The Big Bag of Cans and the Spirit of Utopia

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Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars… Nothing to do like an animal, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky…”

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia Aph. 100.

Jeremy Corbyn, as you know, headlined Glastonbury this weekend. In his star turn introducing Run the Jewels, our real Prime Minister gave a stirring speech in which he proclaimed, to a massed crowd of tens of thousands, that – despite what the Tories and the commentariat have claimed – precarity and division are not inevitable, as a people we can come together and through hope and joy build a better world for everyone.

Moments like this are important, because any transformative social movement needs more than just a sense of justice to bind its members together: it also has to make radical action fun. Traditionally, the British left has been very bad at doing this: cringing at accusations of ‘champagne socialism’ while grumpily disputing the finer points of Constituency Labour Party democratic protocols. But the Corbyn movement has a refreshing – and distinctive – sense of hedonism associated with it.

The nature of this hedonism is encapsulated in one of the key meme phrases employed by the Corbyn culture online: the image of the ‘big bag of cans’, something which for preference is to be enjoyed ‘with the lads’, ‘in the park’. Fittingly, as Corbyn gave his speech on Saturday a banner emblazoned with this phrase, depicting the absolute boy himself holding up a Tesco bag, presumably full of cans, was seen waving in the crowd (pictured above).

What does this image tell us about the Corbyn movement? Well, in my view: rather a lot. Properly considered, the image of the ‘big bag of cans with the lads in the park’ tells us basically everything about the sort of socialism young people are – through the Labour party – currently struggling to build.

1. Why the Cans?

Clearly, what is central to this image is the enjoyment of cans, which are presumably (a) ice-cold; (b) filled with delicious beer and/or cider. But why cans, specifically?

Canned beer is, for one thing, cheap. Beer sold in cans at supermarkets and off-licences is – obviously – far less expensive than draught beer sold in pubs. Generally speaking, it offers better value-for-money than bottled beer as well: craft beer is changing this, but in off-licences the norm is still that the more upmarket the beer, the more likely it is to be sold in a bottle, not a can.

Canned beer also offers drinkers all the voluptuousness of something readily available. In any given urban or even suburban centre, you will rarely be more than about five minutes walk away from being able to purchase some frosty, refreshing cans of lager. Moreover, the beer in these cans can be accessed immediately, without your needing to have remembered to bring along a bottle opener, or failing that some tweezers or something, for the purpose.

Finally, the can offers drinkers a sense of infinity. Bottles and glasses, translucent, are constantly reminding drinkers how much beer they have left. Cans, however, only dimly indicate how much beer you’ve got left based on weight, which – especially when you’re drunk – is easy enough to forget. Drinking a can of beer, one sometimes feels as if the experience could go on forever. The presence of the ‘big bag’, naturally, serves to deepen this feeling of infinity.

In short, the big bag of cans is a utopia of abundance.

2. Who are the lads?

One might assume that the ‘lads’ are gendered male, and moreover that they are likely to display a certain sort of behaviour, loud and braggish. But increasingly, common usage of the word ‘lads’ moving away from that, even becoming gender-neutral.

The lads are, therefore, most likely people just like you and I – assuming for the sake of argument that everyone reading this is a ‘fellow millenial’. The lads are young, urban-dwelling, precariously employed; through their shared class-interest, they accrue a sense of camaraderie.

Cans of beer allow this group – the lads – to have affordable fun together. The image of the lads thus makes the utopia of abundance, implied by the image of the cans, something that feels possible for us, exactly as we are now. We do not have to become some better or higher or even richer sort of human being in order to achieve it.

3. Where is the Park?

The park is the lads’ venue for enjoying cans. The park is, in a way, any green space – urban, suburban, or rural. The Glastonbury festival is, in a way, ‘the park’. But the park is also so much more than that.

Medieval peasants dreamed of Cockaigne, a mythical land of plenty in which “roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy… grilled geese fly directly into one’s mouth… The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.” Fantasies of Cockaigne provided peasants respite from their lives of otherwise constant struggle and back-breaking labour.

The park, where precarious young people are able to enjoy infinite bags of freely-popping cans, is nothing less than a 21st century Cockaigne. When one hears the phrase “big bag of cans with the lads, in the park,” one imagines lying in the grass, day-drunk with one’s friends, as before you stretches the horizonless haze of an endless summer.

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It is really this, I think, that the Corbyn movement promises its devotees. As a generation, we ‘millennials’ have come of age knowing that we would always need to work much harder than our parents ever did, just to keep slightly ahead of the rapidly declining living standards their economy has bequeathed to us. Our lives would be ones of endless toil in the service of our landlords, until such time as our health finally gave out, or the environment collapsed and we all boiled alive in our skins.

Against all odds, Jeremy Corbyn has changed this. Suddenly, by some strange chance, a leader has emerged – and, now, gained electoral credibility – whose politics seems able to reverse this trend. Once Corbyn is the Prime Minister – ‘officially’ the Prime Minister, that is – we expect to be relieved of the precarity and want that has pursued us for the whole of our adult lives. This is the radical promise of Corbyn’s Labour.

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