When capitalism hijacks your dreams

The other day I had a dream I was on holiday in India. More specifically, I was wandering around some temples and if I remember correctly- I was having a rather amicable time. The ancient architecture was interesting and the walls were covered with ivy. After a while some mystics invited me into their house and -to my delight- started performing an enjoyable rhythmic piece on their drums. They were playing to me and some other tourists that also had been invited in for this special occasion. All was going well until the point where they stopped. As I tried to leave they started demanding money for their performance from me and the other tourists. It transpired that this ostensibly spontaneous and welcoming performance was in fact just a ruse to make money. So I politely refused, got annoyed and promptly woke up.

Upon my awakening, I groggily pondered about travel, mass tourism and human relationships in a capitalist system. What struck me was that capitalism has created a global society which is so obsessed around monetary exchange as the main driver behind human behavioural dynamics that even in the netherworlds of dreams, it’s now not uncommon for musical mystics to demand cash for their talents.

It seems that nothing is sacred any more. The next step from disingenuous buskers infiltrating rapid-eye movement sleep would probably be something like full-on advertising in our dreams, such as in this Futurama episode. Maybe, one day the ‘Mad-men’ who spend their days tirelessly trying to manipulate us into buying stuff we don’t need will manage to achieve this. It’s really not all that far-fetched seeing as the techniques in modern marketing already attempt to alter or exploit our subconscious feelings, as Adam Curtis demonstrates in his brilliant four-hour long documentary, The Century of the Self.

Perhaps, one day advertising will become so smart that our brains could be programmed to dream about certain products without us even realising- maybe this already happens. Maybe, those Indian mystics were actually paid by the Indian tourism board to try and convince me to visit the country.

We’re heading to a strange place. When the sole underlying basis for our existence is to pursue short-term profit, notions such as generosity or openness quickly dissolve into obsolescence. These ideas become redundant when humanity’s only goal is making money.

It’s a problem which is rarely talked about. Sure, most of us realise that industrial capitalism is rapaciously destroying the world’s ecosystems and creating a class of super-exploited humans. But I think the way that capitalism affects our every-day behaviours is overlooked. When all our actions are underwritten by the words ‘What’s in it for me?’ we have a serious collective problem. After all, why would any musicians spontaneously play strangers a piece when they’ve been brought up their whole lives to make money from everything- yes I’m talking to you, dream-buskers.

Rachmaninoff’s first- the story of a disastrous premier

Rachmaninoff composed his first symphony in 1895, when he was just twenty two years old although the premier took place on March the 28th, 1897. By this time, Rachmaninoff had already established himself as a virtuoso pianist and a promising composer. He had won the highest ever rating awarded by the Moscow Conservatory to one of its graduates and several of his compositions were being played regularly by leading pianists and orchestras alike.

It took Rachmaninoff well over half a year to compose the symphony. He began in January 1895, where the young composer had been inspired by religious chants at a Russian Orthodox church service.

Despite his arduous toiling on the work, the initial feedback about the score by his then composition teacher Sergei Taneyev was critical; Taneyev suggested that it needed some substantial revision to improve it. However, Rachmaninoff was unable to make any major changes before its first public performance  at a concert in St. Petersburg.

The circumstances in the lead-up to the concert was a foreboding prelude to what would be an absolutely catastrophic premier. The renowned composer Rimsky-Korsakov had remarked at one of the rehearsals that he did not find the piece “at all agreeable”,  a comment that must have deeply affected Rachmaninoff. However, the main issue would be due to the conductor,  Alexander Glazunov; he suffered from severe alcoholism, had questionable conducting skills and had admitted that he was unimpressed by Rachmaninoff’s published works. Before the performance Glazunov had made significant changes to the orchestration of the piece without consulting Rachmaninoff. Additionally, his rehearsals were far too rushed for a concert which would include the premier of two other new works.

Glazunov was said to have been drunk for the infamous premier, where the young Rachaninoff sat in complete despair on the auditorium’s fire-escape listening to an inebriated Glazunov conduct an under-rehearsed and dreadfully interpreted performance of his symphony. The critical reaction to the piece was excruciatingly harsh; it was completely panned by the critics who had attended the concert.  Perhaps the worst piece of criticism levelled at the piece was that “If there is a conservatory competition in Hell, this Symphony would gain first prize“. The symphony was not ever publically performed again in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime.

The apocalyptically negative reaction to the symphony sent Rachmaninoff into a long period of depression. He composed barely anything for three years and his mental and physical health plummeted. It was only in 1900 that Rachmaninoff started to recover. An intensive course of hypnotherapy somehow managed to help him recover from his despondency. The first major work after his convalescence was his Piano Concerto No. 2, which received critical acclaim and is now considered one of the greatest pieces of classical music ever.

With hindsight, the consensus today is that the symphony is actually rather good- just that its disastrous premier burdened it with an unjustified reputation. The symphony has a conventional structure as it consists of four movements. The short motif that is heard at the very beginning is a unifying feature throughout the symphony and a variation of it opens each movement. The first movement is fierce and assured. The second movement is a light-footed scherzo with wonderfully colourful lyricism. Following this is the brooding larghetto which has a recogniseable, late-romantic feel to it. The finale brings together thematic elements heard in previous movements in a dramatic and powerful manner. Throughout the symphony one can hear elements of the distinctive style that Rachmaninoff was developing; powerful Russian romanticism, rich harmonies and haunting melodies.

Islam in the UK; how far should tolerance go?

Mosque_UK

Over the last few months I have tried to learn more about Islam- with a focus of the religion in the UK. I have been listening (and then re-listening) to various, semi-related BBC radio documentaries about Islam in addition to reading various articles online. My perspective of Islam and in particular how it functions in Britain has changed quite significantly. If you have time, I’d recommend listening to at least a few of these programmes. There are two documentaries about Deobandi islam in the UK, one about conservative Muslims in liberal Britain, a look at multiculturalism in Leicester and Newham, a look at the Deobandis in India and in Pakistan, an analysis into how Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth has been used to spread its puritanical form of Islam– Wahhabism and there’s another more general analysis of Wahhabism which is also worth a listen. Then there are a few which I’ve usefully forgotten the names of the titles!

So how has my attitude changed? Essentially, where before I believed that tolerance should basically have no limits, now I believe there should be at least some boundaries of a liberal society’s tolerance of other religions.

But where should Britain’s tolerance stop in relation to British Muslims? Bluntly put: somewhere around the point where Islamic communities become extremely conservative. From my ‘new’ understanding, these communities (listen to the documentaries about Deobandi muslims) are extremely patriarchal, puritanical,  authoritarian, intolerant, have major issues with extremism and most perhaps importantly, in the context of a liberal Western society- are misogynistic.

Women in these very conservative Islamic communities are effectively second-class citizens. For a start, many mosques don’t allow women to attend at all, Islamic scholars and preachers are practically all male and in family life it is the man who calls all the shots- just watch East is East. There is a widely held expectation that the women should stay at home and look after the children; for example in the 2011 census it was revealed that Arab, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have the highest rates of economic inactivity in the UK (64%, 61% and 60% respectively)- i.e. women who don’t have jobs and stay at home, according to tradition.  Additionally, the increasing prevalence of private sharia law courts in the country has been found to increase the discrimination against women living in Islamic communities. Oh and don’t forget homosexuals, 52% of British Muslims say that they disagree that homosexuality should be legal- compared with a mere 5% of the general population.

Problems arise from the fact that in Islam there is a huge range of extremely specific rules about how societal and family life should be conducted- and of course in conservative communities these rules are more strictly enforced. And if all the fatwas and rules are followed particularly  faithfully, like the Wahhabis, Deobandis and other puritanical sects do, you end up with religious communities which are far more suited to an ancient desert-Arab society, than a modern, liberal and secular nation.

Then, there is the problem of Islamic extremism. Now, of course the West (not least the UK!) is responsible in large part for much of the Islamic terrorism experienced in recent years. Destructive military-interventions, invasions, occupations, the propping up of Dictators, the training and funding of armed extremists when we want to replace these Dictators, the drone attacks and our unwavering support for Israel have all contributed to a not completely irrational hatred of the West, among many Muslims in the middle-east and further afield. But nevertheless, Islamic extremism is still a problem that must be dealt with and the UK is no stranger to it. Episode 2 of The Deobandis goes into detail about the murky history of the spread of Jihadist thought in Britain and highlights that a large number of UK mosques have quietly supported or at least been sympathetic to extremist causes throughout previous decades.

So, what should the British government do about all this? How do we help the women living in these communities and prevent the spread of extremism? I’m not so sure, but after thinking about it at length I have a few personal suggestions so listen up Teresa May! Firstly I would support the banning of religious schools (Christian ones included incidentally), a ban of Sharia-courts and the closure of mosques which don’t open their doors to women. Additionally, foreign funding of Mosques should be banned. For example Saudi Arabia has poured perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars into the funding of puritanical religious schools and mosques around the world, including the UK. It is utterly insane that extremely backwards religious ideologies such as Wahhabism should be allowed to flourish in countries such as Britain from Saudi oil money and this needs to be stopped immediately.

The government needs to tread carefully, though. There is a thin line between curbing the excesses of super-conservative forms of Islam and religious persecution. Also, there is a risk that trying to do so will just exacerbate the issue of Islamic extremism by angering and alienating Islamic communities. But perhaps this is a price worth paying if it means that large numbers of women currently living in subjugation might be able to live freer lives.

 

 

 

 

Being an end is nigh kinda guy

When you think of people who believe the world is going to end, what comes to mind? Most likely it’ll be a crazy beggar holding a tatty, illegible cardboard sign, standing underneath a motorway overpass while screaming at passing cars.

Well here comes the awkward part, technically I’m in the same boat as those clichéd homeless people as I also think the world is going to end, and rather soon too.

Now before you start Googling ‘how to get someone sectioned’ I would like to point out that there is at least a smidgen of rationality to this belief. Additionally, a more accurate description of this pessimistic prediction is that ‘modern civilisation will largely collapse well before the end of the century’. So it’s not that mental; it’s not like I think God is going to instigate Armageddon on a rainy afternoon sometime this August because gays can now get married in the US (although, you never know!).

natural history museum
A pretty picture of an abandoned museum in central London, at least the whole collapse thing will create some nice overgrown ruins!

But why do I think this? This paper gives a good overview, but in brief: the continued growth of capitalism is causing (and will cause further) multiple, inter-connected, catastrophic environmental disasters which will undermine the foundations of human civilisation. Most importantly, the global food supply will not be able to match the growing, already over-sized human population. Additionally, large areas of land will be rendered uninhabitable because of sea-level rise and extreme weather conditions. This will result in mass migrations and unprecedented political instability across the world, with the majority of countries becoming failed states (which I think is a nice arbitrary way of defining global collapse) before 2100.

So that’ll be a barrel of laughs, if shit really does hit the fan in this manner. But how does having these rather pessimistic beliefs affect me?

Well, the main effect is that I’ve become a bit of a nihilist; since global civilisation is (so I tell myself) going to violently and unpredictably restructure itself into a Mad-Max-esque society within my own lifetime, then what’s the point in doing anything? Everything is just going to get worse, most probably apocalyptically so. Why bother contributing to a currently, sort-of functioning society which is very likely to massively fail within the near future?

Additionally, it has made me a tad bit depressed, although not perhaps enough to warrant a trip to the doctors for some doses of soma. It’s not so much the end of civilisation which is depressing; that was always going to happen at some point. It’s that seeing the ending of civilisation is going to suck. Although as a privileged European I’m not actually that worried about my own safety, most others won’t be so lucky and seeing their bad luck will perhaps be just a little bit tragic. The widespread human suffering which is well on its way is going to make the current European refugee crisis seem like a picnic in the park. Whether it’s massive food riots in South America, millions fleeing the flooding coast of Bangladesh, mega-droughts in sub-Saharan Africa or deadly heat-waves in Europe, it’s all going to make the world a rather gloomy place indeed.

marvin
Party like it’s the end of the world

So, I can’t really say there are many positives to having apocalyptic beliefs (unless you consider nihilism and mild-depression useful attributes). Although, having said that, the whole ‘life-is-short’ mantra does start to develop a greater sense of urgency- and who could complain about that?

But, anyway, is there anything one should do about all of this? I think there are two options.

First: delude yourself! Buy organic Starbucks coffee, switch your phone charger off when you’re not using it, recycle the drinks cans you get on your next international flight, make sure the next TV you buy is ‘energy-efficient’. Join the growing population of consumers who are purchasing their way to planetary salvation. Never mind that the global economic system is dependent on exponential growth for its own survival, forget about those hundreds of millions of humans (mainly in China) now rich enough to try and emulate the nauseatingly consumerist American lifestyle that mass-media so gleefully promotes. Forget about all that, do your bit for Mother Earth and become a ‘conscious consumer!’

And for the second option I must quote Denethor the 2nd of Minas Tirith; “Abandon your posts! Flee, flee for your lives!” (although, I don’t condone setting yourself on fire and jumping off a giant castle).

denny
He’s got the right idea, sort of

 

 

 

Some thoughts on my education

“Education, education, education.”

These were the words that Tony Blair triumphantly exclaimed in a speech he made in 1996 where he outlined Labour’s priorities for the upcoming 1997 general election. This, in addition to a slick election campaign, clearly struck a chord with the British populace as Labour won a historic landslide victory and gained power from the conservatives.

In hindsight there were several other words or phrases that Mr Blair could have chanted. A few spring to mind: “Illegal wars, illegal wars, illegal wars”, “Private Finance Initiative (x 3)”, “Subservience to the USA (x 3)”. The list could go on.

But I digress; was Tony lying when he said that Labour were going to focus on education? Well, technically they did a fair amount. Between 1997 and 2007 (in England) per pupil funding nearly doubled, there were 35,000 more teachers and 172,000 more teaching assistants- good job guys!

Or was it? I had the wonderful privilege of attending a prestigious and selective bog-standard West London comprehensive, starting year 7 (age 11) way back in 2004, back in the days where global warming was still at the “it’s plausible to prevent this” phase and where the global war on terror (otherwise known as the “get everyone in the Middle East to hate us campaign”) was just starting to heat up.

So did I experience the promised wonders of “Education, education, education!”? Not particularly, is the short answer.

The main problem is that Labour made no radical changes at all. The two main goals of the system remained. These were (and still are):

  1. To create students that are obedient to authority
  2. To get these obedient students to pass standardised tests, which typically require very little thinking but lots of mindless regurgitation of memorised mark-schemes

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these are rather lousy aims for an education system, not least because getting teenagers to memorise a load of random facts for exams or essays is utterly pointless. Where’s the emphasis on critical thinking and independent thought? Where’s the fostering of creativity? For me and millions of other British secondary/6th-form students, bar a few exceptional teachers who did their best to do real teaching, it was nowhere to be found.

Even though these two listed ‘goals’ are unarguably stupid, they’re not that actually that easy to achieve. Elthorne Park High School, along with most state comprehensives, found it incredibly hard to enforce the two goals. Funnily enough, when you put thousands of adolescents through a school system that tries to install blind obedience and memorised mark-schemes, many of these hormonal and restless teenagers will try and resist this futile exercise. Resistance manifests itself in different ways; mostly in students putting virtually no effort into their classes but often also in bad behaviour and constant challenges to the teachers (“Why are we actually learning this?”, for example).

And so, the majority of my memories of Elthorne consist of students messing around in class, fights in the playground (not including me mind!), the awful school food, some more messing around and endless hours of us trying to bypass the internet security system to find online-games websites that weren’t blocked. Oh and of course there were the music classes with those magical electronic keyboards- “DJ, DJ DJ DJDDJDJDJDJ! Cooome on, *hughrrhghh*, Dic-dic-dic-dic-dic-dictionary”.

So yes, the current system is pretty poor. Although I’m sure that most of the teachers at Elthorne were genuinely trying their best, they had the impossible role of forcing hundreds of teenagers through an old-fashioned and quasi-authoritarian education system. Something that was destined to fail!

***

Just in case the Education secretary is reading this I will briefly summarise my main suggestions.

  • Have way more options for vocational qualifications (plumbing, electronics, etc); most kids just don’t want to be badly taught Maths, English, Geography and the like. Why force them to learn stuff against their will? From an early age (14? I’m not sure actually) students should have the option to opt out of the traditional subjects to do more hands-on stuff
  • Get rid of as many standardised tests as possible, they’re a waste of everyone’s time
  • Try and foster independent and critical thinking in students; they need to be critical of the world around them
  • Teach students how to teach themselves; how to use the internet for learning effectively- i.e. when to be suspicious of websites/sources etc

Bonus that will never happen

  • In depth teaching about US and Western imperialism, neoliberalism and how the world is now controlled by rapacious multi-national corporations

Extra bonus

  • Teach the kids how to overthrow corporate-capitalism

Anyway, I’m at 700 words already and so I’m sure most people have stopped reading before this point. If not, thanks for reading this far- you must be really bored!

 

Sweden the Old Folks Home

I’ve now been living in Sweden for around half a year and since I’ve passed this completely arbitrary milestone I feel like I’m now well-placed to offer my opinions of the country. Although it’s kind of impossible to summarise an entire nation in just a short blog post, fortunately the modern world is all about superficial understanding (e.g. Buzzfeed explaining complex political issues in ‘Top-10 reasons’ lists, people basing their understanding of entire military conflicts on a few tweets, and so on). With this in mind, I think I can be forgiven.

Sweden is like a gigantic, prestigious retirement home. The only difference is that people of all ages live in it. Also, the home is not so much one building-complex but a very large country with many villages, towns and cities. Additionally, most of the people living in it aren’t actually retired; many have normal jobs or are just students. In fact, Sweden is very much like a fully-functioning country- although it is certainly retirement-home-esque.

Larger retirement homes often have old people riding around the grounds on 2mph mobility scooters, Sweden is not dissimilar. All the cars here drive around exceptionally slowly, in a sort of reverse motor-sport where the person who drives in the most excruciatingly leisurely manner wins. The buses drive even slower, to the point where it’s sometimes quicker to cover yourself in vaseline and crawl towards your destination. Alternatively you could cycle, but apart from a few days in Summer this means exposing yourself to near constant rain/wind/snow/sleet/drizzle/darkness.

Some of the best retirement homes have a long list of general rules for the residents to follow; “Patients are reminded not to die in the corridors!”, for example. But unfortunately what often happens in old-folks’-homes is that many of these rules go widely ignored, because of widespread dementia. However, fortunately Sweden is full of young, dementia free residents and they can remember rules with ease, rules which are treated with extreme reverence. The Swedes look to the rule of law and to a complex web of social norms and values in the same way Muslims walking into Mecca view the Koran. To break the rules of society is an offence to the underlying-fabric of the universe.

For example, I recently was volunteering for a posh dinner for heads of the university ‘Nations’- essentially mini student-unions This dinner included a champagne reception with 74 precisely filled glasses, for 74 well-groomed attendees who had just finished watching repeats of Last of the Summer Wine. These glasses were essentially unguarded, yet in a miracle testament to long term Scandinavian social-engineering, only one person came to the bar complaining they hadn’t got their champagne- meaning that virtually everyone had only drank their allotted glass! If this had been in Britain, the first 20 guests would have quickly assessed the surroundings, realised the situation was ripe for exploitation and gulped down 3 glasses each at a minimum.

Like any sensible retirement home Sweden tries to strictly limit the amount of alcohol consumption for its population: if you want to visit the bar downstairs to play some bingo, you’re only allowed one drink at a time and even if you’re just a little bit tipsy the care-workers won’t serve you any more booze until you’ve sobered up. Additionally, if residents want to buy some alcohol for personal consumption in their bedrooms, they will not be able to find any in the supermarket but will have to go to the special systembolaget shop, which is located between the reception and the morgue.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit for attempted comedic effect. But there is an element of truth in everything I’ve said. Rules are sacred here and that means that the society functions extremely efficiently. The quality of life is extremely high; there’s no corruption, barely any crime, everything just works. It is certainly a very good place to live, although sometimes it’s just a bit too good, when everything works so well all of the time things can start to feel just a little bit, boring. If Grass is always greener on the other side then Sweden is definitely on that other side, with much of the world enviously looking over the fence. But sometimes you do just want to jump back over and join the real world again.

Back to Sweden. Hello, border police…?

After a short 3-week break for Christmas, which primarily consisted of listening to the Ricky Gervais XFM show from the early 2000s and meeting up with friends, it was time to fly back for another semester of being at university to delay going into the real world studying hard. I am studying hard so that I can obtain a sheet of paper saying ‘Andrew Knowles, Master of Science’which I will hang in a prominent place in a future flat that I won’t be able to afford, to impress a Tinder date who won’t be sitting there (but I will make sure there’s plenty of milk in case she says she needs some (10 points for those who get the reference)).

The flight was enjoyable in a sort of adrenaline-driven way, as-per-usual. I’m always impressed at the calm façade passengers always display a flight. Personally, I don’t think they’re really calm; they might look like they’re casually browsing a gossip magazine, but underneath I reckon everyone is trying their best to hold back feelings of terror and the urge to jump out of the plane before it starts accelerating on the runway shouting “This is definitely not natural!”. Or maybe that’s just me.

Zoidberg
How I think everyone feels when flying, deep down

 

Thanks a lot Merkel?

When I first arrived in Lund, it was a very straightforward journey from Copenhagen Airport across to Sweden on the Oresund bridge. There were no passport checks, there was no police presence.

But recently, due to an unprecedented influx of immigrants into Sweden, border checks have been imposed. It’s the first time in half a century that the journey between Denmark and Sweden has been impeded in this way. With this in mind, plus the fact that the border checks came into force less than a week before I arrived into Copenhagen, it felt like quite a ever so slightly momentous moment; being among the first people to experience armed police coming onto the train in Sweden asking for identification- at the now extensively fenced station in Hyllie. It is, after-all, a tangible glimpse into a European Union in full crisis-mode as the continent is unable to cope with the number of migrants coming in (or at least: unable to calm peoples’ fears about the ramifications of the large influx).

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the Schengen area, or indeed the EU altogether. After all, the anti-immigrant and multiculturalism Swedish Democrats are experiencing ever-greater popularity in the country, just like similar parties across Europe. I remember that just a few weeks after I arrived to Lund in the summer, there was a sizeable ‘Welcome Refugees’ rally in the town centre. Now, it appears that the generous hospitality of the Swedes has dwindled into anxiety.

For the European Union as a whole it seems that Angela Merkel’s now infamous open invitation for immigrants to come to Europe has massively backfired. Now, the future of the union looks increasingly uncertain. As the continent’s migrant processing and integration infrastructure groans under the pressure of the new inhabitants, the far-right is experiencing a surge in popularity as populist rhetoric against refugees becomes increasingly normalised.