Root Menu

John Sloboda

In conversation with James Powell

Photo of Sloboda Bridge of Novi Sad, Serbia

The Sloboda Bridge of Novi Sad, Serbia. Destroyed by NATO bombs in June 1999, it is currently being rebuilt. In Serbian, Sloboda means “freedom”.

I struggle with the concept of leisure. Mainstream UK society promotes a rather limited view of work vs. play, where both are essentially presented as self-interested enterprises.  Work involves putting in eight hours a day to provide for yourself and your family, and the rest of the time is yours to devote to hobbies such as golf, DIY or going down the pub. I don’t see my life like that – almost everything I do is work. As far as I can see humans are designed so that their greatest satisfaction is in doing things for others. The tragedy for so many people is that holidays seem to be the highlight of their lives, and after the two weeks in the sun they return to the boredom and drudgery. Surely it should be one’s work that makes one’s heart sing?

My personal views about work and leisure are perhaps one legacy of having being brought up as a fairly serious Catholic. Whatever my misgivings about other strands of Catholic teaching (for example, its views on the role of women), I think that its social teachings are very sound. Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor has to be a primary human mission. My relationship with Catholicism now is complex. I am trying my hardest to put my beliefs into practice, but this is not an “off the peg” package, and there are no easy answers.

I think that uncritical allegiance to a set of beliefs or practices is one of the primary causes of human strife. Rigid attachment to positions handed down by authority is inevitably unhealthy. I do, however, believe that underlying most religious systems is a struggle to apprehend transcendental truths. Do people have a better chance of discovering these truths if they approach them within a religious framework? I don’t have a definite answer. Some very spiritual people are not at all religious. What I do feel very strongly is that spiritual maturity generally involves saying, “Yes, but…” to overly simple propositions. This need not mean rejecting religion; but it does entail searching for more mature approaches to the practice and interpretation of it.

Being the child of a mixed nationality marriage also formed my outlook; my father was a Polish refugee who came to England during the Second World War. He was a graduate scientist, but had difficulty finding graduate-level work in England because employers refused to recognise his qualifications. This was one effect of a very marked xenophobia in mid 20th Century British society, and an underlying manifestation of the racism which still infects so many aspects of contemporary life. Anti-Catholicism was also much more overt in England then than it is now. So from an early age I was aware at first hand of how human relationships were limited and soured by societally embedded prejudice.

I became interested specifically in peace and disarmament issues in my late twenties and early thirties, around the time the cruise missiles were sited on Greenham Common. There was enormous activism around trying to get those missiles away from Britain, and I got bound up in that. I also became involved with progressive thinking, not only about nuclear weapons, but also about how society was fundamentally organised. Greenham Common had been a massive rallying point for feminism as well as a whole set of other movements.

When the Cold War ended I became more optimistic, now that there was no longer this “enemy”. I thought that the big nuclear danger was over, things were getting better, so I could rest. For about a decade after the Berlin Wall fell I became interested in what you would call personal growth, through alternative counselling movements. The Kosovo situation catapulted me back into activism, in 1999. I simply could not believe that a Prime Minister I had elected, a Labour Prime Minister, would be the world’s cheerleader for starting the first bombardment of a civilian population in Europe since 1945. I was utterly shocked and stunned, and fortunately sufficient other people found themselves having a similar reaction. I think a different kind of antiwar activism took root at that point. Personally, I found myself involved in a movement called The Committee For Peace in the Balkans led by Alice Mahon MP. It was essentially a lobbying and campaigning group against the Kosovo war.

My problem then, and pretty much since, has been how the ordinary people are forgotten in these conflicts. In the run up to the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia western leaders’ talk was all “Milosevic this” and “Milosevic that”, “Milosevic has to understand…”, yet the strategy for dealing with an already terrorised population did not neutralise the terror but doubled it. If you are already terrified by the actions of a despotic leader then are you going to be less terrified by the combined Air Forces of NATO flying over and dropping bombs on you?

I suppose I thought, “What right has this club of rich men with high-tech military toys to decide which women and children die?” They have no more right to decide that than the despot who is sitting there doing bad things to his people.

What do you think it is that makes those people think that they do have the right to do that?

It is very hard to know how European nations would behave if there was no United States of America. Would they do that kind of thing? I don’t think so. Everything that European nations, in particular, do is either a response to or reaction to America. They don’t seem to have a truly independent stance on issues of global governance, because European nations are all part of the same neo-liberal, capitalist system of which America is the leader. My personal view, not necessarily shared by all the organisations I work for, is that everything that happens happens because it is in the short-term interests of the stockholders of the companies that make America economically strong. That’s the bottom line. It is designed to put more money in the pockets of rich people. Whether it is in the arms industry or in the oil business, at root that’s what seems to me to be driving this behaviour.

However, I don’t believe that it is right to personalise the issue; Tony Blair is not the problem as such. Every country has leaders who make huge mistakes, go off the rails, whatever – the point is that in democracies there are supposed to be checks and balances so that leaders who go badly off the rails and badly misrepresent their peoples’ will are removed. That is what the democratic process is about.

My concern, then, is not with Tony Blair as an individual, but rather with British democracy. What does it say about British people and British democracy that someone has been allowed to get away for so long with not acting in the interests of the British nation or the people of the world? It says to me that British democracy is very weak and that a scenario is easily possible where a Hitler-type could eventually take it over. I find that to be terribly worrying.

What I find equally troubling is that despite the fact that the majority of the British people have now expressed their displeasure with what the Blair government has done on the international stage they are still probably going to elect that government back to a third term in office! People say that this is to do with the relative weakness of the alternatives. Personally I don’t see it that way. I don’t believe that any country that calls itself a democracy can re-elect a leader who has broken international law and then hold its head up high. I don’t see how that is morally defensible. The fact that it has already happened in the United States says something profound to me about how American civil society has lost its way.

If we re-elect Blair that says to me that the British people care most about what I would call domestic self-referring issues. It will say that what matters to us is how much money we have in our pockets, whether the schools work, whether the roads work, and all these kind of things. Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting those things, but when those are being supplied by a government that has violated the fundamental rules that hold global society together then you ask yourself what are people voting for here? Do we vote for our own short-term material comfort and damn the rest of the world? If we do, then we get what we deserve – the fury and resentment of the majority world at our privilege and our lack of moral vision. We need a thorough re-evaluation of what our priorities are. I am certainly not putting myself on a pedestal; I include myself in all these criticisms.

We are facing certain ineluctable global trends; increasing disparities of wealth, alongside a globalisation of media and communications which makes people ever more aware of how economically deprived they are and allows them to perceive their relative deprivation ever more starkly. Secondly, there is massive depletion of the world’s resources that allow us to sustain the life we want – oil, water, clean air. If we don’t take hold of these issues they will destroy civilisation as we know it. I am not talking about this catastrophe happening in a distant future; I believe that it could occur within the lifetimes of our children.

Strong popular movements, for example the World Social Forum, who reject a certain comfortable way of looking at the world can be particularly effective in raising the public profile of these issues. But creating the conditions for real social change requires a continuum, a spectrum of opinions on these issues, so that we are not locked into the traditional divide of left-leaning radicals and activists on one side and the conservative mainstream on the other facing each other across an unbridgeable gulf. The challenge now is to break down that polarity by opening up space for a richer variety of positions between those two extremes; and by helping radical politics to be seen as “respectable”. I think we radicals have to convince people that we are the real “realists”. There is a prevalent notion that people in power are the “realists” and that radicals tend to be deluded idealists. If current policies are failing to recognise that we are on a runaway train to global catastrophe, then is it not the politicians who insist on the rightness of these policies who are the “fantasists”?

Take for example the massive denial by the American administration of the current environmental situation that is staring them in the face, or of the utter disaster that the situation in Iraq has unleashed in the Middle East; they are still saying in Washington that this is going to plan! I think that this is a product of an almost blind ideological commitment to a certain view of the world; the belief in the one-size-fits-all neo-liberal, capitalist model, and the conviction that the world will only be the place it ought to be when everyone has adopted that. Tackling a lot of these issues is my personal motivation and as you can see it is quite negative, I’m afraid, ultimately because I am fearful for our future on this planet.

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So how do you retain your sense of humour in the face of such issues?

I am not sure that humour necessarily plays a large role in my life; what sustains me more is beauty. We live on a planet of enormous beauty and so I am passionate about music, art, the countryside. And people as well! Despite all the mistakes that have been made, people are capable of great acts of courage, heroism, love, commitment; it sustains me when I see that, especially in the self-sacrifice of parents for children or family members for one another. I see it in people who after putting in eight hours of hard, paid work rather than just going off to the pub or whatever devote their evenings and weekends to voluntary and charitable work. Such people often seem to be inspired by the example of those close to and important to them.

That is something that gives me hope; I believe that the human personality is infinitely malleable so that when we see people behaving in a way which obviously changes the world around them for better we are capable and willing to emulate that. Deep down I think that everyone wants things to be right for themselves and other people. The difficulty, which is not trivial, is that we define “other people” too narrowly. Those for whom we are prepared to put ourselves out may be confined to family, locality, or country. It is very difficult to see and act on the notion that “other people” means everyone on this planet. It is very hard for us to understand the implications of that, because dealing with our immediate surroundings is always going to be a priority. Our locality is where we are, it determines who we meet day-to-day, who and what we interact with.

I think about people in Iraq a great deal. I am involved with a project called the Iraq Body Count Project where we track media reports of civilian casualties and keep a running total on our website of those killed. I am deeply involved with the suffering of the Iraqi people, but if you ask the question, “Are you really involved?” then I have to admit that for so much of the time it is little more than names and reports on a piece of paper to me. I’ve never been to Iraq – obviously I’ve seen footage on TV, but I don’t know what it feels like to be in that situation. I think being able to feel empathy is hugely important to how much we care about other people and act in their interests.

So how do you think we could cultivate empathy more?

… Perhaps it begins with practising it where it is possible? There seems to be a great lack of empathy and understanding even within our own society. There are some shocking statistics, for example, about the number of white people in this country who count someone black amongst their friends; it is a very, very small number. Surely then if you want to become more empathetic you have to reach out a little more into the society that is immediately around you?

Issues around empathy and awareness affect a lot of what the Oxford Research Group is trying to do in the fields of peace and disarmament. We try to create spaces in which those with different viewpoints listen to each other rather than just push each other into positions of polarised non-communication, thus allowing the flow of ideas to continue. I am personally particularly interested in doing that in Britain because that is the society that I live in, am a part of. There is always a concern in my mind about exporting “British” wisdom to other cultures: it can so easily be infected with a post-colonial paternalism. How can I be sure what is right for other people in other contexts? It is always easier to get a handle on dynamics happening within our own milieu than it is elsewhere.

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One thing that is clearly evident is that global problems can only be solved if the level of thinking is also global. I think such thinking is beginning to emerge. Out of discussions stimulated by the United Nations has now emerged with new clarity a concept of “human security”, which I resonate to because it ties in with my concern about how the actions of leaders play out on the street for the ordinary people. Human security emphasises the right of all people to live free of fear, free of hunger with the possibility of education, employment and healthcare. That is true security. There is a growing consensus that the intervention of one state in the affairs of another should take place when those rights are being denied and violated through civil war or genocide. If there is a way for the outside world to intervene in such scenarios perhaps it should.

However, as was the case in Iraq, when faced with an oppressive regime that was denying certain political and economic rights to people, but was not fatally compromising their access to education, food or healthcare, why should other states have the right to intervene? The Iraqi regime was providing key elements of human security prior to invasion, and the indication is that almost all aspects of security are now worse than before the invasion. By our actions we have diminished the security of these people in the name of bringing them democracy. Unsatisfactory as the situation under Saddam Hussein was, surely it should have been up to the Iraqi people to decide when they were going to say “enough is enough” and bring about change? Why did the outside world not intervene when Saddam began ethnically cleansing large sections of the Iraqi population in the late 1980s, killing hundreds of thousands? It was then that human security was being most heavily violated in Iraq.

We definitely need to widen the canvas for ways to resolve conflict and to bring about social change. One of the things we could support in countries of concern is the creation of civil spaces where people can meet at community level to articulate needs and hammer out policy. Of course, there are really tough cases where it is very unclear how to assist this process to begin, like in North Korea, but I think it is better not to focus too much on the small number of problematic cases. Instead we should look at the bigger picture, the fundamental global trends such as increasing poverty and widening wealth gaps, a problem which could be tackled by reforming the trade system. I am much more inclined to feel sympathetic to the Blair agenda in Africa because it is trying to achieve that aim.

For rich nations it is always easier to have a short sharp war in which you kill a few thousand people and leave than it is to take on the long-term task of divesting some of your economic privilege. Governments find it hard to believe that their electorates will keep them in power if they allow poorer nations to trade inside their borders on equal terms. So we go full circle back to this question of what is it that drives the individual voter? If it is simply naked short-term self-interest, measured by the amount of money we have in our pockets, then I believe we are heading for global catastrophe.

I didn’t have an epiphany which suddenly led to my current world view, but I have steadily been forced to question more and more of what passes for conventional wisdom about the way the world should be ordered. I think a lot of us grew up with a notion that these inequalities existed in the world, that they would always be there and that we could do nothing about them. I have become more and more convinced that human decisions cause these inequalities, through the unequal distribution of resources around the world. Until fairly recently I think most people have just assumed that the uneven spread of the Earth’s bounty was just one of those things people have to live with; if you find yourself on a productive piece of land, it is your good fortune. Now, though, we have an emerging realisation of what it really means to say that all humans are equal. To act on that requires a radical redistribution of resources.

In no sense do I believe that we can say in Britain that we deserve our economic privilege because we have somehow earned it. Those are concepts whose day has passed; we cannot go on operating as a planet with ideas like that still in circulation.

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What motivates me to run such projects as the Iraq Body Count is not just a strategic desire to make sure that heavy civilian casualties don’t happen again in the next war, but a very simple moral outrage. I want people to see and know that what is happening is wrong.  That is what sustains people like me from day to day. We have a determination to make sure that we shall not forget the innocent dead.

On the eve of the American election last November there were fifty celebrities standing in the cold in Trafalgar Square reading out the names of all Iraqi civilians killed thus far. It took four hours simply to read everybody’s name from that list once. It is examples like this one, where other people have taken initiatives that mesh with ours and have used our data to enormous effect, which gives me heart. When this happens you realise that you are not just bashing on about your own obsession in isolation, but that you are raising issues that have resonance in people’s hearts and minds, issues which motivates them to activism. I think the Iraq Body Count works to that end because we have an idea which is clear, simple and effective – it is incredibly powerful to simply know the daily details of who is being killed in Iraq. So we are slowly tackling global apathy to such issues.

Why do you think there is such a contrast in reactions – between the apathy most people seem to show to the situation in Iraq and the outpouring of sympathy we witnessed after the recent tsunami disaster?

Maybe because a significant number of people have been to those places hit by the tsunami so think, “That could have been me.” Also I think it was partly because the latter was a natural disaster. When the catastrophe is man-made you immediately get this blame-game. I have heard fairly sensible people say incredibly stupid things like, “The Iraqi people are responsible for their mess”, so that innocent deaths somehow become justifiable deaths.

I don’t think short-term outpourings of grief do much to change anything. Look at the enormous convulsions after Princess Diana died; they lasted about a month and then things just reverted back to normal. So I don’t see a link between such incidents and long-term social change. I do believe that long-term changes in society are possible, but it normally takes decades – look at the example of women’s gradually emerging equality within western society. It took more than a century and is by no means complete. So working in an organisation like mine you have to be humble about what you can achieve in a limited amount of time with a small number of people. The only worry is that our techniques for creating the drip, drip, drip of water onto the stone of human nature are too slow for the current crisis.

In my job there are lots of opportunities to be a personality, go on the radio, TV, be in the newspapers, but the real legwork is making the grassroots connections where you will not necessarily see short-term results from what you do. For example, speaking to a group of school pupils may plant a seed in someone’s minds that might take years to grow. You need to be ok with that; the realisation that as a result of your work, ten years hence, you may have helped one person towards a better course of action – and that makes your work worthwhile.

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I know a person who places recycling all of his waste at the centre of his daily routine. Every week his dustbin is empty; there is literally nothing for the dustmen to collect! I am sure that many more people could be capable of doing that if the will was stimulated in them. It is not the knowledge of how to do such things that is lacking, but rather it’s that people don’t give them very high priority. People need to be inspired or awed before they are energised to act, and maybe people with bright ideas and unusual energies need to be put more of their energies into energising others. So take the example of this guy with his recycling which is a hugely worthy activity: unless people get to hear about what he is doing and be inspired by it, he may achieve little more than satisfying his own conscience.

I think that people who end up in activist roles, doing things that are quite unusual socially, very often didn’t strategise it, rather they just fell into it. That was definitely the case for me. Although I can now rationalise what I am doing and why I think that it is important, if I look back over my life history I didn’t strategise becoming a professional peace activist! We have to recognise chance and all sorts of circumstances and perhaps unacknowledged ambitions that drive us. I was never motivated to earn large amounts of money. To me that would just not be success. From an early age I had a sense that I was a thinker and that success for me would be measured in a different currency.

I was a bookworm as a child, entirely entranced by any kind of fiction. That was partly because I had many illnesses, which forced me to miss almost half of my primary schooling. So one way in which I passed time during those periods of illness was to read; that is something that has never left me. My life would be hugely impoverished if I did not have access to the printed word. Now I read newspapers and political stuff because I simply don’t have the time or energy to read fiction. I worry about a certain smug, unhelpful political literature that has emerged, for example the large number of books gaining a cheap laugh at the expense of George W. Bush. It is all very well feeling a sense of superiority to him, but the real question is, “OK, Bush is wrong – but what are you doing about actually building viable alternatives to his policies?” Unfortunately, more often than not the answer seems to be not as much as we could be…

Life seems to knock people out of states of smugness, things happen to them that expose the inconsistencies in their thinking and so confronts them with crises. The only way out of that seems to be to work through those issues rather than just ignoring them. My advice to others? … I’m not hugely into advice … that perhaps others like myself, i.e. educated white males, perhaps sometimes have no idea what they are talking about! If you look at the problems in the world today many of them have been created by white men in positions of power.

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My relationship to the study of music is quite conflicted at the moment. I have spent a very large amount of my professional life researching the links between music and the emotions, discovering explanations for musical talent, finding out how we can make Western music education work better. And then I gradually realised as time passed that so much of my work had been culturally restricted. I started asking myself, “What is the purpose of helping those who already have a lot to have even more?” That is what made me step back from the whole enterprise. What is the point of pouring resource into fixing the pathologies of Western music when we could learn so much more from the indigenous music that one could find in, say, a traditional African society?

There are some things which I have learnt from music. I think it is a way of defining community because it is something that everyone can join into, and I really feel that is something we have lost in this country. My eyes were really opened to this when I went to Ireland for the first time a few years ago; in any pub or village hall you see people of all ages and ability making music together. It really made me feel that in England we are deprived of something by the lack of a folk tradition in our society; the closest people seem to get to music here is karaoke!

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My future is somewhat uncertain. I sense that what I need to do is really experience how other people live in a way that will generate more empathy and deep understanding. I would like to spend some time living amongst people who have rather little materially, but who are probably far richer than the average British person is culturally, emotionally and spiritually. I don’t want to catapult myself into a society where I am a complete alien, so where exactly I might go is something I haven’t yet worked out.

I know that I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the box-life of Britain; so many people now are living on their own, shut away and isolated from others. People have become so inward-focused; television is their window on the world, their town hall, which means they don’t have to actually go outside. There is no street life anymore – the closest we seem to get to that is what passes for entertainment in the city centre on a Friday and Saturday night. I would like to know what it is like to be in a society where the fullness of life is right there on the street in front of you. I can remember travelling I’ve done in Southern Europe; you’d pull up in the town square and there would be the old men sitting under trees and children and mothers and you felt you could plug straight in to what the culture was about.

How would you like people to remember you?

I don’t necessarily want people to remember me … I would rather people know me as someone who doesn’t believe that he has found any long-term answers but who at least feels he has found a way of pointing towards what might be the direction in which we need to move. Yes, moving forwards with a lot of confusion still…

January 2005