WBT reprints this article by Andy Payne … a thoughtful travel log of left-wing dreams we have all experienced at one time or another. The Horn of Plenty in Reservoir, Melbourne could well be AHIMSA (Peace) house or the West End Resource Centre many years before. AHIMSA is now a construction site for a school extension.
What are our dreams made of?
Such are recent spectres, a map of a vanishing left, of organising in community. I think it’s time for the Left to work out how to co-operate during this period of pandemic, austerity and financial crisis. Otherwise, left to the right, it will become a graveyard haunted by real ghosts bearing the brunt of crisis: workers, unemployed, women, blacks. Is it make or break as the poster says? The annual May Day celebrations in Queensland have been cancelled. Must we travel through the ghost of our own labours? What lies ahead?
Ian Curr, 22 April 2020
Walking among ghosts
Traveling the east coast of Australia over recent months, I found myself haunted by ghosts. Everywhere I went there were memories of what had once been but now no longer was.
There used to be a music venue there, had some great shows. Of course those bands are all broken up now. My friend used to live on this street, I have no idea where they are now. Campaigns I was a part of that never came to pass, houses I lived in now demolished, places I used to hang out replaced by depressing corporate stores.
In Melbourne you can take a tram ride that resembles a ghost train at the theme park. Horn Of Plenty was once an anarchist social centre in Reservoir. The shutters were down when I went past, the name still spraypainted on the door. Next stop is Loophole, the social centre that preceded it. I used to do Food Not Bombs there, go to gigs, drop in to hang out and borrow books from the library. Now it’s a vet. Further down is the empty old squat where I once lived and there were weekly open bar nights. A block over is the anarchist club which embarrassingly is unusable now because a dispute over use of the space led to the whole building being deliberately destroyed.
And that’s just the physical spaces in one part of one city. Everywhere I go are reminders of the past – the people I used to know; the projects I believed would be so significant; the excitement that a street, highway or even train line meant when I was new to it and it led to a destination of unknown possibilities.
In a way I feel lucky to have a lot of great memories in a lot of different places. But mostly that wasn’t what I was thinking as I encountered each new ghost. I felt a sense of loss, of disappointment, of being let down by the dreams I once had. These things I was a part of that seemed to be building something new and powerful turned out to be another rotation in the cycle of starting up and dying out.
I’m no fan of nostalgia either, so was in no mood for reminiscing about the way things were. For better or worse, part of the reason all these things are just memories is because I’ve always been pushing on towards something new – open to what was developing but at the same time never quite satisfied with what already existed.
My exact experience is probably limited to the few of us who have traveled around a lot and poured their life into political and social projects that were bound to end. But the sensation of being haunted by imaginary alternative realities is pretty common. We ruminate over decisions we once made that could have gone another way. We compare ourselves unfavourably to others we imagine are richer, cooler, better looking. We obsess over a future vision of ourselves that has it all together and has left behind our shoddy present self, like a car traded in for a shiny new model. We battle with depressed or anxious mental states that distort our reality into twisted shapes; we fret over a bleak future we have little control over. We are rational, scientific people; yet we feel the presence constantly of the ghosts walking among us.
Ultimately, I don’t know how to get rid of these ghosts. If only it was as easy as the movies, where you can sprinkle the holy water or call in the ghostbusters. Then again, it never seems to work out that simply then either.
What I do know though, is that a life without ghosts is not always preferable. For every destructive poltergeist or heartbroken ex-lover haunting us, there are apparitions inspiring us to see things from a different perspective.
The most famous ghost in political literature is the one conjured by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. “A spectre is haunting Europe,” they say; “the spectre of communism”.
The spectre of communism these days is an altogether more complicated being – the memory of brutal purges and tyrannical regimes haunting the efforts of anyone who tries to critique our profit-obsessed economic system. But in 1848 when that was written, it was the unseen hope of a radically different future that motivated many thousands of people to stake their lives on reshaping society. It was only from the vantage point of an imagined future, one without poverty and exploitation, that people could clearly see their present for what it was – an unjust system that was held up only by the arbitrary power of those with the money to enforce it. The present is real enough, but it’s only one reality among infinite potentialities.
If not for all the different pasts and futures that occupy space in our head, we would never strive beyond our current condition. Never seek to better ourselves, to change our society, to take a chance on another person.
A healthy mental state is not forever smiling gratefully in the present moment, nor is it stoically accepting whatever comes our way. The ideal is to live in a state of tension between what is and what could be.
Part of doing this is facing down those ghosts – rejecting the ones that are only harmful, but keeping as companions those that drive us to change ourselves for the better, to dream of something more, to attempt things that don’t yet exist.
My own ghost tour is not necessarily something I recommend. Semi-isolated now and back in my old city and old house, I still find myself sometimes haunted and am working out how to deal with it. But it’s been interesting hearing the term “ghost town” used to refer to our cities recently. Even on empty streets we walk among ghosts – they sometimes scare us and sometimes hold us back, but in a dark time it could be that some of these ghosts can help us to create a better future.