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Guy Fawkes wasn't a freedom fighter. He was a religious terrorist, and not even one of the good ones

The Jacobean equivalent of one of the minor characters from Four Lions.

Over the last four centuries, a lot of traditions have become associated with the 5 November. Fireworks. Bonfires. Burning Catholics in effigy. As a child it was one of my favourite times of the year. Even today I much prefer it to the Americanised Halloween rubbish we get now, and not just because I'm an anti-papist who could never convincingly dress up as a sexy anything.

Over the last decade, though, another tradition has attached itself to this date. A certain right-wing political blogger was an early adopter, back when the British left was still in the ascendancy and he could convincingly pretend he wasn't a member of the establishment. Since then the Guy Fawkes mask has become the symbol of left-wing anti-government protests far and wide, including hacktivists Anonymous and the Occupy Movement. Today the internet is seemingly full of comments like this one (which dates, strangely, from August):

Right. No. This is utter bullshit, based not so much on a misreading of history as on a complete ignorance of it.

Guy Fawkes was many things, but one he emphatically wasn’t was a freedom fighter. Fawkes had actually voluntarily fought for the Spanish empire in its Eighty Years War against Dutch independence – hardly the action of someone who fights over-weening government power wherever they may find it.

The reason the Gunpowder Plotters decided to take down the government of King James I & VI was not because they were opposed to government oppression. The Plotters were kind of okay with a spot of government oppression, actually: they just thought that the oppressed Catholics should be the ones doing it.

To that end, they decided to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. This would knock out the king and most of his ministers, and open the way for nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth to become puppet queen of a new Catholic regime, backed by the mighty Spanish Empire. (Incidentally, the fact they wanted to supplant the regime, not destroy it, makes Guido Fawkes a painfully good name for that libertarian blog.)

Fawkes wasn't even the plot's leader: that was Robert Catesby. The only reason Fawkes himself is the one who became most associated with the plot is because he was the poor mug who got lumbered with the job of guarding the barrels. When the plot was discovered, he was the one forced to explain how it was he came to be shiftily loitering next to 20 barrels of gunpowder, holding a packet of matches.

The Gunpowder Plotters weren’t freedom fighters at all. They wanted to replace an oppressive Protestant regime with an oppressive Catholic one, and were willing to commit mass slaughter to do it. In other words, Guy Fawkes was a religious terrorist, and not even one of the most important ones. He was the Jacobean equivalent of one of the minor characters from Four Lions

So how is it that he ended up as a symbol for those who think themselves freedom fighters? The Guy Fawkes mask is worn by a crusader against government oppression in Alan Moore's 1980s comic strip V for Vendetta, so it's tempting to blame him and his artist David Lloyd.

But that isn't very fair. In the comic, the character of V may be fighting the government; but he's also very clearly a terrorist, and his ideology is no less terrifying than that of the rather banal fascist regime he's fighting against. If anyone's to blame it's the people who filmed the graphic novel in 2006, completely missing Moore's point and turning V into a heroic martyr for freedom.

At any rate, the result of all this is that we've ended up with a world that celebrates a semi-competent religious fundamentalist as a freedom fighter, and where people give money to big corporations to buy copies of his face.

Well done, anarchists. Well done on never reading a fucking book.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist