When I reflect on why I wrote this book there were a number of people and events that led me on this strange circuitous journey that has culminated in this book. Firstly, my parents had a significant influence on my interest and respect for creativity. As far back as I can remember my mother, Robin, was immersed in numerous artistic pastimes singing and playing the guitar; painting and drawing; Fijian fired pottery; a boutique fashion business; a business designing and manufacturing Sesame Street style puppets; and a limited edition international teddy bear business. Mum is still very active with pottery and her biodynamic garden in the country. My father, Bryan, is an avid photographer, lover of literature, and is a very creative cook; he was an old school alchemist who loved to create prescription potions for his pharmacy customers; and understood that health and well being was more than big pharma and that listening to people was a welcome elixir to those stressed by the modern world.
In the 1980s while I was at the University of Auckland I was immensely proud and impressed by Dad returning to University to do two undergraduate papers in English. One paper on grammar and the other on Chaucer. To this day his library is astounding and reveals a curious and creative fascination for, poetry, the classics and obscure literature. It was therefore not that surprising that I eventually ended up being taught politics at University of Auckland by two of their most intriguing lecturers, who considered worlds from opposite ends of the telescope. One with an eye to the history of ideas, the other to the future and the politics of information. Professor Ruth Butterworth, was an ex-Oxford don, who could clearly see the future of information technology and how vested interests could control the politics of information. It was a fascinating time in New Zealand as the Labour government sold off our state assets and I researched the lessons of the UK Post Office and how our government embraced the neoliberal deregulation of our information and telecommunications network. Prestel was an early forerunner of the Internet that Thatcher and her neoliberal cronies hoped would be the ‘universal database’ for the evolving knowledge economy. In 1984 it seemed to me to be an appropriate research subject as the Orwellian world started to take shape all around me. Ruth deftly supervised my Master’s thesis that laid the foundations for my life time’s interest in information technology and the secret world of political influence that it hides.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the telescope was Professor Andrew Sharp, a political historian, who had introduced me to the history of political ideas, ideologies, and strange beliefs. Despite his lucid introduction to the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, he managed to illustrate that these rationalists were far more flesh and blood than their royal portraits would have us believe. Not only was Sir Issac Newton prone to occultist obsessions, (possibly brought on by mercury poisoning) but his mathematical genius was focused on calculating the coming of the Antichrist. Looking at the history of ideas through Andrew’s looking glass made the Age of Enlightenment appear haunted by ancient ghouls rather than informed by logical empiricism. I was one of only two students who enrolled in Professor Sharp’s Master’s paper in Seventeenth Century, Millenarianism, or the study of the apocalyptic beliefs of revolutionary England. Andrew helped me to see how ancient religious myths and legends came to shape the technologies and ideologies of our most trusted rationalists.
Andrew Sharp told me about the wild and exciting world of the English Revolution and the radical cults with rockband-like names: the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers. It was a time of apocalyptic revelations and prophecies of the second coming and a utopian Heaven on Earth. The Ranters were anarchistic proto-communists who believed God was everywhere and in everything. This pantheism proclaimed radical equality for all men and women and agitated for the redistribution of land and the taking down of enclosures that barred them from the Commons. According to Christopher Hill in his book, The World Turned Upside Down, “The only name the Ranters appeared to accept for themselves collectively was ‘My one flesh’. This and their salutation of ‘fellow creature’ were intended to emphasize unity, with mankind and with the whole creation.” Ranters preached free love, and believed there was no such thing as sin, a world free of morality, and equality for all. The Diggers shared an ecological vision with the Ranters; the prominent member, Gerard Winstanley wrote: “every man and woman shall have the free liberty to marry whom they love”, and in another tract, “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth”. I was astounded, all of this peace, love and understanding sounded like Woodstock!
As I read, The Growth Delusion, by David Piling, I am reminded of Professor Sharp’s description of an 18th century Bentham who came to design panopticon surveillance, and our present day economic conviction defining happiness as the greatest good for the greatest number. Through his entertaining lectures and suggested readings I came to respect that apocalyptic archetypes were not just the silly fears of pre-scientific fools, but the ever present ghosts that haunt our own sub-conscious dreams. Andrew showed me that you might not agree with the strange religious and political beliefs of the past, but rather than pass judgement you could attempt to understand where they came from.
Just this weekend Sarah, my wife, and I were invited on a road trip with our good friends, Sarah Barnao and Steven O’Meagher, who took us to Kerikeri for a short well-earned break. We visited the old 19th century Stone Store where missionaries, under the moral guidance of Samuel Marsden would provision their missions. Steven had just completed a fascinating documentary series, The Story of Rugby, and while we browsed the store he pointed out an imposing tome on the shelf, The World, the Flesh & the Devil: the life and opinions of Samuel Marsden. He told me that through Sarah B’s cousin, an English academic, he had met the author, Andrew Sharp and interviewed him about New Zealand rugby. The memories of Ruth Butterworth and Andrew Sharp came rushing back to me. The original title for this book was, Apocalyptic Worldbending, and recalled those politics courses from the 80s. Strangely, earlier this week I had wondered what Andrew was up to and had looked him up online. My wife, Sarah, lovingly purchased this thumping great book and the coincidence fittingly rounded out the pattern of events that led to this moment that I am writing these words, and you are reading them. The debonair, life-loving, Andrew Sharp cited a man who I would have said was least like him, Samuel Marsden, who was fond of quoting, ‘hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue’. In some small way I am hoping that my book will honour both Ruth and Andrew’s erudition, and remind all those who want to cancel unpopular and obscure academic courses that have no perceived utilitarian benefit. It is precisely when you face a crisis that you need to avoid ‘group think’ and that divergent creativity is blessed by the odd, the unusual, and the alternate world view.
Thank you to Ruth Butterworth, and Andrew Sharp for inspiring me all those years ago. Thank you to my good friend Nigel Clark, who continues to write about our ‘inhuman nature’ and the worlds we barely comprehend but really need to. A big thank you to Paul Hewlitt who has had the patience to read my drafts and to give me such enthusiastic support and witty leads for me to follow. Thanks so much to my dear friend, Catherine Carter, the photographic artist, who shows us how we are all worldbenders and how urgent it is we think carefully about the world we are breaking. To all of my friends and family, and my colleagues at S23M who have given me support and encouragement to keep going. To my darling Sarah who smiles at my eccentricities and happily brings me detox teas while I appear to be lounging in bed reading and researching for this book. To all the brave World Builders, World Benders, and World Breakers your creativity makes life worth living!
- Hill, C. (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas during the English revolution. London: Temple Smith. p.207 ↵
- Hill, C. World Turned Upside Down, p.312 & p.134 ↵
- Actually, in the 1960s there was a movement influenced by the Diggers known as the San Francisco Diggers who harked back to those revolutionary times. ↵
- Pilling, D. (2018). The growth delusion: Wealth, poverty, and the well-being of nations (1st American Edition). New York: Tim Duggan Books. ↵
- Originally credited to François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) ↵