Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: Cheap Flight Culture, Climate Change, consumerism, Crabwalk, Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang, Kraft durch Freude, Nazi Germany, Question Time, Robert Ley, Ryanair, Shelly Baranowski, Stanstead Airport, Strength through Joy, Tourism, Will Self
I recently got back from Berlin, where I spent a few days with a short side-trip to Prague by train. Meanwhile, 49 climate-change activists were arrested for occupying London Stanstead airport, in an attempt to protest its planned expansion. The irony is not lost on me. The activists, who belong to the group Plane Stupid, are fighting an uphill battle against Britain’s middle classes, who have come to think of cheap flights from budget airlines like Ryanair (with whom I travelled last weekend for less than 50 GBP return) and EasyJet, which both rely on alternative ports like Stanstead to keep fares down. Last night on BBC 1′s ‘Question Time’, an audience member who claimed to be generally critical of the West’s limp and weak-kneed response to climate change, nonetheless called cheap flights her ‘right’.
My trip, if I had taken the train (using, of course, the wonderful site The Man in Seat 61), would have cost me realistically 250 GBP, not inlcuding the expenses incurred extra day of travel (meals, loss of an extra day paid holiday, etc.) in an overnight car from Paris to Berlin. Of course, these costs are defrayed by the fact that train travel is far more enjoyable, far less stressful, and far more aesthetically pleasing than air travel, but most middle-class Britons don’t consider taking the train to their holiday hot spots. Indeed, living in Edinburgh, the four-hour train ride to London would further add to my travel costs, possibly necessitating a day’s room and board in pricey London.
Now, everyone deserves to travel. It is perhaps the singularly best way to learn more about our world and ourselves. One of the best things modernity has brought us is the exchange of ideas and worldviews. Of course, this means that the poor and middle classes should also be offered the opportunity to travel. But cheap-flight culture is swiftly becoming a blight on the world not only in its immense environmental cost, but because of the kind of travel it incurs. Cheap-flight culture has spawned countless insulated enclaves of British ‘culture’ throughout Europe. Such ‘Little Britains’, however, leave the charm and history of their native culture with their pets and take the most odious: Tennants-swigging louts in open-air pubs showing the football (Premiership only, please. No La Liga here…) and an endemic barfight and rape culture. Can the new stag party industries that have popped up in Riga and Budapest really insist that any cultural exchange takes place? Britons can go their entire vacations without speaking or hearing a word from a language other than English, or indeed, without speaking to a person who is not also British.
I am reminded Nazi Germany’s Kraft durch Freude campaign in the 1930s, or ‘Strength Through Joy’. KdF was the brainchild of Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front from 1933 to 1945. German Nobel-prize-winner Günter Grass, in his 2003 novel Im Krebsgang or Crabwalk, describes Ley thusly:
it was he who dissolved all the labor unions right after the takeover, emptied their coffers, dispatched squads to confiscate everything t their headquarters, and forced all their members, who numbered in the millions, to join the German Labor Front. It was he, this moon face with a cowlick, who had the inspiration to require all state employees, then all teachers and pupils, and finally the workers in all industries to use ‘Heil Hitler’ as their daily greeting. And it was he who came up with the idea of organizing the way workers and white-collar employees spent their holidays. He provided inexpensive trips to the Bavarian Alps and the Erzgebirge, to the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and, last but not least, ocean cruises of shorter and longer durations—all under the motto of ‘Strength through Joy’.
Ley effectively invented the modern cruise ship industry, sending joyous German workers on countless trips—with the express purpose of recharging workers rather than objectively improving their lives. Indeed, as Grass coyly points out,
Unfortunately, passangers were not allowed to go ashore from the fjords, possibly because of regulations designed to prevent any hard foreign currency from leaving the Reich.
Shelly Baranowski’s work, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (2004), points out that KdF allowed wage workers a pastime once exclusively the privilege of the upper classes. Moreover, it juxtaposed the poverty of the foreign destinations with the relative well-being of the Reich:
As an agency that at low cost to its consumers sold the cultural practices that signified middle-class standing—concerts, plays, the opera, art exhibits and the theatre, riding, sailing, and tennis lessons, and vacation travel—Strength through Joy testified to the Nazi regime’s desire to its racially ‘valuable’ citizens that it enhanced their well being.
In the episode of ‘Question Time’ I mentioned, the audience member who asserted her ‘right’ to cheap flights (a sentiment, I should add, with which most of the audience agreed) it was in response to author Will Self’s conjecture that nobody in the audience could say that the end of cheap flights in Britain would actually make their lives worse.
I say this all with the knowledge that I have exploited cheap flight culture as much as anyone, perhaps with an extra dose of unfortunate smugness that somehow my travels are much more enlightening. But what really should be drawn from this guilty pleasure, is another layer to the already confounding problem of travel. How do we, as a society, encourage healthy and beneficial travel and cultural exchange between people of all classes and income without incurring catastrophic environmental and social costs?