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Utopian Imagination

Anthony Nolan arrived at Webdiary on the Saturday night of the APEC protest in Sydney last year, and has since become a regular and versatile contributor. This is his maiden piece for Webdiary


Utopian Imagination by Anthony Nolan

On another thread Malcolm B Duncan labelled people who comment but don't initiate threads as 'lurkers'. I thought it a good idea, therefore, to cease lurking and pull my weight by opening a discussion on a subject that informs a significant amount of critical comment and, from time to time, heartfelt disagreement: what do we want?

By way of introduction I'll note that no social change occurs without an act of imagination. In other words before willed social change happens it is first necessary to decide what it is that we want either individually or collectively. Prior to that, however, is the moment of active imagination when people ask themselves "What could be different about how we live?"

The absence of a capacity for this reflexive questioning is what Gramsci called "hegemony of ideology" by which he meant, and I'll admit to playing fast and loose with the idea here, the supreme dominance of ruling orthodoxy even to the extent that subordinated classes or types of people whose interest would lie in a change to social conditions cannot imagine conditions other than those they currently experience. Without being able to imagine different conditions, of course, they endure what they know.

A capacity for imagining different conditions is the hallmark of a capacity for freedom, individual and collective agency, citizenship. The absence of that capacity signifies the existence of state or other forms of terror and oppression. Worse still it can signal the internalisation or naturalisation of inequality such that those whose interests lie in change do not seek change. Whether the inequality is one based on ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality or some other focus -they simply endure what they have because their subordination seems to be an insurmountable social fact

Therefore, the task at hand is to bring some of our thinking from other threads to bear on this one in an act of imagination. What would you have different? This is an opportunity for a first principles moment: how do you want to live?

In order to prevent the generation of a mere wish list I would suggest that if you put a suggestion forward then you need to show why it is a sound idea and how you would do it.

I'll start. My preference would be for the Australian economy to be centred on feeding, clothing, housing, educating and finding meaningful work for all Australians as a top priority. A general claim that the purpose of social life is to ensure a rough equality in access to social goods. Not a strict distributional equality but a guaranteed equality of opportunity up to a certain point and a guarantee of systematic support through life that would soften the sharpness of market relations and dependence on the market for sustaining life's necessities. For example, those with either acquired or inherited disabilities would receive lifelong assistance which would be provided with the purpose of maximising the person's capacities to engage in a socially meaningful life.

That is just a start. Over to you.

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Pensioners can live though

It might be harder in Sydney but where is the evidence that people are really doing it tough? I live on disability, never go hungry and never get behind in my normal bills.

What are people actually complaining about?

Richard:  Marilyn, have you looked at the rent prices over there lately? 

But, bonuses are the way to go

....in my opinion.

Younger, able bodied people should not anticipate that the state will provide a comfortable income in their old age. 

Of 7 babies born here recently, 4 were under DOCS care before they left the hospital.  The midwives tell me that the mums say openly that the baby is for the bonus:  I am happy to say that when DOCS takes the babe, the mums only get a part of it. 

How do we care for those in real need, from ill fortune, mental illness, etc, while discouraging those, whose numbers seem to be increasing,  who look at government support as a career path?


I have a huge pity for those caught in the time-trap of present old-age pensions.

Fiona, perhaps you are giving the numbers from a rich and generous district. The pensioner discount here is $250 dollars p.a. ...a negligible sum against the 000s of annual rates....and, one can see the consequence as these deceased estates are sold: modest old houses with 1940s kitchens, cracked walls, leaking roofs. Well kept in their way: but one sees the struggle and the penury. No way to end a life.

Not Happy Kev.

"The Prime Minister said "living on the single age pension is very, very tough, which is why we are committed to its reform."

Give 'em (pensioners) a bloody increase then! 

Ah, but Kev has to wait for the results of two reviews before he will act! Possibly sometime next year.

As Bob Brown said,"It's quite cruel of the ministers who recognise that they can't live on the pension to say to pensioners across Australia, you can wait another nine months in a situation we wouldn't contemplate being in ourselves."

Evidence-based decision-making

OK, Kathy, have a think about this – the information comes from Centrelink’s site and relates to the payment of the aged pension to a single person without dependants.

The full aged pension is $546.80 per fortnight.

If you are a home-owner you are entitled to the full aged pension provided your other assets do not exceed $171,750.

If you don’t own your home, you still get the full aged pension if your assets do not exceed $296,250.

Of course, if you own your own home you also get reductions in your rates, so – and leaving aside things like maintenance – your unavoidable outlay on your property each year is (being generous) $200 per month. (I am basing this figure on information from a neighbour of mine in Melbourne – in one of the leafy eastern suburbs, where the rates are higher than most other parts of the city.)

Contrast this with the situation of the single aged pensioner who does not own her (usually) own home and has minimal assets for whatever reason, perhaps because she didn’t do paid work (having cared for children, parents, spouse…) or because if she had been in the paid workforce for whatever time, for much of that time superannuation was not available to many women. Such a pensioner has to pay rent. Sure, there is rental assistance – a whacking $107.20 per fortnight if the rent paid exceeds $238.33 per fortnight…

So who needs the increase most – the fortunate home-owner with assets, or the aged pensioner renter? Should we spread the jam thinly, or should the larger serve go to the neediest? Isn’t this what the Harmer review is supposed to be about?

Go figure.

Why do they have to wait?

From "The West" online.

"Yes, pensioners were doing it tough, especially single pensioners, many of whom are widows or widowers.

But what did Ms Macklin do with this information? She merely announced that Dr Harmer’s review would proceed for a completion date of late February, as if the facts of the situation would somehow change in the next few months.

To pensioners like 72-year-old Spalding resident David Prichard it was a cruel commitment to due process.

“Why is the gestation period for the report expected to be so long-drawn-out?” he told me this week.

“Surely, the required information, none of which requires any empirical research, can be obtained in less than nine months. It’s not rocket science. Any articulate age pensioner could provide the information in five minutes.

“By the time additional benefits are forthcoming, inflation will have nullified their effect and we’ll be back to square one, again.”

So why the wait?

The Government will undoubtedly increase pensions but intends making it one of the central themes of next year’s Budget, meaning pension payments might not be increased until July 1. "

Surely it is obvious now, who are the neediest.

Pensioners themselves can provide that information, as pensioner David Prichard says.

Personally, Fiona , I believe the larger share should go to the neediest.

How hard would it be to ascertain this information?

Both Rudd and Gillard say the pension is not enough to live on.

Why make the poor buggers wait another nine months?

If not Utopia, then maybe Erewhon

...in which one idea that appealed to me was that criminals should be treated as we now treat the ill: cosseted, isolated and sympathetically managed until free of the aberration.

My sympathies on your illness, Ian McDougall, and wishes for a full recovery.

Your comments were very thought provoking, and I, for one, would like it if you had the time, interest and energy to expand on them.

I dislike what I assume to be the cat's motives.

I'll get back to you, F Kendall

F Kendall: "Your comments were very thought provoking, and I, for one, would like it if you had the time, interest and energy to expand on them."

Thank you for that. Sorry, just noticed it.

Right now the spirit is willing but the flesh is as you suppose, lacking energy.

I will maybe get a chance to add something to it next week. My GP told me today that there's a lot of viral labyrinthitis about, and recovery will take time. Right now, reading The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay is about all I can manage.

Actually, it's not a bad yarn.

Utopian musings

It is heartening to read affirming responses. It seems that many of us are exercised by the question of how things could be otherwise rather a lot of the time.

Toni, the idea, as you charmingly put it, of a cloister-based, post-neo-liberal reconstruction of civilised social life derives from MacIntyre. He was English, of course; who else would think such a thing a good idea?

As to looking to the university based intelligentsia to lead it - well, no, not really. They are post-everything these days - post-modern, post-Marxist, post-feminist and too infrequently post-coital to be of much use as leaders. I am not unsympathetic with their plight.

Justin appears to be spending too much time on long flights but makes a useful point when he remarks on the limitations of human "herd" behaviour. Political and social planning, even utopian imagination, probably needs to be based on the bottom line of our worst capacities rather than aspirations as to our best capabilities. It was Jung who commented that some people appear to function at the level of a fish. He ought to have added that some fishes are sharks, so watch out.

Fiona shares the historian's fascination with the transition from feudalism to modern industrial capitalism. Thanks for pointing out the distinctively po-mo fact of our co-existence with modern day feudalism in the form of drug and crime "lords". Baz Luhrmann's vision in his version of Romeo and Juliette gains new meaning in the light of this.

Then of course there is Claude who has apparently escaped from the pages of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and taken up residence on Webdiary. One doesn't know what to say except to beware of talking cats because they are often in league with with a refined and timeless gentleman.

Claude's OK for a cat ... I spose

Toni, moi speaks and writes two languages: English and Bad language. Bad language comes easy while English is far more difficult. Cat language is for pussies.

And speaking of pussies, please note that Claude gets his "insulin" from someone named Tom in Riley Street (or so they say). Claude has also be known to wear a kilt and bow tie and is cruel to mice, birds and butterflies (when he has the energy). Claude has also been known to drive while under the influence of alcohol which, for an inebriated passenger, can be a very sobering experience.

For fun Claude sometimes writes under a pen name and pretends he is a barrister who owns a diabetic feline named Claude, but this has more to do with the "insulin" than reality; everyone knows a barrister would never wear a bow, let alone a kilt.

Being a bird I've never much cared for cats, especially pussies in kilts, but it could have been worse: we could have ended up with a sexually confused boob tube wearing bob cat with fantasies of being an albatross.

And that would have been unbearable.

I suppose Claude's OK, best we feed him now again and see what he brings up.


Pussies in kilts - what every red-blooded Scot wants. Especially since they've been admitting lowland lesbians. Over our way, we just call it Kings Cross Dressing.

Utopia - futopia - futileopiate - getting close I think

Imagination: believe it or not this birdbrain was heaps of that; usually kicks in when one gets sick of thinking about sex on long flights accross the southern oceans. Sublimation does wonders for creativity which of course is imagination's child - in all its innocence.

Utopia: I suppose Tom More thought it was a good idea at the time but the human condition saw to that one.

And there's the rub; we all know that an ideal socio-political society means pleasing all the people all the time. Can't work; we will always have those who choose to dissent (thankfully). Utopia is a mind thing and always will be.

Best wait to you get to heaven.

One thing for sure is we aint gunna turn this planet into some idealistic piece of prose; at best we can choose leaders who will address Anthony's preferences: "feeding, clothing, housing, educating and finding meaningful work ...".

This should be universal as most things (peaceful) follow. Trade and knowledge, positive relationships and wealth in all its monetary and cultural attires. We at least would have the opportunity to create and live a very personal utopia; freedom, emotional relaxation, a sense of worth, and not thinking about sex (all the time) leads to a comfortable life; a just life; or maybe as Plato said when he attempted a definition of justice "...is the having and doing what is one's own". A fair go mate.

Utopia in the collective sense is for poets; best we try to redirect the attention of our pollies and their corporate puppet masters to things positive for our communities at large and not just dividends and bonuses.

The people of the day should support those corporations or businesses that build tractors instead of bombs; solar panels instead of bullets and hospitals instead of detention centres etc. etc. etc and so on and on.

Things change constantly but the human condition, especially in the collective (herd) sense, does not seem to change much at all. It is easy to talk about how things should, or could be, but the reality is (like kiddies) we haven't got over the bombs and bullets thing yet

When we can do that we may have turned the corner; but in the meantime methinks it's time to go wandering and enjoy a little futileopiate.


delayed reaction.

Actually a pertinent thread, as are the responses. It's the sort of thing that occupies my thoughts, too.

And like so much of use, confined to the blogosphere - not the sort of thing always assayed in the tabloid press, much more preoccupied as that is with the sex lives of starlets and footy players.

I agree with the Gramschi comments; they are beautifully positioned to tune the essay, so that readers get straight to the central idea and consider its ramifications; Webdiarists here actually responded constructively, proving what a strong skill good lead-in language and its delivery can be.

Set me off me thinking, in terms of imagination, of the literary dystopias of Huxley, Orwell and so forth that have allowed us fortunate Aussies a means for examining our times in the way that Ian suggests, to maintain that consciousness that enables all of us a capacity for engagement without which heterogeny and homogeneity triumph.

Am not saying btw, that this is any thing but a normal state of affairs for a society at a given time: am not Manichean in my outlook and well aware that there is a thought abroad that a society without certain combinations of tensions in play as a tuning mechanism may not function that well. Who would this humble chronicler be to ascribe teleology to any given phenomena, anyway?

But we must admit literacy, if you like, of our level and type, is not a universal phenomenon in our world, much more than it was hundreds of years ago. We actually are sentinels or gatekeepers and I quite concur with Ian's intuition that future generations may judge us on our alertness or otherwise to our times and how we respond to them.

Malcolm's comments, if interpreted correctly by Anthony, are valid: it does require effort and imagination to write a thread starter - it's the next step up for a blogger. But it can be rewarding and allows for a different slant on how and what people think on something and maybe why.

All not lost at all...

I agree John that there are immense opportunities in the transition from a carbon based economy to other forms of energy. There are also immense opportunities in the earth repair industry. 

We may be in trouble but the only disgrace would be going down without a fight. 

I watched a program on the box last night about reafforestation in WA as a form of carbon sequestration.  A terrific idea and so heartening to see someone doing it on a grand scale and for profit into the bargain.  As well, it appeared to me that the scale and ecological balance of the project was designed to maximise the ecological complexity by re-creating an ecology that would sustain as many species as possible.  Very sophisticated.  I have a suspicion that this century may well see a re-emergence of  engineers and biologists as significant citizens. 

I would love to see a high-tech savvy Australia that was intent on turning itself into an ecologically rich and diverse place.  We are, even now, still better placed to do this in ecological terms than many other countries.

What would you do if you had 10 billion dollars?

Imagine the effect on our economy if we mastered cutting-edge technologies like these, not just for our own consumption, but for export to the world: hydrogen-powered vehicles; fuel cells; plug-in hybrids; new nuclear technology, for safe, carbon-neutral plants; carbon sequestration, which would let us keep relying on coal, while storing emissions in the ground.

These, and other promising solutions, are hardly space-age endeavors; most of the science already exists. The difficulty lies in achieving economies of scale and cost-effectiveness, but it's exactly there that government support could make the difference.

We could also use the money to support existing clean technologies. We could extend tax credits for renewable-energy electricity and solar projects, help local governments issue bonds for renewable energy construction, and preserve incentives for homeowners to install solar panels, small windmills, geothermal heat pumps, and fuel cells on their property.

It would be worth every penny. So much is at stake when it comes to clean energy, beginning with lower gas prices and a healthier planet for our children. Global leadership is at stake, too. In the 21st century, it will take more than an accident of geography to be a world energy leader: It will take innovation, ingenuity, and smart investment. With the right choices today, we can earn that role for generations to come.

Mr. Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, is House majority leader.

The Wall Street Journal asked Mr. Hoyer what he would do with $10 billon?

With Australia sitting on a $22 billion surplus 

It is time Australia started to invest in the future. Unlike the US, we have the money. Now we need to see some action. 

You could add the Buddha

You make an interesting point, Bill Avent, about those who enjoy a measure of material security being the ones who provoke change.  The Gautama Buddha as well was of royal descent.  He, and I suspect others as well, couldn't tolerate the suffering of others.

Years ago a mate said that the defining moment of recognition of membership of the working class was when, "like every other bastard you start thinking 'how the fuck do I get out of this' ".

As for the renaissance of  feudal relations ... yep.  Alisdair Macintyre's After Virtue argues that the new dark ages are not approaching but have well and truly begun and that, like the last period, a wise course of action might be to establish the modern equivalents of monasteries to act as bastions from which we can recivilise social life after the worst was over.

In my darkest moments I think he probably was an optimist.

Recivilising social life from the cloister

Anthony, I am interested in the idea of a cloister-based, post-neo-liberal reconstruction of  civilised social life. I presume this would be a non-clerical enterprise lead by those who, these days, are used to a monastic life - the university-based intelligentsia perhaps?

 Ian M (Ed): I may be wrong, but I think this is your first post, Toni. Welcome aboard the good ship Webdiary.

Boarding the good ship Webdiary

Ian M, you are absolutely correct. My first post! Thank you very much for your kind welcome.

Purrr, smooge, Toni Schofield

At last, someone else who talks in cat.

Fat and Rude hasn't a clue what it means.

 You stick with me kid - insulin willing, you'll be right.

I guess it's insulin. 

Neurotransmitters - not hormone proteins

Claude, thank you for your encouraging welcome but I have no great facility in "cat". I speak, read and write English fluently; French falteringly; Latin dimly; and Gutter as required. Biology is not one of my strengths but I understand that my critical capacities are mainly dependent on the vigour of my neurotransmitters, not my insulin production.

The more things change…

Ian MacDougall, many thanks from this serf for your thought-provoking scenario. And to Anthony Nolan, from this lurker, for starting this discussion.

Anthony, I find interesting the phenomenon whereby the ability to imagine different conditions seems always to have been one belonging to those whom existing conditions, at least in the material sense, favoured. Marx, Engels, Wilberforce or Mao, or whatever social reformer we care to mention, all seem to have come from the comfortable classes. Castro, Guevara, Ghandi. The only exception I can think of is the carpenter from Nazareth. Which leaves me wondering where people's ideas come from. There must be more than just material interest driving the thinking of even materialist thinkers like Marx.

Your interpretation of the hegemony of ideology is interesting, too. I am reminded now of the Chinese practice of foot-binding. According to what I was taught, this practice was imposed by compulsion upon the peasant classes by rulers intent on exploiting them. It was intended to prevent the peasants from wandering off in search of greener pastures — if its women couldn't walk properly, the workforce couldn't go anywhere. Eventually the reason behind it was forgotten; it became a tradition, and more compulsion had to be employed to break it.

Ian, I have long thought that the social conditions of feudalism are with us still. Only the names we use and faces we see have changed, along with the conditions under which we use them and see them. The idea came to me when I read in some required text a little throw-away line to the effect that in feudal times all the king owned were his castle and the kingdom's public highways. The real wealth and power lay in the hands of barons and earls, who in their common interest could replace the king any time they wanted to. The king was there to serve their interests.

We need to remember, too, that in feudal times a king too unpopular with the common people was on his way out. Now, as I see it, the king is the government, which now owns the highways; the aristocracy whose interests it is there to serve is the corporate sector; and the serfs are the electorate, who can only vote one government out by voting another one in. The one the serfs vote in can only continue to serve the corporate sector, as did the one it replaced.

How the monastery fits into this is unclear. I don't think its role in feudal times is as simple as you say; nor was that of the travelling trader. After all, there was trade taking place between the villagers all the time, as well as trade between the villagers and the monastery, and between the villagers and the feudal lord. Too, the monks were engaged in industry. The village was full of cottage industries, whereas the monastery was engaged in industry on a larger, more collective scale. Notably horticulture, animal husbandry and beverage manufacture. Being preoccupied a lot of the time with beer, I am especially aware of the latter. The monks used to sell their beer and mead to the villagers, and to the castle.

The modern trader

I was inclined to think that he could be the old peasant, Ian McDougall: that power might evolve to those having survival skills, actually able to do something.

Then a friend spoke to me of an article in Saturday's Financial Review, called, I think, "Macquarie's Big Green Grab", and it was interesting to hear Mac's speak of positioning themselves for"peak oil, peak carbon, peak water, peak food".

So maybe we'll move towards a dependence on the lord again, for our plot of land, our well, our energy. Window tax, anyone?

The Modern Trader

F Kendall, my apologies for not responding sooner, but I have been laid low with labyrinthitis. (A pity, as I like nothing so much as a trawl through a labyrinth.) I am much better now.)

When I first thought about the scenario involving the monastery, lord and trader, I saw the trader as someone of obscured but undeniable significance in the economy of the day, but who none the less was well outside the main game as played by the other two major players.

A modern counterpart would be seen as of marginal, but growing, economic significance, but still be outside the main political and economic contests; playing a different game with a completely different set of rules. Just as the trader had no place in the main feudal contest of his time, so our modern counterparts have no real place in capitalism - unlike capital and labour, who both definitely do. Their time will come as today's capitalism ossifies, and struggles to do the things the modern traders can do, which it is not capable of taking on itself. Its danger is not communist revolution, but rather a gradual sidelining, as happened to feudalism everywhere except perhaps in the Middle East, parts of Africa and pockets of Asia. Spain and its former colonies appear (at long last) to be leaving it behind.

The main players under feudalism needed the people who became the third estate: the burghers, who were able to use every opportunity created by the chaotic lurchings of the feudal societies in their historic development - eg the Crusades - to improve their position. The fascinating history of Venice is particularly relevant in this regard.

The values of the forerunners of the bourgeoisie: the craftspeople, traders, tradesmen and merchants were foreign and strange to those at the heart of feudalism. Those born into the feudal hierarchy sought advancement by being promoted upwards through it, chiefly through war and inter-house rivalry (eg York vs Lancaster), while those outside made and sold them their armaments, and provided the trappings for their castles and church buildings. They were really in two separate societies, albeit sharing common ground.

The bourgeoisie never completely disposed of feudalism. Its vestiges remain today, particularly in Britain; less so in France. Much of it finished up incorporated into capitalist society as the latter evolved. For example, it has not suited the British bourgeoisie to get rid of the House of Lords: an important expression of class domination. Instead, they have largely taken it over.

Here and there it stages a revival, most importantly and paradoxically in the United States. I refer of course to the Mafia and similar gangs in Chicago. They are not called 'lords' (crime lords; drug lords) for nothing. Their methods and inter-house turf wars are characteristic of feudalism rather than of capitalism.

Since 1981, when I first started thinking along these lines, I think the modern counterparts of the trader have grown in number and influence. I do not think they will overthrow capitalism, but they will probably eventually do to it what the British bourgeoisie did to British feudalism, both to the nobility and to the Catholic Church as it was prior to the time of Henry VIII.

Most importantly, their way of thinking is as bizarre to those conditioned in the ways of capitalism as the mercantile way of thinking was to the warlords and the clerics of the 12th Century.

Absolutely fascinating

These responses are fascinating. A small number but then the capacity to imagine and to speak these tender ideas about decency and compassion is confined to those with the boldest hearts. F Kendall wants the state to fulfill a very ordinary expectation regarding early childhood intervention and knows that the cost savings in human misery and dollar terms would be immense. John Pratt understands that human evolution depends on our phenomenal capacity for recognition and co-operation and puts forward the terrific idea of Unions of Democracies. The OBU (One Big Union) lives on, grander than ever. Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill would be delighted. Jenny Hume sustains a profoundly radical vision and personal practice in militant non-species-ism and Ian MacDougall provides an intriguing syncretist account of human history in which the trader is the true cosmopolitan.

None of what has been thus far proposed is in any way mutually exclusive. Interesting, isn't it? And none of it is in any way non-achievable.

Thinking small...

...because I do not have a big view.

A great deal of money spent on early childhood intervention would empty the gaols. And save much greater amounts of money.  And a huge amount of human misery.

Everyone knows this.

But the financial input would have no benefit in the four year term of a government.  So, we continue with an acknowledged failing and destructive system.

A world where all life was respected and protected

My Utopian vision, would see a sustainable global economy, where human rights were guaranteed to all. A world where all life was respected and protected.

To achieve this vision the road to success would be to value the things we have in common more than the things that make us different.

Human societies have evolved from family units or clans. To survive in a village we had to link up with other families to provide better protection and opportunities to all the families of the village, we had to develop codes of conduct common to each village. As the villages grew into cities we had to develop common bonds to defend the cities from other cities. Cities soon found they had to unite with other cities to form nation states. Each nation state has a set of values and common bonds.

The next step in human evolution is for nation states to come together finding common bonds. A good example of this in recent history is the EU.

We should use the example of the EU to develop and grow unions of nation states. Australia could link with New Zealand and other neighbouring countries who wanted to join a Pacific Union. Eventually the Pacific Union, and the United States of America, may join the EU forming a Union of Democracies.

By making free trade, human rights, environmental protection, and open immigration policies part of these unions, eventually all nations of the world would see the advantages of joining such unions. 

It is by working together, looking for things that we have in common rather than things that make us different, that we will and must eventually have a world union that would guarantee, human rights, a sustainable economy, and a rich life to all life on this wonderful planet. 

How does social change occur?

In 1981, I self-published a small pamphlet entitled Goodbye Capitalism, Goodbye Socialism. It was well received on the whole by those who read it, but a depressingly huge proportion of the world’s population is yet to do so.

Socialism as we knew it in the post WW2 global environment collapsed under its own bureaucratic inertia, and the iconic moment is generally regarded as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What replaced it in the East was a crony capitalism under which former high Stalinist bureaucrats have become the owners of former state enterprises.

On the other hand, western capitalism, dominated as it now is by multinational corporations, has entered a phase of considerable insecurity and social polarization. People whose social cooperation is mainly through large corporations and multinationals are having to deal with unprecedented economic and environmental uncertainty, in which globalisation, climate change, the American sub-prime mortgage crisis, Islamic fascism, the oil price roller-coaster and resource wars may just be the beginning. I may as well add here that Marx’s class struggle never died. The corporate elite in my view are taking on an ever-closer resemblance to the European aristocracy: particularly as it was manifested in France, pre-1789.

I do not believe that the future is an extrapolation of either modern market Stalinism, as seen in contemporary China, or the selectively deregulated and globalised corporate capitalism we see in the modern West. Both are too unstable. So where might the future lie, if not with either of these?

While agreeing with much in Anthony Nolan’s threadstarter, I must take issue with the following:

"By way of introduction I'll note that no social change occurs without an act of imagination. In other words before willed social change happens it is first necessary to decide what it is that we want either individually or collectively. Prior to that, however, is the moment of active imagination when people ask themselves 'What could be different about how we live?' "

Well perhaps; but I don’t think it actually happened that way in history.

Back to where the future lies: Imagine, if you will, that you are living in a small village somewhere in the pre-mercantile world. You might choose the British Isles in the 9th Century, or perhaps Japan in the 13th, or Tibet even later. Your universe is very small, and does not extend far beyond the village. Neither did it for your parents.

Your village is dominated by a monastery, perched on top of one hill, and by a lord’s fortress, upon another. In 9th Century Britain, the church hierarchy and the nobility were rivals in an ongoing contest for power over the rest of the population, and each used its own techniques of force and persuasion to win. Depending on the circumstances, you would favour one over the other.

For example, if you were born a sturdy serf, you might seek to better your condition by joining the lord’s band of armed retainers. Then your duty would be to make sure that the peasants all paid their dues to the lord, of which you would get a share. Or you might seek a better life by joining the monastic order, which was a community which avoided domination by lords through pooling what wealth it had and foreswearing any family apart from the order, or personal wealth apart from its communal property. If the lord was a lion, then the order was a hive of bees: both quite formidable, and capable of self-defence. Kung fu, the Chinese martial art, was originally developed by monks.

Like the lord, your order would keep acquiring land, and serfs to go with it. Both land and serfs would belong to the order, not to any individual monk. Not even to the Abbott. The monastery was thus to feudalism what the joint stock company was later to capitalism.

The monastery’s wealth, plus acceptance by the lord of the idea that the monks were the earthly agents of an even bigger lord up there in the sky, would in large part ensure the community’s survival. Monks and nuns could resist the predatory tendencies of the gangster-lords in a way no isolated and preyed-upon village could hope to. Thus monastic orders, united in a common faith, were a feature of the feudal societies of Eurasia.

So imagine yourself sitting there, trying to decide which you might best be advised to join. Then you catch sight of an unfamiliar figure approaching your village along the narrow track which is its link to the outside world. It is a trader, leading a donkey.

The trader barters with the people of the village, exchanging this for that, and then departs. As you watch him disappearing down the track, imagine that I, future man to you, am suddenly transported by some time machine to your side. I introduce myself, and tell you that I come from the early 21st Century. (Yes, and I know the philosophical problems embedded in this.)

If a man from 10 or 11 centuries into the future were to appear by my side today, my own immediate impulse would be to ask him how it all turned out. Did they solve the energy crisis? Was there a climate catastrophe? A nuclear war? (Let’s leave aside for the moment the little fact that merely by appearing, let alone answering in any way at all, the future man would alter my present and therefore the future he had just come from.)

So I assume that you, 9th Century man or woman, would immediately radiate delight: that of a punter who has somehow got hold of next Saturday’s race results. I would have the answer of most immediate concern to you. So you would probably ask me: “Who won? Was it the lord or the Church? If I am to throw in my lot with the winner, who must it be?”

And so I warn you that my answer will probably puzzle you, sound incredible, and even ridiculous. “The future,” I say, “lies neither with the lord nor with the Church. It lies with the trader.”

You immediately turn your glance back down the trader’s path to see him, a distant figure now, pausing to repack his miserable donkey. You say to me “I can’t believe you.”

“As you wish,” I reply.

“But he has to beg his leave from every lord and bishop whose domain he travels through. And they make him pay, believe me!”

“I know. But one day that trader, or more accurately those that follow him, will buy and sell lords and bishops. It will be they who come to him, for both money and advice. In fact, lord and bishop will find that they have to become traders themselves, if they want to survive.

“Moreover, his donkey might not be much, but in time it will be replaced by a horse, then a team of them pulling a wagon, then teams of teams. That miserable track will become a road and then a highway that will take traders and dealers of every kind over land and sea and even through the air to London, Rome, New York, Sydney, and to a host of other cities that right now are villages like this one, if they exist at all.”

“That vagabond?”

“It’s hard to believe, I know,” I reply.

And now, rather than leave you sitting there in that perplexed state in the village, I will invite you to join me in my time machine for the return trip to now. From this point in time, you will of course see that I was right. Just take a look around.

Now I ask you, and you ask me: who are the modern counterparts of the lord and his men on the one hill, and the friars on the other?

To answer this question, we simply have to look for the major contenders on the modern economic, political, ideological and cultural scene. I don’t know what you see, but I see labour and capital. In my preferred view of the present scene in Australia, I see the conservative coalition with its swarms of retainers and cohorts as the counterpart of the lord, and the labour movement as the counterpart of the Church. Both of these have in their retinues people from all walks of life, who give them all kinds of help, and each seeks to control and direct the massive economic resources of the state, to the exclusion of the other.

Which side am I on? Which side should I join? With which does the future lie?

I no longer seek an answer to that question; nor do I think much is to be gained by either of these two large and powerful forces sacking the other. Instead, the question that intrigues me, and perhaps you, is this:

“Who is the modern trader?”

Less dependency on animals

Anthony: I would really like to see less and less dependency on animals as a source of foodstuffs. I have lived for twenty years without eating meat of any kind, fish or fowl or beast. No matter how much one tries the farming and killing of animals is never without suffering to them at one level or another. We do not need to eat them and the planet would be better place if we didn't.

The development of factory farms has institutionalised cruelty to an enormous degree. The animals are now not sentient beings, they are cogs in a machine. The sheer scale of those intensive industries cannot be measured, nor the suffering they incur.

But all over the world animals are treated in appallingly cruel ways - eg Moon bears in China, dogs for slaughter in Korea, turtles cut open alive in Indonesia, sheep loaded on ships to travel half way around the world by Australia with thousands dying on the way - the tip of the iceberg.

I do not believe in utopias. I see the cruel reality of the world and believe that while mankind can treat animals the way he does, then there is no hope for mankind.

But I guess we have, each of us, at least try to reach for the stars and hope that others will too.

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