leave you cannot truthfully claim a connection to that place, as much as you might want to.
Like many things in this book that probably sounds overly harsh, but think of it this way: community is intrinsically linked to survival, and few people would argue against survival as being dependent upon connections that run in a multitude of directions. You depend on others to help you and others will depend on you. You also depend upon the landbase that supports you and, in turn, the landbase depends upon your connection with it and the connections of everyone else using that landbase, to ensure it is treated with respect and care. It follows, that if you try to sustain more than one set of connections with somewhere you call “home” then those connections will be diluted.
Connections require perseverance and, more important, interdependence. Once you stop depending on something then that connection fades.
Distance is fundamental to this. Say, for instance, that a child has two homes by virtue of a fragmented family. She stays with one biological parent every other weekend, but for the most part her life revolves around the other parent and perhaps a step-parent. Close together these two places could reasonably both be called homes, and the areas surrounding them might both be considered communities. But think from the point of the view of the child: the community around Home A might be the nearest street or two, some shops, a park or piece of waste ground, friends in those streets and maybe a grandparent or other relation. At Home B the community might be smaller depending on how many people the child knows and where she goes during that time. It is unlikely the space between these two communities will be anything like as important unless they intersect. The larger the distance between these homes the less likely a contiguous community is to exist, and that is a problem from the point of view of the child being rooted in any particular place. Distance creates conflict between connections and can be a serious psychological burden.
In an urban area a community might be just a couple of streets, but in a more rural area it might be wider, encompassing a couple of villages, only one of which has a shop or maybe a village hall. A person might live in one village but then have good friends in the other village that they regularly see, with the space in between having a river they fish in or a place they gather wood from, or maybe somewhere they do valuable work for someone, and as such be part of that other person’s community. In most cases rural communities are larger than urban communities, and not just because of the density of people and services. Urban spaces are far more atomised than places where the trappings of modern life are harder to come by, so urban connections tend to stay within a very small area, sometimes even within four walls.
The important thing here is that beyond the point where you are not connected in a very real sense with something else, then any community that exists is not your community.
So what about virtual communities? We have perhaps been over the ephemeral nature of virtual connections enough, though such an emphasis is put on “connection” being possible through telecommunications alone by those that want us to be part of their consumer base, that a salutary reminder is needed. Eli Pariser in a recent talk3 made it clear that this “fiction of community” is extremely powerful, even when it quite obviously fails to deliver anything we could conventionally consider to be reality. We think we are connecting to important things when in fact most of our connections are being decided for us on the basis of automated, commercial decisions. How can we possibly maintain anything like real connections when we have no control over them?
In 2012, Facebook stands as the current apotheosis of the virtual “community” acting, as it does, in a manner that promises much but delivers only what is good for Facebook:
Facebook is a living computer nightmare.4 Just as viruses took the advantages of sharing information on floppies and modems and revealed a devastating undercarriage to the whole process, making every computer transaction suspect… and just as spyware/malware took advantage of beautiful advances in computer strength and horsepower to turn your beloved machine of expression into a gatling gun of misery and assholery… Facebook now stands as taking over a decade and a half of the dream of the World Wide Web and turning it into a miserable IT cube farm of pseudo human interaction, a bastardized form of e-mail, of mailing lists, of photo albums, of friendship.
The old saw is that people don’t understand that Facebook doesn’t consider the users their customers – they consider the advertisers their customers. Make no mistake, this is true… but it implies that Facebook takes some sort of benign “let’s keep humming along and use this big herd of moos to our advantage”. But it doesn’t. Facebook actively and constantly changes up the game, makes things more intrusive, couldn’t give less of a shit about your identity, your worth, your culture, your knowledge, your humanity, or even the cohesive maintenance of what makes you you.4
Facebook or any other online environment is not community. We should not trust online “communities” to deliver anything more that the immediate present along with a heap of corporate baggage. You will not find community down your internet pipe, any more than you will find community in a crack den – that’s perhaps taking dependency a little too far.
With this and the distance paradigm in mind, let’s take a shot at trying to undermine the myth of the Global Community.
Task 1: There is no Global Community
This is not about reducing any concern humans have for each other – we are the same species so to not care about another human, regardless of distance would clearly be inhuman. Ironically, given how “connected” we are constantly urged to be, industrial history has demonstrated with hideous efficiency how inhuman civilized people can be. There is no need to give any more examples than you already know. Competition between non-civilized groups of people is not systematic in the same way as, say, ideological warfare or resource colonialism; nor does it deny the commonality between different groups of humans. What it does do, though, is to create a common bond within communities such that any sense of a global community is simply a genetic connection. The concept of Global Community (note caps) that we have imposed upon us by the industrial system is something entirely different: the clue is in who or what this “Community” benefits.
There it is, as clear as I can make it. As with all situations that promise benefits to one of two sides, to get the true motivation you only have to ask: “Who benefits most?” In this case the Global Community phenomenon, as endorsed by Industrial Civilization, exists solely to make one party or other richer and/or more powerful. These parties are usually a corporation or national government, but also can be major religions, trans-national organisations and certain powerful individuals. This is facilitated through increased trade between the different components of the Community that is being endorsed. Here is one example, and just one of potentially many ways to undermine that particular example.
The supermarket chain WalMart takes great pride in flourishing its community credentials wherever its enormous presence pitches up.5 Awards for Good Citizens, sponsorship for local sports teams and “environmental” projects with local schools abound. This is just a tiny part of the countless other ways this and other supermarket chains try and ingratiate themselves with the public. The idea that a 200,000 square foot palace of consumption, forming a small part of a multi-billion Dollar corporation could be anything but catastrophic for a community is, of course, absurd; but we take the pill and convince ourselves that somehow this giant grey box sitting on the edge of town is beneficial to the place it is sucking the life out of. In the UK it is estimated by the New Economics Foundation that for every new job created by a supermarket, two jobs are lost in local food outlets.6 Yet whenever a supermarket chain announces expansion then the mass media freely regurgitate the press pack that inevitably includes such phrases as: “We will be creating [x thousand] new jobs” and “This is good news for [x places about to be colonised].”
The fact that self-styled “neutral” media organisations such as the BBC, along with local councils and other bodies supposed to represent the needs of ordinary people embrace the lies of job creation and community integration so fully says a whole lot about where we have ended up. It is not just the Veil of Ignorance in operation that makes it possible for such lies to be promulgated and almost certainly believed by those responsible for promulgating them, but also the relentless efforts of the retail corporations in making us swallow these lies through repetition, powerful imagery and practical demonstrations of their community credentials.
The power of a simple sponsorship deal, for instance, is quite remarkable. This is approximately how it works:
1. The Supermarket Community Team approaches various sports, arts and other social clubs offering sponsorship (sometimes it is the club that requests the sponsorship, but that doesn’t matter – it has just saved the Community Team a job).
2. A sponsorship deal is agreed which includes prominent display of the supermarket logo on clothing and/or premises, along with regular mentions in club materials, website and any other social media channels available.
3. The club gains a bit of money.
4. As a direct result of the advertising the supermarket gains at least the equivalent back in retail sales in a very short time.
5. Because of the “support” given by the supermarket, club members feel morally obliged to become loyal to the supermarket, providing longer term financial gains.
6. Also because of this “support”, the supermarket is perceived to be benefitting the community in some way, and thus is looked upon as a friend rather than a threat to the local area.
It is this last gain rather than the direct financial ones that is crucial to the supermarket. If a company can be seen as a friend of the community it effectively becomes part of that community. There are obvious benefits in competition terms with having a community on your side if you are a particular supermarket chain, but that is as nothing compared to the wider benefits of being part of a community. Acceptance allows blind eyes to be turned to whatever misdemeanours the supermarket, and by extension the entire corporation commits. People will actively defend the corporation too (“They were so good to us when they arrived; how can you not want them in your town?”) because the corporation is part of their community, and even their “family” if someone has a job with them. WalMart like to use the word family in their literature a lot when describing the corporation. Yes, there is a real family involved, all billionaires, but that’s as far as it goes.
From a few thousand sprinkles of sugar a Global Community can be established. And, I guess, by putting a bit of salt into that sugar, a Global Community – as far as the retail corporations see it – can be undermined. From before the first opening of a supermarket the sugaring will start and that’s by far the best time to undermine it; the earlier the better. Consider it part of undermining the Veil of Ignorance if you like. A few well-placed letters in the local press, forewarning people of the assault on their minds and their communities would help; as would a mass-mailing to every club and society in the surrounding areas doing the same. However this wouldn’t be as powerful as an apparently direct approach from the company themselves in the form of a letter – see the Barclays one in Chapter 7 as an example – introducing the supermarket chain (shackle) to the community via the channels above. This letter should explain how important the success of the supermarket is to shareholders, and how becoming part of the community will ensure that success. Drop in a few phrases like: “Traditional ideas of community are a thing of the past; caring for and looking out for each other are less important than making money”, “We believe that trade is at the heart of the our Global Community” and “In return for the loyalty of your community we are prepared to offer some financial incentive to your club.” A few home truths will make a difference. Make sure you letter-drop the clubs and societies before the press, just in case the company gets wind of it – chances are the letters will be read out at meetings and the damage will be done before the real approaches can start.
Faced with the might of an entire industry it’s tempting to just surrender whatever it is they are laying claim to and find something else to use instead. There are many, many precedents and we have just about given everything away that defines us as humans including our bodies to the industrial system (what is a job other than the prostitution of ourselves for cash?) But there are some other examples that suggest that maybe some of the most difficult battles are winnable, especially when it comes to words. I came across one prime capitulation in 2008 on the website of Nick Rosen. He had written that the word “green” had been so abused and manipulated by the corporate world that the only alternative was to use a different word with, perhaps, even more connection to the natural world.
The word he chose was brown. This was feasible but problematic for two reasons:
1) The colour brown has certain connotations that might not easily appeal in the same way that green does;
2) There is already a perfectly serviceable word in green.
My response to him was in the form of a second article which, to give Nick credit, he put straight on his website. This is the relevant part:
I don’t believe for a moment that the corporate world will let go of the word “green” without a fight, and I certainly have some sympathy with Nick in turning to our old friend “brown” – good old earthy brown, compost brown, manure brown, bark brown – but while brown is a colour you are far more likely to find in a woodland than in a shopping mall, it is not the only colour of life. In fact life has a host of different colours: the vivid reds that signify the fruits of autumn and the segment of sun as it disappears over the horizon; the warm oranges of so many flowers, pebbles and leaves; the wide blue of the sky and its reflected light in the oceans; the white of the brightest cloud and the firmest mushroom; but most of all the green of leaves, of algae, of plankton – the green that means photosynthesis, that means oxygen, that means life. Green is the reason we are here.
No corporation is ever going to take that away from us – it can try, but I’m claiming it back from the bastards who haven’t just stolen “green” for their own nefarious purposes, but are stealing the entire language from our lungs.7
No corporation is ever going to steal the word community from our lungs either. The word “community” doesn’t have the same obviously negative and offensive connotations the word “queer” has when used by people outside of LGBT8 communities, but in the hands of a corporation the misuse of “community” is deeply offensive to those of us who know what real community is. Maybe, then, we can use some of the ideas that groups such as Queer Nation so brilliantly harnessed to bring our beloved community back into the real world.
The first instance of queer’s public reclamation came from Queer Nation, an offspring of the AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). Queer Nation was originally formed in 1990 in New York as a discussion group by several ACT-UP activists discontent with homophobia in AIDS activism and the invisibility of gays and lesbians within the movement. The group, originally comprised of members of ACT-UP, soon moved from discussion to the confrontational, direct, and action-oriented activism modeled after ACT-UP.
This new coalition chose “Queer Nation” as its name because of its confrontational nature and marked distance from gay and lesbian. For a coalition committed to fighting homophobia and “queerbashing” through confrontation, queer, “the most popular vernacular term of abuse for homosexuals,” was certainly an appropriate—perhaps perfect—choice. Rather than being a sign of internalized homophobia, queer highlights homophobia in order to fight it: “[Queer] is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world”. To take up queer is at once to recognize and revolt against homophobia.
Queers also publicly rejected the assimilationist tactics of gays and lesbians. Refusing to forge their existence within the heterosexual-homosexual polarity, queers chose to wage their war outside of the system. The goal was not to win heterosexual support or approval; therefore, their battle did not model a civil rights movement, struggling for equal rights for an oppressed minority. Queers associated gay and lesbian with an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo and an essentializing understanding of sexuality and gender. Queer, in contrast, was associated with a radical, confrontational challenge to the status quo.
While linguistic reclamation may not produce clear victories, it does prove that the right of self-definition is a worthy cause for revolution. To appropriate the power of naming and reclaim the derogatory name that one never chose nor willed is to rebel against the speech of hate intended to injure. Linguistic reclamation is a courageous self emancipation that boldly moves from a tragic, painful past into a future full of uncertainty, full of doubt—and full of possibility.9
The growing numbers of people who would like, and frankly need, the return of community to its rightful place may be fighting an apparently impossible battle against the might of the corporate and political world. But the word “queer” as a form of identity is now most definitely the rightful property of those who were formerly abused with the very same epithet. Those who fight “impossible” battles can learn a lot from improbable victories.
Communities from the Ashes
When entire books, and bloody good ones at that, have been written about subjects then it’s nice to be able to defer to them, at least to give the necessary background reading that subject needs. Two books about the nature and power of communities that I cannot recommend highly enough have all but entered the mainstream – except “mainstream” is always a relative term when referring to something that is genuinely constructive and important. The books have not in any way entered the deeper consciousness of the civilized world. Had they done so then we would be looking at something quite different already.
The first book to read, and one that I will be drawing on in a later section is Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, an exploration of the nature of community, soul and spirit and one fight against the industrial machine that can serve as a lesson for many future fights. The other book to read and one that is most pertinent to this section is A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. This short extract takes us straight to the heart of the matter and provides many clues to how communities may actually be used as a powerful weapon against the Culture of Maximum Harm:
You don’t have to subscribe to a political ideology, move to a commune, or join the guerrillas in the mountains; you wake up in a society suddenly transformed, and chances are good you will be part of that transformation in what you do, in whom you connect to, in how you feel. Something changes. Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that the change means chaos or destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster – and real political and social change can result, from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges. Too, the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it.10
This takes a little explanation, which is why I recommend you at least read the compelling introduction to the book. In a nutshell, there is a myth about what happens when groups of civilized humans11 are faced with disaster situations. That myth is what leads those who feel they are “responsible” for the rest of us (usually those who have the most weapons) to prevent our natural community spirit from coming to the fore. Civilization fears a lack of control, which is one reason why the word anarchy has so many negative connotations. A lack of authoritarian control leads to people pulling together and dealing with things in a far more equitable manner. If equality reigns and inevitably people are able to connect with each other on a human level then the Tools of Disconnection have failed. As we know, the industrial system relies on fear to keep us disconnected – fear of each other, fear of difference, fear of the system’s own might – so it tries to impose fear at times of stress. Hell, it creates disasters and makes people believe bad things are going to happen just to keep us scared all the time. Through these means the status quo is re-imposed.
As the book goes on to show, there is not a single case of a disaster-type situation where humans have not mutually acted to make things better for themselves as a whole in the absence of authorities imposing control over the situation. Now, I would add just one caveat to that, which Solnit doesn’t make clear, perhaps because the book would not have been published had she done so. The fact is the fear by the elites that post-disaster changes may undermine their authority is fully justified. The changes that take place after a disaster, which ordinary humans acting in communities cope so well with, completely undermine the authority of the industrial system. Indeed those changes are so powerful that – say this quietly – they can even be the trigger for entirely new forms of society.
So, we know that communities emerge as a natural human response to crises. How these crises happen is, as Solnit’s and as other recent examples have demonstrated, doesn’t seem to matter. The important factor is a loss of authority and a need for a survival response to take place. In fact, that “survival” response need not necessarily be to a life-threatening situation. To take a small example, I remember power cuts and water shortages in the 1970s causing minor hardship, yet creating remarkable, spontaneous dialogue and subsequent action between neighbours, many of whom would never have dreamt of working together under normal conditions. Next time you are on public transport and something unexpected happens, see how people react in the absence of some “authority” (such as a conductor) taking a lead. People talk, they open up, they plan…and then the train starts moving, and everyone returns to their little worlds again.
There is something rather exciting about the possibilities encompassed in this scenario – hold your horses for a second, though, because the second aspect of this, the return to normal, non-communicative, non-community activity, is also vital to consider. Naomi Klein famously described a concept known as Disaster Capitalism in her book The Shock Doctrine as being synonymous with the “softening up” that torture is used for in working towards a state of mental compliance, but on a far larger scale:
The shock doctrine mimics this process precisely…the original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.12
While there is an element of pop-psychology attached to this (Rebecca Solnit is a fierce critic of Klein’s view that populations are so compliant in the face of disaster) there is also a great deal of truth in the historical events Klein documents, especially when – as Machiavelli so vitally pronounced upon in The Prince – there is something, such as a new regime, ready to fill the political void created by the disaster. Thus we must address the problem of having this “void” filled with something other than our natural tendency to create communities.
Task 2: Creating the Disaster Community
Beware the backlash. This is something that wasn’t explicitly discussed in Part One, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised that for every undermining action there may be an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not talking about protecting against the reaction of the industrial systems of power in their defence, but rather the reaction of ordinary people who see themselves as civilized. Never is this truer than in the case of creating a situation, real or otherwise, where a community response is likely. Let’s take a simple, localised example.
Suppose you were to somehow prevent food being distributed to a particularly aggressive superstore on the edge of a town. Assuming there are no other food outlets available on the edge, the majority of regular customers will try their hardest not to seek other sources of food, but instead make it known how pissed off they are that the superstore cannot supply their consumer needs. They will complain to staff, to management, to local politicians, to the media. Some people will seek out food sources in the middle of the town, giving much-needed funds to those shops sucked dry by the out-of-town superstore, and some might decide not to buy the unnecessary items they normally would from the bloated selection in that superstore. Others, a few, might even consider – assuming the “crisis” carried on for a while – seeking out much more localised sources of food, sharing between neighbours, having “pot lucks” and so on.
But the majority would react against whatever caused the crisis13 in the first place. They might seek out the perpetrator, and certainly the system would apply whatever measures it could to make sure that perpetrator couldn’t do it again. More insidiously, the attitude to the superstore might change. Yes, some might remain attached to whatever community efforts sprang up to deal with the situation, but others – probably the majority – will demand that such a thing is more strongly protected against in the future. As I say, this isn’t the power structures protecting themselves, but the civilized population protecting the system it has become dependent upon. This is the backlash. You need to be prepared for it.
Some ideas will come in Task 3, but there is a much greater element of basic human psychology required here than will be considered later. In essence, any disaster that initiates a community response must be complete enough for it not to cause a possibly more powerful backlash, resulting in a worse situation than before. Completeness takes into account whether a disaster invokes enough community responses at a scale sufficient to cater for those affected by that disaster, bearing in mind that different people behave in different ways. This means that planning is absolutely critical for such a form of undermining. Backlash is far more likely where people feel or may actually have been harmed in some tangible way, making the “risk to others” rule particularly important to note. Even if people are not directly harmed, they may feel a sense of harm or even menace, while the disaster is unfolding. They will undoubtedly seek the protection of authorities, which is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. There has to be a sense that this “disaster” is something good, an opportunity emerging for something better. Clearly a multi-faceted approach is vital if this is going to be achieved.
So, let’s look at that superstore food failure, but adding various elements that might make the backlash less meaningful, and the community response deeper and longer-lasting. The following questions are all fundamental, and I have provided some sketch answers, though you will no doubt have your own. The third answer has been left blank as it is vital that an Underminer is able to apply general principles to a specific situation:
What are we trying to achieve?
A response through which people bring the purchase, distribution and production of their food to a community scale (say, within a 20 mile radius to start with). In addition this response will have various knock-on effects related to the increased level of dependency on people in the locality, including much improved social cohesion. Over time (probably a matter of weeks or months, depending on local availability) this will lead to a rejection of the industrial food system in favour of the local food network.
What are we trying to avoid?
Actual harm to others – hunger being a possibility especially for the less socially mobile; perceived harm to others; entrenched reliance on the industrial food system as a result of existing dependence and perceived risks; getting caught and punished.
How can each of these be avoided?
(This is for you to fill out – use the notes above if that helps).
How can the initial undermining be carried out?
Methods might include interfering with ordering systems / wiping data; breaking the supply chain at critical weak points; implying that orders have already been dispatched; preventing reception / stacking staff from reaching work; creating a health scare, and many others.
Notice the “headline” undermining is the last thing to be considered. This is because it needs to take into account all of the above. Obviously you have to decide whether such a thing is practicable in the first place, otherwise all of that planning will be for nothing, but without the planning and all of the contingencies in place the most likely outcome of all is you will just end up some kind of pathetic, lorry-halting martyr that no one cares about except whether you will spend 2 or 10 years in jail. It may be that removing the risks is simply too difficult, and some other less risky action could have a similar outcome.
Such as just pretending the superstore has run out of food.
You see, it is often possible to create the perception of a disaster without actually creating the disaster itself. Not only is such an approach less risky, and thus more likely to be carried out on a larger scale and also more likely to be repeated, but there is far less chance of a backlash.
FREETOWN: At least 200 people were killed when a trench collapsed at an unofficial gold mine in Sierra Leone, the West African country’s Ministry of Mineral Resources said on Friday.
The accident occurred in the Bo district in the south of the country, about 180 miles from the capital, Freetown.
“Over 200 gold miners were killed when a …trench dug by the miners collapsed,” a ministry spokesman said.
Unofficial gold mining is common in Africa where miners usually have no professional training or equipment and often dig by hand. Accidents are frequent at the sites, which do not meet safety standards found at professionally engineered mines.
“A forty feet (12 meters) pit was dug out to mine gold,” a senior police source said. “Hundreds of (miners) entered the pit, and when it collapsed it trapped them.”
Children as young as 13 were working in the mine when it caved in, police said, adding that around 20 people escaped.
Officials from the resources ministry were en route to the scene of the disaster on Friday, the ministry spokesman said.14
The “disaster” was possibly a communications failure, but more likely a hoax. If we assume it was a hoax of some kind, then its origins could easily be traced to the appalling working conditions of diamond and gold miners in Sierra Leone and an attempt to expose this. Certainly that background was picked up by the mainstream press when the hoax was exposed. The next day The Associated Press syndicated the following to nearly 200 news outlets: “Mining accidents are common in Africa’s unregulated artisanal mines, where poor villagers use crude instruments and their bare hands to dig through the dirt. Sierra Leone — the country upon which the film ‘Blood Diamond’ is based — has many diamond and gold mines.” People forget about hoaxes quicker than tangible events, they may even laugh about them, but they may also get the point the hoax was trying to make.
That doesn’t mean a hoax is intrinsically more effective at making a point than a real disaster, after all not everyone is taken in by a hoax, and the time before a return to normality is going to be significantly quicker than if something genuine is unfolding. You will struggle to find anything reported more than a couple of days after the “mine collapse”. One can immediately return to a perceived lack of something, but one can’t immediately return to something if it is no longer there.
Memories of great storms and whiteouts are speckled throughout the anecdotal history of the area in which we live. A “once in living memory” period of snow took over our village in February 2010, shortly before we moved in. People talk of the local Co-operative store being staffless until a brave person managed to trudge miles to open up. Soup deliveries were widespread and the elderly in particular were checked up on regularly to make sure they were warm and fed. Long conversations and frequent laughter were endemic, alongside the fallen guttering and immovable cars. Supplies of wood and other necessities were made available within micro-communities of individual roads and groups of houses.
We missed this by a couple of months, but more bitter and soft white weather was to come the following November and into December leading to a spontaneous outbreak of sledging. For the week that school buses were cancelled and schools were closed the hill down to the public golf course (for once a beauteous thing rather than an overmown eyesore) was awash with people of all ages, myself included, risking life and limb (or at least limb) for a short downhill thrill. And again, and again, on sledges, compost bags, backsides and, most memorably, an inflatable mattress which eventually became a tattered but still exciting addendum to the great community downhill experience. People were happy to hand over responsibility of their precious offspring to near-strangers and there is little doubt that the week when school was closed and the slope was open was a wonderful time for the community to become stronger. Of course no one can make it snow, but there are other ways of keeping people at home to enjoy each other’s company…15
Soon after this the council changed their policy. No longer would a lack of transport be an impediment to school attendance – the local primary schools would simply admit everyone within walking distance, and every school staff member would have to “check in” on pain of unemployment. The “education” system, you see, doesn’t see learning about each other to be educational, and free time to experience pure joy is wasted time. I guess next time the snow comes down someone had better see to it that the local school is locked too.
Here’s a more hypothetical example, but one that still relates to real-life events. All across our area, and probably near to you as well, there are music events, live theatre, interesting talks, workshops and demonstrations of practical skills, clubs and societies doing their best to bring people together with common interests. All of them, almost without exception struggle to bring in more than a tiny proportion of the people who live even round the corner from those things. Ok, not every event is of interest to a great number of people, but the only reason most of these things keep going is because of community grants (for once not an anachronism) and sponsorship. People stay away, and it’s not, strictly speaking, because of the overused term “apathy” – it’s because most people are staring at a flickering screen in some form or another. We have often semi-joked that if someone were to cut off the television signal on the last Friday of the month then our local music club would be bursting at the seams, and it probably would. But this goes deeper: as was discussed way back, the presence of so-called “connecting” elements of technology, with television being the classic one-way communication, are incredibly potent forces in keeping people disconnected from the real world and, most pertinent to this section, from each other. The Human Community is a victim of technology so, it follows, that in the absence of television, the internet and, to a lesser extent, radio and mobile phones, the Human Community would flourish as it did prior to the mass adoption of these things.
One element of this that is critical is the lack of risk to the people affected by any technological shutdown. Sure, there are examples where people have been saved from possible harm or even death by the intervention of communications technology. Equally so, there are examples where communications technology have led directly to deaths. But we are talking about what are essentially entertainment media here – I wouldn’t, for instance, ever advocate interfering with emergency communications equipment as the immediate risk to life is too high to justify; but television, the internet and especially entertainment web sites, commercial radio and instant messaging are certainly ripe for intervention in the name of recreating community.
Speaking to a friend about this concept, he said something which brought me sharply back to sickening reality: we are already in a disaster situation. If you read the first section of Time’s Up! or just browse through the increasingly stark reality of the changing and rapidly degrading global environment (something I find it harder and harder to do nowadays) then it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are already in a disaster scenario whether that be in the form of climate change, food scarcity, habitat destruction, environmental toxification or any other horrors we currently face. Yet we are not acting as though this is the case. So, to paraphrase my friend: “How do you help people feel the disaster which is already upon them?”
In any disaster people are our first priority. For instance, despite the best efforts of certain (non-human) animal charities, I struggle to take reports of dogs and horses washed away by floods as seriously as those reporting on human casualties. Some people, washed out by the tide of civilized humanity would prefer to spend time with non-human animals, and I can understand that; but if we are trying to understand the minds of the civilized then we need to accept that civilized people care for other civilized people…a bit. Non-civilized people, too, will seek to protect the human before the non-human (regardless of culture), leading to the unavoidable conclusion that whether operating on base instincts or at a highly-filtered cultural level, the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact.
That’s not quite enough to get through, though. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was a disaster that few people can comprehend in anything but purely mathematical terms. A quarter of a million people killed by a wave and its after-effects. That’s just too many for one mind to deal with: a quarter of a million human beings is, to put it in its crudest terms, a mass of people. As Wendell Berry so eloquently stated in a 2012 lecture:
To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”—and that appears to have the force of truth.
It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.16
We cannot separate the individuals from the mass at vast human scales. Loss only becomes personalised at far smaller scales – at community scales, such as when a village is buried by a landslide or a family is killed in a house fire. Such small, yet tragic events affect us in a way that belie their apparent scale. It follows then that the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend.
But there is still something missing. That phrase returns: what matters, is what matters to us. What matters to us is our fellow human beings; what matters to us more is the human beings that matter most to us. I remember a sketch from the 1980s British television series “Not The Nine O’Clock News” which seems to address this missing thing perfectly. It went something like: “Two Britons were killed in an air crash today. The other victims were, in order of importance, 4 Americans, 1 Australian, 3 French and 213 Africans.” Whilst shocking, it is also significant in highlighting what it is we value and, with surprising congruity, what we have been conditioned to value, in terms of disasters. Rightly or wrongly, we value those that are most like us whether in terms of cultural beliefs, genetic similarity or personal experience. It rocks you to the core when someone you love dies. The raw human emotions that come from a close loss are unequivocal. That kind of loss lies at the root of community cohesion. It also lies at the root of helping people feel the disaster that is unfolding at this very moment.
The most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend upon those we most care about.
I don’t think there is any need to go into the crude mechanics of this, but I must emphasise that this is anything but an excuse to cause hurt deliberately. What has to happen is a focussing of minds upon those events that actually mean something to people as a catalyst for change. Whether referring to a disaster that has happened, one that is happening at present or one that may happen in the future, if we are to garner any kind of effective response to it then we have to allow those we are engaging with to feel its impact at a personal level. It has to be their disaster, and they have to feel as though they can do something about it.
Task 3: Protecting Communities
Let’s broaden this out a bit. The post-disaster community could be the result of real, engineered or imaginary disasters. To be honest there is little to distinguish the first two types – as Naomi Klein showed in The Shock Doctrine, a disaster engineered to provide a platform for some new regime is a real disaster in all but name. On the other hand something coming from the hands of an Underminer is only engineered in the eyes of the system it threatens: as far as the negative impact on the human population is concerned, the disaster is imaginary. Underminers never seek to cause harm.
Whatever the cause, and whatever the extent of the community that emerges in the period during and immediately following the disaster, we still have a community. So long as the emergent community is genuinely organic then there is little reason to doubt its legitimacy, and nothing to prevent its ongoing success in the absence of external forces. The problem is there are a hell of a lot of powerful external forces determined that any such community cannot be allowed to exist. Industrial Civilization is, of course, the overarching force, but below this level we can identify a lot of discrete groups:
• Armed forces;
• Police and other civilian enforcement;
• Political leaders;
• Corporate interests;
• Retail, entertainment, travel and other related distractions;
• Mainstream media outlets;
• Well-meaning but pro-civilization NGOs and charities;
• Other, unaffected civilized people.
Notice the transition from the obvious and direct to the generic. When there is a disaster of any type, the first impulse of any agency of civilized society is to impose “normality” upon the affected population. This happens at all levels. As I said earlier, this civilized idea of what is normal, is utterly, sickeningly abnormal. The civilized population is damaged, physically and mentally to the extent that from within the confines of that bubble of normality, the communities that emerge from disaster are considered by almost all of us to be abnormal – quaint at best, dangerous at worst. If we accept this then we are never going to be able to re-establish our natural state.
Eric Weiner, in The Geography of Bliss, provides a clue to one of the most powerful tools we can use against this re-imposition of the bloody status quo:
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection. We humans need one another, so we cooperate – for purely selfish reasons at first. At some point, though, the needing fades and all that remains is the cooperation. We help other people because we can, or because it makes us feel good, not because we’re counting on some future payback. There is a word for this: love.17
Before anyone accuses me of falling into some cloying, symbolic trap I have to emphasise that the idea of love as a defence against the forces of destruction does not belie its human, or indeed its most basic biological origins. The warm, soft embrace that shows we care is just one outward expression of something that has its roots in the deepest of protective instincts, best described by Derrick Jensen thus:
“I disagree that love implies pacifism, and I think that mother grizzly bears will back me up on this one. I grew up in the country, and in my life I have been attacked by mother horses, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, geese, hawks, eagles, hummingbirds, spiders, mice who thought I was attacking their babies. And if a mother mouse will attack someone six thousand times her size, and win, what the hell’s wrong with us? I realise that [mainstream activists] are right when they say that…what we need is more love. And we do, we need to love ourselves. We need to love ourselves enough so we don’t have to put up with this shit. We need to love ourselves enough that we say ‘no more’. We need to love ourselves enough to say ‘you are not going to do this to me, or to those I love’.”18
If you love, then you will resist threats to your community, your friends, your family and yourself. If you do not resist in the face of such threats then you do not love. There is no doubt that building any kind of community, whether in relative security or as a response to some major event, takes a great deal of effort, time and patience. If you and those you care about have put so much of themselves into creating something better than went before then of course you would resist efforts to damage it. Wouldn’t you? Put love into the equation and it becomes a no-brainer. It takes little additional effort to state your love for your community. That love can be expressed in so many joyful ways such as celebratory gatherings (parties, festivals, meet-ups), the physical reinforcement of community identity (sign-making, tree planting, Beating-the-Bounds or Common Riding type events, song and story-telling, or even myth creation) or building self-reliance and resilience, something which will be discussed later on. That love for your community, when shared, is amplified – it creates a bond and a shield from interference. This is not just about defending your patch, though, as Eric Weiner says: “At some point…the needing fades and all that remains is cooperation.”
Protecting another community from attack, whether it is something new or something that’s has existed for a very long time, is also a vital, if morally complex undermining task. Upon hearing of a community elsewhere threatened by external forces, be that an indigenous tribe on the verge of destruction from commercial loggers or a village upon which a supermarket chain wishes to site its latest “job creation” scheme, the response seems obvious enough. But don’t forget, your efforts are also a form of external interference. Unless you know the full story then you might end up making things worse. So, first you need to find out what is being done by the affected community in their own defence, whether they actually need help and what, if anything, you can do to help. Too many times have so-called relief efforts ended up playing into the hands of those that want to destroy the cohesion that binds lives together, and in very many cases those “relief” efforts may actually be the biggest threat to the community. Witness the multiple corporate, missionary and US-led political incursions that took place following the, possibly industry triggered, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This was perhaps best embodied by the Heritage Foundation’s Jim Roberts, who stated: “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.”19
Some groups, such as Survival International, the London Mining Network and Intercontinental Cry, manage to keep involvement at arm’s length while trying their best to keep news channels open and information as objective as possible. Survival’s work as an advocacy group is most definitely via mainstream channels, and often using symbolic methods. In contrast to this, a glance at their website makes it horrifically clear where work is needed protecting some of the last remaining pure communities and also those that are seeking to re-assert their independence. That should be the motivation. Direct and relentless, if non-lethal, attacks on those parties carrying out such abominations seems perfectly justified; although in truth, unless the root causes, i.e. industrial civilization and its market forces, are undermined as well, then such point efforts will seem like pissing in the wind.
With that said, we should never feel impotent and certainly not alone in the face of others’ problems. Carrying the world’s burdens on one pair of shoulders is bound to crush you, when undermining should be an uplifting experience. And yes, we are still undermining. In our efforts to build communities and protect them we are undoubtedly underming the civilized dream in our own patch of home. Not just building the communities, but also creating ways of living within those communities that the system desperately wants us to avoid.
CLICK FOR CHAPTER 9 (PART 2)
1 When referring to a community that only includes humans then the term “Human Community” is more accurate, but when including connections with other living organisms then the term “Community” is best used, as an analogy for Ecosystem. Obviously that makes the civilized definition of the term utterly absurd.
2 Janaia Donaldson, Peak Moment, quotation from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Conversation”, http://www.wordpress.peakmoment.tv/conversations/?p=403 (accessed March 2012).
3 Eli Pariser, “Beware online ‘filter bubbles’”, TED Talks, http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html (accessed March 2012).
4 Jason Scott, “Facefacts”, http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/3086 (accessed March 2012).
5 See the execrable http://www.walmartcommunity.com/ for lots of examples.
6 “Markets create twice as many jobs as supermarkets and food is half the price”, New Economics Foundation, http://neweconomics.org/press-releases/markets-create-twice-many-jobs-supermarkets-and-food-half-price (accessed April 2012).
7 The last sentence is a nod to one of the greatest living English lyricists, Andy Partridge of XTC.
8 LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) is useful shorthand for individual people and groups falling outside the “norms” prescribed by societies rooted in, usually, Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious beliefs.
9 Robin Brontsema, “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation”, Colorado Research in Linguistics, Volume 17 (2004).
10 Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, Penguin, 2009.
11 Although “civilized humans” and “citizens” can and should be used interchangeably, for some reason, probably cultural, even the most radical American writers sometimes use the word citizen to denote ordinary people whatever their culture. I make a point of telling them this, but it’s very ingrained. On a related point, I think the differentiation between “civilian” and “military” is useful in many cases, though again I tend to avoid using the former word.
12 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, Penguin, 2007.
13 The words disaster and crisis are not completely synonymous. A disaster is more akin to the event itself, whereas the crisis is the outcome of the disaster, and normally associated with the human response to the disaster. Sometimes it’s convenient to use the word crisis when referring to something at a smaller scale, such as an localised event. Context is important.
14 “At least 200 killed as mine collapses in the Bo district of Sierra Leone”, The Statesman, 20 March 2012, http://www.thestatesmen.net/news/at-least-200-killed-as-mine-collapses-in-the-bo-district-of-sierra-leone/ (accessed May 2012).
15 Oil tanker or refinery strikes and blockades spring to mind.
16 Wendell Berry, “Lecture: It all Turns on Affection”, National Endowment for Humanities, 2012, http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture (accessed May 2012). Thanks to Tim Bennett for the pointer.
17 Eric Wiener, The Geography of Bliss, Black Swan, 2008.
18 Derrick Jensen, Now This War Has Two Sides, Audio recording – PM Press, 2008.
19 The statement was quickly removed when it was widely publicised by activists, but there is a good report on the immediate aftermath at http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/01/no-shock-doctrine-for-haiti/ (accessed May 2012).
Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012