4 May 2012

The World Turned Upside Down

Greens are renowned for the penchant for catastrophising and the temptation to behave like a prophet of doom grows daily, as we are assailed by dire news on the state of our economy and our ecology. We feel justified in claiming that a system has reached its end and in demanding a new paradigm. But where are we to look for our models for a fundamental change, not just in a few aspects of our lives but in the whole way we perceive and interact with the world and each other?

I have received inspiration recently from the ideas and activities of the men and women who lived their lives during one of our country's most bloody and turbulent times: the English Civil War. Specifically I am thinking about rerunning a series of debates held in what was then the small village of Putney in 1647 amongst members of The New Model Army who had defeated the King's forces and now demanded the right to decide on the new world they would live in.

Their demands were widespread and radical. Army leader Thomas Rainsborough argued a case for radical equality of rights and property. His famous statement 'for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he’ was a key step on our road to democratic rights divorced from property, a case made more boldly by 'honest John' Lilburne, the pamphleteer whose words were so incendiary that he spent most of his life in gaol. These were 'the Levellers' who rejected the society based on privilege and inequality they had been born into.

These radical thinkers were clever enough to foresee that without a redistribution of resources political rights would ultimately be eroded. Hence the call for land redistribution so that it could become, in Gerard Winstanely's words 'a common Treasury'. Like today's radicals many out their words into practice, organising communes that followed the early Christian communes and gave models to later communities of the 1960s. Like many Greens today they had a spiritual onmection to the land, as demonstrated by Winstanley's comment that 'True religion and undefiled is to make restitution of the earth'.

For an intriguing and enjoyable introduction to those times you could try watching the Channel 4 drama series The Devil's Whore. This was sadly missold at the time as a lusty costume drama romp. In fact it is a skilfully written introduction to a time when nothing was unthinkable, viewed through the eyes of an imaginary Everywoman. If you believe we need to turn our world upside down, then learning from our courageous ancestors who demanded the right to live in freedom and equality may be a good place to start.

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