Friday, 8 June 2012

A Good Rant about the Rotten Jubilee

I didn't really notice the Jubilee till today, but now I've noticed it, I like this rant about it, via the 'past tense' radical history collective.


The torn bunting still flutters in the trees outside my window...

Flag-waving, street parties, forelock-tugging and nostalgic pictures of the happy smiling 1950s, appeal to tradition, a lost past where we all knew our place - respect, royalty, religion... RUBBISH! Grovelling to the wasters who perch on the pinnacle of an out-dated class system... THAT’S NOT A JUBILEE!

In ancient Jewish and early Christian tradition, the Jubilee, celebrated every 49 or 50 years, was a time when debts would be cancelled, and prisoners, slaves and bonded servants freed. Now THAT’S the kind of festival we need in these times!

All this patriotic coming together, what a cunch of bunting. Officially sponsored merry-making, streets closed by council order, plastic union-jack bowler hats… behind your rose-tinted glasses, we can read the emptiness of your souls. Now WE have organised street parties – but we asked no bureaucrat’s permission, we took over the space we felt was ours,
or should be; we turned highway into dance floor and planted trees on the motorway, built a kids’ playground in the fast lane and got pissed where cabs jostle. We honoured no made-up countries, or their self-appointed heads of hate… to celebrate only ourselves, each other, the people we love, who have only our bodies to sell, but dream of life as a big party
that never ends.
Now while the current world-wide mass onslaught on our living conditions continues, a wild free existence without work, money, hierarchies, war, exploitation and the rest may seem distant… further off than ever. There IS a definite upturn in people fighting back, refusing to accept the wage cutting, the benefit slashing, rent rises… Maybe that’s why we get the
royalist pageantry; since they’re slicing our bread thinner, the circuses need to whirl faster and fancier. And it’s handy if they can suck us consenting to the sacrifice, co-opt us into their dream of classes happily bowing down in harmony, all stepping down one rung of the ladder while kissing the arse above. Top-down unity and togetherness, spirit of the blitz, god bless yer Ma’am, we all need to tighten our belts.


There was a time when a queen sailing down the Thames wasn’t greeted with cheering crowds thronging the bridges. In June 1263, rebellious Londoners pelted queen Eleanor, wife of the unpopular king Henry II, with filth and stones, as she sailed under London Bridge from the Tower. Henry was quarrelling with barons demanding reform, and Londoners, as usual in the middle ages, took sides against the monarch.
Even Queen Victoria, role model for aspiring queens, and focus for the invention of most of the supposedly ancient traditions her descendants invoke at us, might have shied away from the Thames crossing points; the imposing statue of auntie Vicky at the north end could well represent her booing by a republican crowd while opening Blackfriars bridge in 1869…


OK… so if you look closer at the way Jubilee was administered in the Judaic or Catholic world-view, the details don’t look so inspiring. For instance, prisoners might only be let out on the confession of their sin or crime, doing penance or going on a pilgrimage was compulsory…
But we don’t have to play it by their rules… We can take from the past what we like, what is useful, and stir it up into our own whirlwind…

The idea of the Jubilee has been taken up throughout history, and given a liberating twist: especially in the heady years of the English Revolution: diggers, early Quakers, including Bristol’s favourite messiah James Nayler, Milton, Bunyan and Utopian writer James Harrington all saw the Jubilee as chiming in with their own dreams of radical new societies.
Later, nineteenth century communist Thomas Spence put Jubilee at the heart of his Plan for the poor to seize back the land…

But it was in the Caribbean that the Jubilee became most resonant. The kidnapped African slaves and their children evolved a dream of Jubilee, through their subversive readings of the Bible imposed on them by their slavemasters, which expressed their desires for freedom from bondage. Jubilee was at the heart of the slave rebellions that increased in number and ferocity in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which formed a powerful part of the pressure that led to slavery’s abolition.

Probably the most vocal advocate of Jubilee as liberation was Robert Wedderburn: a most inspiring and intriguing personality. Born into slavery in the West Indies, a veteran of the british navy, he became a preacher and later a radical and a disciple of Spence. Mixing insurrectionist ideas in post-Napoleonic War London with agitation against slavery and the plantations owners in the Caribbean, Wedderburn developed a theory of Jubilee as revolution, the abolition of all bondage and control of the land by those who worked it, living in common and sharing labour and produce, as the early Christians were said to have done.

It’ll take a huge collective leap for us to bring anything like Wedderburn’s vision about. Which may not seem likely, in the light of the current mass brown-nosing jamboree. But who knows…? As austerity tightens, it’s really hard to predict how attitudes could change. The ancient Jewish Jubilee probably arose not so much from idealism but from practical ways to deal with economic inequality… Lets get practical, and dance up the impossible…


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