Friday, October 6, 2017

Panic in the Fields (1986)

From the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The severity of a crisis cannot always be gauged by a government's public response to it. That is why, at times of obvious threat to our well being, we might be officially assured that there is no great cause for concern.

This is the case with the current level of unemployment, which is tightening the screw of poverty ever tighter on the working class but which merits the attention of only a minor minister, whose main function seems to tell us about the latest additions to the dole queues. It also applies to world famine, which needlessly kills tens of millions a year but which can apparently be left to be solved by charitable joggers and rock music devotees. The unimaginable menace of nuclear war need not deprive us of any sleep because wise Ronald Reagan and resolute Margaret Thatcher have got the balance of power into so fine an adjustment that the weapons will never be used. The explosion at Chernobyl caused a few worried moments but, after all, human beings were being bombarded by natural radioactivity long, long before anyone had even heard of the atom. In any case nuclear power stations in this country are (like Windscale) Made In Britain, which means they will never blow up or leak or run out of control.

So don't worry, is the official message. The public should keep calm. There is no reason for undue alarm.

And then somebody called "the hippy" bursts on the scene, causing feverish panic where before all was tranquil reassurance. Hippies, we are told, are a cause for concern. They are like a plague sweeping across the country. They seem to have taken all those Thatcher speeches about individual liberty a bit too seriously. They choose not to wash or comb their hair, they don't send their children to school to be indoctrinated into an acceptance of wage slavery. They don't live in mortgaged semis or in council high rise estates, they don 't stuff themselves into rush hour trains and buses and traffic jams. They don't have a regular job in factory, office or supermarket. Clearly, they are a menace to civilised society and every right-minded Britisher will agree with the government taking the most stringent measures to suppress them.

It is true that hippies sometimes join up in a convoy of slow, ramshackle vehicles which is liable to block the road and they pitch in fields without the owner's permission, perhaps leaving the place in a bit of a mess. One of the gutter press drew on its resources of instant hysteria to describe them as "the world's most famous blot on the landscape"—worse, presumably, than the effects of the military practising their tanks and guns over vast tracts of the countryside, worse than the ripping out of miles of hedgerows and the ploughing up of ancient downlands by farmers who, in their lust to climb aboard the grain subsidy bandwagon, create huge eyesores of prairies.

Douglas Hurd, who is said to be a kindly, moderate man. did his kind, moderate best to stoke up the panic about the hippies by likening them to medieval brigands. This phrase should come easily to an aristocratic, ex-Etonian, member of the British ruling class, who may be gratefully aware that some of his class owe their privileged position to the activities of medieval brigands. Others came to riches through the pitiless enclosures and clearances of the land in other words, stealing it from the local people Then there was the slave trade, which enriched ports such as Bristol. London and Liverpool, which built many an opulent mansion among lush landscaped estates and which provided some of the capital for the Industrial Revolution, with its slums and its ruthless working of pregnant women and children, literally to the point of exhaustion or even death.

It is an affront to all workers, that a member of the class whose position originated in these offences against humanity should presume to denounce this small band of ragged people.

In any case, what does this hippy threat amount to? There is no evidence that they are dangerous criminals; so far none has been arrested for murder, or mugging a pensioner. or raping a child. Even their efforts to claim Supplementary Benefit are hardly likely to bankrupt the DHSS. So why has there been so hysterical a response? Even a government as quick as this one to harvest the votes which sprout from the issue of Law and Order can hardly justify the large, relentless and meticulously organised police operation to drive hundreds of people, including their children, into homelessness. How can a government which has pledged itself to "fight crime" justify sending hundreds of police to deal with these uncriminal. unresisting people? In such situations, it is not uncommon for the police to commit illegal acts and for Chief Constables to reveal some alarming ambitions about curtailing civil liberties. But even at that the government have some very far-fetched plans, including a new law which promises to be so catch-all as to affect the tradition that a hunt may trample wherever they will.

The hippies will reply that all this is happening because, yes, they are a threat to property society. They have, they say, seen through it all and have dropped out of the sham material obsessions which dominate the lives of the majority. No-one can be criticised for doubting the morality of capitalism, based as it is on the class ownership of the means of life, the production of wealth for sale and profit and the exploitation of the majority by a parasitic minority. But it is not possible to opt out of the system, in fact the hippies don't even try, since they know they depend on many things—modern communications. services like clean piped water, the internal combustion engine—which capitalism has developed. They must buy and sell, or scrounge, in order to survive. In spite of what they think, somewhere they are on file. Like some other socially peripheral groups, the hippies attempt to blanket their confusion with religious and mystical obscurities, in idle debates about ley lines, reincarnation, the phases of the moon . . .

But none of this can be remotely construed as a threat to capitalist law and order — to the property rights which it is the job of the police to uphold and defend. It is difficult to believe that any government would seriously regard this pathetic, impecunious bunch as any more than a minor eccentric nuisance, not worthy of being spoken of in Downing Street as public disrupters in the same breath as miners or print workers. The real menace of the situation is more likely to be that hippies have made themselves available as convenient scapegoats for workers who are mindful of poverty, famine, the nuclear threat and who are too ready to displace their fears and confusion onto someone. Scapegoats, like royal weddings, like the sick hypocrisy of the media, are useful to capitalism because they divert attention from the real problems of this society. That is why the hysterical panic about the hippies will be matched by a hysteria of false joy when the two foolish parasites Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson—who live off a different type of social security—get married.

The problem with setting up scapegoats, however, is that the campaign against them may get out of control and lead to capitalism being organised almost exclusively in panic. Nazi Germany is only one example of this. All workers, then, would do well to ponder what is implied by the persecution of the hippies. So should the hippies themselves; whatever it is they aspire to, cannot be realised under capitalism, which dragoons us all into some measure of wage slavery. Indictment of what this society does to people is not enough; opting out is an admission of failure. Success means organising together to end it and all its inhuman works.

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