Alexei Sayle on what makes us human: We need to realise that the best things in life are not things

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, Alexei Sayle reflects on the time Paul McKenna planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in his brain, and how our restlessness has been exploited to devastating effect.

Several years ago I attended a summer party where one of the other guests was the stage hypnotist and motivational speaker Paul McKenna. For some reason we got talking about environmental issues in which I know he has an interest. I was talking about how so much of my own and other people’s supposed environmental activity such as recycling wine bottles or buying organic bread is just a mask for continuing rampant consumerism and he replied, “Yes, if you were truly serious about trying to save the planet then what you would do, would be you would kill yourself.”

I had never heard this opinion expressed before. As the child of communists and a vestigial Marxist myself, my belief had always been that mankind’s depredation of the planet was as a result of our exploitative economic system. I had unthinkingly subscribed to the view that capitalism was the problem and if we had a different, fairer economic system – such as socialism – then we could heal the scars we have inflicted on the earth in pursuit of the wilder excesses of capitalist consumerism. Socialist man would walk arm and arm with nature into a kinder, greener future.

But what McKenna seemed to be saying was that what makes us human also makes us destroyers of the earth, and that – given human nature – there is no way that we could live in harmony with the environment. Therefore the only hope for the planet was if mankind disappeared completely. Once we had disappeared from the face of the planet a great peace would descend – wars would stop, the destruction of the rainforest would be halted and gradually green growth would cover the landscape scarred with our buildings. The beauty of this wonderful blue-green planet would be restored and its only inhabitants – the animals –would live in harmony with Gaia.

A few days later I was having my breakfast and I was chewing on a piece of toast when the unbidden thought popped into my head, “This toast is a bit dry. I might as well hang myself.” Of course, this was Paul McKenna who at the party had clearly planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in my brain. I managed to avoid committing suicide but continued to wonder whether to be human means that I will inevitably be part of destroying the natural world. Or is there some way in which we can live in harmony with the earth?

Given that every other creature except us has always had a benign relationship with the planet, and that before the invention of agriculture we did, too, and that there remain tribal societies in a few remote corners of the earth that still do no harm to the biosphere while the vast majority of us live profoundly unnatural lives, how did this come about? And can we reverse at least some of the worst effects of what it is to be part of the disease that makes us human in the 21st century?

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And that has got to be at the root of what has gone wrong with our relationship to our environment. We can’t leave well alone; we are never satisfied. This perpetual search for novelty may have made us reach for the stars but it has also led us constantly to seek the better, bigger exercise bike. Capitalism has seized on this flaw in our make-up and refined it so that we think that happiness will come from the next thing – the very next thing – that we buy. Our last phone did not make us happy but this new one with a 13 billion-pixel camera will. Or, if only I had the £300 pair of trainers instead of these crappy ones that I bought last week for £129. Why did I ever imagine they would make me happy?

What obsesses all industrial societies is ceaseless growth, making more and more things, building more and more buildings, eating more and more food. Without continuous expansion, all manufacturing economies will collapse. And in order to continue this expansion, people must be convinced that their happiness lies in buying new stuff. So what makes us human right now in the industrial economies is to be permanently dissatisfied, because, for our economies to grow, we must believe that it is not any of the things we own but the very next thing we buy, the very next holiday we take, that will finally push us over the top into serenity.

Of course, as soon as we buy the thing or finish the holiday, that sense of dissatisfaction returns. The happiness doesn’t last but what is continuous and increasing is the brutal excavation of the earth’s finite resources.

Millennia ago, in pre-agrarian societies, one day was much like another and people lived together in harmony with each other and with nature. There existed a primitive form of communism: since there were no surpluses, nobody could accumulate more possessions than anybody else. And without more possessions there was no incentive to grab more power; decisions were reached more or less by consensus.

We are never going to get back to this Garden of Eden but surely it should be possible to live more in harmony with both our planet and our better, truer selves? The thousand-year experiment to see if happiness can be bought, if possession of more and more stuff can give life meaning, has failed. We need to realise that the best things in life are not things. Perhaps we need to look at and learn from the animal world: few animals living in freedom fail to reach their full potential. To quote D H Lawrence: “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards/they’d be worth looking at.”

Alexei Sayle is a comedian

This article is the tenth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

A dump for rubbish from across the world in Accra, Ghana

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge