Some say that Eden, a social experiment, was scheduled to coincide with the start-again mood after Brexit. By the time the people who made it to the end emerged, big changes had happened in the world. A Trump, a victorious Farage, a murderous jihadi phenomenon in Europe.
In my last post I commented that sharing societies required an immense amount of cultural groundwork to succeed. With that in mind I watched Eden – Paradise Lost, repackaged from last year and heavily trailed as an exposé of social dysfunction in a sharing community. Here’s what I learned.
Scapegoating. When Anton withdrew his company – though not his share of the work agreed with the others – he became a pariah and the common enemy around which the rest of the group, particularly the emerging white macho group, bonded. They obsessed over him and constantly picked on him for things others were forgiven, such as using certain materials in the construction of his dwelling. Anton’s sense of self was shaken but never broken. Raph, another impressively independent character with whom he became close, became sufficiently disgusted with the main group to join him. They worked hard, used their practical skills, sustained each other emotionally and created a comfortable home together. It was envy which shattered their existence. The engineering student Rob (who never made it into the macho group) was filmed talking about provoking physical violence as a pretext to get rid of Anton, an idea which he eventually enacted.
As soon as the white men formed their own affinity group the community was over. That they then sought to control people through food, that their meat-only diet obliged the vet to slaughter an animal a week, that they tried (successfully I think) to argue themselves out of doing the menial jobs, subjugated and sexualised the women, psychologically assaulted the gay man, and had the loner they were scapegoating expelled, and laughed at the distress of other group members, only followed from that. They pursued a separation, first withdrawing their company then negotiating to split the rations. Approached in liberal terms the segregation may seem fair enough. However as a group they represented a concentration of skills and power, and they became introverted man-children constructing shared hate-figures to bond over. This is the essence of why separate-but-equal always grotesquely deforms a society. Even so, accounting for their behaviour some of those men seemed to believe themselves victims of their own isolation. On occasion they would attribute their behaviour to being men, or being “left to themselves”. Glenn, enthusiastic hunter and carnist, and Titch, dangerous driver for kicks, characterise this group.
The treatment of women. Most of the women (Sam, Tara, Rachel, Jenna, Jasmine and Ali) left early. Their skills tended to be less directly useful to the early business of constructing dwellings and organising food and fuel. It seemed that not only did the men display impatience with women’s largely unsupported attempts to gain the practical skills like carpentry, men also successfully argued that everyone should work to their strengths. This left women with the jobs perceived to be less skilled. Everyone underestimated the work involved in the garden and it was left to one woman. When she struggled Titch and Raph demeaned her work without offering any support beyond blunt comment and advice. As more women left, those who remained became sexualised and objectified by the men. Menial work always means reduced power unless you can organise for collective bargaining. One major challenge to this was that food was short and the macho men were already controlling it. This was a major lesson for me – women must learn practical and technical skills that a less advanced society needs or they are likely to be subjugated in such a society.
The treatment of animals. The carnism of the macho group was a dark cliche. The idea that animals are not in their own societies but exist as food for men was a common sense in that group. In the end, the vet whom they made their accessory to slaughter tried to remonstrate with them, and on failing to rein in their diet became mentally unstable and left. I can only assume he continued for so long because he thought that he would conduct the killing in a more caring way that Glenn, the only other member licensed to slaughter. The show got me seeing more grades to the callousness, rather than collapsing all animal exploitation into one morass of unkindness and absent principles.
The stuff they didn’t earn. As Matt pointed out, the white macho group with the most survivalist mentality was the group which smuggled in a phone, sustained themselves with contact with the outside world and gained an unearned advantage. I was cheered when, after hearing that Anton would be expelled, he and Raph decided to raze their home to the ground rather than let anyone else live in it. I think I would have considered bequeathing it to the women, but would have assumed it would be requisitioned by the white macho group who were already behaving like the pigs in Animal Farm. I laughed at the incongruous sorrow Jack evinced – “We could have used that”.
In every community it’s worth keeping aware of the personal qualities we don’t choose, the equalities characteristics protected by anti-discrimination laws. I note that the affinity group was all male, white and heteronormative, while at 41 and 55 Anton and Raph were the oldest people in the community, Raph was Black English and Anton doesn’t look very Anglo either. The remaining group were, to paraphrase Katie, the women, the dark skinned, the gentle men, and the gay. However, both the groups which split from them were highly skilled and male.
What did they leave with? Katie and Rob the vet left with each other. Anton and his ally Raph, along with Katie and Matt, have the goodwill of the underdog-loving British public. Relatedly the dominant group Glenn, Titch, Oli, Stephen and Jack left as public enemies. If Corbyn, Trump and Le Pen have taught us anything it’s that publics of the global north can be sympathetic to anybody underestimated and maligned by the establishment regardless of what they stand for. Anton’s and Raph’s story of resilience in the face of all that small-minded, miserable hostility cheer us greatly.
I think things could have gone differently with a bit of social engineering from Channel 4. If women with more practical skills – the ones lower down Maslow’s hierarchy and more fundamental to the basics of survival – had been selected, the women wouldn’t have been so easily subjugated by the male white carnists. If they had thrown in a community organiser, anarchist or diplomat, they may have come to understand that a humane society stands or falls on how it handles minority, difference, and exception. You might say that wouldn’t make good television but I think there’s great interest to be found in the problems, resourcefulness and skills. Look how popular those kinds of programmes are – see for example Channel 4’s Craft It Yourself. Not to take any responsibility away from the white macho group, but in the end I have a sense that this community struggled so much because of Channel 4’s tabloid inclinations.
Finally, never trust anyone who puts too much stock in integrity, especially if it’s their own. Integrity is only important in situations where forces threaten to overwhelm you. Integrity is Anton and Raph, but it is also Glenn, Titch, Stephen, Oli, and Jack, who lived an untroubled, uncompromising existence with impunity derived from their powerful allies. I preferred Jack, the most pragmatic, introspective member of the white macho group, over the others any day. Integrity is also Trump, Farage, Corbyn and Richard Spencer, who were vicious underdogs before their stars rose. It is also Netanyahu who governs by fearmongering, and Kim Jong un, Erdogan and Maduro who govern by fear. I wish they all had less integrity and more kindness.