Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Town and country

Reading this account of the alleged use of collective rape as a village punishment in West Bengal brought to mind an excellent student essay that changed the way I thought. I used to teach a module at Hull on anarchist history. I had described Gandhi's idea of an independent India as a network of self-sustaining village republics to one group in a thoughtlessly uncritical way. Gandhi saw the village as essentially non-violent and the heart of India. Similarly, Tolstoy romanticised the peasantry, seeing honest rural labour bringing wisdom, gentleness and harmony with nature. My student, a British Asian, chose to write on Gandhi, but instead of being reverential, he took apart Gandhi's rural romanticism. And he used village 'justice' to demonstrate how rural self-governance can be cruel, violent and misogynistic. Instead, he argued that a centralised legal system was necessary to ensure the respect of human rights. I read it and thought, "yes, you're right". He got a very good mark.

This evocation of rurality as utopia is very common in parts of the radical left, especially those who never had to actually work on the land. There is a very recent example here in this unusual profile of the patrician leftie, Pete Seeger, re-circulated in the wake of his death. Seeger is recorded as saying:
I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.
The one problem with this is what actually happens in small villages. The victim in the collective rape case is described as, "a young woman who was unable to accept the stifling claustrophobia and crushing poverty of a rural hamlet."

Of course, the ruralist left envisaged their utopia as abolishing rural poverty, but the claustrophobia remains and it is the city that offers the prospect of liberation.

This is why the best of the writers of the 19th and 20th century embraced both the urban and the rural, seeing them as mutually dependent. They hated industrial exploitation in the modern city equally with feudal oppression in the countryside. Eschewing both utopian urban modernism and nostalgic rural fantasy, people like Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes developed libertarian ideas around a concept of human ecology within the natural and built environment, celebrating the city as the source of human advance, but always in partnership with the wider rural region. Humanity is as much a part of nature as it is capable of transcending it. The city gives us liberty, whilst the country gives us peace and, of course, food.

I love slipping into Greek rural life. I find the landscape aesthetically intoxicating and the wildlife fascinating. I enjoy the company of the villagers and the smallness of the world. And when I am away I miss the companionship of my grand collection of feral cats. At times it is blissful. But it isn't perfect and I also love the pleasures of the city; the concert halls and football stadia; the bars and restaurants; the great libraries; the exhilaration of crowds. This is the dichotomy that the radical poet Walt Whitman wrote about in, Give me the Splendid Silent Sun. I am lucky at the moment, I can enjoy both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

frankly, i hear the soundtrack from "deliverance" playing in my head every time i cross the city limit. what's the old saying, "city air makes you free."