Apparently there are five common regrets of those dying: Not living a life true to yourself; working too much; not having courage to express yourself; not staying in touch with loved ones more; and not letting yourself be happier.
Those who know me, and regular readers, will be aware of how I was pulled from school at the age of 11 by my mother because of bullying, leading her to defy authorities at the time by instead teaching me herself, at home. In a time of COVID-19 — where people are fighting to stop authorities dragging their children into schools just so more of the working classes can in turn be put into similarly unsafe environments, often to generate profits for capitalists — this may seem particularly pertinent.
But the reason I mention this is because my partner has always been passionate about sociology, perhaps a major reason for us connecting ten years ago, as we’re both fascinated by society’s impact on the individual (and vice versa), and me being removed from a common part of people’s sociological development as a child had a huge impact on who I grew up to be.
My ex-wife once said about my parents, “Your dad is a socialist, but your mother is a frickin’ anarchist.” It was quite the observation, as I’d never really seen it like that at the time, but it seemed accurate. As a child in Doncaster, my mother brought me up to question authority, even downright defy it, and was key to the decision to pulling me out of school and teaching me herself at home while my dad worked 12-hour shifts at the factory; he, meanwhile, was an old school unionised worker albeit cautious of industrial actions when he had “kids to feed at home,” and though he tolerated a lot of behaviour from us over the years this was likely a great deal due to my mother’s stubbornness in allowing us freedom, and his instinct was instead sometimes very much towards authoritarianism. He was also from the era of “post-war consensus” and talked of being able to leave a job on a Friday, and go to another job on a Monday, because he had freedom to choose, and therefore more leverage. In this sense, he believed, jobs were good; work was good. Yes: work. And lots of it.
That kind of old fashioned mentality of “the working man” was something I grew up to slightly resent; when relatives discussed what they deemed to be exemplary behaviour, they spoke not of compassion or sensitivity but of “hard work” and an expectation of going to a workplace most days of the week, impressing a boss, getting your head down, and getting ahead; fleeing desperate poverty and keeping the wolves from the door was ingrained in every one of them. My grandfathers, both coal miners, had sacrificed their health for their work on a serious scale, and one of them, upon dying, was found to have stashed thousands in cash in hiding places around his home because he didn’t trust banks after the Great Depression.
All of that simply scared me, if anything: the grim world of school classrooms and gathering in assembly to pay homage to gods and masters essentially scarred me for life, to a point where the notion of similar authoritarian structures expecting me to give up the best parts of my week to labour so I could make profits for some capitalist giving me orders — enabling me to meet perverse expectations and “live to work” rather than “work to live” — was disgusting to me. I questioned the very concept of most work: whether it was genuinely contributing something valuable to society or not and whether work itself could be shared out better and fairer amongst all people based on what needed to be done (from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs), and my relatives had little time for such ideas (like, literally little time at all). To them, labour was everything. And Labour, too. By the time I was old enough to vote, the idea that I’d choose the odious Tony Blair’s “New Labour” just because it wasn’t the Conservative Party seemed pretty weak and pathetic to me; breaking with family tradition, I refused to cast my first vote in that way. No, I wasn’t fitting in. In my teenage years, I expressed concerns for my future to my mother, and we agreed that a good way of me avoiding the usual path followed by my family was to use my brain a different way.
My mother felt I was ready to take GCSEs by the time I was 14 years old, so simply lied on registration forms — as a result, the few certificates I gained have a different date of birth listed than others. With a focus on media, I continued at colleges in the pursuit of “further education” and “higher education” but being told to adhere to rules I didn’t see sense in was a major problem, not to mention just simply working within systems I didn’t create for myself to achieve any personal aims; I was passionate about structures when they made sense and were for a collective, common good, but I loathed systems that seemed to exist “just because” and which were reinforced by people in positions of authority. If I wasn’t buying into something, I wasn’t able to follow through with it. Yes, formal education was a bit of a disaster for me.
But it was in college where my survival tactic was to take inspiration from comic book characters and pro wrestlers and adopt a persona in order to countenance even showing up and being around so many other people, wearing all kinds of outlandish attire and even carrying a silver-topped walking cane for a time. As it turned out, it all worked better than I’d even hoped, and as a bizarre unexpected side-effect actually inadvertently made me quite popular for a time, which never really sunk in until years later. I found that if you act a certain way, as if you have confidence, eventually genuine confidence comes about.
My willingness to stand up for fellow students, my rejection of authority, and my distrust towards typical patriarchal working class institutions — from traditional trade unions and political parties to corporations — led to me being referred to as the “anarchist” of college, and then when one of the few teachers (a Marxist, of course) who liked me saw me pull out a £20 note he playfully ribbed me by calling me “bourgeois” and I co-opted it as “the Bourgeois Anarchist.” There are sketches and scribbles and notes from my younger years with this nickname scrawled on them. In reality that £20 was all the money I had to my name, and I wanted it on my person, not in a bank. But I went back to that teacher before I left college and made the mistake of asking him just how hilariously ridiculous and nonsensical a tag like “Bourgeois Anarchist” was for me, and he began explaining, “Well, Jay, there actually were some anarchists who were part of the bourgeoisie…” and though I wasn’t that interested at that time, for years I remained amazed that we’d only had the internet rigged up in the college library for a few months by that point, and the idea of knowing everything he knew just from reading books alone was bloody impressive. Imagine his bookcase!
And then came a meandering period of angry resistance to the norms of adulthood, several aimless brushes with the law, and a good few beatings where I got my head kicked in because of my big mouth or downright stubbornness, with lifelong injuries sustained as a result. But it was all staving off the inevitable, and I ended up in Tony Blair’s “New Deal” system of “welfare-to-work,” where I got a basic welfare cheque for going to work 9-5, Monday-to-Friday, at an “appropriate placement.” My youthful anger was diverted back into better directions: I went on the historic march against Blair’s invasion of Iraq on February 15th, 2003; I protested deportations of asylum seekers; I attended demonstrations at detention centres; I helped organise anti-racism concerts; I joined protests against the BNP – almost always carrying a camera and trying to help raise awareness of the causes via outlets such as IndyMedia. But such actions became more limited the more my freelance media work increased.
I’ve detailed this period of my life before on this site, but what is particularly interesting is how the patterns of work, even if they were in the “voluntary sector” of not-for-profit social enterprise, pulled me into the patterns we all find ourselves in as a working class: we “grow up” and accept that we have to pay the bills, and compromises are made, and for me that meant being that popular college kid I never set out to be, but in the workplace: running my own social enterprises, bringing in funding, hiring people, and then working alongside community leaders and councillors and eventually buying into the Labour Party because (you guessed it) it wasn’t as bad as the Conservative Party, and we needed to ensure there was investment in our communities from on high. Years later, one person confided that at the time I was seen as the guy who brought the money in for the local media and arts jobs for many people; at the same time, I was scrubbing up and wearing a shirt and tie and “keeping up appearances” so I could get the money in the first place. We all played our part waiting in line and slapping on smiles for whoever up ahead of us needed it. There was no solidarity, only charity. All the bohemian arty farty party nights and burlesque shows meant nothing in the end. Once the opportunities dried up, so – funnily enough – did the friendships.
My twenties turned into my thirties and I was making guerrilla documentaries (often with my own money, and paying people with my own money, cluelessly failing to include it all in my tax returns) about subjects such as post-industrial South Yorkshire’s transition from coal mines to call centres; documentaries critical of the surveillance state, New Labour, and the Tories. I bagged interviews with fairly well-known names such as Teresa Hayter, Philippe Legrain, Shami Chakrabarti, Peter Tatchell, Richard Murphy, and Owen Jones who I knew long before he was writing for The Guardian, at which point he left me and my crew waiting for hours on a scheduled interview we’d arranged and travelled to London for — because Channel 4 asked him for an interview instead, leading him to stand us up in favour of them. I allowed things like that to happen because I was being pulled into that world, of political machinations and liberal establishment; I was so engrossed in one of my films’ focus points of New Labour’s threat to civil liberties that I platformed Henry Porter’s perspective that even Winston Churchill would be “spinning in his grave,” pondering this in one scene as I stood looking up at the former Prime Minister’s statue in Parliament Square (where protests were banned), before staging a one-man protest myself carrying blank placards with slogans digitally applied afterwards, making it legal at the time but “illegal” once screened in the film.
When, at a screening, I held my usual Q&A, a woman stood up and pointed out that the vile bigot Winston Churchill himself was seeking to extend restrictions on civil liberties beyond the Second World War, and I had no choice but to concede that even though that may have been the case, my tactic was to appeal to people like…well, my dad. But was I that different from him? As soon as I left school my interest switched from soccer to international pro wrestling I’d seen through the magic of satellite television, but now I was all grown up, I was going to football games with him as a way of winning him over, and it worked for a time. I even ended up on the committee of a supporters’ trust and then coaching a women’s soccer team for just under seven years.
I was in the Labour party and at various times pushed to run as a candidate; I was running social enterprises; I was running a football club; and…I was probably, in retrospect, just running, from something else entirely. I was foolish to think it wouldn’t catch up with me. With us “Corbynistas” in Labour (where my MP plotted to oust the leader we’d selected), and us “lefties” operating under the auspices of the Football Association (where a referee called us “fucking communists”), I was blocked from pushing anything any further both culturally and systematically, stopped dead in my tracks, chewed up, and spat out. Once I was no longer playing the games by the traditional rules, I ceased being useful to people. By this point I wasn’t even managing social enterprises anymore as I couldn’t abide hierarchies. I was only ever allowed to be part of these traditional structures and cultures so long as I didn’t rock the boat. I had been kidding myself. Because I’d been living a lie. I didn’t belong.
When I first became an adult, I wore the proverbial mask of the anarchist as a way of surviving; then, throughout my adulthood, I was an anarchist wearing a mask to hide it in order to “survive.” In retrospect, Sunday league football was like being back in school, making up for time I’d avoided at age 11; I was never truly myself in party politics or council meetings or parties promoting art for art’s sake. Yes, I was home schooled in a coal mining town. Yes, a kid from a poor background was flattered and felt “important.” Yes, I was self-employed — “my own boss” as it were — but other than that, truth be told, there was nothing much to separate me from the compromises of the relatives I knew as a child, and dreaded becoming. Yes, I was never on a payroll and approached everything with a DIY punk ethic. But ultimately I was still playing my part in the same systems of oppression. I’d lost my way. And I finally came to realise and accept that.
So it was kind of funny, in 2020, when people saw my months-long retreat from social media (and much of society in general) as perhaps a symptom of the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone who spent much of my formative years on my own, at home, learning, I was probably able to deal with the cautionary measures necessitated by coronavirus better than many, actually. No, what the COVID-19 pandemic did was expose capitalism for what it always was: a system based on impossibly endless growth, extracting resources from the planet and its people in pursuit of profits for a capitalist class that rely on exploitation of said resources for their own gain. What, in fact, actually took its toll on my mental health for a while was how the pandemic shockingly demonstrated that so many people were able to dismiss facts and logic and rationality and compassion based on statements from authority figures driven by capitalist motives.
It’s why COVID “denialism” has been promoted by so many capitalists: unlike furloughed workers, as Rishi Sunak suggested, it is he and his party donors who are “addicted” — addicted to the same old capitalist system, they fear an alternative vision, of a world where workers mobilise in solidarity to seize the means of production for themselves rather than the 1%, where workers enjoy the fruits of their own labour, where work itself is distributed fairly, where people have more time to relax, and rest, and read, and learn, and enjoy the best part of the day more often, and where society’s system is run by and for communities rather than corporations. It’s why they keep trying to force people to go back to “normal” before it’s safe to do so, when in fact a simple solution (other than not encroaching on and exploiting nature in the first place, creating a pandemic) would have been to send everyone home, give them everything they need, and get rid of everything that isn’t needed, wiping out the virus almost entirely. But that would have been a fundamental denial of the absurdities of capitalism itself. So instead, they’ve allowed over 100,000 people to die in the UK alone, even telling people to “eat out to help out” capitalism, an utterly offensive campaign. It’s like the 1950s where Americans were told they’d defeat the supposed threat of the Soviet Union by buying and consuming more capitalist American products — advancing suburban sprawl…so that everyone needed a house…and a TV set…and a car…and so on; isolated and alienated from each other and looking to hierarchical structures and figures for guidance. And the Russians were supposed to turn everyone into robots! It’s insanity. And as the saying goes, “capitalism is chaos, anarchism is order.”
Anarchism has always been in the back of my head, ever since my college days. Now I get it. As soon as you reject the illusion of the horizontal line from “left” to “right,” and instead see society’s issues for what they are: a vertical line, of the capitalist class using systems of hierarchy to dominate the working classes below, that’s when you get it. It’s like a light bulb switching on, and it illuminates everything around you, enabling you to see clearly.
Of course, as an old friend enjoyed reminding me while claiming my website entries are about him (they’re not and never have been, until this:) “It’s a capitalist world, my man.” It is indeed. It’s not easy being an anarchist: You want to help create a new world in the shell of the old; You care about the planet and the people on it, and future generations of people’s kids, not just your kids; You see the world as how it can be, rather than just as what it is. One of my partner’s all-time favourite quotes is from the anarchist Murray Bookchin:
The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.Murray Bookchin
At this time, even those of us who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, or suffered long-term health issues from the coronavirus, are found to be frequently expressing gratitude to just be alive. That’s good, of course. But when the time comes to face death, we sure as hell don’t want to be feeling regret over not being true to ourselves, or working too much, or not expressing ourselves authentically, or losing touch with loved ones, or failing to allow ourselves to be truly happy.
Hey, it’s never too late to be true to yourself. And to try and do some good for others.
Like my work? You can support me at Liberapay.