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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Wombling Free
by Paul Moore
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Like many People in the 70s I watched the five-minute programmes that featured the Wombles without realizing that I was being subliminally groomed to become part of the great recycling movement that would develop in the 90s. Whenever I went underground, overground, wombling free with Great Uncle Bulgaria, Tomsk, Orinoco, Tobermory, Wellington and Bungo I had no idea that my generation would transform itself into the great saviour of the world as we know it. (I do wish, however, that I had known the erotic significance of the other character in the Wombles, the French housemaid, Mme Cholet, but I digress.)
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The attempts of these furry-nosed animals to clean up Wimbledon Common and recycle found materials seemed innocent enough then when worries about global warming, environmental vandalism and globalization were only a dream in the heads of future gazing academics. Interestingly, however, the attempt to reinvent the Wombles in 1998 at a time when these issues had a profound relevance failed miserably. The introduction of new 'hip' characters, skateboards, the Internet and Wom-faxes could not hide the fact that the world had moved on environmentally and the age of innocence was itself in need of recycling.
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The world now had other Wombles to consider, a more politically aware bunch of waste gatherers who still roamed the country wearing questionable outfits. These Wombles are the White Overall Movement Building Liberation through Effective Struggle. This is a direct action anarchist movement based on Ya Basta! the non-violent protest group which originated in Italy.
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There is no leadership and tactics are agreed at meetings. The Wombles plan 'peaceful days of protest' at events the most recent at the May Day Parade in Dublin which the group believes 'epitomises the crushing wheels of capitalism'.
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Protesters are handed monopoly money and encouraged to go and 'spend' it in the department stores. Those taking part are also encouraged to bring instruments, toys, beach balls and banners and to have 'one hell of a party'.
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Participants are encouraged to wear overalls, dust masks and cycle helmets. The group says their overalls 'have the symbolic significance of representing those who have been marginalised and rendered invisible by the global capitalist system'. One wonders what great Uncle Bulgaria would have made of all of this!
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Certainly one cannot help feeling that action groups such as the Wombles have somehow been appropriated into mainstream politics (and hence castrated) when we see the less than edifying spectacle of the Hole in the Wall Gang on our televisions extolling the virtues of recycling without actually telling us very much about it. These ads, if the truth be told, tell us a great deal about how the authorities think the public can be informed about 'important' movements, about what those in charge of our cultural capital think we are going to find funny and engaging, and about how the middle classes think issues such as globalization and environmental waste need to be mediated for the great unwashed.
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This is surprising since it is the already disenfranchised that will probably suffer more than most from any global movement and hence they probably know more about it than most. Certainly they know more than those who think saving the world for their children is about filling a blue bin every two weeks and ensuring that the children wash out their crisp bags before ironing them and putting them where the 'woman who does' can gather them up, sort them and deposit them for safe carriage to a land fill site that is already unsafe and sanctioned by councillors and municipal employees who wouldn't know an environmental catastrophe if it smelled of effluent and was seeping from the River Lagan into their suburban haven after a flash flood.
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Bureaucratically inspired waste campaigns are irritating for a number of reasons. Firstly they ask homeowners to do the work we are already paying extensive rates for. If the council needs its waste sorted then let them sort it themselves or pay us for doing the job for them. Secondly these schemes are happening at exactly the same time as rivers are being polluted by industrial waste, illegal dumping is being overlooked, and thriving community arcades are being torched (by anarchists unknown!) to make way for more exploitative architecture. Finally these measures address the symptoms not the cause of pollution and waste. When, for example, did anyone question why we take our obsessively sorted rubbish to the recycling plant in gargantuan 4x4 SUVs averaging ten contaminating gallons to the mile.
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The most depressing thing about these campaigns, however, is that they are yet another form of control. In this case the control comes through what Foucault would have called biopower. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that 'biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it. Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself'.
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Whether they knew it or not the Wombles of Wimbledon Common were well versed in the politics of biopower. And this knowledge has been honed and articulated by their progeny who make life uncomfortable for the Grand Dames of multi-nationalism and globalization. If only the new Wombles were as integral a part of every day life as Great Uncle Bulgaria and his family were in the seventies. Maybe then they could then have surfaced from their underground haunt and made the ad for recycling and the Gang could just have stayed in the Hole in the Wall.
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