Sunday, 13 January 2013

Digging in

Now however, the circumstances have changed, the drowsy years have ended. Being a Socialist no longer means kicking theoretically against a system which in practice you are fairly well satisfied with. This time our predicament is real. It is "the Philistines be upon thee, Samson". We have got to make our words take physical shape, or perish.
I spent the last few afternoons in the garden, the huerto, a small plot in the village that R bought when she bought the house. I don't know exactly how large it is, in so far as one can say "exactly" for a ragged piece of land, sat atop a large and irregular chunk of rock below what used to be the village prison.

Why the village ever had a prison, I am far from sure, even though it used to be a much larger village than it is, perhaps two hundred inhabitants at its peak, compared to barely more than a dozen today. But it did, and the crumbling half-walls that remain form part of a pattern of gradual but massive depopulation that has affected pretty much all of rural Aragón and Navarra. Depopulation, leaving behind shrunken villages inhabited largely by the elderly. The normal pattern, when there is poverty and all the work is elsewhere.

I don't know. 150 square metres, maybe: there would be more if we didn't have the winter's firewood stashed along one side. But most of the rest is usable, open to cultivation, and that 150 square metres is what I have been digging, raking and purging in the last week before we go back to work.

What will we do if (or when) we lose our work? Everybody seems to be asking themselves that question - everybody, that is, who has not already lost their job. Everyone is fearful and everyone is insecure. Our mortgage, at least, is paid off, but we cannot indefinitely live by selling books to schools with shrinking budgets and customers with shrinking wages. Where, that is, they still have jobs at all.

What would we do instead? Hard enough for Spaniards to answer that question, when there are no regular jobs to be found. Perhaps no easier for two ingleses in their forties who aren't going to get those regular jobs even if they existed.

Manuel Castells spoke to Paul Mason last year and said some things that made me think. Or rather, it wasn't so much the things he said that made me think, it was that there was no option but to think about them, because the crunch is coming. For Spain, for much of Europe, and for two little people whose problems don't add up to a hill of beans in the face of such a crisis.

What we are not going to see is the economic collapse per se because societies cannot work in a social vacuum. If the economic institutions don't work, if the financial institutions don't work, the power relations that exist in society change the financial system in ways favoured to the financial system and it doesn't collapse. People collapse, not the financial system.

"The notion is the banks are going to be alright, we are not going to be alright. So there is a cultural change. A big one. Total distrust in the institutions of finance and politics.

Some people start already living differently as they can - some because they want alternative ways of life, others because they don't have any other choice.

What I refer to is about the observation of one of my latest studies on people who have decided not to wait for the revolution - to start living differently - meaning the expansion of what I call in a technical term 'non-capitalist practices'.

They are economic practices but they don't have a for-profit motivation - such as barter networks; such as social currencies; co-operatives; self-management; agricultural networks; helping each other simply in terms of wanting to be together; networks of providing services for free to others in the expectation that someone will also provide to you. All this exists and it's expanding throughout the world.
Maybe. But how does one get involved? I have thought about it. I have had to. My comparative advantage, where I am, is that I am English. What I have to offer is the English language. I can sell it, as conversation, where people have the money to pay for it. Where they do not, I can sell it for services, or time, or food. I come round for English conversation - in return you make me lunch. I help you with your English grammar - in return you help sort out my computer. I speak English with you for an hour - in return I bank an hour of your time for when I need it.

All this is fine in theory, though less convenient than cash, especially as your bills still need to be paid in cash rather than services. It's also more convenient if you live in the city, where there are many more people who you can engage in alternative exchange, where they can be reached without the costs in cash and time of a trip by car.

What can be done living in the countryside? Castells speaks of "agricultural networks" but a vegetable garden one-fifth the size of a penalty area is not going to produce a surplus. But it will produce a lot of vegetables. More, if we are at home, rather than working, as we now do, on the road more than half the year, and hence we have time to cultivate it properly.

That is what happened during the great Russian economic catastrophe of the Nineties, though it went unnoticed by foreign correspondents who were only interested in branches of McDonald's opening in Moscow. Back went people, unemployed as they were, or unpaid even when they were not unemployed. Back they went to their villages and their vegetable plots.

The circumstances have changed, the drowsy years are ended. Back people go. From the whims of the financial markets to the whims of soil, seed and weather. Back they go. Maybe the "physical shape" our words will have to take is the shape of carrots, leeks, potatoes. Maybe we will have to get used to digging. Maybe many people will.

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