The Guardian 26 September, 2007

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

People's property and the new vandals



When the Bolsheviks led the people of Petrograd in storming the Winter Palace to arrest Kerenskyís Provisional Government, the revolutionaries who actually carried out that historic task were among the poorest folk in the city: workers, soldiers and sailors.

Most had never been inside the grounds of any of the grand palaces that dotted the countryside of imperial Russia, except perhaps to work as yard-sweepers or the like.

Not unnaturally, when they got inside the Tsarís grand Winter Palace the first thought for many was to pick up anything of value that wasnít nailed down. However, chastised by their fellow revolutionaries ("Property of the people, Comrades") they not only turned out their pockets but turned around and read the riot act to their erring comrades until they too had emptied their pockets.

They were landless, poverty-stricken and uneducated, but they knew that the cry "Property of the people!" held out the promise of a better world for the poor and oppressed multitudes, and not just of the Russian Empire.

It is a slogan that recognises a fundamental truth: that the wealth of the world is the creation of the working class and other workers ó the peasants and intelligentsia. When the working people take over the factories, palaces and mines they are merely reclaiming their own, no matter what the "factory owners" call it.

However, in a society where wealth is distributed unevenly, such as it is in capitalism, notions of private property can be very seductive. And those notions remain just as seductive in societies that are endeavouring to build a socialist society.

Paradoxically, the more those preparing to build a socialist society are successful at a material level ó the more they improve the living conditions of the people ó then the greater the danger of petty bourgeois notions gaining ground. Individualism replaces the ideals of collectivism, and "Iím all right, Jack" becomes the slogan for more and more people.

Building a new society involves not just material things but also a change in the way people think, in their priorities and their choices. But when goods that people want are in short supply, the unscrupulous and immoral (those who continue to think in the old way, the way of capitalist society) can prosper by developing a black market, a "victimless" crime that actually undermines the very basis of a free democratic socialist society.

Capitalism, by its deliberate policy of emphasizing private ownership and downplaying and actively denigrating notions of public ownership and public responsibility, has only itself to blame if heedless youth treat public property with contempt.

They trash trains, spray graffiti "tags" over every blank surface they can find (including historic sandstone structures), break pieces off statues in parks and smash tombstones in cemeteries.

Denied an education that would develop their minds socially and culturally, their imaginations have been dulled by a lifetime of non-stop advertisements extolling the virtues of the consumerist lifestyle.

They are actively taught that the role and purpose of social interaction is nothing more than self-gratification. Is it any wonder they set fire to their schools, slash train seats, or commit other acts of social "defiance"?

For they are often acts of defiance and rebellion, ill-formed and unfocussed much of the time, expressing a generalised rejection of the values of the society around them while unable to offer any alternative as yet.

And of course, they are also taught by example to put themselves first and to put others a very poor second. So it is also not surprising that they care little for the hurt they might be causing someone else when they amuse themselves and show off to their equally mindless mates by smashing up a scout hall, wrecking a carefully restored vintage aircraft or throwing stones at a passing car.

In January, a silver 1955 De Haviland Dove, that was parked beside the runway at Warnervale Aerodrome on the NSW Central Coast, suffered an estimated $80,000 damage at the hands of vandals.

"In a frenzied attack", said the local paper, "the vandals smashed windows and navigation lights and bent the rudder, wing tips and engine cowlings. Interior seats, radio and navigational equipment were destroyed."

What a sense of achievement for them to contemplate afterwards, eh?

The original Vandals were a Teutonic race of people inhabiting northern Germany who in the early centuries AD settled in various parts of Europe.

Their reputation for wanton destruction began when, in 455 under Genseric, they captured Rome and plundered the city. They allegedly mutilated or destroyed every work of art they could find there, and gave their name forever more to mindless destruction.

When our modern-day vandals find a cause that can give their sense of rebellion a coherent purpose, when they find the way to sort out the truth from the lies and the cant that they are fed now, they will, I am sure, discover the intense pleasure to be derived from remaking the world.

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