Inspiring: Malala Yousafzai speaks at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia on 21 October. Photo: Getty
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Hear their voices: a choral celebration of Malala Yousafzai

Young British composer James McCarthy and Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story.

Malala; A Child of Our Time 
Barbican, London EC2

When the gunman boarded a school bus in the district of Swat, Pakistan, in October 2012, he was trying to accomplish two things with a single act. By shooting Malala Yousafzai, he was trying to end the life of a girl who was standing out against the Taliban’s wishes. At the same time, the shooting was an attempt to stifle an idea. Because of her writing, Malala was a visible symbol – a girl trying to get an education in spite of everything terrible that was happening in her homeland. That ambition had to be snuffed out.

The Taliban failed on both counts. Malala survived the attack, is now recovered and is living safely with her family in Birmingham. Her existence as a symbol endures – even before she was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize this autumn, she was travelling the world (as much as her schooling permitted) to share her ideas about peace, dialogue and the right of girls to be educated.

Now, her story lives not just in words but in music, too. The young British composer James McCarthy and the Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story. The piece was premiered at the Barbican in London by the Crouch End Festival Chorus on 28 October and was preceded by an introduction from Malala herself, which was read by one of the schoolgirls singing in the chorus.

Perhaps surprisingly for a piece that is trying to embody such a range of emotions and issues, Malala is relatively simple. The instrumental accompaniment is cinematic in tone, all swooping strings and heart-tugging melodies with the odd burst of percussion. The large chorus sings in harmony but in a clear rhythm so the words of Shah’s libretto come across well. It was a challenge, McCarthy says, to avoid making the music too “childlike”, for although Malala Yousafzai was a child when these events took place, she is also a very strong young woman.

The piece starts by setting the scene in “Swat, the valley of flowers”, and then moves on to describe how the war came: “the pounding of guns and shouting of men”. And then the feminist subtext of Malala’s experience is explored: “They say that girls only need to know/How to cook, and clean, and sew/To get married at 12, to be someone’s wife.”

More than 100 girls from three different London schools were among the performers for this piece. Seeing them up onstage, concentrating fiercely on the conductor David Temple’s baton as they sang of Malala’s story, was an inspiring sight. It was hard not to be moved to see her message of inclusion, action and education enacted by fellow schoolgirls. The only part of the piece that jarred was the extended tenor solo in the middle – Andrew Staples has a strong voice but, given the context, it would have been much more welcome to hear a young woman’s solo featured.

For this programme, Malala was paired with Michael Tippett’s secular oratorio A Child of Our Time. The composer began work on it in 1938 in response to the Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews in Nazi Germany; it was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1944. It has since come to stand for the struggle of oppressed peoples everywhere. The piece shares the three-part structure of Handel’s Messiah and also draws inspiration from Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions, although crucially the Lutheran chorales are replaced by arrangements of African-American spirituals.

This wasn’t an outstanding rendition of the piece, by any means – the soloists didn’t blend very well and the pace was frustratingly slow at times. But as a foil to Mc­Carthy’s new work, it’s hard to think of anything better. If ever there was a child of our time, it is Malala.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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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