I think the biggest threat to western society at the moment is a lack of meaningful vision that together we can aim for. So this dotty little ramble is really a call not for people to wake up but to allow ourselves dream – and let that be what motivates us rather than fear of some nightmarish future.
In the post 12 Movies for Christmas I mentioned Paths of Glory and said that it showed why soldiers weren’t able to refuse to fight in WW1. Then just a couple of weeks after that I watched the rather brilliant Reds. I’d like to say that this reminded me that the Russians did in fact do just that – refuse to fight in a pointless war – but the truth is the way I remember it from the scant attention I paid to history in school was that a revolution overtook Russia during that war causing them to drop out.
The Cold War was still a reality (in as much as it ever was) in the 1980s when I was growing up. It didn’t have much impact on life here. Living in middle of nowhere in the west of Ireland international events always seemed very far off. Continental Europe seemed far off when I was a child. It’s funny I’ve totally considered myself European for years now but when I was growing up we were on an island off an island off the coast of Europe. We were already part of the EU (then the EEC) but borders were still very much in existence and the only one people here were concerned with was the one on this island. (Let’s, not bring them back, O.K.?)
Going just by what I saw on TV, my understanding of the Cold War was it was something where not much happened but it was all talked about endlessly. Lots of hypothesizing with a good dash of fear mongering thrown in, and lots of satirizing of the hypothesizing and fear mongering. There were growing movements in the Soviets states looking for more autonomy and democracy but the news I remember focused more on the talks between the US and Russia. It’s hard to say now how much what happened afterwards has affected my memory of things, but I think there was a real sense that it was coming to an end.
The real worry was about nuclear weapons. And there wasn’t really a sense that either the US or the USSR would start a nuclear war but just that it was something that could happen, accidentally almost – that we’d slide into it, dragged down by the weight of the nuclear arsenals. The symbol for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.) was very recognizable and I remember picking up more than one leaflet about Trident (some big nuclear bomb deploying submarine the British had – actually just googled it, it’s still in existence, wasn’t at time they were leafleting about it…). There was a very depressing (again British) cartoon called When the Wind Blows that was about this old couple living through the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. And there were loads of stories in the same vein.
On a complete side note, by the 1990s the focus had shifted to the powers of big business in the new “gobalized” world. On more than one occasion some teacher, or someone in a similar position, would draw a symbol on the blackboard and ask us what it represented – to show how omnipresent such symbols were. I was the kind of teenager who if I knew the answer I’d always say it out loud, so while a couple of people would mutter “Mercedes” I’d say loudly “C.N.D.”. The teacher, or whoever, would then kindly carry on, completely ignoring my contribution, “Yes, that’s right the instantly recognizable Mercedes emblem”, while I would sit staring at the symbol trying to figure out what the campaign for nuclear disarmament had to do with Mercedes cars. It would eventually dawn on me that no, no, it was a slightly different symbol… These episodes taught me two valuable things 1) I’m incredibly bad at picking up on the finer details of things and 2) the power of branding is grossly overestimated.
What made Russia seem closer wasn’t any political talks or movements, it wasn’t any films or literature, it was the Chernobyl disaster (which is actually in the Ukraine, then part of the then USSR). Suddenly Russia seemed much closer, and more human. I don’t mean that it seemed inhuman before that. It’s just during the 80s depictions of the USSR fell broadly (very broadly) into two categories, the typical blockbuster spy kind of depiction that made them seem cold and ruthless and then the romantic depictions of struggling idealists broken under the machinations of an imperfect state – but in both those depictions though the state controls were shown as imperfect (as in far from ideal) they did seem all powerful. Suddenly it was a bunch of people, who were not that far away, dealing with a huge catastrophe.
Chernobyl happened in 1986. Gorbachev was already in power and talking about perestroika and glasnost. Regan and Gorbachev were soon deep in disarmament talks. They signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the next year. By the end of the 80s the Soviet Union was falling apart, with domino-effect-like speed states seemed to be rising up and claiming independence. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and in 1991 the union was formally dissolved.
There were many reasons to be optimistic about the state of the world then – in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released, apartheid was to become a thing of the past.
But while specific events were very encouraging there didn’t seem to be any lasting sense that we were headed – well, anywhere…
Why am I going on about this? Is this ramble headed anywhere? Over the past couple of years I’ve watched lots of things that have either been made during the Cold War or are about that period. Some of these, that were made a few decades ago, remind me about the sorts of debates about different ideals and how to achieve them that were a feature of those times – or is that just nostalgia clouding my memories of things – I’m not sure…
Some of the current shows about about the Cold War completely ignore the whole subject of idealism, which makes them seem like, well every other sort of thriller show but having Russian spy characters rather than terrorists or drug dealers or vampires or whatever. If you remember those times this makes the drama seem a bit hollow. Actually watching some of those shows did make me wonder if we’re avoiding idealism, afraid of what it can inspire.
I watched Deutschland 83, a German-US co-production. It’s really good, even if you have no interest in the Cold War it’s a great nostalgic trip back to the 80s, and also it shows the themes of that time, what people talked about, the movements that were around (the one thing it doesn’t mention is heroin; nuclear bombs, AIDS and heroin – huge depressing themes of the 80s). It is quite cynical too but necessarily so. It’s good.
What really prompted me to add this now is this month’s header image. I added a still from Interrogation, a Polish film that is set in back in 1950s Poland when Stalin was still in power. It’s a very good movie but quite a harrowing watch.
Sorry, I’m taking ages to make my point… My point is really that while awful, awful things happened under communist regimes, underpinning communism was a beautiful dream, a dream of a society where people worked for the betterment of society, where they worked for each other, not to accumulate things. A beautiful dream. A dream so inspiring that people overlooked how people were getting downtrodden or completely crushed on the march towards it.
I’m in no way suggesting we have another go at it. I believe that the failure of communism was a necessary one. I see the Communist vs Capitalist war of ideals as really being about collectivism vs individualism and individualism did, and had to, win out. I’ve said before here how I view our history as a march on a long rocky road towards equality. We’re very obviously not there yet. It still seems very far off from here. But we’ve definitely come a long way over the last 100 years.
The communist approach demands that the state is viewed as more important than the individual, something I don’t think is humanly possible to accept at the individual level. It demands a strong hierarchy.
I think that an equal world wouldn’t have hierarchies – it would be about cooperation and consideration, not authority and control. Integrated individualism. Or I guess you could call it by its old name – anarchy.
Unfortunately anarchy is, for some people, synonymous with chaos, violence and a lack of respect for authority. I guess people think no control equals chaos, but it would be a question of individuals being self-controlled not being out-of-control or under-control. Violence has been used by movements and people who call themselves anarchists. For me anarchy means accepting that everyone is equal and if you do so then you cannot allow yourself to try and force someone to submit to your will through violence, in fact you shouldn’t be trying to force others to submit to your will through any means. People associate anarchy with a lack of respect for authority because an anarchist isn’t supposed to recognize authority, but they are supposed to recognize individuals, and whether you’re talking about workers or bosses or landlords or tenants or whatever grouping, you’re still just talking about a bunch of individuals. If you accept that we are all equal then respect is something you show not something you earn. So a true anarchist should be respectful to all.
I feel like I’m preaching. I’m really not. I do believe in what I just said there but I know how hard, how next to impossible, it is to really espouse these values in everyday life. I think part of the reason why that is so is that our societies are, and our world is, still so very unequal. The little and large inequalities of everyday life encourage selfishness and pettiness. And I think that another part of the reason is also that lack of self-control is glamorized, certainly in western societies. Or the sort of self-control that is promoted is about having the perfectly sculpted bottom or that sort of thing, not exactly inspirational. One of the reasons I feel so bad about saying all this is that I’m not all that self-controlled – and sometimes not very respectful. So I feel a bit hypocritical making these points but failing to be an example of them. Living with the awareness (and responsibility) that you are everyone’s equal and everyone is equal to you is something I want to do but I don’t yet know how – well, not in most situations.
But I’m also not saying that the way to integrated individualism – okay, I’ll just call it equality – I’m not saying we’ll have an equal world once we’re all self-controlled and respectful, I don’t know how exactly we’re going to reach equality, but I think a significant step towards it would be the creation of a truly democratic state model.
Don’t we already have democracy? Seriously? Do you really call a system where we vote on people, who may be standing for certain policies, but there is no onus on them really to implement them, do you really call that democracy? Do you really think that that is an example of people ruling their state? Is it more democratic than the state models of imperialist Europe? Without question it is far better, more fair and more under the control of the people than those monarchist states were – but that’s not saying much. It’s still not enough under the control of the people to be called democracy, is it?
I believe that until we vote on policies, not people, we cannot call our states democratic.
I’m not saying we should be voting on the nitty-gritty details of every policy our government undertakes, such a system would be – well, hilarious – and utterly unworkable. I’m talking about a very different sort of system – one I am as yet not able to describe precisely in words – it’s a dream that is a more colour than detail at the moment.
I’m not writing this to sell you on my dream. I writing this because when I read articles or comments on some political/international situation there seems to be this gaping lack of idealism. A heap of blame and a dearth of dreams. Where are the dreamers? Where are the new dreams?
I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the political experiments of last century; every single human being is more valuable, more precious than any dream, regardless of how beautiful.
But let’s not stop dreaming. We live in an amazing world, we can cure diseases that were once fatal, we can (and do) produce enough food to feed our whole species (and yet some people in some parts of this world still starve to death), we can communicate with each other even though we are separated by thousands of miles, we have the tools at hand now to make life so much better for every single one of us. What’s stopping it from happening? Let the dreams begin again. Let them form the bedrock of a better world. But let’s never forget that no one individual is any less important or less precious than any other.
Come on dreamers. It’s time to dream big.