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