Trailing clouds of glory

•April 27, 2016 • Leave a Comment


[A found poem, which I’ve taken from an article by Jessica Irvine, ‘Men can multitask too so time for dad to do the laundry’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15/4/2016, p. 18. The article presents serious multitasking research by economists Gigi Foster and Charlene Kalenkoski. The title is a well-known quote from William Wordsworth’s romantic poem on childhood ‘Ode. Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, the original context being: “Trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”]

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Men are better able than women
To keep up their production
Of the household commodity
At times when the child commodity
Also needs to be produced.

Women did produce slightly higher
Baby happiness, but not
To a significant extent. Men,
By contrast, were better able
To plough on, keeping baby
Slightly less happy, but sorting
More laundry to maximise returns
Under the experiment conditions.

Why would women care more
About a crying baby? One answer
Is that women are biologically
Wired to want to care for infants.

A second is that women
Were more inclined to reject
The incentive structure of the study,
Feeling a higher value
Should be placed on care
For children over laundry.

Or perhaps women are
Socially conditioned to fear
The approbation of others
If they let a baby cry.

Whatever the reason,
The researchers found women
Were more likely to prioritise
Childcare over other domestic
Tasks, making them less
Productive in the multitasking
Environment created.

Do men make better wives?

That depends, say the researchers,
On what you think the primary
Role of a ‘wife’ is: to maximise
Their children’s happiness
At any cost, or to most
Efficiently juggle the competing
Goals of child and home care.

Obviously, a crying baby
Should never be ignored. But
It’s very difficult to know
The consequences of keeping
A baby at an average Level 4
Happiness as opposed to 3.9

Chernobyl: 30th Anniversary

•April 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Kiefer, Die sechste Posaune 1996

[Today is the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown disaster in 1986. I am re-posting these two essays dealing with my personal experience thereof while living in Germany. They were first posted here in May 2012 on the 26th anniversary. I wrote them mainly around the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl in 2006. They also include thoughts and grief work from 1986. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, over 212,000 people had died by 2006 as a result of the meltdown. Unless nuclear power and nuclear weapons are banned globally and participatory democracy instituted everywhere, the deadly anniversaries – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Sellafield, Kyshtym, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima etc – will go on far into the contaminated future. Such is nuclear power. Such are the reasons it must be eliminated along with nuclear weapons and climate-destroying fossil fuels. The painting is Anselm Kiefer’s ‘The Sixth Trumpet’.]

Chernobyl, Then and Now

At the beginning of the year 1986 Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies. Returning on a 76 year cycle, its last appearance had been in 1910, shortly after the birth of my father. Since this comet has been recorded since about 260 BCE, perhaps the apocalyptic vision in St John’s Revelations resonates with a certain historical experience:

And there fell a great star from heaven […]
And the name of the star is called Wormwood
And the third part of the waters became wormwood;
And many men died of the waters
Because they were made bitter.
– Revelations 8.

The stranger resonance, however, is that the Ukrainian word for the common bitter herb ‘wormwood’ (Artemisia absinthium) seems to be ‘chernobyl’…

As befits such a traditional augury , 1986 seems to have been a pivotal year. Both in human history and for me personally. In that year, according to Australian zoologist Tim Flannery, the roughly five and half billion individuals of humanity as a whole seem to have for the first time ‘overshot’ planetary carrying capacity, i.e. used more energy and resources and emitted more wastes than the planet can ecologically sustain. In that year both a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine and the soi-disant ‘communist’ system it was embedded in imploded, marking the possible end both of the dream of nuclear fission as a cheap source of infinite energy and the definite beginning of the end of the dream of state ‘socialism’ that had begun with the Russian Revolution. The end of the latter dream in 1991, in turn, marked the end both of the epoch of the Cold War since 1947 and of the ‘short twentieth century’ that had begun with the European mass enthusiasm for inter-imperial war in the summer of 1914.

On 26th April 1986 it all exploded. At Chernobyl in the Ukraine a nuclear reactor underwent meltdown.

‘Chernobyl’ was a loss of control of atomic fission. Something also breaks inside the psyche and there is a quite positive ‘loss of control’. Perhaps like most human crisis, ‘Chernobyl’ is thus a Janus-faced experience. It is both an utter catastrophe, and, strangely, simultaneously, a ‘terrible beauty is born’ (to use Yeats’ famous words from his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’). There is death, destruction, untold suffering in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. In Germany people scurry for shelter and powdered milk for their kids. And, for those few who can bear to allow it into consciousness: there is also the blinding, literally awe-ful realization of Oneness, Inter-Being, One Human Family. Like its wartime twin the atomic bomb , this is not just a memento mori but also a Buddha, a potential world-unifier. Its message is also: One World or None.

There is the fission of an inner rage released against the Powerful and this anger is empowering. There is a fatal fusing of the most personal and the most public. Power is perhaps first experienced, in my case, as the way a helpless child experiences the first contractions with no way out, or an early abandonment, a parental impingement or abuse, the radical isolation of an hospitalization, a surgical attack on its body. This Power serves to sever the child’s psychological bond to its mother figure, to its own fears and feelings, to itself. The Power of atomic fission is also a severing of all bonds, of bio-chemical bonds, chromosomal bonds, of social bonds. All these multi- and over-layered severances display the sheer Power of the masters, the decision makers. Yet this Power they invent and wield, like all external power-over, is one they can also never fully control. Despite all their PR bluff and bravura, they are always the Sorcerer’s apprentices. This Power is now contaminating our children for ever.

And yet the other Power in the experience of catastrophe is the one deep inside: the one of losing all inhibitions, of release from the privations of the merely private, of standing up and fighting back. There is a bomb in the stomach, in the heart, a dragon power, bursting an egg of light, rising from the depths like a terrible fish, like a black wind.

At the time of the catastrophe, our son Sascha was three and half years old. Infants and small children are always at increased risk from chemical or radioactive contaminants. The surge of energy released in me by the Chernobyl catastrophe resulted in various forms of public activism: anti-nuclear street theatre with students, the financing and making of a billboard near Hofheim station with a Ron Cobb Cartoon with a surprised man holding a portable TV plug in a moonscape sub-titled with the situationist slogan ‘Consume. Be silent. Die.’ (Konsumieren. Maulhalten. Verrecken.) . Two weeks after the news, on May 15, the first ever anti-nuclear demonstration was held in my small town of Hofheim am Taunus where I had been teaching and living with my wife for ten years. The organizers had been looking for a ‘concerned mother’ (betroffene Mutter) to hold one of the speeches at the rally. I offered my services as a ‘concerned father’. It was my first speech at a public event.

The speech concluded as follows:

‘What shall WE answer when our children ask us in 20 or 30 years about what we did against the obvious destruction of the planet? Shall we say:

– you know, it was all very complicated
– you know, there’s always two sides to the story
– you know, you couldn’t really do anything anyway
– you know, I would have only ruined myself trying
– you know, I had to feed a family
– you know, I couldn’t really relate to those fighting it all either
– you know, people simply didn’t really want to change things…

We have been warned. We are informed. We all know that things cannot continue going on this way without further big or small catastrophes. We know that there probably can no longer be any cheap escapes or denials that do not worsen the situation.

We know that this is probably in fact about beginning the process of the total transformation of industrial society. Transformation towards a society on a human and natural scale. A society of human and natural diversity in which children can again grow up in health. We are at a crossroads.

We have been warned. What will we do?’

We do little. I throw myself into Circus Atomare, the eight scene anti-atomic street theatre my student drama group and I quickly improvise together. I stand in queues for EU powdered milk for little Sascha, uncontaminated milk that was stored BC (Before Chernobyl). It then turns out that the milk is unusable because it contains salmonella bacteria. I attend a laughably small first demonstration of about 2000 people in Frankfurt at the beginning of May. In contrast to other demonstrations, most of the demonstrators seem as if they really don’t want to be there. It is as if many are walking in some kind of trance, like a hare caught mesmerized in the sudden headlights of an approaching car. Fight or flight. Many seem to have inwardly fled. The speeches are the usual political grandstanding and sectarian one-upmanship and not one speech is in any way really from the heart, angry, grief-stricken or inspiring.

For Chrissake! The anti-nuclear movement had been warning of precisely such a potential catastrophe for years, and when it finally does happen, it seems as if most ‘movement’ people would rather go home and pull their heads in…There is no real capitalizing on having been right and the enormous radioactive egg-on-the-face of our pro-nuclear opponents. The Green Party, although having Joshka Fischer as Environment Minister in the state of Hessia (the world’s first) and a new party presence in federal parliament, provides no inspiring leadership or activist guidance at all. A mere three years after their entry into federal parliament, and they are – with a few minor exceptions who soon leave ‒ already nothing but ‘politicians’. There are a few grassroots direct actions, there are soon also widespread attempts to saw down high voltage transmission lines to and from reactors. However, there is no national or coordinating leadership.

In my view, this was, as usual, a great opportunity missed. The general mood in the public and the egg-on-the-face condition of the pro-nuclear elites are such that, in the first two weeks after the disaster, massive sit-ins, camp-ins and non-violent blockades of nuclear reactors organized on a national scale could have quite easily shut down all of Germany’s twenty or so reactors. These two weeks are a psychological and moral fulcrum situation: everything hangs in the balance regarding the future of nuclear power. And no one grabs the initiative, no one ‘seizes the time’. I feel deeply disappointed with ‘the movement’, ‘the people’, the Greens, with ‘Germany’ and its supposed ‘advanced environmental consciousness’. On my initiative, my wife and I decide to emigrate to Australia, in my case: re-emigrate.

The opportunity for a radical popular questioning and halting of nuclear power missed, it is then with an almost audible sigh of relief that, about four or five weeks later, the corporate media, the political decision-makers and very many overwhelmed people simply turn away from the Chernobyl issue with a certain gusto. To the football World Cup in Mexico. After all, how can the question of the possible effects on our children and future generations of the slow release of the radioactive equivalent of 100 Hiroshima bombs over Europe and the northern hemisphere compete with the question of whether or not Diego Maradonna would be the key to Argentina’s winning the final against England? In the quarter finals Maradonna (whose name already subliminally invokes the divinity of the Madonna) fists the ball into the net. This notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal (as it is dubbed in the media) is of infinitely more interest than the symbolic ‘Hand of God’ and ‘writing on the wall’ that Chernobyl can be interpreted as representing.

‘Life must go on, you can’t live in doom and gloom for ever, let’s get our priorities right. We can’t change the system, let’s change the channel…’

In these weeks and months, I find it psychologically impossible to watch any ‘amusing-ourselves-to-death’ TV. Smiling girls dancing and inane ads stimulate feelings of nausea. On the dark background of Chernobyl, the shiny figure of the system stands out even more clearly than usual: this frantic perfect cool sexy glossy plastic surface of fun-capitalism just silently screams with sheer emptiness, manic boredom and unacknowledged despair.

In contrast, there is a strange process of ‘essentialising’, a sinking or settling down inside, as it were. Like after the death of a friend or family member. Rock gives way to classical music and I find myself being drawn to more silent things, to reading only soft silent works of mysticism, for example (like a new 17th century Spanish mystic I discover: Francisco de Orsuna, a contemporary of the more well known St John of the Cross). It provides some sort of balm, some soul-healing consolation. My own writing after Chernobyl, always in German, takes the form of an extended ‘grief work’. The emotions are raw, the intellect less abstract, more openly embodied in fear, anger, sadness, resolve. I write notes to myself, mini-lectures I never hold.

I nothing will change
unless we change.

II we shall not act
until we have understood
we understand nothing
until we act

III if you should suddenly
find yourself holding
a poisonous snake
you don’t first think about it
you don’t first consider
whether letting go has any chance of succeeding
whether it’s worth the effort
whether it really is poisonous
what you do instead
is to let go, at once

if you now don’t
from deep within
do everything you possibly can
to get rid of the snake, at once,
then you simply have not yet
completely and utterly
in every cell and fibre
in every whorl of your brain

(and that will then
simply have been it)
(12 June 1986)

In the grey wintry days of Christmas 1986 – seven months after Chernobyl, two months after the chemical mega-contamination and ecological almost-collapse of the Rhine River ‒ I engage in more explicit grief work, confession work, anger work, hope work.

Grief Work

Grieving is still allowed, I presume.
Grieving over the passing of our world in its present forms.
Grieving over the passing of humanity in its present form.

Pure air, pure water, pure food: abolished.
(Purity that gives strength).
Diverse species formed in wondrous evolutionary processes: decimated.
(Their ‘un-made’ beauty that gives strength).
Wilderness, untouched rivers, oceans, forests: massacred.
(The awe that empties, that fills)

The core trust in the truth of one’s own senses
In the self-evident goodness of sensory pleasure: destroyed.
And with that also, in fact, human identity
In its most basic form as a sensuous-grasping interaction
With the world: “No, child, no playing in the sand today,
And avoid the puddles!”

For I may continue to bite into the visually appealing apple. But the shadow of toxic knowledge, of Becquerel knowledge, can never again leave me. Even a decision to embrace a sensuous hedonism of conscious denial is now made on the background of such knowledge and thus often comes across as strained and despairing (‘Bugger it, gimme the venison, you only live once…’ etc). I might personally reject the paranoia of constant appraisal and consideration (‘health’, ‘life expectancy’, ‘cancer’…), but this paranoia is now objectively within things themselves (and I know that). Just the responsibility that one carries for one’s children, for example, compels one to such behaviour.

The apple that I now buy, like the commodity it also is, has become a ‘natural-supernatural thing’. And this in a more lethal sense than Marx’ political economy intended. Anyone previously insisting on the ‘supernatural’ aspect was always considered an other-worldly idiot. Now one may find oneself taking one’s weekly food Becquerel report along when one goes shopping. For in a way one’s immediate senses (which cannot feel radioactivity or chemical toxins) now lie while the ‘abstract senses’ of gaining information through the written word , the media etc. now reflect the (global) ‘truth’. One can thus no longer fully trust one’s own senses, they have been estranged from us, from above. We can thus no longer completely and trustingly throw ourselves into the arms of the world (‘with pleasure do I bite into this lead apple…’) We have as a result ‘lost our senses’, we are ‘beside ourselves’, we are, literally, crazy. We are thrown back onto our ‘knowledge’ that is not based on any direct experience, we are thrown back onto our columns of numbers and hypotheses. We have been made abstract, ‘scientific’. We can still lie at the breast of Mother Nature, but at the same time we know what terrible toxins have been intravenously dripped into her breast milk. “Between desire and act/ falls the shadow” (T.S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’).

And often enough all this happens so gradually (Chernobyl and the chemical contamination of the Rhine in November were only fast-forward effects of secular processes), so incrementally, that the patina of habit that dumbly accepts everything does not even allow us to see this as the crime it really is. If we can no longer pleasurably or completely and utterly affirm the world with our senses (i.e. touch, grasp, love it), then the formation of human identity has ended, at least in the present sense of the word ‘human’.

Grieving is still allowed, I presume.

However, even in 1986, the year of catastrophes, daily life goes on. As always. As always, it is the ‘little worries’ that occupy human consciousness. Evolution has simply not provided us with ‘global senses’ although we are now embedded in a ‘second nature’ made by humans. The problem now is simply that if we only notice the fact of our global interdependence when it ‘reaches’ us on an immediate, sensuous, level (as a tree or bomb on our head, as cancer in our bones, as an extensive collapse of ecosystems…), well then it is too late. According to post-Hiroshima philosopher Günther Anders, the problem is also that we can no longer personally imagine (vorstellen) what we socially and technologically produce (herstellen).

And yet everyone knows all this on some level of their being. Sometimes this knowledge comes as the (transient) shock of a manifest catastrophe (like Chernobyl etc. this year), more often it appears as the soft trickle of unease that runs through the fine hair-line cracks of daily busyness. The never really accepted unease regarding one’s knowledge about the unprecedented threat to all higher (?) life on this planet.

For it is generally accepted that humanity is suffering at all levels, and suffering ‘unnecessarily’, i.e. beyond the suffering given existentially with the human condition. This suffering is extremely unequally distributed. Everywhere parasitical minorities dominate over majorities and some (to which most of us belong) profit from the suffering of others. The materially wealthy nations profit from the conditions and dependencies in the materially poor nations which they have historically created. The industrial countries benefit in the short term from the exploitation of nature. The present generations (a small radical minority) in the materially wealthy industrial countries benefit from the temporal displacement of the negative effects of their global plunder onto future generations (the great majority that will curse us). Within the materially wealthy countries there is of course still an unequal distribution of suffering between richer and poorer strata and groups, even if this may be less or different to what it once was.

All levels of this threat to life would seem to be merging today to such an extent that the common notion of a ‘five- minutes-to-midnight’ situation would seem excessively optimistic or else working with a clock that is ten minutes slow. Sometimes one finds oneself ruminating about which of the global crises might first prompt the Great Collapse: –

Will a financial collapse brought about by the debt crisis lead the global economy into another Great Depression (and into another war as the systemic ‘solution’)? Or will one of the different possibilities of a global climate catastrophe (destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, desertification, shift of world climate zones…) create panic-filled mass migrations?

Will a larger region be contaminated for centuries by a total nuclear melt-down or will a computer error or crazy war strategies lead to an atomic holocaust and nuclear winter?

Will the totalitarian surveillance state come before or after the irreversible collapse of large ecosystems like forests or oceans?

Will new and/or drug-resistant viruses and epidemics rampage or will the chemical contamination of soils, air, water and food only gradually increase the cancer, allergy and death rates?

In short: will we go with a bang or just with a whimper (T.S. Eliot)?

(It is interesting to observe how such a list of catastrophes tires the mind. The adding up of possible horrors does not increase but rather decreases their psychological effect. They have become ‘super-liminal’ (Günther Anders). We are not under-, but rather over-informed. We are so over-informed that we can ‘no longer take it’. As a result, we would rather stay in the immediate realm of the senses that, however, now ‘lies’ by being filled with subliminal truth, the truth of death. Escape into the private cannot succeed and in fact itself produces what it wants to escape from, general catastrophe, even more quickly.)

Seven months later, my wife, four year old son and I emigrate to Australia. A year after that, in the winter of 88/89, we briefly return to Germany. I take photos. Even ten years later, looking at the photos, I discover the grieving has not ended.

And then it was twenty years later, 2006, and we seemed as far from understanding as in 1986. The Russian Academy of Sciences declared that 212,000 people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia had now died as a direct result of the Chernobyl meltdown. Mainly because of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns, cost pressures and the global mass movements against nuclear power in the 1970s and 80s, there had been low demand for new nuclear reactors and uranium. Now global ‘peak oil’ and climate chaos loomed on the horizon and there were two new rapidly emerging industrial and nuclear state empires clearly opting for the extended nuclear path: China and India. The masters decided that it was time to rub their now slightly dusty old bottle again and resuscitate the atomic genie. The revived main line of PR-spin was the old ‘clean’ energy myth: as a non-fossil fuel, nuclear energy would ‘help reduce’ the chaos of climate change.

In the propagation of this potentially lucrative myth, the nuclear industry and its client state were now also helped by a willing (although small) contingent of ‘mainstream’ (read: bourgeois) environmentalists. These included men like James Lovelock (scientist and originator of the Gaia-hypothesis), Sir Jonathan Porrit (ex-FOE, now environmental confidante of war criminal Tony Blair and thus knighted), Tim Flannery (zoologist and author of best-selling The Future Eaters, and recipient of pro-nuclear Prime Minister Howard’s ‘Australian of the Year’ award in 2006), – all basically taking the predictable (classically ‘social-democratic’) and socio-ecologically illiterate line that, given the horrors of climate change, nuclear energy was now the ‘lesser of two evils’.

If ever there was confirmation for Murray Bookchin’s radical 1970s distinction between social ‘ecology’ and systemically conformist ‘environmentalism’, this was it. The latter’s tunnel vision is by definition both ecologically and socially illiterate. With respect to the thesis that nuclear energy is a ‘clean energy’ able to help reduce climate change, the ecological facts are straightforward. It is not and cannot be. The central cognitive blinder and rhetorical trick is to equate the term ‘nuclear energy’ with the individual nuclear power station, rather than with whole nuclear cycle in which the latter is necessarily embedded. And the nuclear cycle is, of course, extremely carbon-intensive. It would simply collapse without massive fossil fuel subsidies at every stage. Mining uranium, transporting fuels and materials, building, servicing and decommissioning reactors, reprocessing and enrichment plants and waste dumps – all need vast amounts of oil and coal and thus produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide. Some studies have found that even gas-fired power stations emit less CO2 than nuclear reactors using low grade uranium.

Investing in nuclear energy thus means we jump from the carbon frying pan into the nuclear fire and get the worst of both worlds: not only a more radioactively contaminated world, but also a warmer and climatically chaotic one. It also means less or no capital available for investment in renewable energy and infrastructural transition to a low carbon society. It also means locking in continued energy-intensive centralisation and monopolisation of electric and economic-political power and business-as-usual, at least for a short while longer. And that is why it is being pursued, not because of any purported willingness to really tackle the ecological and social issues of climate chaos and peak oil. May the glowing ruins of Chernobyl, the thousands of victims and the millions of radioactively contaminated surviving generations be our living memory that activates us to pillory and attack the perpetrators of these lethal lies. The ways of forgetting are legion, even when the memory is invoked for thrill and profit:

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
Runs on: PC

[…] Set in 2012, it blends science fiction with the shocking events of the past to present a Chernobyl populated by mutant creatures and bizarre phenomena. The player assumes the role of a Stalker, a soldier-like mercenary sent into a 30 square kilometre ‘exclusion zone’ to remove artefacts for the government. The player must explore the abandoned facilities and eerie landscape, searching for items while fighting mutant animals and rival Stalkers. […] The developers visited Chernobyl to reproduce as much of the area as possible and the scale and attention to detail is remarkable. It is an appropriately unnerving wasteland. Players are offered more freedom to complete their goals than most first-person shooters and realistic enemy behaviour is promised. […]

Rejecting the inevitable criticism that the game is insensitive, Kiev-based developers GSC say their proximity to Chernobyl ensures that the tragedy still evokes much emotion among the team. They say they hope the game encourages people to reflect on the consequences of the disaster.

Marina Sitrin: The Lessons from Paris

•April 20, 2016 • 2 Comments

Banksy, Parking

[A great article on the amazing events happening in France which I am re-blogging from Zcomm. The article itself has some of the sense of the excitement of direct/participatory democracy in action, the spontaneous emergence of utopian energies, the joy of radical interaction (i.e. ‘politics’) between strangers, the increase in self-confidence and ability to speak out for people only expected to ‘consume-be silent-die’, the free spirit of sharing, the dancing and singing (and the meditation circles, the sheer youthful fun of potential non-violent revolution, the potential global ‘convergence of struggles’, that necessary global dialogue between activists that may lead to a new level of cohesion and coherence-within-diversity as we stumble blindly towards One World Consciousness, One democratic and cooperative World, that next step in human evolution…Like the Indignados and Occupy, feels a bit like May 68. The image is by Banksy of course.]

Marina Sitrin: Lessons from Paris
(Z Communications Daily Commentary)

“To celebrate and imagine together”
“To look at each other and smile”
“No parties, no barriers, no labels”
“Take Squares and rediscover hope”
Quotes taken from interviews in this film, done by the Nuit Debout TV group.

Thousands gather every evening in the Place de la République, and even more during the days and nights of the weekends. Assemblies are held every evening at 6pm, with a wide diversity of ages and social classes. The plaza begins to fill around 5pm with circles of people standing and sitting, talking under cardboard signs to identify the theme of their discussion, including groups such as: commission de l’economie, commission de l’education, facilitation, feminism, housing and ecology. Then, around 5:30pm high school students march in together, chanting and singing behind sheets painted with their school names. By assembly time there are always medical, legal, media, library and kitchen areas. And, somehow, as with every occupation I have witnessed, there is a meditation circle a few meters from the drummers. Everything is so wonderfully familiar, having participated in similar assemblies and plaza occupations, from New York to California, Athens to Thessaloniki, Madrid to Barcelona, Buenos Aires to Cordoba and on and on …

Paris is alive with democracy. Real democracy. Overflowing the plazas and streets. People speaking and hearing one another in assembly after assembly. Growing in number, geography and diversity. The movement that began first with High School students rebelling against the police killing of a student, and then mass resistance to a potential turning back of long held labor protections, spread to people speaking in plazas, trying to occupy them at night, being repressed, and coming back the next day, and the next, and the next. They are not a protest. They are creating something different. They are not making one demand – they are speaking to one another insisting on “real democracy”, meaning face to face discussions about their own lives and things that matter most to them. And when and if they do come up with demands, it will have been out of these sorts of discussions – decided horizontally and together. There are now dozens of plazas holding assemblies nightly in France alone. Many more dozens of similarly organized movements are springing up in other parts of Europe and Canada as I write.

Topics of discussion range, though most substantive conversations happen in the various commissions, and neighborhoods where more assemblies are springing up, and then are brought as report backs to the general assembly. After only two weeks the assembly decided that consensus, while appealing in so many ways, was not working and moved to a combined form of voting with consensus. Learning through practice and together with people from other movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and the 15M who are also there in the Plazas, to support and share experiences. (For a more complete history of the movement and day to day activities, read Maris Holmes’s article. She is one of Occupy Wall Street initiators and is currently in Paris.)

So many things are consistent in Paris with the other movements for real democracy, from the importance of the face to face discussions, the exclusion of political parties, the striving for horizontal relationships, the breaking down of hierarchy and the care of and for one another as much as possible – even if only in those hours of togetherness. And of course the contagion of the hand signals to make one’s feelings known in a mass crowd, such as the twinkling of fingers in the air for agreement or the crossing of one’s arms in the air to show dissent. The Feminist Commission has added a new sign, reflecting the evolution of the movements, which is two fists meeting above one’s head to call out a sexist remark.

I have spoken with movement participants in many places throughout the world, and almost all, from Spain and the US, to Turkey, Greece and Argentina, reflected upon how they feel different now, more confident and with more affection for others, since participating in the movement. Something different happens when in assemblies with others, listening to what strangers have to say, and taking care of each other. The fact that every occupation moment insists on having food for those in need, basic medical and legal support, as well as space to just be quiet, meditate, or to go to help have conflicts with others resolved with mediation, reflects the seriousness in which the movements are taking relationships to one another now. And of course there is the joy – the music, songs, and dancing that manifest this joy at a new found togetherness. I joked earlier about the drumming in every plaza around the world, but it is a space where people can be free to move and feel. Drumming can be a release of so many deep sentiments, as well as can create feelings of togetherness and well being. In Paris people shared how they are smiling at one another more – while in the US people spoke of all the hugs that would happen in greetings, and in Argentina the language of affect, care and love predominated.

The Movements of the Squares – or Real Democracy Movements – that began in late 2010 are in no way ending – they are moving, popping up again and again around the globe as they change form, as they will continue to do. Movements are not linear. Movements move, have ebbs and flows. The movements in Paris may continue to spread and grow until there is popular power and rule from below. Or they may dissipate from the plazas, relocating, into other spheres of life – perhaps to come back again even larger and more grounded in different neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. Or some combination of both of these. Or not. The future is yet determined.

So what does that mean for us now in places where mass assemblies are not yet taking off – or are not taking off again right now?
I was a part of was drafting “Some Possible Ideas for Going Forward” a call for conversations on what a people’s agenda might look like. Rather than discussing and responding to what others say they will do – or not do – for us, we ask what we want and how we could make it happen. In the document we use the language of program, not in the sense of political party platform, but as a possible plan for collective action. The intention is to spark conversations – ideally in person – face to face – in assemblies. There are many signers to the document, with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. The intention is a diversity of positions. Mine is that of direct democracy and the formation of local and regional assemblies.

The document is organized thematically, with issues such as gender, health, education, race, housing etc. Themes not dissimilar from the work commissions in Paris or working groups from Occupy and the 15M. Why not organize a conversation with a few people at lunch? At your university? In a plaza or square? We don’t have to start with the expectation that we will launch a Nuit Debout, 15 M or Occupy Wall Street for that matter. We just have to start talking to one another about our agenda, and doing so face to face, while using technology carefully. Many people are already doing this of course – this is a call to continue the conversations, deepen them and think together towards a future where we have a more coordinated concept of what we want and how we might make it happen.

Imagine if before Occupy or Nuit Debout informal and formal groups as well as neighborhoods and students groupings had already come to loose agreements on a number of things, such as, for example, the right to housing and importance of taking over empty buildings to make it real. Or using the example of the autonomous Solidarity Health Clinics in Greece, people decided that we should create free health care in a way that also reimagines the meaning of health and care. Then, with that base of agreement, the commissions and working groups might have concrete proposals or actions that could take place almost immediately. This is the sort of thing that I imagine with this document – people coming together to think about what is important to us and how we might make it happen – even if not right now, laying the groundwork for future possibilities. And hundreds of thousands in plazas around a country or region of the world is a very real possibility for action on those things upon which we agree.

I am confident there will be more occupations of public spaces and assemblies. Until we live in a real democracy, it is up to us to create these spaces – and we will. What if next time we had more preparation? More conversations about those things we have in common – those things that are most important to us? Could we move faster? The taking over of schools and workplaces? Here I am imagining the Spanish Revolution of the early 1930s and how it was able to move much faster than it’s revolutionary counterparts precisely because people had been organizing and talking together for years about what they wanted and how they might make it a reality. Taking over land and running it in common, and even taking over banks was less of a debate, as it had a general consensus in the discussions in the prior years.
From the Nuit Debout page at the moment of writing this (April 16, 6pm Paris time):

We are more than 100,000 people on this page. We are in 150 cities, ‪#‎partoutdebout, in France and dozens of cities around the world. We are also ‪#‎banlieuesdebout, ‪#‎artistesdebout and many other things! We are 100,000 and soon we will be millions — in the process of creating a new force that will displace the old world.

(Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer, militant and dreamer. She is the author of Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism & Autonomy in Argentina (Zed, 2012) and co-author, with Dario Azzellini, of They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (Verso, 2014).

Legalising Euthanasia: Compassion or Consumerism?

•April 18, 2016 • Leave a Comment


[My second attempt to grapple with, and provide counter-arguments to, the pro-euthanasia arguments. These are gaining increasing traction here in Australia at the moment, and it will probably only be a matter of time before this highly ambiguous ‘progress’ (legalisation of some form of voluntary euthanasia) also happens here. Majorities in Australia and most advanced industrial countries and almost all progressives support legalising voluntary euthanasia/assisted suicide, leaving counter-arguments mostly to the traditional religious faiths and many, if not most, in the medical professions. It’s quite ‘uncool’ to be against it. Readers of my blog will know that I am neither a medico nor a member of any religion, and that my approach to most social, political and spiritual matters is openly or tacitly informed by critical/radical social theory and radical/transcultural mysticism. I fear increasing ‘spiritual flatland’. At my age of course, questions of death and dying become ever more central, so apologies to all my younger readers understandably usually not interested in such matters. I took the photo in an aged-care home.]

Legalising Voluntary Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide – Compassion and/or Consumerism?

Das Altern ist ein stufenweises Zurücktreten aus der Erscheinung.
(Ageing is a step-by-step withdrawal from appearance.)
– Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen No. 1345

A Good Death, a Good Life

‘Euthanasia’, from the Greek, means a ‘good death’. Opinions of course diverge over what is ‘good’ and what is not. The reason this issue cuts so deeply is because it automatically reveals one’s opinions, or tacit assumptions, about a ‘good life’ and a ‘good society’, and these, in turn, are inherently based on one’s deepest beliefs or tacit assumptions about the meaning of life, one’s true identity, about body, soul and spirit. Let us try and unpack this thesis a little.


Before divergences of opinion open up about legalising voluntary euthanasia in Australia, it may be useful both to acknowledge the compassionate motivations of both pro and con positions and to delimit the area of consensus that most people on both sides of the argument would probably share.

My understanding is that most participants in this dialogue would agree that (a) involuntary euthanasia is to be emphatically rejected, (b) ‘passive euthanasia’ is acceptable where someone has stated that they desire it (as currently practised), (c) unnecessary, overwhelming pain is to be alleviated (e.g. as palliative sedation, as also usually currently practised), (d) given a justified fear of dying in institutional loneliness and isolation, palliative, hospice and home-dying support services should be better funded and improved, (e) suicide prevention services should be better funded and improved, (f) no doctor or carer against voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide should be legally obliged to directly or indirectly (e.g. via referral) engage in the practice.

Beyond these six points of possible consensus, I would ask voluntary euthanasia advocates whether they might also agree to two further exclusions from any possible legalisation, namely that there be no legal voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide for (i) children, and (ii) people suffering from psychological crises (including anxiety, depression or aggravated grieving)?

The Pro Position: Compassion, Free Choice, Dignity

The expressed motivation of voluntary euthanasia advocates is a compassion with the pain and suffering that the dying or terminally ill may experience. The wish is often expressed that the dying should end life in dignity, and this is usually linked both with an elimination or minimisation of physical pain and the fact that the time and form of the dying should ideally be a matter of rational, independent choice. Three statements often made by voluntary euthanasia advocates would seem to encapsulate these notions:

(a) ‘I would not let my dog die suffering like that, so why humans?’

(b) ‘I’ve spent a lifetime choosing my job, my car, my hobby, my holiday, so why can’t I choose the method of my last journey?’

(c) ‘I saw my parent lose their memory/become incontinent/have falls/become dependent on the care of others/commit suicide in a violent way… and I know that is not how they would have wanted to die.’

Hidden Assumptions

Let us try and unpack some of the hidden assumptions in these commonly expressed opinions.

Ad (a) The Dog Compassion Argument

The tacit assumption made here is that humans are nothing more than animals (bio-equality), that killing a human (or assisting them to kill themselves) is the same as killing a dog.

If this notion of bio-equality is accepted, then, logically, the moral equality of beings should be expandable downwards: killing a fly is the same as killing a dog, killing a carrot the same as killing a fly. The people shooting rabbits or working in an abattoir killing cattle to help feed people will then be just as morally culpable and criminal as those working the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

I disagree with this assumption. Although one can agree that all life is, in the deepest, mystical sense, sacred (and thus equal in ‘ultimate value’ in that deepest sense), I would argue that in this world we live in we cannot live responsibly without some sort of moral hierarchy of value we apportion to beings. When further unpacked, we will probably find that this hierarchy of value is based on some notion of evolved depth of interiority and inclusiveness. Just as molecules include atoms but atoms do not include molecules or cells include molecules but molecules do not include cells, we humans include elements of carrots, flies and dogs but they do not include the evolved, truly human elements of us; we are thus ‘richer’ in the sense that we have more evolved interiority, reflexivity, and more inclusiveness.

Except for some few animal rights extremists, I think this is intuitively or consciously felt by most people, whatever their attitude to euthanasia. For example, a woman suffering from intermittent dementia whose husband later killed, or involuntarily ‘euthanised’, her with an overdose of sleeping tablets because he personally judged her life no longer worth living, stated her shocked realisation of his intention as: ‘he wants to have me put down like a dog.’ (N. Barrowclough, ‘Till death do us part’, SMH Good Weekend, 2/4/2016)

Ad (b) The Free Choice Argument

The tacit assumption here is that my dying is a thing, an external event, a possession I want to be able to choose, manipulate, consume, control like my jobs, cars etc., like all my other possessions and items of consumption.

The speaker voicing this opinion (who happens to be the euthanizing husband mentioned above) will believe this opinion to be their very ‘own’ and just ‘common sense’. They will not be aware that this opinion is certainly not ‘common sense’ in other cultures, and carries hidden assumptions deeply rooted in our particular society and culture. Indeed, when looked at from ‘above’, one could argue that in this case it almost seems as if modern consumer society and its core assumptions might be speaking almost directly through the mind of an individual closely adapted to its norms. It is the increasingly widespread rationality of ‘possessive individualism’ taken to its limit in the neoliberal age of totalised consumerism. It is a cultural construct and social identity formation that only arose in western Europe around five hundred years ago as an expression of the rising bourgeoisie and is now globalizing as the last countries are industrialized.

Death and dying, once the ultimate ‘other’, a spiritual challenge, journey or mystery beyond anyone’s ego control, has now been reduced to a mainly physical event, an ultimate commodity and possession, and the right to choose, possess and control it is, like shopping, seen as a ‘freedom’ and ‘human right’.

This could be interpreted as the western (Cartesian) ‘ego ghost’, in fear of dying, trying to stop, or techno-medically ‘buy’ its way out of, the ‘body machine’ it feels simultaneously separate from and trapped within, as it runs down. It wants to possess, control, consume death like a thing. If there is any truth in this interpretation, can there really be talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘freedom of choice’ if, whether acknowledged or not, it is a deep fear that is actually driving the choice? If death and dying is externally, scientistically defined as mainly a physical or medical problem or crisis, then in western consumerist thinking there must be some suicide pill or machine to ‘fix it for me’. Thus another existential, internal, challenge given with simply being human is turned into just another external, techno-medical issue.

This attitude is also very ‘male’ or ‘masculinist’ in the sense of an interventionist, hard-nosed feeling of agency and ‘independence’ divorced from all relationship, interaction or communion with others, body and nature, the often feared soft, organic female aspect of life. As a male I am often socialized to demonstrate that I am ‘independent’ and ‘free’, ‘strong’ and ‘competitive’, by controlling my life, body and softer (‘feminine’) emotions like I control my various tools and machines. Many women, industrially and post-industrially ‘liberated’ into an economistic and competitive, form of equality, have now also internalised this masculinist form of agency and identity to a large degree.

Ad (c) The Dying with Dignity Argument

The tacit assumption here is that external surface events or facts are the same as internal ones, that one should somehow equate the sometimes ‘messy’ surface phenomena of dying and suffering with the deeper interior processes going on within those dying or suffering. This equation in turn probably presupposes that the latter processes (in the past equated with notions like ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’) do not really exist, i.e. that the person consists mainly of surface appearance.

To watch loved ones becoming demented, incontinent, depressed, killing themselves or dying painfully is often to be indeed overwhelmed with complex, painful feelings of various kinds, not least of which may be a deep sense of helplessness. There may perhaps even be an unconscious feeling of fear of something like this happening to oneself, of one’s ‘losing control’, one’s ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’.

In manic flight from this sense of helplessness, seeking greater inner stability and some sense of control and agency, one may very easily then project these painful feelings onto one’s loved ones and view them as losing something we circumscribe with the powerfully emotive word ‘dignity’. One may have a certain preconception of how dying SHOULD happen, and this preconception will be linked to many other complex ideas, feelings, surface impressions and images rather than to internal processes and meaning-making.

It could be said that at this precise point, caught up in a welter of ideas and painful feelings, one will most likely be blocked from relating to the actual and interior process of the loved one’s dying. One will no longer be actively listening, no longer really in dialogue, no longer empathically relating to one’s loved ones and trying to lovingly understand what they may be experiencing within themselves, even possibly sensitively aiding our loved ones in this process and growing ourselves in compassion and understanding. Instead, one is looking at them from the outside like a scientist, i.e. externally, monologically, as objects, as surfaces without interiority, and through a filter of various surface preconceptions like ‘dignity’, ‘control, ‘independence’. This may also be because this is how one mostly tends to look at oneself and others.

Neither the Scientific World View nor Consumerism include Values like Dignity and Compassion

The common denominator of the above attitudes is that of an externalised, physicalized, quasi-scientific view of suffering, death and dying. The role of science, however, is to reduce or banish suffering, not to ‘suffer-with’, i.e. have com-passion. Of course an individual scientist may, and usually will, feel compassion, but he does this as a human being, not as a scientist. Science is quantitative, based on measurement, external physical facts, data, surface behaviour, i.e. on the absence of qualities, values, subjective and intersubjective meaning-making, interiority, soul. Psycho-spiritually, science thus, necessarily, marks out a spiritual ‘flatland’ (Ken Wilber).

In the historical process of industrialisation, modernisation and secularisation, this externalising, objectifying, scientific attitude and corresponding spiritual flatland has increasingly become internalised and thus the cultural norm in advanced industrial countries. Many today see themselves as consisting mainly of physical organs, chemical processes and self-images, i.e. as objects, external surfaces without interiority or transcendence. These surfaces need to be monitored and maintained like machines (= ‘health’); they need to conform to conventional norms and standards of ‘beauty’ or ‘wellness’ as set by the profit-driven entertainment and culture industries.

The key (adolescent) values which are predominant here are ‘youthfulness’, ‘freshness’, ‘novelty’ as these are expressed in the planned obsolescence and commodity and fashion cycles needed to keep capitalism stable, i.e. economic growth going and the crises of underconsumption/overproduction minimised. If a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ is still believed in at all it is more in a reduced form as a psychological ego or self which is also felt as a part of external achieving and competing or in the other-directedness of gaining status or being liked.

Such other-directed values are the extrinsic values of marketing, economic exchange, money, the commodity, i.e. the alluring surface values of things that are bought and sold, their reified voices crying out everywhere not just from totalized advertising and celebrity industries but now also from the democratized self-image-marketing occurring in ‘social media’ and the cosmetic surgery and ‘wellness’ industries: ‘come buy me, and you will fulfil all your desires for status, beauty, youthfulness, sex, freedom, escape etc.’ The cultural norm is now increasingly that one works on one’s image, external surface, status updating, saleability, not on one’s interior development, understanding, compassion, mind-heart expansion. Beginning with post-war consumerism and the ‘other-directed lonely crowds’ (David Riesman) and ‘marketing characters’ (Erich Fromm) of the first TV generations, total digitalisation has now made this the increasingly prevalent worldview and mental ‘worldspace’.

Ageing, death and dying are of course the ultimate challenge to this worldview. How messy, how painful ageing and dying can be, that slow or rapid ‘withdrawal from appearance’ (Goethe), that destruction of all self-images cultivated over a lifetime, of all those bodily and psychological surfaces we were usually totally identified with in our busy, active, goal-directed, often love-and attention-seeking lives. Given the immense cultural and psychological hold that such identifications have over us, it is not surprising that even here we may seek to hold on to and maintain our image, our status, our internalised social roles, our supposed personal ‘uniqueness’, considering all these as core components of our real identities.

Even here, in an attempt to defend against the deep fear of these apparent losses, we may – in a classic Freudian defence mechanism ‒ seek to ‘flee forwards’, to ‘technically’ manage and control the process of ageing and dying as if these were merely external events, a destruction of mere surfaces. And the only way we think we can do this is by techno-medical attack and pre-emption, by putting an end to our external surfaces, our bodies, by radically intervening in the organic-spiritual process: by popping a pill and legalizing and normalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Who Dies?

Yet WHO is here attempting to manage, control, intervene, curtail, put an end to whom or what? And WHO is dying? Is it not, fearing its own end, the self-image itself?

As in other key stages in our growth and development from conception to adulthood, is not the psycho-physical process or struggle of the ageing and dying perhaps also the complex, volatile process of letting go of the previous body- and self-image, of dis-identifying with it, of now, finally, opening up to our true identity, to what we really may be beyond appearances, beyond the body-self-image, the internalised social role? And would not that opening-up to the as yet unknown and mysterious (or ‘forgotten’) also be a form of deep love, of dignity, of compassion with oneself or, as active listening and dialogue, with those loved ones involved in the last process and struggle?

From such a non-objectifying, existential and interior view of living and dying, is not the real form of ‘dying in dignity’, of compassion with the dying, not to provide the means of killing or suicide but rather the means of support, pain alleviation, care, openness, listening and compassion that all will need as they struggle and come to terms with this last great human challenge and opportunity?

Silent Hope Triptych

•April 13, 2016 • 2 Comments


[Was asked to produce something for a local Amnesty International group fundraising exhibition and auction and given the tripartite white board with two prison-cell-like bars, plus the notion of ‘hope’. Came up with this collage of three concrete poems, using ten words. Dedicated to all political prisoners everywhere. Contextual notions: ‘Hope is deeper than optimism’ (Vaclav Havel). ‘The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao’ (Lao Tzu). ‘Poetry opens mind prisons’ (PL-N)]


•April 12, 2016 • 10 Comments


[The ephemeral rock painting was done by sea snails, the photo and poem by what I usually call ‘me’.]


In the sky a thumbprint of cirrus
on blue glass offset with
wispy combs and feathers

the surging ocean membrane
all chopped egg-white
effervescence, a wet Dharma
or spitting image
of a topological brain scan
while reading a poem

silhouetted Norfolk pines
on a back-lit ridge,
all the same and different,
stand sentinel in the salt air
that ebbs and booms
with wavespeak, sonority
of invisible depth
always on the verge
of breaking through
membrane mind

the black rocks flow
down to the sea in curved,
pocked patterns silent
as explosions sedimented
in some slow god’s
meditating mind

see how the rock pools are full
of glistening green necklaces
swaying under golden sky
ripples of liquid glass clear
as a child’s unquestioning eye


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers