Surefish Interview

November 2003

What was your aim in writing 'The Fountain at the Centre of the World'?

I wanted to create something big and beautiful, a story which people would read more than once because they related to the characters even though the characters were different to them. I wanted the pages to get stained with yellow curry or black coffee and the ink smudge of sucked bus-tickets. I hoped the book-jacket would get tattered. I wanted the story to connect with someone reading it anywhere in the world. I wanted to describe patterns which I believed I could see, and thought really meant something and had something true about them. I wanted bookshop sales assistants to burn all other novels and the state imprison all other writers. I wanted to explain to a packed Trafalgar Square that, with regret, I could not possibly accept their offer to be a Philosopher King as the only true ruler was they themselves, and, over the sobbing and moaning, tell them that not only was this was the hardest lesson they would have to learn.... but also, dear friends, brave friends, my last.

Your novel dramatises anti-free trade activism in Mexico. Are you hopeful for Mexico's political future?

As it happens, yes. I believe the future for us in Britain is currently being worked out across Latin America. Those most savagely hit by corporate power are evolving the best resistance and liberation from it and alternatives to it. And doing it free of ideologies and one-size-fits-all solutions.

You say that the function of higher education is to rob people of a 'belief in humanity' and teach them 'the folly of social change.' Wouldn't a more politically-engaged education risk becoming propaganda?

No, I do not say that. What I wrote was: "History, as taught to Evan..." and "the purpose of such an education was to prepare the money by teaching it the folly of social change." 'As taught to' and 'such' are the key words. The reader has just been told that Evan was at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge. This college had, in Evan's day at least, a reputation as a fortress of reaction based on the extreme right-wing views of one or two of its Dons. (And, as night follows that day, that college is also a seed bed for Mi6, Mi5 and the Foreign Office incidentally).

Mr Newman

One of the greatest educators of the twentieth century Paolo Friere ("The Pedagogy of the Oppressed") wrote: "washing one's hands of the struggle between the powerful and the powerless is to side with the powerful.". That is, there is no neutral position. It is no less or more ideological to accept the dominant orthodoxies than to question them.

My point in the novel is precisely that the 'education' inflicted upon Evan Hatch at his Cambridge college was indeed a 'politically-engaged education which risks being propaganda' and hardly less malign from being one which reified the dominant ideologies of power.

All religions teach people a belief in humanity, of one sort or another. Do you see a belief in God as an instrument of social change, or one that perpetuates the status quo?

This is dependent on human agency. The day before US-sponsored El Salvadorean paramilitaries assassinated him, Archbishop Oscar Romero said:

"When I urge compassion for the poor they call me a Christian; but when I ask why they are poor they call me a Communist."

I was inspired by liberation theology and its ripple effect in Britain which led to David Shepherd's "Bias To The Poor" and to Christian Aid's insistence that 'the poor do not depend in our whims for social justice: it is their right.'

I think the dissenting movements of the 17th and 18th century - Muggletonians, Moravians, Diggers, Levellers, Antinomians and Anabaptists - were right in seeing that there is a problem inherent in hierarchies, that they will ineluctably bear the stamp of, and be the more assimilable, to the hierarchies of an unjust social order, or Babylon. Thus they insisted in 1649 that all preachers should be lay preachers, that we all take turns in a non-hierarchical social order, and that nor should there even be consecrated places for were not all places consecrated in creation. And you can see the problems this causes power today. What if that part of the Amazon which they are clear-cutting were seen as sacred? This is precisely what the U'wa indians believe, for example. And at this point they are in implacable opposition to capitalism itself - as is any belief - such as Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - that humans are of intrinsic value irrespective of their use-value to the generating of hard or foreign currency.

This is why US-sponsored troops are shooting their way through the U'wa lands in Colombia and why Cromwell burnt the Digger's corn and cottages on George's Hill in 1649.

A character in your novel says that 'in purely practical terms growth is unsustainable and capitalism cannot survive on this planet'. Can't capitalism be reformed, or do we need to scrap the whole thing and start again? And with what?

It's about as uncontroversial a statement as can ever be to say that you can't have a system predicated on indefinite growth on a planet of finite ecological resources. I think that's pretty straightforward. Sure, capitalism can and has been muzzled, restrained, thwarted, attenuated and held at bay. But rights are never granted - they are taken, they are won and even then private power only cuts off the bare minimum to keep from losing the whole shop and shooting-match.

Capitalism is a killing machine. Reformism is about putting softer treads on the tank or a shorter-range gun or a less mobile turret as if this will somehow alter its essential nature - which is the annihilation of all that stands in the way of creating profit.

It is hard to conceive of a more inhuman system, which is why its apologists seek to associate it - shamelessly - with its old, arch-rival participatory democracy, which is, incidentally, what I'd like to see replace capitalism. Economic democracy decided upon by people, rather than by what the FT calls the virtual government of the financial markets, with their threats of capital flight if anyone tries to do something irresponsible like increasing social spending.

I think the dissolution of the corporations is a necessary first step towards democracy just as the dissolution of the monasteries was something capitalism needed to do.

Your novel concludes with the Seattle riots. How do you read the recent stalemate at Cancun? Victory or disaster for developing countries?

Well, it was the police who were rioting, the protestors were blockading peacefully often with their arms D-locked together, that is, with their arms literally tied behind their backs. This led to the much less widely-reported fact of the resignation of the Seattle Police Department chiefs. A sacking really and one insisted upon by furious townsfolk many of whom had been gassed in their own homes!

The shutting down of the WTO empowered delegates from the global south to act on their secret belief that the Washington Consensus was, as The Economist puts it, 'a consensus of one'.

If the Vichy adminstration has a conclusive or inconclusive session are French citizens or those in the rest of occupied Europe really bothered? Or is the issue rather one about legitimacy?

There's a great moment in your book where Hendrix's 'All Along the Watchtower' blasts out over the Seattle riots. But isn't it depressing that this song is 30 years old? For you, is there anyone on the music scene today providing the same kind of visionary commentary on world events?

I'm not up to speed with the music scene today, I'm afraid. But Bob Dylan - who wrote the Hendrix hit of course - is currently doing private corporate gigs for blue-chip, high-tech Silicon Valley companies, eg. he did Applied Materials Inc. "celebrating thirty years in the superconductor business.'

Also I've only ever seen the lyrics of 'All Along The Watchtower' as gothic/ pre-Raphaelite fantasy. It's not exactly Gil Scott Heron or The Clash, is it?

In his recent book 'The Age of Consent' George Monbiot argues that globalisation could, potentially, be a greater force for good than localisation. Where do you stand on the globalisation v localisation debate?

Globalisation is usually - and lazily - taken to mean global trade, or as an economic order. But trade has been global since the Venetian bankers of the Renaissance and certainly since the British Empire. Professor Susan George, who wrote "The Debt Boomerang", offers the best definition: "Globalisation is a political order made by and for trans-national corporations." That is, tyranny.

George Monbiot's critique of some NGO's is that their soltuions would lead to the exact same World Bank/ IMF desideratum of incarcerating the global south in the role of primary producers which those very NGO's claim to oppose. I think that's an accurate critique. But I think that only goes to show the folly of ANY 'top-down' solutions. The inspiring and effective movements here and in the global south are coming out of participatory democracy, and what Oaxacan indigenous peoples' movements and others talk about as cross-border alliances of the discontented. In Latin America the 'assembleas' and the 'consultas populares' which organised a people's own continent-wide referendum on the Free Trade Area Of The Americas; the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, and the coming European Social Forum are the embryonic structure out of which national and international democracies may emerge.

Benny Hill once said something along the lines of 'What's the point of being Oscar Wilde when you can get a laugh saying 'knickers''?' I wonder if this is true of political comedy today. Is there a temptation to just say 'George Bush' over and over again, get the laughs in, and forget about anything more intelligent?

la non-vie

I don't mention the US president but once in the set and likewise the British Prime Minister. The distinction between political comedy and that sickly paltry runt called satire is that the former looks at the structures of power and the latter at personalities in the Westminster soap-opera.

You're taking your show 'From Caliban to the Taliban' to America next year. What kind of reaction are you expecting? Do you think the mood in America towards the Iraq war - and the so-called humanitarian intervention that you attack - will have changed substantially by then?

I think the mood in the US is not what we're told it is. The Guardian are currently running a series about the astounding levels of poverty in the US. 34.6 million below the poverty line. The US Dept. of Agriculture lists nine million as experiencing real hunger. And as Julian Borger writes:

"The number of Americans on food stamps has risen from 17 million to 22 million since Mr Bush took office."

Aside from that, there's the problem of the shared political history of the majority of people in the US. I will be doing book readings and talks in Spanish, a that's what the majority of people speak over there. The Chicano and Latino half of the USA are not naturally sympathizers with colonialism and imperial adventures... what with one thing and another!

I'm travelling mainly by train as I don't fly short-haul because of carbon emissions and the link of that tax-free airliner fuel and climate change. This means, however, that, to give just one example, the bus-journey will have to be broken in a small town in Tennessee where I will be doing a reading and stand-up from the humanitarian intervention show: I will hope they let me back on the bus with my tar and feathers.