Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Artilleryman

Today it's 75 years since Orson Welles' version his namesake's War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio. Yes, it is today. They broadcast it the day before Halloweeen.

Perhaps this helped to explain the panic the original broadcast cause, which wasn't as bad as the myth suggests.

In Jeff Wayne's musical version it's little David Essex who plays him. He gets a song about his Brave New World. He actually sounds quite a nice chap.

Orson Welles' version by contrast is not in the least bit cuddly.

Welles adapted the book in the dark days between Hitler being appeased at Munich and invading Poland, and this shows in how he adapts the character. He appears at 39:35 in this recording, wandering in the ruins of Newark. Here Wells' strange dreamer he has morphed into a fascist gloating over the death of liberal America, and then fantasizing about getting hold of some Martian weaponry himself.

The original artilleryman was less fascistic, but he was certainly no liberal either. We meet the character for the first time after the Martians have just wiped out the soldiers sent to surround their first cylinder.

In reality the Victorian British Army only ever played away, but in literature they were very busy on home ground. It all started with the 1871 novella The Battle of Dorking, which suggests that Bismark's Germany follows up its defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war with a surprise attack on Blighty. Fiendish Hun technology defeats the Royal Navy and Britain becomes a Kraut colony.

This was followed by The Great War In England (1894), and others, culminating in P G Wodehouse's The Swoop! in 1909 in which no less than eight foreign armies, plus the Swiss Navy, invade whilst the population is more interested in the Test Match score.

The War of the Worlds tapped into this vein of paranoia. Wells being Wells though he also spliced in images of colonial conquest, giving the Martians weapons that were as far beyond what was known at the time as the Maxim gun was beyond the ken of the Zulus it was being turned on in Africa.

Wells' artilleryman is a Working Class bloke who drops his "h"s and doesn't seem too upset that the world he knew has ended. "Life is real again" he says. Nor does he seem to mind much that "There won't be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won't be any Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants."

Then he comes to his great plan. A world underground where he's in charge, everyone obeys orders and nobody wastes any valuable time on stupid arts and stuff. And finally Wells comes to the killer
point. The Artilleryman is actually too lazy to have dug more than a few feet of tunnel.

Now tunnelling is hard, I should know, but I think if a load of blood sucking Martians were after me I'd make a bit of an effort.

So who do we know who likes to talk about the end of the world? Who crows about the end of the big corporations, the death of reality TV, the demise of Z list celebrity; but who can't actually be arsed to do any of the hard work involved in building a better world?

Hmm, let me think.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Browne Out

(For those of you who think I've posted this three years late - note the 'e' on Browne)

I'm old enough to remember when John Browne, former CEO, of BP was a hero of the Green movement.

Well, sort of.

He certainly said the right things. In 1997 he acknowledged that Climate Change "cannot be discounted", which was actually quite something at the time. He was on the telly, he was on the radio, he wrote articles for worthy magazines and in 2000 he gave a Reith Lecture on Respect For The Earth, He was the poster boy for the sustainable corporation.

Most obviously he changed the name of BP to Beyond Petroleum and adopted a big green sunflower as their logo, thus helping to create the appearance of being a post-oil corporation.

But appearances, especially in the oil industry, can be deceptive. BP's performance on sustainability was unfortunately just as bad as the other energy companies that went 'Green' at the same time, Enron and Shell. Basically, they went for the low hanging fruit. They put a bit of money in wind or solar, cleaned up their act in numerous little ways and got the staff to recycle their syrofoam cups.

As a BP share holder (i.e. I owned one share. And still do) I was a regular at their AGMs as we usually had something to gripe about, mainly oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope. I thoroughly recommend the catering. One year there was a bit of a Spinal Tap moment when a banner, that had been ordered as five feet by seven feet, arrived measuring five meters by seven meters and required something resembling the rigging of a sailing ship to keep in up.

I don't recall ever chatting to Browne myself, but at least one of their board would normally say hello. One even told me he could reduce the cost of solar panels six fold.

Well, that never happened. Indeed, neither did any of the other things Browne promised. To move any further would have required BP to actually turn down the chance to make money out of drilling for new oil. They would actually spent more money on the Beyond Petroleum re-branding than they spent on their renewable side line, and it was sold off in 2008 and business as usual was soon restored.

Or rather something less than business as usual.

The first inkling that all was not well came in March 2005 when an explosion destroyed a refinery in Texas, killing fifteen people. A subsequent investigation revealed the company had cut the maintenance budget by 25% the previous year.

Almost exactly a year later an explosion destroyed an oil transit pipeline at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska causing exactly the sort of oil spill that we'd been campaigning to prevent. Once again cost cutting was a major factor.

All of which leads rather inevitably to the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, by which time BP had the worst safety record of any company operating in the USA. John Browne wasn't in charge by then, having had to retire rather earlier than he planned after lying in court about his relationship, his only regret being he didn't push harder for tar sands, the dirtiest of dirty fuels. However the Deepwater Horizon was very much his true legacy.

Having been lucky to escape perjury charegs you'd think an anonymous retirement would be on the cards but, no. Once you've reached the dizzy heights of the 1% you're stuck there unless you actually murder someone.  (And maybe even not then, especially if you're Russian.)

And so, as well as his lucrative pension, and the proceeds of his self serving autobiography, Browne also got to enjoy a job in the government as Non-Executive Director in the Cabinet Office.

It also seems he hasn't yet kicked his addiction to hydrocarbons. He has a 30% stake in Cuadrilla, who you may have heard of due to their fracking operations in Lancashire, the one that caused the earthquake, and West Sussex, the one where Caroline Lucas got arrested.

Needless to say Cuadrilla stands to make a packet out of fracking, and the only thing standing in their way is the pesky Environment Agency who are reluctant to license fracking if it's not safe - which it isn't.

So it must be damn convenient for them to have one of their top dudes sat round the Cabinet table.

Young Friends of the Earth now have a petition to get rid of him.

Please sign it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Who Controls The Fate Of The Arctic 30?

28 Greenpeace protesters and 2 journalists still languish in a prison in Russia for protesting against Arctic oil drilling.

One of those arrested, Russian born American citizen Dima Litvinov, faces becoming the third generation of his family to be a political prisoner.

The others include six people from the UK; Frank Hewetson who, as he's worked for Greenpeace forever I've known for years, Iain Rogers and Alex Harris from Devon, Anthony Perret from Wales, Phillip Ball from Oxford and freelance videographer Kieron Bryan. 

I met Kieran's aunt in Liverpool last month and she told me something of how this is affecting the family. In truth though the whole of the Greenpeace extended family is very sad at what's happened.

They are no longer charged with Piracy, which is good news, but the charge of 'hooliganism in an organised group' carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and is the offence for which members of the band Pussy Riot received two years in prison. This is very worrying, especially as you are now less likely to be acquitted in a Russia court today than when Stalin was around.

It's a difficult time for activists, especially as it's not clear if anything we've done to date has made any difference. It may even have made things worse. The key question is whenever you are planning a campaign, who do you have to influence?

Greenpeace seem to be pulling as many of the levers of power as it has access to. There has been a debate in the House of Commons, in which the failure of the British government to take any useful action was raised by Ben Bradshaw MP and the Dutch government has approached the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to protest the violation of its sovereignty over the raid on the Netherlands registered Arctic Sunrise.

Meanwhile Greenpeace has protested against Gazprom at a Champions League football match they sponsored, at a yacht race (where they were attacked by a knife wielding member of the crew) and on the Eiffel Tower.

Gazprom appear to be the key player here and may well have the power to free our activists. After raiding the Arctic Sunrise the coastguard radioed back to the Gazprom rig that they had "provided assistance as requested". Italian oil company Eni appears to think Gazprom can free the activists, as their CEO has asked them to intervene. Eni though are a junior partner and so have more to lose here than the Russians. However Gazprom have another partner who may be more influential.

Shell and Gazprom appear to be doing a 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' routine in the Arctic. Shell are the caring modern company which gets nominated for sustainability awards. They may be a strange candidate for a sustainability award. Indeed, even they seem to have their doubts, as they once confessed that a "a sustainable oil company is a contradiction in terms" (Shell's 'confession' is hidden away on page 52 of this 1998 report as a 'personal view')

By contrast Gazprom seem to be happy to play the role of the thug, although they too produce a glossy sustainability report in which they freely admit to a 39% increase in the amount of crap they pump into the environment. However Shell and Gazprom are actually closely allied in the quest for Arctic oil, and Gazprom could not operate without access to Shells' technology.

Greenpeace is therefore asking for as many people as possible to contact Shell to ask them to pressure Gazprom.

Please do this for the Arctic 30.

This is a battle between soft power and moral right on the one hand and hard power and corporate greed on the other. I don't know who will win, but I know on which side I stand.

Thirty things you can do for the Arctic 30

Write to the Arctic 30 to show your support.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Top Five Songs For Activists

Well, top five for this activist, anyway.

I suppose I am a little out on my own here as my most active years as an activist were the rave years, whilst I was the old hippy still listening to folk and rock.

We failed to cause a revolution then, but I guess one could still be on the way. As an anarchist I fully expect to be against the wall on the second day. But whilst I enjoy 24 hours of freedom I hope there is at least a good soundtrack.

5. Food 'n' Health 'n' Hope by Seize the Day

I remember Seize the Day when they were just Shannon and Theo, two musicians who met during the Newbury Bypass protest. We once had a plan to start Wage Slaves Earth First!, for activists who actually worked for a living. Bizarrely they seemed to think being professional musicians counted as working.

Once they ran out of roads to protest they turned, like most of us, to GM crops. This song was an attempt to get Monsanto to sue them in the hope of a lively trial. Monsanto though, having inadvertently made an issue of the Ecologist about them a best seller with a veiled threat of legal action, weren't daft enough to fall for that trick again.

Greenpeace once hired them to play their annual Skill Share. As good Earth First!ers Seize the Day regarded Greenpeace as almost an evil corporation in its own right, which added a little creative tension to the evening. At the time 28 of us were on trial for GM crop destruction (so Greenpeace only do banner drops do they Theo?) so this song went down well.

Seize the day have probably done better songs. With My Hammer, about the Ploughshares action on BA Warton comes to mind, but this is a song that captures a moment when activists took on some of the biggest companies in the world and won.

4. Dancing on the Ruins by Casey Neill

Otherwise known, to those of us who remember the days of VHS, as the theme tune for the Undercurrents videos, which was how we found out what was going on in the world before we could all afford computers.

Casey Neill is from Oregan, the centre of Green activism in the USA, and he started off in the underground music scene of the Pacific Northwest before making something of a name for himself and getting compared to REM, Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen.

He used to play the Earth First! Rendezvous in America, hence his song Riff Raff, and then in 1997 he came over to the UK to play for us. Apparently he did a really good gig in Manchester, but I missed it as I was crawling round the fields of Cheshire on a totally futile action at the time.

3. Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood by Damh the Bard

Pagans are generally supposed to be in tune with the earth, although most prefer to cast spells from the comfort of their bedroom's rather than get their feet dirty on an actual action. There are certainly plenty of exceptions, not least the current King Arthur Pendragon. After a few days in the Newbury mud my Monty Python quip that he "must be a king as he hasn't got sh*t all over him" rang a little hollow.

Also at Newbury was Damh, then just David Smith, who turned up with Bobcat, Greywolf and a load of other Druids to bless Middle Oak, which ended up being the only tree marked for chopping that survived.

After that he started writing pagan folk songs, eventually going on to be our leading pagan song smith. The election of the ConDem government though, and its plans to privatise Britain's forests, seem to have stirred the old activist in Damh, hence this call to arms.

He recently sang the song at the Balcombe anti-fracking protest.

2. Battle of the Beanfield by The Levellers

Once again, they've done better songs; What A Beautiful Day, their cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia and the anthem of the alternative lifestyle One Way for instance, but maybe not angrier ones.

The Battle of the Beanfield is one of those events that I need to keep reminding myself actually happened because even I find it hard to believe British police could behave like that.

Things were a bit safer in the nineties and you had to go to London to get into a real fight. Like the FIT teams and Brays detectives couldn't really avoid the Levellers during the decade.

A tabloid meme at the time was that were personally bankrolling Reclaim the Streets, Earth First! and any other radical direct action group that happened to be in the news that week. If this was true I didn't see any of the money, but they did share an office with the radical newspaper Schnews for while.

The Levellers now have their own festival down in Devon, which is certainly one of the more laid back places to go to hear music outdoors, and rather more like the old Glastonbury festival than Glasto itself is these days.

1. Snelsmore Wood by New Model Army

I always remember there being music on the camps, although if you brought a penny whistle you were quite likely to have it nailed to a tree. Most of it was fairly amateurish, although Paul Gill deserves a mention for this brilliant song, along with my friend Sarah Collick and the gang of Welsh who would follow her over the border to England.

By the time of the Newbury Bypass campaign in 1996 more famous musicians were starting to take an interest. Julian Cope was a regular visitor to Tot Hill camp and plugged the protesters on Top of the Pops.

New Model Army front man Justin Sullivan was there too, where he made himself very useful as he had the dosh to afford a hire car. His experiences inspired several songs on the bands 1998 album Strange Brotherhood. However this is his best song about that time, which is from their next album, Eight.

These are definitely lyrics by someone who was there; angry and impassioned but also nostalgic for a time when it was quite clear where the battle lines had been drawn. Yes, those were days we now recall. Ten thousand trees gone, but not without some mark being made of their passing.

Thanks Justin.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Top Five Climate Change Hypocrites

So what's worse?

Being an out and out Climate Change denier?

Or being a complete and utter hypocrite?

Well, I think we all know the answer to that one. I don't even need to point out that it wasn't climate change denying Exxon who's oil rig polluted the Gulf of Mexico, but 'Beyond Petroleum' BP. Or that it's Channing Corporate Citizen award winner Shell that is leading the charge to exploit both Arctic Oil and Canadian Tar Sands.

Still, better a sinner repented and all that? Well no. I'd rather a sinner unrepentant but at least not sinning.

Nor do I care much for the "we're all sinners" line. George Monbiot may say "show me an environmentalist an I'll show you a hypocrite, but I don't buy it.

Yes, I drive a car, I live in a house, and I don't live on lentils I've grown boo-dynamically in the back garden. I'm ordinary, no better than that, but also no worse. I believe people like me need to do more to reduce their carbon footprint. I also believe people like me should pay more taxes for better public services, but nobody calls me a hypocrite for not sending a cheque to George Osborne.

Anyway, on with the list.

5. Larry Page and Sergey Brin

You may not have heard of them, but as founders of Google they are two of the most powerful people in the world.

Google itself as a reasonable environmental record. It encourages it staff to walk and cycle to work and is aiming to become carbon neutral in its operations.

However the same could not be said for its founders.

They decided to buy a $60 million wide body Boeing 767 and deck it out as a Party Plane, a just for weekends away. And then they fall out over what type of bed to install!

4. Richard Branson

Virgin Galactic; if you need a bigger carbon footprint
So Richard Branson thinks climate change is real, humans are the cause, and we have to act.

Great, except that as I haven't been on a plane for twelve years and he owns a major airline, I'd be interested to know where the "we" comes in here.

I suppose he does also own a train company, but that's a bit like claiming you're green because as well as a Hummer you also own a 2CV.

Not that the rest of the article is that bad. It is, after all, quite true that "Everybody out there needs to reduce their own personal impact, and that includes yours truly"?

Well yes, except that someone who lives in tax exile in the Caribbean has just told me I need to reduce my carbon footprint!!!?!

Okay, he claims he just likes the weather, but either way it's going to be a bit tricky getting to Virgin headquarters in London by public transport, isn't it Richard?

The whole sorry business reminds me of the wise words in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy "Veet Voojagig was finally sent into tax exile, which is the usual fate reserved for those who are determined to make a fool of themselves in public."

3. Prince Charles

Someone else who has a rather laid back attitude to tax is the current heir to the throne.

I suppose I should be more generous to someone who has done a lot for organic farming and who is regular commentator for Resurgence magazine.

However when you embark on a 16,000 miles ecological odyssey to South Africa in a private jet, run a company which ships bottled water to Dubai, and have a household carbon footprint of 2718 tons of CO2 (the UK average is 13 tons) what other word can you use except hypocrite?

2. Trudie Styler

Alas Sting didn't make this list. His crimes, tax dodging and playing a gig in the world's most corrupt country, don't really involve Climate Change. However I will include the other half of the world's most famous Tantric sex act.

I will quite gratuitously drop in that she was once a guest editor of The Big Issue despite owning six homes, and that she had to pay record damages to a chef she sacked whilst pregnant, before I come to the main point. Here is another jet setting celebrity who likes to tell the rest of us to reduce our carbon footprint.

Best of all she once flew eighty miles in her own helicopter to visit Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith in order to discuss......Climate Change!!

Don't Judge Me? No chance!

1. David Cameron

Cameron used to be Green,
On a glacier he was once seen.
Now he denies with deniers,
Builds runways for fliers,
And on, fracking he is quite keen.

I suppose I could let Cameron off. He is a politician after all, so if anyone actually believes anything he says they really do need their head examining.

However his pitch as the Greener alternative to Tony Blair wasn't just a quick sound bite. He flew all the way to Norway to pose on that glacier. And that phrase 'Greenest government ever' wasn't thought up in a five minute break between meeting City lobbyists.

Plus, this hasn't just been another government that doesn't give a sh*t about the environment, they have actively been sh*tting on it. They include "global lukewarmist" Peter Lilley and "global warming can have a positive side" Owen Patterson. They are funded by the City, including the man who bankrolls the Global Warming Policy Foundation and who likes to pop round for tea at number 10. 

Zac Goldsmith; you're in the wrong party (but I think he knows that).

In Conclusion: It's Not About Apathy

So what do we learn from this venomous little list?

Well, that tax is clearly something for the little people, for one thing.

But secondly that it is not apathy that is stopping the world dealing with climate change. These people are many things, but they are not apathetic.

What is stopping us is a minority of people who have done very well out of the carbon age and are willing to pose and posture, to pat themselves on the back for the insignificant changes they have made, and to tell the likes of you and me what we need to do to save the world, but who are not prepared to leave the comfortable world of the 1% themselves.

The Credit Crunch did not happen because people were too stupid to see it coming. It happened because people were too greedy not to stop playing the Casino and because we designed systems to  
which rewarded their greed.

We will not avoid the Climate Crunch just by spouting waffle about "we all have to change". We will avoid Climate Change by actually changing. We need those who have made their pot out of coal and oil to disappear. We should not celebrate those who millionaires and big corporations which acknowledge their carbon footprints or which pat themselves on the back for reducing their CO2 emissions by a few percent.

Instead we need to design systems that reward genuine innovation, that can actually be considered sustainable and which can provide the step changes that we need to survive.

No doubt people like me will then continue to complain about the inequities of the wind power millionaires, the solar panel billionaires and the recycling oligarchs. But that's another battle. Equality is great, but we need a planet to live on first.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Rock Against the Colonels

Never Trust A Hippy

Athens, 21 April, 1967. A serious lack of psychedelia.
Athens, 21 April 1967.

Tanks are on the streets. Soldiers guard government buildings. The Prime Minster is under arrest. The birthplace of democracy is under military rule.

Into this scene there appears a bizarre apparition. Standing six foot five and wearing a Chinese silk kaftan, a pair of gold lame flared trousers and a necklace of white plastic monkey skulls, the figure wafts past the incredulous doorman of the Hilton Hotel and heads downtown, armed only with good vibes and the power of psychedelia.

This was the future legendary NME journalist Tony Tyler, Godfather of James Bond actor Daniel Craig, then enjoying a one month residency at the Athens Hilton playing Hammond organ for an Italian based band. Called the Patrick Samson Set, they were celebrating a Number One across the Adriatic with a cover version of A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Neither the soldiers nor the citizens of Athens appear to have been much moved by Tyler's one man mission of Peace and Love. Indeed it seems only one person even noticed this dedicated follower of fashion as he strode the quiet streets. He was a Bulgarian, and for him this fine specimen of British manhood, decked out in such magnificent garments, was too much too resist. Although a barrier of language and culture divided them, he managed to make his intentions quite plain. Alas, his amour was not reciprocated and Tyler's mission ended with the lanky fashion victim fleeing back to the safety of the hotel.

So much for Flower Power then.

But at least Tyler had noticed there had been a coup. Away on the island of Crete, where hippies lived in the Matala caves, much to the amusement of local people, it all seemed to pass them by. When Life magazine dropped by a year later one Wayne Walvoord told them "I'm worried about America, worried sick about it. I heard from a girl in Tokyo that America is becoming a Police state. Can this be true?" 

Wayne was apparently oblivious to the fact he was the one living in a police state. Three years later Joni Mitchell called in, completely missed the Secret Police, torture chambers and island gulags, and instead wrote a nice little song about drinking wine under the moon.

So it would appear that if your country is taken over by a bunch of reactionary Colonels, don't expect a hippy to help you.

Sex And Drugs And Rock 'n' Roll

Or maybe not. Because it is possible that Greece may actually be the one place in the world where Rock 'n' Roll actually changed things for the better. It's a bit of a tenuous claim, but please stick with me.

Not getting any Satisfaction
Four days before the coup the Rolling Stones had played Athens in a gig which only lasted four songs. Mainly remembered for the brutality of the police, it ended during the fifth song, Satisfaction, when Mick Jagger asked his road manager to give out red carnations. This was regarded as communist agitation and six police beat the poor chap to the ground. Chaos then broke out as the band tried to help and the show came to a premature end.

After that the Animals and the Kinks cancelled planned gigs and the big bands missed Greece off their tours. Instead the Greeks had to put up with stadium shows of incredible kitsch put on by the military. Something like a bizarre cross between Ben Hur and the Edinburgh Tattoo, they started with men in skirts and chariots fighting mock battles against communists and Persians and ended with helicopters dropping Marines into the arena. Not exactly Monterey.

Socrates Drank The Conium
However this was the era of the transistor radio. All over the world teenagers were sneaking into their bedrooms to listen to music their parents disapproved of, and Greece was no different. The Colonels may have played martial music on the official channels, but there was also the American Foreign Radio Station, and clandestine stations that came and went, which played far cooler tracks.

The Junta's attempt to turn back the cultural clock might have worked though had not their economy been so reliant on tourism, and their security on the United States military. It was one thing to ban Greeks from wearing mini skirts and peace signs, but they couldn't stop the hippies who passed though on their way to Katmandu bringing with them the whole paraphernalia of sixties subculture. A handful of young Greeks had already discovered good music, and sex wasn't entirely unknown, the drugs were certainly something new.

Floating dope den the USS JFK off Corfu, July 1969
Reinforcements of good vibrations also came from, of all places, the US Sixth Fleet. Part of the huge US military presence that bolstered the Junta's legitimacy, its sailors did their bit to undermine the cultural embargo. Matt Barrett, an American teenager living in Athens at the time, remembers his school party being sold pot on the hanger deck of the aircraft carrier John F Kennedy, which is I suppose what happens when you name a warship after a President who popped more pills than Ozzy Osborne.

The police kept an eye on the clubs, so most drug use occurred elsewhere. People would arrive for an evening out totally stoned and sip a single drink for the rest of the evening, which doesn't sound very different to being a teenager in Merseyside. Otherwise people would chill out by enjoying the Acropolis at night under the influence of LSD. I've never been, but I imagine it's a deeper and more meaningful experience than viewing Southport pier in the same state of mind.

Aphrodite's Child
After the Rolling Stones fiasco Western musicians didn't visit Greece in person, but they didn't need to as the country produced more than its fair share of great bands. Some, like Aphrodite's Child, who featured one Vangelis of Chariots of Fire fame on keyboards, got famous and moved abroad.

Some, mainly the folkier ones, got political and were banned. But others stayed and rocked the Athens nightclubs.

One of those who got away with it - just - was Socrates Drank The Conium, who sound like Ritchie Blackmore doing Jimi Hendrix. They were regulars at the Kitaro Club, but alas Greece's cultural isolation meant they never made it big outside their home country. As Matt says:
"Oppression can breed great arts as an instrument of rebellion. Socrates with their long hair, beards and high-energy blues and rock and roll were a window on the world outside and the reason people crammed into the Kittaro every weekend. For that reason they belong alongside the great bands of Rock and Roll history."
Other bands played other clubs such as Poll, featuring Kostas Tournas on guitar (and a deliberately ironic name), Exadaktila, Morka and Beloma Beque.

Dionysis Savvopoulos
Rock though was not the only protest music. There was also Rembetika, an eastern orientated folk music that arrived in the Peloponnese with two million odd refugees from the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. Music helped sustain this underclass through Nazi occupation and Civil War and it emerged into the mainstream under military rule. Rembetika singer Dionysios Savvopoulos, who gained a reputation in the sixties as the Greek Bob Dylan - if you could imagine Dylan channelling Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull - would also play the Kitaro Club, and spent time in gaol for his trouble.

The result was a strange situation where stoned westerners turned up to listen to Greek musicians playing American music in clubs where a raid by the Secret Police was a regular part of the evening.

When this happened a surprising number of ESA men would squeeze themselves out of their ridiculously undersized cars and stop the music whilst they checked everyone out. If you had a western passport you were fine, but if you were Greek you could suddenly find yourself taken away. If you were lucky you had your head shaved and found yourself in the army. If you were unlucky you could find yourself getting ten years in prison for smoking pot.

Not that most of the Secret Police, simple farm boys brutalised by a viscous training program, could always spot a joint. Indeed in their single minded search for communists, the Greek police pretty much ignored a drug culture that would eventually become quite a problem.

Call Out The Instigators

As the sixties turned into the seventies the Colonels relaxed their grip on the country slightly.

The regime had started off by banning the Beatles, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates, Sartre, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett and the letter Z. But 1971 they allowed the film Woodstock to be shown. The audience held up thousands of lighters and candles as Hendrix played Star Spangled Banner. Matt says "It was an amazing time". The sixties were finally arriving in Greece.

Students at Athens Polytechnic, as it was then called, also felt the change in the air. Arriving at university they found overcrowded buildings and the worst student-teacher ration in Europe. They also found petty regulations, which included allowing retired army officers the right to sit in on any meetings, and repressive policing that prevented Berkeley-style rallies.

However by 1973, with the economy faltering, what little support the Junta had started to evaporate. The result was an explosion of sixties style protests. The kids who had grown up on rock 'n' roll now had a chance to do it in the streets like the Brits and the Yanks under the slogan of "Bread and education and liberty."

Wilted Flowers

Unfortunately they were not in Britain or America.

If this story was fiction it would all end here, at Athens Polytechnic, in a giant psychedelic party of sex and drugs and music and freedom.

But that was not the reality.

Tanks were sent in and when it was all over forty odd students were dead and the army was back on the streets ushering in a new military regime of such brutality that it almost made people nostalgic for the old one.

Greece had to endure eight more months of hell before a reckless war with Turkey over Cyprus finally convinced the puppet civilian government that it was all pointless.

But what happened next was a real revolution.

Greece enjoyed economic growth and democracy and Greeks ended up living, on average, both longer and happier lives than Americans on half the income, which is frankly what it's all about.

No Direction Home

Beautiful women. Riot police. Welcome to Greece.
All of which must make the subsequent fall that much harder to bear. In austerity Greece today murder, suicide and disease are up, tax dodging by millionaires with friends in power is rife and a police force with fascist sympathies controls the streets.

Rock is not austerity music. It is the expression of a hedonistic youth who know that the future belongs to them. Despite the secret police, the torture centres and internment camps, the kids in the Kitaro club in the sixties probably had more reason to think of rock as their music than the children of today's Athens.

Pavlos Fyssas , victim of Neo-Nazis
Which is perhaps why across Greece it is relatively unknown rap and hip-hop artists, not big name rockers, who are speaking up for the lost generation. And it was a rapper who last month paid the ultimate price for his music.

Under the Colonels protests were illegal. Now they are allowed but few can be bothered any more. Then the answer seemed simple. Now nobody knows what should be done.

Between 1967 and 1974 the world turned its back on the Greek Junta. Today we must not turn our back on Greece. We really are all in it together, or at least 99% of us are.

And if there is a music of hope today it must be a music that belongs to the whole world.

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot
I Hate Rock And Roll by Tony Tyler
Life 19 July 1968
Matt Barrett (website and personal correspondence)

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Five Ways To Get Out Of Debt: Lessons From The Ancient World

The world has a debt problem.

Let’s put this in perspective. Our little blue planet has a Gross Domestic Product of about seventy trillion dollars. That’s a seven with thirteen noughts after it.

The world’s debt meanwhile is at least three times that, an estimated $223 trillion.

‘At least’ being a very guarded phrase as estimates of the total exposure of derivatives, those infamous financial ‘weapons of mass destruction', runs to two or three times that level.

The bank JP Morgan alone has derivative liabilities of $90 trillion, or more than the world's GNP. Given that they effectively hold the world to ransom you may or may not be relived to know that they have one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair working for them and that they were recently fined nearly a billion dollars for illegal trading.

It seems we bailed out the banks, but totally failed to reform the system.

We have however been here before. Debt has been with us one way or another for 5000 years or more, and in that time different ways have been found to deal with it.

So here we are, the ancient world's solution to the debt crisis.

1) More debt

The hair of the dog approach, which has never worked for my hangovers. This tactic probably goes back a long way, probably to the day when Paul was repaid at the expense of Peter.

It was the ancient Sumerians who wrote the book on debt.

Hammurabi is a name I actually remember from school history. Under his reign the first recorded laws were inscribed in stone. They covered all aspects of life from getting married to buying a house to having children to committing adultery and finally getting divorced.

There were also rules for dealing with cowboy builders (by killing them), and an awful lot about debt.

One Babylonian solution to debt is to sell someone else into slavery to pay it off. If you want to know how that feels, ask a modern Greek.

Debt though kept the wheels or the Babylonian economy turning, and turn pretty rapidly they did too.

However it couldn't last forever, and it didn't.

2) Growth

Like sex when you're sixteen, growth today is that mysterious something that everyone talks about but nobody seems to know how to get.

For the Neoliberals it will come back once we cut taxes and public spending. For the Keynesians it will return if we increase debt and don't cut public spending. Standing the sidelines, shaking their heads and muttering about Peak Oil, are the environmentalists.

Not that there were too many of them 5000 years ago when credit fuelled growth made the Fertile Crescent the economic powerhouse of the Known World. But it didn't last. The clue to what went wrong is in the name. Seen any pictures of Iraq recently? Doesn't look very fertile, does it?

The Tigris and Euphrates delta may have been the birthplace of Western Civilisation, and for a while home to a very advanced system of agriculture, but it was also a very fragile eco-system.

Deforestation led to soil erosion and irrigation led to salinisation. Eventually the land that had fed the armies of Hammurabi and Darius the Great was mostly barren salt flats. Their economy weakened and in 330BC the Barbarians overran the frontiers in the form of Alexander the Great.

The problem is, whilst there is no practical limit to how much debt you can create, an economy is firmly based in the real world which has definite limits. As the economist, and peace activist, Kenneth Boulding said "anyone who believes you can have infinite exponential growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist". 

It is now more than 40 years since the book Limits to Growth started to map out the ecological limitations of our economy. Since then conventional oil has peaked and just about every other measure of economic activity has declined too. Those early computer models have been widely derided ever since, but the scenario of ecological overshoot and economic collapse in the second half of this century looks rather more convincing today.

3) Inflation

So if you can't grow your economy, why not just grow your money?

It seems rather obvious really. If you lower the interest rates people are more likely to spend than save, so if you could reduce the interest rate to effectively less than zero people would have no motivation at all to keep their money in the bank so they go out an spend it.

There are a few tiny, weeny problems. We sort of got away with this in the seventies as, with full employment and strong Trade Unions, wages more or less kept pace. Today it's more likely that prices would shoot up whilst your pay cheque stays grounded. Economist Max Keiser thinks this will be the next trick our leaders pull, but then he is barking mad.

Inflation first became an economic problem in the fourth century BC. Then, as now, we can blame the Greeks.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he found truly staggering quantities of gold and silver stored under the mattress. To put some numbers on this, a rich Greek city like Athens might take in about 400 talents of silver a year in tax, which is about 10 tons. In the vaults of Persepolis the Macedonians found over 3000 tons of the shiny stuff.

And then they started to spend it. The resulting price hikes effectively halved the value of the shekel in the pocket of the ordinary Babylonian. Add to that the market uncertainty caused by Alexander's death and you had a Classical Credit Crunch.

4) Wipe the slate clean

But it wasn't the first one.

Life in indebted Babylon could be hard if you were at the bottom of the social ladder. As no ancient civilisation could survive without peasants or infantry it was important to make sure debt didn't completely destroy the social fabric of the nation.

Every few decades, it seems, they hit the reset button and 'wiped the slate clean', a phrase that has passed into the world’s vernacular. Between 2400BCE and 1400BCE some thirty odd instances of debt cancellations have been found in Mesopotamia.

The idea seems to have been picked up by the Israelites, who had a sojourn in Babylon in the sixth century, and the Old Testament tells how the ancient Israelites held land in common and had a Jubilee Year every half century in which debts were cancelled and slaves freed.

Today, only Iceland has tried such a tactic, and so far things are looking good for the Vikings – if not for their banks. What would happen if one of Europe’s debtor nations tried this could be interesting. Probably bad news for the banks, and anyone with savings, but potentially good news for the real economy. 

5) Do nothing

So what happened to Babylon after 1400BC when they stopped cancelling the debts?

Inequality increased, more and more peasants were sold into debt slavery, economic migrants fled and caused a nuisance as far afield as Egypt and Mesopotamia entered a period known as the "Dark Ages".

I wonder if we might be following suit?

Lost Traditions of Biblical Debt Cancellations by Michael Hudson 
Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber