Advance party - Issue 145 - Magazine | Monocle

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Andrew Mueller on ...

Why progressive politics is becoming distracted by lifestyle ideas and online debate, instead of tackling the core concerns for us all

In 1972, Australia’s Labor Party (alp) won the general election, campaigning with the slogan “It’s time.” As rallying cries go, it was both weary and optimistic: the alp had been in opposition for 23 years. The man who led the party back to power was the charismatic Gough Whitlam, whose expansive intellect contained a raging idealism within a pragmatically hard head. Five years before returning Labour to government, he gave a speech to the alp’s Victoria state branch that could, and should, be a manifesto for every progressive party or politician with serious aspirations to change things for the better.

Whitlam’s 1967 speech is remembered for its key phrase, “Certainly, the impotent are pure”. He asked his party the crucial questions faced by all progressive political organisations. Are we here to get elected and get things done? Or are we here to feel good about ourselves? Are we here to improve the quality of life for our citizens, with all the compromises and risks that entails, or are we here to split ideological hairs, denounce traitors and savour the view from the moral high ground? “We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles,” said Whitlam. “Readers in almost any jurisdiction will be able to identify an ostensibly progressive political entity that answers to this description.

Sahra Wagenknecht’s book, The Self-Righteous (see page 66), reads in some respects like a sequel to Whitlam’s 1967 speech. The former leader of Germany’s Die Linke party believes that the moral posturing often associated with progressive politics is not merely idle but actually counter-productive. At the risk of alienating, or at least annoying, her own party’s more vocal segment, she takes a series of swipes at what she calls the “lifestyle left”: comfortable urbanites obsessed with grand themes of social justice and prone to losing patience with those with less lofty concerns, such as buying food, paying rent and finding rewarding work. This self-indulgent fixation on ideas rather than people, as Wagenknecht sees it, is helping to keep progressive politics in opposition.

Wagenknecht’s thesis is not an original one. Indeed, there are places where progressive parties have figured this much out. One of Europe’s more successful progressive parties is the Socialist party of Albania: in April 2021 they won their third consecutive general election under prime minister Edi Rama. The Socialist Party also controls Albania’s capital city: Erion Veliaj, Tirana’s mayor, was elected to a second term in 2019. He started his political journey as an activist and agitator, and says that there’s still part of him that wants to join in the demonstrations that now occasionally gather outside his office in one cause or another. He has learned, however, that you have to pick your battles – and, perhaps more importantly, pick who you battle with.

“When I was growing up, I would get offended very easily,” says Veliaj. And I had a great lesson from my grandmother. She asked, ‘Have you ever seen a dog bark at a human being?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I see that all the time.’ And she said, ‘Good, because it’s in the nature of a dog to bark at anything that moves. But have you ever seen a human bark back at a dog? No, because then the human would look strange, because it’s not in their nature.’ I have realised that my grandma was not very far off. If you bark back at dogs, it makes you look odd. And to the silent majority who like to go about their daily lives with the assurance that a sound person is in charge, you look really stupid.”


Even as an activist, Veliaj was always more interested in working out how to effect change, rather than declaiming melodramatically about why change was needed. Governing has made him even less patient with poseurs.

“If you fall down the drain it will take forever for [socialists] to come to the rescue but they’ll make a statement about solidarity,” he says. “The solidarity of the left is just a song of inertia, rather than a modus operandi. One of the reasons that we’re one of the few left-wing parties that keeps winning is that we’ve learned those lessons very hard and trained ourselves to remain disciplined. Don’t sweat the petty things. And progressives are sweating way too many petty things.”

Progressive politics everywhere is attended by a chorus of point-scorers, ever alert to minute transgressions against modish terminology. Albania is no exception. “But we’ve realised that it doesn’t resonate with most of the public,” says Veliaj. “I get hit all the time with things like, ‘It’s not lgbt; it’s lgbtqi.’ And, you know, all we meant is that the city is open, you can love anyone, you can sleep with anyone, you can believe in any god. That’s the point.”

In Veliaj’s six years in city hall, he has overseen a startling transformation of Tirana, determined to make its public spaces greener, cleaner and more accessible. Such demonstrable results, he has found, have a way of winning arguments. “When we turned downtown Tirana car-free, it was a revolution,” he says. People called me a communist. I was getting death threats. Now, after four years of the car-free zone, if I dared to bring cars back into the city... I already have people getting hysterical and sending me pictures if a moped goes through the barrier, never mind a car. Public opinion is like a cargo ship. It takes a really, really slow turn. But a good captain keeps the course.”

It is hardly unheard of for those on the right to marinate themselves in ideological derangement and frivolous infighting but conservatives do tend eventually to get around to the practicalities of winning; there was a time, not so long ago, when both Brexit and Trumpism were generally regarded as eccentric follies unlikely ever to amount to much. It was the American commentator Michael Kinsley who observed that conservatives look for converts, whereas liberals look for heretics. It’s a weakness exacerbated by social media, where much left-wing discourse is devoted to furious purity contests over issues including, but by no means limited to, race, trans rights, Israel and Palestine, the legacies of empire and other subjects not most constructively discussed in nuance-free blurts of 280 characters or less.

In the UK, the only Labour leader who has won a general election in the past 45 years – Tony Blair, who won three – is regarded as an irredeemable villain by the more volubly online of party members. Labour’s director of communications for Blair’s second victory, in 2001, was Lance Price. As monocle goes to press, he is performing a similar role in a by-election in Batley and Spen, where Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater, is hoping to win the seat once held by her sister, Jo Cox, who was assassinated in 2016. Price agrees that the background din, amplified by social media, has become much louder but believes that some things haven’t changed.

“The noises-off are louder and harder to ignore,” says Price. “But the need to reconnect with what people are actually talking about is at least as great as it was 20 years ago. The Labour Party hasn’t been listening, and the kind of language it has been using hasn’t been in tune with core concerns. There’s been far too much of Labour talking to itself and not the country.”


Social media, suggests Price, has its uses as a means of broadcast but is a lousy way of hearing anything. “The echo chamber isn’t the real world,” he says. “And it doesn’t cut through. Often there’s a debate on Twitter about [something] but when we go out and talk to people, they’re completely unaware of it. So you stick to what you actually want to say, get the debate on your terms as much as you can and let the noise go on in the background, because it’s probably not going to swing more than half a dozen votes in a constituency of this size.”

Retain and explain?

Surrounded by vineyards on a hill above Rüdesheim on the Rhine is “Germania”, also known as the Niederwald Monument. The 38-metre-high statue commemorates German unification in 1871 and victory in the Franco-Prussian war. On my first visit 10 years ago, I remember being struck by its engraving: a militaristic song about guarding the Rhine (“You, Rhine, will remain as German as my own beating chest”). As a pro-European it felt offensive; indeed, the monument attracts the occasional pilgrimage by right-wing extremists. Yet I’ve returned several times since with friends and family; it often provokes reflections about the Prussians, the Second World War and Germany’s role in Europe today.

With so much talk this year about how to reckon with the past, it’s inevitable that nations will differ in their approach. Germany is in a unique bind, with so many elements of its past to consider. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all offensive monuments should stand; thankfully Germany’s Nazi-era statues have been taken down. But some memorials, even those that no longer seem appropriate, offer a learning opportunity. If “Germania” is ever removed, I will miss the way it encouraged discussion of Germany’s tortured past. 

Discipline is also necessary for ameliorating another corrosive aspect of social media. Any online pronouncement, however mild, by any politician prompts little response but seething by angry lunatics. This is bad for the equilibrium of politicians, who are only human – and it’s ultimately bad for democracy, if politicians infer that this roiling cauldron of bile represents the electorate. Price says that it’s best simply not to look.

“One of my jobs on this campaign is to get the candidate – who is very authentic, a local person and speaks the language of the constituency she seeks to represent – off Twitter and to ignore the fact that there will always be someone criticising her about every-thing that she says and does.,” says Price. “Because it doesn’t matter.”

Social media certainly has its uses for politicians – it enables direct communication with voters, unfiltered by traditional media, which might not always interpret one’s statements and ideas charitably. But social media is by far the most clamorous generator of the kind of racket that can drive progressive politicians to distraction – even oblivion. Politicians and political obsessives have always been preoccupied, indeed over-estimated, by how much anyone else cares; it’s a fallacy fatally enabled by the instantly gratifying dopamine mills of Twitter and Facebook.

“We all suffer from attention bias,” says Ben Page, chief executive of market research firm Ipsos Mori. “We pay attention to things that interest us and we think that everybody else is like us, and that’s just not true. Only about one in four people in the UK even look at Twitter and only about 4 per cent of people really tweet on Twitter, so it’s a bubble of people who are interested in things talking to each other. But even if you analyse what people are actually talking about on there, you’ll find that celebrities and football massively out punch politicians, by a factor of hundreds... Things like microaggressions, cancel culture – most people are just not paying attention to this stuff. More people say that they don’t know what ‘woke’ means than think it’s either pejorative or positive.”


Can we talk about it?

It might feel as if the debate over policing and the best way to address crime has been endlessly picked over but in reality the discussion has barely moved. The opposing sides – “All Lives Matter” vs “Defund the Police” – use their arguments as ideological branding rather than to solve anything. This has led the centre ground to tiptoe around the issues, afraid to cause offence.

Some common sense is lacking. Cities need effective policing to function but citizens need to trust that police are actually keeping them safe from crime and not bogged down with defending bad apples (or committing crimes of their own). So let’s talk about where police are getting it right – tackling crime and respecting civil liberties – and how to achieve that universally. We need more actual discussions and fewer slogans. 

For progressives, the folly here may be twofold – not merely spending time and energy on arguments nobody is paying attention to but arguments in which no victory is possible.

“With the culture wars, those debates about statues, symbols, trans rights, imperial history, the progressive edge of liberal opinion – the reason why right-wing politicians talk about it is that it helps cement an electoral alliance between older working-class poorer people and wealthier middle-class younger people,” says Page. “It unites social conservatives whatever their economic interests. So, crudely, yes – progressives are better off not taking the bait. Building a vision of the future – that’s what the centre-left has to do.”

“Public opinion is like a cargo ship. It takes a really, really slow turn. But a good captain keeps the course”

Page notes that certain policies in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, such as nationalising the UK’s railways and utilities, were very popular with the same voters who nevertheless awarded a landslide majority to the Conservative Party in that year’s general election. The lesson there, perhaps, is that leadership matters. Labour was led at the time by Jeremy Corbyn who, along with his more ardent online cheerleaders, seemed determined to embody every stereotype of the performatively progressive left as peevish, pessimistic, vindictive, humourless and obscurantist.

All political parties attract a cohort of the blindly dogmatic, ideologically demented and/or palpably deranged. As the Republican Party in the US has recently demonstrated, a takeover by the fringe need not, for at least some conservative parties, be an obstacle to winning power – possibly because conservative parties can anchor such aberrations, to an extent, to assumptions that they are, at heart, stolid, sensible, law-and-order types.

For progressive parties, which cannot lean on any such reassuring stereotype, their zealots and headbangers present more of a problem: they generally need to be kept as far from policy, leadership and the public as possible. That isn’t easy in an age where social media has issued a megaphone to any yahoo who wants one. But it might be the case that, if cannily marshalled, the energy of online enthusiasts might be productively directed.

“I don’t think identity politics is necessarily bad,” says Tessa Szyszkowitz, UK correspondent for Profil. “It has a huge potential for renewal of political participation, especially for progressive parties that are now in such deep trouble.”

Szyszkowitz cites a recent essay by Wolfgang Thierse, former president of the Bundestag and a veteran Social Democratic Party politician. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Thierse expressed exasperation with modern identity politics. “His argument was that it would be better to close the gender pay gap than change the language to include these gender-aware forms,” says Szyszkowitz. “But I don’t see why progressive politics can’t do both: nobody who is for gender-aware language is against closing the gender pay gap.”

The person who has benefitted the most from tuning out the noise is presently occupying Earth’s most powerful office having been elected to it last November by one of Earth’s most rancorous electorates, after easing serenely through the primary of a proverbially quarrelsome party.

“Biden won the Democratic primary because he understood that Twitter isn’t real life,” says Brian Klaas, associate professor in global politics at University College London, Washington Post columnist and author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power And How It Changes Us. “Social media provides a skewed slice of the core voters who you need to win elections. Mostly, Twitter-based activists are much further left than the rest of the party. Democratic activists in the extremely online progressive movement were baffled by how Biden could break out when all of their feeds were full of Warren and Yang supporters. Biden understood that the core of the Democratic Party is not those people who are tweeting 50 times a day about issues that simply aren’t backed by the majority of the voters in Democratic primaries, let alone the general election.”

“The person who has benefitted the most from tuning out the noise is presently occupying Earth’s most powerful office having been elected to it last November by one of Earth’s most rancorous electorates”

In April 2021, after President Biden addressed a joint session of the US Congress, hapless Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz thought he’d hit upon a brutal and damaging indictment of Biden and all that he stands for: Cruz condemned the speech as “Boring but radical”. Right there, in what could become Cruz’s most useful legacy, he inadvertently bequeathed progressive politicians the world over with a standard to aim at – and perhaps a slogan to campaign with. Certainly, if the president’s staff haven’t already ordered quantities of “Biden 2024: Boring But Radical” T-shirts and yard signs, someone is asleep on the job.


Sahra Wagenknecht on ...

Shifting the debate on climate change from consuming consciously, to producing differently.

The fact that our planet is suffocating in waste, the climate is becoming hotter and more species are becoming extinct should concern us all. Instead, the climate debate often triggers anger. Not because people don’t care about our future but because many feel it is dishonest to frame an urgent discussion on how to save the environment as a debate about lifestyle.

The current discussion, about “doing without” and targeted price increases, is an elitist one. People who live in abundance might find satisfaction in doing without certain things but to believe that these lifestyle changes are the key to saving our planet is to fool our-selves. If politicians prioritise this new way of life with carbon taxes, higher meat prices and surcharges on airline tickets, they will achieve only this: the less privileged will react negatively when the word “climate” is mentioned. People in rural areas, where in some cases there have been no trains or buses for years, will continue to drive their diesel cars to work and to the supermarket, since the chic electric car is unaffordable for most, despite state subsidies. And if you rely on oil heating in a moderately insulated house, and the alternatives are more expensive, then you will heat your house as before but pay more.

The rhetoric is as toxic for the ecological climate as it is for the political one: to speak of subsidised electric suvs while railway lines are discontinued; of flight-shaming while new free-trade agreements bring in food and goods that could be produced locally from far corners of the globe. Proposals for climate policy are often absurd: plastic cutlery and straws are banned while plastic packaging becomes more voluminous; we argue over whether the internal combustion engine should be banned from 2025 or 2030, even though it’s the trucking industry that is primarily responsible for our failure to meet climate targets.

Rather than consume differently, we should produce differently. Our economy must become more regional, less polluting, more resource-efficient. We need products that last and can be repaired. This is not achieved through lifestyle but legislation that forces manufacturers to extend their warranties. For now, nationwide supplies of green energy are not possible and the recycling of dead batteries is an unsolved problem. It would be better to put pressure on manufacturers to make cars with 2- or even 1-litre engines, than to spend taxpayer funds on promoting Teslas with heavy chassis and large batteries.


When our consumer goods are fully recyclable our energy sources are renewable and our aircraft are fuelled by clean hydrogen, then we can drive, fly and buy as much as we want. But to get there, we need incentives for technological solutions that make production more efficient and more compatible with people, the environment and the climate.

This essay is an extract from German politician Wagenknecht’s book ‘Die Selbstgerechten’ (‘The Self-Righteous’).


Nic Monisse on ...

How communities can forge a sense of social cohesion through these 10 basic characteristics.

Resilience is a buzzword used to describe everything from personalities to businesses to cities. But what does it mean in reference to neighbourhoods?

In this context, it’s a place with strong social ties, economic opportunity and a healthy environment. These qualities ensure that communities can survive and thrive in peaceful times and pandemics. With this in mind, here are 10 basic attributes that every neighbourhood needs to do just that. 


Locally owned businesses

This is especially important when it comes to the essentials – the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer – so the community never goes without. It also provides employment opportunities close to home.


Locally grown food

Community gardens or a connection to nearby farmers and fishermen are key. This ensures that fresh, healthy, sustainable food is readily available at shops or markets.


A community hub

It is essential to have a neighbourhood centre in the form of a high street or town square where residents and visitors, essential services, retail, and drinking and dining options come together. Here, people gather, meet or bump into each other by chance and share news that binds the social fabric.


Green spaces

Parks, gardens and even some wild spaces are good for community health and biodiversity too. Trees and green space also help to reduce urban heat islands, improve air quality and lower stress across all age groups.


Transport options

Cycling and walking should be appealing transport options. Streets need to support their use, so that people can safely stay connected to one another without relying on cars.


Diverse housing stock

To cater for all lifestyles, incomes and age groups, a variety of homes should be available, from smaller apartments to bigger lots for families.


Intergenerational connections

A mix of ages should be celebrated, encouraging diversity of viewpoints and sharing of knowledge between generations. At an organisational level, every age group should be supported and feel their needs are heard by local government and community groups.


Knowing neighbours

Neighbours should know each other, building social ties so that sharing and volunteering, without expecting reciprocity, becomes second nature.


An engaged city hall

Local government should help to establish a common vision for the neighbourhood, with citizen engagement invited in the planning and actioning of goals.


Active local media

A neighbourhood paper or radio station enables people to keep abreast of local events and also to hold city hall accountable.


Robert Bound on ...

Why the commute to work is so much more than just moving from point A to point B.

If you were pitching a supersize coffee- table book to a serious publisher you might not go straight in with that long-pondered mix of essays and photography entitled Great Commutes of the World but I’d always have that pitch in my back-pocket, just in case. Fine, you would have laughed at it two years ago, buster, but how do you feel now? If you’ve become familiar with something like this litany of white-collar home-working – up; shower; breakfast; laptop; Zoom; despair; lunch; teams; creeping insanity; supper; box set; bed – then you might fancy a bit of this again: going to work. It sounds so simple because it is. Who knew how easy it would be to fall in love with your daily commute?

The idea of rather enjoying the trundle into work has been eroded over the years by things like busy roads, stifling trains and striking staff (definitely not as in “gorgeous”, neither as in wafting a left hook in their general direction). The gentle habit of whistling as you walk to the bus-stop has also been poo-poo’d by technology companies who want you, your data and your subscription cash to be owned by them and their too-good-to-be-true offer of amazingly productive workdays that start at nine and finish at four, complete with a lunchtime tennis lesson and some “mindfulness breaks” somewhere in between.


The Zoom Kool-Aid has been drunkenly guzzled by companies keen to slash their overheads while watching their staff shrivel like grapes in a May frost – all live via video-conference, of course. Look closely, though, and the commute has subtle pleasures and solaces all of its own; a rhythm like the seasons; an expectation of the familiar that allows musings on the exotic; the simple satisfaction of being in motion and in company that shows a year spent counting steps around a local park to be the thin gruel that it is. The answer this time around, now that the old ways seem new, is to refresh them further. Take the scenic route. Pimp your commute.

There are tactics and strategies to making the most of the time that you might otherwise think you’re wasting. But there’s also a philosophical distance one can place between time spent not doing anything specific and time that is wasted. The two are not the same. Of course, like the creative director of this magazine, you might choose to spend your journey working your way through every single Maigret novel in order. Or you may choose to delve into the specific world of cookery podcasts, if you can bear to be ravenous all over again by the time you reach the office. You could get up five minutes earlier and catch the quieter carriage or rise an hour earlier (it’s summer, guys) and walk more of the way than you normally would. Do this on the way home and you’ll soon find a gallery you’d never heard of, a shop that just easily sold you that impossible anniversary gift or an enticing pub bathed in the golden light of evening.

The commute has subtle pleasures and solaces all of its own; a rhythm like the seasons; an expectation of the familiar that allows musings on the exotic

It’s not all roses, of course. There will be many instances that don’t make it into that coffee-table book. There’ll always be the girl telling you about her awful date on speakerphone or the guy whose warm bum seems intent on caressing your cheek as he takes his case from the luggage rack, but this time around – own it – turn the other cheek to his in the knowledge that it could be an altogether better bottom tomorrow.

And at the end of it all? Unlike just working from there, you get to go home.


Ellen Dunham-Jones on ...

How the change of use in suburban spaces during the pandemic is expanding conversations worldwide about the ‘15 minute city’.

When Zooming replaced commuting, many American urbanites’ disdain for the suburbs morphed into a panicked desire for more spacious living. Wealthier households competed in bidding wars for anything in the closer suburbs along commuter train lines. The less affluent stretched their budgets for mass-produced houses further out on the “exurban” fringe. It wasn’t only families needing more space who moved. With businesses, bars and meeting places closed, lots of young adults traded pricey apartments for cheaper suburban rents. But in many regions the end of the pandemic is in sight. As city schools, businesses and amenities reopen, will suburbia’s prominence be a mere 15 minutes of fame or has the pandemic reshaped it?

To answer this question, consider the changes in pre-war suburbs and exurbs. Early in the pandemic, single-family houses transformed overnight. Garages, spare bedrooms and walk-in wardrobes were converted into home offices, wi-fi classrooms and quarantine zones, serviced by an endless stream of delivery vans. Pavements and paths filled at dusk with residents replacing their commute with a walk or cycle. Pop-up bike lanes appeared and some streets were closed to non-resident vehicles and converted into play spaces for children. Parking spaces in front of eateries became “streateries” or “patio dining”. Larger lots hosted drive-in movies, concerts,and religious services, with cars serving as their occupants’ ppe; some lots were even converted to tent camps for the homeless. Loved or hated, these shifts in use are sparking conversations about liveability.

Garages, spare bedrooms and walk-in closets were converted into home offices, wi-fi classrooms and quarantine zones, serviced by an endless stream of delivery vans

Between the pre-war suburbs and exurbs are the sprawling postwar suburbs. High-income households, a shrinking middle class and most of the American poor all live here but are segregated. Struggles with a shortage of affordable housing, resistance to gentrification and vacant shops were exacerbated by the pandemic for these communities. Because of this, ageing suburbs have seen lasting structural change in the past year. These include regreening; repurposing commercial space as social infrastructure; and rezoning detached housing into terrace housing, cottage courts, small apartment blocks and granny flats for affordability and density.


Even more transformational is the surge of proposals to redevelop dead shopping areas into walkable mixed-use town centres, fill ageing office parks with housing and shops and put more streets on diets, adding space for bikes and pedestrians. More than 250 such suburban retrofits were built before the pandemic and hundreds more are underway, lowering car dependence, improving public health, supporting the ageing population, and creating jobs and water and energy resilience.

Meanwhile, from Paris to New York, mayoral hopefuls campaign on the promise of “the 15-minute city”: the idea that our daily needs should be a 15-minute walk or cycle away. Coined by Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne university, the concept exploded during the pandemic as cars gathered dust and streets filled with pedestrians and cyclists. Moreno’s golden rule is that every square metre should enable multiple activities. This could be a gamechanger as we choose between the 15-minute city, 15-mile commute or 15-minute suburb.

Dunham-Jones is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of ‘Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia’ (Wiley, 2021).


Michael Scott on ...

Greece’s relationship with travel, adventure and tourism has been shaped by more than just mythology.

The ancient Greeks were immersed in tales of travel. At the heart of their epic tradition, Homer’s Odyssey is a story about voyaging around the world. Their mythology too is littered with adventures to mystical lands in a quest for hidden wonders (think of Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece). But what about travel in daily life? Did the ancient Greeks go on summer holidays? And if so, where?

Socrates, the famously intransigent philosopher of ancient Athens, was no traveller. In one of Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates seems to poke fun at himself: “You never went out from the city to a festival, or anywhere else, except on military service, and you never made any other journey, as other people do, and you had no wish to know any other city or other law but were content with us and our city.”

Inherent in this self-critique is the idea that it’s good to expose oneself to different cultures, systems and ways of doing things. And in ancient Greece that wasn’t hard to do. Rather than one country, ancient Greece was a patchwork quilt of more than 1,000 city-states, each with its own laws, political systems and traditions. As a result, going from one to another was like going from country to country today. Indeed, in ancient Sparta, even someone from the next village was considered a xenos (foreigner), meaning that international travel started on leaving the city boundary.

But in ancient Greece, travelling further afield than the next city or two was not that easy. There were no tour wagons to leap on or ancient cruise ships to join. Instead, you had to buy your passage on a trading vessel that was criss-crossing the Aegean or wider Mediterranean to get around (hardly the ideal start to a holiday). And sailing was not without its perils. Death at sea from drowning was considered the most ignominious fate an ancient Greek could suffer. And then there were the pirates that cruised the Med, particularly around Magna Graecia (southern Italy and Sicily), always looking to raid a trading vessel and rob those on board.

The Olympic Games were probably the largest congregation of ancient Greeks, with about 40,000 making their way to Olympia. Not that it was exactly a stress-free holiday

But some things did tempt Greeks to make the effort, particularly trips to important religious festivals and major religious sanctuaries. Most months at Delphi, people came to consult the Oracle; and every four years to take part in its athletic and musical competitions. But they also came to sight-see Delphi’s ornate, monumental Sanctuary of Apollo. Euripides’ tragic play, Ion, written in the 5th-century bce, opens with a group of tourists at Delphi, agog at the statues inside the sanctuary. “Look! come see,” says one. “The son of Zeus is killing the Lernean Hydra with a golden sickle. My dear, look at it!” In later times, there were even tour guides, just like today, hanging around the sanctuary, offering to take visitors on a tour of the monuments. (It’s thought the most important monuments were marked with numbers in case you only had time for a whistle-stop tour.)

Cultivating its mythology as the centre of the entire world, Delphi increasingly became a meeting point for travellers coming from different directions. Plutarch, a philosopher and priest of the temple at Delphi in the 1st century CE, records his meeting with other philosophers, one coming from the UK on his way to Tarsus in Asia Minor and another from the Red Sea en route to Sparta.


Travelling to the Olympic Games was probably the largest congregation of ancient Greeks, with about 40,000 making their way to Olympia. Not that it was exactly a stress-free holiday. Taking place in August under the fierce Greek sun, these tourists had to bring with them – or hire there – everything they needed, including animals to sacrifice to the gods, food and tents to sleep in. Imagine the din caused by these people and their animals, camped on the dusty, dry ground around Olympia for a week. Add to the mix no drainage or sanitation and a wide range of sweaty running, wrestling and boxing competitions. Then there was the barbecuing of more than 100 oxen for divine and human consumption. This was the Glastonbury of ancient Greece.

Plato went to the Olympics and famously could not find a tent to hire. The philosopher Epictetus wrote of the experience of being at Olympia: “Are you not scorched? Are you not pressed by a crowd? Are you not without comfortable means of bathing? Are you not wet when it rains? Have you not abundance of noise, clamour and other such dis-agreeable things?” Perhaps grumpy Socrates was right after all: staying at home was the better bet. 

Scott is director of the University of Warwick’s Institute of Engagement and a professor of classics and ancient history.


Tyler Brûlé on ...

Why it is crucial to recognise the importance of social capital when gauging quality of life.

Very often it’s the little things that remind us why life is a bit better in other places. These tiny events or established customs can stop traffic as visitors from afar come to a juddering halt and look around in amazement. Anyone who’s been to Japan and wandered the streets of Fukuoka or Sapporo in the early morning will be familiar with the sight of six and seven-year-olds walking to school on their own. For parents from places where this daily exercise in self-sufficiency vanished long ago there’s often a sense of bewilderment (“How can children so young be allowed to roam free in one of the world’s biggest cities?”), envy (“I wish I could send my kids out the door on their own and gain a headstart on my workday or an hour in bed”) and loss (“Well, that’ll never happen”). And therein lies the problem: maintaining or restoring social capital is not only a dying political art, it also comes with unpalatable costs and confronting some unfashionable though necessary truths.

When gauging liveability in cities big and small it’s easy to be seduced by the number of independent cinemas, amount of green space, quality of healthcare or investment in infrastructure. But it’s also easy to forget that daily pleasures come with having a social climate where, for instance, children are given a degree of autonomy and there’s little appetite for interference from newcomers. These are places where a shopkeeper can leave pots of flowers out overnight with little fear of theft or a bicycle can be rested against a shop window and the owner can be quite sure it’ll be there when he comes out with his groceries. In much of Japan this is standard; in parts of Switzerland, Finland and Denmark it’s still the norm and in rural areas, where there’s often a high degree of trust and easy accountability, social capital still runs high.

In rural areas, where there’s often a high degree of trust and easy accountability, social capital still runs high. But what has happened elsewhere?

But what has happened elsewhere? Why has social capital eroded in so many otherwise-liveable cities? Could it be that citizens of entire nations have been conditioned to shun responsibility for themselves and others? Is there discomfort or fear that comes with explaining how things are done because one might be branded a bully or racist? Cities that rank highly in social capital tend to be places where there’s not only a respect for rule of law but also unwritten codes of conduct for specific communities. In simple terms it’s about “reading the room” and behaving accordingly. Of course, this is easier said than done – especially when the codes have all but vanished and half of society feels done wrong while the other half is constantly looking for cause of offence or outrage. The good news is that there are benchmarks and behaviours that point us in the right direction. A visit to our winning cities offers up a few clues. 

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