Mothering Sunday: Revolutionary Ballads, Poetry and Finance

Frankie Armstrong singing with Mikey Price (guitar)
Readings: “Years ago when I” by Bertolt Brecht

Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world’s wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you’ve run
Into bad trouble.

There was no feeling of enmity in me and it was not the injustice
Frightened me, only the thought that
Their way of going about it won’t do
Filled me completely.

These people, I saw, lived by the harm
Which they did, not by the good.
This was a situation, I saw, that could only be maintained
By crime because too bad for most people.
In this way every
Achievement of reason, invention or discovery
Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.

Such and suchlike I thought at the moment
Far from anger or lamenting, as I lowered the book
With its description of the Chicago wheat market and exchange.

Much trouble and tribulation
Awaited me.

From The Communist Postscript (Verso Press, 2010) by Boris Groys

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled (p. xvi).

I Timothy 6:6-10

. . . there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

ADDRESS

The Chalk Circle Collective singing this morning
Today, with the visit of Frankie Armstrong and the Chalk Circle Collective to sing for us some revolutionary ballads by Bertolt Brecht, I began to reflect on the fact, often forgotten by many contemporary Unitarian congregations, that our religious movement has, for important and lengthy periods of it’s existence, been revolutionary in outlook and intent.

In it’s earliest years in Poland and Transylvania during the sixteenth-century it challenged the power of the Catholic church in order to promote freedom of thought and conscience in religion. In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period many of its ministers (e.g. Joseph Priestley) supported the French and American Revolutions with their calls for liberté, égalité and fraternité. And then, between the mid-nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries there was a close connection with the rapidly developing socialist movement; this was especially visible in something called the Labour Church Movement.

However, by the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries our earlier, more obviously revolutionary concerns, became subsumed in more generally reformist ones that were shared by the liberal democratic mainstream political establishment which we had done so much to help create. In consequence our activist energy turned more towards issues like gender equality and gay-rights — still revolutionary in their own way, to be sure, but now, undoubtedly, part of a generally reformist, rather than revolutionary, agenda.

But, as we all know, it is this same mainstream culture that, in its late-capitalist, neoliberal form has managed to create a monstrous, global financial system, which is far from serving well its citizens and which is, by now, seriously damaging both the ways we interact with each other as human beings and with the wider environment. It’s something that seems to require from us a solution that is more than just a bit of reformist tinkering around the edges.

This leaves me with a question: given our history as a radical religious movement, what important, even revolutionary thing might we be doing today do that could help change things for the better? That Brecht was a poet is central to the answer I’m going to propose we might think about. Also, perhaps surprisingly, I think that in this answer there also emerges a hopeful Mothering Sunday message.

Now many, many people didn’t see the present, monstrous, global financial system coming but, in his poem, “Years ago when I” about the Chicago Wheat Exchange, I feel we can see indications that Brecht may have had intimations of it.

(The information in the following paragraph was drawn from the article to be found at this link)

The Chicago Wheat Exchange was an institution founded in 1848 thanks to Chicago’s close proximity to some of the most productive farmland in the world. The region’s extraordinary ability to produce enormous quantities of corn and wheat forced the city’s commercial community to consider how best temporarily to store and then ship these goods in bulk both to domestic and international markets. In the initial stages, of course, everything that went on there was tied to actual wheat in and actual wheat out, i.e. to real, existing food, produced by and for real existing people. But during the Civil War (1861-1865) the Union quartermaster began procuring supplies with contracts that postponed delivery until they were needed and payment was secured. We can easily imagine why this way of proceeding was required during that particular period. What began at this point was the creation of a market for what became known as “futures” and it was not long before speculative purchases and sales of wheat and corn were more routinely occurring. It is important to see that in the 1930s — when Brecht was writing — although these futures were still tied to actual wheat and corn produced by and for actual people, by then there was underway a significant move away from the real to the theoretical, from real wheat and corn towards abstract numbers that were beginning to have value in themselves alone and which might also be traded as a kind of commodity.

Brecht was, or course, no fan of the way capitalism was playing out and, in his play “St Joan of the Stockyards” (1929-1931), we see a sustained attempt to write something about about it. Initially he wanted to set the play in the Chicago wheat industry but it eventually became centred on its meat industry, another of the important commodities traded in Chicago. Brecht was initially hampered in his writing because at the time he didn’t know much about economic matters. So, as the poem reveals, he set about studying it.

What I find particularly intriguing about this poem is that in it Brecht suggests it was not the Wheat Exchange itself that frightened him. Rather it was “their way of going about it” which, he says, “won’t do.” It was this thought that filled him completely and frightened him.

So what was their way of going about their business? Clearly one can point, as Brecht does directly in his play and indirectly in the poem, to the obvious physical and social injustices present in any industry when an elite, rich few used and abused a vulnerable workforce to produce a surplus, the profits of which primarily went to fill their own pockets. As says, “These people, I saw, lived by the harm/Which they did, not by the good.” Thanks to his mother Brecht knew the Bible well and it’s hard not to hear in general play at this point the words we heard earlier from 1 Timothy.

But for me the truly haunting, prophetic moment of the poem is found in the lines “In this way every/Achievement of reason, invention or discovery/Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.” What were these achievements of reason, what were the inventions and discoveries that lead to still greater wretchedness? I’m sure he’s referring in part to physical plant, to machinery, to bigger grain silos, to the bigger and more powerful trains and ships required to move the enormous quantity of grain and the cattle for the least amount of labour and pay.

But is this all Brecht is referring to? Perhaps not, because we mustn’t forget that trade in futures I mentioned earlier — he would have known about that. Though the use of reason the discovery that such futures were possible (and, it is important to stress not in any necessary way a bad thing) opened the door to the development of the most powerful and destructive inventions of late-capitalism and the neoliberal economy — namely, the creation of a world of virtual value cut completely free from any actual, labour commodity or other real benchmark that can be found in the everyday world you and I live and work in.

Following the financial crash of 2008 which, as it continues to unfold is bringing with it, as Brecht foresaw, still greater wretchedness, many of us not well-versed in economics and finance suddenly became aware of a truly shocking truth, namely, that significant aspects of our culture had silently, and without democratic permission, been transcribed from word to number.

In 2010, in the midst of my own profound shock at this state of affairs — and I cannot stress enough to you how much of a shock it was — I was struck by something said by Boris Groys (b. 1947) in his book “The Communist Postscript”. As you heard earlier,  he wrote:

“So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled” (p. xvi).

In essence, for Groys and, I have to say for me, the revolution needed right now is one which reverses this trend so we can begin again to build and live in a society where we can genuinely address our fate; to rebuild a culture where, at its centre, people take time to sit down together, read poetry and sing and converse about our hopes for a better life for all. This kind of conversational activity is central, of course, to any proper functioning democracy and where only abstract numbers rule there can be no genuine democracy.

Since 2008 I’ve carried on thinking and reading around this idea and I’ve recently been struck by another thinker who feels something similar, the Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi (b. 1948).

Berardi feels that real alternative approaches to the current financial crisis will only emerge once we understand that it is something more fundamental than an economic crisis. For Berardi  “it is a crisis of the social imagination, and [as such] demands a new language by which to address it.”

In a wonderful, provocative little book written in 2011 called “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” he attempts to offer up some kind of manifesto for this. As the book’s blurb reads:

“ . . . Berardi introduces an unexpected linguistic political weapon — poetry: poetry as the insolvency of language, as the sensuous birth of meaning and desire, as that which cannot be reduced to information and exchanged like currency.” 

The blurb goes on to say that, “If the protests now stirring about the world are to take shape and direction, then the revolution will be neither peaceful nor violent — it will be linguistic, or will not be at all.”

And Berardi himself says that:

“Poetry is language’s excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and it is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world” (p. 147).

Is there anyone here who, after 2008, doesn’t think we need such a new common ground of understanding and shared meaning, who doesn’t think we need to create a new world?

Of course, there will be intense disagreements amongst us about just exactly how we might best go about building this new world. But that’s OK, because that’s how democracy and real politics works. When we can together, once again, address our fate in words, the disputes and disagreements are real, they count, they really are worth something.

What we can, perhaps, all agree on, regardless of our own political preferences, is that we need a revolution which restores to our culture in some way the power of the word and, therefore, to the power of arguments, programmes, petitions, resolutions and decrees (cf. Boris Groys, “The Communist Postscript” p. xv).

The Madonna di San Sisto - Raphael
What’s happening today in this church reveals us to be a little cell of revolutionary resistance. We are gathered here today because, like Brecht in his own age, we feel we can still address our fate and envision and encourage a better world and we have chosen to do it in word, prayer, meditation, poetry and song. We are gathered here to talk, to agree and disagree, to kick about ideas and values that count. Meeting together in the word to address our fate is, in these strange financial times, a revolutionary act. It gently proclaims that we are free men and women and we will not be reduced to abstract numbers, mere units of value and production.

And to conclude, here is where the Mothering Sunday theme emerges for a mother's love cannot be expressed towards her child numerically, algorithmically and without a real body acting in a real world of real things.

And so, finally, I find can say that the model of revolution I have in mind by which we might most effectively begin to challenge the dangerous, out of control, abstract, violent, often male dominated financial craziness of our days is to found in the picture of a human mother taking time, lots of time, to caress her human child whilst singing into their ears revolutionary poems and ballads of love and justice for all. And all of us know in our hearts that true value for us is not created in the arms of algorithms but only in the arms of those who love and mother us.

Vive la révolution!
1 comment