Thursday, 4 December 2008

Marx's complicity: a voice from the cave

Quite by chance we came across some biographical notes about Millican Dalton - the insurance clerk who, in his mid 30s sometime between the wars, dropped out of the rat race and went to live in a cave on a bed of bracken leaves in Borrowdale in the English Lake District. The vegetarian pacifist with an addiction to very strong coffee died in the winter of 1947 at the age of 79 when he had moved from his cave to a tent in the valley to escape the worst of the weather.

To say that his story strikes a chord with us is an understatement. If we were looking for a guru (which we definitely are not) Dalton would be our man (although Dalton was only really interested in taking people on walks through the wilder parts of the Lake District, not in becoming some hideous lifestyle coach).

We mention him here, though, for another reason - because the story of him and his cave in Borrowdale reminds us of a sort of Marxist blindspot. It is a source of immense sadness to us (and one reason why we left the country of our birth) that we could not follow in Dalton's footsteps even if we had wanted to. The entirety of the Lake District has been turned into a National Park with rules and men and women in uniform on patrol. And the hillside with the cave is now the property of the National Trust who have fixed a cast iron sign to the entrance of the cave forbidding fires (even, presumably on damp autumnal evenings when a man would have to light a fire in his cave just to survive). The collection of fallen branches as firewood is also prohibited, regardless of whether the collector ever puts a match to them.

Everywhere, it seems (and is it not so?) in that land that was once a haven for the eccentric has been fenced off and patroled so that there is absolutely nowhere left to escape to.

Now, from the point of view of the Marxist I imagine there is nothing to object to here. Nature is nothing of value until it is worked on, and Nature as a whole is there to be dominated in the great historical advance of the forces of production and their corresponding relations of production, and there must be more such domination because socialism or communism or whatever you want to call the Good Life will only be possible when those forces of production have reached a tremendous pitch. The idea that there should be things that are untouched and that should remain untouched - the idea that, in an act of humility, it might be good to lie down amongst them (on your bed of bracken leaves) or simply walk through in wonder - this just cannot make sense within the Marxist framework.

Of course the National Trust is not a Marxist organisation, but I guess the Marxist is duty bound to support it (or something similar to it) and affirm the historical neccessity and the trememdous progressive value of an organisation that will at last manage these natural resources and ensure that nothing - even what now passes for wilderness - is beyond social control and does not bear the stamp of society.

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