The auroville dome, which Suzanne Moore visited, under construction. Photo: Serge Duchemin
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In India, the next stage of evolution involves special socks and a substantial donation

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie for bribes. In the form of money.

Arriving in Chennai at 4am was grim. All I wanted was a cold beer. “Not possible. It’s the elections, madam. You may riot.”

I was at a hotel, waiting to be met by an inhabitant of a town I had become fascinated with. It exists to connect to a higher consciousness, and is described as “a site of material and spiritual search for a living embodiment of achieving Actual Human Unity”. Who would not want to go there?

Auroville was founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa, “The Mother”. Aurobindo was remarkable. The first nationalist to insist on full independence for India, he was jailed for treason and kept in solitary confinement, where he had a number of spiritual experiences. He decided he must help develop transitional beings to become a Supermind. So the Mother created, first, an ashram and then, by 1969, Auroville, a township attempting to live a new form of collective life.

This is how I found myself in what basically looked like a bit of Charles de Gaulle Airport in the middle of a jungle in south India, trying to get a coffee.

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie – everything is pretty French – for bribes. In the form of money. I was shown to my room in a Zen house and told, “This is where the Dalai Lama stays.” They then served horrible porridge for breakfast, though I never managed to work out how to pay for it without money. So they seemed very annoyed.

It’s a huge place. One day I trekked miles to meet an old Aurovilian, with wild dogs running around me in the jungle. It was to talk about the philosophy of the place. He had a long, grey ponytail and spoke about repairing the hard drives of laptops for two hours, and then said he was too busy to say more, as he was having a dinner party. It was like something out of Lost. There were, everyone told me, “no drink or drugs” in Auroville. This was not the truth.

Some people there live in the most fantastic designer homes, others in shacks, but all the real work I saw was being done by Tamils. And no one else speaks Tamil, not even the people who have been there 40 years. Everything depends on complex rules, as all “communal” living must.

I was told off for talking near a banyan tree.

Eventually we were allowed into the Matrimandir, a giant golden globe that looks like a James Bond villain’s palace. We had to wear special socks to go in one of the “petal rooms”. It was purple and Star Trekky. We suppressed giggles and pretended to meditate.

A very annoyed Frenchwoman then explained to me that although everything was “shared” in Auroville, “You need to make a donation. How you say? A substantial amount.” The next stage of evolution costs. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit