So, a meme. You give people five words that remind you of them and you write a short piece talking about what the words mean to you. Jim Jay gave me these; Spain, Liberty, Teaching, trade unions and protest.
So, in exactly that order, I'll start with Spain. It's strange, when I was a bit younger I was always convinced that I was going to live abroad when I was older. There was a mixture of what was probably a bit of small-town snobbery mixed in with the feeling that the world was just too big to remain in your corner forever. The snobbery is interesting I think; back in the day that escaping the provincial upbringing narrative probably takes you to a big city and eventually to London, but modern communities are so fluid that moving to another part of the country isn't nearly exotic enough.
Despite that feeling, by the time I'd left university I'd left the country a grand total of four times : a family holiday to a French farmhouse that was on the verge of collapse, another to a Portuguese island full of pensioners, one trip to Italy to watch Internazionale v Ipswich Town and finally a short stay with a friend in Vienna.
I think there are three kinds of ex-pats, the first are the classic retirement villa on the Costa del Sol types (there are now so many of these that the DWP has a branch in Spain now, in addition to some towns having British mayors), who are unapologetically there for the weather and to enjoy life and couldn't give a shit about the local culture, people or language. These people have the most fun, worry the least and only have one complaint, the inconvenience of Spain having a native population. They don't worry if walking around in flip-flops in March makes them look like a tourist or about turning pink on the beach. The second are 'authenticos', who want to imagine they are the only foreigner in the entire fucking country who is actually making an effort, that they blend in so perfectly with their understanding of everything that they basically are Spanish. They're unbearably condescending to everyone else they come across and give advice like "try not to go on about differences between the UK and Spain, no-one cares man!" Finally there are all the people in the middle who make a bit of a effort but ultimately acknowledge that they're still foreign, have their own habits and pecadillos and are basically here to enjoy themselves and learn something. The difficulty is that although you'd like to be in the last group, the only way to achieve that is by feeling both the insecurity of the second group and the blunt pink-faced patriotism of the first group.
Imagine you were explaining the word democracy to an alien. First give him the standard definition: government of the people, for the people and by the people. Then invite him to examine and comment upon capitalist democracy, even at its best. I think the conversation would go like this...
- Democracy does not exist here
How do you mean, our leaders are chosen in free and fair elections?
- To whom do you refer?
Politicians and governments of course.
- But how are they your leaders?
They control the government.
- And what does the government control?
Everything; foreign policy, education, taxation; everything!
- But do they control what is made, how it is made and how it is distributed and to whom?
- And who does?
The people that own the capitalist companies.
- And they decide who does what, when they do it and what they receive for doing it?
- And how are they chosen?
They aren't. They own the things they control.
They bought it.
- From who?
From the people who owned it before them.
- And how they get it?
The same way.
- And who owned it first?
Liberty is meaningless in a society in which one part of society compels the majority to work in order to enrich that minority, in which that part of society holds permanent monopoly of the planet's resources and uses that to give orders to us all.
Teaching is something for which I have found I have a mixed bag of talents. I have no natural affinity for inspiring children, but manage to make lessons entertaining enough to hold the attention of adults. It has also revealed to me that any job, no matter what interest it may have at first, will eventually get old if you have to do it five days a week, 12 months a year. I remember when I'd just started, I was in a Summer School, and there was another teacher, "Good Tom" (to be contrasted with "bad Tom", the Director of Studies, so-called by the students, not the other staff). Kids of all ages loved him, he fit strangely with adults, though most of us warmed to him in the end. I envied his natural rapport with younger people, the instinctive relationship he had with them. Some of us (both me and "bad Tom") are stiff, cold and humourless, unremittingly adult and unable to ever feel that bond.
I've been in trade unions of various sorts for a while now, but I'm currently a lapsed member of the anarchist CNT. I lasted about a year there, before being finally put off by the cliquey feeling the place gave off (even if the majority of people I met were friendly enough). TEFL-teaching is not a friendly business for building workplace organisations, what with high turnover and as many levels of management as any government department. The thought that I'd ever manage to get enough unity to practise the CNT ideal model of trade unionism (decide everything is big worker assemblies) was enough to make me decide that taking ideological decisions on was what "bureaucratic" and what "revolutionary" was actually a bit of hinderence to doing what needed to be done - using workers' organisations to actually make yourself and the people around you better off and more confident. So I left and I'm putting my name forward for elected workers' rep (for another union, the CGT). If for me liberty means more than letting one class of society own everything, then fighting for that does mean us taking decisions together, democratically. But we don't need a schematic for how to do it, let's see what works.
I've never been a big protester, I've been to lots over the years, but I can never muster the requisite enthusiasm. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a crazy extremist revolutionary type, but if I'm going to strut around waving my red flag I want something tangible to come out of it. Call me a boring bastard, but I want a protest strategy to have some kind of potential victory written into the plan. Take boycotting coca-cola for instance. Now, Coca-cola are arseholes, complicit in all sorts of horrible shit. But I don't think not buying coke on principle is a political response to that. It's a way of making yourself feel better without changing anything. Coke know they aren't going to win back yogurt-weaving hippies with their Palestine-solidarity Mecca Cola and all the rest. They aren't interested in appeasing them, and to be honest people aren't interested in being appeased. Neither I nor anyone else is going to be convinced that coke are nice people, regardless of what they do. So they've no motivation to change. Now. Pick an issue. A winnable issue, call a boycott with a plausible end (say de-segregation of buses) at which point the participants will resume consumption of said product. That's a protest, that's a direct struggle with your opponent to change something. Then I'm a boycotter, then I'm a protester. I don't think anyone should get into this for the badge-wearing opportunities, let alone for the glamour. Because unless you're Swampie, it sure as fuck ain't very exciting.