Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The city of Luxor in southern Egypt made the headlines in Britain at the end of February, when 19 tourists were killed in a hot air balloon accident. That tragedy will compound the woes of Egypt’s tourist industry, once a major source of employment and foreign currency, now languishing as foreign visitors are driven away by (misconceived and exaggerated) fears of instability and violence.
Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes, the principal capital of the Egyptian New Kingdom (1550–1050 BC), is studded with colossal carved temples and richly decorated tombs. But the most revealing and moving of its many ruins may be the least spectacular. Known as Deir el Medinah, these are the low-lying remains of the workers’ village, home to the artisans who built the tombs and temples. Their small, sturdy domestic units are laid out on a grid pattern. Here lived stonemasons, tomb painters, carpenters, rope makers, porters. Scattered among the excavated foundations are mini-pyramids and entrances to underground burial vaults, small in scale but decorated with as much care, as much wealth of colour and detail, as the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. These workers had their own visions of an afterlife, a better life. And they had a sense of their own value.
This is the site of history’s first recorded strike. The workers were paid in grain, from which they made bread and beer, the staples of the Nile Valley diet. In about 1200 BC, the state treasury, drained by Rameses III’s imperial wars, failed to meet its commitments. The workers downed tools and staged a sit-in at the construction site of the pharaoh’s mortuary temple. Perhaps surprisingly, they won the dispute. Their leverage was their masters’ fear of dying without the proper funerary arrangements, entering the afterlife under-equipped. The Egyptian cult of the dead, for once, benefited the living.
What are we to make of this episode from remote antiquity? Walter Benjamin, in his prophetic final essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, written in 1940, distinguished between two opposing approaches to the past: ‘historicism’ and ‘historical materialism’. For the former time is linear, uniform, cumulative. ‘Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time.’ In contrast, the historical materialist ‘records the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one.’ The job of the historical materialist is not to reproduce but ‘to explode the continuum of history’.
Benjamin asks: ‘With whom does the writer of historicism actually empathise?’ ‘The answer,’ he insists, ‘is irrefutably with the victor.’ History becomes a ‘triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage.’
In contrast, for the historical materialist, ‘the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of civilisation which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.’
There’s no better illustration of that ringing dictum than the art of ancient Egypt, the product of a brutally stratified society governed by a religion of state power, personified in a god-man ruler. Yet long after the system that oppressed them crumbled, the work of the artisans of Deir el Medinah remains vital, colourful, rhythmic and refined; it excels at grand effects but also in delicate naturalistic detail. Whether in the vast vaults of the Valley of the Kings or in the humble tombs of Deir el Medinah itself, the afterlife is depicted as a better version of this life, furnished in abundance with the good things of this one: food, drink, flowers, birds, song, dance, family. Ancient Egyptian art remains alien, at times weird. But it’s also recognisably human; it leaps across chasms to forge a connection.
On the left we see ourselves as makers of the future fully engaged with the present. We look ahead, not behind, and we resent the charge that we are ‘wed to outmoded doctrines’ and in particular that we have failed to adapt to the changes of the past 30 years. But we should not be ashamed of being ‘conservative’ in defending rights won in previous generations or communities threatened by ‘development’.
Capitalism’s disregard for the future, its bias in favour of the short-term, is notoriously reckless. But it is equally reckless in its disregard for the past, unless that past can be packaged for consumption or the transmission of propaganda. In either case, the past is not allowed to stand independently, to speak with a voice of its own – and to demand from us some accountability.
Benjamin says our task is ‘to brush history against the grain’. An example of this in our own moment is the 23‑year campaign for justice for those killed at Hillsborough. Though justice itself has yet to be done, much of the truth has now been established. This was achieved only because the families and their supporters defied the massed chorus telling them their quest was futile, emotion-driven or vindictive. Their sense of duty to the dead was not diverted by appeals to pragmatism and the virtues of adjustment, of ‘living in the present’. As a result, they succeeded in recovering a suppressed history which, in turn, becomes an active element in our present and future.
In Spain, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory aims to document the fate of Franco’s victims and to excavate and identify their bodies, including the tens of thousands dumped in mass graves. To do this, the association has had to defy the ‘pact of oblivion’ that smoothed the transition to democracy by shielding members of the old regime from accountability. In this case, a sense of obligation to the dead, to those who were on the losing side, was not a ‘backward-looking’ indulgence: it was a social necessity. We can’t decipher the present without examining its foundations in the battles of the past, acknowledging losses as well as gains.
The Palestinian insistence on recognition of the Nakba – characterised by pro-Israel commentators as a vain desire to recoup a lost battle – is in fact a necessary engagement with the realities of the present: the ongoing impact of the Nakba in the policies of dispossession and ethnic cleansing. At the same time, it’s a steadfast insistence on a future of self-determination.
Despite their brief victory, the workers of Deir el Medinah never escaped their state of impoverished servitude. They were on the ‘losing side’ in the march of history. Nonetheless, in their art and in their action, they remind us, in Benjamin’s words, that the ‘fine and spiritual . . . are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.’
The illustration above is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920, which Benjamin used to illustrate his point about the nature of history.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun