Live by the River: some thoughts on a brief trip to Japan

Posted: January 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

japan 7 In December of last year (2012), I travelled to Tokyo for a conference on Crisis and Commons: Prefigurative Politics after Fukushima. The Conference call-out explained; “The year 2011 was marked by a series of inter-related crises and massive protests against them. These movements have brought anti-capitalist politics back onto the agenda. However, they differ from previous anti-capitalist movements in their emphasis on prefigurative politics. Capitalism has developed by enclosing the commons and colonising the sphere of reproduction. If prefigurative politics is a movement for realising an outside to capitalism in the here and now, in the present crisis, it enables us to catch a glimpse of a new commons and of a means of social reproduction that is not exploited by capitalism.” At the Conference, Alexander Brown and I presented a collaborative paper, Interregnum: Living In-between Times, about the increasing desperation and violence of capitalist power and global struggles to develop democracy, peace, and love.

The previous year, I had followed Japan’s earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster, doing what I could to spread the word about the threat posed both to the people of Japan and further abroad. A few months later, as Alexander was preparing to leave for an extended stay in Tokyo, I tried to convince him to postpone his trip due to the level of radiation. So it seemed strange to me, and a number of my loved ones, that I should be visiting Japan, however briefly. We weren’t the only people anxious about the dangers of visiting Japan. Two of the keynote speakers decided not to attend the Conference due to their anxieties about radioactivity.  At the same time, one of my friends, who had self-evacuated from Japan following the nuclear disaster, returned to Tokyo for the Conference. The Conference was billed as “after Fukushima”, yet in many ways there is no post-Fukushima. Since the collapse of the nuclear power plant, radiation has continued to leak into the air, sea and earth, permeating Japan and other parts of the world.  As Rin Odawara pointed out to Conference participants, all of those in East Japan are being exposed to radiation through food, drinks, breathing, and therefore being harmed. As well, the continuing threats posed by the Fukushima plant are potentially even more catastrophic.

On the last night of the Conference, some of us went to a karaoke bar, where we sang songs until the early hours of the morning. It was a wonderful night, spent in the company of friends and comrades who I see too infrequently (since they live in various parts of Australia and Japan); a night full of joy, laughter, singing, and dancing together in a small dark room in Tokyo. Although I rarely partake in karaoke, my first rendition that night was London Calling by my favourite band The Clash.

“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in,

Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin,

A nuclear error, but I have no fear,

‘Cause London is drowning,

and I live by the river.”

(London Calling, The Clash, 1979)

When I hear this song it evokes a time in my youth, soon after I had left school, when I was seriously struggling with my fears of impending disaster, the voids in my existence and how best to address the crises of capitalism. For me these lyrics speak not of the end of the world, but the end of the capitalist world, much as recent actions by the Zapatistas and the Bolivian Government interpreted the end of the Mayan calendar, not as the apocalypse, but rather as marking the end of the current world and the start of a new era of peace and love, an age in which community and collectivity will prevail over capitalism and alienation.

I thought about the lyrics of London Calling, about having no fear, about cities of crisis, and how to face the proximity of death and disaster, while writing about the Queensland floods in 2011. At the time, I argued that although there are dark clouds on the horizon and our lives often seem to hover on the edge of an abyss, environmental and other disasters are not the only rising tides. There are also surging global waves of struggle, rebellion, and revolt. As we grapple with our precarious situations, facing suffering and death, it is crucial we continue to appreciate, embrace, and celebrate the richness of life.

Cheap Holidays in Other People’s Misery

Another karaoke song I selected in Tokyo was the Sex Pistol’s Holidays in the Sun. The first line of the song is;

“A cheap holiday in other people’s misery.” (Holidays in the Sun, Sex Pistols, 1977)

Following the Fukushima disaster flights to Japan became much cheaper and many people took advantage. However, as I discovered on my trip, these aren’t just ‘cheap holidays in other people’s misery’. Of course there is a great deal of misery in Japan, as there is in every country. But there is much more than misery. For instance, a paper given at the Crisis and Commons Conference by Sonomi Suzuki discussed two aspects of poverty/homelessness in Japan – misery and hope. Sonomi detailed how homeless people living in their own communities take care of each other’s health, how they refuse “to live in a society that abandons the weak,” resisting capital and the forces that dominate the poor. Struggling with the social impacts of Japan’s multiple crises, Sonomi’s paper wasn’t the only one presented by our Japanese comrades about the importance of autonomous lives, solidarity, and “the potential for creating value which is antagonistic to capitalist value.”

I have written elsewhere about what I term ‘disaster communism’ – the altruism, resourcefulness, generosity, joy, and love that arise amid disaster’s grief and disruption, revealing widespread yearnings for community, purposefulness, and meaningful work. Disasters like those in Japan pose questions about what has personal value and social worth? What is really precious? Disasters also expose the existing social solidarities, the ‘moral’ and ‘gift’ economies of community service, fellowship, self-help and improvement, the sharing of work, money, goods, emotional and psychological support provided by the on-going organisation of non-capitalist exchanges. Counter-disaster activities produce new relationships, networks, shared experiences, understandings, and goals. In the face of disaster we can see more clearly that capital, governments and bureaucrats are unreliable, and in response many of us turn to each other for support.

Drop the Bomb

One of my friend’s karaoke song choices was Science Fiction by the Divinyls.

“never thought that we’d last this long,

you know I always thought that they’d drop the bomb.” (Science Fiction, Divinyls, 1982)

As my partner Sharon once explained in an interview; “We were from a particular generation, where we had grown up with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over us. We were the ‘no future generation’, certainly a lot of us felt we had no future.” As a young person I was extremely worried about the threat of a nuclear holocaust and from an early age became an anti-nuclear campaigner, especially around Hiroshima Day.  In 2010, my youngest daughter visited Hiroshima. She brought me back a t-shirt from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park which reads ‘Hiroshima Loves Peace’. August 6 that year was the 65th anniversary of the first use of atomic power against human beings. In the Peace Memorial Park, close to ground zero of the blast, participants held a minutes silence at 8.05 marking when the Enola Gay dropped the bomb and 140,000 people were murdered.  They also remembered that three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki massacring a further 80,000 people. The bombs were dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, explained soon after, on “an essentially defeated enemy”.

Following the World War Two slaughter of tens of millions of people, the nuclear age began. The use of atomic power was a further extreme manifestation of the violence of capital, clearly demonstrating that ‘peace’ would be founded on the threat of nuclear destruction and the power of death. The ‘Cold War’ and the continuous class war have involved the global application of violence to maintain capitalist social relations, social hierarchies, social anxiety, fear, and conflict. At the Crisis and Commons Conference, George Caffentzis presented a paper on ‘nuclear power as capital’, pointing out that nuclear power “is clearly inappropriate for its function (heating water) from an engineering point of view: the means do not match the end and there are plenty of alternative means to the same end.” According to George; “A similar point can be made concerning the capitalist economy. It is a piece of social machinery that is inappropriate for . . . providing an adequate social framework for reproducing human beings.” As multiple crises deepen across the globe, this is becoming increasingly clear. However, the aim of the capitalist economy isn’t the reproduction of human beings, but the reproduction of class society, and the nuclear industry is very appropriate for a system built on the violent imposition of commodified labour.

Capitalism’s economic and political relations are relations of force and capital’s ability to dominate our bodies and impose its value is the power to maintain its social system. The imposition of commodified labour depends on continual violence and terror to enclose people, land, property, and social relations in the capitalist machine by attempting to break human solidarity, divide people, and pit them against each other. This is because the proletariat continually resists, avoids and challenges capital, struggling to create and extend non-capitalist alternatives. The use of nuclear power in Japan shows the importance of the ‘Warfare State’ – linking the functions of governments to the profit and control motives of global capital and fostering the fascistic networks of military, police, and secret state forms, which are deployed against the threat of communism/proletarian power.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, my thoughts were frequently on the ‘Warfare State,’ the insanity of the U.S.A. and Soviet leaderships, their M.A.D. strategies, the intensification of the Cold War, and the doomsday clock. I often recall a day, during this time, when I was working for the local city council as an offset printer. In order to clean my press I had to run highly flammable cleaning fluid through it. Unknown to me at the time, a part of the machinery produced a spark, igniting the cleaning fluid and surrounding vapours, causing an explosion that threw me across the room. As I flew backwards, engulfed by a wall of flame, my initial thought was – they’ve dropped the bomb.  Thankfully, still being conscious as I hit the ground, I realised this was an alarmist reaction to a workplace accident. Continuing my printing work for a few more years, first offset and then silkscreen, I increasingly understood that the chemicals used weren’t only an immediate danger to my health and safety. Although their potential carcinogenic impact on my body remains unclear, I have now lost a couple of my printing friends to cancers, most likely due to their exposure to such toxic chemicals.

We’ve Been Poisoned

As I began to write this article, I received news that another friend of mine had died.  She was a much loved woman, who before cancer took her, lived life whole-heartedly committed to the well-being of others. She was foundational in establishing healthcare in remote and overseas communities and worked all of her life improving Aboriginal health. In the past few years, she worked in Central Australia – far away from nuclear reactors. But, not far from radioactive wastes, the impact of nuclear destruction, or the uranium mining that fueled the Fukushima nuclear plant. Uranium going to Japan’s nuclear reactors is transported through Alice Springs, where my friend lived, and other populated areas of the Northern Territory. Radioactive dust storms also cross the region swept up from the waste dumps of uranium mines and the remains of nuclear testing. Between 1952 and 1957, the British government conducted 12 atmospheric nuclear explosion tests off the north-west coast of Western Australia and in central Australia, with the majority being conducted at Maralinga in South Australia. The Maralinga tests also included many so-called ‘minor’ tests, which continued until 1963, also resulting in large amounts of plutonium being spread over a wide area. By the 1980s, some of the effects of these tests started to become clear. Australian military personnel and the traditional Aboriginal custodians of the land were suffering blindness, sores, and illnesses such as cancer. Groups including the Atomic Veterans Association and the Pitjantjatjara Land Council put pressure on the government until, in 1985, it agreed to hold a royal commission to investigate the damage caused. The commission found that the land where the tests were conducted was still highly radioactive and that even after a ‘full clean-up’, certain areas would remain dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years.  To be clear, I’m not arguing that my friend’s cancer was the result of nuclear testing or uranium mining, as there are many possible causes, and we can’t know the full impact of poisons we cannot see, taste, or smell.

Before my trip to Japan I hadn’t been overseas for 22 years. In 1990, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I visited the Soviet Union, staying in the Crimean city of Yalta (For more on this trip please see The Last Delegation). The meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor released many times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The resulting contamination of the air, water, and land spread across much of the globe. In the most affected areas of the Ukraine, levels of radioactivity in drinking water caused major concerns during the weeks and months after the accident, though officially it was claimed that all contaminants had settled to the bottom “in an insoluble phase” which would dissolve in eight hundred to one thousand years. None-the-less, guidelines for levels of radioiodine in drinking water were raised, allowing most water to be reported as ‘safe’. The Pripyat River, which ran through Chernobyl into the Dnieper River and from there to the Black Sea, was the main water source in the Crimea. During the time of my visit, water consumption was restricted to two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Staying out of the sea was also strongly recommended.  While in Yalta, I befriended Vladimir, one of the first nuclear clean-up workers sent into Chernobyl after the meltdown. When I met Vladimir, he was dying of a rare form of cancer. As I departed the Crimea, he gave me a small gift and asked me to remember him. A few months later, his wife was widowed and his young child left fatherless. I will not forget him.

At the Crisis and Commons Conference, Rin Odawara’s paper asked: What could be the effects of long-term exposure to radiation? And can we distinguish the radioactive effects from other diseases? She also discussed the representation of fear and the problem of eugenics in anti-nuclear movements. One of the deep-seated fears associated with radioactivity is the fear of handicap and deformity. Disability activists in Japan have argued that the rejection of disabled/deformed people by some anti-nuclear campaigning increases their social isolation by suggesting “disability = misfortune” and that the disabled/deformed would be better off not being born. Parental pre-natal tests are now being promoted in Japan, raising questions of whether to check, whether to bear children, and the impact of radiation on pregnant women and the unborn in a society that discriminates against the disabled.

Rin’s paper prompted heartfelt discussion among Conference participants. This discussion made me think about the impact of poisons everywhere and my eldest daughter Ella’s disability. After Ella was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of nine, my partner Sharon and I discovered that the local steelworks was Australia’s number one producer of the highly toxic chemical dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogenic by-product of steel making which affects body organs, the immune system, and the reproductive system. The most minute exposure to dioxin during the gestation period can leave unborn children with a reduced immune system. Our house was just down the street from the steelworks and when the south-easterly winds blew we were right in the path of its pollution, regularly exposing our family to dioxin, and a range of other chemicals. Are these chemicals responsible for my daughter’s malfunctioning immune system? Is it because of them she couldn’t open a door, brush her hair, dress herself, or walk upstairs without pain? We’ll probably never know.

Contemplating Rin’s paper, I thought about Ella’s physical and mental suffering and how we are all damaged. Some of the worst pain Ella endured was due to the abuse she received from others, especially from those with power over her. It took many years of struggling with teachers, schools, and the education department before we could get any real recognition of Ella’s needs. At times, she was humiliated and punished for not completing work or being unable to perform certain tasks. We had to remove Ella from both her primary school and high school due to the lack of care and gross negligence. She also felt increasingly alienated from her peers, some of whom taunted, mistreated and devalued her. Living such a difficult life took a physical and emotional toll on Ella and she often yearned to be ‘normal’.

Capitalism is an incredibly toxic social relation which damages our eco-systems, our bodies, our minds, and our relationships. It poisons our lives with a concentration on consumption, materialism, and competition, undermining our relationships with family, friends, lovers, workmates, peers, and others. We are supposed to live a life of lies, inhabit a world of illusions, and are made to feel inadequate for being ourselves. We worry that if other people know something about us, a defect, a weakness, or vulnerability, they won’t want to connect, or be connected with us. We often feel we’re not good enough to be loved, that we’re incapable of loving and belonging. As well, we tend to be considered socially useful only when we’re productive in ways valued by capital; when we produce commodities and help to reproduce capitalist social relations.

One of the best experiences for Ella during her youth was the annual arthritis camp for young sufferers. These camps brought together kids with arthritis to take part in a whole range of activities, to learn skills in dealing with their condition and to help them understand that they were not alone. When she became too old to attend the camps as a participant, Ella volunteered as a camp leader, providing physical and emotional support and assistance to the kids attending. As a role model, she demonstrated that with bravery, strength, and determination you can have a valuable, worthwhile, and enjoyable life, despite the pain and restrictions of her condition. Over time, due to Ella’s illness, our family more clearly recognised that all of us are damaged. In response, we tried to counter our injuries together and learned better ways to live with our physical and psychological mutations.

Our Revolutions Have Been Poisoned

For some years, I’ve been unsure about whether, or how, to use the words communism or revolution, since they’ve been deformed, impaired, and corrupted. Romanticised versions of revolution may be inspirational, but they hide the complexity and contradictions of class struggle. Revolutionary Russia, China, Tunisia, Egypt, and many more, have been poisoned by authoritarianism, repression, terror, and war. None-the-less, in our Crisis and Commons Conference paper Alexander and I argued that revolution doesn’t end; that “communism is and always will be, unfinished and emergent and can only be realised in multiple, ongoing and incomplete ways.” Communism will remain associated with numerous horrors. Yet the term is still used and understood as a name for the continuing proletarian revolution. The word ‘communism’ has a powerful heritage and a profound significance. Of course, the word is often linked to ‘communist states’ and ‘communist parties’. And although I consider these states and parties to generally be manifestations of state capitalism, rather than of communism, the errors and defeats of previous communist experiments, and the dead hand of state capitalist forms calling themselves communist, continue to weigh heavily on us, making it difficult to speak of communism without ‘corpses in our mouths’.

Capitalism and communism, while remaining distinct, are intertwined. Communism has been, and is, poisoned by capitalism. But this doesn’t destroy communism or transform it into capitalism. The struggles that oppose and counter capitalism continually create other practices such as love, sharing, and mutual aid. Over the past few years, I have explored and written about both communism and love. Although love is much more popular than communism, as I have discussed elsewhere, it too is corrupted and poisoned. Yet, while love is riddled with contradictions and ambiguities, the unceasing development of loving relationships entails myriad attempts to more clearly distinguish in praxis the differences between capitalism and our communist alternatives. I want to reclaim communism in its positive sense – the genuine communist heritage, which opposes authoritarianism, repression, war, and terror, and illuminates praxes of freedom, democracy, peace, and love. Communism has been the enemy common to many neo-liberal, social democratic, fascist, and socialist regimes. Lest we forget – those identified as communists have been targeted and murdered in their millions during the global class war to break proletarian power.

As Alexander and I prepared our Crisis and Commons Conference paper I sent him a joke.

It’s 4 a.m. on a cold and dark winter morning in Berlin 1936. A group of men dressed in black uniforms enters a city residential building and knocks on an apartment door. “Who’s there?” One of the residents calls out. “Gestapo, open up”, comes the reply. “No, no”, the resident responds. “You’ve got the wrong apartment, the communists live upstairs”.  

It’s 4 a.m. on the same cold and dark winter morning in Moscow 1936. A group of men dressed in black uniforms enters a city residential building and knocks on an apartment door. “Who’s there?” One of the residents calls out. “NKVD, open up”, comes the reply. “No, no”, the resident responds. “You’ve got the wrong apartment, the communists live upstairs”.  

 How We Treat Each Other

Finding better ways of living with and remedying the poisons of capitalism involves concentrating on how we treat each other. At the Crisis and Commons Conference, Mark Gawne presented a paper critiquing perspectives that seek to keep emotion, grief, sadness, mental health, and illness outside of political organising. Rejecting attempts to keep ‘political spaces’ clear, Mark’s paper recognised that “there is much in the world to ruin our bodies’ capacities to make relationships” and “we struggle to find the ways in which to speak this area of our lives as if it is political.”

In a written response to Mark’s paper I discussed ‘the connectedness of self and other’ in relation to the pain and suffering we share; how we are all dissatisfied and how capitalist culture teaches us that we’re inadequate. Often we feel responsible not only for our own lack, but for the lack of others. Their sadness can make us feel that we’ve failed and few of us know how to deal well with each other’s sadness. We often feel inadequate because we often are. Our lack of love for others and ourselves can remind us of what we wish to escape from, making us feel we can’t rely on each other to gain the strength needed to produce better lives. Often the lack of love is a weakness we can’t face in others, because we don’t want to see it in ourselves.

Love is scary, because it makes us vulnerable, puts us in touch with each other’s pain, and is what we desire more than anything else. Sadly, many people are more interested in being loved than in loving and/or lack the knowledge to love others well. Also, when you’ve been hurt by love it can appear that loving is a weakness and that failing to love is a powerful act. Yet, vulnerability is important, because to love you have to be vulnerable. You have to be open, to expose yourself, to feel your own pain, and the pain of others. The different ways we relate to each other usually flows from how we relate to ourselves – we can only be as open and present with another as we are with ourselves and when we’re trapped in self-doubt/self-hatred the love of others is unlikely to reach us. If we want to love each other, we need to help each other choose to become more loving, to decide to better love ourselves as well as others.

Safer Spaces: “The strength of our collective hearts”

The Crisis and Commons callout described the Conference as “a common space for debating the multiple crises of capitalism and considering the possibilities that are emerging in response to it.” A number of the papers presented, and much of the conversation at the Conference, pondered the spatial aspects of capitalism and communism. Along with considerations of ‘common spaces’ and an ‘outside to capitalism’, the question of safety, and the desires to be safe, occupied much of our thoughts. Given the fallout from capital and its state forms, and because much of our ecological/social environments are ill and making us ill, discussion of ‘safe’ or ‘safer spaces’ is widespread and growing.

Yet there is no space that is completely safe and an understanding of this can make us feel more vulnerable. Similarly, sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others can increase our anxiety. As well, being involved in social struggles can expose us to harm, trauma and even death. The concept of safer spaces, as forms of self-defence, self-reliance, and self-healing, suggests a negotiated process and a shared responsibility that requires collective action.  To help cope with widespread threats to our bodies and psyches; to avoid doing harm; and to heal, nurture, and protect each other, we need to develop our healthcare tools and skills. Taking care of physical and mental health requires greater acceptance of physical and mental diversity, accommodation of differences, and recognition that dangerous subjectivities are both external and internal.  A safer space doesn’t involve the elimination of conflict, but better organisation of it. Here we can become more aware of our own feelings and behaviours, how we impact others, and attempt to ensure that clashes are centred on ideas and practices, not people. Developing our struggles for liberation we can explore new ways to recognise, understand, and articulate safer environments, paying more attention to spaces that tend to be hidden, neglected, or denied.  A variety of healthcare needs are already being addressed by the “strength of our collective hearts” in contemporary movements (such as Mindful Occupation), as well as through the creation of safer spaces in our families, friendship, and community networks.

As I mentioned earlier, Sonomi Suzuki’s Conference paper wasn’t the only one presented by our Japanese comrades about the importance of autonomous lives, solidarity, and “the potential for creating value which is antagonistic to capitalist value.” For example, Nozomu Shibuya’s paper on ‘Autonomous Subsistence as an Outside’ highlighted production where the aim is life rather than money.  He detailed “countless experiments (such as) the self-organisation of radioactivity monitoring, supporting evacuation and anti-nuclear demonstrations” in Japan that “create new relationships between members of the community . . . strengthening self-reliance, self-provisioning, and personal strength” and “reclaiming a sense of dignity”. While, in her Conference paper, Keiko Oikawa explored ‘The World From the Perspective of the Weeds’ arguing that; “When we view the world from the perspective of wild plants, a human activity that is not entirely enclosed by capital might become visible.” Keiko uses wild plants to cure illnesses and to promote the health of people and the environment. She sees this as a way of reclaiming environmental knowledge and breaking from market relations. By sowing and exchanging seeds, plant diversity and proliferation is encouraged through cooperation, increasing the richness of life. Although many people regard weeds as inferior, others see them as a source of wealth – a form of subsistence, independence and self-sufficiency. Keiko’s paper called on us to challenge conventional values, explore alternative frames of consciousness, and change our ways of relating to the earth.

sunday dinner japanDuring my brief trip to Japan I was housed, fed, and supported by wonderfully generous people. I took part in a stimulating and inspiring conference and saw some of Tokyo’s amazing sights. I also joined those who, every Friday night, protest against nuclear power outside the National Diet and Prime Minister’s office. Walking through the Tokyo rain I worried about which way the wind was blowing and when eating delicious meals I fretted about where the food had been grown. The best aspects of my trip were reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, meeting interesting people, socialising together and singing songs. Once again I was reminded of social, temporal, and global interconnectedness and how we are now witnessing two powerful surges – the crises and disasters of capitalism and common rebellions and revolts. As the clash between these intensifies – it’s time to live by the river.

Nick Southall

  1. waywardwobbly says:

    Reblogged this on The Golden Barley School and commented:
    a great piece by Nick Southall, originally at

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