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INTERVIEW: Alistair McIntosh, land reform activist, professor in human ecology, urban clansman

(c) Médiathèque Lafarge

"McIntosh can reference a Celtic faerie story, a Bible verse, a newspaper article and a psychology study all on the same page. I think that’s wonderful, but I’m reminded of a comment that I got back on one of my essays at university: that it was interesting, but Ishould avoid the metaphysical flights of fancy”. That lecturer would miss the point of Soil and Soul entirely, because the message of the book is inseparable from the style in which it is written..."
- Jeremy Williams

Alistair McIntosh has been campaigning for social and ecological justice in all kinds of places (Eigg, Govan, Quebec, Papua New Guinea, Menie), with all kinds of work (liberation theology, editorials, speaking tours, poetry, hand-crafted longboats for inner-city kids) for a long whilie now. Sparked by experiences teaching in newly independent Papua New Guinea in the 70s, McIntosh has pushed a number of distinctly Scottish projects: the Govan Folk University, the GalGael Trust, as well as more global ones like the Centre for Human Ecology. He has a PhD in land theology - as well as an MBA in Finance (this, possibly, keeping his "enemies" closer).

Hello Alistair McIntosh,

Q: A lot of folk now get antsy around religiously-inflected work. Do you think that your being openly spiritual has put people off, or limited your exposure in secular places?

AM: First, distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion is politicised spirituality. It has an important place, but because it derives from consensus - authority - it lacks the freedom of unmediated spiritual searching. Religion should be the socially-supported trellis up which a vine, spirituality grows, but it doesn’t always work out like that because people are people.

The question next arises as to whether or not spirituality is valid. Now, I don’t care what people think, I care whether it's true. Do we have grounds for believing that, behind the physical, there is the metaphysical, the spiritual? My first observation is from the physical: it is astonishing that existence is; that there is something. Having got over that, what are its limits? That's where you have the choice: to explore, seek empirical evidence or not explore and presume a limitation.

In my life I have explored this, both inwardly - with work into the nature of consciousness - and outwardly - from evidence that there may be more to reality than just the “normal”. Some of the early papers on my website document this. Now, I just get on with living it. You move beyond curiosity and into being. These are issues both epistemological and ontological: they're hugely important because they concern the structure of reality, and the framework in which we conceive of our values. The evidence, as I see it, points to the metaphysical reality of grounding love as the source of life. And that’s a trip!

So yes, following this path means that some people may not take me as seriously as they might. But to be honest, I don’t often feel that.

Q: And has your strong metaphysics (which emphasises feelings, deontic constraints, inherent value, and spirit as grounds) limited your audience amongst academics?

AM: Even in [scientistic] academia I find that if you come in and state your premises - your parameters, your "epistemological constructs" - you’ll usually get a fair hearing. If you don’t state them, then of course they’re wide open to being challenged. I think we’re in changing times on this. 30 years ago, religion was a fairly normal part of mainstream debate. Now that’s giving way to spirituality; in just the past decade the word "spirituality" is much more widely used. What does it imply? To me: interconnectedness, through that bedrock of love. It's the root of community (as distinct from a mere community of interests).

How do you experience it? I do indeed say that we feel it. Allow yourself to feel empathy with your fellow humankind - though you’ll only be able to do that if you act “as if” and start living it. I think that’s why a lot of people are sceptical. They maybe haven’t let themselves go into it, because empathy is costly in materialistic terms. The return on it is opening the door on a greater beauty.

Q: Soil and Soul's subtitle is 'People Versus Corporate Power'. How often do you reckon money conflicts with higher values? (Which is also to ask: Is ethical capitalism possible?)

AM: My view is that capitalism is an unfortunate reality. The truth is that we don’t all bend over backwards to by mutually-produced stuff. We don’t all insist on Fair Trade, or the Co-op, or whatever. Capitalism is an emergent entity in its own right, but one based on the aggregate of all our behaviours. The world is capitalist because we're capitalist. Sometimes at academic conferences when I’ve been challenged on that, by folk who prefer to deny their complicity, I say, “Will all of you taking this position who are wearing clothing bought from capitalist enterprises, please disrobe.” Last time I did that was to business and environment students at Exeter University. The only one who looked comfortable, and was laughing out loud, was Tim Gorringe, the professor of divinity: he was wearing a huge jumper that he’d knitted himself out of the wool of his own sheep!

So, if we look in the corporate mirror, we see our own distorted reflections back. We drive capitalism and then capitalism drives us – at least in the relatively affluent and democratic West. If that’s the case, the question then arises in my mind is how ethical it can be. I don’t buy Israeli oranges because I don’t like how they’re produced. I mostly avoid food shipped around the world. I do buy RSPCA-certified Freedom Food or Soil Association Organic when buying meat, because, given that I'm a shameful cannibal allergic to Tofu Pie, I want my behaviour to drive higher animal-welfare standards and soil conservation. If we all just raised our expectations of capitalism it would still be capitalism, but a better capitalism … which is maybe as far as we get in an imperfect world. And don’t get me on about pensions, or money earning interest in the bank! Nobody can have such things and not admit to being an integral part of capitalism.

Incidentally, I was never completely happy with the subtitle of Soil and Soul. I’d have preferred no subtitle, but the publisher wanted it, and I was writing about combats with corporate and landed power. I happen to think that corporate power has its place when properly legitimised by society. Mind that the Co-op is a corporation; the church was the very first corporation. Limited liability companies are just another variation: the problem is when "limited liability" entails limited responsibility. That’s what we must be “versus”.

Q: You teach a course in nonviolence at the MoD's postgrad military college. What on earth's that like? Are they receptive?

AM: I don’t teach a course, but I have an annual day of teaching - a lecture then a panel discussion. It’s bizarre - at least, it was at first. This is now the 15th year I’ve been doing it. At the UK Defence Academy I speak each year to 300–400 senior officers, mostly British from all the services, but some from 60 other nations as well. I give a 40 minute blast and really go full on. I’ve got it on video, and when I show it to peace groups they’re astonished that I get away with saying what I do. But the absolute crux of it is mutual respect. I say that we’re all agreed about dying for our beliefs. The issue is whether we also kill for them, and I then unpack a full-on spiritual take on nonviolence drawing on Hindu, Islamic and Christian theology. It leads to very powerful discussion - I have letters from some of the UK’s most senior commanders saying how important it is that they hear that side of the debate … and they wish the politicians would hear it too.

I have published on this, so you can see exactly the kind of thing I say. For a bit of a laugh of an article, try the one that was in Resurgence some years ago. For heavy-duty stuff see the one just published in the standard UK textbook used in officer ethics.

Why do they let me in the door, and keep it open for all these years? I think it’s because most of today’s military have seen the killing. They know that war is not a very good answer. They’re involved in peace-keeping, and know that there’s more than one approach to that. Many agree that nuclear weapons are unconscionable. There is a basic human need to explore these questions. They say things like, “You remind us of the limits – and to question our assumptions.”

Q: Does it do any good?

I honestly cannot say. But I’d rather that the military know what the arguments of nonviolence are, and why some people are pacifists, than have them in ignorance of that. I get especially strong positive reactions from the Arabic and Pakistani students. Two years ago a cluster of them gave me a standing ovation. They come up afterwards and say how good it is to hear Islam being presented in an informed way when it comes to terrorism. The very few from whom I’ve had negative reactions (“Quite frankly, I think you’re mad”) are mostly those who leave me wondering if they’re mis-selected, because you do find the odd one – pretty rare – who find the killing “satisfying” – as a cluster bomber put it last year. On balance, I have to say they've earned my respect. And within the confines of the Chatham House Rule I’m given a free hand to talk about the course; indeed, I did just that on Radio Scotland’s Thought for the Day this morning when challenging our militarised approach to Libya.

(From this morning's broadcast: "...I’ve been surprised by the reception [from the Defence Academy]. "Go tell the politicians,” some of the most senior officers will say, “that war is a poor substitute for political policy to sort out other people’s problems.” They view themselves as peace-makers, so they’ll ask: “Can nonviolence bring anything realistic to the table?”

“It may not stop the immediate killing,” I’ll say, “but neither does war. Nonviolence operates at a deeper level. It seeks to take away the causes of war.”

It offers civil defence tactics, like the Norwegian teachers used to resist Nazi indoctrination. It prepares unarmed citizens to enter trouble spots, training local leaders with the civic skills and strength of soul that can restore justice, and refrain from throwing petrol on the fire, fighting evil with more evil.

It may sound bonkers, but that’s what’s bringing change in Egypt, and established black civil rights in America, and lowered the Iron Curtain, and ejected Marcos from the Philippines, and a growing list of other examples. It was St Augustine who invented “just war” theory, saying: “We go to war that we may have peace.” But Jesus never taught just war theory. Jesus taught nonviolence: for any fool can live in conflict; it takes guts to live in peace.)

Q: I was actually at a panel on the Arab Spring recently. A group of Quakers in the audience condemned the NATO intervention in Libya and, implicitly, the anti-Qaddafi forces too. A Libyan panel member was deeply offended by both suggestions, pointing out that many of them had prayed for the UN resolution, and that the civil war was started after perhaps a thousand peaceable protestors were murdered. It's the clearest instance I've seen of the way folk talk past each other about war - no one was arguing that war was good, merely that given an armed regime, this was the least-bad decision.

And, though I knew what the Quakers meant - that war is absurd, counterproductive, indefensibly risky - I couldn't sympathise with them anymore. (It didn't help that they forgot to criticise the Qaddafi forces - and in fact almost defended him in that dodgy New Left way for his "anti-imperialism".) Do you believe that nonviolence is a simple and universal method, as they seemed to?

McIntosh has a massive amount of material up at his website, and can be found in Glasgow throughout June teaching liberation theology.


  1. Good interview... but what's Alastair's answer to the last question?!


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