Anders Lustgarten’s new play has some lines in it that are so sharp and true that you’ll want to interrupt it to applaud. The man himself is also not short of a few good lines when I meet him to discuss it in a café near his home in Bow. He has the same angry clarity in person as on the page: “I genuinely believe austerity is a very conscious form of coup. It is a deliberate attempt to transfer more control and social wealth to an even tinier elite. This is the most pervasive system of propaganda I’ve ever seen, and I studied Maoism.”
Clearly a man who has studied many things, with a degree in Chinese Studies from Oxford and a PHD in Chinese Politics from Berkeley, Lustgarten’s play, If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, looks at austerity and the crisis facing our political and financial system.
“I think there’s an appetite for it right now. I think the people will love it but a lot of the critics might not. Genuinely provocative things don’t always go down very well. I have a feeling they’ll try and call it agitprop, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. It’s far more nuanced and subtle analysis of how things actually are than most non-political plays. It’s actually looking at the effects of major systems on real people and not in a dogmatic way but in quite a realistic, practical way. What it is is anti-prop.”
Essentially what I’m trying to do is to counter the propaganda that markets and financial markets in particular put out all the time. Propaganda saying that we are most free when we are individuals, that we can’t do without markets and financial services. There are certain forms of subtle propaganda that absolutely dominate this society.”
The first act is set in the world of finance and the second act features the occupation of a disused building in the style of the Occupy movement. Why did you chose these settings?
“When you question the system the first question that is chucked at you is; what’s the alternative? It was the first thing that was always said to me when I was with the Occupy movement. Well, it’s not like that. It’s nothing to do with that. The first step in any political resistance is Je refuse and that’s what Occupy was. It wasn’t intended to be a programmatic five hundred page manifesto on how to run the health care system; it was a literal refusal to accept the system as it is. It was literally just sitting there and saying Je Refuse. What a lot of people who weren’t part of the movement responded to or became interested in was that there were a load of people out there who were willing to freeze in a tent to register their refusal and rejection.
The second half looks at the growth of ideas such as ‘bankers are wankers’ which is really not useful. I don’t think I’ve portrayed them in that way in play. ‘Bankers are wankers’ implies that all this mess is down to one or two dickheads, it builds the idea that if we just had slightly better people in charge of politics or finance then things would be different and this prevents people focusing on the bigger framework. I’ve asked the actors to show the bankers as people just doing their job; people who are unaware off effect on other people because they never move into those other people’s worlds. The thing about Occupy was that it was in person. There is very little shared experience between people from different strata’s of society these days. People talking to other people face-to-face is really, really important.
Lustgarten, until this week had very little in terms of an online profile: “I don’t go out of my way to have a public profile- I don’t believe in Twitter and social media and all that horseshit. I feel that online, have-your-say forums and groups are really destructive. They syphon off people’s general sense of frustration into a big long pointless bitter moan. Most of online life is actually pretty disgusting. It’s a very unhelpful way of communicating with each other.”
A character in the play makes the remark: “You go to Oxford not to learn. “ Is that something you believe as an Oxford graduate? He laughs. “If you study PPE at Oxford, you are learning the propaganda of the system. How liberal capitalist democracy is best possible system. There may be some flaws but essentially it’s the best we’ve got. I studied Chinese. I didn’t do PPE for a very specific reason; what I tried to study was the system that is, purportedly, the antithesis of the west. I thought by studying a genuinely different political system I’d more learn about ours.”
That’s a very informed decision for someone to make when so young. Where you always interested in politics?
“I had an instinct. I grew up in Oxford. And living there makes you very aware of privilege. There is a great benefit of going to Oxford University or hanging out around Oxford students: You will never be afraid again of the elite of the United Kingdom. You see just how mediocre and uninspiring they are. I mean, of course there are bright people everywhere but there are more bright people in the prison system where I used to teach than in Oxford.
When I was doing my PHD in California, I started to volunteer on Death Row at Saint Quentin. I was teaching history of art (which was interesting as I knew nothing about art). I was very frustrated with American academia. I think there is something profoundly wrong with analysing human emotions, behaviours and instincts by turning them into agglomerated stats. I don’t regard quantitative methods of statistical analysis as a valid way to understand why people do what they do. “
Describing himself as an activist, as well as working with Theatre Uncut and Occupy, he has worked on development projects from Europe to the Congo, advising governments and seeing how austerity and privatisation policies play out on the ground. I ask him about this activist side of his work and how it feeds into his writing.
“The whole purpose of turning moral and political questions into numbers and finance is that you take away the blood and the passion. The whole point of using econometrics as way of evaluating human need is that you don’t have to look at starving people, or at lonely and depressed people. You can just say, this is the system that we need to implement to achieve X% growth. It becomes a purely technocratic exercise.
What’s fascinating in doing development work is that you talk to these people who are third rate intellects, working in second rate banking institution in a first world country and they have got it into their heads that privatization creates growth and employment because they read the text book where this is repeated over and over again.
“I go out there and I say: Listen, I’ve been to this place and what happens when you privatize the water is that people can’t afford it. So they get cut off, drink from the river and end up with cholera. Literally what you are doing is killing thousands of babies. Lots of children will die because of a third rate little piece of shit in a cheap fucking tie in an office in Luxemburg who says ‘No, no. Privatization is an accepted way to promote economic growth.”
Why do you choose theatre as your medium to put across your ideas?
“Because it’s really immediate. My activism, while street demos and things play a part, is mostly advocacy – analytical ideas to encourage debate. But it’s very difficult to shift people who are absolutely brainwashed. Since the supposed fall of communism there is no significant ideological alternative out there. The first step in any good propaganda campaign is to rebrand ideology as common sense. Theatre is a great way to show the absurdity of the system. This is what happens in the play, more and more mad ideas are presented as totally common sense.
The thing that disturbs me most about austerity is the incredibly cynical capitalising on the conditions caused by austerity. People are more insecure and more uncertain and therefore more susceptible to a nostalgic harking back to the past. They are more susceptible to dog whistle politics picking on minorities, immigrants and weak outsiders. More susceptible to cutting the arts; ideas of what it means to be productive are political ones. What you get with austerity isn’t anything to do with money. It is a highly radical attempt to re-shape society in the way that those in power want.
In a time of supposed austerity, we and other countries have just increased the money we give to European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which incidentally is one of most disgusting institutions in the world: an institution that uses poverty as a way to crack open poor economies to invest and speculate on them. We just gave them an extra £1.6 billion. That is considerably more than all the arts budgets in the UK. That is a political decision.”
In the play you make it very clear that all the information that discredits the system is out there – online and in the history books. So why do you think people don’t see the implausibility of what they are being told to believe?
“There aren’t many people – like me – who stand up and say; this is bang-the-fuck out of order. What is most compelling to me is how little people are willing to ask questions about the bigger framework. About the big frames we live in. In academia they were all looking at ways elections could be more efficient or democracy more representative or in Chinese studies, the transition to capitalism and ways of making it more market driven. The degree to which people are unable to see limitations of liberal capitalist democracy is quite shocking. They can critique the stuff inside but the basic assumptions – that we need growth to be happy; that rampant individualism is the best way to define ourselves; that we need efficiency and therefore a private sector; that therefore state interference is a form of evil – all of these things remain unquestioned.
I don’t think anybody now really thinks the more power and freedom you give to the city of London the more power and freedom that creates for the rest of us, but it has been pushed so rigorously and so insistently that people have totally ingested it. A lot of the Left has really, really lost its balls; it has either been bought off by a rise in disposable income or it just doesn’t have the confidence in the absence of a given ideological alternative or political framework. The play is showing a group of ordinary people trying to stand up and register their anger in the absence of any known alternative.”
Do you see your play as offering some kind of alternative?
“Even though it isn’t intended to be programmatic, I do give my ideas for moving forwards at the end of it to a certain extent. They are in the references to Odious Debt and the Rolling Jubilee. I guess what I’m saying is; the information is all out there: Go home and look it up.”
Main photo credit: Johan Persson.
If you Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep is at the Royal Court from 15th February – 9th March 2013. For tickets visit the Royal Court website.