In the beginning, there was ‘Bem’, and it didn’t really mean anything. A nonsensical outburst made halfway through a bleak A-level Politics lesson by a power metal enthusiast called Moe, it became a world-weary catchphrase for some left-wing cynics trundling their way through Further Education.
As time went on, it continued to not really mean anything. Instead, like a glob of Wrigley’s Extra on the back seat of the 21a to Burnham-on-Sea, things stuck to it – ideas, notions both political and philosophical, that were sloshing around our late-teenage clever dick brains.
For about half a dozen politicised miscreants, at least, ‘Bem’ became the de facto label for a prickly worldview – one glued together from stances and opinions shaped by life in the kind of forlorn and impoverished post-industrial town that time and New Labour forgot.
Bem meant cosmic perspective and a grim, critical, but blackly humorous outlook on the transient absurdity of modern life – being aware of your own colossal insignificance in a universe that was random, cruel and mind-manglingly vast. There wasn’t a God (or if there was, as at least one of our number believed, he was asleep at the switch), life was inherently meaningless, and our species was a flash in the biological pan – one which, despite only making its blink-and-you’ll-miss appearance in the last five minutes of geological history, had still managed to make an ecology-ravaging pig’s ear of it. The Bem response, impotent but satisfying, was to refuse to take ourselves or the unhinged, narcissistic society we found ourselves in remotely seriously.
We were living in a lunatic world where millions died through lack of the most basic provisions, while Europe’s annual ice cream budget could guarantee basic health and nutrition for everyone alive. And no-one seemed to notice, let alone care.
To be fair to a sizeable chunk of the British population, staying afloat in the neoliberal mire didn’t leave much time for humanitarian reflection. For thirty years, the wants and needs of ordinary people had taken a back seat to those of a rich, self-interested minority – a sociopathic elite whose members had deluded themselves and everyone else into thinking they were heroic wealth-creators whose hard work and ingenuity guaranteed prosperity for all.
Over thirty years, they’d warped politics in their own interest – the rich were too highly taxed, we were told, public ownership was always a freedom-stifling evil, the private sector always knew best, labour rights were bad for business and it was in everyone’s interests for a tiny minority to make as much money as possible.
The majority, meanwhile, had to work harder, for longer, for pay that consistently failed to keep up with the ever-rocketing cost of living. When millions of people came home and exhaustedly flopped in front of the telly, the culture they sat and marinated in didn’t teach them about wrenching injustice, or cajole them into thinking critically about the world. It distracted them, cheered them up, kept them just happy and just ill-informed enough to stoically jump back into the hamster wheel the next morning without kicking up a fuss. This was a country where more people voted in the X Factor final than for the winning party at General Elections.
Mainstream culture had another vitally important social function – to cattle-prod people into going out and buying things they didn’t need. Pointless consumption had become a blasphemous cross between national service and the national religion. It kept people passively satisfied, it kept an economy built around needless consumption growing unsustainably, and, as an additional plus, it meant that the poorest were too busy trying to be like the glitzy and loaded to consider whether the glitzy and loaded should exist at all.
But this was the central frustration that fired up our grouchy ideological knitting circle – that the rationally and morally obvious way out of the hole society was in seemed further away than ever. We were fairly radical socialists at a time when even vanilla social democracy was treated like far-left lunacy. A sanely organised society would cut Western lifestyles down to size to raise billions out of life-threatening poverty, and use our collective resources to ensure the general wellbeing of everyone alive. The fact that we didn’t, and squandered our time and money on things that were so crushingly trivial, was a resounding indictment on our way of life.
We’d wryly talk about ‘the Bemolution’, the imaginary instance in which the status quo would topple and the world would become a more equitable, sustainable and generally much nicer place. More than anything, it was a grim joke about the unlikelihood of positive political change.
The Bemolution Reloaded
Then college ended, and Exasperated Idealists Anonymous dispersed. Our politically-charged monosyllable of choice was stuffed in a mental drawer and largely forgotten about for years.
In 2011, I started a blog about music and politics. Unfortunately it needed a name, and I’d always been profoundly shit at thinking them up. Political blogs tended be humourless and achingly sincere, especially left-wing ones, which certainly wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t want to plaster it with my name or pictures of myself either – the kind of egotist journalism where balloon-headed writers just talked about themselves all the time was a) shit, b) already horribly common and c) completely against my whole philosophical outlook.
Ideally, I wanted a name that would pithily encapsulate that outlook. In the intervening years, the fundamentals had stayed the same – the cosmic perspective, the focus on human suffering and the need to alleviate it, the radical egalitarianism – but I’d learned bits about atheist Buddhism, absurdism, natural history, the environment, and how things I’d been thinking for years overlapped with what infinitely cleverer people had been banging on about for centuries.
After a few hours of rubbing my two brain cells together hoping for a spark of inspiration, I realised that what I was writing and thinking about was just what we used to call ‘Bem’ with a bit of intellectual sprucing up. Yes, it was a daft nonsense word invented on the spot by a half-conscious A-Level student, but in my head it had become inextricably tied to the kind of views I was trying to put across.
Even I, though, would draw the line at calling my new pet project just ‘Bem’. Then crack-addled American proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron came to the rescue by dying of pneumonia years too soon. Thanks to the famed originality of the mainstream news media, his 1971 jazz-poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was suddenly everywhere. Scott-Heron’s signature tune wittily posed the need for social overhaul against the triteness and triviality of consumer-crazed America. Something clicked, and the blog had a name.
In the old days we’d always had an unusual fixation with the vapid cultural icons of the 1990s. To complete the anti-brand, I dug out the least subversive person I could think of – Dale Winton – and Doctor Moreau’d his head onto a vaguely socialist-looking body using Microsoft Paint. None of was scintillatingly intelligent or original, but it would do until I thought of anything better. I never did.
Today, the Bemolution is having a good go at providing an accessible left-wing guide to the modern world, albeit in a million instalments, disproportionately many of which end up being about old men with guitars rather than politics. Inevitably, it has and will probably continue to fall short of that lofty objective, but it’s a worthy endeavour. For thirty years, the Right has used plain language to talk about people’s everyday concerns, and too much of the Left hasn’t.
Our species is wobbling on the brink of something potentially horrific and, to whack the cheeriness factor up to 11, it may well be too late to avert the worst of it. Climate change and the ecological catastrophes it’s going to herald are the biggest, most terrifying threat humanity has ever faced, and some of the most powerful people on the planet are doing their utmost to block even the most feeble attempts to tackle it.
The Bemolution believes that the twenty-first century Left should regroup around three big interconnected political objectives– one, the obvious, traditional leftist fight against inequality, exploitation, elite-dominance and the like. Two, radical humanitarianism – the campaign against the world-shaming atrocity that is third world poverty has been left to free-market evangelists for too long. And three, the radical, anti-growthist green politics needed to avert climate catastrophe and make human societies ecologically viable again. All of the above mean getting shot of capitalism, at least as we know it.
‘Socialism’ needs to be reinvented as the natural, rational response to a swelling global population and looming environmental crisis. Inequality needs to be radically reduced – and wealth needs to be redistributed from the bloated West to the parts of the world where millions die needlessly from poverty and preventable disease. Western economies need to abandon the obsessive pursuit of economic growth. In fact, they need to shrink, while those in the global South need to be helped to grow to a point where they begin to adequately sustain their own populations.
The end goal has to be a situation where those of us in the ‘developed’ world live far smaller, more contained, more ecologically manageable lives, while the global poor are heaved out of poverty – and the establishment of a target universal living standard, far less wasteful and materialistic than the one we’re used to in the West, designed to balance reasonable comfort with long-term environmental sustainability and the general wellbeing of everyone alive.
It sounds as far-fetched as it does horrifically unlikely. That’s because it is in the current social and political context. But it’s perfectly within our capacity as a species. As much as we in developed nations try and worm our way out any meaningful responsibility, horrendous suffering continues to exist because we let it. In Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen, the deranged but insightful Walter “Rorschach” Kovacs puts it nicely: “this rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that leaves them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us”.
Hopefully one day we’ll do something about it all. If not, the species will deservedly fry, and as various apocalyptic floods and droughts and storms pulverise our self-important wreck of a civilisation, we can cheerily recite the words of now-deceased militant vegetarian and leftist MP Tony Banks – who might’ve seen humanity’s inevitable doom coming from a rock from the sky rather than our own boundless idiocy, but the gist of his 2004 motion to the House of Commons is the same: “This House… believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet, and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes them out, thus giving nature the opportunity to start again’.