Rod’s Blog 8.11.13
I’m a workaholic. I’m not sitting in a circle with other workaholics and trying to use some kind of step programme to get off my addiction – I just love, to the point of obsession, my work. I have done other things in my life – for a big chunk of time I was a teacher of English and Drama – and I hated it…so I’m not just some weirdo who loves to work hard – I am very, very lucky to have (at the moment) a salaried job as a theatre director and to run a company with a long history of presenting theatre with a left-leaning agenda. I know this could all end with the next round of funding …so I’m not complacently sitting here saying “Yah boo I’m a lucky so and so and that’s the end of it”. I know how fragile and precarious working in the Arts is …and that might also account for my workaholism …it could all end next July when the new Arts Council National Portfolio is announced.
So taking three weeks ‘off’ to go to China to visit my big boy was exciting …but also meant leaving my desk for a considerable chunk of time and leaving Chris to hold the reigns, the tiller, the wheel …whatever he holds when I’m not holding it – and knowing he is more than capable of holding on meant I was ready to have a ‘holiday’.
My son has been working in Shanghai for the last year and so it was my opportunity to travel right across the world to see a country which has always fascinated me. I don’t fly – but maybe travelling 6000 miles overland would need a full year off work and that wasn’t feasible. So I reckoned my lack of flying for the last five years will have clocked up a large enough carbon reduction to take that huge step. The flight has probably put as much carbon into the earth’s atmosphere as my last five years of existence as a consumer anyway – so I’ve got five years to de-consume (is there such a word?) ….ugh it’s a headache trying to live ethically, so let’s not pursue this one any further!
I read a lot before travelling – about the Cultural Revolution, about Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, about the birth of the communist nation and the massive changes that have taken place there since Deng Xiaoping. None of that reading prepared me in any way for what I saw.
Shanghai is a city of 28 million people. Twenty eight million people – it’s a number I can’t even begin to imagine. If size matters – and it really does in the capitalist world -then China is proudly embracing the materials economy and doing it ‘supersize’. The linear system of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal is all on show on a scale which just left me utterly stunned. No wonder everything we buy has ‘Made in China’ written on it. The People’s Republic has gobbled up the production of stuff and is out-doing every nation in the world – and at such a rate that it obviously has absolutely no checks or controls – and definitely no environmental awareness. It’s as if the mill owners of 19th century northern England had been put into Dr Who’s Tardis and whisked to the present day “There you go Titus Salt – workers who will work for 18 hours a day, unbelievable technologies and as much of the earth’s resources as you can gobble up in as short a time as possible!”
I spent a weekend in Shanghai feeling physically sick at the horrible waste – the neon flashing all night, the buildings screeching up towards the stars 120 storeys high, the brash unchecked consumerism of all the greediest Western brand names …alongside workers living in garden shed sized dwellings whose only job was to look after the electric scooters parked at the base of the many apartment blocks. My son’s girlfriend kept asking me if I was having a ‘good time’ – she was worried that I had travelled all that way to look worried and to sigh every few minutes. I was having an experience – but it was an anti-capitalist’s hell!
Shanghai seems to be the epitome of organised chaos. Everyone zips about on what look like Lambrettas but which are actually electric scooters. These are illegal – they’re too fast to be safe – but because there are tens of thousands of them (they seem to have replaced bicycles as the main form of civilian transport), the police just don’t ‘see’ them. I clung onto the back of my son’s as he tore through the city – we went through a red light, ignored any kind of system of traffic control at a huge intersection, bumped up onto the pavement to avoid a traffic tailback, snaked through the pedestrians including a policeman and then zipped back onto the street in front of a speeding taxi. If we’d done that in Britain, Pete would have been arrested and probably received a driving ban. Every scooter is equipped with an annoyingly shrill horn and the city air is a cacophony of beep-beeps – without which I am sure there would be thousands of traffic accidents and deaths every hour. I didn’t see a single accident and my son assured me there are very few.
Obviously, I wasn’t expecting anything else – I know that this state which calls itself ‘communist’ is really a totalitarian version of Cameron’s divided Britain. It didn’t surprise me at all that George Osborne (who was in China the same week as me) came back to Britain wishing that British workers could have the same devotion to work as the Chinese. Maybe that’s because the Chinese are literally wage slaves as Marx would have described them.
We travelled for 23 hours by train from rural China to Shanghai and I asked a young doctor whether she thought Chinese people were happy – and she was very clear in her answer – no…she knew many unhappy people – most of them migrant workers who had left their families to join the rat race and the treadmill in order to send money home to their poor families.
When I got home there was a twitter and media storm around Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy ‘Paxo’ in which he encouraged us all to stop voting. I’d just been staying in a country with the worst human rights in the world (allegedly) where democracy is supposedly non-existent and here was a huge debate about whether our vote actually counts for anything. On a very superficial level when you walk the streets of Shanghai in the evening it appears to be a city of very contented people. You’ll see groups of elderly people doing aerobics classes or dance classes in the open air (literally on the street corners sometimes), and young people in newish fashionable clothes flirting and joking. Again, superficially, when these scenes are compared to the miserable faces I see in the streets of Britain, cowering under the glowering suspicious stares of British police…I really question which society is ‘working’ better. I began to think about Ed Miliband promising a fairer capitalism and I wondered if this was it. Of course, that thought got stamped out quickly when I saw the emptiness of it all – brash, consumerist and void of any depth. The massive gulf between rich and poor was obvious – especially when our train journey took us through strange ghost towns where the majority of the population had migrated to the bigger cities.
So what about Russell Brand’s call for revolution? Say what you like about Russell, and people get very worked up about him calling him a buffoon, a clown or a lot worse – everything he said in the interview and his piece in New Statesman has been said by people like Noam Chomsky or John Holloway for many years – but because they are academics then their views are given far more credence, if not exactly welcomed by the capitalists. Not voting is seen by the liberal left as an insult to our forefathers and particularly our foremothers (many of whom were tortured in their fight for the vote). If those who fought so bravely for our suffrage could see what a hollow process and what a private members club party politics has become today – I think they would be standing with Russell on this issue. Emma Goldman’s quote “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” was as true in the early 20th century as it is today. That isn’t cynicism or apathy – that is anger.
A recent article in defence of Russell Brand and against Robert Webb (public schoolboy comedian pledging his support for the Labour Party in response to Brand) reminded the reader that many of us who do not vote do stand in the cold on a picket line, do march, do protest and get bashed by the police for doing so. What is more active – placing a cross on a piece of paper and handing over the responsibility of running society to some faceless suit, or taking direct action and facing arrest for it? Of course – the simple answer would be “well you don’t see many people taking ‘direct action’ in China do you? At least we live in a democracy…” blah blah blah.
We live in a fear-riddled sham of democracy. Put your head down, don’t rock the boat, shut up and buy stuff – or save for your old age. And vote. Or maybe spoil your ballot paper – this was the ‘sensible’ response to Russell Brand’s ‘hysterical’ squeal for revolution.
That’ll show them! I’ll go down to the polling station and I’ll say ‘none of the above’ on my ballot paper. What power I’ve been given in this democracy – I bet those Tor-lab-dems are quaking in their boots at the audacity of me messing up the system so chaotically. I could even blow a raspberry on my way out.
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.