Acid Drops: Andy Roberts – A Review

Acid DropsAndy Roberts already has a definitive place in the recent resurgence of interest and research into psychedelic substances, having penned a well-received historical account of LSD in his 2012 book Albion Dreaming. Subtitled, A Popular History of LSD in Britain, it recounts the history of LSD from its synthesis in the laboratory of Albert Hoffman, to the British intelligence experimentations as a tool of the military, early research and use by psychiatrists on their patients, right through to the banning of the substance and the subsequent explosion of interest in the 1960s that led to the “hippie” counterculture. It is more or less a chronological account, and it is never more interesting than when recounting the continuing development of the psychedelic scene in the 1970s. It is here where Roberts’s own experiences give the historical analysis a personal confirmation. This is necessary because the propaganda and policing of this most wondrous of substances has distorted the accounts of the names and the places, so correcting many misconceptions and false accusations concocted by media, police and politicians becomes essential. In Albion Dreaming, Roberts mentions familiar names and places to anyone with a passing interest in the history of LSD. Operation Julie, the police operation that broke the huge production of LSD in the UK in the 1970s is detailed, as is the UK visit of the acclaimed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1967, where he wrote his epic LSD poem, Wales Visitation.

In Acid Drops, many of the historical characters and episodes contained in Albion Dreaming are naturally present. But what Andy does in Acid Drops feels like the metaphorical mirror of an acid trip itself. The linear, sober analysis of Albion Dreaming is replaced by a looser and deeper, more malleable account of the history and the effect of Hoffman’s so-called “problem child”. Dr Ben Sessa, one of the pioneers of the modern resurgence of interest in LSD, gives a foreward and he speaks of the unexpected benefit of the enforced break that prohibition and policing created in the 80s and 90s, from the heady and wacked out days of the 60s and 70s, with its sprawling and defiant trip literature, UFO sightings, free festivals and all, to the modern incarnation, which is to investigate the effects of these drugs from a scientific perspective. There is the natural reticence of the scientist to go too far into the crazy detail of the subjective psychedelic experience, or of what less skilled minds might uncover within. But Andy, being someone who was steeped in that earlier history, has no fear to tread or re-tread there, and it is a testament to his own level-headedness and willingness to question what he finds without completely relinquishing the weirdness, which gains both the respect of Sessa and simultaneously keeps hold of the thread of the counterculture and the very strangeness of the experience, giving it a relevance to the present popularity of psychedelic research within academia and in the general public. And how apt that the book is given an afterward by the occultist, chaos magician and well-respected psychedelic explorer Julian Vayne, who also reminds us of the importance of anchoring the transcendent experience into the everyday reality, to ground some of the luminosity, inspiration and all-out weirdness into a constructive use and as an approach to one’s everyday life.

There are many highlights in this book and the names and places read like a glossary of UK psychedelia, which will either be familiar or instructive to anyone who wishes to understand the history of the UK psychedelic scene of the time. For me the in-depth account of the creation of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Wales Visitation, from his ingestion of LSD, to the initial sketches while tripping and finally into the completion of the poem itself, gives a unique account of the creative process, not only of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, but also as an example of someone who was able to artfully and confidently bridge the stream-of-consciousness and mystical states of the psychedelic experience with the conventional world and its often resistant and jaundiced view of the acid head. Never is this more obvious than when Ginsberg reads out the poem on the Conservative American polemicist William F Buckley’s TV talk show, which is available for all to see on YouTube. Buckley finds he cannot overtly mock its poetic brilliance and so ends with the faint praise “I kinda liked that”.

But it’s not all sweetness and light. The infamous acid casualties are not as rare as some aficionados would like to believe and drop outs, people who could not let go of the dreams and visions and were stranded in the psychedelic liminal space, of illusions and delusions, can also be used, and have been used, as an excuse to condemn not only the individuals and the drug, but also the necessity of the irrational non-ordinary states to our creativity. Roberts himself is no stranger to the dark side of the psychedelic experience. He begins the book with an account of his first LSD trip, which became a terrifying ordeal and it is this perhaps which gives the book and his subsequent experiences such grounding. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger they say. I would say those who are damaged by the negative experiences can become dead to the world in some way, whereas to survive such experiences with rational mind intact with an ability to communicate the experience gives one an insight and empathy that can come in handy not only in negotiating other psychedelic experiences, but also in relating with others who have confusing, outright delusional and frightening experiences. It is Andy’s sober, unsentimental compassion that shines through the book and it is his own ability to communicate these experiences in a way that does not get lost in the strangeness that has made him such a popular feature of the biennial academic and scientific conference, Breaking Convention.

His own psychedelic synchronicities are amusing and telling. Few who have any full-on psychedelic trip can escape those subjective feelings of fatedness or synchronicities that often seem to occur. Some get freaked out, some ignore them and cast them off as “mere” coincidence. Andy recounts his experiences with both a sense of reverence and objectivity, which is a fine balancing act. Embarking on various trips through the 70s with set intentions and discovering along the way some seeming result of the intention, is a feature of at least three experiences he recalls, such as when he recounts discovering rubber ducks on a beach after reading about a ship sinking with a cargo of rubber ducks in the Pacific, finding a Pink Floyd scrawled in pink on a piece of wood in the middle of a detour on a country road after listening to a Pink Floyd album, and witnessing the aftermath of a car crash after drawing the card of Death in a tarot reading, all after taking LSD.

Could these seemingly connected occurrences, so often intensified during the psychedelic experience (and in deep meditation and visualisation techniques) point to some kind of link between the fabric of reality and consciousness, or are they merely simultaneous arisings, the so-called synchronicity of Jungian psychology, rather than any evidence of cause and effect? Perhaps they are really nothing more than an erroneous sense of agency we feel, brushing up against the philosophical actuality of material determinism, which noted neuroscientists and philosophers such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are so fond of discussing. There are no conclusive answers, but these are subjects we should not shy away from, and neither should scientists. It cannot be left to the naive, to the credulous or to the paranoid and Andy is brave enough to risk divulging. Healthy and light-hearted scepticism rather than cynicism is needed and a holistic understanding is preferable to conventional linear approaches, with a compassion for our natural curiosity, for our fragility as human beings, our vulnerability and our earnest desire to understand. All should be taken into account in these investigations, all should be understood in context of present knowledge and in the context of what is anecdotally suggested.

Another highlight for me (and there are many more names and events that I do not have the time and space to go into, but which make the book such an important anthology and testament to psychedelic history and the psychedelic experience), is the interview that Andy gives with the psychedelic author Liz Elliott and her account of her time in Algeria in the autumn of 1970 with Timothy Leary, who had fled the US authorities to seek sanctuary with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. This is a fascinating, illuminating documentary of the time and of these characters with their charisma and imperfections laid bare, weaving the psychedelic and the political turbulence of the time into an adventure story that is the stuff of legend, giving insight into the gritty, drug-fuelled outlaw nature of those who stood up to the tyranny of authoritarianism. Another such account is with the former LSD chemist and psychedelic advocate Casey Hardison, whose account of his experiences having been arrested and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for producing vast quantities of LSD to turn on minds and spread consciousness, and who catalogued a meticulous ideological defence, is also a vital part of the modern story of drug prohibition and the mindset of authoritarian western governments and law enforcement.

In posting his own creative prose and poetry, Andy Roberts is also bolder here in his second book on LSD. These creative interludes are important because of their familiarity. Their literary similarity to so much noted psychedelic literature published over the years is evident. Straight society might scoff at such surreal meanderings, but there is a syntax and imagery that, while it may jar with the more rational and ordered literary critic, will nevertheless be familiar to anyone who has taken psychedelics and may have sought to express the experiences creatively, rather than give a solely objective account. But even here Andy is sparse and succinct, one piece a short account of a particularly inspiring early LSD trip, the other a Kerouac-like travelogue, which still retains the dry wit and unique rhythms of contemporary English language mixed in with acid-tinged imagery. And finally, while musing on so many historical figures, Andy takes the opportunity to deconstruct a more recent myth, that of the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, taking LSD and discovering the double helix through visualising it in a trip. He does not dismiss the story entirely, but he meticulously investigates the journalist’s background and possible motives, the historical account from contemporaries of Crick, and he concludes that, though nothing can be stated as definitive, it is highly unlikely Crick would have taken LSD at the time he made the discovery. This is journalistic work of the highest standard, which is why Andy is held in such high regard, both by scientists and mystics.

Acid Drops is needed at this time. It is important that the resurgence of interest and research into psychedelics does not become defined solely by a reductionist, materialist, scientific approach, as important as that approach is to ground the experience in the language and understanding of the rational. The history and the cultural value of the experience is beyond that, in many ways it is beyond an ordered definition. It is by its nature resistant to order, the weirdness and radical nature of the characters and their experiences cannot be allowed to be categorised as separate and distant from our daily existence. It cannot be isolated from our present experience. Investigations into the nature of this substance and the messy, often discordant nature of humanity struggling against the strictures of an authoritarian society are often at odds with societal evolution. Disorder is as intrinsic to the creative human experience as order and we can only get a handle on the healthy societal use of these substances when we are able to bring the darkness of our unconscious mind to light and recognise also our shadows.

Much can be learned from Acid Drops and from Andy Robert’s approach, his meticulousness, clarity and courage in cataloguing all aspects of the psychedelic experience, both historical and anecdotal, including his own; his affection for the times, the places and the people involved, both the celebrated and the often nameless and derided, and his willingness to both accept the mythology as a necessary part of the journey, without getting too lost in the absoluteness that others have often claimed for such experiences. This is a vital addition to the growing body of psychedelic literature and stands as an anthropological and sociological testament to the resilience and genius of this compound and its effect on humanity. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the history, experience and use of this most fascinating of substances, and who may wish to join in the campaign to end the blight of prohibition, which has destroyed so many lives and which has only temporarily halted the inevitability of human progress and the understanding gained from its use.

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Challenging media narratives in discussions of psychedelics

Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan, media and cultural theorist, who coined the term “The Medium is the Message”

One of the difficulties in writing about Breaking Convention, the biennial gathering of scientists, academics, shamans and psychedelic explorers researching the use of many psychoactive substances, is that of correctly placing it in the context of the present legal condition of drug prohibition, the moral climate of suspicion and my own experiences with various psychoactive substances over many years. What I have witnessed in the past 11 years, since attending my first psychedelic conference in the UK, the groundbreaking Exploring Consciousness held in Bath in 2004, is the growth of scientific study and historical and anthropological research on a wide variety of psychoactive substances that have been made illegal to use, and remain so despite growing evidence of their medical, psychological and social value. This work has often been initiated and continues in the US, but the UK has also nurtured and maintained a psychedelic culture, and has been blessed with talented and courageous scientists who have been able to translate that quest into solid scientific evidence that is of great value in opening official doors.

In the intervening years, I have seen organisations such as MAPS and Oxford’s Beckley Foundation amass a wealth of evidence for a scientific and legal case for ending prohibition, helped by campaigning groups such as Transform. But despite some media attention and a few positive articles, the overarching media narrative and political rhetoric remains resolutely prohibitionist. So we have this curious situation of scientists presenting research on the margins of legality, often with grudging government approval and often secretively it would seem, outside the legal framework. Along with those who take psychedelics for cognitive exploration, for recreation or as part of a religious ritual, many citizens are flouting the law, forming part of a growing and identifiable counterculture that has its roots in 1960s counterculture and presently existing with some rebelliousness outside the mainstream spotlight and in a sort of psychedelic netherworld, avoiding the intense public attention that might also attract visits from hysterical journalists and overzealous police officers, but which might also result in a fruitful dialogue were it ever allowed to take its place in mainstream media discussion.

It is this tacit acceptance of drug use that the much-derided Peter Hitchens is perhaps referring to when he says we already live in a decriminalised state. It is just that personal economic wealth more often than not protects one from the possibility of legal censure, while violence from the state is most likely to be specific to areas of poverty, with ethnic origin also being a determining factor in who is subject to that violence, which is also directed at political activists, who often forcefully challenge legality and legitimacy. Morally, the use of drugs deemed illegal or decriminalised, is seen de facto as causing harm, and perhaps those who feel this way also feel the same way about alcohol, as having the potential for deep destructiveness (which is scientifically one of the most destructive psychoactives), but which gets a pass simply because of its legal status, as the rights of an individual within the legal framework are protected to a certain extent.

The organisers of Breaking Convention, academics and scientists from respected universities, have done a marvellous and courageous job in bringing three conferences over six years to the UK, inviting speakers from around the world to discuss their latest research, whether it be the neurochemical pathways activated by DMT use, the indigenous methods and rituals in the use of ayahuasca or iboga, or the psychological benefits of counselling in the treatment of post-traumatic stress using MDMA. All have been and continue to be of great use in presenting an evidence-based case for an end to the war on drugs and halting the destructive effect of prohibition, which engenders in any person interested in these substances a sense of excitement both that this research exists and also that there exists a possibility of becoming personally involved in further research.

Of course there is also a growing sense of anticipation of the possibility that these substances may soon be treated as any pharmaceutical drug would, as legitimate pathways to health and wellbeing, in a world that has overcome its irrational fear of the harms that these substances can do if abused, and that a change in the law is imminent, or at least not too far in the distance. I have often thought the same myself, and the scientific evidence would seem to be definitive to me of their relative benefits and harms. The case for legalisation, or at the very least decriminalisation and medical licensing, may be strong from a scientific point of view, but the moral and ethical case is struggling to challenge prevailing assumptions of how a proper society should function.

I am not as hopeful as I’d like to be that these assumptions can be challenged without an overarching political narrative that highlights and critiques existing norms of behaviour and moral assumptions about cognitive liberty and mystical experience. The challenges must come in all fields, but in law, science, media and government (an extension of law) false moral assumptions are at their most acute, since this is where rules of behaviour are established and preserved. An analysis of systemic power and intransigent worldviews is necessary to explain the difficulties in these most human of motives to wish to explore altered states being prohibited within law and dismissed in mainstream media. A more radical political narrative in the general narrative of psychedelic discussions is needed to challenge assumptions and create better undertanding.

In 2015, at Breaking Convention, I presented a talk that attempted to explain the resistance in political life and mainstream media, to the use of these substances in public life. It was the first talk I have delivered to the public on this matter in this form. I felt privileged to be part of the set-up, among so many distinguished scientific and academic voices, and perhaps this led to me being overawed by the occasion, so my presentation did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I was speaking at the same time Professor David Nutt delivered a talk in the main auditorium, along with novelist Anna Hope’s equally popular talk on Radical Uncertainty in the other main hall, so I spoke to barely 20 people.

My general premise is that there are forces and trends at work which it is important for us to identify and challenge, that make the possibility of prohibition ending a more difficult prospect than simply making the science case for health and wellbeing. There are powerful self-interested parties at work, lobbyists in the House of Commons, House of Lords and other religious institutions that find the idea of drug liberalisation problematic at the very least, outright scandalous at worst. The issue has never solely been about science or rational argument, it has also been about the maintaining of a power structure that serves a narrow strata of society, and the irrational fears that those in positions of power instill in those who they have co-opted, wittingly or unwittingly, into maintaining the structure of “how things should be”. Psychedelics open us up to the myriad possibilities of interpreting the world in ways that exist outside the framework of the materialist corporate mindset, and since mainstream media is driven by the concerns and assumptions of corporate materialism, anything that challenges that does not rest easy on the page or in discussions.

But in order to successfully challenge these assumptions on evidence, perhaps a meticulous study of mainstream media stories on psychedelics is needed and a deeper psychological and sociological dissection of the language used and the type of media presented, as well as identifying the common concerns, fears and prejudices around the effects, both individual and communal, of the use of certain psychedelics. At present this cannot happen, or is not happening, in mainstream media and while such experiences are openly discussed at festivals and in general within music and art culture, there is perhaps need of an academic structure that can present these discussions on a more solid foundation, so that in any mainstream discussion of psychedelics, the cultural as well as scientific case can be made. The narrative cannot be determined solely by the corporate materialist mindset. It is this ideology more than anything, that needs to be challenged.

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Beyond good and evil: post-identity political and philosophical thoughts inspired by the words of Zen monk Ryōkan

 

Ryokan

Where beauty is, then there is ugliness;
where right is, also there is wrong.
Knowledge and ignorance are interdependent;
delusion and enlightenment condition each other.
Since olden times it has been so.
How could it be otherwise now?
Wanting to get rid of one and grab the other
is merely realising a scene of stupidity.
Even if you speak of the wonder of it all,
how do you deal with each thing changing?
Ryōkan (Zen monk, 1758–1831)

All the politics and analytic philosophy can be, for now it can just be. All the righteous anger and the hatred and division into us and them can be, all the love and peace and tranquility can be in the same space at the same time, no division except in our distorted minds, only if we choose to divide through words and try to define that which struggles to be defined, that maybe cannot be defined (yet still I try), trying to make sense of our trauma, our fearful lies, rising in intensity to the inevitable collision and calamity that awaits us liked a doomed and blighted destiny.

All the fear is in my mind, and my body feels raw sensations which I try and fail to interpret through my conditioning. But I have the fortune to know, however it came to me, that I am not only my body, or what the world conceives my body to be, I am not my mind, or what received wisdom conceives mind to be. The world of form, of judgment, of present day society’s conception of truth, is just a glitch in the fabric of reality.

Through shifting symbols and signs, in ever-greater complexity, competing definitions of good and evil become part of a twisted history. Such illusions cannot be challenged directly, to challenge directly and forcefully is to become enmeshed in the web, so if I leave it be and let it pass around and through me, it will not pull me under unnecessarily.

I cannot struggle to escape quicksand, ever more confused and distressed, sinking deeper and further away from the simplicity of isness, with a mind full of increasingly fraught complexity, foolishly choosing to believe what present day society tells me I am, what impolite society makes of me. I must instead learn to wade through resistance mindfully.

And what is this resistance but the projection of shadows I cast through my own inability to see what is intrinsically a broken part of me? I am not truly fashioned by this ramshackle construct of society unless I choose to be. It’s only a story that keeps on telling me, and as long as I keep telling myself this story it also defines me. Stuck in the middle, willingly, with all sides claiming a piece of me. And I react, offering broken pieces of myself scornfully in return.

Yet it can only be as it has to be. I cannot grasp the truth without grasping what lies close around it, cannot have friend without enemy. I do not need to live with a mind divided unless I choose to. Yet still I get caught intermittently in the rights and wrongs of the form I was given and took to, the race, class, creed, sex and gender identity foisted on me, which I clothe myself with and have pinned on me again and again, sometimes to suit other agendas unbeknownst to me, shifting from moment to moment by my own and others’ estimation of me based on illusory grasping of that which has no intrinsic existence, yet through which a kind of existence abides.

This so-called privilege, named by those who, wittingly or unwittingly, assume their own privilege, a power game played reactively, this attachment to signs and symbols is illusory, it thwarts us all from being the fullest expression of our collective isness, which is all we need to be to escape the delusion of history

Stranded in our unchosen realities, beyond superficial definitions, this privilege we all share, to exist, to know ourselves in this moment, from moment to moment, beyond language, opinion, discrimination and division, this true privilege to live cannot be reduced by pleasure or pain, by domination or submission, it is beyond explanation.

This power of subjective definition exists only in relation to itself, active or passive, it exerts a grip on its own reflection, subjective or objective, it is empty of content, fundamentally it only exists as a creation of the rational mind, which is itself a concept bound by time, a faltering construct of an I which has no intrinsic a priori existence despite Kantian claims to the contrary. And neither does that definition, ironically constructed with words fashioned in part subjectively and rationally and vaguely consciously.

Beyond confusion, I see that I am the nothing that has found itself becoming something, a living being expressing isness, yet yearning to be known and to know in a space beyond words, beyond symbols, beyond signs, a voiceless voice which embraces irony in the space that poetry provides, dancing on the demarcation points of history and the notion of essential identity. And in a moment, words spewing forth and liquid in their levity, I am at peace, embracing inevitable oblivion by being one who cannot properly define, yet who knows there is more to us than our identity and knowing that I must speak words, and make signs and define symbols as I am compelled, so isness can be realised.

On such ironies this essential truth I know resides.

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Green politics on the margins: revolution still needed

I grew up in a safe Labour seat in Islington, north London, considered by the righwing press to be one of the hotbeds of champagne socialism, but which was and still is in many parts a strong, working class and ethnically diverse area. Jeremy Corbyn has been the MP for Islington north for 22 years and was one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war. Even as I marched against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I knew that the seat would remain his and recognised that he, like Tony Benn, was prepared to stay in the party and fight for traditional Labour values, even in the face of the increasing shift to neoliberal policies. At the time I voted Green and though it made no difference in the national elections, we did manage to vote in a Green councillor.

Since then I have moved to Glastonbury, which is in the constituency of Wells, a traditional Conservative area, which has been held by the Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt on a slim margin of 800. In this election she risks losing her seat to the Conservative candidate James Heappey, and ex-soldier who has been part of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a man who believes in the free market and that David Cameron is doing a good job in the country. The thought of this man becoming MP and adding to the possibility that Cameron can form a majority government, fills me with dread. Because I am so opposed to such a thing happening, I have considered voting tactically for Tessa, who seems a decent person, even though she represents another neoliberal party who I have absolutely no time for.

This is the problem both with the present first-past-the-post system and parliamentary politics in general, because there is no chance of the Green party candidate, Jon Cousins, getting in. Cousins and the Greens do have an alternative vision. It is incomplete and there are some aspects with which I disagree. But at least there is some humanity, absent in the other three, who play the poltical game and buy into the neoliberal outlook, the abeyance to the market above human and environmental needs, and who are supported by a compliant media dependent on the corporate advertising revenues that make the whole electoral game a self-referential system that excludes the real needs of the people.

Too many people are still in thrall to this corrupt system. Too many still believe that the unbearably slow and miniscule changes that Ed Miliband seems to believe are the only way that politics can proceed, will be enough to tackle the problems of the day. But they are not enough. Whether Tessa Munt or James Heappey gets in, there will be no change to the system that creates such damage to the world. There may be small significant changes to my life in Glastonbury, but surely that is not what national politics should be about. Where is the great vision, the radical change needed? Jon Cousins can at least see the fact that we need that change. We may not agree on some specific details, and we may disagree on whether the present voting system is adequate to effect that change, but at least I could imagine talking with him about these things and have done on a couple of occasions during the local hustings.

I feel that if I am going to vote, I could vote for Jon Cousins or for David Dobbs, the Birthday Party candidate, an old raver who spoke at an election hustings I attended last night, who spoke about the Criminal Justice Bill that shut down so many raves that had a deep effect on British culture before Thatcher put a stop to this, as she undermined the miners and unions. He spoke in a language I could understand. he sounded like a human being, not a politician. I’d like to see a world where a man (or woman) like that could speak on behalf of the people of this country. But you should have seen the faces of some of the gnarled old Tory voters who looked at him as if he were from another dimension.

He has no chance of getting in but, unfortunately, neither does Jon Cousins, even though he has been a Green councillor and is well known in the community. This just isn’t good enough given the problems we collectively face. I know we can do better than this and need to do better. The Green party has some good people working for them, and a vision of a better society. But it will take a whole lot more to attract the attention of people whose lives have been limited by the neoliberal agenda, which has nothing to do with being liberal, but is all about continuing in handing power over to fraudulent financial institutions. I’m looking forward to talking about these issues among permaculturists, social justice campaigners and everyday people at Passing Clouds on Tuesday May 5, where we’ll be showing clips and discussing Green politics and the need for revolution.

Permaculture Picturehouse @ Passing Clouds, Dalston presents:

Election special: Does democracy need a revolution? Hackney South and Shoreditch prospective Green MP Charlotte George will respond to local voter Russell Brand’s call for a spiritual revolution, and will explain why voting is vital to effective change, and how she would seek to engage dissenting voters who believe radical solutions are needed, but who have no faith in the electoral process.

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Without dialogue, revolution will be as tyrannical as democracy

politics-webversion

Our political system is broken, but convincing others before the whole shithouse goes up in flames, seems to be a monumental task. It has been corrupted from outside and within. It is being falsely propped up by a compliant media, itself distorted beyond recognition by the influence of corporations, all underpinned by a debt-based banking system that is driving humanity to destroy the very habitat we all depend on for life. We are faced with an election to vote in MPs who so are limited in the scope of what they can achieve that they are reduced to tinkering around the edges, when what we need is a radical overhaul. But that radical overhaul has its own dangers. The fact remains that parliamentary politics for now remains the dominant ideology and dominant structure administering the lives of millions of people. What happens to it will directly affect the lives of millions of people. To ignore this is to bury one’s head in the sand and to wish reality were different.

What has developed as an alternative to the dominant ideology over the past 20 years is a counterculture that knows the problems we collectively face, itself originating in pioneering ecological and political structures developed in the 1960s in the US, UK and Europe. It has often called loudly and clearly for humanity to wake up and build alternatives outside the mainstream culture. These groups have been vibrant, revolutionary, often self-sustaining, and willing to risk life and limb to stop the use of fossil fuels, nuclear, GM and other damaging or reckless practices. Often they have achieved marginal success, but they have also brought with them their own problems of how to administer such pioneering ideas to the millions of people used to the present, corporate-based system we have.

The Occupy movements that sprang up in 2011 were merely the latest example of this problem of extending, often beautiful ideas from the local, to the global. Groups such as these have found it difficult to convince the majority of people that they are anything more than extreme ideologies. People have naturally decided to stick with what they know, however unsatisfactory and often damaging. And those who suffer most simply do not have the ability to effect change in their own lives while oppressed by this system, and often are passive recipients of the compassion and generosity of such revolutionaries and on a wider scale the public who remain within the system.

This has been a major stumbling block to reaching a wider audience, who are still in thrall to mainstream corporate culture, which seems to offer so much superficially. There is a duality, an “us and them”, which ironically ends up handing power back to the very people controlling the systems that are controlling society and maintaining the conditions that are destroying the biosphere to the point of collapse. The kind of idea that is so attractive, that says we don’t need “them”, “we” can build our own systems is built on the very duality it seeks to reach beyond. This has brought further divisions, which has led to internecine struggles, often vicious ideological disputes that have become personal, and it has weakened the movement’s ability to reach a wider audience. Without engagement with those we most find disagreement with, there can be no real progress. This is a psychological and spiritual truism that is often ignored.

So, in order to effect meaningful and constructive change throughout society, we are left with the having to interact and deal with the guardians of power, however abusive the administration of that power has become, with a parliamentary democracy that our ancestors fought and died for the right to engage with and to vote in, a right to vote that has become sacrosanct, even as it has increasingly lost its legitimacy, as politicians increasingly become bureaucrats unable to hold corporations to account, often acting on their behalf, while so many abstain from the political process entirely and insist that change has to come from people working together to make radical progress.

But how would that change look outside the system? If the banking system were to collapse, if the UK was to suffer a major calamity in the form of a terrorist attack or environmental catastrophe, if food or fuel suddenly became scarce, the idea that there would be some kind of velvet revolution may be appealing, but unlikely to happen so smoothly. In fact, it is likely to be calamitous. Many people will get hurt, many will suffer, good people who have not harmed anyone. That may be what some hope for, insisting that the poison has to be expunged and that, like chemotherapy, some good cells have to be destroyed in order to rid the body politic of the disease with which it is afflicted.

But this belief can be seen as glib and irresponsible, often mouthed by those who either live comfortable lives, or who have placed themselves out of the system entirely, a process which realistically only a few could do without causing greater harm. I have often found myself believing the very things I am questioning in this piece. But I can see also that unless we deal directly with the structure that presently holds power, we cannot hope to make the radical changes necessary to our political system and to the way we live. If the structure of society collapses it will be disastrous, many people will die, this is not hyperbole, it is the plain fact. It is not accidental that police are being increasingly militarised. They are indeed preparing for full-scale war against their own people.

But if we remain as we are, we are equally looking at societal and ecological disaster. So what can we do to avoid either fate? The only way around this ominous future must be an engagement in the political process, engagement with those who do hold power, even if that does not necessarily mean that we choose to vote, if we believe, as I do, that the democratic process is, in effect, rigged to maintain the status quo. How do we deal with abuse of power on an individual level? Communication before violence is the preferred method. So how can we engage with those who will enter that anachronistic chamber called the Houses of Parliament on May 8? It is only through communication with those who actually hold this power, however corrupted it is, that we can hope to implement the many evolutionary and pioneering ideas that the counterculture has developed, to re-order society in a way that benefits humanity and planet.

This is not a time for us to succumb to rose-tinted fantasies about a magical transformation of the people. This is not a time for us to look at the democratic process as irrelevant as the corrupt politicians, banks and corporations wish us to do (However boring politics seems, it has often been built that way to dissuade the ordinary person from engaging). Now is the time to engage directly with those who profess to represent us, even as we recognise that representative democracy is limited and that in an age of internet technology, participatory and representative forms of democracy can and must be implemented. We can do this by engaging with those who presently hold power, in doing so, we can wrest that power back into the hands of the people, where it belongs. This can and must happen in a civilised way. If we give up and refuse to engage, we are opening up to the possibility of chaos and calamity. So, whether you choose to vote or not, at the very least explain why to those who do choose to vote, those who do believe that an X on a piece of paper every five years is enough. We cannot pretend the world that presently exists is irrelevant. In order to truly change, we must fully engage with what exists. Ecological wisdom states that when something is broken, you do not throw it away. You fix it. Let us begin the long and arduous process of fixing the political system.

• To be part of the dialogue, come to the Permaculture Picturehouse politics special @Passing Clouds on May 5th

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Permaculture Picturehouse presents: Why vote in the election?

occupy-londonThe Permaculture Picturehouse, which promotes pioneering ecological ways of living, hosts a monthly event at Passing Clouds in Dalston, a venue that has been at the heart of grassroots activism, arts and culture for over 10 years. I’ll be hosting a political edition on May 5, two days before the UK general election, details TBA. We’ll be showing political film clips, hearing from guest speakers and encouraging those present to get their personal view across about whether the electoral process affords the public any real influence in the political process and what the alternatives might look like. What is the state of democracy in this country? What can the major parties do to stand up to increasing corporate power at the expense of the people? How effective can a mainstream media that is so dependent on corporate advertising be in holding the powerful to account? Are radical solutions, including mass civil disobedience, necessary to overcome the influence of financial capital? As it’s a permaculture event, we’ll look at the recent publicity the Green party have had and asking whether they can be an effective alternative. How can ecological and social concerns be communicated in more engaging ways in the face of a cynical media and tyrannical regimes? What can be done to face the real world problems on a local, national and international level, including tackling problems of violence, trafficking, ideological resource wars, and sudden ecological crises. Anyone who would like to get involved, suggest ideas or simply attend, do let me know.
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Why Natalie Bennett’s Green performances lack that Brand awareness

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The Green party leader is failing to deliver a coherent and convincing message on national television and undermining the cause. Is it time for seasoned media commentator Russell Brand to stand in for her to articulate the vision of a fairer society and hit back at the cynics?

Once again, the Green party leader Natalie Bennett appeared on a political television show, this time the BBC’s Question Time, and once again, despite her best intentions, she failed to articulate her vision in a convincing way. Thankfully for her, perhaps, there was another member of the panel who stumbled more than she did, the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who has in the past struggled with alcohol and by the sounds of his answers and the view of many commentators online, appeared to be continuing to struggle. It was awkward to watch, and social media people have of course been relentless in joking about his performance, cruelly in the opinion of many others.

But while Charles Kennedy’s monosyllabic, slightly slurred answers prompted the online “is he, or isn’t he?” social media gags, it directed attention away from Natalie’s usual problem, that of a lack of confidence in her delivery, and the substance of her answers under sceptical questioning as they pertained to the Green party ethos. The continuing narrative as it is beginning to solidify once again among journalists and presenters, is that the Green party are hippy wackos who will destroy society if they are ever allowed to get anywhere near to power. The irony that this view ends up preserving and protecting a political establishment that is doing just that cannot be lost on astute observers.

Natalie Bennett gamely attempted to present the ideas and indeed the ideals of a party that represents the hopes of environmentalists, civil and human rights advocates and progressives of good conscience the world over, with potential policies that would offer the most radical departure from conventional political life since real socialism was part of the mainstream political discourse. The need for a radical world plan to tackle widescale environmental degradation is accepted by ecological activists and serious thinkers as absolutely necessary to ensure our survival as a species on this planet and prevent inevitable societal collapse. What industrial civilisation and the debt-based economic system is doing to society and the biosphere is a continuing catastrophe. The failure of mainstream politicians to tackle this is beyond scandalous.

There is a logical disengagement in the political process from so many people, so many opposed to UK involvement in the Middle East wars and beyond, the continuing corruption of big business, and to surveillance techniques used to suppress dissent under the guise of protecting us from terrorism. Many of us know what’s wrong, but so often the pragmatists demand to know from the progressives: “how are you going to make things better? What exactly are you going to do?” It is at this point, and in the face of such harsh and direct questioning, where many of us struggle to articulate what the vision might look like in real time. Natalie gets to do it on live TV and I can understand how difficult it might be. But if she cannot do it successfully (and so far she has not managed to do so) then it risks relegating the Green party to the role of a national joke, when the basic ideal of a fairer society is rooted in many practical solutions to real world problems.

Unfortunately, I do not believe unilateral nuclear disarmament is one of those solutions. It is based on an ideal (a world without nuclear weapons), but it turns into a policy (unilateral disarmament, the UK gets rid of its weapons), that cannot be seen as anything other than naive and dangerous by the public. Of course there are other countries that do not have nuclear weapons, but that does not mean if the UK unilaterally disarmed it would also be safe. Those countries are safe because their allies are armed. Of course it is insane to even contemplate a nuclear war and it would lead to utter devastation. But a defenceless Japan was brought to its knees because of a nuclear attack and the result was horrendous.

Military strategy is a fact of life. It may be an ugly fact of life, and we may (and indeed must) seek to lessen the need for weapons of war, and certainly end wars of corporate greed. But such a strategy has to be thought out and articulated in a way that engenders confidence in people that they will be protected, to enshrine in military strategy Bruce Lee’s philosophy of the art of “fighting without fighting” in such a way that the public can feel safe. Empathy cannot be enacted without qualities of strength and strategy. On matters of war and national security, Natalie failed to articulate the vision or to convince that the Green party would be able to protect its citizens for long enough to enact that vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s a tall order for any peacemaker.

On questions of the economy, once again people look to figures and once again Natalie is not able to present the overall strategy, to tackle the debt-based banking system and its systemic corruption, in any way that the public can engage with. She is tinkering around the edges with talk of corporations paying their tax. As important as this is to begin with, it is small fry next to the real problem in finance. Banks have hundreds of billions of pounds of invented public money underwritten by the state and that is before we even talk about corruption, interest rate rigging and all manner of structural failings that prevent investment in public services, infrastructure and well-paid jobs for all. Again, pragmatists will ask for the exact figures, but it is here where a charismatic leader, one who has some fire about them, can challenge the critics and impress upon them the urgency of the crisis facing society and environment and to persuade those who feel disengaged that this is a party that will fight for their rights and tackle these problems urgently.

And it is a fight, make no mistake, We are up against systems of belief so ingrained that even those of us who know how absurd the beliefs that are put forward as the only serious solutions are, find ourselves complying. Most of us are in some way accepting that politics can only be done this way by either a tacit or explicit compliance. This is why I have so much sympathy with the views expressed by Russell Brand, that politics is a rigged game and that we should reject it outright, that the very nature of the process corrupts and distorts so that the true aims are destroyed. That within this system, the political and spiritual message of harmony and community, an ideal that urges us to look within and find that part of us that can engage with our own humanity and find empathy in others, ultimately with even our harshest critic or our most vicious enemy, cannot be heard above the braying of smug, overfed bullies and corporate shills who offer us scraps from the table. Fuck ’em all, he says, and many willfully disenfranchised people agree with him.

And though I too believe that it is a rigged game, and that perhaps things will have to get worse before they get better, I still can’t help wishing each time I switch on that blasted television set and watch those frustrating, agenda-set political debates, that for every appearance that Natalie has been on, that Russell had been on there in her place to face the cynical, sneering questioners and give ’em what for. And though what’s past is past, I continue to wish that somehow he would stand in for her in the upcoming debates, which will not doubt intensify in their verbal brutality, covering for her in the manner of knight in shining armour,  and leave her to the business of political strategy and electioneering for which she is no doubt well equipped.

I am sure that Natalie is a competent politician and knows the ins and outs of specific environmental policy. But a vision needs to be articulated first. People have to become engaged and inspired, and Russell Brand is simply the most charismatic, articulate, bravest and sharpest public figure of recent times, able to express those basic ideals that ordinary people feel in their hearts and speak about constantly, that you get when you go into a cafe or pub and chat with regular, open-minded folk, of which there are many more in this country than the political and mainstream media peer group would have us believe.

I don’t think Russell needs to be a leader of the Green party and I’m sure he isn’t cut out to be a bureaucratic leader of a political party and neither would he want to be one. But he can at least be a spokesman over these next few weeks, since the Green party is not about a definite leader but about a collaborative vision. If David Cameron won’t go face-to-face with his closest rival, then why should Natalie have to be submerged in the dog-pissing contest that would surely ensue if the seven leaders all faced up in one televised debate?  For one thing, if he were to become the main spokesman, joining the Green party and urging the disengaged to vote this one time, it would shut those people up who say he is against voting outright, that he is a threat to the sanctified democratic process. I know he agrees with some of the Green party ideals. I do too. But I also object to some of the specific ideas, unilateral disarmament being just one (though I see no need to waste money on Trident). But that should not stop either of us supporting the Green through the rigged game of electoral ballot box politics just for this one last time, if only to offer some alternative to the blandness and utter idiocy and corruption of the rest of the flogged horses and the dreary pretence of serious mainstream media scrutiny of the election.

At least with the Greens, if they were to get a few MPs voted in at the next election, could present specific policy in the House of Commons. And perhaps more radical ideas, those of dismantling the banking cartels, renationalising and syndicalising public services so that people from the ground up have a say, could begin to be discussed seriously. Creating open-source networks, allowing radical ideas from all cultures and faiths to be expressed without fear of being branded an extremist, for the express purposes of not pushing people towards extremism by stifling free expression, as happens now, will encourage open dialogue and create a political narrative that is inclusive, and long overdue. If only that the narrative could become real and impressed into public life. This surely is the last chance to do so in the traditional way via the ballot box. Russell could even walk away after the election if the Green party get all bureaucratic and the walking away could be another measure of his integrity and commitment to his own revolutionary spiritual vision.

The important thing would be that in these debates, through the visual medium and the intense scrutiny of a cynical audience which Russell has negotiated and mastered like no other present public figure, some of those real debates about how we want to live in this country and in the world and how best to tackle the serious problems we are facing, would all be able to be aired in the serious context of political news, rather than as an anarchic celebrity sideshow, which is how Russell Brand is being presented by those same people, despite him being very obviously more than that to many people. The likes of Andrew Neill, David Dimbleby, Nick Ferrari and the rest of the establishment mob would face a sterner and more engaged response from the working class boy from Grays, Essex than any previous Green party politician and that in itself would be news. Maybe he doesn’t need the extra scrutiny. Maybe his celebrity status would obscure the Green vision and detract from the message. Maybe Natalie and the Green support would be so affronted by my suggestion were they to hear about it, that it would embarrass all concerned and make the possibility less likely, rather than more likely, as I would hope.

But I feel that unless such a thing happens, unless Russell in some way becomes the main spokesman for the Green party over the next few weeks, that Natalie will continue to stumble and stutter over the debates. Despite the fact that Natalie undoubtedly knows what the vision is and can articulate it to party members, despite there being 50,000+ members putting out the vision for radical change, urging progressive, ecologically minded people to vote, there will not be that media surge that has been predicted and the Greens will be lucky to get another couple of MPs alongside Caroline Lucas, who may not even retain her MP’s status. And in 2015, with the state of the world as it is and the reactionary right hovering with their fear agenda and corporate backing, that just isn’t good enough.

If it doesn’t happen, if Russ stays in non-voting, revolutionary mode, I may not even bother to vote either,  for the first time since I can remember, as disillusioned as I will continue to be every time I hear Natalie speak on one of these political shows, as I know in my constituency the only real possibility is that either the nice but ineffectual Lib Dem gets in again or the posh ex-forces Tory boy gets in to push his touted “free market” agenda. What price enraged apathy? Maybe I’ll just have to switch off the TV, trust in the vision and enact the ecological ideal with those I meet in my daily life. Be the change I wish to see. And maybe I’ll see the debacle of the 2015 election and recognise that the breakdown of the established social order that must surely come is not far away. We will all in some way be a part of the revolution, whether we desire it or not. I only wish I could believe it will be a peaceful one. Surely there must be a way we can engage the public now in a positive vision before things get a bit messier. If not now, then when?

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