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The shifting of the guard

In Burma, where all meaningful progress towards democracy seemed to have stalled, signs of change fr

Perhaps the strongest indication that change may at last be under way in Burma came on 19 August. It was not Aung San Suu Kyi's meeting with President Thein Sein, though that was surprising enough. What made jaws drop was what followed: dinner for Aung San Suu Kyi, hosted by the president's wife.

If anybody doubted that the power of the former dictator Than Shwe was on the wane, this was proof. Than Shwe was once notorious for bringing meetings with foreign envoys to a swift end if Suu Kyi's name came up. However, his antipathy was nothing compared with that of his wife and the wives of the other top generals - it was said that they liked to get together and do the Burmese equivalent of sticking pins in a voodoo doll to hurt her. Now suddenly here she was, this pariah, "the west's poster girl", gracing the portals of preposterous Naypyidaw, Burma's new capital.

Since then, the signs of change have come fast. The UN's special rapporteur on human rights was given a visa, after a year of delay. Photos of and reports about Suu Kyi began to appear in the Burmese press for the first time since 1989, including an interview with her that had been awaiting the censor's decision for ten months - all the political content had been filleted from it, but no matter. The government set up a human rights commission - composed, it is true, of military hacks from the previous regime. It also set up a commission to review and revise existing laws, taking advice from international bodies including the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Most impressive and unexpected was the action taken over the Myitsone Dam, a Chinese-financed project to dam the Irrawaddy River to generate electricity - 90 per cent of which for export to China. A protest movement swelled rapidly, combining patriotism - the Irrawaddy is a national symbol - with anti-Chinese sentiment and sympathy for the ethnic-minority Kachin, who would be severely affected, and whose insurgency against the Burmese army recently reignited. After Suu Kyi endorsed the protests, the president called a halt to construction, saying it was "against the will of the people" - a remarkable reason for a government in Burma to claim to do anything.

Now, the government has launched another striking initiative. More than 600 prisoners have been released, including some prominent political detainees. When Suu Kyi, as leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was set free last November, the failure to release anybody else was what made it look like a gimmick. A partial amnesty a few months later looked equally cynical, as it affected very few prisoners found guilty of political crimes.

Almost a year has passed since Suu Kyi was freed from more than seven years of house arrest at her home in Rangoon, and her period of freedom since divides neatly into two parts. The first part was very slow. She addressed crowds after her release but there was no replay of the regular meetings across her garden wall that did so much to madden the junta after her release in 1995. Nor did she go back on the campaign trail as she did after being liberated in 2002 - journeys that ended abruptly in an attempt to assassinate her and in the massacre of dozens of her supporters at a place named Depayin, outside Mandalay.

Distant goal

Since her latest release, Suu Kyi has given many interviews to foreign journalists and been visited by many diplomats, but her domestic presence seemed worryingly thin. She cannot rest for ever on the laurels of her party's huge election win in 1990: like anyone in political life anywhere, she has to prove that she still counts. When I visited the NLD headquarters in Rangoon again in March, she was busy meeting party activists who had been invited down for briefings; they came to her instead of her going to them, but it wasn't the same thing. Her single foray outside Rangoon, to the town of Pegu, was just a day trip.

That all began to change ten days after my visit when the junta officially handed executive power to Thein Sein and legislative power to the assemblies elected the previous November. No substantive change was expected; it looked like one bunch of old soldiers handing over to their chums. The public level of despondency increased because hostilities had once again broken out on the border, notably against the Kachin in the north, after the collapse of a two-decade-old ceasefire.

But Thein Sein's meeting with Suu Kyi on 17 August was the watershed. She was welcomed to his office, and was pleased to pose for a photograph with him under a portrait of her father, Aung San, whom the junta had spent so long airbrushing out of the nation's memory.

It's clear enough what the government wants in return for these gestures: the rotating chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, the lifting of sanctions, the return of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a significant boost to the struggling economy. True democratisation would entail releasing all political prisoners, brokering peace on the borders and rewriting a constitution - Thein Sein chaired the convention that produced it - which guarantees military domination in perpetuity. It remains a distant goal. But we are seeing some first steps.

Peter Popham's new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, "The Lady and the Peacock", will be published by Rider on 3 November

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain