Blind Man with a Pistol

Strength through EasyJet

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?

What is to be done?

I’ll spare you the SMS joke-headline, but Bell and Telus have decided to start charging the outrageous fee of fifteen cents when users receive text messages. That includes unwanted spam and advertisements. The reaction, predictably, has been fierce. “Outrage” is a term that comes to mind. “Price Gouging” has made an appearance The NDP, Canada’s left-wing party, has bravely decided to take on these callous cellphone robber barons. After all, who better than the NDP who previously stalwartly took our side over ATM fees?

Defenders of Bell and Telus claim that if you don’t like the user fees, you can simply switch providers (at a $20 per remaining month fee for breaking your contract, natch). Or, you can stop using texts. Or stop using cell phones. You aren’t entitled, after all, to free messaging. If the service is worth the money, you’ll pay it. The market will sort it out.

And of course, such apologists are absolutely right. As participants in consumerist culture, we aren’t entitled to anything. We don’t have rights, influence or control. There is something ridiculous, impotent about the response to incidents like these. Hitherto unseen environmental destruction proceeds at a blazing pace as a direct result of the capitalist, consumerist system. A thousand jobs disappear in an instant, devastating communities, yet the public responds with incredulity, bewilderment, apathy. “How could this have happened?” Yet we know, rationally, exactly why this happens. We know, rationally, that our economic encourages, even relies upon such acts of violence, yet all we can do is wring our hands and hope for something better to come along.

And yet, when a phone company unfairly raises prices on our mobile phones, we can see with crystal clear precision the inequalities and injustice that motivate the practice. We become organized, mobilized, united (did you sign the NDP’s petition yet?) We rail in righteous outrage against corporate oppression, impotent in our anger, feebly shaking our fists.

k thx bye

Waiting for Democracy
13 May 2008, 9:49 am
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: , , , ,

Last month I expressed some of my reservations about the West’s unnatural obsession with Tibet. It seems to me that our fascination with Tibetan independence is rooted not in solidarity or concern for the well-being of actual Tibetans, but rather in the way we substitute their ascetic, anti-consumption devotion (at least, that’s how the West conceives of it) for our consumerist largesse. They are devout so that we don’t have to be. Slovenian cultural critic and all-round cool guy Slavoj Žižek, in a letter to the London Review of Books, elaborates on this contradiction and the dangers it threatens:

In recent years, China has changed its strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. China now relies more on ethnic and economic colonisation than on military coercion, and is transforming Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West, in which karaoke bars alternate with Buddhist theme parks for Western tourists. In short, what the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?

One of the main reasons so many people in the West participate in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly propagated by the Dalai Lama, is one of the chief points of reference for the hedonist New Age spirituality that has become so popular in recent times. Tibet has become a mythic entity onto which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of an authentic Tibetan way of life, it isn’t because they care about real Tibetans: what they want from Tibetans is that they be authentically spiritual for us, so that we can continue playing our crazy consumerist game. ‘Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote, ‘vous êtes foutu.’ The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympic motto – ‘One World, One Dream’ – with ‘One World, Many Dreams’. But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream.

The payoff for such dabbling in the internal affairs of a world power remains the satisfaction in knowing that we are ushering China past state communism, through the growing pains of capitalism, towards the ultimate goal of democracy (which we, the West, have perfected, natch). After all, we’ve seen it all before. In our presumed democratic maturity, we believe that we recognize why China is unsettled by plurality (as we are unsettled by the First Nations), and like a concerned parent we want to prevent China from repeating our mistakes, while encouraging China’s capitalist honeymoon. With equal parts schizophrenia and audacity, we actively encourage the impulses that are eroding the beloved Tibetan Buddhist in the hopes that we can defend our monastic construction until China’s democracy asserts its inevitability.

But, Žižek warns, there is a fatal assumption in our grandiose plan.

Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?

Oh my. That is a sobering thought.

h-t to The Dilettante