There was a storm in a teacup recently when the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, used the verb “to Welsh”, meaning “to renege on an agreement”, leading to outrage in some quarters about this slight to the Welsh. Not that there aren’t plenty of people quite willing to denigrate the language and culture of Wales, but I think it’s unnecessary to protest on this occasion. As I understand it, the expression dates back to the early mediaeval period, when Wales and England were still separate polities. It was far from unknown for English debtors and other fugitives to slip across the border into Wales, out of the reach of English law. Hence, “he’s Welshed” – he’s run away to Wales. Rather than huff and puff, it would have been better to reflect on the traditional fairness of Welsh law and custom compared to those of our neighbours and eventual conquerors.
This got me thinking about the ways in which a community can become resilient. An important factor is being an alternative, attracting those who have something to contribute but who, for whatever reason, no longer consider their home society to be legitimate or endurable. They join a new culture partly because it’s there but also, perhaps, because it’s innately attractive. I alluded to this in my previous post on dance, but didn’t follow it up.
Some data points…
Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts – Barti Ddu, or ‘Black Bart’ – had such a love of music that he hired musicians to play on deck as his ship went into action. Another Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan, ended up as Governor of Jamaica, and was immortalised… as a brand of rum.
This brand in turn was referenced by Julian Cayo Evans (“Cayo”), the leader of the 60s nationalist movement, the Free Wales Army, on a CD: The Marching Songs of the Free Wales Army. He mentions that the labels on the bottle carry a Welsh word – the name of Morgan’s ship, Undod, or ‘Unity’. (This may or may not have been true then, I don’t know; sadly, it’s not true now).
Cayo led one of the last direct-action groups fighting for Wales and its culture. The most recent was the 1980s group, Meibion Glyndŵr, who conducted an arson campaign against holiday homes, left vacant in Welsh-speaking communities whilst driving property prices out of reach of young locals. Having strong community support, they were never identified.
Barti Ddu and Harry Morgan were the commanders of pirate ships: “floating republics”, moving at will from safe haven to safe haven. Their crews were mostly volunteers at a time when Navy ships were crewed by unwilling – effectively kidnapped – press-ganged sailors. Navy and merchant ships operated on the basis of brutal discipline; the pirate ships were democratic. They were drawn from the Old World and the New and included large numbers of former slaves, freed by the pirates. The mainstream society of the day was extremely hierarchical, with the system stacked in favour of the already rich and powerful; crime and dissent were punished very harshly, and the poor majority were kept very firmly in their place. The pirates, attacking the property of the rich, were part of an international proto-revolutionary movement, existing beyond the reach of state power, offering haven and the possibility of freedom. In fact, they filled the same niche as the original Cossack communities, on seas of water rather than seas of grass. Their revolutionary role is contextualized and explored in depth in ‘The Many-Headed Hydra“, the excellent study by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.
A previous generation of pirates were the ‘renegadoes’: Christian sailors, soldiers, and ordinary citizens who “turn’d Turk” – adopting Islam and joining the forces of the Barbary pirates in Morocco, and raiding shipping and coastal towns around mainland Europe, the British Isles, and the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas. This was also in many cases a rejection of the social and political systems of the European nations of the time. Both generations of pirates have been written about by Peter Lamborne Wilson – first online, under his nom de plume Hakim Bey in Pirate Utopias, and subsequently at greater length in a great book: Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes.
During my childhood, I used to love a TV series, The Water Margin. Based on a classic Chinese novel, it tells the story of 108 rebels who retreat to the margins of society, in the marshes of Mount Liang. There, they gradually build an alternative society and rebel army,swelled by people who ‘defect’ from the unjust and oppressive society of the time. During my time in China, I came to understand that this alternative, a relatively stable society with a territorial base, was linked to the jianghu, the ‘fellowship of the lakes and rivers’: an informal society of “youxia (‘wandering martial artists), nobles, thieves, beggars, priests, healers, merchants and craftsmen”. The jianghu existed partly outside mainstream society, and partly within it. Members might have mainstream jobs, even important positions, within the dominant culture, but their loyalty, and the rules they respected and followed, were those of the jianghu.
These days, I live in Russia. I’m currently working my way through “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus“, an excellent and accessible book by Charles King. It came as a surprise to learn that Russia had its own renegadoes. Running away to join the Cossacks was no longer an option at that time, so instead unhappy Russians went to ‘the Other’: the mountain tribes or gortsy of Dagestan and Chechnya.
Desertion from the army of the Caucasus was a problem throughout the period of the highland wars. The move from being a Russian soldier to being a willing prisoner of war simply required one step – often a rather small one – in an entire chain of captivity. An ordinary soldier might begin life as a serf, the effective property of one or another Russian landowner. He might be drummed into the army or navy, under terms and for a period of service over which he had no control. […] For the average Russian infantrymen or seamen the leap from soldier to prisoner and back could be a move from one form of captivity to another.
Stories of tsarist soldiers who fled to the mountains and eventually adopted Islam are legion.
The MG activists exemplified Mao’s dictum that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea“. They also, though, bring to mind another of Hakim Bey’s concepts, the Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ. In this case, the community language – Welsh – was very largely second-class as far as the Establishment was concerned, and wasn’t spoken by the agents of the state. This created a space within which the guerrillas could exist without being visible to the authorities.
Bringing all of this together, there are lessons for those of us looking ahead.
First: the open, democratic, societies ruled by law, which were the Western ideal during the twentieth century, have been hollowed out and no longer exist in any meaningful sense. As former British ambassador Craig Murray puts it: we have become a Helot Society. Still, huge, game-changing shocks are imminent, which will take us into unknown territory.
Second: this is a society in which the increasingly impoverished masses exist to serve the ruling class, and obedience is strictly enforced. Author Charlie Stross points out the similarities between today’s UK and a hypothetical Soviet Britain.
Thirdly: there are cracks in this system. In particular, agents of state influence such as the police and fire service are already severely discontented, because of changes to their pension schemes amongst other things.
Fourth: the state and its media are already and increasingly seen as illegitimate. In the UK, this feeling is widespread in post-referendum Scotland. It’s spreading through the rest of the UK as well, if the attention Russell Brand has been getting is anything to go by.
So: some thoughts. A resilient community might do well to:
- operate on the basis of relationships, with a few safe havens, rather than through control of defined territory (that would be for a later stage in the process of social and economic collapse). Territorial control, such as that of mediaeval Wales, or Chechnya, isn’t an option at this point in most cases;
- build such safe havens in ways that might be geographically inaccessible (the pirate ports) and/or spaces which are socially and culturally inaccessible (the Welsh-speaking communities which sheltered MG);
- offer a refuge, greater security and freedom to refugees from other groups, so long as they are willing to adopt the community’s ways;
- cultivate internal undod: unity.
More on this to come.
Image credits: Sunrise on 12th Century Dolbadarn Castle in Llanberis by user Hefin Owen on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.