One of the most common gut reactions to the idea of a Universal Basic Income is unfairness. It seems unfair that someone’s taxes would be redistributed to everyone else regardless of need. That would indeed be unjust if it were necessarily at the heart of UBI, but ‘redistribution of wealth’ in the old sense is not what is intended by many UBI theories discussed over the last fifty years. This post is about redistribution of commonwealth.
Redistribution of wealth is a ‘corrective’ feature of the current monetary system, perceived as taking from one person’s pocket to give to another. Key to R Buckminster Fuller’s description of a Fellowship To Think (UBI) was a redefinition of what wealth actually is; a redefinition from Physics. Social status and ‘income’ help us to group people together who are earning a wage, but this doesn’t reveal if they are actually Productive in an economic sense. Adam Smith described how servants earn a wage by consuming on behalf of their masters, but do not actually produce wealth. Fuller’s idea of Energy Wealth is one key idea for finding fair ways to establish UBI from true commonwealth.
Three years ago Ping and myself wrote an as yet unpublished book about Money and Income Inequality. With current interest in UBI increasing after policy changes in Finland we decided it is time to share an extract of the draft online, especially as we will be launching a live event and publication early next year as part of our project. More later.
In this part of the book we imagine what would happen if R Buckminster Fuller were to appear today in London. There are some direct quotes, but much of it is imagined conversation on his part with a group of artists in a studio complex:
..I remember when I was in the Navy…
‘What? Joel, is that you? Listen honey, I can’t hear you –’
..all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘I’m so sorry,’ sighed Marcia, ‘It’s all a big misunderstanding.’
..all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘What bubbles? Joel?’ Esther was glaring at her phone, ‘What? Some kind of interference, look honey, can you just –
..I would look off the back of my ship…
‘Ship? Honey the rain isn’t all that bad-
..at all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
‘I hope you haven’t been drinking. I need you to PICK ME UP IN THE CAR-
..In the schoolroom we are taught…
‘Oh shit!’ exclaimed Esther, ‘My phone is really hot!’
..that spheres are made with pi…
..I don’t think nature is using pi…
..for all the millions of beautiful bubbles…
Everyone immediately turned, tracing Esther’s phone as it arced through the air. Alex turned too quickly and fell suddenly against the scaffolding, causing it to list to one side and the polythene to billow upwards. The rest of them turned where they stood, following the trajectory of the phone. Xiao Gua stepped forward and caught the flying phone softly in both hands like a cricket ball. The air was shimmering above the phone as something that looked like wisps of smoke came together and began to glow. What looked like an array of tiny fluorescent tubes was organising itself into a rapidly increasing number of triangles. Alarmed, Xiao Gua reverently lowered the phone to the floor. Then the mass of triangles became brighter as it increased in density, suddenly ballooning outwards like an object falling into water, then upwards, creating the figure of a man. Some of these triangles then concentrated themselves inside the man’s throat into two great chains that began to rub together, generating a rasping, binary sound, like a row of glass bottles trying to talk. And it became clear that the figure was in fact talking, and with a little effort, everyone in the room, perhaps with the exception of Xiao Gua, could understand what it was saying,
‘Now I don’t want you to be afraid.’
Freedom for the Wage-Slave!
‘I know that my appearing in this form is quite unexpected and alarming. It is in fact a very new experience for Man, that I stumbled upon through trial and error. An experience that many Men may have already had, but been unable to control or articulate. But I am a man, as you will understand presently. To this end I’d like to explain how I got to be standing here with you now, apparently a spectre of some kind and quite suddenly entering the room from nowhere.
‘My name was and still is Richard Buckminster Fuller. Without the animation of my first physical body, which I had the use of for eighty-eight years, my life was seemingly at an end. But fragments of my drifting consciousness found a foothold within another complex carbon structure somewhere, and I must have undergone a simple kind of synaptic experience at that level. My working hypothesis is that, like a knot passed along a rope, our person is a very complex pattern in space. The knot is not a part of the rope, but a pattern that moves along it. Now it may be that the complex of vectors we call “mind” or “personality” is in fact the most complex pattern integrity ever created. Perhaps what we are used to thinking of as our lives is just such a length of rope, and this pattern integrity can continue into new forms? All just speculation on my part so far. But as I was saying; as my thoughts were able to coalesce and deal with greater levels of complexity I found myself having some memory of who I was and my environment.
‘I found I was able to have some small influence upon the natural materials around me, and constructed for myself a rudimentary brain system to support these thoughts. Thus I learned to stand aside from the work and, gaining perspective, to use only my brain to rearrange the flows of inanimate energy-transformation patterns external to my own integral “body” energies. I have no idea where this was, as it would be some time before I was able to gather sense data. The principles I learned from Nature in my lifetime were still ingrained in my pattern. For example, one of my earlier motor experiments in the field was to hinge myself around a single point. A more successful version of this was to create a gossamer net out of tetrahedra, to hook myself onto the wind. This way I was able to travel much greater distances. I was able use these principles to pick up where I left off in life and construct a highly mobile and efficient body for myself over time. Before too long I was able to gather whatever energy I needed from nature to have complete freedom of movement, and rearrange my elements at will to my own advantage. How mistaken men are in assuming their days are going to be short and filled with struggle! Who knows how many have made this discovery, perhaps very few, but maybe we are in a position in time where it can be disclosed for the benefit of all men everywhere.
‘During one of these experiments, I was able to appear in front of the Dean of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where I had been professor in the School of Art and Design, in the form of an octet truss. He recognised me immediately and, aware that something interesting was happening, he had SIU assign me a small corner of the faculty where I was able to continue with my experiments, including compounding elements, increasing my mass, accumulating a number of internal protein processes to channel energy from the sun, and improving my mobility. I had already travelled some hundreds of miles westwards, despite my primitive condition at that time. It was as if I entered the world naked, ignorant and helpless for a second time, but because I had already lived a whole life once, I was able to rapidly regain ground.
‘Meanwhile, there has been a world-around leap forward in technology. Man now communicates at the speed of light, using fibre optics and a computer-processing power that doubles every two years. My current experiments are in transmitting this manifestation of myself around the world through these energy-transmission networks. Actually my destination today was meant to be elsewhere so I don’t mind telling you I am a little surprised to have arrived here. But there is much I have yet to understand about this process. The story I have just described to you in a few seconds actually took me over 20 years.’
R. Buckminster Fuller’s appearance had, at least to begin with, mesmerised everyone in the room. His authoritative, tumbling, buzzing speech and electroluminescent glow lent to the room a sense of occasion, like the début of cinema. In fact Tom and Xiao Gua had actually begun talking over what the Professor was saying towards the end of his speech, like people sometimes do in the middle rows, apparently unaware that this figure may be more than just a hologram. Esther kept hushing them out of respect, because she understood the spectre to be saying that he was in reality Professor Fuller himself standing there in the room, and yet he made no bones about the fact that he had died in the 1980s. This had to be a trick right? That was obviously the most likely explanation. After all, people who have died don’t generally come back after thirty years. But then, who had created this illusion, and why? They couldn’t deny that the holographic creature projecting out of Esther’s phone, from his abstracted tetrahedral feet up to his geodesic head, was apparently interacting with them as fluently as would any other person in the room.
None of this fazed Fuller, who simply carried on with his train of thought, as if it were the startled onlookers who were of questionable reality; ‘Perhaps I have experienced the same thing as when lightning passes through a conductor?’ But while he considered the means of his arrival, the others continued to wonder what he was. Was he alive somewhere else? He might be a ghost. Or a projection from another time? A recording that can respond robotically from the archives? Bibs asserted that “collective hallucinations” are a myth, and oxymoronic. Even ergot in the bread only gives a town simultaneous private visions, like smartphones do. So it was Marcia who, as chairperson, welcomed the necronaut to their little symposium and congratulated him on his interesting researches into immortality.
‘Why, thank you for your welcome,’ replied Fuller, ‘but my research is much broader than that. Immortality may be an application of my work, but there is other work, much more important work I would not leave undone. Consider how many of those currently living, even, are not truly permitted to live. In spite of the facts. That is what concerns me.’
Fuller was used to causing a disturbance when he entered a room, particularly since he had died. Almost out of habit he took hold of these prone minds and, like a pedestrian taking a moment to straighten a street-sign, began to teach.
‘Yes, I regret that in spite of the scientific facts, even so many decades after revolutionary discoveries, many people are not truly permitted to live. But what are the facts? It is now normal for man to be a success. Some of you may not agree with that statement. Some of you may think, in this harsh world it’s just “you or me.” Many people would say so. Just before I went to Harvard in 1913, before the start of World War I, a very rich “uncle” gave me some counsel. My “uncle” said, “Young man, I think I must tell you some things that won’t make you very happy. Those few of us who are rich and who really have the figures know that it is worse than one chance in one hundred that you can survive your allowed days in any comfort. It is not you or the other fellow; it is you or one hundred others. And if you are going to survive – and have a family of five and wish to prosper – you’re going to have to do it at the expense of five hundred others. So, do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how and as your conscience will allow. At any rate, that’s what you’re up against.”
‘But it’s now normal for man to be a success. We have to abruptly accept that it is now normal for man to succeed. The abundance produced by industry has made survival of all, and not just the fittest, a true fact for all humanity. In 1927, I decided that man was operating on a most fundamental fallacy. He was operating on the basis that man was supposed to be a failure and therefore he had to prove his right to live. And each man then thought he had to say “I can show how I can earn my living and the other people are supposed to die.” No, I thought, this was no longer true. I decided that man was designed to be an extraordinary success, his characteristics are just magnificent.’
‘But isn’t it just common sense that there isn’t enough to go around?’ protested Sarah, looking a little surprised to hear herself speaking.
‘It’s a common opinion, but it doesn’t mean it’s right’ said Esther.
‘The problem is people don’t share it,’ added Hannah, eager to add to the normality.
‘Yes,’ said Laura, doing her bit, ‘these Dictators and their cronies get fat while everyone is starving. And 70% of Americans eat everything.‘
‘Well, something like that,’ said Esther, cringing. ‘But it doesn’t have to be like that. I mean, Professor Fuller has been suggesting this for the longest time, way before the idea that we could Make Poverty History. That was unthinkable twenty years ago, but most people have some idea that we could feed everybody today.’
‘Right,’ said Tom, ‘it’s the distribution that is the real problem, and corruption, war and debt that keep people hungry.’
‘Yes,’ continued Esther, ‘most people now no longer simply accept that failure to reach the normal standard of living should be the inevitable outcome for the unlucky majority. That’s what Professor Fuller means when he says it should be normal for Man to be a success, isn’t that right, sir?’
‘But “success” is a weird word to use for this isn’t it?’ asked Tom, ‘I mean it could mean so many things other than being fed and clothed. I mean, it doesn’t sound weird to talk about someone being a “successful artist.” But it does seem strange to refer to someone as being a successful human just because they have enough food. Surely having enough food is just a basic right?‘
‘Of course nobody wants to just be on life-support.’ added Esther, ‘The Professor means that Man is successful when we all have enough for our daily needs but also freedom and opportunity. You can’t have one without the other. Perhaps the Professor could elaborate?’
‘Yes,’ added Marcia, ‘we would be most honoured if you would continue, sir. Humans Rights is what we are all about, even for artists.’
At this Fuller smiled and closed his eyes. ‘There is a lot you will need to understand first if my answers are going to make any sense to you.’ Placing the palms of his hands together and the tips of his fingers against his chin, he looked intently at everyone in the room, as if taking in and processing the expression on each face in turn.
‘If we choose the most basic, strategic point to begin from’, began Fuller, pausing periodically and looking up and around as he composed his thoughts, ‘We should ask ourselves the question, “what is industry?” From what we know of energy and the principles Nature is using, we find that Industry is a working model of Nature. Not some otherworldly reality imposed upon Nature, no, Industry is instead a working model of Nature herself. An extension of the principles of Nature. Industry uses the same principles as Nature, obtains its energy from Nature, and satisfies the repeatedly, regularly occurring energy needs of Mankind. We could think of the energy of the sun being stored in crops season after season, the energy of any given mass being released in nuclear fusion, the harnessable ocean tides, wind, sunpower and alcohol producing plants. This energy can be made to flow through wires and pipes. The connection between Nature and Industry is direct. And it can be more, but not less, efficient, because we can only learn more, not less, about re-routing this energy.’
During this, everyone present had found their way automatically to their chairs as if following their migration routes. Hannah produced her jotter and Sarah likewise clicked her mechanical pencil into action like a gas hob. Otto even returned to the comfort of his smoking-window. Alex too retreated to his alcove, perhaps more deeply unsettled than anyone else there, not quite able to get into the normality the others had erected together, like the makeshift polythene tent that still rippled overhead and reproduced Fuller’s glow in every wave-crest crease. Ever helpful, Xiao Gua considered offering a chair to their, obviously distinguished, but also possibly supernatural speaker. Eventually, deciding he may offend the electric spirit, Xiao Gua sat down in the chair himself, and periodically asked Tom to explain what was happening. Fuller was saying,
‘Science states the entire physical universe is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed – it is one hundred percent accountable. It is energy that satisfies all of our needs, giving us heat, light, nutrition and also driving all of our machinery, therefore energy is true wealth. With energy you can meet all material needs, without it, you can do nothing. But that energy has no design of its own, it is constantly moving in every direction and transforming from one form into anther. So energy must be directed if it is going to be of use to Man. Wealth is therefore of two constituent parts; the first is energy and the second is knowhow. Wealth is energy compounded with intellect’s knowhow.1
‘But there is more. Energy cannot decrease, and knowhow can only increase. It is therefore scientifically clear that wealth which combines energy and knowhow can only increase. This is true wealth, it increases as fast as it is used. The-faster-the-more! Those are are the facts of science. Those are the facts of life. The proper accounting of wealth is now scientifically feasible. Man is now learning through the repeated lessons of experimental science, that wealth is explicitly the organized tool-articulated energy capability to sustain his forward hours and days of metabolic regeneration. In other words, true wealth is channelling energy through machines to supply our needs.
‘And there is still more! Because energy is wealth, the integrating of our world’s industrial networks promises access of all humanity everywhere to the total commonwealth of earth.’
At this, Fuller paused, and in the gap, Hannah put up her hand, as if in a formal lecture.
‘Yes, lady in the blue?’
‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ said Hannah, ‘but I just can’t help but think – I mean, doesn’t it cost money to produce energy? Wealth doesn’t just come from nowhere.’
‘Thank you, young lady, for your constructive question,’ replied Fuller eagerly. ‘The kind of wealth we’re actually dealing with – the industrial wealth – has nothing to do with the old monetary gold. That kind of accounting based on speculation and credit is the mark of an innocence of society, and an economic expansion cancer. This is not the kind of accounting that can measure true wealth. We should come to accept that our present real wealth is exclusively the tool organised capability to take energies of the universe, and shunt them through channels onto the ends of circularly arranged levers, so that the energy turns wheels and shafts to do all the work. We can measure these values exactly, and we find that we are taking nothing from the energy capital of the universe. The physicists make it very clear that energy can neither be created or destroyed. You can’t exhaust that kind of wealth.
‘But, as your question has revealed, our present wealth-accounting continues to be unrealistic and does not reflect the actual conditions for humanity. These entirely obsolete world accounting systems fail to disclose the exclusively increasing wealth of Industry. The old economic accounting begins with Thomas Malthus’ assumption that there is and always will be only enough of the essentials of life to support a minority of mankind. This view made failures normal. This concept, as I said, is now acknowledged by science to be invalid. This obsolete accounting is based on Newton’s assumption that “at rest” is normal for the universe, and that the universe will eventually “run out of juice” and “run down” or “stop.” But Einstein’s continual evolution norm says 186,000 miles per second is normal. The speed of light is normal. Change is normal. Twentieth Century physics discovered that energy would escape from one system only by joining another system – that energy was therefore always one hundred percent accountable, and can be directed to man’s advantage. The old economics assumed that metals mined and put to use would always “rust” or oxidize and eventually become disintegrated and vanish from the cosmos. But now we discover that all metals may be remelted and reused. The old economics assumed that “you can’t lift yourself by your own bootstraps,” ergo flying by man was impossible. It cannot explain what we know from practical experience, from commercial industrial processes, that the synergetic tensile strength of chrome-nickel-steel – 350,000 pounds per square inch – is entirely unpredicted by even the sum of the tensile strengths of its constituent materials. That’s over 90,000 pounds per square inch that old economics cannot account for when it assumes “you can’t lift yourself by your own bootstraps.” No wonder that in the old economics, no man could fly.’
‘But that’s science, Mr Fuller,’ said Tom, ‘we were talking about money here. I mean, they’re not the same thing. Money is more of a cultural thing, I would have thought anyway.’
‘That’s right, they aren’t related,’ agreed Laura.
‘Ah, but they are,’ said Fuller. ‘In the old economics, the world is finite and a closed system, resources are scarce, failure is the norm and everything in universe moves entropically to a static norm. But in the Twentieth Century, we learned that energy is one hundred percent accountable, continual transformation of energies in universe is the norm. The old economics cannot account for this because it is based on lack – lack of time, lack of resources.. so when it comes across abundance instead of lack, it can’t account for it.’
‘Absolutely!’ agreed Esther, ‘Scarcity is bunk! We spent heaps of time talking about this in the seventies. But I had a frustrating time talking about this working in an NGO context in the Eighties. In health, agriculture, and development circles – ‘
‘But why isn’t that the way the world works then?’ said Hannah. ‘Surely people would have noticed?’
‘Young lady, that is another good observation. I’ll tell you why; because politics is a blockage. To start with, here is an educational bombshell: Take from all of today’s industrial nations all their industrial machinery and all their energy-distributing networks, and leave them all their ideologies, all their political leaders, and all the political organizations and careful study shows that within six months, more than two billion people will die of starvation, having gone through great pain and deprivation along the way. However, if we leave the industrial countries with their present industrial machinery and their energy-distribution networks and leave them also all the people who have routine jobs operating the industrial machinery and distributing its products, and we take away from all the industrial countries all their ideologies and all the politicians and political party workers and send them off by rocketship to forever orbit the sun – the result will be that as many people as now will keep right on eating, possibly getting on a little better than before. It may even remove all barriers to complete free-world-intercourse and thereby permit realization of enough for all. So you see, when people like my “uncle,” or politicians assumed it was either YOU or ME, they were wrong.’
‘That’s seems like wishful thinking, if you ask me,’ said Bibs. ‘A totally hypothetical argument. When would it be possible to ever put such an idea to the test? Are you seriously proposing a technological solution to every problem? How would you remove politics completely? Apart from shooting politicians off into space of course. It may appear inefficient, but people have achieved a great deal through the power of debate, especially internationally.’
‘Yet no political leader has a mandate to make the whole world work,’ continued Fuller, ‘consequently, we cannot look for political help in making all of humanity successful. Politicians only have a mandate from their home countries,’
‘Or even just the Home Counties – ‘ Tom sneered,
‘They create boundaries for industry which are national and compete country by country. This is not a way of making the whole work. It is a way of making some people successful at the cost of others. The fact is that for the last half-century, all the political theories and all the concepts of political functions – in any other than secondary roles as housekeeping organizations – are completely obsolete.’
Bibs was having none of it,
‘Oh, it is quite the reverse. For a start, if competition from company to company makes them more efficient and productive, which I assume would be your point of view, why does this suddenly not work country to country? And in fact, true diplomatic politics has created and preserves a degree of freedom, even encouraging it globally. Far more freedom that corporations would grant.’
‘It is the first time that this abundance has been provided in the history of man,’ replied Fuller, faltering a little, ‘so I understand that it may be surprising to you, but all of these political theories we are referring to were developed on the you-or-me basis. This whole realization that mankind can and may be comprehensively successful is startling.’
With this Fuller opened his palm towards them and a small crystalline form blossomed from it, becoming a globe, complete with continents and ice-caps.
‘I once invented a game, a strategic game, which was a kind of wargame against need. I thought, instead of these wargames where superpowers rehearse nuclear oblivion, what if we were to turn these computers to face Nature and stage a World Game, where the aim is to achieve success in making the world work. I invited a lot of very smart people to play it, for many years on various university campuses. We published a lot of very interesting results. A couple of versions are still played today in schools and offices but, when I returned to society, I was disappointed to find these versions focus on allocating lack rather than engineering abundance. I had even hoped the World Game might even become a popular spectator sport. But never mind. We’ll continue our discussion along the lines of our original version, in the light of the realisation that there is enough to go around handsomely.’
He moved his free hand above the globe and a figure appeared on its surface, walking about. And then another person and another until there were hundreds of them busily doing things.
‘The essence of “success in making the world work” will be to make every man able to become a world citizen and able to enjoy the whole earth, going wherever he wants at any time, able to take care of all the needs of all his forward days without any interference with any other man and never at the cost of another man’s equal freedom and advantage.’
A line of energy snaked across the top of the globe to the foot of every continent.
‘We have seen that wealth is our tool-organized capability to deal with the forward metabolic regeneration of humanity in terms of forward man-days of increasing mutual enjoyment of the whole of the earth without interferences and without the gains of one to be realized only by the loss of another. But has anybody noticed, as this young lady put it earlier? 2
‘Six decades ago there was a meeting in Geneva of all the world’s leaders, and by chance the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations was meeting at the same time. What I have just been reporting to you came so clearly into scientific view at that time that the leading world politicians could even acknowledge it to be true. Gerard Piel, then publisher of the Scientific American, reported unequivocally that for the first time in the history of man, it was in evidence that there could be enough of the fundamental metabolic and mechanical energy sustenance for everybody to survive at high standards of living – and further more, there could be enough of everything to take care of the increasing population while also always improving the comprehensive standards of living. Granted the proper integration of the world by political unblockings, there could be enough to provide for all men to enjoy all earth at a higher standard of living than all yesterday’s kings, without self-interferences and with no one being advantaged at the expense of another. In other words, for the last fifty years at least, it has been known in political and scientific circles that Malthus was indeed wrong and there now could be enough to go around – handsomely. But, inasmuch as I have found that the majority of people around the world have still never heard of Malthus – add to that our observation that not more than one percent of humanity read what Piel said – it is easy for me to understand that what I am saying to you now must be jolting. Yet sixty years ago, Utopia became for the first time feasible.’
As Fuller spoke, a small percentage of the figures on his globe began to glow with an orange light.
‘On the false working assumption that there is nowhere nearly enough to go round and never will be, that it has to be YOU OR ME, man has then said “You must earn the right to live. You’re supposed to die. You must show you are better than the other man.” This is the basis on which society has been assuming that it’s a handout or a Socialist system if you’re not earning a living in some job somebody has set out for you. So we have the idea of a job as something that you have to do, that you don’t like to do very much, in contrast with what your mind tells you needs to be done, or what you would like to do. So the idea then – this is the earning-a-living idea – this is what they said: “we don’t want you to do a pick and shovel kind of a job, we do that by the bulldozer, we don’t really want you to be blue jeans, that kinda gets your hands dirty, we want everyone to be white collar.” But now; what we’re going to do instead, and this is to simply make some sense of the situation now, what I propose we say now instead is: “I don’t want you to be taking a job where it’s not really what you like to do, I want you to go back to when you were a kid. What were you thinking about when they told you you had to earn a living?” I’m going to give everybody a fellowship to think. Out of every 100,000 you give such a fellowship to one will make a breakthrough that will pay for everybody, so we’re going to afford it easily.’
‘Just a moment, Mr Fuller,’ said Bibs, ‘I think we could do with a recap. First you were saying that there is enough to go around for everyone. But what was your next idea? People should move out of labouring jobs into “white-collar” jobs?’
‘That’s a good question,’ he replied, ‘but no, I was explaining that we shouldn’t require people to have either a white-collar or a laboring job to prove their right to live. That is the obsolete idea, and it should be replaced with a “fellowship to think.”
‘But even people in factories don’t want to lose their jobs, do they?’ said Hannah, ‘I mean when they want to replace them with machines it can be disastrous for whole communities.’
‘But note,’ Fuller replied, ‘Labour opposes automation only because everyone is scared about their jobs. It’s perfectly logical for them to be scared about their jobs. It is logical that we think of unemployment as a negative, rather than realising that it is signalling that society now has the ability to free people from the necessity of demonstrating their right to live by gaining and holding employment. That logic is mistaken. That is why I was saying it is an obsolete idea. What makes our “fellowship to think” possible is that it is probable that for every 100,000 people we “educate” through a bachelor’s degree, there will be a science-technology accomplishment by one of these 100,000 so world-advancing that it will pay for all the other 100,000 people’s education and livelihood without their direct contribution to any scientific breakthrough.
‘We might as well make up our minds to the fact that we are, all of us, about to go back to school. For the first time mankind does not have to say, “How do I earn a living? How do I prove my right to live? How may I keep my family going?” For the first time in the history of man we are going to ask, “What would you like to do? In what direction do you have some spontaneous urge to develop or make social contributions? If some people say, “Well, I would just like to go fishing” – very good. If you go fishing it is a good place to do some thinking about what else you would like to do. You don’t expect a man to come up with his best long-distance thoughts right away. And even if he doesn’t come up with the thought that provides for the other 99,999 no matter. One of the other 99,999 probably will, that person will pay for the 100,000. And meanwhile at least our fishing man has spent his life doing something he enjoys, instead of being white-collar, or blue-collar, or any collar at all.’
‘Well, if I made an amazing discovery, I don’t see why I should be forced to share my earnings with a million other people,’ said Sarah. ‘People are always doing that, sponging off the rich. They must think just because you have lots of money you’re just dying to give it away.’
‘No, it’s the people who have to do all the work, and the bosses just try and keep all the profits for themselves,’ said Laura, ‘They should share it out more, because the people who actually do the work are entitled to their share, not the fat cats on top.’
Tom was puzzled,
‘But if they’re not working anymore, which is what Mr Fuller is suggesting, then they’re not entitled anyway. I don’t understand how everyone can be out fishing, whilst one poor bloke is in the lab slaving away for the discovery that pays for everyone else?’
‘And they’d better be successful on their fishing trips,’ sneered Bibs, ‘ because there certainly won’t be any food in the shops.’
‘He’s not suggesting that an inventor, er,’ Esther thought for a moment, ‘James Dyson! All right. The professor isn’t saying someone like Dyson should be forced to give away all his profits from his inventions. Inventors and entrepreneurs like him are among those who benefit from the sort of blanket discoveries we’re talking about, the kind that the 1 in 100,000 will discover. You know, what we call “gamechanging” discoveries. For example, Einstein discovered E=MC2, and that changed the way the whole human race thinks and has lead to so many discoveries that put so much more energy at our disposal as a species, that the standard of living has increased around the world on a level that doesn’t register accurately in any one national economy. So we’re not saying that money made by one person is redistributed to 99,999 other people, but that the discovery made by one person has the power to raise the standard of living for themselves and everyone else on a global level. It goes on to be worked out in various ways by lots of people.’
Aware of the wall of frowns now facing her, Esther searched hard for examples from her previous working-life, eager to make her point clearer,
‘Erm.. ok, I got one! Take Norman Borlaug. He has literally saved billions of lives. Actually billions! In ’68 a biologist called Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-seller called The Population Bomb in which he said the battle to feed the world’s population was already over because mass starvation was going to “deal” with the problem. But he didn’t know that at the same time Norman Borlaug’s team was working on a new high-yield form of wheat which is hardier. The concrete example of this was in India where millions of people were hit by droughts in ’66 and ’67. When the Indian government heard about what Borlaug was doing in Mexico they took the plunge and flew in 16,000 tons of seed as a last ditch attempt to save their population.’
‘Wow,’ said Tom, ‘why hasn’t this been made into a film?’
‘I know! And it has more than one happy ending. They didn’t just save millions of lives in the short-term, but they went on to feed a population that then doubled, and even went on to export cereals. They went from starvation to surplus in less than ten years! India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Borlaug’s work is even now being carried out all over Asia and Africa.’
‘And I suppose it doesn’t even have to be just particular inventions that do it,’ added Tom. ‘Showing the world that something is even possible makes a huge difference.’
‘That’s right. But of course Norman Borlaug could have been a clerk in an office somewhere waiting for his pay check to roll in instead, if we all prefer that way of doing things.’ said Esther.
‘Crikey!’ said Tom, ‘How many Normans are stuck “actioning” and “appraising” things when they should be in a lab somewhere! I mean, if you tell a careers advisor you want to be a researcher or an inventor, they immediately discourage you. I did an aptitude test at school and it told me to become a policeman or a fish-farm manager.’
‘I was told to be a dog-walker,’ said Laura.
‘You?’ said Sarah, ‘You don’t even like dogs!’
‘We must do away with this absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living,’ said Fuller, smiling. ‘We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors and so on, and so on. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.’
‘Obviously I am behind saving the starving millions,’ said Tom, ‘but I still don’t see how people will end up with cash in their pockets unless they’re working, even if their job is a bit pointless.’
To Be Continued
The Times Educational Supplement, Britain’s leading education periodical, has published a feature on ‘Letters Home: The First World War Poetry Kit’, a book we published in collaboration with The Poetry Library;
The aim was to create a resource using inspirations that the children might not have got to hear about until university – and that’s if they got lucky.
Chris McCabe in The Times Educational Supplement
TES Resources FREE Download: Letters Home
There are three ways for you to get hold of this book:
1: Book a Letters Home Session at The Poetry Library
Everyone who does the Letters Home session with the Poetry Librarians at the Southbank Centre takes their copy of the book away with them.
For more info look at their VISITS page.
Contact: info [at] poetrylibrary.org.uk and request to book LETTERS HOME.
2: FREE Digital Download
This PDF version if adapted for smartphones and tablet computers. It is free to download and share.
Please note that the Surrealists game and the DNA kit could not be included.
Download: Letters Home Tablet PDF
3: Print On Demand
You can order a batch of the printed books including the Surrealist postal game, die-cut DNA 3D concrete poetry kit, and holographic foil on cover.
Pack of 35: £85 (zero VAT)
Pack of 70: £158 (zero VAT)
Contact: david [at] henninghamfamilypress.co.uk
Please allow at least 7 days for delivery
Delivery not included
Letters Home aims to give an introductory guide to these movements as well as providing prompts for writing exercises, including the writing of visual, Imagist and sound poems, the creation of typefaces and collaborative writing through the forming of a sculptural poem. We’ve tried to make the introductions extremely straightforward, so that children can learn through doing it. The instruction for inventing a typeface is simply: ‘This time, draw your own letters from the alphabet that are full of energy’.
One of the nicest things outcomes of Letters Home is that the children want to take the publication away with them. The publication is beautifully designed by the Henninghams with silver debossing on the cover. I don’t think it’s a case that the shiny foiling is the only reason for the children’s attachment to it. By the end of the session they have a sense that the meaning of the words – and their look and feel on the page – are closer than they’d ever imagined.
Chris McCabe in The Times Educational Supplement
We’re pleased to report that we will be making a small live contribution to Chris McCabe and Victoria Bean’s launch of ‘The New Concrete: Visual Poetry Since 2000′ (Hayward Publishing) at the Whitechapel Gallery. The book places our Grand Eagle (capitals and columns) screenprint amongst a constellation of wonderful contemporary concrete poetry.
77-82 Whitechapel High St
Saturday 25th July 2015
We are honoured to be included in this wonderful visual poetry anthology from Hayward Publishing (Hayward Gallery) alongside the likes of Vito Acconci, Christian Bok, Fiona Banner, Peter Finch, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Cerith Wyn Evans… and I note several very smart people we can also call our friends:
Visual Poetry Since 2000
Edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe
The First World War Poetry Kit
Henningham Family Press and The Saison Poetry Library
14pp, ISBN: 9780956316615
The exhibition of An Unknown Soldier at the Royal Festival Hall that ran from November to January has now come down, but it will have a legacy in the Poetry Library for a few years yet.
We have collaborated on a book of exercises in writing Modernist poetry with Librarians Chris McCabe, Lorraine Mariner and Pascal O’Loughlin. This all ages resource (6+) introduces some of the movements in poetry that the First World War helped introduce to the world, such as Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, Imagism, Vorticism, Surrealism and Dada. It will primarily be used to guide school groups or individuals visiting the Saison Poetry Library off the more familiar paths through war poetry, but hopefully it will have legs far beyond the Royal Festival Hall.
Most of the letter games reference the enormous amount of correspondence between Home and Front; 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels. In keeping with our exhibition, inspired by the recent use of DNA on letters home to identify casualties, the book culminates in a game we devised that takes the rules DNA uses to build our bodies to build a strand of visual poetry that can be split and rewritten by a group. The negotiation and collaboration involved is intended as a contrast to the abuse of language and power that war entails. Just like a human body is built through the writing and reading of base-pairs, solidarity in a body of people is achieve through the honest use of arts and language. The pieces punch out of a die-cut sheet and are assembled as part of the collaborative writing process.
If you are interested in using this resource at the Poetry Library you can just pop in and ask for it, they are free and the Librarians can help. Bigger groups can arrange a visit with Chris McCabe via the form on the Library website. If you are interested in acquiring a batch of these for educational use offsite you can also contact us here directly, or Chris McCabe at the Library.
The Letter Games use simple steps, chance and basic word pairings that enable people of all abilities to do the book solo or as part of a group. So next time it is cold and rainy, remember you have been invited to take your children, spouse or literary best friend up to the Poetry Library and ask them for a Letters Home booklet:
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX
photographs: Harpreet Kalsi
The Times Literary Supplement, ‘the leading international forum for literary culture’, has published a celebratory review of ‘An Unknown Soldier’. You can read the review here:
In the review David Collard puts our poem into context, saying:
Henningham’s mordant wit and avant-garde flair is part of another poetic tradition stretching back to Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Dada pranksters of Zurich, although the first truly modernist treatment of the conflict in English emerged only in 1937 with the publication of David Jones’s In Parenthesis.
He says our current exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library, which continues until January 4th 2015:
brings a much-needed sense of indignation and disgust to present-day rituals of commemoration and gives a voice to the anonymous war dead of all nations without tapping into simple patriotic sentimentality.
Anyone interested in snapping up one of the remaining copies of the Paperback version of An Unknown Soldier will find it here:
Buy Now via Book Price 24 From £11.59
Buy Now on Amazon From £8.81
About An Unknown Soldier paperback
The exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library shows all the works to date associated with An Unknown Soldier:
The Saison Poetry Library,
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX
Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015
Contact: David Henningham
I gave a short talk in the Southbank Centre on Remembrance Sunday. Sir Andrew Motion began the day with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the centrepiece was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, chiefly featuring players representative of the age for military service. There’s a link at the end for the video that preceded that performance, a virtuoso bit of arts education. Between these two main events, numerous talks and workshops took place all over the Southbank Centre. Below you’ll find the notes for my talk, which some people have expressed an interest in reading.
The exhibition continues until 4th January 2015, and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 8pm
The Poetry Library, Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
(take the singing lift.)
An Unknown Soldier: Remembrance, Technology, Modernism
In the Old Testament, when God asks Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain says that he is not his brother’s keeper, God’s reply is very interesting. He says:
What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
Cain then receives a mark, a memorial on his body of what he did. We’ve often seen new dimensions to this ancient story over the last few years as we’ve worked at the Henningham Family Press on this series of poems and prints entitled An Unknown Soldier.
The Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of my wife Ping, and myself. We write, print and bind our own books, and make them live through performances and readings.
We believe it is a vital function of art to commemorate wars. Yet in these works of Remembrance it is difficult not to sanitise and Romanticise the immediate past. It has become even more difficult because of the dehumanising effects of Industrial war in Europe with the Great War of 1914. This Industrial effect was at every level; factory produced munitions that were to be swallowed up by No-Man’s Land, industrial transport networks such as trains and iron ships to bring the soldiers to the Front, and industrial printing technology that would enable the propaganda to recruit a vast body of volunteers and the bureaucratic stationary needed to move them all. In the age of Henry V some men were not there on Crispins Day, and that was because of a lack of effective advertising.
When we realised we were making a piece of commemorative art, about the bodies of the fallen, we felt that the image of an intact fallen soldier, like Michelangelo’s statue of a Dying Slave, is too graceful. He appears to be swooning. But the real soldiers marched into No Man’s Land and disappeared. Their remains were bombarded year after year. These able bodied men became like a chorus of Abels crying out from the ground. This is why The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is such an apt memorial; it testifies to the fact that the destruction wrought by the First World War is beyond our comprehension or healing power.
The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died early on in the war, but whose body had no identifying marks. After an elaborate process of selection and impromptu rituals, he arrived in London on November 11th, 1920 and brought the city to a standstill. It was a former Army padre, the Rev David Railton, who’d had the original idea, and Westminster and the King wavered over it for almost four years. But their enthusiasm and the public approval of the gesture increased to suddenly become the focal point of national grief. At midnight, carrying a lantern, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt selected the body at random from four bodies that lay under Union Flags in a hut in Ypres. This chosen soldier was met by a flotilla of six ships with Naval honours reserved for the King, as if he were now King over England’s underside, and his funeral was attended by a battalion of widows and grieving mothers. The biggest crowd ever seen in London silently paid their respects and a quarter of London’s population came to stand by the Tomb and wonder if he were their family. But today the remains of the fallen cry out from the ground in a new way.
When I heard a report on the radio about an Anglo-Australian experiment identifying soldier’s remains using DNA, extracted from their teeth to match with known relatives, or even the saliva on envelopes from their letters home, it immediately occurred to me that we would probably never use these techniques to identify the Unknown Warrior. Yet by refraining from identifying him we would still be changing his significance underground. Because of our deliberate decision to not identify him, in itself a proper mark of respect, he might now also alert us to a reluctance to uncover the past and learn from it. Yet this is entirely in keeping with his calling. This new brush with DNA technology intensifies his warning to us, that we must avoid a dangerous faith in technology to resolve conflict on its own. He continues to raise the question, ‘why are we still so dependant on industrial warfare, despite our wealth and experience?’ It is very significant that an advance in technology has threatened this soldier again; he is sensitive to hubris.
“Lest we forget” is everywhere engraved in stone, and this has taught us to be reluctant to go to war. But it is tempting to obscure the engraving with a neon sign that can alternate between “lest we forget” and “forget”. The Cabinet, under the immense pressures of government, will feel this temptation. The public feel the same temptation to assume our advanced weaponry can provide a quick fix. It is Realpolitik like this that encouraged me to write the first part of An Unknown Soldier, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. It is a satire on political abuses of Remembrance rites, and also the inherent risk that Remembrance can produce mass amnesia rather than solidarity, if we feel satisfied by the event but do not continue on towards efforts for peace today, or as I put it in the poem:
From the picking up of The Sun to the putting of it down again, we will remember them.
But I feel this year has been good for us. Numerous astute Centenary events, such as this one here at the Southbank Centre, have marshalled our respect for this important occasion. They have reminded us of the history, re-evaluated the history, and preserved it. Thousands of engraved memorials have received both physical and intergenerational maintenance in 2014.
[What I would have added at this point, had I known about it at the time, is the threat the Coalition Government pose to our WW1 heritage. Massive cuts to budgets for the Imperial War Museum will force the closure of the library, dispersal of the archives, and cessation of many education initiatives that continue the cautionary spirit of Remembrance Day year round. Not to mention that, from what I’ve overheard when I am there, the IWM is a regular port of call for people active in the armed services trying to explain the pressures they face to their children. It will only cost £4m to keep this cautionary heritage alive. We spent £248 million bombing Libya, according to Chalmers, and according to Jane’s that would buy us 4 or 5 Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which are currently being used in the Middle East. Again. It would also keep a Tornado in the air for just 110 hours – a mere 13 days of museum opening. Meanwhile David Cameron wants the museum to permanently host some ceramic poppies from the Tower of London because he thinks it is “the right place for it to be.” Are we really going to let our government mark the WW1 Centenary by treating our own archives with the same contempt they showed the National Museum of Iraq? A priceless collection dispersed simply to balance a temporary glitch in our national fortunes?
It is a vital function of art to commemorate wars because words are the alternative to violence. Art nurtures ‘democratic communication’, a use of language that equips itself as it goes along to strengthen our local and international community. George Orwell reminds us that words can be also used as Political Language, which distorts the present and rewrites the past, but art that discloses our intentions, rather than veiling them, civilises us. Art frames and preserves our peace and passes it onto future generations.
This is the context we were working in for our poem ‘An Unknown Soldier’. Lots of prints have come out of this project now, and these are all on display here in the gallery of the Saison Poetry Library. These prints take quotes from the central poem and rework them. The Imperial paper sizes allow us to hint at call-up posters, postcards, martial instruction manuals. The kind of industrial print that facilitated a new kind of war. They all feature patterns we drew that hint at security envelopes – carrying both letters, and DNA code, home.
‘An Unknown Soldier’, though, is composed of three documents housed in a screenprinted wooden box. It begins with a poem of instruction, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. This pamphlet is equally influenced by the Book of Common Prayer and the Vorticist manifesto BLAST. The artist Wyndham Lewis edited this manifesto in 1914, attacking both the stuffy Edwardian values of England and the dehumanising machine worship of Futurist abstract art on the Continent. The words in the Vorticist manifesto congregate and tumble as if they are being expelled from a whirlpool. This vortex is the individual human spirit of invention and reinvention.
The second part of our poem is a screenprinted text of thirteen panels. We imagined the remains of the fallen Soldier being called up from the earth for a second time, like the no-men of no-man’s land speaking all at once, recruited by you as you read the body of text. Confused by your proposal, as the recruiting sergeant, he takes you on a tour of no-man’s land, which is both his kingdom and his body, saying:
Un est something uf n master-path smith;
one foot n hammer, nuh other n anvil.
His dialect is a kind of hopeless Esperanto, a corrupted jumble of English, French, German, Flemish, and Latin. The conjunctions have decayed the most to leave the more solid vocabulary like disjointed bones. His personal pronoun is the nugatory ‘Un’, and the normal determiner a is replaced with the non-specific algebraic term n. In this way we have made the individual words in a sentence have a destabilising effect on each other and they tend towards uncertainty, like Dada. The more uplifting vowel sounds have been eliminated, creating a sombre percussive sound for the tongue and restricting the jaw movements of the reader. We also invented new letter forms, similar to the Vorticist art and Dazzle Camouflage of Edward Wadsworth from that period. He was employed as a camoufleur to create bright, disorienting patterns that were reproduced on warships and confounded First World War optics. In our font, slabs like limestone headstones are penetrated by various prisms to create voids and negative spaces that resemble both glyphs and trenches. These fragments of visual poetry cut into the page and simultaneously emphasise and mute the text, a kind of dumb shouting that hints at the important message repeated by the inarticulate warrior. These occur at all the key locations in his body.
In fact the position of the stanzas on the wall reflects the human frame like a mirror. For example, the phrase ‘Red Giant’ describes a dying star hovering over no-man’s land, and also shows where his heart used to be. ‘The Capital’ is at his belly, then he takes you on to ‘The Nobiskrug’ in his stomach, which is the little known legendary tavern on the road to hell. This is where he and his friends spend the ferryman’s wages on one last drink. The Nobiskrug, or ‘hourglass’, is a memento mori. It reminds us that life, just like a refreshing pint of beer, will come to an end and our glass will be collected, no matter how well we nurse it. Then you progress on to the ‘Semen’s Mission’, an absurd mixture between clinic and nightclub, where the soldier discusses the lost generation. Finally the ‘Labour Exchange’, at the knee, is where Miners arrived and exchanged their pits for trenches. This place continues to act as a portal between life and death, all the time receiving new recruits for the life underground who bring news of future wars.
Many horrors were never put into words, and there is a void at the heart of the stories recounted in An Unknown Soldier like no-man’s land itself. Part three of the poem, ‘Funeral, March’, is a triptych of verses that reflect on the legacy for my family, bound as a small Order of Service. It concludes with this affirmation of my enduring hope in technology; the tale of Grandad Jack, a veteran and an Engineer who made a copying machine. Machinery that proliferates life-giving words instead of killing boys and men. It goes:
At Roneo Works
who I never met,
in his capacity as a toolmaker
constructed one of the first copying machines.
Many of the engineers gathered
to look at the marvellous blueprints
plotting constellations of cogs and gears
placed with uncommon precision
by the commissioning mathematician.
His clarity of vision
for this mimeographic microcosmos
suggested he could handle
the responsibility of the skies
as Jack was also called,
performed an equal marvel
in that the machine worked first time
with no recourse to engineer’s blue
and no need of fine tuning.