Building and Unbuilding the Empire

‘We’ll be holding our noses and voting for her’, he said.

He was referring to Hilary Clinton and the watershed United States elections of 2016.

We had met by chance in the dining car of the Empire Builder, a train that crosses North America from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. He was a retired African American lawyer, having worked his life in Chicago, but now settled in Los Angeles. I was trying to find myself on the last North American transcontinental rail crossing.

The feel was decidedly weird, apprehensive even, although we had different reasons for feeling so. For me it may have been a growing sense of futility and uselessness of liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. For him it was a sense that the system in which he had believed for so long, even committed himself, was showing its real and rather ugly nature.

Do not get me wrong. The setting was brilliant, if somewhat surreal. I had made my way, by ‘The Cardinal’, from Philadelphia to Chicago. From there, I would board the fabled Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, and then travel southward, for a fourth day, on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.

On the heavy, if somewhat battered, Amtrak rail carriages we trundled westward. In contrast to the few moments spent in Illinois, we ambled across Wisconsin and the vast plains of North Dakota. Well into Montana we began – as the name suggests – to rise into the mountains in all their glory. Here we touched in Idaho, passed through the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, before running through Washington to Portland, just over the state border with Oregon.

Yet this breathtaking countryside is also soaked in blood, where systematic extermination of the indigenous people was attempted, by killing off the food sources (bison), poisoning water, starving them, driving them off the land, or simply slaughtering them en masse. This was land that assisted in defusing social unrest and potential revolution, for the under-employed and poor working classes were unleashed on the ‘west’, to vent their class fury in hard toil, disease, and early death. This is part of North America that makes the chic urban types of the north-east or west coast shiver with apprehension. And this is where Donald Trump found so much support in the election a few days later.

I sat long in my cabin, pondering the land, life and the universe. Or I was down the stairs in the vestibule, camera in hand, or relishing – as always – a shower on the move. Being the loner and nomad that I am, I savoured the long hours and deep slumber on my own. In this context, the dining car is a strange pleasure, with its communal seating. In the past, I have been able to distinguish between the world seen through the panoramic windows and the world inside the train. On this journey, the world outside, especially the social and political world, was everywhere inside.

In the dining car, I met a black earth farmer, who spoke not a word for most of the evening. Two older women had been making very polite conversation, in the curious way they do in this part of the world.

But when asked his name, he said, ‘I am a black earth farmer’.

‘Black earth?’ I asked.

‘Up north’, he said. ‘The best soil in North America’.

Then I remembered: ‘Like the black earth in the Ukraine and south-western Russia’.

Eyes wide, he said: ‘My grandfather immigrated from Ukraine, after his family had moved there from Germany’.

‘Why have you kept so quiet?’ Asked one of the women.

‘I prefer to listen to people who are more intelligent than I am’, he said with the slightest of smiles.

But now he was unleashed, speaking of GPS steering of farm equipment, of agribusiness, of being 74 (he certainly did not look it), of children and grandchildren who did not want to work the farm. All the while a sharp sense of humour shone through.

At another meal I sat at an all-male table, with a hipster from western parts and a know-it-all California wine merchant who obviously enjoyed the benefits of constantly sampling the products he sold. When I asked about the looming election, the hipster quietly indicated that it was a taboo subject.

Not so for my lawyer friend on his way to Los Angeles. He had been visiting daughters in different parts of the country, returning home by the means he loved best. In years past, he had experienced what it was like to be a black lawyer in a country riven with racial discrimination. And this experience had driven him to become a member of the Democratic Party.

‘I’m a Bernie [Sanders] man’, he said. ‘I’m really disappointed in the way the party machine froze him out and put up Hilary’.

‘So it’s now Trump versus Clinton’, I said.

‘The way I see it’, he said, ‘Democrats will vote for Clinton holding their noses and Republicans will vote for Trump doing the same’.

‘But all the opinion polls suggest Clinton will win’, I said.

‘Yes, yes, but the feeling is not right’, he said. ‘It’s weird’.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘They’re missing something’, he said. ‘I hope Clinton will win, but I am really not sure’.

Brexit came up often, in the way that the opinion polls had missed the mood in the UK a little earlier in the same year. Their methods seemed to be outdated, so they were unable to do what they are supposed to do – gauge public opinion.

‘I fear a large number of people are not saying what they will do on election day’, he said. ‘Or that they will make up their minds on election day and vote the other way’.

Despite his concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, he remained a firm believer in the system as such.

At one point, I suggested, ‘People in China look at the system in the United States and say “no thanks”’.

To which he responded, ‘And we look at China and say “no thanks.” We don’t want someone else telling us what to do’.

This exchange soured our open conversations, so that we began to avoid one another on the run south from Portland, on the Coast Starlight, to Los Angeles.

I needed more time to myself by that stage, so I did not mind so much. But even my solitude could not block out the mood about the train. A mixture of disbelief, suspense and barely contained anger abounded – depending on which side one was on. For some, the disbelief was based on the apprehension, if not desperate expectation, that the unexpected could happen. For others, the anger at a system that had made their lives worse could not wait for election day. For me, I found it hard to believe that anyone would find such a system desirable.

Meanwhile, I could not help noticing many other signs of a crumbling empire – apart from its political system and social fabric. The train, while solidly built, was increasingly battered and groaning. The cracks on the station platforms seemed wider than ever. The forms of payment seemed archaic. The list could go on and on. It seemed that only thing keeping the system going was the insatiable demand for military expenditure, funded by the extraordinary process of relying on the funds from others, via US Treasury bonds. An empire built on massive debt, enabled by brute force and grudging trust.

But a question kept coming back to me. I would ask: ‘Why do you call it the ‘“Empire Builder”’?

No-one seemed to have answer. Was it a signal of the age-old plans to invade Canada when it was still a British colony? Or was it a signal: this is line; anyone who dares cross it risks life and limb? Or was it part of the extraordinary process of defusing unrest from workers and farmers, pushing them west in a perverted form of the ‘welfare state’? In this case, the state compensated those who took on the task of dispossessing and decimating the indigenous population. Now it seemed as though their descendants were intent on unbuilding the empire through an unlikely champion.

2016 November 036

Writing with Jethro Tull

A teenager in the mid-1970s studying for his high-school exams, bulky old-fashioned headphones wrapped around his head and plugged into a cassette player, blocking out the noise of his three brothers and sister as he tries to concentrate. And what is he listening to? Jethro Tull.

That teenager was me, almost 40 30 years ago. Ever since, I have listened to Tull while writing. The first bars of a Tull album have the effect of switching my concentration on and the noise of the world around me off. Only then can I write, pretty much unbroken for the next forty to sixty minutes. The words flow, my fingers dance over the keyboard, and my mind seems to fire off all sorts of new ideas. Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I will listen to another artist or three, but when I really want to think and write, it is Tull to whom I turn.

How did it all begin? I came to Jethro Tull latish – in the mid to later 70s, after the flurry of early records when they established themselves as one of the great bands of the time. My first taste was a crackly cassette tape, recorded from one of those vinyl records, of Minstrel in the Gallery. From that moment I was hooked. I loved the way hard rock, classical and medieval strands wove themselves together in the music, especially since I’d been through rock and jazz guitar and was then deep into classical guitar on an old axe I’d picked up cheaply somewhere. But my family was poor, my father a clergyman on a subsistence wage with five children to feed. So I couldn’t rush off to buy a bunch of new records. We had an ancient mono record player that my father wouldn’t let us touch and I had a tinny cassette player. I had to save hard to afford even one new record or tape, so I picked up an original Living in the Past from the sister of a friend for a couple of dollars, handed other friends cassette tapes that had been wiped so they could record over them, and scoured the discount racks at record shops. Slowly I built up a collection.

The first new record I bought was Heavy Horses. It was really precious, a brand new album in a cover that wasn’t bent or stained and a record that wasn’t scratched. It is still one of my favourite albums even after 30 years. So the Tull I got to know first was the Tull of the later 70s and 80s. Apart from Heavy Horses, records like Stormwatch, Broadsword and the Beast, Songs from the Wood and even A were my staple. Later I picked up the earlier albums and by the time Crest of a Knave, Catfish Rising and Rock Island came out I could afford to buy them when new.

How did I come to listen while studying? In my high school years we lived in a house that was really too small for five kids, four of us teenagers. I had been in a room with two of my brothers, but eventually I squatted in the back veranda. I built a wall out of book-shelves, bits of wood and a curtain, moved my bed and small desk there and it became my bedroom. The catch was that my new ‘bedroom’ was right by the toilet. Every morning, one after another, my parents, three brothers, sister and whatever friend was staying the night would make their way to the toilet. I could tell who it was not merely by the sound of footsteps, but also by the distinct noise they made when pissing or crapping. So it went on all day. I was also hard by the loudly squeaking back door, which was really the main entry point for the house, next to the laundry and its perpetually running washing machine and my room opened out onto the kitchen, which was the social hub of the house. My brothers and sister would always have friends over, they would talk in the kitchen, use the toilet, and the back door would swing and squeak without ceasing. That’s why I soon got some old headphones, plugged them into my cassette player and listened to Tull while studying.

What do I write? Since those days I have been pretty much a full-time writer. And I write all sorts of things. It might be magazine articles on Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia or long-distance bicycle rides. Or it may be a short story on the end of the world from the point of view of religious crackpots. Lately I have been actively filling up my blog ( But I spend most of my time writing about Marxism and religion. When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Oh, I write about religion and politics’. And they would immediately turn to another topic, or better still, someone more interesting. Not any more, since religion and geopolitics have become vitally important, and the rise of China has put Marxism and modern socialism firmly on the agenda.

For all that time Jethro Tull has been in the backdrop. If I need to think through a problem, I put on a quieter album. If I’ve been stalling and need to get writing, it’s always Crest of a Knave. If I need a long stretch of concentration, I listen to one of the concert albums. If the wind is up and the rain is pouring, Stormwatch or Broadsword and the Beast comes out. If I need to get fired up and write fast, it will be a good rock album like Aqualung, Catfish Rising, Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Minstrel in the Gallery or even Rock Island. Every now and then I begin with This Was and work my way through the whole collection, ending with some Youtube videos of the latest concert gigs. And unlike many a Tull fan, I thoroughly enjoy the latest offerings, such as Home Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2.

I’ve been listening to Tull and writing for almost four decades. Who knows? Perhaps I will do so for another four.


Ten tips on using a squat toilet on a Chinese train

The moment of truth has arrived; with bowels ready to burst you realise that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. You realise that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China has certain consequences. One of them is the fact that you need to use the same toilet as about 300 others – all in the one carriage, given the Chinese habit of selling no-seat tickets.

Door open, squeeze in, turn around: stop. It’s a squat toilet, on a rocking train that you are sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do?

1. Ignore the sheen of liquid on the floor. Or imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before you.

2. Step forward and place your feet in the footrests on either side of the rounded, stained-steel trough. It may have stainless steel once upon a time, but not now.

3. Drop your pants to a strategic level on your legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash.

4. Grab firmly the handrail directly before you. It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped; eyes wide open.

5. Squat and let go. You will be surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all your vulnerable parts dangling low. Let me just say that the position encourages you to do what you have to do. In fact, it usually produces a greater feeling of lightness and relief.

6. Reach for your own roll of toilet paper! Unfortunately, most such toilets may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it will be long gone by now.

7. Remember to place the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise you will block the toilet and 300 accusing eyes will fix on you for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. That basket is of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. If you have forgotten your roll, just remember that old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing.

8. As you pull up your pants, dig out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There will be no soap and perhaps no water for your own ablutions.

9. Do as the Chinese do: sniff up a good hunk of snot and hack in the toilet to chase down whatever you have left behind.

Sailing the Seven Seas: How to Travel by Container Ship

When most people think of a sea voyage, they think: cruise ship, wealthy and obnoxious retirees, bars, shops, discos … But another, far more satisfying way of sailing the seven seas exists: containers ships, or, as Americans call them, freighter ships. The problem is that if you walk into any travel agent and say, ‘I’d like to arrange a voyage by container ship’, you will get a blank stare in response. So here are a few tips to get on board.

What destinations? Each year 44,000 container ships ply the world’s major trade routes. Some of those ships take passengers and they will take you to most destinations on the globe. You can go around the world in 84 days or belt your way from Sydney to South Korea in 10 days. It is up to you, but the common destinations are on both sides of the Atlantic, along the trade route from Europe through the Suez Canal and the Far East via Singapore, and across the Pacific between North America and Asia. It is easy to sail from Australia and New Zealand to Europe, North America and Asia. Since the ships typically spend 12 hours or more in port, you can usually get a shore pass for a few hours. But make sure you are back a couple of hours earlier than advised, since ETDs vary.

How frequently do they sail? Two examples: four times a week a passenger-bearing ship leaves Bristol (UK) for North America; twice a month a CMA-CGM ship leaves Sydney for Europe via the Panama Canal. In other words, more frequently than you would expect! Remember, the purpose of such ships is to move freight: passengers must fit in with that. So you need to be prepared to board a day or two earlier or later from the initial date given. Flexibility is the key.

Is the accommodation comfortable? Forget compact cabins and bunk beds; on a container ship you will be given one of three officer cabins. Bathroom, shower, comfortable beds in a separate bedroom, living space, desk, plenty of portholes – all make for a very comfortable voyage. Plus you have access to the recreation room with spacious lounges, TV and DVD player, large desks.

How many passengers? Up to six, since the rules change beyond that number. Often there is less.

How old do you need to be? Between 6 and 80, although at the upper end you usually need a medical certificate to clear you for travel.

What is life on board like? They are working ships, so you fit in with that. 20 to 25 crew are on the ship, including officers and engineers. The crew are mostly Filipino, Korean, Kiribati and so on, and the officers often but not necessarily European. Above all, life is quiet, relaxing and simple. Unlike a passenger ship, you are allowed anywhere on the ship. The bridge is a favourite haunt, where you can talk with the officer on duty or enjoy the peace and quiet. The deck and engine room are also yours to explore, although the officer on duty likes to be told where you plan to go and – for the engine room – the engineer needs to give you the nod.

What do you do? Ponder the sea: out on the ocean you have the million different moods and shades of the sea to keep you mesmerised. Talk with people: at meal times, on the bridge, on deck, at the equator barbeque, over a drink at a party – everyone loves to talk at some time. Read: there is usually a library. Exercise: run up and down the hundreds of stairs or use the small gym. Write: about the voyage. Snooze: whenever you want. In short, you learn to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company.

What is the food like? You eat what the officers and crew eat, made by the cook. The quality varies from cook to cook, but is usually excellent. French ships (like CMA-CGM) often include wine with lunch and dinner.

How much does it cost? If you think of a container voyage as a means to get from A to B, it is more expensive than most flying. If you think of it in terms of travel, good food and accommodation for anywhere between 10 and 90 days, then it is relatively cheap. For example, on a recent voyage of 37 days from Melbourne to Tilbury (the port on the Thames), I paid $AUD 4500. That’s about $AUD 120 a day, or EURO 90 per day. You can find cheaper and more expensive fares, ranging from $85 to $180 per day.

Who do you ask? A few travel agents deal specifically with container travel, such as The Cruise People in the UK, A La Carte Freighter Travel in Canada, Freighter World Cruises in the USA, or Freighter Expeditions in Australia. However, by far the best is Hamish Jamieson’s Freighter Travel NZ – He is able to get you on a ship earlier than most, especially to and from Australia-New Zealand.

Not long ago (the 1950s) a sea voyage used to be the way most people travelled ‘overseas’. Who knows, maybe it may soon be so again.

Ten tips for singing karaoke with a Filipino crew

Should you ever take a voyage on a container ship with a (very likely) Filipino crew, should you ever be invited to one of the crew’s parties, remember the following:

1. Never turn down an invitation to a crew party. The ship is small, rumour is like lightning and a snub means you will never get to see the most interesting parts of the ship or get to know the crew.

2. Don’t keep a tally of the number of times the glass of wine you have is miraculously refilled, the beer you have never seems to empty. The grog will loosen your vocal chords, so much so that you will experience that moment of all singing students: when you first take such lessons, you sing worse than you did before.

3. When the old able seaman grunts, ‘In the Philippines, we have a custom: either you sing or you dance’, opt to sing. Gyrating before twenty Filipino seamen is far less graceful than singing.

4. Let them set the example and be amazed at their high voices and sensuous song choices.

5. When it is your turn, do not choose hymns (they usually have them).

6. Do not choose national anthems, since they have a knack of spoiling the party mood.

7. Choose an old faithful, either a pop or folk song.

8. Do not bellow into the massive phallic knob of a karaoke microphone and don’t prance around as though you were in front of your own mirror.

9. Put down your smoke and beer while singing.

10. Remember: it is highly unlikely that anyone you know will have experienced this crucial seafaring moment.

Six Places to Visit in Red Petrograd

St. Petersburg may boast many sights, such as the Hermitage Museum and its Rembrandts, the bustling stretch of Nevsky Prospect, the stunning theatres with ballet and opera, or the Orthodox Cathedrals. But a very different city beckons anyone who is interested in its red history. This was the place where the Russian Revolution first happened, the home of massive strikes, protests, the overthrow of the tsar, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary waves, especially the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. What parts are ‘left’ of Red Petrograd, as it was known?

Finland Station

Arrive by train from Finland, or simply walk over the Neva River. Finlandskii, the Finland Station, will greet you. Or rather, Lenin’s statue will greet you – with his arm outstretched, addressing the gathered crowds as he did on his arrival at the station in April of 1917. He and other Bolsheviks had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in the ‘sealed train’. They were stunned by the sheer enthusiasm of the massive crowds, including many soldiers, who greeted them on arrival. But Lenin was to stun the crowds in return, calling on the people to complete the revolution that had merely begun in February of that year with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. No one was persuaded at the time, but by October he had done so. The rest, as they say, is history. If you are prepared to search more diligently, the original train engine that hauled their carriages into the station may be found in a glass shed and the armoured car from which he delivered his speech is held in the Russian Museum.


Slightly away from the centre of town lies the Smolny Institute, now the residence and offices of the governor of St. Petersburg (one of two cities in the Russian Federation, the other being Moscow). But Smolny’s claim to fame is that it was the buzzing nerve centre of the October Revolution. At that time in 1917, cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, Red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded.

Here too Lenin stands at the foot of the steps leading into the institute. He is poised in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face. Behind his back, in the institute itself, is a Lenin room, his office during the revolution. It still has many of the memorabilia from the time, but you need to make an appointment. But he faces the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral. Engels looks across to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Beneath them both children play with each other.


On the Neva sits the cruiser Aurora at anchor, a ship more than a century old. On board you will find that it was the ship that came up the river in support of the revolution, firing the shot that was the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace, where the government (Provisional Assembly) was holed up. Its crew was run not by officers but by a soviet (council) of sailors, which made all of the decisions. The ship itself came from Kronstadt naval base, the radical core of the military that had gone over to the Bolsheviks (and a reminder that any successful revolution needs to win over the military). Wander the decks, stand by the gun that fired the famous shot, ponder how 570 men made a small ship their home, and encounter item after item that commemorates its role in the revolution. Flags, medals, plates, insignia, all with hammers and sickles aplenty.

Peter-Paul Fortress

Crossing the Neva you cannot miss the stunning gold spires of Peter-Paul fortress. It was a place of dread for revolutionaries before October 1917, for here they were incarcerated while awaiting sentence (usually to Siberia). With little warmth, dreadful food and over-crowding, it took a sturdy soul indeed to hold up under what was regarded as ‘normal’ punishment at the time. Siberia was a holiday by comparison. Every single one of the Bolsheviks spent time here, Lenin included.

But come the revolution and Peter-Paul became a vital point, for here was the all-important Petrograd military garrison. Would they come over to the revolution or not? They met and met again, discussing the question endlessly. Members from the communist movement would address them and so would opponents. In the end, some of the garrison went over, while the rest decided not to assist one way or the other. (At this decision, the Aurora, which has trained its guns on the fortress, swung them over to aim at the Winter Palace.) When the revolution was won, they all joined in to defend the new order.

Mars Field

Less known but well worth a visit is Mars Field, where political protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. In the centre of the vast open space is square a surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. An opening in the middle of each wall, three fir trees and a red flag in each corner, an eternal flame burning in the centre in memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

Each entryway has poetic texts engraved in stone, using religiously inspired language of  martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, the new world that was being created, the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe. But who was the author of these texts? Look carefully and you will find the plaque that tells you they were penned by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. He was the ‘poet of the revolution’, but also a ‘God-builder’, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’.  He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’.


St. Petersburg may have returned to its former name after 1989, but is Leningrad still to be found? Arrive by plane and look closely at the international airport code. LED it is, short for Leningrad. And go into the country outside the city; there you will find that it is called Leningrad Oblost (region). But the greatest surprise is to depart the port by ship. Not a passenger ferry or liner, which leaves from the other side of the port, but the container terminal Ro Ro. If you are lucky, a container ship carrying passengers may be about to set sail (I took a Finnlines ship, full of Russian truck drivers with massive guts and huge, bristling moustaches). If it is winter, or even on the edges of winter, the port and the Gulf of Finland in which it lies may be frozen over. So as the ship crunches its way out of the port, keep a watch for the headlands. There, in massive letters, welcoming and farewell sailors and their ships, is the word ЛЕНИНГРАД.

Berlin, Between East and West

‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.

Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.

It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.

But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin. In the east, they resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east. Why is it that photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey? Did the sun not shine occasionally? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?

So I set myself to find out a little more about a city that is still very much struggling over these tensions between east and west.


Three people, three conversations, each an instance of denigrating the east. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.


‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me on the train to Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother is from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as such’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the lower class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

Ideology and Science

‘I could have left’, he said. ‘I could have gone to the west, but then I would not have seen my family for a long time’.

In a modest apartment we sit and talk late into the evening. He was a professor of theology at one of the universities, but grew up in the east.

‘Where did you study?’ I asked.

‘Leipzig’, he said.

‘And why?’ I asked.

‘It was an obvious development’, he said. ‘I was one of the few who showed an interest in Christianity and went to church. So it was assumed that I would study theology’.

‘Did you work in a parish?’ I said.

‘Yes, around my home in Saxony’, he said. ‘I had five small churches in villages. The congregations were small, but now they are even smaller. We would apply for money from the state to maintain or restore the churches. And then everyone in the village would join us to work on the church, for even if they didn’t go to church, the people felt that the church was very important for the village. People forget that about Germany. Even in the east, the church was so much part of the culture that is was inconceivable not to have one in a village’.

I mentioned a theologian from Amsterdam, who had been called as a minister to a Reformed parish in the DDR. The congregation was quite left-wing and wished to provide resources for a renewal of the DDR.

‘Yes, we had those in the theological faculties’, Stefan said. ‘They were the ideological ones, working for the state and for the Stasi, and not the “scientific” scholars. The state took two approaches. At Humboldt, they took over the faculty, ensuring appointments by those who were left-wing. But at Leipzig they took a different approach: every second appointment was made by the state, while the other one was made by the churches. So at least we had a few “scientific” scholars where I studied’.

‘But were not the church appointees also “ideological” in their own way?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, he said. ‘They carried on “scientific” research. You need to understand that anyone who was in some way employed in the public service of East Germany, who cooperated with the government, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the DDR – they were all ideological. It was the same as working for the Stasi’.


‘I have just lost my court case’, she said. Dejected, she sat across from me at a table in a minuscule shop, imbibing the other beloved beverage of Germans – coffee.

‘You, a court case!’ I said. ‘What was that about?’

‘Discrimination’, she said.

‘Sexism?’ I asked. ‘Homophobia? Age?’

‘None of the above’, she said. ‘Political discrimination’.

‘Political discrimination?’ I said. ‘How so?’

‘I recently applied for a job’, she said. ‘But I did not get it’.

‘But that happens all the time’, I said.

‘Yes, but I was reasonably sure that I was the best qualified for the position’, she said. ‘So – against my nature – I wanted access to all the documents, you know, associated with the application and decision’.

‘Freedom of information?’ I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘And you know what: scrawled across the front of my application in large red letters was the word “Ossi,” Easterner. It gets worse, since throughout my application every single one of my qualifications was circled in red’.

‘What in the hell for?’ I said.

‘I gained all of my qualifications in the DDR’, she said.

‘But what about the other applicants?’ I asked.

‘As I suspected’, she said. ‘Their qualifications and experience were quite inferior to mine’.

‘So you were denied the job simple because you were from Communist East Germany’, I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘That’s why I took the case to court’.

‘That didn’t work either, by the sound of it’, I said.

‘No’, she said, ‘but I wanted to test the system. They have all sorts of anti-discrimination legislation: gender discrimination – tick’, she drew a large tick in the air. ‘Racial discrimination – tick; discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation – tick; age discrimination – tick; discrimination due to disability – tick …’

‘But not political discrimination’, I said. ‘Especially against former communist countries in Europe’.

‘No, that is acceptable’, she said. ‘It doesn’t count as discrimination, since my training was obviously tainted, “ideological,” and therefore not acceptable. It smacked me in the face how the very framework of the anti-discrimination legislation is determined by Western, capitalist assumptions. And you sure as hell can’t challenge these “natural” and “universal” categories.


With these conversations in mind, revisited from myriad angles, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west. Of course, that difference goes back much further, to the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the small variations in economics and social realities (land shortages in the west, labour shortages in the east) that led to significantly distinct paths. Or perhaps it goes back to the split between eastern and western Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, along with the successive waves of peoples who invaded the east during the massive shifts in populations over the centuries. But I was particularly interested in the specific history that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

East and West

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:

  1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.
  2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.
  3. German unity.

Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

  1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
  2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.
  3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.

Representing the Wall

A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.

At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.

Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.

Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.

But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.

Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.

Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.

So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.

But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.

Denazification (Entnazifizierung)?

The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.

Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.

The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.

Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.

But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.

Benefits of ‘Reunification’

What is the German economic secret, especially since a capitalist West Germany overran the east? How has a ‘reunified’ Germany managed to become the economic powerhouse of a once again crumbling Europe? Is it due to the good, solid, hard-working Germans, putting their shoulder to the wheel of commerce? Is it because they have been prudent with their finances, not letting the welfare system get out of hand, unlike those lazy and profligate Mediterraneans? No, it is due to the internalisation of western and eastern Europe. Despite all the complaints from the western side, ‘reunification’ – a euphemism for a capitalist west overrunning the east – has been immensely beneficial for German big capital.

Unlike the increasingly racist countries in other parts of western Europe, Germany includes the cheap labour of eastern Europe and the exploitation of western Europe within itself. While others focus on racialised class conflict, with desperate and ugly efforts to keep out those dreadful Poles, Balts, Slovaks, Balkans, Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who both take jobs and drain their welfare systems (no contradiction there, of course), Germany has much of it nicely within. This has enabled the suppression of wages for the whole of Germany for the last couple of decades. For example, the university system is in tatters, living on reputation alone. Public services are minimal, a non-computerised labyrinth that repels even the doughtiest. People work harder for less pay – apart from the unemployed owners of capital. As a result, the other countries of western and southern Europe find themselves outmanoeuvred, for German manufacturing is cheaper, wages are lower, profit margins higher.

Further, the German banks ensure that the capital flow from the rest of Europe is centripetal. Interest rates for the whole Eurozone suit Germany. And while they may tout their loans as benefitting all, prophesying dire warnings should a cash-strapped country exit the Eurozone, the reality is a little different. They need everyone stay in the Eurozone to ensure a steady run in their own direction.

In fact, I had my own experience of how the German approach to debt operates. At one point I purchased a ‘Bahn 25’ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get a 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail. Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?

Resistance and Persistence

Is the story all grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.

But find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. Some are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?

Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.

Third is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and back) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.

Fourth, there is nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.

Finally, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.

What is that project? I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.