Easter, a time for redemption

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    Easter, with its message of redemption, is perhaps the one festival of the western world’s twenty-first century calendar that still prompts us to a moral enquiry and that, at an unknowable level and down to the last sparrow, we are  integral, valuable and equals in an abundant world.

    Until about 11,000 years ago, mankind lived on Earth in a state of what sounds remarkably  like a primordial Garden of Eden. Rapidly expanding data indicates we were gregarious, lived  in small foraging groups and warmly welcomed rare but treasured travellers. Strangers were soon friends. Life was for fun.

    Co-operative talents were our strong suit and bones and other data now coming to light in record volumes showed no signs of inter-tribal warfare. Occasionally individual egos rose to vainglorious kingship and fell just as fast. Even the great warlords mostly disappeared pretty quickly.

    We believed all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork, as animated and alive and imbued with deities and elements of an integrated animistic whole.  The animist myths of Camelot resonate in story and film for obvious reasons.

    The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. According to Boston sociologist Juliet Schor, this included not just long ‘vacations’ at Christmas, Easter and midsummer but also numerous saints’ and rest days and generous ‘ales’ to mark weddings, wakes and less momentous occasions.

    “All told, holiday leisure time in England took up probably one third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbours,” she says in economic anthropologist Jason Hickel’s  highly readable treatise  Less is More: How degrowth will save the world which pushes the urgent need to debunk capitalism’s  ruinous demand for continuous growth.

    “The ancien regime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days and thirty-eight holidays.  In Spain, travellers noted that holidays totalled five months per year.”

    Hickel also quotes English historian E P Thompson who said that these festivals and carnivals ‘were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for’.

    All of this, says Hickel, posed a problem for the ruling class in the 1500s. “Elites complained bitterly about the peasants’ festivals and castigated them for ‘licentious behaviour and liberty’.

    Peasant lifeways were incompatible with the kind of labour that was required for capital accumulation and labour needed to go well beyond need; it had to become a total way of life, he said. Enclosures forced hardship and competition on the peasants and Europe filled up with ‘paupers and ‘vagabonds’ – people who had been pushed off the land but couldn’t find work or refused to submit to the brutal conditions of the new capitalist farms and factories.

    British king Henry VIII was responsible for a lot more than turning monks out of the country’s monasteries and murdering wives. State violence during his reign extended to the hanging of 72,000 vagabonds, 40,000 in the space of one decade.

    “Elites had to literally whip people into becoming docile, obedient, productive workers and their bodies literally generated the hidden labour-power to drive the engine of capitalist surplus,” says Hickel.  Poverty was recast not as the consequence of dispossession but as a personal moral failing.

    Philosophers recast the material body – and from there, human labour – as part of nature, which was also in a hierarchy ruled by human minds.

    The same drive to ravage nature  – animal, vegetable, mineral or indigenous human  – for profit, indefinitely and indefatigably, gave us the poorly understood history of exploration and exploitation then spread around the world in the name of Empire and business profits.

    It is still regrettably familiar five hundred years later.

    So are most people really good, or basically bad and in need of constant whipping into shape, any shape, as long as there’s a profit to be made from their labour?

    On a small island at the other end of the world, we’re rich in the pageant.

    Lots of festivals, often gruelling work lives, able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few weeks for any number of societal needs, wrestling with  ethical decisions about spending profitably for the community, good with strangers, smiling at visitors just because they will smile back and tell us good stories.  Good mixers, kind, fair-minded, fundamentally generous.

    Normal then.

    So how would life change if we knew that the majority of people are good; that for every petty official and careless cruelty there are dozens of casual kindnesses?

     That good actually still weighs bad, and that all the sound and fury of news cycles, political shuffling and doom are just part of a 500-year machine to keep us working, hard up and docile.  It works, but it’s not true. Easter can give us a measure for redemption.  • Liz Waters

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