Looking Backwards to a Great Transition: how do we use images of the past to describe present and future crises?

This post was written by Guest Post on September 22, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

This is a guest post from Gloria.

The weekend before last, I went to a film event about the Peckham Experiment, an innovative project begun in South London in the 1930s to discover what good health was, and how it could be promoted. Families paid a small charge to use this new sports and social club, and gave consent for their activities and wellbeing to be monitored, and results disseminated. We were urged to consider the ways in which the lessons of the Peckham Experiment could help us re-evaluate wellbeing and community in The Great Transition (the title of the New Economics Foundation’s project to tackle the ‘triple crunch’ of financial crisis, climate change and peak hydrocarbons).

However, what my friends and I noticed were the differences and the disadvantages. The project was an anomaly, set up in a middle-class area, in a period where there was no universal free access to healthcare. The public information film made at the time told an unsettling story of a woman who was reluctant to join the project but was coerced into taking part (and having a gynaecological operation) through a mixture of peer pressure and emotional blackmail. It was also not apparent to me how this one public health experiment could constructively alleviate the ‘triple crunch’ of problems, only one of which (the financial crisis) was a background to the original Peckham Experiment. What does it mean for us to look at the past, particularly the 1930’s and 40’s, in order to envisage our future or describe our present? One thing that unsettles me about looking at the past as a pointer to the Transition of the future is how passive it renders us, nostalgic for a past that never existed.

I’ve recently been reading some Transition movement websites and recommended links. This piece is about The Automatic Earth, a US finance blog that explores the recession and the recent history of economics with an emphasis on the irrationality of markets and the threat of peak oil. Its contributors anticipate bigger crises of capitalism in the near future, especially the availability of credit, and prophesy that a total meltdown of Life As We Know It is imminent. Answer? Resilience. Get yourself some land, learn how to be self-sufficient, ‘build a community’. The main contributor, Nicole Foss (‘Stoneleigh’, speaking in the video) recently gave the keynote speech at the Transition Towns Conference in the UK.
This is a very American take on a crisis of capital, with its ‘ordinary people’ (like you, the viewer) vs. ‘the bankers’ or ‘the system’, land acquisition, pioneering, the fight for ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. Let’s not rock the boat by bringing in class, or capitalism, it implies; Let’s just focus on the millenarian conceit. Indeed, the analysis is fascinated by the idea of an apocalyptic event which only the self-sufficient will survive. Stoneleigh mentions the journalistic truism that the world came within six hours of total financial meltdown in 2008. Chuckling through her dire warnings at the end, she threatens that it’s better to be too early preparing for the next storm than too late.

As with the Automatic Earth blog, all the photographs are of the Great Depression. An historical event is borrowed to make a point about an imagined (but near) future. What if, the video suggests, we had a crash like 1929? In fact in parts of America, and elsewhere, it’s already happening. People wait in line for jobs, benefits, food. Mothers clutch their children, still, finding the future an unbearable thought. People are evicted from their houses because they cannot pay the mortgages they were given; some fight on and barricade themselves against the bailiffs, knowing that have no capital to buy the lifeboat Stoneleigh gravely recommends. We are being fed these images of the past as an augury of the future, when in fact they describe a present reality. Do we not have the adequate contemporary images to describe the current crisis or its solutions? Or don’t we recognise them as such? If we do have images, where are they, and why aren’t we using them?

We still have dole queues, minus the nifty headgear

The place for government or the state in these ‘Transition’ analyses is often uncertain. Stoneleigh only mentions government to suggest a massive loss of civil liberties, and a collusion with financial institutions who will bring about our ruin. How we might be a better kind of government or help change the financial system is not discussed. Right now the Transition movement, along with many other voluntary and community organisations, is wrestling with whether the ‘Big Society’ is something it should get behind, redefine or reject. Perhaps acceptance makes sense: Some ‘Transition’ projects, like the ‘Big Society’, tend to lean on a nostalgic vision of a past that misunderstands its full context. In the case of the Automatic Earth video, resilience and self-sufficiency can prevent a 1930s-style meltdown – we ‘learn a lesson’ from these images, even if those in power will not. In the case of the Peckham Experiment, we can marvel at an inspirational attempt to create a radical notion of ‘wellbeing’ before the big bad shutters of the new government’s NHS came down.

I think we need to be able to imagine that the system will fail or succeed for other reasons than the ways in which it has done so in the past. We have to be able to believe that we will all be part of shaping those changes, and, as we veer towards crises and problems both new and old, we need to take our history lessons with a pinch of salt; a critical examination of the images of fear or inspiration with which we are served.

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Reader Comments


The hyperlink didn’t work – the video I refer to is here:

Written By Gloria on September 23rd, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

I agree the video is a ridiculous (who makes a YouTube tribute to a blog?), but The Automatic Earth does offer consistently insightful analysis, best consumed without dramatic piano music and panning images of the 1930s, and with a basic knowledge of finance and economics.

“How we might be a better kind of government or help change the financial system is not discussed.”

You reformist you!

“Resilience and self-sufficiency can prevent a 1930s-style meltdown

No, I think the perspective here is that nothing CAN prevent a 1930s-style-meltdown, so you better start thinking outside the wage-slavery-box.

So I get your distaste for resilience (coloured by a silly video perhaps), but I can’t figure out what (if anything) you ARE advocating in this piece.

Written By Steve on September 24th, 2010 @ 10:25 am

I think the video Tribute to the Automatic Earth, is a wonderful video – Nicole Foss is one of the most ‘on the button’ speakers out there helping people to understand what they can do to protect themselves from the inevitable economic crash.

Gloria – you ask why more contemporary images were not used in the video rather than images from the depression. I personally think these images are the most relevant as Nicole Foss is predicting a depression on a parallel with the Great Depression. Images like the sign outside a town saying ‘Jobless men keep going – we can’t take care of our own here’ – we are not at that point yet, however these images show where history has been before and it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see it happening again.

If the credit markets stop functioning; if goods are tied up on docks awaiting letters of credit; if food is being cleared off the shelves in days through panic buying; if house prices fall to 1970′s level and people are being chased for negative equity debt….frankly we’re in a lot worse position that the people were in the 30′s – most people now have no savings and most people are not self-sufficient in any shape or form.

Written By Jones on September 24th, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

@Jones: The photographs of the depression to indeed conjure up all those images – and I don’t think they’re the right ones It just evokes some fantasy of apocalyptic britain, rather than talking about the actual situation in which we find ourselves.

@Steve: I think the point about resilience is that it’s not a neutral term – it smacks of that libertarian version of autonomy which so often translates into elitism. Yes, we need to protect certain aspects of our culture from the claws of the recession, but not at the expense of egalitarianism, surely. When resilience is talked about in the Transition Town groups, it’s often as a concept of actually building a world beyond oil, one which preferences those who got their act together before the crisis, the educated few.

Written By Richard on September 24th, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

Really interesting post! The debate reminds me of one I got interested in during my dissertation, a good example of which is Murray Bookchin slagging off Hakim Bey in an essay called ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’:


Basically critiquing Bey’s admittedly extremely wanky concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, on the basis that having the effrontery to set up an idealised, autonomous community, when there is anyone suffering anywhere in the world, is automatically a really bad thing to do and should be condemned by all right-thinking, serious anarchists. If there’s time on the agenda at their next meeting, of course.

Way I see it though, people who are interested in these issues can be split into two groups: the ones who are agonising about whether what they’re doing is the one non-elitist magic bullet that is going to bring about the glorious revolution, or the ones who know that there is no such magic bullet and are just getting on with it. I know what side I’d rather be on.

Written By Majeed on October 5th, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

Thanks all for thoughtful comments, sorry I haven’t been quick to respond.

Jones – My point about these pictures is that they can’t tell us what things actually look like now, and we are of course distanced from them. Sure, they can serve as symbols and warnings, but why can’t we use our current plight to warn ourselves? Maybe this is a bigger question of aesthetics I can’t properly expand here.

Steve – you’re right, I am not particularly advocating an alternative, just registering a disquiet about some of the ways people are thinking about and visually representing current problems. Which leads to …

Majeed – a hearty mix of utopias and pragmatism. From you I would expect nothing less. I know what you mean: there is a lot of dithering and while there may be no magic bullets, a lot’s at stake. However, the best lack all conviction, as the poet said, and often with good reason. A lazy grasp of history can be a pretty poor compass. But we CAN get on with it and critically examine what we’re doing too – I know you do and I know I try.

Written By Gloria on October 9th, 2010 @ 11:40 am

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