Thursday 29 September 2011

News from Nowhere 2

Well, I'm back.* I spent two weeks on a tiny, beautiful ship, pitching and tossing in the middle of the high Arctic. I met a polar bear, a whale, some reindeer, several fat seals, an arctic fox, many drunk Russians, a statue of Lenin, and a very dear and well-meaning collection of British academics, activists and journalists all of whom, after three days throwing up at sea, found ourselves rather unsure what we were doing standing on a bare mud island underneath a collapsing glacier, four thousand and three miles from Islington, shovelling nine tons of rocks into plastic sacks. You can read more about the journey on the NowhereIsland website, or in a longer writeup I'm working on.

Did I find Utopia? Well, your mileage may vary. My darling Pierce Penniless wrote me a beautiful letter which he's turned into a blog post here, and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on what I experienced, crammed on a ship trying to teach everyone consensus decision-making whilst we held down our lunches as the Noorderlicht dived through the waves, trying to group-write a theoretical constitution for a speculative nation.

I had, I admit, arrived with pre-conceptions about my shipmates, especially when I turned up at Heathrow on the 10th of September to find that every single one of us was white and middle-class. As we discussed our ideal society on the lower deck over delicious snacks served to us by an accommodating Dutch crew, it really did feel like the last colony ship off a burning planet - like we were the chosen, special ones strapped to a cosy life-shuttle, looking for a new world at the touching point of symbol and substance. This, surely, is how the privileged will experience the end times.

However, you can't spend two weeks on a boat with twenty strangers without realising that nobody is quite the class cliche you'd like them to be. Against my instincts, I found myself becoming more and more committed to our airy Utopia, as we talked and talked and talked about what this NowhereIsland society might look like. Well, it was that or lie in my bunk listening to Kanye West for a fortnight, trying not to vomit bits of ship's pasta out the window onto an iceberg.

For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation. I discovered, gradually, that just because people are fortunate and insulated doesn't mean that they can't have good, brave and noble instincts that are worth hearing. I discovered that the world is full of bright, decent people doing important, beautiful things, and because of that, it might not be too late to build a better one. I also discovered that Geography professors CAN dance to dubstep. On the latter point, sorry Tim, there's video evidence.

Of all the myriad problems with the Nowhere Island project, the press have inevitably focused on the most anodine and inconsequential: the money. The main criticism, raised by commentators from the Guardian to 'Lucy, 26' on page 3 of The Sun, was that the project is expensive: half a million of dedicated Arts Council funding over several years. This is paying for construction costs, transporting the island material from Svalbard, travel funding, publicity, building a website which involves thousands of people in an accessible philosophy project about citizenship and the failures of nation-states to solve financial and ecological disaster, and employing an entire staff team for two years. Given that there are many other projects receiving the same non-transferrable funding as part of the Cultural Olympiad, one of which is apparently a set of giant crocheted lions, attacking Nowhere Island on the basis of cost to the taxpayer might seem a little snippy - but in the end, it's an argument that, if you choose to engage with it, can't be won. Of course a speculative Utopia involving lots of schools projects is better than a crocheted lion, but so is re-employing twenty nurses, or stopping a library from being closed down.

Is this it, though? Is this what human progress has come to? Fighting over the scraps of money left as the markets crumble? If we're going to argue the balance, the money being spent on replenishing nuclear weapons stocks and subsidising the Royal Bank of Scotland is wasted far more massively and comprehensively than the money being spent on the Cultural Olympiad. This, however, is about something more important. I believe in art, and folly, and dreams. I believe that if we can't collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress. The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.

For me, I found something up there, in the cold and clean and quiet, something I'm struggling to unpack, along with two weeks of dirty washing, bits of rock and memories. It was something between an epiphany and a sense of perspective, something between a manifesto and a dream, and it's hard to put into words, and for the rest of my life I'll feel lucky for having been invited to see NowhereIsland. We went looking for Utopia. What we found was each other. What else do dreamers do?

*Yes, it IS a LOTR Reference. Well done you. Well done US. *geekbiscuits*.

Saturday 10 September 2011

News from Nowhere

I've left London, and I am sailing to a new island that has appeared out of the ice in the Arctic circle. No, this is not a prank. I've been invited along with an eclectic collection of academics, artists, lawyers, activists, sixth-formers and scientists to sail to this small pitch of land, which has been named NowhereIsland, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Right now, I'm in Oslo, and tomorrow we travel to Svalbard, where we will board a ship, the Noorderlicht, which will take us to the island, where those of us who went to fee-paying schools will be devoured by bears.

Along the way, we're supposed to debate and discuss how to build a conceptual new nation, a model society in the wreck of late capitalism. There is a chance, given how many Guardian readers we seem to have on this trip, that we may just all turn pirate and start raiding the coastal towns of Norway and Finland and looting all the humous and complicated jam. Presuming we make it, however, we will have weeks stuck on a boat to debate utopianism, anarchism, feminism and environmental activism and try to avoid one another's eyes in the communal showers.

Anyone can become a citizen of Nowhere Island, just by signing up here. In fact, NowhereIsland already has more citizens than Vatican City* and we may soon outnumber Monaco, although you can't reroute your tax through Nowhere Island, because in this new nation the common wealth of humanity will be held above the pursuit of profit. Also, there isn't a bank.

I signed up for this journey because I was thoroughly enamoured with the possibility of going to the Polar circle, and by the human experiment of being crammed on a tiny ship with twenty strangers and no internet access for two weeks, a sort of Big Brother as imagined by Ian McEwan. As I've become more involved in the project, however, I've come to realise what a mad, brilliant idea it really is, and so, I need your help. I'd like you to write, in the comments here or in an email to me, and share your idea of Utopia - Nowhere, in Greek - of an ideal society, whatever that means to you. I don't care if your vision of Utopia is a zero-carbon society, a neo-libertarian dystopia, a world without gender, or a fantasy theocracy where everyone worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and matters of state are decided by competitive playoffs of Dance Dance Revolution . It can be as detailed as you like, or just a few lines. I'll be keeping a travel diary of this mad, weird fortnight and will post as and when I have web access, which will depend entirely on the satellite service. And the bears.

*and not ALL of them are Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. :S

Monday 5 September 2011

One sunny September day: the EDL march in London

A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.

It's unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.

As marches go -- and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march -- this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.

At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.

By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.

Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Moseley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren't wearing any shirts at all.

They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.

Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone's memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.

Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.

The EDL claim to be opposed only to the "threat" posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.

"Scum, scum, scum, scum!" yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face [read the rest at New Statesman online].