Essay winner: On setting yourself on fire

In early 2013, a couple of weeks before the Tibetan New Year, Tsering Tashi a 22-year-old man from Amchok, an obscure rural Tibetan town, soaked himself in petrol and set himself on fire. He had wrapped his body in wire to ensure it burned more intensely.

A year earlier, a Buddhist nun, Paldan Choetso, 35, set fire to herself in the main street of the town of Tawu in eastern Tibet. Her self-immolation was captured on video. Paldan Choetso stands unmoving, hands pressed together in the Buddhist gesture of prayer – cupped, thumbs turned into the palm to represent the holding of a wish-fulfilling jewel – and burns like a torch. People around her scream. As the flames blaze up three and four metres high, a young Tibetan woman strides briskly forward, unfurls a khata – a white silk scarf often offered to another as a sign of deep respect – and with one deft, business-like movement tosses it into the flames.

In her book Tibet on Fire, the Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser details the dozens of self-immolations that have taken place across Tibet since 2009, and analyses the motives behind them. The self-immolations are not, she argues, acts of despair, or even suicide as it is understood. They are gestures of profound activism, a radicalisation of peaceful, urgent, political struggle. In framing up the self-immolations, Woeser describes the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, the person utterly committed to the welfare of others, to the common good.

On the other hand, as the Beat poet Albert Saijo implied in his poem ‘BODHISATTVA VOWS’, a radical commitment to the common good shouldn’t be such an unusual enterprise, or the preserve of the religiously inclined.


In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber writes that as a result of their efforts to maintain a successful consensus, egalitarian societies – those structured around the self-evident necessity of the common good – ‘often appear to spark a kind of equally elaborate reaction formation, a spectral nightworld inhabited by monsters, witches or other creatures of horror’, and notes that ‘it’s the most peaceful societies that are the most haunted in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos’.

Social movements in egalitarian societies tend to happen, says Graeber, not through manifestos or rallies but by ‘literally or figuratively sculpting flesh, through music and ritual, goods and clothing, and ways of disposing of the dead’. These communal activities – or activities carried out on behalf of the community, and into which we might subsume the production of literature – are the labour the community engages in together to maintain its political and psychological integrity. The plane of the spectral is where the ideological work that is needed to maintain the commons takes place.

The perverse theses of capitalism are that all phenomena, all stuff, all objects, all relationships, all sentient life-forms, are functional and therefore exploitable, usable – trash in the making. The belief that there is no common good, because we have nothing in common with each other except recipes for exploitation, may well be a new one in human history. It is not easy to trace these perverse theses, to see how they begin as shocking intrusions into our inner lives as infants and children, becoming more and more poisonous as we age, until we begin to buckle under their weight just as the burning body of someone on fire loses structural integrity and collapses inwards on itself. It’s not easy because capitalism has immured within us a sense of isolation that feels almost ontological, a once unthinkable loneliness, created not just by processes of exploitation that have now reached right down to the sub-atomic level of reality, but by theft of something that it once seemed inconceivable humanity could lose – the commons and the idea of the commons.

The sociologist Marcel Mauss famously wrote about the sociology of the gift, about the affective and material exchanges between human beings that make social and psychological life possible, and that have historically been the dominant characteristic of human associations. The commons is the process of gift-exchange, its object and its products. And if that is the case, then the loneliness that capitalism mandates as part of its managing of affective exchange becomes something more than an afflicted emotional state. It is a critical political marker.

And when the complex egalitarian Indigenous civilisations of the world were being destroyed by the newly pumped-up imperial capitalism, perhaps one of the things that bewildered them was the unimaginable knowledge of that loneliness, a knowledge they did not previously possess, that overwhelmed them with its implacable sense of a reality that can neither be endured nor escaped.

One of the definitive moments in the mutant hyper-growth of capitalism, was the appropriation by elites of what was – by tradition and use – common land across rural England. The Enclosures, a process of outright theft that depopulated some rural areas and created a permanent landless precariat, consolidated private ownership of real estate as the cornerstone of capitalism. It was a model of thievery that capitalism successfully replicated across the planet, reifying human flesh, water, air, plants, animals and even DNA, and appropriating it for an exploitation whose only outcome is money and utter devastation.

When the commons is obliterated, the spectral begins to manifest in daily life. It appears as psychological illness, as psychotic cultural objects and fetishised consumer goods, as weird schizo-affective states, as narcissistic and insular artistic practice, as offshore-detention camps, as the privileging of romantic love, as unimaginable mental suffering, as the hauntings of dreams and of daily life with which we have all become so intimately familiar. As people setting themselves on fire.

I discovered this to be profoundly true when I was homeless some years ago; penniless, ill and in all ways under duress it is not easy to describe. I remember walking the streets night after night wondering where I was going to sleep and understanding that not only was there nowhere I could go, but that nobody cared whether I suffered or not. When you are homeless and hungry a bitter understanding can be born out of your humiliation, an understanding that can warp you a little, inducing paranoid dreams and overwhelming and untrustworthy insights. You don’t look at your stupid hopelessness and dispossession and think, ‘I am excluded from all that is good’. You look at it and think, This is what the world is really like.

I realised that if your life is going well under capitalism, if you are racking up the markers of success, it is very often at the expense of others. It is because the mercantile gutting of human relationship and the Thatcherisation of political life are working for you. Life becomes a litany of failed or successful attempts to acquire the symbols of progress and ascendancy. It might be morally grotesque, this abandonment of the commons, even spiritually empty, but capitalism comforts us with a dream of our own unending.

I remembered this desperate time very recently when I came to the end of a piece of writing in which I had poured everything I had, but found that everything I had wasn’t enough. The problem for anyone trying to produce literature is that the forms we use to process spectral reality are so meagre and limited: the novel; the essay; the short story; the poem. Our poverty is extreme. But we can try and make them work for us, a little.


On 26 April 2016, Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old Iranian man, set himself on fire in the Australian government’s offshore detention centre on Nauru before three visiting UNHCR staff. It was ten hours before he was given any painkillers and nearly twenty-four hours before he received appropriate medical care. Omid was in such agony that the people who witnessed it vomited. Omid later died in hospital in Australia and his body was sent back to Iran. A week later another Nauru detainee, Hodan Yasin, a 21-year-old woman from Somalia, set fire to herself after being told she may not leave Nauru for many years. Hodan had been receiving medical treatment in Australia for a head injury sustained in an accident and had just been forcibly returned to Nauru by the Australian Border Force.

In her landmark 2006 paper ‘The Twice-Killed: Imagining Protest Suicide’, Karin Andriolo argues that protest suicides become powerful generative acts that re-inscribe a narrative of the common good on the body of public life. Andriolo uses as her case-studies Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers of Long Kesh prison, and Jan Palach who self-immolated in Wenceslas Square in 1969 after the failure of the Prague Spring. As the hunger strikers of Long Kesh shook the moral legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland, and Palach tried to literally shine a light from the depths of the dismal months that followed the crushing of the risings in Prague, so the self-immolations of Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin make visible the moral and political bankruptcy of the bipartisan policy on offshore detention and the slow dessication of the commons in Australian life.

If the destruction of the idea of the common good is not just disturbing but anti-human, the restoration of that idea will be radically disruptive. Whether we want to have dense and fruitful conversations about a fair society, or a fair planet, or fair jobs, or fair food, or a fair justice system, it is not possible to implement one of them without igniting the others. The ways of creating a fairer society may be multiple – mandating universal basic income, addressing gender inequality, reinventing trade unions as genuinely communal enterprises – but all of them have to begin with a clearly shared idea and practice of ‘we’ – the demos that thinks about itself in order to make itself transparent to itself.

Gustav Landauer, the anarchist thinker and friend of Kropotkin, who was murdered in prison in 1919, wrote (the emphasis is mine): ‘The state is not something that can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings … we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.’

When the commons collapses, crude patriotisms inhabit its vestments like the serial killer who wears his mother’s skin. Xenophobia becomes the dominant exercise in community-building, and terror characteristic of its presence. Egalitarianism is redefined as a commitment to shared paranoias. From the burning rubble of the commons rise the spectral ideologies we no longer know how to manage, and through the smoke we can see the caecilian grins of Nigel Farage or Tony Abbott, growing into the substance of reality like malignant Cheshire cats.

The existence of the detention centre on Nauru is a critical marker of the failure of our ability to maintain a commons, and of the failure of the Left’s imagination. The self-immolations of Hodan Yasin and Omid Masoumali are not just the suffering of offshore detention made visible. They are our commons burning. When the commons is collapsing, this is what it looks like: Australia, an affluent democracy, builds privatised concentration camps for the most desperate people on the planet, camps in which the only way its inhabitants can fully assert their humanity and remind us of our own is to set themselves on fire. They become lights fading into the far distance as we travel into the darkening future, the flickering cinders of our own capacity to live as if we were all part of a commons that mattered.

In David Graeber’s terms the immolators are offering themselves up as embodiments of the spectral, ‘literally … sculpting flesh’. It is capitalism’s spectral nature made visible. Capitalism literally feeds on human flesh, inscribing the marks of its violence on skin and bone. Tsering Woeser’s argument that the Tibetan self-immolators are utterly committed to the welfare of others finds an uncanny echo in the words of the American activist Eugene Debs, founding member of the Wobblies and the Socialist Party of America, who famously said at his sentencing for sedition in 1918:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Graeber’s description of the necessity for creating human structures and practices to manage the spectral, and therefore do the ideological work that ensures the political integrity of the common good, is also a description of the purpose of ritual and of artistic creation. And here, at this critical urgent point, we can also situate literature. Literature still has a job to do.

In her novel Empires of the Senseless, Kathy Acker wrote:

The subjects, us, are now stable and socializable. Reason is always in the service of the political and economic masters. It is here that literature strikes, at this base, where the concepts and actings of order impose themselves. Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.

Following Acker – who wrote from within the spectral about the terror of the spectral under capitalism – literature can either make visible how capitalism intrudes into and shapes our very perception and how it has dispossessed of what used to be considered a human birthright, or it can be sponsored light entertainment. It can articulate visions of the commons, or it can reveal itself as a consumer commodity with essentially the same value as celebrity cooking and shows about cars.

Literature can be the practice that talks about and embodies the things that capitalism doesn’t want to, as the hunger striker embodies the struggle, as the burning man or woman in a concentration camp embodies the reimagining of human relationships. If you are a writer in Australia, at the end of the book you write or the poem you concoct, there is now a human being, burning. And perhaps the writer now has no alternative but to offer his or her poem or novel to the immolated, like a khata thrown into the flames.

When Jan Palach lay dying of his burns in hospital, he said that his protest had been urgently necessary because ‘after half a year, after a year, it will be too late’. The self-immolations of Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin tell us that for us, too, it is getting very, very late.

We may well, as Gramsci wrote, be living under ‘Bonapartism without Bonaparte’. Capitalism is collapsing even as its forces seem to be gathering themselves for a final, definitive bout of pillaging of the human commons. But part of a radical commitment to the common good is the desire for and creation of forums where we can have urgent lively conversations about it, knowing that a common good is not only possible, but humanly necessary, as necessary as breast milk. And these forums, as Gustav Landauer pointed out, are ‘the actualisation and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste.’

Still, political activists and dissidents need a robust attitude to their own lives under capitalism’s burning sky, one that is not so attached to romance, success, suburban comfort and Netflix, but that is still sustainable and urgently hopeful, while being able to bear the understanding that capitalism is so truly demonic that what comes after can’t possibly resemble it at all.

Activism – the commitment to imagining and rebuilding a commons – is, as Albert Saijo wrote, just a ‘FUCKING JOB LIKE ANY OTHER’. Saijo went on to conclude his poem by noting that the difference is that


In the video of the death of Paldan Choetso, the young woman who throws a khata into the flames consuming Paldan Choetso’s body does a curious thing just before she unfurls the scarf. She gives a little half-glance to the pedestrians screaming off-camera. It takes no more than a fraction of a second, but it seemed to me, in the somewhat charged state I was in watching someone burn to death, that in her glance was a kind of pity and impatience; the kind we might give a child when it experiences the consequences of the act we had carefully explained the risks of and strongly advised it to avoid. Paldan Choetso’s self-immolation, her lamp offering to the world, didn’t take place in suburban Toorak or at a writers’ festival – though, like the burning of Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin it speaks to both those sites. Like Omid and Hodan’s protests it took place on the streets of a brutal, highly militarised, capitalist-inspired state of imprisonment where terror is like a continual fume in the air.

I think of the woman who threw the khata when I read the final lines of Albert Saijo’s poem, and what it might teach us as activists; people who have to go on, committed to giving our lifejackets away, carrying the work that won’t be finished in our lifetimes:






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Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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