Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

The liberation of porn, the criminalisation of groping

young-people-008Teens and pre-teens now partake in commercial sex culture: sexy selfies, sexting, porn. Yet if they touch each other, or play a sexual game, they could end up with a criminal record.

These fumblings, sloppy kisses, explorations of each other’s bodies, have long been part of childhood and adolescence. Now such things can lead to investigation, expulsion from school, even prosecution.

The UK Sexual Offences Act criminalises ‘sexual touching’ between under 16-year olds. I know of a 12-year old boy who was put on the Sex Offenders Register for ‘inappropriate touching’, while playing with a girl his age.

In America, children as young as 10 have been put on sex offenders lists, or in some cases removed from their home, for play-acting sex with their peers.

A new paper by Danish researchers (1) finds that the country’s traditionally liberal attitudes have been replaced with suspicion and restriction. Where children once bathed naked in summer, they now wear swimming costumes. The kids’ game of ‘playing doctor’ is now seen by nurseries as a ‘trespass upon a child’s boundaries’, and is highly restricted or banned.

One interviewee observed:

‘There has been a drastic shift in the views of children’s relations to one another. Exploratory behaviors among children are, sadly, often interpreted as abuse.’

The authors concluded that:

The fear of (child sexual abuse) seemed to be the sole rationale for speaking of childrens games as abusive and for using the theme ofboundaries to teach children to defend their bodies and to respect other childrens bodies.

This taboo over contact between children occurs at a time when the commercial sex world has never been so available to them.

11- and 12-year olds twerk: this is the way they dance. A girl of 11, in her selfies, looks as if she is inviting you to sex, all sultry and come-on. She doesn’t yet have breasts but adds them, along with hips, with the phone app. Boys consume porn and take photos of their penises.

It is overt, this commercialised game of sex: everybody is always pretending to offer and receive sex.

Yet the real human relation – the real hand on a real body – is seen as toxic and dangerous. Kids are told that touching is a violation of ‘boundaries’, a potential crime, and that they need pseudo-legal consent for every act.

While the commercial porn world is freed, the human relation is cramped and criminalised.

And so young people’s sexual initiation occurs through porn culture, through stereotyped ways of acting towards sex objects – instead of the fumbled kisses, the awkwardness, the tingling in the belly, as they learn sexuality as a way or relating to another person.

(1) Children’s Doctor Games and Nudity at Danish Childcare Institutions, EB Leander et al, Archives of Sexual Behavior, February 2018

My book Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, is published by Zero books.

Demi-boys and the new enslavement to gender

It is increasingly common for young people to identify with ‘non-binary’ genders: to locate themselves on a ‘gender spectrum’, or align with one of the dozens of new gender categories. Here are some observations about this phenomenon:

original1. For non-binary teens, the search for the self is taking the form of a search for a gender category.

That is, the question of discovering themselves as a person – and leaving behind the world of childhood, parents and family – becomes a question of finding a new gender label.

‘I’m gender queer, and I’m starting to explore the possibility of identifying as trans.’

‘I’m not exactly sure what (I am) yet, somewhere between agender and androgine.’

They chart their biographies and life experience as movement through gender categories:

‘I came out as a tomboy at 4. Bisexual at 17. Lesbian at 18. Queer around 22. Genderqueer/non-binary at 24-ish.’

2. People who are ‘gender questioning’ are much more defined by gender, than those who are not.

Non-binary people put a lot more store by their gender than others; the gender category is the thing that ‘supports’ their identity, and makes them feel ‘secure’. Non-binary twitter profiles tend to mention gender identities before any other interests:

• he/they • nonbinary/transmasculine • aro/ace (aromantic/asexual) • Disney obsessed • booklion • usually over-caffeinated •

By contrast, those who are an ordinary man or woman need not think very much about their genders. The gender binary is now something that can be worn lightly, without implications for the lives we will have or the people we will become.

3. New gender categories are still based on the idea of a naturalised ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

This is most obvious when somebody describes their identity as a particular point on the gender spectrum, and therefore as a sort of chemical formula, an admixture of the masculine and feminine:

‘I am 2/3 boy and 1/3 girl

‘You could fall anywhere along this (gender) line, for example, you could be 78.25 male

This is also the meaning of many of the new gender categories. For example, a demi-boy is someone who is mainly male, and a bit female.

Bi-gender is someone who feels male and female (either both at the same time, or one after another).

Therefore, in effect, the traditional elements of masculinity and femininity have been preserved, only these have become like free-floating gender substances, which can be mixed together in various combinations.

4. Even very fluid gender categories have a naturalised, pseudo-physical basis.

It is no coincidence that gender categories are often described as one might a physical waveform, or a mutating substance.

Crystagender: gender randomly changes, often feels broken or fractured between mulitple genders

Antegender: A protean gender which has the potential to be anything, but is formless and motionless, and, therefore, does not manifest as any particular gender

If gender is unknown, or confused, this takes on the significance of some unknown (perhaps as yet undescribed) gender substance. For example, the category elissogender has been represented as a waveform:

elissogender_by_pride_flags-d96xt63

Elissogender – a term used to describe a gender which vaguely moves around with no direction.

(Pink is femininity, blue is masculinity, black is agender, grey is the confusion or grey area amongst genders, yellow is unknown).

5. Non-binary individuals are very hostile to the idea that they might be defined in any way by other people.

There is a hostility to social ascription, to the idea that they would be put in a category by society or other people.

‘The very first thing doctors tell parents is if their baby is a boy or a girl.’

Being a man was the norm that was placed on me, but I don’t identify with that.’

Their objection is not so much to any particular arduous consequences of being a man or a woman, but to the very social act of naming, or making a distinction. The new gender categories are therefore anti-social on principle.

6. Freedom from the traditional gender binary does not mean freedom to be your own person.

Being non-binary does not mean that a person is free to develop their vocation, character, self-expression in a way that is personal or undetermined by notions of gender.

Instead, to be non-binary is to enter into a private marriage with the gender category of your choice. The freedom of our age is to not be genuinely self-determined, but to choose one’s determination from a menu of options.

7. The reason for this is that we are free of the sexual division of labour, but we are not yet free.

We have seen the breakdown of the sexual division of labour, under which men and women were assigned opposing roles, destinies, and characters. People are free of social domination: their gender will no longer determine their profession, their legal rights, their dress, or the ways in which they talk or move.

Yet people do not yet feel themselves to be completely free to determine themselves according to their personal capacities and inclinations.

Therefore, the qualities previously tied to the sexual division of labour – the substances of masculine and feminine – become free floating, mixing in various combinations to form the new series of gender categories.

The naturalised elements of masculinity and femininity are not overcome, but translated into the terms of consumer choice.

 

 

#Metoo: The criminalisation of sexual passion

Love (hands in the air), Wolfgang Tillmans

Before a prostitute and a client have sex, they discuss in detail the acts that will take place. It’s a contract; there are clear boundaries that are established beforehand. Some of Harvey Weinstein’s assaults took a similar form: you do this for me and I will do that for you. This is a deal.

But the fallout from Weinstein, the #Metoo phenomenon, has targeted acts that have the precise opposite character: the unscripted sexual advance, or spontaneous displays of desire. Several people have lost their jobs because, at some point in the past, they came on to someone – they put a hand on their leg, or touched or kissed them without explicitly asking first. The defence minister resigned because he put his hand on a journalist’s leg 15 years ago. A freelance journalist lost his jobs because he ‘lunged’ to kiss a woman outside a pub.

These events are not just about men and women, and it is not just now. A couple of years ago an LGBT student representative, Annie Teriba, resigned after she was accused of non-consensual sex with another woman. She confessed: ‘I had sex with someone. The other party later informed me that the sex was not consensual. I failed to properly establish consent before every act. I apologise sincerely and profoundly for my actions.’ Teriba also admitted some ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in a nightclub two years’ previously, ‘where I had touched somebody in a sexual manner without their consent’.

We are seeing a new model for sexual relations, as aseptic, cool and contractual, not unlike that of a prostitute and her client. Everything must be discussed in advance and explicitly agreed, and the sex act becomes a playing out of the ‘deal’. The University of Michigan teaches that consent must be ‘verbal or oral, sober, and enthusiastic’, and must be continually obtained: ‘Each of us is responsible for making sure we have consent in every sexual situation… it is important to clarify what your partner feels about the sexual situation before initiating or continuing the sexual activity.’

People are seen as separate, bounded atoms, who do not naturally touch or relate. The ordinary sex act is conceived as a violation, a breaching of these boundaries, which is why it must be agreed so explicitly:

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to personal sovereignty – the right to not be acted upon by someone else in a sexual manner unless they give that person clear permission.  It is the responsibility of the person initiating the sexual activity to get this permission.

By these accounts, it is the person ‘acting upon the other in a sexual manner’ who has the obligation to get consent. This is not just an assumption of guilt – though it is that. It is also an assumption of separateness, the separateness of people and the contradiction of their interests.

This relieves the woman of responsibility for making it clear when she is not okay with something. There is a generation of wilting maidens who seem incapable of saying no: they say nothing, then they feel violated and write about it on social media afterwards. The woman who accused the journalist Sam Kriss of assault gave a detailed account of the evening in question, and at no point did she say ‘no’. She kept saying ‘not here, other people can see’, even ‘we might make the old folk jealous’, but she never said ‘no, I don’t want to’.

The turn against passion is not about prudishness: the contractual model is compatible with extreme sexual acts. Grindr arranges clear and explicit consent between gay men, with photos and specifics about preferred sexual acts. You can see what is on offer and discuss it beforehand. Similarly, the habit of men sending penis selfies to women as a chat-up line is a way of being explicit about their wares: this is what I’ve got, how about it?

Those accused of sexual assault for come-ons always admit a sinful and shameful lapse, describing it as ‘suboptimal’ or ‘absolutely unacceptable’ or ‘falling short’ of standards. Annie Teriba said:  ‘It is clear that I lack self-awareness and become sexually entitled when I am drunk’. What probably actually happened was that she got carried away: she wanted someone and that person may not have wanted her, but they did not make this clear to her. Yet her one-sided passion is posed as a sterile ‘sexual entitlement’, a sense of rights over another person, who is merely a means to the satisfaction of her sexual needs.

What is being lost here is the ideal of sensual unity – of romance, seduction, captivation. Since the discovery of love in ancient Greece, sexual desire gained this new possible meaning: as an act of devotion and entrancement. On the plane of passion there is a loss of separateness, the spiritual uniting of two people.

This new meaning of desire was quite different from the brute expression of the sex drive, whereby the other is a means to one’s own satisfaction. Passion is directed at a person, in their autonomy and integrity; the Greek suitors sought to win their love object, not to force them. When Homer’s Gods came down to Earth to ravish maidens, it did not matter whether the maiden wanted it or not, just as nobody cared what the slave girls thought as they were passed around and fought over like booty. By contrast, in classical Athens, the love object (generally a free-born courtesan or a beautiful youth) was not seized or ravished, but courted, seduced.

This distinction is the key one in defining sexual assault. Assault is a knowing violation of another; it is treating the other as an object, a means to satisfaction of your sex drive. (Indeed, it is sometimes independent of sexual pleasure and is a mere act of violence, or violation, where what is enjoyed is the reduction of the other person to the status of an object.) This was the manner in which Weinstein and other assaulters went about their business. This has nothing to do with passion.

After Greece, the realm of passion continued as a thread in social life, generally in the secrecy of extra-marital affairs, in the knight and his lady, or courtly love.

Wolfgang Tillmans, The Spectrum / Dagger (2014)

In spite of the current wisdom, sexual desire still has this meaning in spaces today. The artist Wolfgang Tillman’s photographs of nightclubs show how, within the four walls of a club, people are transcending their separation. There are hands everywhere – on someone’s bottom, between their legs, hands touching hands. In the sensuality of a nightclub, bathed in drink and music and light, people are no longer atoms. There are no longer boundaries; their separateness is transcended.

This is a beautiful thing. So no, people shouldn’t always ask before they kiss, and they shouldn’t apologise for wanting someone. If you don’t want to be kissed then say no, and that should be the end of that. Don’t post about it online. When you post, you are violating the space within which passion occurs: you are ruining it for the next time when you do want to be kissed.

We should be for the ideal of desire – and against the aseptic contractualism which is turning every man into a pimp and every woman into a prostitute.

My book Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, is published by Zero books.

Let the climate treaties burn

At the UN climate change conference this week, Syria announced that it will sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Syrian government has not quite finalised targets for cutting greenhouse gases, but will do in due course: ‘We are in the process of becoming part of the agreement. We will have our commitments and targets.’

The territory formerly known as Syria is currently under control of at least five military factions, including Islamic State in the east, the Turkish army in the north, and anti-government forces just outside Damascus. Major cities are entirely destroyed; there is no national economic plan and no national economy, yet, shortly, a Syrian representative will submit targets and commitments for the cutting of CO2 emissions.

This case shows how climate change agreements occur in a separate, estranged world, isolated from the realities or needs of peoples on the ground. A CO2 target can come before there is a national economy; spokespeople can make climate change committments before there is a country to speak of.

When they enter into climate change negotiations, leaders leave their populations behind. They enter a different sphere and a new way of doing politics, which deals not with human needs or priorities but with technical or naturalised targets. Climate change provides a post-political and technocratic language, through which deals can be done and relations negotiated. To sign up to the Paris Agreement, or to support the ‘2° target’, is to enter into an intra-elite pact. It is like an initiation to an exclusive society, where you assume different priorities and take on a different worldview. Your loyalties to your secret society (your international obligations, international contributions) take priority over and occlude one’s obligations to domestic populations.

The international sphere now has some similarities with the situation for absolute kings in ancient times: the political relations are those between leaders, not between leaders and populace. The international sphere is a plane for political relations between leaders, which occur relatively independently of their respective peoples. Climate change features as the ideology of this sphere, not because of a natural emergency, but because the issue represents, in essence, the negation of the national political sphere. It is global not national, natural not political.

Countries’ submissions laying out their planned CO2 cuts (their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) make strange reading. A country is described – its geographical position, economic resources, industries – but the framing is from an estranged, alien point of view. Elements of human and geographical reality are described only for the reason of explaining targets for the reduction of CO2. All of a national reality is viewed from the point of view of the amount of gas produced; it is seen from the skies, from a perspective that would not be recognisable to the people in that country.

A country’s ‘contribution’ to the world becomes, not its inventions or production of ideas or products, but its limitation on the production of a gas. CO2 becomes the mediator in international political relations: it is the asocial currency, the means by which one national reality is made comparible with another.

This worldview is not just indifferent to people’s priorities; it is, loosely speaking, the opposite of them. Fiji’s contribution document regrets that the ‘addiction of modern society to individual transport options’ has led to an increase in car ownership, and that ‘engine size distribution is moving in the wrong direction for energy and emissions savings’. A country with a per capita GDP of US$4000 dollars sees the modest increase in the private motorcar as obstructing its ‘international obligations’.

Of course, there is horse-trading over economic interests at the climate change conference. The world is divided into two groups of countries: those who must contribute towards the Green Climate Fund, and those who receive these funds. Poorer countries are pushing for more climate relief money and for a review of richer countries’ failures to meet past climate targets. Richer countries are resisting. Turkey is complaining that it is in the wrong group, claiming that it should receive climate funds rather than be asked to contribute.

Yet here, socio-economic problems or goals are discussed only indirectly. Relations of economic competition, or exploitation, can only be understood through the medium of CO2. Countries relate through the intermediary of the skies, as the emissions from one part of the world rain down in the form of hurricanes or flooding on another.

Human ends are only sought as the side-effect of natural ends. Aid becomes ‘climate relief’, not tackling human need but tackling the ‘effects of climate change’ on poorer regions. The countries thrust to the forefront of negotiation are those who, through accidents of geography, are exposed to earthquakes, hurricanes or flooding. The poverty of those on higher or firmer ground is not so interesting: it has not been touched by natural intermediaries, but only those old profane socio-economic forces about which we have very little to say.

National domestic interests are not expressed or dealt with directly: they sit there silently, sullenly, at the back of the room. Germany is embarrassed by the fact that it can’t close its lignite mines or penalise its car industry. The things that matter domestically – cheap energy, jobs – are not the things that matter in these negotiations. Domestic economic interests are things to be whispered about in private. When the French president travelled to India, the leaders gave a joint press conference about the need to back the Paris Agreement and tackle climate change; then they retreated to private discussions about the export of French war planes. There is a public face and a private face.

There is nothing wrong in principle with an international negotiation about the global environment. One could imagine a situation, in some future world, where a committee representing the whole of humanity could come together to make decisions about the earth’s climate: to reduce CO2, to seed rain, to increase or reduce temperatures. These representatives would bear the wills and wishes of their respective sections of humanity, and the conclusions would be the outcome of these accumulated wishes.

This is not what we have. International climate change negotiations provide a new post-political sphere, which is not an offshoot of national peoples, but a different plane, insulated from and set against them.

A meaningful discussion about our collective influence on the climate could only be based on the realities and wishes of the world’s populations. Scrapping climate treaties would be the first step in bringing politics out of the sky, back down to earth – to the profane and solid ground of human need, reality and desire.

On the narcissism of trans activism

Is it ‘transphobic’ for lesbians to refuse to sleep with trans women? Should radical feminists be forced to see trans women as ‘real women’?

The growing conflict between trans activists and lesbians/radical feminists shines a light on today’s strange new breed of identity politics.

In a YouTube war, NeonFiona, a bisexual woman with a trans girlfriend, said that lesbians were downright bigoted for refusing to date trans women. Lesbian YouTubers and writers such as Arielle Scarcella and Taylor Fogarty responded with videos arguing that ‘Nobody should be coerced into having sex with anybody. If someone does not want to fuck you, it does not invalidate your identity.’

Meanwhile, radical feminists have been labelled TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) for not seeing trans women as real women, a conflict that occasionally spills over into real violence. At a recent feminist Hyde Park rally, a 60-year old feminist was punched and grabbed around the neck by an apparently male-bodied trans woman. The ‘punch a terf’ meme is a theme on Twitter, where TERFS are compared to Nazis: ’deck a terf’, ‘punch terfs. transpobes suck’, ‘have you punched a nazi or a terf today?’.

Trans people have been part of the gay movement for decades: this is not about transgenderism per se. Nor is it about most trans people, who don’t want to punch anyone. Nor is it about the misunderstandings that can occur when straight people change sex: these situations are not unprecedented. At my college LGB Society 20 years ago there was a woman who identified as a gay man. Everyone was welcoming of him but the gay men were not interested; they wanted men, biological men. The situation was a bit awkward but nobody made a big deal about it: it just was what it was. Sometimes in life people miss each other.

Now this same situation has become a political line, a matter of political principle, the source of demands and recriminations. Gay women’s rejection of trans women is treated as an invalidation of trans identity, based on prejudiced ‘cultural conditioning’ and irrational fear.

Today’s trans activism involves a kind of narcissism, a failure to distinguish between your own and other people’s point of view. Self-ascription is treated as an absolute right: you can call yourself whatever you want to, and people have to mirror and affirm it. If you say you are a woman then it is harmful for other people to not treat you absolutely like a woman in every respect. ‘It’s harmful to trans folks to associate lesbian with “vagina only”’, tweeted one activist. ‘You’re not an LGBT advocate if you think trans women who don’t have surgery or take hormones are not women.’ In the demand for recognition, there is a denial of the independence of the other person’s point of view.

But the truth is that the world is independent of us: it has its own eyes, its own logic. We may wish to be seen as a woman or man, just as we may wish to be seen as funny or attractive, but this cannot be demanded as a right. In reality, we are very rarely seen as we wish to be seen, and indeed this is not a bad thing. It is a reality check. It is just life. We can work to earn other people’s opinions but we can’t demand them.

Today’s identity politics demands that the world be a perfect mirror, that it reflect your self-ascription, that it never present a denial, discomfort or refusal. The argument that lesbians should have sex with trans women even if they don’t want to (that they should want to want to) shows how this demand for affirmation represents a violation of the bodies and wills of others.

There is a questioning of lesbians’ ‘preferences’ for the female body. NeonFiona’s video put ‘preferences’ in quote marks, which she made with fingers over her head. ‘”Preferences” are super transphobic’, read one tweet. The message of the video is: question your preferences, ask why you prefer the things you do, because it could just be pure bigotry. An article on Slate discussed lesbians’ ‘knee-jerk resistance’ and ‘feelings of fear or disgust at the idea of a partner who they perceive as “really” a man – feelings that are rooted in transphobic cultural conditioning’. It said that lesbians were even worse than cis-men for a ‘freak-out’ or ‘yuck’ reaction when they discover that the woman they are dating has male anatomy.

Here, people’s feelings and desires are placed in quote-marks, as prejudiced, conditioned, in need of re-education. It becomes legitimate to ask why you prefer the people you prefer. Why do you never date trans people, or black people, or disabled people? As if your love list should correspond to a diversity chart in order to be entirely even handed. The intuitive, personal issue of sexual attraction becomes something for others to comment upon and judge. As Arielle Scarcella put it, activists can be ‘aggressive in telling lesbians how to define their sexuality and how to feel in their attractions’.

Ultimately, the narcissism of trans activism comes from the fragile nature of the contemporary self – its lack of independence from the world. The person demanding recognition as a perfect mirror has no place apart from the world. This aborts the efforts in Western philosophy over the past 2000 years, which has sought the independence of the self from the world. In his Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius told himself not to be affected by other people’s stinky breath or the stupid things they say about you. The Stoic’s aim is remaining rooted in your person, master of your ship, regardless of what others say or do around you.

Self-identity now is reduced to the single dimension of a social mask: how you are seen, what you are called. This is why non-recognition can spark such upset and rage. ‘When terfs attack, we fight back’, tweeted one trans activist: feminists’ refusal to see trans women as women is experienced as a kind of attack, which calls for violence in return.

But behind the aggression and accusation lies the fragility of contemporary identity, which has no point upon which to stand.

I will be discussing ‘Diversity – Does it Matter?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 28 October.

Catalonia: For a free Spain, Against the EU

I am watching the Catalonian crisis unfolding 40 minutes down the road. Here are four observations, as the independence of Catalonia is set to be declared on Tuesday.

1. The central Spanish state has sparked the current crisis. Before 2010, only 15% of Catalans supported independence; now, around 40% do. This growth in Catalan nationalism is a direct response to aggressive strikes from the Spanish central state, particularly the Partido Popular (PP). It started in 2006, when the Catalan authorities drafted a new statute of autonomy: this was passed by the Catalonian parliament, public referendum in Catalonia, and finally by the Spanish parliament. Yet the PP side-stepped democratic bodies and launched a case in the Constitutional Court in an attempt to get the statute struck down. Four years later, they succeeded: the Constitutional Court struck out 14 articles and provided the interpretation for 27. In response, angry crowds marched in Barcelona, chanting ‘We are a nation, we decide’.

The pattern has been repeated time and again, as the right-wing PP, now in government, has increasingly used courts and military police to draw a line on the Catalan question. It used the Constitutional Court to declare the 1 October referendum unconstitutional and illegal. In the run-up to the referendum, it launched military police (Guardia Civil) raids on Catalonian government offices, confiscating documents and generally treating elected representatives as subject minions.

Yet these shows of force are hollow: there is nothing behind them. The authority of the Spanish state becomes reduced to the legal injunction and the use of force: it is reduced to armed units of Guardia Civil, shutting down polling stations or raiding offices. Now the Spanish government is prosecuting the head of the Catalan police for sedition, citing his failure to assist Guardia Civil raids. Sedition!: such a medieval, kingly crime. When a state prosecutes for sedition then you know that all appeals to democratic authority have gone.

Indeed, the Guardia Civil complain that they have been ‘abandoned’, sent in and ordered to close down an election, without a plan or backup. As the national military police, they represent the last line of executive authority, but they are increasingly bearing the whole burden of the central state’s representation in Catalonia. They are the messengers and agents for a distant and not-present Madrid (The Spanish interior minister reinforced this impression when he tweeted lamely: ‘The agents of Guardia Civil aren’t alone in Catalonia. They have all our respect, affection and support’ ).

The Guardia Civil were so much without backup that they were successfully evicted by crowds from the hotels in which they were staying. The crowds shouted ‘out with occupiers’, and indeed this is how the central Spanish state has conducted itself – as an occupying army, only working through its proxies rather than bearing its own face. The popularity of Catalonian independence is primarily a result of these shows of arms-length aggression.

2. The Catalan president has no mandate to declare independence. The Spanish ambassador to France described the plan to declare independence as a ‘coup d’etat’, with a section of the Catalonian political elite seizing the instruments of state. He is not entirely wrong. There is no majority of Catalans in favour of independence – a poll before the referendum put it at 41% for independence, and 49% against. Most say there are only around 25% of hardcore independistas.

The move for independence has often looked less like a popular uprising, and more like an exercise in rubber stamping. The Catalan government reformed parliamentary regulations so that the laws relating to the referendum, and the ‘transition’, could be passed in a single sitting, with no amendments, based on an absolute majority (rather than the 2/3 majority required for previous constitutional changes).

One of the laws ruled that the results of the referendum would stand regardless of the level of participation – reducing the need to get a democratic mandate. In the end, only around 42% voted, meaning that the government is declaring independence on the basis of a referendum in which more than half the population did not vote, and which occurred under the shadow of ballot boxes being confiscated and armed police shutting down polling stations. This is not a plebiscite that would be recognised in the shakiest African state.

Logically, it was the half of the population opposed to independence that did not vote, either from fear or because they thought the poll illegal. Therefore, the Catalan political elite is in some ways doing the same as the Madrid government: weilding instruments of state in shows of bravado, while side-stepping popular mandate.

3. Catalan nationalism has lost its rational basis. Historically, Catalan nationalism represented the claims of a dynamic industrial region, against the life-sapping body of a parasitic and inefficient Madrid-based bureaucracy. ‘We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live’, the Catalans would say (1). Writing in the 1940s, Gerald Brenan commented that ‘Spain has one of the most centralized governments in Europe’ and that ‘every country postman, village schoolmaster and customs official has owed his appointment to the minister in Madrid’ (2).

Yet this is no longer the case: the Catalan region is autonomous in all matters except for taxes, immigration, and defence; it runs its own health, education, transport, courts. The basis of Catalan nationalism now comes less from economic dynamism, and more from claims for the special status of Catalan culture: it can be narrow, parochial, and put-upon. In a debate on French radio, a Catalan activist told the editor of El Pais newspaper that he couldn’t understand or comment on Catalonia because he wasn’t from there.

The more open currents in Catalonia look beyond the issue of culture to the national situation – for example, the groups on the Catalan left , ‘Catalunya en Comú’, argue that social problems are questions of class, not culture, and therefore shared across Spanish society.

4. The real enemy, for the whole of Spain, is the EU. There are compelling ideas being expressed by the crowds in Catalonia – to be free, to rule themselves. There are compelling problems there too. There has been a phenomenal degradation in Spanish living standards since the economic crisis in 2008: general unemployment has reached 25%, youth unemployment has surpassed 50%. A large portion of people who left school 10 years ago have never worked: their frustration and disillusion has channelled into a spate of popular movements, including the call for Catalan independence.

But this situation is at least in part the result, not of the actions of Madrid, but the strictures of Brussels. One analysis by Spanish economists argued that Spain’s integration into the single European currency was as a ‘periphery’ country: it received unproductive investments in infrastructure and construction, while becoming a market for products manufactured in the ‘central’ countries such as Germany. EU integration, they argue, led to the collapse of smaller Spanish industries and accentuated the existing weaknesses and imbalances of the Spanish economy.

In 2008, the bubbles of external investment popped. All around Spain lie the skeletons of half-finished buildings, sometimes vast complexes even on the outskirts of Madrid, with hollow windows and roofless tops. External investment was withdrawn and the EU now appeared as  the source of imposed budget cuts to health, education and public sector wages. This singular focus on budget cutting has imposed a depression experience, reducing incomes and quality of life, while doing nothing to solve the essential problem with productivity and domestic industry.

The question of political/economic decision-making has been largely removed from the Spanish government, and the Spanish people, meaning that their salaries and pensions are in effect decided in Brussels or Berlin rather than Madrid. Spain takes on the appearance of a subject state, with little room for political manoeuvre and little ability to respond to popular demands.

So this, then, is the key to the Catalonia question. As state sovereignty is undermined in substance by the EU, both the central state and Catalan authorities resort increasingly to gestures of muscle-showing, in a private battle of one-upmanship that is tearing a country apart.

 

UPDATE, THURSDAY 19 OCTOBER


Madrid has now moved to invoke Article 155 and impose direct rule over Catalonia. Yet the events of the past week have looked less like a battle for independence, than a game of poker between two men, employing blackmail, feights and double-bluffs in their contest for the machinery of state.

First the Catalan parliament declared independence, signing a declaration of independence in a solemn session that was relayed to crowds in Barcelona. But then the president immediately suspended the declaration and stated his willingness to talk to Madrid. Madrid asked for clarification on whether or not he had declared independence, setting the deadline of Monday. The Catalan premier wrote a long and convoluted letter, which did not say whether or not he had declared independence. Madrid gave him a new deadline, Thursday, saying that if he failed to revoke the declaration by Thursday then they would impose direct rule.

The Catalan premier wrote again, saying that if Madrid invoked article 155 then he would suspend his supension of the independence declaration, and move to declare independence.

Madrid, however, will not definitely invoke Article 155. The triggering is planned for Saturday, and according to El Pais Madrid has said that it could be avoided if the Catalan premier called early regional elections.

The Spanish public is oddly absent from this exchange of letters and communiques: neither side wants to provoke a crisis, to bring people out on to the streets. They are using the instruments and powers of state as bargaining chips, joker cards, as they face each other across the card table that is Spain. This is why there is such a sense of unreality: powers are being half-invoked, invoked and then revoked; they are playthings rather than the expression of popular will.

This game of double bluff may be more posture than punch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to the unravelling of Spain – only in a way that is more random, unpredictable and uncertain than any independence struggle of old.

 

(1) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001

(2) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001, p19

 

‘Rewilding’ and the attack on civilisation

Throughout the French Pyrenees, large paint letters are stamped out on high mountain roads: ‘Ours Non’, No to Bears. Bears were reintroduced by the French government in the late 1990s, starting a long ferocious battle with shepherds and sheep farmers. At the last bear release in 2006, hundreds of farmers mobbed the release site, daubing red paint and smashing windows and lighting fires. This summer bears chased 200 sheep over a cliff edge, sparking demonstrations and demands for the bears to be removed from the Pyrenees. When state wildlife experts visited the affected area, a group of farmers fired shots towards them and slashed their car tires.

Over decades, centuries, farmers had sought to eliminate the predators that were tormenting their flocks. No sooner had they succeeded, the government reintroduced them – only this time from Slovenia, and as a protected species. The state introduced a predator that preys on flocks and forbade shepherds from touching them.

The Pyrenean bear is an example of what has been called ‘rewilding’, the reintroduction of species that had been hunted out of existence. Rewilders want to bring the bear back to the UK – an even less suitable location – along with the lynx and the wolf. Rewilders hate sheep and they hate sheep farming. The environmentalist George Monbiot says that sheep farming has turned the Lake District into a ‘desert’, with only a small proportion of the species that would populate a wild forest were it allowed to go to seed.

Yet the Lake District is not an ecological model; it is a landscape that has been made and remade through continual work and effort. What is beautiful about the Lakes is not only the shapes of the fells and crags revealed by sheep cropping, but the ways in which the hills are criss-crossed by the paths of people and their animals. The sheep farmer James Rebanks says that he looks down from a fell and sees a landscape ‘crafted by largely forgotten working people’: ‘a unique man-made place, a landscape divided and defined by fields, walls, hedges, dykes, roads, becks, drains, barns, quarries, woods and lanes’ (1).

It is the shepherds who know what nature is and how it works. If you talk to a high mountain shepherd, who lives in a hut for months on end, he knows every rock and crag, the call of every bird, all the moods and rhythms of the weather. He knows nature because he works upon it. Similarly, the families who have farmed the Lake District for generations are welded into the landscape; they are grounded in a place in a way that we can barely imagine.

Rewilders’ version of nature is a fantasy, committee-room nature. It was people sitting in committee rooms in Paris who thought that it would be nice to bring back the bear. Perhaps they imagined nature films of roaming bears and their cubs, or thought of the bear logo on Pyrenean produce. The ideal of wilderness comes from people who rarely experience it, or only experience it in an aesthetic or fantastical manner, as some kind of antidote to the jaded effects of urban life. (The US environmentalist Timothy Treadwell romanticised the bear and lived with them for years, but he did not know the bear, anymore than children know bears, which was why he was entirely surprised when a bear eventually attacked and ate him).

It is by working upon nature that we come to know it in its reality. Before agriculture and farming, nature was a mystical world peopled by spirits and animated by mysterious forces. With agriculture, people started the business of taking hold of nature and attempting to mould it; they knocked up against the reality of animals, plants and rocks. Slowly, ideas of spirits and mystical forces began to dissipate, and incipient scientific understandings developed: they came to understand how plants reproduced, what they required to grow, how animals could be bred and tamed.

The first agriculture required a battle against wild nature – the clearing of forests, draining of swamps and killing of wild animals. The first civilisation in the Nile Valley was founded on the sweat of those who cleared the beast-ridden swamps, dug irrigation channels and built protective walls. The Russian biochemist Verdansky wondered at the ‘unbroken, indefatigable’ labour required to tame the ‘humid forests and marshes’ of ancient China: ‘to subdue these and bring them under cultivation – destroying the forests and ridding them of their animal inhabitants – would have taken tens of thousands of years’. He quotes the comment that ‘Literally trillions of men and women have made their contribution to the contour of hill and valley and to the pattern of the fields. The very dust is alive with their heritage.’

This collective experience is preserved in myth, such as in the labours of the Greek hero Hercules, with his contests with hydras and monstrous beasts that are terrorising villages and towns. Hercules’ labours recapitulate the origin of civilisation, the work that was required for the founding of cities.

Rewilders complain that the wolf has been unfairly demonised, as if it is only fear and misconception that are preventing packs of wolves from happily loping around English hills. Yet the demonisation of the wolf is the legacy of the centuries of wolf hunts, the paying a bounty for wolf tongues, the effort of making a land where flocks are safe from attack. Indeed, the British landscape owes its distinctive idyllic quality partly to the successful elimination of the wolf, which was possible as an island. The elimination of the wolf was the work of our ancestors – something they won for us, for our peace – yet now rewilders want to undo this work and reverse it.

Of course, there are still genuine wildernesses in the world, largely in areas not suitable for agriculture or in unpopulated regions which have been set aside. People can still go to these places to experience an untouched raw nature that seems to be outside of human time and history.

But the Pyrenees or the Lake District are not wildernesses. Indeed, the main visitors to these areas are walkers, whose interests very much coincide with those of the sheep farmers. Walking in a forest is fine for a bit but after a while is very dull: you see nothing and could be anywhere. Without sheep there would be no views below 2000m in the Pyrenees and none at all in the Lakes. Grazing allows you to experience the mountains as mountains, rather than as the same old trees stretching in all directions.

Pyrenean sheep farmers have told me that they feel that they are being pushed out of the mountains; they feel that the powers that be are hostile to them and their way of life. Conservationists argue that the numbers of sheep lost to bears each year are relatively few, about 300 out of 600,000, and that far more animals are lost to illnesses and accidents. Yet the issue is not only the losses sustained, but the meaning of these losses. The threat from the bear isn’t an accident; it’s an attack. The state has reintroduced a predator that is protected and has 150 people monitoring its wellbeing. Farmers have been forced to build defences, to put up electric fences, bring back mountain sheep dogs and full-time shepherds.

Reintroducing marmots, beavers or kites is one thing, but when it comes to predators of flocks there is a line. To take the side of the bear is to take the side of the hydra against Hercules: it is not only an attack upon farmers but upon civilisation.

(1) James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, Penguin, 2015

 

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