My brush with Bilderberg

Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, says Nelson Jones. The concerns of rabble-rousing Texan radio host Alex Jones may be risible but those of Labour MP Michael Meacher

I'm sitting in a field near Watford on a glorious summer evening. Just visible across several rolling acres of exquisitely landscaped parkland, nestled discreetly among the trees, is the Grove Hotel, where up to 150 of the world's most powerful and influential people, including George Osborne, Henry Kissinger and Google's Eric Schmidt, are holding confidential talks. Ed Balls is there as well.  Over here, cordoned off in a heavily-guarded "protest area", are at least ten times that number, the majority of whom believe that the guests in the Grove (aka the Bilderberg group) are up to no good, although the precise nature of their 60 year old conspiracy varies according to who you ask.  

It's a relaxed, even cheerful event, despite the crush of numbers (by mid-afternoon, the venue was full and hundreds have reportedly been turned away) and despite the serious implications of the global conspiracy being hatched half a mile away. There are provocative tee-shirts (the best slogan being "Kissinger my ass"), protest banners denouncing the New World Order, a man holding a ventriloquist's dummy and a rap artist wearing stick-on pointed ears. There's some security theatre, but the police and G4S are on their best behaviour, with the result that only rhetorical anger is on display. People are here to expose the Bilderberg group, even to laugh at it, not to destroy it.

Right now (it's shortly after 6pm) Alex Jones, the rabble-rousing Texan radio host now notorious for his outburst on Andrew Neil's Sunday Politics show yesterday, is leading the crowd in a chant of "We know you are killers" aimed in the general direction of the Grove. Jones's belief, which he has just outlined with much conviction though no discernible evidence, is that the shadow world government (as represented and perhaps constituted by the assembled Bilderbergers) is in the advanced stages of a strategy to halve and then enslave the world's population. "They are literally putting cancer into your children's food," he warns the crowd, who seem to be receptive to the message. Many of them will have heard it before: Jones's Infowars broadcast claims an audience of five million listeners. But if Jones's audience really believed what he was telling them one might expect them to be more visibly disturbed.

(Jones's subsequent meltdown on Sunday Politics divided opinion among Bilderberg-watchers. For some, he had blown a precious opportunity and given respectable conspiracy theorists a bad name. Others, however, saw it as a clever stratagem to gain maximum publicity - an aim in which it undoubtedly succeeded, although publicity is far from being the same as credibility.)

If Jones and his fellow headliner David Icke represent one extreme of the anti-Bilderberg tendency, the presence of Labour MP Michael Meacher suggests that concern isn't confined entirely to UFO believers and people who smoked too much dope in the 1960s. Meacher's beef was with the intrinsic lack of accountability involved with what he calls "leaders of Western finance capitalism" meeting in secret. "They want to have complete frankness, serious policy making, they want to concert their plans - which are pretty brutal,"  he complained, to wild applause.

And here, for me, lies the paradox of this event. Billed by the organisers as the "first ever Bilderberg Fringe festival", it is in many ways indeed fairly fringe ("Tinfoil-hatsonbury," one wag calls it). Speaker after speaker earns cheers for denouncing 9/11 as in inside job, calling global warming a scam and warning about plans to microchip the entire population. People I speak to are eager to discuss pyramid power, satanic ritual sacrifice and the global elite's dependence on something called "monatomic gold". Easy pickings for mainstream journalists after a dismissive vignette, as is the presence of Jones and Icke.  In the absence of information from the actual conference, and with no pictures of arriving delegates beyond a procession of cars with blacked-out windows, it's difficult to portray Bilderberg in a serious light.  

Yet newsworthy it surely is. Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched, (Kissinger, yes. Mandelson, even. But Ed Balls?) but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, three days in which top bankers and corporate executives are holed up with influential politicians and international civil servants including the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Alex Jones's concerns may be risible but Meacher's are not. Even if the Bilderbergers aren't secretly running the world, or for that matter deciding anything of substance, there is symbolism in their gathering, and in David Cameron's acceptance on Friday of an invitation to join them.  

Beyond the conspiracy pantomime lurk very real concerns. Concern over the way the international financial system, post crash, seems to have been rigged in favour of the banks and the plutocrats. Concern over the increasing possibilities of state surveillance of individuals, as shown this very weekend with the news about the US authorities' PRISM programme, not to mention the ongoing debate over the Home Office's proposed Communications Data Bill.  Concern about the impact of globalisation. Concern above all about the growing chasm that seems to separate a feather-bedded elite from a mass of the population whose jobs and incomes seem ever less secure.

That this year's Bilderberg conference has attracted so much media attention and so many protesters is testament to decades of obsessional pursuit by Alex Jones and fellow conspiracy theorists. For decades, even during the postwar years when they were genuinely influential, the meetings received no publicity at all. But it also suggests that their ideas are becoming mainstream. Icke had the air of a man vindicated after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, as well he might: last week he announced a plan to launch his own internet TV station and public donations poured in.  

Even the conference organisers are much less secretive than they used to be. Where once those involved would deny very existence of the event, these days an agenda and a list of delegates is released on an official website. And if this new openness comes in part from exasperation at the crazy claims that have been made down the years about Bilderberg, it must also reflect an understanding that in the 21st century secret meetings of highly influential people are bound to attract suspicion and deserve to attract scrutiny. If Bilderberg and similar gatherings have up to now been of interest only to an eccentric fringe of conspiracy theorists and "researchers", that is a media failure and not the fault of Alex Jones.

A banner draped over the security barrier outside the Bilderberg meetings. Photograph: Getty Images
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State