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Change has come: Istanbul June 1st

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, June 01, 2013 17:01:54

Lisa Morrow has lived in Istanbul for a number of years, and writes on daily life and customs in turkey, and her book "Inside Out in Istanbul was recently published. Today she sent a report by email to many of her friends and contacts, asking for it to be passed on widely, and to the media. The report is reproduced in full below.

"Change has come: Istanbul June the 1st" by Lisa Morrow

By now most people around the world will be aware of the protests taking place in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities around Turkey. Most likely the news reports are saying people are protesting against a new shopping centre and that the protests are violent. Both statements are half-truths that need to be explored.

For the last few months peaceful groups have been meeting on weekends in Gezi Park, the last green space in Taksim, central Istanbul. They are demonstrating against the planned destruction of the park, in order to build a shopping centre and a mosque. Taksim Square has long been associated with Ataturk, democracy and modernity. It is a busy place and popular with students, tourists and activists from both sides of the political spectrum. The Gezi Park demonstrators have been meditating, holding barbeques, doing yoga, or singing in an attempt to publicise the threat to the park. Things suddenly escalated in the last week when the bulldozers were moved in and a small group began to camp out in the park. On Friday morning about 5am, the police threw tear gas into the tents where people lay sleeping, and when they ran out police targeted them with water cannons. If this wasn’t enough the police then set fire to the tents.

By Friday night thousands had begun to gather in the square, despite the police building a barricade around the park to keep both them and the media out. Istıklal Street, a famous thoroughfare, was crammed with people, as was Cumhurriyet Boulevard. Police riot squads descended on them, forcing people to flee into nearby shops and cafes where others were just going about their normal day. When the water cannons were fired into Starbucks, tourists as well as Turks ran out screaming. Nearby side streets became battle fields and also sanctuaries, with chemists and other shops providing first aid and people hanging signs from their houses saying “Come to my apartment if you are injured”.

More police were sent to the scene with more tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons but nonetheless the momentum built quickly. This morning at 2am we were woken in our sleepy middle class suburb of Göztepe, on the Asian side of the city, by the sound of clapping and chanting. When we looked out the window we saw a group of people banging spoons against pots, slowly moving through the streets to Kadıköy. This group joined the estimated forty thousand people determined to walk across the Bosphorus Bridge to join the protests on the other side. By 10.30am they had made it to Besiktaş, about a kilometre from the square, where they were stopped by police. Throughout the day I have received texts from friends, telling me they were safe after being sprayed with pepper and tear gas. Others told me how people are being beaten up for no reason and that family members had been trapped on the metro when the police turned their focus there. Facebook is full of photos of bloodied people of all ages, some there to protest, others just passing by. Some of the images are from journalists but most are from people living in the area whose lives are affected regardless of their political beliefs.

Yes, things are now violent. One person is dead and hundreds have been injured However this is not because the demonstrators want violence. Peaceful actions have been met with violent over-reaction as water cannons are targeted at men’s genital regions, at people standing in submission with arms raised, at men, women and children who are fighting for their country. What began as a small action against a proposed shopping centre has catapulted into a popular movement for government change from people who have had enough.

In the last few years the ruling party has overstepped the mark by manipulating evidence and arresting scores of former army officers for supposedly plotting a coup, done for the greater good of the people, in the name of democracy. In the name of democracy they have changed the laws so that students from religious Imam Hatip schools can freely enter universities even though they lack the basic educational requirements expected from everyone else. The separation of religion and state has blurred more and more. Most recently new public transport ordinances were released requesting decorum on the metro in Ankara. A ‘kissing’ demonstration was curtailed by a heavy police presence and opponents wielding knives. Permission to celebrate May Day was denied on the grounds a gathering of 50,000 people in Taksim Square was unsafe, although about a million people pass through there every day. Just last week the sale of alcohol was severely restricted in order to protect Turkish youth although there is no data to suggest alcohol consumption is a problem here. These and other incidents are behind this spontaneous uprising and calls for the Prime Minister to resign.

To repeatedly say it started due to a protest in a park, as is happening on a lot of international media, is to belittle the political intelligence of those involved. To report violent protests without clearly stating the violence began with heavy handed police actions, is to cast the demonstrators’ actions in a sinister light. As I write this I am nearly being deafened by my neighbours, ordinary people, beating their saucepans and blowing whistles in support of the protestors. Thousands more are heading for Taksim square, seeking an end to government interference in their lives. The call for change has come to Turkey. Now it is up to the government to answer that call.

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PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, April 20, 2013 20:56:03

A lost generation: a parent's view of the experience of Young Adults in the UK.

(This was written in 2004 and circulated by email to friends and associates. This is its first on-line publication. Looking around today, I see much the same now, if not worse. The age range to be included would probably extend nearer to 40 than 30 now! Names* and details have been changed to protect anonymity.)

A lot of my friends and acquaintances have children aged between 18 and 30. Most times we meet, or correspond, we tend to share information about our children, their friends, and the circles in which they move.

Looking back over these conversations, especially the ones which have taken place in the last 5 years, I have begun to see a pattern, and it is quite a disturbing one. It is even more disturbing when I take into account that the vast majority of the people I talk to are highly educated graduates, professionally successful, caring, liberal, and generally deeply invested in their children in one way or another.

One friend tells of his son Nick*, intelligent, talented, and popular. Nick went to University to read Physics. Although he had a great time socially, he found less and less to enthuse him in his University course, despite being passionate about Physics at School. He struggled on to the end of his degree course, with less and less motivation, eventually gaining a third class degree, far below his ability. On graduating he decided he wanted nothing to do with the subject again, moved back home, and has for the past three years been living at home, surviving on a series of unrewarding temping jobs, and feeling directionless.

Mary* left school at 16, convinced that education had nothing more to offer her. She found it hard to find work, and was part of a set that encouraged her into drugs, casual sex, and petty crime. She eventually enrolled for A-levels at a city college – but found the teaching uninspiring – she dropped out again before finishing the course. Now, at 20, she is embarked on a different set of A-levels at a different college, still not sure what she wants out of life.

Andrew* appeared to have everything going for him when he got his 2.1 in History at the age of 21. But he couldn’t find a job that truly satisfied him, and moved from one job to another over a period of 6 years, moving also from city to city. Then, at the age of 27 he decided that he wanted to be an architect. The only way to achieve his ambition would be to start all over with another full-time degree course. Now he is saving hard to scrape together enough to allow him to re-enter University, which he might do, if lucky, by the age of 30.

These are not untypical stories. Variants on them are as common, if not more common, than stories of steady progression through education into stable careers.

As we parents puzzle over the tortouus paths of our children, we find it hard to relate their experience with ours of 30 years earlier, when a degree course seemed to be a rapid passport to a career which, in one way or another, made use of the skills and enthusiasms which we had developed before and during University. By the age of 25 many, if not most, of us were already drawing a full-time salary within the stable career that would see us through the major part of our working lives. None of us were living with our parents, few were financially dependent on them. We were, at least in career terms, “grown ups”.

The pattern that emerges from the multiple stories of today’s young adults is very different. Adult children are far more often living in the parental home into their late 20s, they are far more likely to be financially dependent on parents, they are less likely to have found a career to which they can wholeheartedly commit, they are less clear about the form and direction of their lives. So many of them seem lost.

Of course, our children do also sometimes have conventional successes. And we parents are happy and proud for them. I greatly enjoy hearing news of these successes. But I have noticed something about many of these reports: they are delivered in tones of surprised relief. It is almost as if we parents know that such success is by no means guaranteed, and that we have no particular wisdom about, nor can we claim any particular credit for, the route to success. We don’t truly understand the causes of our children’s successes any more than we do their failures. There is a sense that we share in our children’s “lostness”, and we can no longer read the signs of the times in ways which allow us to be reliable resources for them. We all have many experiences of being told, in one way or another, by our children, that we just don’t understand how things are now for them. Our wisdom is dated.

Some of us might detect, in our children’s rejection of our wisdom, the so-called “youthful rebellion” against advice which they will eventually learn to accept as they “mature”. This is, I think to misread the situation. I think we should be prepared to accept that something very fundamental has shifted in Society over the last 25 years, and that the rules we learned (or pieced together) to enable us to create coherent lives, can no longer be a reliable guide for our children. The pressures on them are not only greater, they are different in their form and contour; and conversely, the social instruments and institutions which might be looked to for support and enlightenment have changed, sometimes beyond all recognition.

Public discourse, contributed to by politicians and pundits, and rehearsed through the media, offers far too little. One primary tactic is to “problematise” young people and their behaviour, so that solutions are focused on “changing the way they behave”, either by superficial external controls, or through “education”. For instance recent public debates on how to stop binge-drinking have focused on changes in licencing laws and commercial restraints on town-centre drinking establishments; together with attempts to publicise the negative health and social effects of alcohol abuse. It is rarer to see analyses that focus on the underlying causes of destructive cultures. People who are leading fulfilled lives – with meaningful goals – and effective support to achieve those goals – don’t have time or inclination for self-abuse.

Another common tactic is to apportion blame. Variously, pundits blame parents (particularly those formed by the “permissive” 60s”), schools, the media, multiculturalism and the decline of “traditional” morality. In general, these are seen as giving “too much freedom”, and the proposed remedies involve, in one way or another, a return to “Victorian values” of control and prohibition. Changes in parenting, education, and the like are all indeed manifestations of cultural change, but it is both simplistic and dangerous to invoke the past. The past that is generally invoked is not an active, subtle and complex lived past, but a conveniently selective image of the past, a reinterpretable and subvertible construction, onto which powerful elites can project their own current interests, interests which are rarely take into account the true human needs of those they seek to influence and control.

To find a better way forward, we need to step back from the simple slogans of politicians and newspaper editors, as well as ready made “answers” that might be offered from belief systems that were shaped in different times and places.

Spaces and safety needs to be created for young adults to tell their stories, fully and without interruption or criticism. People of other generations need the resources to be able to hear these stories, fully, respectfully and undefensively. Then, out of this “bottom-up” growing understanding, we may have a chance to construct a positive agenda, whereby young people and adults, working together, can create an agenda for the restoration of meaningful lives for young people. There can be no more important or urgent agenda.

Can we create a space in which the right kind of deep mutual listening and creative problem solving can take place? This may need a private dimension (to protect individuals and create trust) but it must have a strongly public “front-end”. This work is not, primarily, about finding more effective forms of therapy for distressed or disabled individuals (although outcomes of the work may, practically, be very therapeutic). It is about creating an agenda for stimulating activity which could lead to real and practical social change, an agenda that empowers young adults and their chosen allies, and leads to practical and observable changes in the way that people live together and support one another.

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PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sun, March 24, 2013 23:48:03


March 24th 2013

I have just finished reading one of the most profoundly important books I have come across. Charles Eisenstein’s “Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, & Society in the Age of Transition” offers more answers to the economic and societal ills we face than anything I’ve read before.

The book is available in the normal way through web booksellers, but it is also available free at

It’s basic concept is that we need to reshape money to be consistent with the fact that the things of the greatest value are the gifts we give to and receive from each other. Money, as currently organised, and particularly, lent or borrowed at interest, is inimical to the development of a gift culture – in fact it destroys it – and in the process, destroys community.

Eisenstein offers seven clear and practicable elements of a money system that serves, rather than undermines, human benefit.

1. Negative interest currency. In this system, money, like all else, loses its value the longer it is held onto. Negative interest forces money into circulation rather than being accumulated and kept out of circulation.

2. Elimination of economic rents. Owners of land, property, patents etc. pay tax on their holdings. No-one should be able to profit from merely owning a thing without producing anything or contributing to society.

3. Internalisation of social and economic costs. Pollution, and other forms of environmental costs must be borne by the polluter, not the general society or future generations.

4. Economic and monetary localization. In local economies we know personally the people we depend upon. Main Street will be revitalized by authentic local businesses.

5. The Social Dividend. Technological advances have made production of the quantifiable neccesities of life easy. These advances should become the common property of all humanity. The proceeds of 2 and 3 above should be shared among all citizens equally as a contribution to covering life’s necessities.

6. Economic degrowth. As production is no longer necessary to fuel economic growth, we will not need to work so much for money (especially with the social dividend). We will be freed to exercise creativity and indulge in beautiful work without having to earn money from it.

7. Gift culture and person to person economics. There will be an ever-increasing use of gift-based and open-source production. What used to be paid for will be given away. Mutual credit systems will be set up without the intermediation of banks and financial institutions.

He goes on to show how each of these elements have operated in a range of times and places, including the present. He also deals with a wide range of objections and difficulties that might be felt by people as they contemplate a system where money is no longer their security, but their reciprocal relationships of need to other people.

I want to quote two medium length passages that epitomize for me the vision he is holding out, first for the economic realm and then for art.

“Earlier in this book I described the disconnection and loneliness of a society in which nearly all social capital, nearly all relationships, have been converted to paid services; in which distant strangers meet nearly all of our material needs; in which we can always “pay someone else to do it”; in which the unspoken knowledge I don’t need you pervades our social gatherings, rendering them vacuous and dispensible. Such is the pinnacle of civilization, the end point of centuries of increasing affluence: lonely people in boxes, living in a world of strangers, dependent on money, enslaved to debt – and incinerating the planet’s natural and societal capital to stay that way. We have no community because community is woven from gifts. How can we create community when we pay for all we need?

Community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs. There is no community possible among a group of people who do not need each other. Therefore , any life that seeks to be independent of other people for the meeting of one’s needs is a life without community.” (Chapter 22, page 419-20).

“Money can buy songs, but not a song sung specifically to you. Even if you hire a band to play in your home, there is no guarantee, no matter how much you pay, that they will sing to you and not just pretend to. If your mother sung you lullabies, or if you have ever been serenaded by a lover, you know what I am talking about and how deep a need it fills. Sometimes it even happens at a concert, when the band isn’t just putting on an act but is actually playing for that audience, or really, to that audience. Each such performance is unique, and its special, magical quality vanishes in recording. “You had to be there”. True we may pay money to attend such an event, but we receive more than we pay for when the band is truly playing to us. We do not feel that the transaction is complete and closed, that all obligations are cancelled out, as in a pure money transaction. We feel a lingering connection, because a giving has transpired.” (Chapter 22, page 423).

For me, this book “reaches the parts the others haven’t reached”. It fills the gap between the anger, hurt, and confusion expressed in so many places, as focused by outbursts of dissent as the “Occupy” movement, and a viable and inspiring way forward. What Eisenstein persuasively argues is that the road towards the new economy and the new society need not be accompanied by collapse, chaos, and pain. Each element of the new way of thinking and acting that we can incorporate in our lives will bring quick, and deep, gain to our lives, enriching rather than depleting them.

I would be delighted to hear the reactions of anyone else who reads this important book.

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The 2012 Olympics – the view from Hackney Wick

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Tue, September 18, 2012 00:57:44

Hackney Wick is a strange yet rather wonderful hinterland of East London. It is an area bounded on the West and North by the A12 urban speedway (East Way) and on the East by canals and the Hackney Marshes, and as such has the characteristics of an urban island cut off from mainstream London.

I found myself there for the first time yesterday, after having lived in London on-and-off for 6 decades. I’ve passed through Hackney Wick Station many a time, en-route to the major transportation hub at Stratford, one station further down the line. But I never got out there before.

The occasion was the Hackney Wick Festival in which a friend was taking part. The area was once a thriving industrial area, but it sank into post-industrial decline a few decades ago. More recently, artists and creative workers discovered its decaying factories and warehouses and started making their homes and studios there, where rents are still cheaper than in more fashionable Shoreditch or Bethnal Green, and where work and living spaces are larger and more flexible. Studios, exhibition and performance spaces, bars and eating places have begun to spring up, as well as a lively somewhat anarchistic series of events and festivals, of which the Hackney WickED festival is probably the most established and interesting (see, and associated video ).

I learned that, sadly, the festival didn’t happen this year. The organizers could not get the necessary permissions during the Olympic year, on account of the proximity to the Olympic site.

Standing on the canal bankside in Hackney Wick, and looking over to the back of Olympic City is a strange and disquieting experience. The City is now closed off, falling silent and empty the moment the last athletes and spectators left, the securitised buildings gleaming inhumanly behind the multiple layers of barbed wire and camera that would be more typical of a top secret military installation.

You can see, from this vantage point, what violence the Olympic development has done to the weft and texture of the city, distorting the organic and incremental change process of the cityscape in a paroxysm of state-corporate profligacy.

On a stall run by the Wick curiosity Book Shop ( I found and bought a book entitled “The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State” ( )

There, in a chapter by Isaac Marrero-Guillamon, I read the words whicb crystalised something about why I have felt troubled and suspicious of the Olympic development ever since it was first announced that it was coming to London, on 6th July 2005, the fateful eve of London’s 9/11.

He writes:

“The colossal transformation of the legal and spatial landscape brought about by the 2012 games effectively relies on the unofficial declaration of a state of exception, that is, a suspension of the ordinary juridical order… Rather than a provisional and exceptional measure, it has become a technique of government, increasingly used in a range of non-war situations such as financial crises, general strikes, or, more recently and infamously, the US Patriot Act and Guantanemo. Defined as the suspension of law by law, the state of exception produces an empty space, a zone of indeterminancy in which bare life (the human being stripped of political and legal attributes) is encompassed by naked power (a limitless power, which is not tied to the legal system). However void, this legal no-mans land has proved to be highly effective, to the extent that “the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states. This state of exception is legitimized on the grounds of exceptional necessity, and sustained through military metaphors.”

The book is a chronicle of the multiple expressions of dissent against the state of exception that was the Olympic development, by residents, by writers, by artists and activists. I was unaware till I found this book that the Manor Garden Allotments, serving the community for 100 years, had been swept away, along with 1,500 local residents, 200 local businesses, and 500 local jobs. The beneficiaries were the official multinational “partners” of the Games – Coca-Cola, Dow, McDonalds, Omega, Visa, BP, BMW, British Airways.

The exceptionalism which justified all this is exactly the same exceptionalism as Tony Blair used to justify the Iraq War, and which will no doubt will be called upon many times in the future, to override the wishes and interests of ordinary people in favour of the rich and powerful.

Standing yesterday on that canalside I was able to see two opposing aspects of British society facing each other. On one side were the vibrant, diverse, and communitarian folk of Hackney Wick, living simply and joyfully, transforming and re-using what had been left by others. On the other side was the dead and empty hulk of Olympic City, shut off and unproductive, deserted by its corporate masters the moment that profits could no longer be made from it to the vast extent required by their shareholders.

I know which of those aspects I want, for myself and the people of London. Long live Hackney Wick!



Marrero-Guillamon, I. (2012) Olympic State of Exception. In H.Powell & I. Marrero-Guillamon (eds.) The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State. London: Marshgate Press. ISBN978-0-9572943-0-1

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Istanbul Impressions

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sun, August 05, 2012 16:35:56


I’m sitting by the Bosphorus watching the sun go down and the moon rise. It’s incredibly haunting. As the sun sinks beneath the water, the ancient call to prayer rolls across the water. As this is Ramadan, fasting Muslims crowd into the waterside restaurants to have the first food and drink of the day. Yet they are citizens of a modern city – riding on the latest air-conditioned trams, ears constantly bent into their mobile phones – and walking past chic bars and restaurants to match the coolest New York hangouts. It’s a city of contrasts swirling with the energies of opposite forces intersecting with each other: old-new, East-West, religious-secular, permissive-intolerant, democratic-autocratic, patriarchal – egalitarian.

Somehow, at all these intersections, Istanbul seems to be at the crossroads of the world – as it once was the centre of one of the world’s great empires. One young Turk told me he believed that Istanbul was, once again, at the pivot of the world, in a way it had not been since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.


The city has a restless energy. The streets pulsate with people, shopping, eating, drinking tea, arguing, doing deals, hustling tourists. At particular times of day, at the calls to prayer, human walls of stern-faced men barge down the street, looking neither left nor right, pushing the ambling out of the way in their single minded determination to get to the mosque. In fact, many Turks seem to have their necks locked into forward position, incapable of looking left or right, incapable of flexibility. They seem to me rather like bulls. I have never collided with by so many people fixed in their straight path from A to B, unwilling to compromise on their intentions by an inch. What is manifested physically may also be something deeper. One non-Turk who has lived in Turkey for many years told me that he had experienced this unwillingness (perhaps even inability) to compromise in many Turks. They have their fixed ideas and fixed intentions, and no amount of evidence or argument will shift them.


There are several benign “fixed intentions”. Taxi-drivers apart (see below) this is a safe city. A young attractive woman told me that she never has any worries about walking alone in the city, even late at night. Alcohol is only available in a quite limited way. Many Turks either are teetotal or drink modestly. I never saw a drunk person, and people who have lived there for years confirmed that real drunken behaviour is so rare that it becomes a talking point. The strong religious and traditional values that underpin Turkish society include helping strangers and those in distress. I don’t get the impression that there are many lonely Turks. They problem may be the other way round – you are not left alone when you might rather be.


This is a man’s city, at least to the visitor. All the shopkeepers, cooks, waiters, hotel receptionists, public transport officials, cleaners, security staff, are men. I’ve been served by perhaps 200 men in different ways while I have been here, and maybe 5 women (one in a post-office, one in a chemist, and a couple in the more trendy western-style restaurants – and of course hotel bedroom cleaners here are women as they are everywhere in the world). Male dress sense is undeveloped. Unless they are in uniform (and even that is normally a bit shabby), they wear dirty un-ironed jeans and cheap T-shirts. Many reek of sweat when you get up close. You hardly see men in suits, far less anything approaching male fashion.


Most women over the age of 35 are veiled. The 35-45 age bracket can do this with some sophistication and style. The over-45s however just look dowdy and plaIn. They are generally in small single-sex groups. Today I watched three women in their 50s earnestly discussing the merits of different teapots in a kitchenware shop. I am struggling to recall a husband and wife walking together in a “couple”.

Under-35 women are completely different. They look just like young women anywhere. Smart jeans and tops, bracelets and jewelry, worldly, cigarette smoking. I wonder if they will ever adopt the clothes and customs of those 20 years older.


One evening I took a ferry, crowded to the gills, among whose number were what looked like a football team. As we came into port, there was a man and a woman in their 20s on the pier, passionately kissing one another and completely oblivious to the rest of the world. The guys in the football team immediately started up this kind of good-natured chant, congratulating their fellow-male on his conquest. The general message was “go-go-go-man”. There is a lot of open and demonstrative male physical camaraderie – often in groups.

I chatted at length to a young Turkish man shortly after the boat scene. He had just resigned from his job, having saved enough to travel outside Turkey for the first time in his life. He was headed for Western Europe with a rail pass. He was pessimistic about Turkey’s future. He saw that the freedoms which had opened up in the past decade were being rolled away on a tide of religiously-backed conservatism – he saw the contrasting lifestyles in Istanbul as evidence of a battle rather than a mutual accommodation – and felt that it was a battle that liberal western-oriented Turks were losing. He was not sanguine that the kissing couple would be tolerated in public for much longer.


As soon as you go into the side streets and suburbs you see children in huge numbers (again mainly male). They are full of life, cheekiness, confidence, curiosity, like mediterranean children anywhere. You get the sense they are loved and know who they are.

I was told by close outside observers of Turkish life that all the curiosity and energy is battered out of children by the dire public education, which is all about rote learning and conformity. Creativity is not valued. By the time most Turkish people reach adulthood they have lost all ability to think by themselves and their orbit is narrowed to the immediate practicalities of life (how to make money, how the get the plumbing fixed). In many issues they just re-iterate time-honoured sayings handed down from their parents or in the culture. Adult illiteracy is a major problem in Turkey. It is only relatively recently that the length of compulsory education was increased from 6 to 8 years. There is a move to legitimize home education. Progressives fear that this is an attempt to move back to the stage where most women basically don’t get an education at all.


This is a city over-run with foreign tourists. Europeans of all varieties in particular, but large numbers of Asians too – Koreans, Iranians.

There is a particular kind of earnest European tourist family that I like. The archetype is a quiet husband and wife in their 40s with a well-behaved teenage boy or girl (usually just one) in tow. Often German, or Dutch. Guide books and maps are clutched like bibles. Courteous and educated – I imagine they tip generously. I have seen, and smiled at, many such families. Sometimes we compare maps, when (as is often the case in this city) we are slightly lost in the search for some improving cultural artifact or out-of-the-way ruin!

There is also the other type of tourist. The other day I was sitting quietly having my breakfast in an almost deserted hotel dining room. Suddenly two couples in their 40s burst noisily into the room. The men were wearing baseball caps. Both had HUGE cameras around their necks – one had sunglasses on the cap.

It’s a nice dining room, but it’s not the Sistine Chapel. They proceeded to take numerous photos of the dining room, with different combinations of them posing at different tables (husband A photographing couple B at table C, then husband B photographing couple A at table D, and so on), and after trying 4 or 5 different tables, finally sort of settled at one, and ate breakfast in the kind of self-advertising way which communicated that really this was such an interesting spectacle that we other diners really ought to be getting our their cameras and taking photos of it all. They were speaking a language I didn’t recognise, but it was some kind of European, I’m ashamed to say.


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mosques in Istanbul. And every one of them is a teeming hive of activity, all the time. Many are in compounds which also include schools, charitable organisations (particularly serving the many poor of the city), cemeteries, gardens. They are real and vibrant community centres. I’ve only been to one other Muslim country, and that was Egypt. I was there in 2008, when the anti-Mubarak (and anti-Western) sentiment was already bubbling and seething in a dark and disturbing way. I felt threatened in Egypt (and often resented as a westerner), and the idea of going into a mosque never remotely occurred. It would have been like going into enemy territory. Here in Istanbul Westerners are positively welcomed in any and all Mosques. In that respect, I felt Istanbul very similar to Bangkok, where the temples were completely open and welcoming to all comers. If Westerners want to easily experience and understand the shape and rhythm of Islam, then Istanbul is probably the place to do it.

All that is asked of anyone going into a mosque is that you take your shoes off, cover your knees (if a man) and cover your hair (if a woman). You can sit, walk, take photos, talk, rest, read, drink water, and no-one will bother you. If you have a question, and can find someone who speaks the same language, you will be answered with courtesy and warmth. Every mosque is carpeted from wall to wall, and they are vacuumed all day long with fanatic devotion. Somehow the carpets make you feel you are in a communal and welcoming living room.


Getting about is easy once you know. But knowing how takes a day or so to acquire, and if you arrive (like I and many others did) - tired hot and confused after an overnight bus trip – at the most chaotic main bus I have ever seen station (that also happens to be 10 km outside the city centre) , then nothing seems easy. It’s like a vast parking lot but with no bays or direction signs - with buses and taxis careering around in random directions, people everywhere – including elderly men who seem to be there just to stand and watch. People are sitting patiently everywhere on top of vast piles of boxes, bags, animal cages, all in the glaring sun with no cover whatsoever. You are ejected from your nice air-conditioned coach into this bedlam and then have to fend for yourself. Eventually I found a small rusty sign with the word “Aksaray” on it. This was what the travel agent had scribbled on my ticket. Unfortunately the first bus was completely full, and so I had to stand in the glaring sun for almost another hour, afraid to move for fear of losing my place and having to stand there yet another hour. Toilets seemed nowhere in evidence. As for an information desk or anything like that - forget it!

I was warned repeatedly and insistently by everyone both before and during my trip – “never get in a taxi – ever – under any circumstances. You will certainly be cheated, likely robbed, and a good chance you will be involved in a road accident” since there are no traffic laws enforced, no seatbelts, and taxi drivers are suicidal in the way they drive. As a result, as far as I can see, all taxis in Istanbul are empty almost all of the time, and sit in long forlorn lines near every tourist attraction. Their drivers hassle everyone who passes, and you just have to learn to pretend they don’t exist. I asked someone why the city doesn’t regulate its taxis. That’s a long story!

Fortunately, the public transport is cheap and efficient. You buy tokens or cards from booths, and the average journey costs 2 Turkish Lire, which is about 60p. The pride and joy of Istanbul is its sparkling new air-conditioned tram line, which snakes through all the main tourist areas. But the most fabulous transport is provided by the public ferries which go from side to side of the Bosphorouus all the time, with great efficiency and frequency. For 60p you get a world class 20 minute ride. And if you tire of the view you can always get a cup of tea from the buffet. In fact I was told, so addicted are Turks to tea, that the buffets specialize in allowing you to be able to by and consume TWO glasses (always glasses, never cups) of tea in the 20 minute ride, and STILL have time for a cigarette!


There are world-class tourist attractions in Istanbul. And some of the best of them attract world class queues, particularly at the weekend. A little-advertised way of jumping the queues is the “Museum Pass” which for around £25 allows you free access to 10 of the major museums over a 72-hour period. However, these passes are not advertised anywhere that I saw. I was told about them by another tourist, who was told about them by their Istanbul-living host. You have to ask for the pass at the ticket office of any participating museum. In my case, the person who served me told me I had to go to another window, and I was served the pass out of a bottom drawer with ill grace as if I was cheating them out of the money which was their due.

Most of the major attractions are historic – uncovering, showing, and celebrating, the incredible millennia-deep human history of the region. I’d single out the Archaeological Museum as particularly mind-bending. Pots and implements from the 4th Century BC had their glazing and other decorations still intact and visible. As one went from room to room, one witnessed whole civilizations and empires rise and fall, each with their incredible artifacts, tombs, statues, each to crumble to nothing. As our own civilization will surely do before long.


I tried with several Turks to get a sense of how important Islam is. I got converging information from several people that the proportion of the population that observes Islam in a devout and fairly complete way is somewhere between 40% and 60% of the adult population. However there were some qualifications. In the current political climate, being seen at the Mosque (and women wearing veils) was more a social than a religious statement – it stated to the society around you where you stood in the current social and politicaldebate. I was told that over the past few years the number of women wearing the veil had dramatically increased, but with no sense that there had been a corresponding sudden increase in religious devotion.

On the other hand, if you ask most Turks “do you believe in God” or “are you a Muslim”, they will say yes without hesitation. In fact one young woman I got into conversation with was really quite shocked when I told her how many people in England were agnostic or atheist. In particular, she just couldn’t get her head round the idea that a country like England, with its Christian tradition, could have elected an agnostic Prime Minister (as David Cameron is). She shook her head sadly, obviously feeling very sorry for the British! I didn’t get a sense she would be booking a flight to London any time soon, perfect as her English was!


Why don’t the authorities regulate the taxis? One person told me that there is a deep aversion in most Turks to publicly criticize or blame other Turks, particularly in front of foreigners. Therefore, in any tension or dispute between a Turk and a foreigner which gets to the level of some legal or official dispute the authorities are likely to favour the Turk. So if a Turk contravenes some traffic law, or rips off a tourist, the authorities are likely to turn a blind eye. It would just not be in the Turkish psyche to regulate taxis.

On the other hand I was also told that you need an official licence to do anything – that the state has taken more and more control of religious observance and the way that mosques and imams can behave. Also I was told that there is no shuttle bus from the city centre to one of the major airports because the contract has been interminably stalled in some government department.

So I am not able to really understand what is going on here. And again and again my non Turkish contacts in Istanbul have said – in one way or another - no matter how long you live here, no matter how many Turkish friends you have, no matter how many Turkish families welcome you into their homes, you will never really understand the Turks. You think you understand, and then something happens which makes you realise you don’t really understand at all!


Istanbul is full of people living here who seem to be refugees in one way or another. Not necessarily in the strict sense of the word, but here because something has not gone well for them in their country of birth, and so they settle here, for shorter or longer duration. Most of the outsiders I met here seem to find it relatively easy to get jobs and apartments here. The economy is relatively booming. I spoke with an Iraqi, out of his country because of the political turmoil there which had taken huge toll on him and his family. I also met an Iranian, who had lived in Canada for many years before coming to live here. And someone from Amsterdam. And several people from Australia. And a man from London, just down the road from me who, although not officially living here (he has a job as a teacher in a London comprehensive) spends all his holiday time here. In different ways I was told by these people that what kept them here was the strong sense of local community. Wherever you live you will be noticed, talked about, and – if you are lucky (which most seem to be) – welcomed into the community and cared for. Community is something which is in short supply in the Western world. In Britain, Australasia, North America, and increasingly in Western Europe, the bonds which held local communities together have fractured. People do not know their neighbours, and do not help their neighbours. Here in Turkey, community is alive and kicking. You may have issues with the particular forms it takes, the restrictions and contradictions it throws up, but you cannot escape it. Come to Turkey. You will be noticed! And if you reach out, you will be welcomed.

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Reshaping pilgrimage for the age of austerity

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, May 19, 2012 13:23:23

A group of people will spend 10 days in June retracing the steps of the historic London to Canterbury Pilgrimage.

This is a great initiative for a sick society. I quote from its informative website:

"This summer, a group of concerned citizens from all walks of life will come together to recreate a modern version of an ancient journey in the hope of building a more equitable future. A two week long walk from London to Canterbury will culminate in a conference on social, economic and environmental justice.

Events held along the route will explore how local communities, faith communities, cooperatives, social organisations and individuals can identify common concerns and work together, reinventing the idea of civil society – the commons – as a potent force for social change. The Pilgrimage for Justice will be a highly visible statement of people’s determination to see a better, fairer society – and it will also provide a focus for exploring what that kind of society might look like, and the policy changes to propose for getting there."

I'm going to try and get to some of this and support it in what ways I can.

Why is this important?

1. It is a multi-faith initiative, open to all. Too much faith-based work is closed, and requires you to sign up to dogma before you can be involved.

2. People need tangible acts with symbolic significance to become more deeply aware of reality and moral imperatives. The walking pilgrimage goes back thousands of years, and appeals deeply to our common humanness.

3. Following the diminution of the visible presence of Occupy in London, and a certain recent lack of energy and direction, the UK social justice movement needs new expressions, which can encompass a far wider segment of society than those willing and able to pitch a tent in central London.

This has strong personal resonance for me. Around 20 years ago, a wonderful group of concerned US citizens decided to go on a peace pigrimage from Washington to Moscow. They walked all the way (apart from crossing sea by air or boat). It took 9 months in all, and for several weeks of that they walked down the UK from Scotland to Dover. Every night they met with, and were cared for by, a different local community.

I had the privilege of being part of the UK organising and welcoming team, fixing up their UK stays, and being closely involved with their visit to the place I then lived in, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire. It was a wonderful experience, drawing us all closer together, and doing something very real, fundamental, but profound together. I still remember the few days the walkers were in Staffordshire very clearly - it was a real high point. In those days, some local authorities had some guts. The City of Stoke on Trent was a proclaimed Nuclear Free Zone, and the walkers - with their total nuclear disarmament message - were given the freedom of the city, and welcomed personally by the Mayor.

This walk deserves success, both for the individuals directly involved, and in their wider outreach into society and the media. Join me on 7th June at St Paul's Cathedral to give them a good send off?

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Compassion is our New Currency

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, January 28, 2012 13:12:06

This year-end reflection by Rebecca Solnit sums up for me the most hopeful elements of 2011's "people's protests". I repost it in full from the progressive website TomDispatch

Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds 
By Rebecca Solnit

Usually at year’s end, we’re supposed to look back at events just passed -- and forward, in prediction mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This moment is so extraordinary that it has hardly registered. People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same.
The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas. The amiable-looking elderly woman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we’re living through and the astonishing movement that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big letters, with the translation -- “occupy the river” -- in little ones below.

The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves.

Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, our operating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he’s saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.

If it’s a movement about love, it’s also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us -- and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people are beginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.

Sometimes love, or at least decency, wins. One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children.

We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass’s shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.

Hundreds of other foreclosure victims are now being defended by local branches of the Occupy movement, from West Oakland to North Minneapolis. As New York writer, filmmaker, and Occupier Astra Taylor puts it,

Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis -- whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater -- truly boggles the mind.”

If what’s been happening locally and globally has some of the characteristics of an uprising, then there has never been one quite so pervasive -- from the scientists holding an Occupy sign in Antarctica to Occupy presences in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Australia, São Paulo, Frankfurt, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik. And don’t forget the tiniest places, either. The other morning at the Oakland docks for the West Coast port shutdown demonstrations, I met three members of Occupy Amador County, a small rural area in California’s Sierra Nevada. Its largest town, Jackson, has a little over 4,000 inhabitants, which hasn’t stopped it from having regular outdoor Friday evening Occupy meetings.

A little girl in a red parka at the Oakland docks was carrying a sign with a quote from blind-deaf-and-articulate early twentieth-century role model Helen Keller that said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” Why quote Keller at a demonstration focused on labor and economics? The answer is clear enough: because Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement. Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?

Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.

“Compassion is our new currency,” was the message scrawled on a pizza-box lid at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan -- held by a pensive-looking young man in Jeremy Ayers’s great photo portrait. But what can you buy with compassion?

Quite a lot, it turns out, including a global movement, and even pizza, which can arrive at that movement’s campground as a gift of solidarity. A few days into Occupy Wall Street’s surprise success, a call for pizza went out and $2,600 in pizzas came in within an hour, just as earlier this year the occupiers of Wisconsin’s state house had been copiously supplied with pizza -- including pies paid for and dispatched by Egyptian revolutionaries.

The Return of the Disappeared

During the 1970s and 1980s dictatorship and death-squad era in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Central America, the term “the disappeared” came to cover those who were kidnapped, held in secret, tortured, and then often executed in secret. So many decades later, their fates are often still being deciphered.

In the United States, the disappeared also exist, not thanks to a brutal army or paramilitaries, but to a brutal economy. When you lose your job, you vanish from the workplace and sooner or later arrive at emptiness in your day, your identity, your wallet, your ability to participate in a commercial society. When you lose your home, you disappear from familiar spaces: the block, the neighborhood, the rolls of homeowners. Often, you vanish in shame, leaving behind friends and acquaintances.

At the actions to support some of the 1,500 mostly African-American homeowners being foreclosed upon in southeastern San Francisco, several of them described how they had to overcome a powerful sense of shame simply to speak up, no less defend themselves or join this movement. In the U.S., failure is always supposed to be individual, not systemic, and so it tends to produce a sense of personal devastation that leaves its victims feeling alone and lying low, even though they are among legions of others.

The people who destroyed our economy through their bottomless greed are, on the other hand, shameless -- as shameless as the CEOs whose compensation shot up 36% in 2010, during this deep and grinding recession. Compassion is definitely not their currency.

The word “occupy” itself speaks powerfully to the American disappeared and the very idea of disappearance. It speaks to those who have lost their occupation or the home they occupied. In its many meanings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take possession of it, employ oneself, busy oneself, fill time. (In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the verb had a meaning so sexual it fell out of common use.) It describes the state of being present that the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which -- as Mohamed Bouazizi might have dreamed it -- the disappeared can reappear with dignity.

Occupy has also created a space in which people of all kinds can coexist, from the homeless to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrarian. Coexisting in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances is one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy, which is why dictatorships ban gatherings and groups -- and why our First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble is being tested more strongly today than in any recent moment in American history. Nearly every Occupy has at its center regular meetings of a General Assembly. These are experiments in direct democracy that have been messy, exasperating and miraculous: arenas in which everyone is invited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a member, to shape the future. Occupy is first of all a conversation among ourselves.

To occupy also means to show up, to be present -- a radically unplugged experience for a digital generation. Today, the term is being applied to any place where one plans to be present, geographically or metaphorically: Occupy Wall Street, occupy the food system, occupy your heart. The ad hoc invention of the people’s mic by the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, which requires everyone to listen, repeat, and amplify what’s being said, has only strengthened this sense of presence. You can’t text or half-listen if your task is to repeat everything, so that everyone hears and understands. You become the keeper of your brother’s or sister’s voice as you repeat their words.

It’s a triumph of the here and now -- and it’s everywhere: the Regents of the University of California are mic-checked, politicians are mic-checked, the Durban Climate Conference in South Africa had occupiers and mic-check moments. Activism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.

A Mouthful of Truth

Before the Occupy movement arrived on the scene, political dialogue and media chatter in this country seemed to be arriving from a warped parallel universe. Tiny government expenditures were denounced, while the vortex sucking our economy dry was rarely addressed; hard-working immigrants were portrayed as deadbeats; people who did nothing were anointed as “job creators”; the trashed economy and massive suffering were overlooked, while politicians jousted over (and pundits pontificated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when someone other than the ruling class waged it. It’s as though we were trying to navigate Las Vegas with a tattered map of medieval Byzantium -- via, that is, a broken language in which everything and everyone got lost.

Then Occupy arrived and, as if swept by some strange pandemic, a contagious virus of truth-telling, everyone was suddenly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about actual problems. The blather about the deficit was replaced by acknowledgments of grotesque economic inequality. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it became intolerable, as had racism when the Civil Rights Movement named it and made it evident to those who weren’t suffering from it directly. The vast scale of suffering around student debt and tuition hikes, foreclosures, unemployment, wage stagnation, medical costs, and the other afflictions of the normal American suddenly moved to the top of the news, and once exposed to the light, these, too, became intolerable.

If the solutions to the nightmares being named are neither near nor easy, naming things, describing reality with some accuracy, is at least a crucial first step. Informing ourselves as citizens is another. Aspects of our not-quite-democracy that were once almost invisible are now on the table for discussion -- and for opposition, notably corporate personhood, the legal status that gives corporations the rights, but not the obligations and vulnerabilities, of citizens. (One oft-repeated Occupier sign says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas puts one to death.”)

The Los Angeles City Council passed a measure calling for an end to corporate personhood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend campaign against corporate personhood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to insert their cash in our political campaigns. Occupy actions across the country are planned for January 20th, the second anniversary of Citizens United. Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s been speaking the truth alone for a long time, introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United and limit corporate power in the Senate, while Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced a similar measure in the House.

Only a few years ago, hardly anyone knew what corporate personhood was. Now, signs denouncing it are common. Similarly, at Occupy events, people make it clear that they know about the New Deal-era financial reform measure known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which was partially repealed in 1999, removing the wall between commercial and investment banks; that they know about the proposed financial transfer tax, nicknamed the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise billions with a tiny levy on every financial transaction; that they understand many of the means by which the 1% were enriched and the rest of us robbed.

This represents a striking learning curve. A new language of truth, debate about what actually matters, an informed citizenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.

We Are the 99.999%

I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate -- until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.

It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine. It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the U.S.

In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit, and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.

But the international .001% who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy -- the oil and coal tycoons, industrialists, and politicians whose strings they pull -- are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.

The groups working on climate change now, notably and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists, and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.

Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions -- and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters. But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.

Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We -- and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before -- have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

Rebecca Solnit, a TomDispatch regular, continues occupying the public library, the sidewalks, her deepest hopes, and the armchair in which she writes, supports, and joins Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland in their general assemblies and actions.

Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit

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How to run our public services

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, January 02, 2012 18:16:41
I've always felt something not quite right about frequently expressed yearnings to return to a nationalised British Rail system. This great piece by blogger Own Jones ( nails my concerns exactly, and points to a really interesting proposal for how to run public services like transport.

"The industry would be run by a board: a third of which would be elected by workers, and a third by passengers. The remaining third would be reserved for Government representatives."

We need more new thinking of this sort.


If ‘typical Labour left policies’ had ever (bizarrely) turned up on ITV’s Family Fortunes, I’d place a pretty safe bet that ‘nationalisation’ would top the poll. But there is something deeply ironic about this, because nationalisation – as conceived and implemented by post-war Labour governments – had very little to do with the Labour left.

It was Peter Mandelson’s granddad and icon of the Labour Right, Herbert Morrison, who was the architect of Labour’s model of public ownership. The new industries were top-down, bureaucratic public corporations. Many workers felt as alienated from their new employers as they did when they were under private ownership. This wasn’t socialism: it was state capitalism.

Neither did it help that, with the exception of steel and road haulage, all of the industries taken over were running at a loss, or in some cases practically bankrupt.

When Thatcherism sold the family silver (as former Tory PM Harold Macmillan famously put it), the Labour left retreated into purely defensive postures. When calls have been made to bring the railways back into public ownership, for example, the intention has generally been to bring British Rail back from the dead.

But it’s easy to forget that, in the 1970s, the Labour left had developed detailed critiques of Morrisonian nationalisation. As Tony Benn put it in the early 1970s: “Nationalisation does not, of itself, shift the balance of power in society, democratise industry, nor entrench new values in work which will automatically enrich the lives of those in nationalised concerns.”

Many of these nationalised industries were, undoubtedly, unresponsive to the needs of consumers. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes complaining about how long it took a BT engineer to fix your phone in the 1970s. As for the workers: well, let’s not forget that Thatcherism trashed the mining industry when it was under public ownership in the form of the National Coal Board.

Nationalisation was scrubbed from the country’s political vocabulary in the 1980s. But, in the aftermath of the near-collapse of the global financial sector, it unexpectedly returned for a comeback tour. Huge chunks of the world’s banking industry were snapped up by the state. In the heartland of free-market capitalism, Comrade George Bush undertook the biggest de facto nationalisations in world history.

Of course, it’s all proven to be a missed opportunity. Western governments intervened in ways that ideologically disgusted them because they had no other options. Commentators chuckled about Labour realising its 1983 Manifesto and taking over the banks. In reality, although the Government had controlling stakes, it refused to exercise any real power. There were no Government delegates sitting in boardrooms and dictating the banks’ policies.

I think there’s a real opportunity to put alternatives to the market back on the agenda. That doesn’t mean a rewind to top-down nationalisation. There’s another alternative: democratic, social ownership (for want of a catchier name).

Consider a proposal from the RMT union for publicly run railways fit for the 21st century, written for left-wing economic think-tank the Left Economics Advisory Panel. The industry would be run by a board: a third of which would be elected by workers, and a third by passengers. The remaining third would be reserved for Government representatives.

Such a board would be forced to work together to find common solutions that would benefit those who worked on and used the railways, as well as keeping in mind the long-term interests of society as a whole. Issues like safety and rail prices would no longer be looked at through a prism of maximising profits.

You could apply the same principle to other industries: like gas or water. In both cases, the neo-liberal argument that competition always benefits the consumer lies in tatters. All socially owned industries would be forced to defend the interests of consumers if they had representatives sitting at the table.

It’s an argument in favour of democracy, too. There is nothing democratic about free-market capitalism. We are ruled by economic despots who wield huge power over our lives, and yet they are not properly accountable to us.

The economic crisis has provoked a real questioning of neo-liberal assumptions, particular of the idea that the market should be allowed to rip. It’s time the Labour leadership started tapping into this yearning for an alternative – and started talking about social ownership. And I’m sure the spin doctors could think of a far catchier name.

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