All gods are home-made

[Rowenna]( has just dug up the old cliché about environmentalism being a religion. This one tends to irritate me — not because it’s wrong, but because it only gets interesting if you push it a little further.

Rowenna’s approach is to take a comically minimalist definition of religion, one which includes any moral code. So of her conversion from Christianity to environmentalism, she writes that “

being good was no longer doing right by God, but doing right by the planet


At least when people talked about communism as a ‘secular religion’, they had a few more elements to point to. The communists had their holy books in the works of Marx, their priesthood in the vanguard, and ascetic discipline in their terrifyingly dedicated lives.

You could find many other common points between religious and political movements: a sense of community and shared purpose, a gallery of martyred saints, holidays (think of May 1 as a spring holy-day for atheist workers).

I’m not so interested in debating whether or not political movements are religious ones,

per se

(briefly and non-rigorously: if it doesn’t include belief in the supernatural, I wouldn’t call it a religion). But I


think politics (in a broad sense) can occupy much of the same ground as religion. In Durkheim’s terms, they’re both cures for anomie, malaise confronted with the lack of any externally-imposed social order. Despite being very uncomfortable with the apparently conservative implications of the idea of anomie (i.e. the suggestion that the masters must give people rules and orders, to prevent them falling into devient despondency), I find it a useful concept for describing something that seemingly afflicts a lot of people (including me, and a lot of my friends). And the answer has to include building your own morals, and community, and saints and icons, and identity. Whether that comes from your religion, your politics, your family, your subculture, from music, art or even from the pursuit of money — it’s all the same. [My lodestone here, as everywhere else, is

The Invisibles

, with its existentialist vision of flexible, shared personalities, each inhabiting its own utopia].

From this perspective: if something looks like a religion, that probably just means it’s doing its cultural job of providing a bulwark against the meaninglessness of life. Greenies should be proud of being called cultists, and everybody else should be horrified that so few other political movements are strong enough to inspire more than grudging tolerance from their followers.

Campfire stories for communists

I like to imagine that, within in the now-forgotten mass of Soviet-era culture, somebody must have tried a literal take on Marx’s rhetorical flourishes.

Because Marx was obviously a fan of horror. It’s in many of his catchiest phrases – the spectre of communism, tradition which “weights like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, or capital as “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour”

Derrida apparently devoted a [book]( to this theme; personally, I’d much rather encounter it as children’s television.


I appear to have no hair. This wasn’t exactly the haircut I was looking for.

Oh well, I’ll just have to find something else to hide behind.


: Maybe I should try getting it dyed, if I could manage that in a way that would work on dark hair, and wouldn’t eventually need to be grown out and cut. That, or a piercing somewhere.

Fear (1): Fassbinder

A few weeks ago I finally saw my first Fassbinder film. [Fassbinder]( was an obsessive prodigy who dominated German cinema of the 70s, churning out 41 films in 13 years before working and snorting himself to an early death at the age of 37. He has been mythologized as a romantic hero, as a driven man surrounded by a clique of neurotic hedonists, and as a sadomasochist obsessed with the cruelty underlying love.

‘[Angst essen seele auf](’ (ali: fear eats the soul) fits into that stereotype, though perhaps not in the way a plot summary would suggest. Emmi, a middle-aged German cleaner, meets Moroccan migrant worker Ali in a Munich bar. They begin a relationship and, to the disgust of society at large, eventually marry.

Racism and social opprobrium are omnipresent, but as background rather than theme. The fear of the title isn’t of foreigners or violence or economic hardship; it is fear of small acts of cruelty from your friends, as they protect whatever small scraps of social respect they have by kicking out at anybody below them. The sole cure for fear is desperation; characters come together only when they have nothing to lose.

The first scene covers all this in microcosm. Emmi walks into an unfamiliar bar, half-full of migrant workers. She’s rigid with anxiety, not knowing where to look or where to put herself, aware that all eyes are upon her. But she’s here, overcoming fear and cultural barriers, because she has nothing else: her husband is long dead, her children ignore her, her work gives her nothing but shame. If she had just a little more self-respect, just a little more status to defend, she would retreat back into a world of petty closed-mindedness. Fairly soon, she will. So will everyone else in the film: all the characters betray themselves and their companions through small acts of social cowardice.

Busy week in Berlin

Maybe it’s because I’m leaving, but Berlin seems even more politically alive than usual at the moment. Today, tens (hundreds?) of thousands of students have been on the streets, as [part]( of a week-long [strike]( against attempts to privatize and charge for education.

The government response has been, rather pathetically, to [call them](,1518,630965,00.html) ‘behind the times’. Bleating that markets = modernization = good was pretty shaky at the best of times, but now it seems positively ludicrous. And the students’ [demands]( are much saner:

– Self-directed life and learning

– Free access to education, and the abolition of tuition fees, training fees, and childcare costs

– Public financing of the education system, without corporate influence

– Democratization of educational institutions, and strengthening of their self-government

I went along to support the Berlin demonstration earlier today, and found myself strangely weepy. I don’t know if they can win, mind, given the current hopelessness of the SPD and the rest of the European centre-left.

From a more radical corner, the squatting scene is [headed for a busy week]( [One place]( is due for eviction tomorrow — and then on Saturday comes [something more ambitious]( — a massive, and pre-announced, attempt to squat the currently disused Tempelhof airport. It sounds insane, but I’m gradually coming to see the logic of it. Turning an abandoned space into a temporary hippie playground appeals both to my head and my heart.

Things to listen to

I mentioned that I spend a lot of time listening to spoken word recordings. I thought it might be nice to list some of the other places where I find good listening:

* [Democracy Now]( Amy Goodman must be one of the most hyperproductive activists out there, a throwback to the living-for-the-cause agitators of the 19th century. With a small team, she somehow puts together an hour-long tv/radio news broadcast every weekday. It’s campaigning journalism with production values to equal or better the mainstream media. I wish I could find a European equivalent of this; Democracy Now does a great job of picking up stories from around the world, but it’s really a USian affair.

* [In Our Time]( The best thing on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg and a few academics holding a no-frills discussion on some topic they know inside-out. Shamelessly highbrow, and generally fascinating.

* [IT Conversations]( is a mixed bag. They collect (mainly) talks from computer conferences, and repackage them as podcasts. Both the content and the audio quality are very variable. Generally good are Moira Gun’s ‘[Tech nation](’ series, and anything recorded at an O’Reilly conference. [The white, male faces gracing most of their listings do tell a story — but mainly, I think, about the IT industry as a whole, rather than IT Conversations itself]

* [Here]( is my unsorted collection of nice things to listen to. Some good, some bad, some I never got round to playing.

I’ve also discovered that

The West Wing

works even better as an audio-only experience. If only it were financially viable to get Aaron Sorking writing radio plays!

Lectures at the LSE

I listen to a lot of audio recordings: as I fall asleep, as I’m walking around town, or while I’m working on things that only need partial attention. So I’m delighted to have (re)discovered the LSE’s [series]( of recorded public lectures.

These are, with very few exceptions, excellent. The speakers are major figures: ministers, Nobel prizewinners, the top tier of academics, journalists and pundits. They’re mostly very thoughtful, and pitched at a high enough level to be interesting. Some of the [upcoming events]( also look very, very good.