Bem

Joe in the politics room, circa 2008
Joe in the politics room, circa 2008

At college, instead of concentrating on my A Levels, I ended up in the middle of a strange, probably cult-like campus subculture we called Bem. I didn’t come up with the name – it was a random nonsense word I think my friend Joe invented one day in a boring Politics lesson, but I can’t really remember. Looking back, it was about not liking the state society was in, and trying to live out an alternative in everything you did.

We were all left-wing. We all hated consumerism, conformism and the slow strangulation of anything interesting and original in the cultural realm. And we all shared the same bleak, surreal sense of humour. Most of all, we were united by the belief that civilisation was terrible. Millions starved, died in droughts, died in childbirth, died of treatable diseases – and the richest, most technologically advanced societies in human history did nothing about it. Most people didn’t even notice, let alone care.

Our fellow students seemed to typify everything that was wrong – shallow, materialistic, self-obsessed. Clueless about the sheer horrifying extent of suffering in the world, and utterly absorbed by the mindless triviality of their own silly little lives. Here was a society where callousness and ignorance was the default setting. And we set about an inevitably doomed but passionately heartfelt attempt to undermine it all by refusing to take it seriously. We were like apocalyptic mini-Chomskys crossed with the Chuckle Brothers.

If I do say so myself, I think our critique of modern society was remarkably insightful for a bunch of grouchy teenagers fresh out of secondary education. But we were still very far from perfect.

For one, we were far too harsh on our fellow students. They weren’t all the feckless neoliberal drones we made them out to be – especially up against the kind of people I’d meet at Cambridge.

We were also distinctly rubbish when it came to actually doing anything about our politics. To be fair, we did a lot of anti-fascism campaigning when the BNP came to town. But most of the time, we were content to just lounge around feeling radical because we listened to Stevie Wonder, The Smiths and Berlin-era Bowie rather than Rihanna and Take That. We were lazy, we were extremely pessimistic, and we were all political mouth and no activist trousers.

When college ended, we all shot off in different directions to get on with being adults. I see some of them regularly, others nowhere near as regularly as I’d like – but however much they’ve changed in the years since, I’d say pretty much all of them have hung on to something of that original outlook.

Partly thanks to the experience of going from a single parent household in the land neoliberalism forgot to Oxbridge and back, I went on to become more political than ever. To the extent that, shockingly, I now sometimes even get out and do some actual activism.

These days, I’m a shambolic mish-mash of far-left atheist vicar and lentil-munching free love hippy. I’m far less cynical about people, and particularly my own generation, which has turned out to be more left-wing and switched on than I ever would’ve imagined in the old days. And yet I dislike the state modern society’s in as much as ever. Most of all, I’m focused on the horrifying scale of preventable humanitarian suffering in the world, and the catastrophic damage humanity is doing to its environment.

In other words, there have been tweaks along the way, but it’s still essentially Bem. I still see politics, music, personal conduct, even having a certain type of sense of humour, as all part of the same thing – a wholesale rejection of a way of life that’s well on the way to being cataclysmic. And when I started a blog in 2011, just about the same time ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ jazz-rapper Gil Scot Heron died, the thing named itself.

Four and a bit years down the line, I’m finally getting round to some of the things I wanted to do with this site when I first started it – talk about an accessible, environmentally-focused modern manifestation of radical socialism. Explain economics in a way that laypeople can understand, and that isn’t skewed in favour of the status quo. Ramble inanely about my own vision of socially engaged atheism-as-a-religion. And I can now officially say that sometimes, occasionally, someone even reads it.