Tag Archives: protest

Radical Ancestors

I’ve been reading about the history of radical faith and politics in the UK. It’s part of the research for the next book, which is not about the history of radical politics or this kind of religion, but that’s a whole other story. However, some things have struck me.

From the first radical noises in the 1200s, the first rebellions that I’ve read about, people have been protesting about the way in which money and power collect into the hands of the few who then control the law so that the money and power remain in their control. While we’ve come a fair way from feudal times (it’s your Count that votes!) I read this stuff and I realise we are having all the same arguments today. All the ‘takeover’ protests, all the troubles with bankers, and the way in which the very poor are being made, all over the world, to pay for the indulgencies and gambling of the very rich.

The history of radical politics fills me with despair, because it is so obvious that the same essential battle has been going on for centuries, and we still have power and wealth in the hands of the very few. Quality of life, life expectancy, and personal freedoms have all advanced on where they were for the early radicals, but compared to how things could be… we are living in the dark ages still. I also despair because of the ease with which the radicals of history sometimes turned tyrants themselves. The history of violence inherent in the history of protest is not anything to be proud of. Radical history has no shortage of figures who were in it for their own gain, recent history too. If we tear down the king in order to be king ourselves, we are no different from what went before, no matter what we spouted along the way.

At the same time, radical history also awes me. There were plenty of people who gave up comfort to campaign for rights. There were people who endured imprisonment, barbarous physical punishments and death in trying to improve things. I do not honestly think I would have the courage to stand by any belief all the way to the scaffold or the stake. We have at least made enough progress in the UK that being a radical is not automatically a means of courting death, but there are still countries where you can die for daring to defy oppression and tyranny. There are still people brave enough to give their lives in the hopes of making a difference. The heroism inherent in such sacrifice deserves far more recognition than it gets.

In the midst of this, I also feel hope. Wherever there have been wrongs in the world, there has always been some small, courageous voice raised against them. I feel concern because I have no doubt that many people with repressive, controlling, diminishing ideals for the rest of humanity think that they are bravely speaking up for the common good. There are people who are determined to feel spiritually, or psychologically harmed by what others do. Even if they aren’t present, directly affected, or even able to see it. The idea that someone is having gay sex, being a pagan, letting their women drive cars… is so offensive to some people that they would have no problem answering ‘an it harm none’ with the assertion that they are indeed being harmed and must protect themselves from the horror. While anyone believes they have the right (god given or otherwise) to control other human beings, in this way, we are going to have problems.

Reading about the tradition of crazy prophet women from the 1600s, writing illegal pamphlets touting ideas the elite didn’t want to hear… I think yes, this is something I belong to, just a bit. I watch the discourse across blogs, and it’s not so very different from the way people used to carry out arguments through pamphlets. Just a bit quicker, and sometimes with better spelling.

Historically, radicals have not tended to get what they want up front. It takes time to turn an insane heresy into an idea everyone can embrace. The transition from slave trading to the abolishment of it, was not rapid. Civil rights movements take time. They have to build support and belief, convince the mainstream that ‘normal’ does not mean ‘right’ and establish a whole new way of viewing the world before they take hold and themselves become ‘normal’. Every battle for human rights, freedom of expression, the equal valuing of all human life, has been slow won. But we do win more of them than not, eventually. So long as there are voices of dissent and people willing to question, there is hope.

Social fairness and the resistance of power is as much an issue as it ever was. We aren’t fighting over Biblical interpretations so much these days. The new heresies have everything to do with issues of climate change and human responsibility. The kind of radicals I’m interested in are talking radical compassion, radical resource redistribution, radical revaluing. The greatest dangers lie in thinking it’s all fine, and that we can sit back and trust that our freedoms and rights are safeguarded. Ask who has power over you, and ask what is done in your name, without your consent. One piece of repressive legislation is all it would take to turn most of us into criminals, or victims, or both.

French Revolution

Food prices in France are so high that protestors are taking direct action. (Radio 4 have been reporting on this a lot so no doubt www.bbc.co.uk has more info if you want to look it up). The protestors resent the profits made by supermarkets at the expense of both their employees and those buying from them. I heard over the weekend that basics – meat and pasta were the cited examples – are now prohibitively expensive. Protestors are going into supermarkets and giving away food to people. They have not been arrested at time of writing, because of a law dating back to Napoleon that entitles shoppers to try before they buy.

All of our food production depends on oil. Agriculture involves tractors. Everything in the supermarkets is moved around by lorry at the very least. Fuel prices impact on food prices, directly. Taxes on fuel increase food prices. In the UK, value added tax adds to the burden of cost. While I am no fan of anything that encourages profligate use of fossil fuels, the increasing difficulty for poor people to eat well, is alarming. In Western cities there are food banks for those who cannot afford to buy food, and hunger is a genuine issue. This is both shocking and inexcusable, especially when you consider how much food our societies routinely throw away needlessly.

In Somalia, there is famine. I gather that the western enthusiasm for quinoa as a foodstuff means that in its south American countries of origin, the price of this essential foodstuff has been raised such that poor people can no longer afford it.

A big part of the problem is that food production is an industry. We leave it to ‘market forces’ to sort everything out, held internationally by the insane belief that markets are somehow a fair and reasonable way of solving everything. It all comes down to supply and demand, right? Except that it doesn’t. Markets are all about short term profit. They aren’t a system that’s going to plan for long term problem solving, or dealing with the challenges of climate change. Currently food supply is part of the problem, not the solution. Market forces will not show compassion to the starving, or help people in France who can no longer afford pasta.

Most of our food, in Europe, is not produced locally. Where we source from developing countries, we still pay them far too little, for all that the fair trade movement has tried to improve this. Supermarkets squeeze domestic producers so that they are barely viable. Farming in the UK is not in a good way. The profits go to the companies and their shareholders, and the big supermarkets make a lot of money. They do it on everyone else’s backs. We’ve been seduced by their apparent convenience, we’ve forsaken the small, local shops and the local producers, stripping essential services out of rural communities along the way. We just get in our cars and drive to the supermarket. Lo and behold, they now have a strangle hold on the food market, we depend on them, the alternatives have all but vanished in many places, we have to drive to them and the prices of food have risen dramatically in the last few years.

This is a situation that we, and our immediate ancestors, have all helped to create, and if we want to change it, we are going to have to do that collectively as well. If the price on fuel came down, food prices might go down too. Might. Do we think the supermarkets will keep a little extra for themselves? I think we can assume they would, in such circumstances. Perhaps the French protestors have the right answer. I’ve no idea what would happen to anyone trying to do that in the UK.

If you want to protest, if you want to do your revolutionary bit, buy something, anything, from somewhere other than a supermarket. Often there are frighteningly few options, but if you can get a thing, anything, straight from the producer, do it.