Alienation can be considered part of the process of capitalist exploitation, but it can also mean feeling cut off and isolated from the surrounding world. Alienation in the Marxist sense means that capitalist production separates the worker from the object or service he produces, leading him to separate the effect of his own labour from the products he uses that are made by others. At the same time, he becomes no more than a product or object himself.
Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor – to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.
In both respects, therefore, the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject. The height of this servitude is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker. (emphasis his)
This separation can often lead to alienation in the sense that I use it here: the feeling of being cut off from society, which leads to feelings so deadened that the outside word seems unreal. This is a common feature of depression, a disease, and dis-ease is an appropriate description, so common that it is considered the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide.
Communism, cooperative working associations, and unions were meant to address not only the economic injustice of capitalist working conditions, but also the loss of identity that comes with the lack of control over circumstances in working life. Justina expresses this aspect in her diary on Venezuelan workers’ cooperatives:
The key to overcoming capitalism’s human devastation and systemic greed is to be found in joining together with other members of one’s community or work place and acting to transform our economy and thus our society into one that places human needs and aspirations at the top of our priorities.
Unfortunately, most people in a capitalist system feel that they have little choice as to their working circumstances, and so try to regain their sense of self through how they spend their spare time, but often this is set apart from working life. Television, movies, and the Internet are one way of reconnecting, but they usually have very little relation to making a living wage. Some hobbies might use skills learned in the workplace, but they are often individual rather than collaborative efforts, and knowledge remains closed to society as a whole. However, in this case, ordinary people in one town, and then other nearby towns and villages, combined their industrial and home-based skills with a love of creativity to convert an existing tradition, the local Guy Fawkes bonfires, into a spectacular celebration of their own individuality and collective spirit: The Somerset illuminated carnivals.
Several elements combined to make Bridgwater a particularly likely place for these carnivals to begin. Guy Fawkes bonfires had been held there since 1605, and were immensely popular. The parading of effigies as a form of social punishment and rough justice was already present in Skimmington, a Somerset tradition that was also occasionally used in a humorous way to collect money for charity. Bonfires were times when ordinary people could get symbolic (and occasionally literal!) revenge on landlords, officials, and other powerful individuals who had aroused their ire. Later on unpopular bosses and strikebreakers were turned into effigies and burned, all under protection of Royal decree.
Another important contribution was that Bridgwater was remote enough from London that many minor transgressions, which would have been punished otherwise, were overlooked. Bridgwater had a had a reputation for both independence and contrariness as well. From the Peasants Revolt in 1381 to 1896, when the military was called in to smash the brick workers’ strike, Bridgwater workers were often on the wrong side of official policy. One example of this is squibbing, the use of large hand-held fireworks, which even now require windows to be boarded up where it is performed, and in the past, when they were still manufactured locally and were considerably larger, caused numerous injuries, occasional deaths, and once levelled four houses.
During the early years of the modern Carnival, the Home Office sent people to forbid explosives manufacture and performance of squibbing. They were resisted. When people were jailed for offenses, collections were gathered to support their families or pay their fines. In short, Guy Fawkes was always a time when low wage workers on the farms, and later in the factories, could reclaim a portion of their individual identities. Their distance from the seat of government and their cohesiveness helped ensure that their independence was not punished as much as it might have been otherwise. This helped give them a predisposition to resist the alienating conditions of industrial capitalism.
Most carnivals have elements that counteract feelings of estrangement through subversion of the status quo, whether that be the control of the Church over morality in traditional Fat Tuesday festivities, or social stratification and racism in celebrations such as the Caribbean carnivals and their diasporic offshoots in places such as Notting Hill. While Bridgwater Carnival still has occasional flashes of ritual subversion, particularly when the squibs are set off after the parade, the event has not been a truly antiauthoritarian since the burning of effigies ceased in the 1920s. Its role in counteracting the power of the state, its capitalist manifestations, and the resulting alienation currently lies elsewhere.
Like similar spectacles, Somerset carnivals create a world outside of everyday life during their performances. The difference between them and most other carnivals is that the other worldly aspect lasts all year for the participants. After next year’s entries are voted on in January, the concurrent design work and extensive fundraising begins. Depending on the design, a cart can cost upwards of £30,000 to construct. A very small portion of this can be generated from prize money and the small amount they receive from souvenir and video sales. While fabrication of the carts and costumes, practice for the production, and fundraising to support them might seem onerous, and there are some members who use all their leisure time doing them, these are tasks that are usually cheerfully undertaken. One club member describes the process this way:
1. Work my nuts off fundraising and building all year (but I love it).
2. Pull entry out the shed (and cry like a baby)
3. Get the pride of entering a procession with our entry, enjoy myself all the way around the route, and try to entertain the crowd.
4. Get hammered, do some bad singing.
5. Get more hammered, do some dodgy dancing.
6. Wake up not knowing where I am and how the flumping hell I got there.
7. Once sober enough to drive carry out necessary repairs on entry.
8. Repeat steps 3-10 for the remaining 6 carnivals!!
9. Take pleasure in smashing the bloody entry up.
10. Attend as many Dinners and presentations as possible with fellow carnivalites and repeat steps 4-6.
11. Return to step 1 and repeat all again.
Other aspects set Bridgwater Carnival and others in the West Country carnival circuits apart from carnivals such as Mardi Gras. The participants consider them primarily as a fundraiser for charity. While competition for the most elaborate and well-presented cart is fierce, the amount of money tossed by onlookers into the charity carts is the most important goal, and concern for this aspect unites all the competing clubs in a mutual goal which addresses local needs. The towns and villages that have carnival clubs also gain because the carts are so expensive to construct that club members put on numerous bingo nights, cabarets, reviews, fetes, and markets, so that there is a constant roster of events on the social calendar in many places that would not have them otherwise. As well, those that attend these events have an investment in the success of their carnival club further reinforcing community bonds
Carnival benefits the participants as well. Experienced personnel pass on their expertise in industrial skills ranging from wiring, painting, mechanical expertise, and computer aided design, as well as sewing, make up, and performance. The skill sets that have largely been lost in a large proportion of the working class as Britain attempts to refashion itself as a service economy are preserved, and the many young people who are involved learn skills no longer taught in secondary school, as well as the value of cooperation. Initiative, inventiveness and creativity are rewarded rather than suppressed, as is often the case in working life.
Carnival participants are just as likely to be involved in manufacturing or service industries where their labour is only a small part of a greater and inscrutable whole benefitting someone who may or may not be known to them, so Carnival does not address alienation in its Marxist sense. Nonetheless, the psychic aspect of deracination from a greater whole, and the feeling of helplessness this engenders is moderated. By forming small groups, where each individual is important and decisions are made democratically, and then forming confederations with other groups with similar goals, the Bridgwater and other Somerset clubs have enriched themselves and their communities, and incidentally light up the dark gloomy nights of November for those of us lucky enough to see a carnival first hand.
What lessons might this hold for systemic change for the rest of us? Business psychologist Dr. John Potter uses the Ramblers Carnival Club as a case study in a motivational management video produced by Live Action Media to show that companies could learn from the democratic nature of the club and its resulting empowerment. Unlike the current model of corporate hierarchy, there is “little evidence of command and control leadership within the Ramblers team, no evidence of toxic leadership and very little indication of any personal squabbles”. That “people; working unpaid and in their spare time, can be creative, motivated and filled with passion given the right circumstances. What they need is a vision, an opportunity to grow as individuals and the feeling that they are making a valued contribution to something worthwhile.” This echoes Justina’s observations that the cooperative model can place human needs and aspirations at the top of its priorities.
As for those of us who are stuck in a job where forming a cooperative would be impossible, and change in hierarchical management is highly improbable, change can be accomplished individually through sharing any ability, especially work skills, which might enrich others. Teaching anything from art to computer or accounting skills to young people, who might not learn them otherwise, will benefit both you and the community at large. Collaborations such as putting on a spectacle as they have done in Somerset, or setting up other programs such as collaborative gardening or car repair workshops help everyone to rely on each other rather than the corporate system. It’s time to subvert the current system of alienation in all its manifestations. Sharing knowledge is a good beginning.
I attempted to make this diary as short and to the point as possible, a difficult task for me as the Somerset carnival circuit is one of my passions. I wrote my master’s dissertation on the lack of governmental support, or even acknowledgment, of them. When I began writing it in 2010, Notting Hill was promoted as the oldest carnival in England. While it was a watershed event for the West Indian population of London, whose working class was profoundly abused after their immigration to England after WWII, my premise was that Bridgwater, like Notting Hill, had its foundation in similar working class struggle, and was likewise important to its own community for that reason. I would like to think (though it’s probably hubris) that all the moaning and growling I did while doing research helped. Both the Lottery and Arts Council have funded pre-carnival festivities for children this year, and the Bridgwater squibbers were included in the Olympic opening ceremonies at the sailing venue in Weymouth.
What could not be included, either in that paper or in this diary, is that the Illuminated Carnival is one of the few unique indigenous English art forms that has survived and continued to evolve throughout its history. The best entries are technical marvels with stunning costumes and make up done to professional standard…by farmers, bricklayers, factory workers, and homemakers: ordinary people who refuse to let their lives be ordinary.
Printed material I have used include:
Brown, R. and Hocking, C. (2004). Remember Remember: The Story of Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival.
Cozart-Riggio, M. (2004). “The Carnival Story”. In Cozart-Riggio, M. (ed.), Carnival: Culture in Action – The Trinidad Experience.
Evans, R. and Nicholls P. (2005). Somerset Carnivals.
Ingram, M. (1984). “Ridings, Rough Music, and the Reform of Popular Culture in Early Modern England”, Past and Present, Vol. 105, Issue 1.
Tallon, A. (2007). “Carnivals and Regeneration”. Town & Country Planning, August, Issue 72, pp. 256-260.
More information can be found at:
Bridgwater Carnival website: pictures and general tourist information
BBC website: links to more pictures and articles, including non-Bridgwater venues
Carnivals in Somerset Promotion Project: a consortium of academics and practitioners who have done a stellar job of publicizing the rich history of carnivals and their current role in the community
And most importantly, YouTube, where there are a great number of videos of individual entries and even whole parades. Some of the best short ones are:
And then there’s squibbing: