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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Civilisation is an excessive protrusion from the ground of imagination that appears as advancement and progress. Modernity forms the peak of this protrusion pushing ever outwards, from the inside; so called post-modernity observes from the outside, critiquing the shape and source of the protrusion.

The sun is an appropriate simile for the ground of imagination – a flux of infinite potential, the source of imaginative power from which realities emerge. This ground of imagination suggests that any reality, or truth, is merely one of an infinite number of possibilities. Civilisation(s) can be imagined as a solar flare extending from the sun, rising from the imagiantive flux, appearing as a linearity; with a beginning and an end, a sense of progress as the linearity protrudes ever onwards, and a sense of death as the protrusion falls back, inwards, reabsorbed into the imaginative ground.

solar flare

The linearity of the solar flare is suggestive of the progress of civilisation emerging from the ground of imagination

Modernity, as Deleuze and Guatarri suggested, has an independent dimension capable of spreading everywhere. No individual can escape its grasp. For example, while we (hopefully) feel positive and supportive of the Arab women who fight for equality and freedom, and simultaneously deplore Monsanto’s attempted owernship of agricultural plants, these seemingly disjointed events are related processes: the homogenisation of life experience. Modernity strives for homogeneity, where everyone is treated the same (human rights), everyone eats the same (standardised food stuffs) etc. As such homgenisation is the hand-maiden of progress: a teleology of self-same perfection. There is no better parody of this than the film Starship Troopers in which a future humanity is represented as an internationally homogenised mass of state servient soldiers with undifferentiated social norms.

The question has been asked, are we approaching, or even reached, the end of history? Not in the Fukuyama (victory of Capitalism) or Mayan (victory of nutters) sense(!), but in the sense of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment coming to an end, and the unravelling of assumptions of the importance of human centered theories (science and reason): the solar flare falling back in on itself, to be reabsorbed into the ground of imagination. Unless progress is so successful that a dystopia arises, where humans are replaced by machines, in a network of relations of perfect symmetry where change is unneccesary and any notions of a human soul/spirit have been eradicated, separating forever life from the ground of imagination from which changes and transformations emerge. In this case the tip of the solar flare departs like a pod,  separating from the sun, and existing in stasis; a dim and eternal glow.

The collapse of the solar flare, unless one holds on to the ideals of humanism in some forlorn attempt at hope, is inevitable. The rush to destruction is ever accelerating with hyper consumption peaking and the effects of climate change inevitable. But the ground of imagination from which human action draws its power is inextinguishable – potential can’t be destroyed, only realised. It is tempting to think that pre-modern indigenous knowledge existed (and exists) within the ground of imagination, eschewing the temptation for linearity and choosing to understand existence as flux (where dreamings shape the world, not geometry) . As for meditations upon our own receeding civilisation (which must first complete the task of absorbing the world into its domain), it is not a question of pessimism but of excitment for the possiblities of newness which will begin to emerge in the homogeneity of the present. As such the search for newness becomes fruitful, even optimistic.

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Anarchy has a bad reputation – no doubt. In recent years Anarchy has become synonymous with angry young men & women with red balaclavas tied around their mouths running through streets smashing the windows of Nike shops. Or in other cases dressed in white padding & holding home-made armour, ready to charge police lines, as did the English Wombles. These men and women are passionate about the future of society and strive to influence it. Feeling powerless in the face of a seemingly unconcerned society on the brink of destruction, this is their way of fighting back.

However, the problem with violent revolution is that it is ineffective. Society has a history of violent revolution that is never successful, because revolution is absorbed by a society that thrives on conflict and violence. It is everywhere all the time. In war. In the police force. In the criminal class. In the school yard. It is inherent. A system in which violence is inherent will never truly be overthrown by violence – it will just re-emerge in a new form (from feudalism to communism/capitalism or from communism to capitalism). The other problem with violent revolution is that it places too much faith in political power. It works on the basis that those in power are corrupt, and those without access to power would do a better job if they could take power for themselves. One only needs to look at the left wing revolutions around the world to see that society continues to chug on with disregard to wealth distribution, environment and humanity regardless of who is in charge.

The capitalist system is like a machine that carries out processes. And we all participate in its processes. The machines sole purpose is to increase economic output. The machine will carry on this function regardless of the fact that the human race and the Earth is being pushed into catastrophic territory (over population, climate change, ecological destruction). Now, we can say that Rupert Murdoch or some other rich and powerful person is responsible for this and he/they should be overthrown, but this is missing the point. Rupert is as much enslaved to the machine as any other member of society. How do we know that under his powerful smile a heart does not lurk that wishes for a more meaningful life? If he disappeared, someone would simply take his spot, which is true for any job. If society is a machine and we are its parts, then parts can easily be replaced. Violent acts of revolution can arise from anger and jealousy – they have more than me and this is unjust. But if you replace the rulers, you also have to take the stress, illness and complications that come with the rewards.

Calling society a machine is not as abstract as it may seem. Speak to many who work full-time and they will talk about its drudgery and meaninglessness. Talk about the problems of the world that our lifestyles are exacerbating and people will tell you how powerless they feel to stop it. That’s because we are! We are locked inside something that we can’t change. The machine carries on relentlessly. If in violent revolution we try to overthrow it the machine either flexes its muscles through the military, the police force and the media, which crushes dissent, or it allows its leaders to be overthrown and simply has someone else fulfilling the function of leader. Are the leaders of feudalism, capitalism and communism, in practice, really that different?

So what does Anarchy propose? And I am not talking about the Anarchy of angry protesters, but the Anarchy of organised alternatives to the self-destructive machine of human endeavour, which in our present case is Capitalism. I lift some ideas from the book, Bolo Bolo; (a bolo is a kind of anarchist collective that would survive through co-operative means by, for example, growing their own food). The only way to defeat the machine is to devalue the concept of work! This is the truly radical idea in the book. It is the obsession with work in contemporary society that threatens our existence. Work on an individual level, an organisational level, a national level, an international level is what drives the machine onwards, ever forward, toward the dangers we all can sense; yet we can’t stop doing it! (On tonight’s news Julia Gillard, the deputy prime minister of Australia, was interviewed and stated: ‘the most important thing to do in life is to work’). The author of Bolo thinks we should spend four hours a day tending the collectives agricultural needs. And the rest of the time we spend doing what we want. Sounds unlikely? Well yeah, of course it is. But in principle, regarding the survival of the human race, he’s right.

So having lost faith in politics or revolution to affect real positive change, I began to realise that trying to implement the ideas of Bolo Bolo on a personal level was the best way forward. Working part-time. Creating a vegetable patch. Making the home as environmentally friendly as possible. Cutting down on car use. Trying to leave as little an imprint on the planet as possible. Concentrating on creative tasks. There are some that have gone further, and pushed into the realm of the collective – (check the link, these people do not look like anti-capitalist crazies!).

It would take a mass transformation of consciousness for an anarchist system to work. People turning their backs on work, money, the demands placed on them from the cradle to the grave, and working towards a more Earth-friendly, human-centered co-existence. But it seems so implausible. Too easy to crush such a way of life, such is the incessant desire for wealth and power. Like John Lennon, we imagine.

Postscript:

Some years ago my wife and her previous neighbour agreed to pull down the fence that separated their front yards, and created a shared garden. Recently a new neighbour moved in and started pulling out all the plants they had planted and is demanding a new fence to be built. This is a micro-cosmic example of why anarchy will only ever be a Utopian dream, and never a reality. (Perhaps we can retreat into a practical-fantasy reality and build our own bolos within our physical-social networks?).

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Capitalism: the new cool?

There was a schism appearing in the minds of youth when I was at University in the early 90’s; between the old socialist mindset and the blooming Capitalist mindset. I still had a foot in the socialist camp – believing in ideals, the possibility of a people-led movement, the hope for equality. On the other side was what seemed a bizarre phenomena at the time (though now is completely normal), capitalism was becoming the new cool. This is well covered by Thomas Frank in his meticulously researched book One Market Under God, in which Capitalism’s ability to become the new cool is described. I saw it happen first hand with board members of the student union bragging about money, material goods and discussing which big brand they should invite to advertise on the new tele-info system spread throughout the campus. It was anathema to us left-leaning types. They simply laughed at us when we brought up points like – ‘a university should be a place of learning free from commercial influence’ and ‘a student union should be about collective action, not profit’. Twenty years later I’m back at Uni and Capitalism is now the order of the day. The majority don’t do politics, and they are certainly not anti-capitalist. There are a few socialists hanging on and even the outline of a student union or two, but they are essentially toothless.

East Berlin Crossing Man

In 2002 I was in East Berlin, visiting, trying to imagine life under the Communists. There wasn’t much to suggest it except for different shaped men at crossing lights, a few depressing looking buildings, and groups of people, who did not seem imbued with the stressful countenance of the Capitalist citizen, sitting around drinking . Sitting in a cafe I met a girl from East Berlin and her Mother. The daughter was about my age and the mother in her 50’s or so. They had lived in East Berlin, seen the wall come down and watched the resulting transformations in German society. I asked them what it was like to live under communism. After all, this seems as exotic and foreign a life as any to a boy brought up on the fat of Capitalist success in Australia. The mother’s answer has always stayed with me. ‘It was like’ she said with flat, tired eyes, ‘there was nothing to look forward to’. She waved her arms as if to suggest she never wanted to experience it again.

Recently, I was reminded of this conversation while watching the upsetting documentary ‘When Borat came to Town‘, which describes Sacha Baron Cohen’s unethical exploitation of a Romanian village when filming Borat. The villagers made 3 Euros from their involvement. Lawyers promised them a windfall if they sued. Nothing happened. (The uninformed being exploited by entertainers and lawyers – is this not the perfect metaphor for the West?). The man who led the law suit was broken by the end of the documentary and claims, ‘I have given up on dreaming. Without money there is no point in having dreams’.

Borat: the face of exploitation

So here we have two characters, both recent citizens of Communism, that see Capitalism if not as a shining light, at least as an opportunity to build dreams and have something to look forward to in life. Yet in my own country of Australia, a bastion of Capitalism, I see a community becoming fractured by the pursuit of money. Neighbours who don’t talk to each other, drivers that abuse one another, a society increasingly stressed. I don’t see much happiness in my country. But I do see a lot of people moving fast, climbing over one another to be the best and becoming increasingly suspicious of their fellow citizens. In East Berlin people seemed to have a lot a time to sit around and talk with one another. In the documentary I mentioned, people were dancing in the street and again there was a lot of sitting around and talking. There was community.

It seems the drive for Capitalism is irresistible (all that lovely stuff!), and its destructive impact only apparent when it’s too late. It’s all terribly confusing! We want to suck the fruits of Capitalism; even anti-capitalists seem pretty content with the lifestyle on offer i.e. embracing technology cheaply disseminated by Capitalism, yet when we have obtained it we become miserable, suspicious, competitive. Can we create the perfect society? Is happiness possible? Or are humans, like the Buddhists concluded, destined to suffer because that is the nature of life?

More time for this please…

It’s a fine balance, I think, between the different ideals and approaches to life. If any one extreme dominates (as Capitalism presently does and Communism once did) things go awry. I would like to be able to spend more time with my fellow citizens with a non-competitive, non-suspicious countenance, drinking and discussing life. But I would also like to be working toward something that I desire (not what the capitalists or the state tells me I should desire). Perhaps anarchy could deliver this balance (a system that has little hope of succeeding), or perhaps a people-focused democracy (rather than economic focused) is the answer. More on that in next week’s blog!

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Disney studios gives us a distorted view of the story of the Lion King. Simba’s politics are clearly in alignment with its writers – it is well known that history is written by the victors. But what was the true ambition of Simba’s uncle, Scar, and were the ‘Pride Lands’ truly degraded when Simba returned to reclaim the throne? I hope to set things straight in this blog.

Simba’s father, Mufasa, was an arch-conservative who justified order in his kingdom through archaic philosophy. He continually repeated the mantra that, ‘everything has its place’. He used this philosophy to repress the hyenas who were forced to scavenge as outcasts in the unproductive lands of the ‘elephant graveyard’. When Simba asked the reasonable question to his father, ‘why do we eat the antelope?’, Mufasa answered: ‘we eat the antelope to survive, but when we die we become grass and the antelope eats us, thus the circle of life continues’. What he failed to tell Simba is having your throat ripped out by the high-pressure jaw mechanism of a lion is a lot more painful than your decomposed body being masticated in the form of grass.

Scar: a misunderstood visionary.

Scar: a misunderstood visionary.

Scar (actually pronounced Sear) on the other hand was a diplomat; an intellectual who believed in discourse and a more harmonious kingdom where the outcasts, hyenas, would be embraced in a greater Utopian community. Mufasa would never agree to this break in tradition and used his brute strength to keep Scar subjugated. Having no choice, Scar eventually orchestrated the death of Mufasa by organising a stampede of wildebeest that crushed Mufasa. He then banished Simba from the Kingdom when Simba made it clear he would never support his Uncles desire to found a new community based on equality. While this act of murder and banishment is portrayed by Disney as an act of deceit, it was in fact an act of strategic brilliance that was the beginning of a new age of enlightened order in the pride lands.

On taking power Scar immediately invited the banished hyenas into the kingdom. All animals were now able to live as equals within the Pride Lands. Liberated from the conservative rule of Mufasa, some of the herds choose to move on and start their own communities, a move unfairly portrayed in the film as the herds escaping from Scar’s mis-rule. Lionesses were considered equals and were able to hunt for food alongside the males. Herds were encouraged to establish communal gardens in which their own food could be gathered. Dead animals were offered to the carnivores and simultaneously carnivores were encouraged to develop a vegetariain diet.

There were those in the kingdom who were opposed to the revolutionary overturning of the old order and set about undermining Scar’s new order. In particular the baboons, warthogs and meerkats (loyal to the ways of Mufasa) worked as agitators for the old ways and continually undermined Scar’s new utopia in preparation for the return of the exiled king, Simba. It is they who  eventually encouraged the inhabitants of the new order to support Simba’s return, paving the way for the counter-revolution that saw the murder of Scar, the return of the repression of the hyenas and the reestablishment of Mufasa’s conservative rule through his son, Simba.

The Pride Land inhabitants could not cope with the de-centralised utopia achieved by the visionary Scar, and choose instead the order of the old ways where thought and participation were not required. The antelope, it appeared, would prefer to be crushed by the jaws of lions than graze in peace. Of course the Disney account of history presents a land lost to degradation under the leadership of Scar; and the hyenas, in keeping with Mufasa and Simba’s propaganda, are presented as evil rouges. What we are not shown is the brief period of equality and communal living that thrived in the pride lands after the daring revolution instigated by Scar. Instead we are emotionally manipulated by music and imagery that suggests a brief departure from peace and tranquility in the form of Scar’s ‘evil rule’.

It is time the world remembered the extraordinary period of decentralised control and communal living achieved by the work of the visionary, Scar.

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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Is it wrong to be religious? Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would have us believe so. In fact I would say they are anti-religious extremists – and I am positive they would proudly agree with this statement. Its one thing to hear the religious extremists of Christianity and Islam talk firebrand language about the evil of non-believers, but to hear intelligent self-proclaimed atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens wax lyrical about the evils of religion is hard to bear. One would think that such men of science and intellect would know better than to further entrench divisions in an already fractured society. They are effectively shutting down any dialouge between those who believe in religion and those who do not. They are spreading a hatred amongst the population towards those that they accuse of spreading hatred. It is depressing, it is small minded.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins and Hitchens tell us that religion is the source of all woe in the world. That it is at the heart of pogroms against the Jews, homophobia, misogyny and general intolerance. Both essentially believe that all religion should be eradicated and replaced with a kind of international humanism that will function on a rational and scientific basis. There is merit to this argument. There is no doubt that when religious extremists get into power terrible things can happen. The Taliban in Afghanistan were/are a terrifying example of this. George Bush, a devout Christian, brought the world to a chaotic and war-torn position with his religious mania. But there have also been plenty of non-religious leaders who ruled with cruelty. Stalin was an atheist and he killed 60 million people in his Gulags. Pol Pot was also an atheist and his regime murdered 2 million Cambodians. Perhaps the point is not that religion creates cruelty and terror, but rather the possession of power leads to cruelty and terror.

In the West the State (political-economic system) is considered to be free of the influence of the church and is run on transparent democratic values. Yet the State is responsible for the incarceration of thousands in its cruel prison system. The State controls the military which is responsible for the killing of unknown numbers of people – think Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-terror laws in Australia allow police to raid anybody’s house without permission, a law that spreads fear and anxiety through the population. All these activities are not religiously motivated –  they are sanctioned by the State. My point is that pointing the finger at religion as the only source of cruelty  is an extremist view that ignores the wider picture. Wouldn’t it be more worthy to ask what it is about human nature that causes such acts of cruelty and hatred in the first place?

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Religion has created men and women of peace. Ghandi was a Hindu. Martin Luther King was a Christian. The Dalai Lama is Buddhist. These men have inspired millions, atheist and non-atheist alike. Nelson Mandela is Christian and he led South Africa into the modern world, with a constitution free of religious interference that Dawkins and Hitchens would approve of. Yet here is what Mandela has to say about religion:

Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one’s own morality, one’s own behavior, and one’s own attitude.

When I was young I read a book by Christopher Hitchens called Letters to a Young Contrarian. It was a book written for young radicals, giving them the courage to stand against popular opinion and to speak against what they did not believe in. Hitchens is no hypocrite when it comes to this matter. He is probably the most well-known contrarian on the planet. But his contrarian views have caused him to contradict himself. Hitchens was unusual in that he was one of the few people from the Left side of politics who supported Bush’s war on terrorism, including the bombing of Sudan. Hitchens supported it for the lofty idea that it was a war defending the humanist ideals of Western civilisation against the dark-age beliefs of Muslim extremists. But of course by giving his support to Bush he covertly gave support to religious extremism, because that was the basis of Bush’s war on terror. He went to war with Iraq because God told him to. How can Hitchens justify this? I’m sure he can easily, he is a clever fellow. But he lost me at this point- his views have become farcical. He also lost some powerful friends from the decision to support the war on terrorism, including Noam Chomsky.

Dawkins comes from a different perspective. He thinks we should all reject religion because science is the only truth. Science is a truth indeed. It has brought us many positive developments, especially knowledge. But it has also brought as the atom bomb, polluting machines, chemicals, refined weapons etc. And science in the past was used to justify Europeans superiority over other cultures which led to genocides around the world. Ironically it was religious missionaries who saved some indigenous cultures from complete annihilation (though arguably, they completed the process culturally by forcing them to convert to Christianity). Even today science has a limited sphere of viewing – it can only answer so many questions. This has already been resolved by the deconstruction of the Western mind by post-modernists such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida who (perhaps unintentionally) left the door open to other ways of perceiving and understanding the world including mysticism, shamanism and dare I say it religion. Imperialistic statements that place one world-view above others are nothing but incendiary. Can Dawkins not see that his comments could lead to as much anger, resentment and hatred as any religious leader could invoke?

Of the people in my life, some are atheist and some are religious. And they are all good people. While they don’t agree on everything, they are capable of getting along with one another and accepting that each other has different beliefs. Such people are likely to become uncomfortable with one another and may even become enemies with the rise of vociferous voices like Hitchens and Dawkins who, like any other extremists or propagandists, spread division amongst the population. Religion has the capacity to deal with questions that Science cannot answer as science is limited to the physical domain; however, in the 20th Century science broke beyond the observable into the realm of the mystical. There are plenty of examples of this. Read this quote from physicist Brian Swimme, a scientist who is attempting to bridge the gap between science and religion and offer the world something new, not just promote the same old divisions and hatreds:

While this perspective (quantum physics) is new within the traditions of science, from another point of view we are arriving at an understanding that was deeply appreciated during the classical religious period of humanity. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart in the Middle Ages of Europe grasped intuitively that emptiness is the source of everything. This realization is echoed in the life and teaching of Buddha, who understood that all put-together things arise from emptiness and exist inseparably with emptiness.

Religion refuses to put humanity at the center of existence. In this way it gives its believers a realistic perspective of their own reality. That they are something small in something vast – a kind of awe and reverence arises from this understanding. Humanism while a worthy political aspiration can never offer the consolations and inner understandings of religion as it places humans at the center of existence which is essentially false. We need to see ourselves in relation to the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe in which we exist. That religion inspires nutters and murderers and intolerance is not necessarily the fault of religion. It is the fault of humanity. It is something in ourselves that we need to understand and overcome. Creating further divisions by dumping people who choose to believe in religion in the ‘bad person’ camp is just plain dumb. We should expect more from our intellectual and cultural (self-proclaimed) leaders. Yes Hitchens and Dawkins, I’m talking about you…

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Fame has become an obsession hasn’t it? I mean everyone wants to be famous. Big Brother (remember that show), Australian Idol and Celebrity Chef are all examples of this. Is it good for us, this obsession with fame? Are there any people left simply content with there life, or are we all clawing for more – more recognition, more love, more more?  The greatest symbol of fame is Paris Hilton – she has done nothing of value, except be really good at being famous. She is our symbol, we need her, because we can all laugh at her and put her down, yet she has what everyone wants – fame (and money I guess).

What is the source of this drive that afflicts us? Capitalism is definitely a culprit. This system encourages us to accumulate more. To stand out from the crowd by how much you have, how much you earn. It encourages us to stand on our neighbour to reach the top. This is a logical precursor to a state of wanting to be noticed by as many people as possible. Hollywood movies are another cause. How many films are there (particualrly kids films) that tell the story of the under dog reaching the top and being loved by everyone. How many young minds have been distorted by this? And the half-baked philosophy of ‘follow your dreams and your dreams will come true’ has left a trail of depressed 30-40 somethings who have led their lives trying to be stars and be noticed and be the ones who stand out, only to realise one day, they have nothing.

What about me? Why do I write blogs and twitter and make music and get it out there and try to get people to read my stories? Do I just want to be noticed? Is the whole phenomena of the net a disparate collection of people shouting and calling – ‘hey, check me out, I’m cool, I’m interesting’?

In France there is group of anarchists called the Invisible Commitee that don’t want to be noticed (but do want to halt Capitalism). They don’t want to be noticed… I am thinking this might be some kind of political reaction to the obsession with fame. They say being ‘socially nothing is the condition for maximum freedom of action’. That kind of makes sense. If I want to get noticed and raise the ladder of fame I have to be nice to people and get people to think I’m amazing. Not much freedom in that.

But then again Charles Manson is famous, and he wasn’t nice to people. He is a crazy guy that killed people. What about all these gunmen in America that kill scores of people, then themselves. Usually they are misfits or depressed people who don’t get noticed and are thus really angry with the world. What best way to get noticed than murdering a whole bunch of people? Well, there are better ways to get famous and noticed. But the majority of us never will be known beyond a small circle of loved ones. And there are those few of us who are driven crazy by it and do terrible things.

Younger generations have the fame fever bad. They have grown up being told they can be whatever they want to be, they just have to set there minds to it. Thus we have a whole generation of kids who want to be rock stars and movie stars and just bloody stars. Who the hells gonna clean the toilets? Or maybe one day toilet cleaners will become famous and everyone will want to be a toilet cleaner? Like Kenny. Perhaps the problem is that it’s so easy to reach everyone in the world with YouTube and aeroplanes and mobiles that we all know we can be noticed and spend our lives trying to be.

Imagine being content with a few loved ones around you and an expressive life that was meaningful to you. How quaint. But then again, maybe the drive for fame is a democratic victory! That everyone has an equal opportunity to raise to the top. That you aren’t just born into fame & wealth, you can make it happen! The result being of course that we can all be miserable together, wishing we had more (Ha!). Maybe the anarchist ‘Invisible Committee’ will take over one day and we won’t be able to be famous anymore. Unless of course your the anarchist who started it all and you become famous and everyone knows your name…

I don’t think this blog entry has resolved anything. I am famous yet?

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Thomas - the really useful engine

Thomas - the really useful engine

I have a two year old son obsessed with the children’s program, Thomas the Tank Engine. This means by default, I am also a Thomas the Tank Engine Fanatic – because it is constantly on! To my surprise watching Thomas the Tank Engine has been an engaging experience – I am shocked and a little disturbed by the profound cultural layers this show possesses. (I know, I know, I have to get out more). I must admit I do like the little models, and the island where the engines live seems so peaceful and scenic I’d actually love to go for a visit (bloody hell, I do have to get out more!).

There are four types of characters in the show: humans, trains, carriages and trucks. I want to describe each one before I get into the meat of the subtexts that I perceive.

The Fat Controller

The Fat Controller

Humans. The main human is a character called the Fat Controller. He is in fact, fat –  the only person represented as so in the show – and is in complete control of the island. Whenever anything goes wrong the engines shudder in fear at the potential reprimand of the paternalistic fat controller, who manages the engines with a firm but friendly hand. The other humans are drivers, signalmen and quarrymen (yes, all men). They are all dressed according to their rank. The drivers have ties on, the signalmen have overalls, the quarrymen have work clothes (except the foreman who has a suit on). The fat controller wears a top hat and tails!

Diesel - the devious engine

Diesel - the devious engine

Trains. There are two types of trains. The good trains are the steam engines. Their only purpose in life is to be called a ‘Really Useful Engine’ by the fat controller. They are incredibly grumpy much of the time (except Thomas who is usually happy). They are always telling each other off, tricking each other and can be vain. The other thing they share in common is a loathing of the diesel engines who are threatening to take over the role of the steam engines. The diesels are represented by a black engine (yes, black!) called diesel who is a conniving, back-stabbing villain. The rest of the diesels are women. The women diesels are nicer than the black Diesel, and look constantly toward the steam engines for guidance.

Carriages. The only thing to be said about the carriages is that they are all placid, subservient and female. All the steam engines are, you guessed it, male. The females are pulled around by the males and told what to do. They hate to be apart. If a steam engine has to be apart from his female carriages he gets very upset indeed.

A proletariat truck

A proletariat truck

Trucks. The engines are constantly shunting trucks, getting them in order for the quarry or the harbour. They are a faceless mass who are intent on causing trouble for the engines and therefore for the island society in general. Every wise engine knows they have to treat the trucks harshly to keep them in line.

You may well have picked up on a number of sub-texts in the program from what you have read. Basically this program is the most class-ridden, old fashioned, conservative program ever made for children – I’m sure of it. And although written originally in the 1940’s it first aired on television in the 1980s. This is well after the cultural revolution of the 60s.

Now for my sub-text rave! Essentially the steam engines represent the middle class who are subservient to the upper class as represented by the fat controller (who is corpulent, representing wealth and luxury). Their only purpose is to serve him and be loved by him. If not, they are potential scrap. The trucks represent the Proletariat or the working class who have to be kept under control in case of some kind of Marxist insurrection, in which the ‘natural’ order of the island would be disturbed. The trucks are constantly trying to create disorder but are bullied violently into submission by the engines, all with the blessing of the fat controller. Women are either docile subservient creatures who follow their men dutifully around or are represented as diesels, who threaten to overthrow the steam engines, possibly a nod to the feminist movements challenge to the patriarchal order. And as for blacks, they are represented solely in the evil Diesel who intends to overthrow the Steam Engines, perhaps a nod to West Indian immigration into the UK mid 20th century. Finally, the program is obviously some kind of nostalgic reflection on a ‘lost’ Britain where everyone, in a class based society, knew their place. In this show all is well and peaceful when everything is in its correct place (unless of course you don’t fit in, in which case, like the trucks, you are brutalised).

I tried explaining all this to my son but he would not have a bar of it. He simply said ‘Move Daddy’ because I was blocking his way. When I tried to put ‘Communism for kids’ on he simply screamed at me till I put Thomas back on, then he demanded I leave the room –  what on earth am I going to do? OK, OK if these subtext are in any way correct I greatly doubt that Rev Awdry, who originally wrote the stories for his children, had all this in mind. But it sure as hell stands out to me!

Note: I have two confessions to make: 1/. I don’t really own a DVD called Communism for Kids and do not want to own a DVD called Communism for Kids! 2/. I have based this blog on the classic series. No doubt the newest series is more politically correct – but then again maybe not. Anyone know?

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