Labour through the looking glass: 15 early-morning speculations on the Corbyn surge

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

1. If only Labour had a reason to exist…

I keep thinking of Landon Kettlewell, the dot com entrepreneur from Cory Doctorow’s novel, Makers. At the start of the book, he has just bought up the exhausted shells of Kodak and Duracell. To an audience of puzzled Silicon Valley journalists, he explains that these companies have history, infrastructure, administrators, facilities, supplier relationships, distribution and logistics. All they lack is a reason to exist.

To their own and everybody else’s surprise, the Labour establishment looks to be losing their party the same way they lost Scotland. That’s what set me thinking about Kettlewell. A month earlier, the Corbyn surge would have sounded impossible, a piece of wild political science fiction. Now, they were throwing every trick in the playbook at the Islingtonian candidate, to the opposite of the intended effect, and casting around for explanations as to what the hell is going on.

So here’s one more explanation to try out: Labour is Kodak, Labour is Duracell, Labour is the shell of something that has lost its reason to exist. As it currently stands, it is useless, but it is also the heir to a whole stack of resources that could be very useful indeed, if only it had a purpose.

Kettlewell has a solution for ‘Kodacell’: he is going to turn it inside out and put the companies’ resources at the disposal of a network, a grassroots network of tens of thousands of hackers and makers. Between them, they will make it useful again.

And so the absurd thought came to me: what if this is what Jeremy Corbyn’s election ends up doing to the Labour party?

2. What does this look like, if it works?

Bear with me, this will take some time, but there may be pieces here that start to fit together.

I’m thinking about what it looks like, if this works. No need to ask now whether Corbyn can win – that was last week’s question – but winning is the easy part and there are plenty of scenarios circulating for how things then go wrong. Could we construct a scenario for how things go right? Is there a plausible account of the next few years, in which a Corbyn victory turns out to be the best thing that had happened to the Labour party in a long while? And how would current events look, from that looking-glass future?

I’m not a member of the Labour party, I don’t have a vote in this leadership election – and I’ve hesitated to join the ranks of the registered supporters who will get one. But in the raw hours of May 8th, I wrote something that resonated with a lot of people who would have preferred some kind of Labour-led government to five more years of rule by the rich, for the rich.

Here’s a taste of that post:

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west…

Labour is about to endure a tug of war between those who believe it needs to go leftwards and those who believe it needs to go rightwards. The truth is, neither of these directions will be much help. Right now, the only way is down.

That came from a place of loss; I’m writing this now from the vanishing point where scepticism and hope converge. My first reaction to the Corbyn surge was that this is wishful thinking, a shortcut, an attempt to bypass the journey down the hole into which we had fallen. But it’s worth at least trying out the alternative, the possibility that this might be one route into the upside-down world we need to learn to navigate.

A caveat, before I try to trace that route. My post-election post was about larger social and political currents. This one is about the Labour party, an organisation I only know from the outside. So it’s probably best to take what follows as one more piece of wild political science fiction. (Especially the part where I start writing Corbyn’s victory speech.)

It is after three in the morning, the sky is getting paler, and this is a story a man is telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

3. On the appropriate response to losing an election

Labour, as it currently existed, was useless. If the election campaign had left any doubts, these were buried by Harriet Harman’s attempt to explain why the party would not be opposing the welfare bill.

‘We can’t simply say to the public, you were wrong,’ explained the acting leader of the opposition. (Except, that was, the 75% of the public who hadn’t voted for the Conservatives, or hadn’t voted at all.)

This wasn’t an aberration, it was an unusually clear expression of a mind-set that suffused the Labour establishment. According to this mind-set, the appropriate response to losing an election is not to do a better job of making your party’s arguments, nor to do a better job of coming up with convincing alternatives that embody what your party stands for, but to do a better job of imitating the party that just beat you.

Those who thought of this as ‘realism’ thought of themselves as the heirs to New Labour, but this did New Labour a disservice. Whatever you felt about it, once upon a time, New Labour had worked. Some combination of Blair’s talent for summoning up conviction on demand, Brown’s brute cunning and the times in which they found themselves made it a formidable operation, until the men at the heart of it spun off into various flavours of self-delusion. But if Blair and Brown had been the Gallagher brothers of Brit Pop politics, the current Labour frontbench was a dodgy Oasis tribute act. The tunes might be the same, only if you thought they were going to wow an audience, you hadn’t really grasped how this works.

Harsh? Sure, but this matters, because it was the backdrop against which Corbyn’s leadership campaign started to make sense to far more people than even he could have expected.

4. An unexpected legacy

Let’s just say the Corbyn thing worked out. We’ll come to how this happened, but one consequence was to recast the Miliband legacy.

He became the leader whose reform of the way that Labour chooses its leaders paved the way for one of the great transformations in the party’s history. And there was a certain poetic justice to this, because inside the conflicted soul of Ed Miliband, there was a politician who wanted to be in the place where Corbyn now found himself, riding a wave of networked radicalism.

But in truth, it was a piece of luck. A reform designed to solve one problem accidentally solved another: the great conundrum of British politics, south of the Tweed, as of 2015. Like most other western democracies, a strange insurgent political energy was bubbling up from below the surface of politics as we had known it. But how could this energy ever break through in a parliamentary system locked up by first-past-the-post?

The solution was to take over one of the existing big parties – and Miliband’s legacy was to create the conditions under which this could happen.

5. The Return of (Groucho) Marxism

If it took Miliband’s reforms to make it possible, it took a candidate like Corbyn to realise that possibility. The day that nominations closed, he told an interviewer he was standing because ‘It was my turn.’ As Diane Abbott and John McDonnell had carried the standard of the Labour left in previous contests, he had been persuaded to do so this time around.

His lack of ambition was palpable – and this turned out to be his attraction. Here was the rarest thing, a politician with no hunger for power. The sincerity of this was unfakeable, backed up by the evidence of thirty years’ unfashionable dedication to his principles. (Another kind of left-winger – the roguish kind, a Livingstone or a Galloway – would not have had this effect.)

Well beyond the natural constituency of a politician with his views, there was an appetite for this, a kind of electoral version of the Marxist theory of clubs: ‘I don’t care to vote for any candidate who is after my vote.’

Meanwhile, as they tacked leftwards in response to Corbyn’s unexpected appeal, the other candidates seemed to embody that other Marxist dictum: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’

6. Occupy the Party

As the newspaper columnists woke up to what was happening, they reached for easy historical parallels. Among the most popular was the Militant tendency, the Trotskyite group whose entryist tactics saw them expelled from the Labour party in the 1980s.

The comparison reflects a failure to understand how the world had changed in the intervening decades. A takeover might be under way, but it was of an entirely different kind.

Militant was a party-within-a-party, a Marxist sect with an ideological leader, hierarchical, disciplined in its tactics, wedded to its own ‘correct analysis’. It belonged to another era, an era in which you met someone who told you a totally different story of how the world worked to anything you’d ever heard, gave you a newspaper and invited you to a meeting. An era in which almost the only way to develop and sustain a critique of the society in which you had grown up was to adhere to an alternative orthodoxy, a support group of people who schooled you in a different way of making sense of the world.

This mode of politicisation belonged to an era in which Google and Wikipedia were unimaginable. You had no way of checking or filtering the information and analysis on offer from your new friends, little chance of exploring and developing it. The experience resembled joining an evangelical sect.

The survivors of these sects may have got excited by the Corbyn surge, but the character of the surge was quite different: it resembled the waves of networked disruption that first broke into view in the events of 2011. This was not a stealthy entryist takeover, years in the planning, it was a spontaneous movement to Occupy the Labour party, a suggestion taken up with an energy that took everyone by surprise. Such networks are like a mood in action, a rolling conversation that gathers momentum and brings the boundaries of possibility into question.

One of the characteristics of such a network is that it learns, experiments, adapts. In Greece, Spain and Scotland, the energy of the network had already evolved from the horizontalist purity of 2011 into a series of experiments in interfacing with the top-down forms of institutional politics. On each occasion, this had happened rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, it seemed to be happening again.

7. After all the wild words

So much for the events leading up to Corbyn’s election and how they came to look in hindsight. Now the hard part: what had to happen after September 12th, for this not to turn out to be the disaster so widely forecast?

The new leader had to reach out to three different groups: a parliamentary party that would never have chosen him in a million years, the movement of members and supporters that he had enthused, and the wider electorate.

After all the wild words that had been thrown at his campaign, he had to claim the ground of common sense and pragmatism. Opposition to austerity was not some revolutionary project: it was a position backed by some of the world’s best-known economists, Nobel laureates among them. A government’s finances don’t work like the finances of a household – and yes, this is harder to explain than the ‘maxed-out credit card’ story that the Conservatives had been offering for the past five years, but so far Labour had not even tried to counter this.

‘From now,’ he told them, ‘our job is to challenge austerity, to help people learn about how finances actually work and how the decisions that shape their lives are taken.’

To do this, we need to work with everyone who shares our desire for a fairer, more just and more liveable society. If Labour could join forces with the Tories and the Lib Dems to campaign for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, then we should be willing to work with other parties, social movements and groups within society to campaign for an alternative to austerity. That doesn’t mean we stop being the Labour party, or that we form electoral pacts that take away people’s chance of voting for a Labour MP, but we need to take up our responsibility as the largest and one of the oldest forces within a wider movement for social justice.

8. The MPs

The talk of an instant coup came to nothing: even the hardest Blairites could see it was suicide, and no one was really enthused by the prospect of importing another Miliband. But the parliamentary party was biding its time. Corbyn wasn’t their second choice of leader, he was their last choice, the leader no one had expected.

Meanwhile, another unexpected effect of his victory was the split between the Blairite true believers and the bulk of the party. While it prospered, New Labour had justified itself on the grounds of pragmatism: your heart might lie to the left, but your head accepted the need to move rightwards. When Blair said he wouldn’t want the party to win with Corbyn in charge, he revealed the unspeakable truth: that he would prefer a Tory government to what most still thought of as a ‘real’ Labour government. This surprised no one, yet now that it was spoken, the internal coalition on which New Labour had been built began to unravel.

As it became clear that, against everyone’s predictions, Corbyn was holding his own at Prime Minister’s Questions and establishing himself in the leadership, a couple of the true Blairites left parliament to spend more time with their careers. In the resulting byelections, with candidates drawn from the grassroots movement, rather than the party machine, Labour saw its majorities increase, and this steadied the party a little. Perhaps the new direction was not electoral suicide, after all.

A surprising number of MPs began to rediscover the reasons they had come into politics in the first place. The renewal of the parliamentary party would not be complete, though, until the arrival of the 2020 cohort. For the first time in a generation, it felt like Labour was represented in parliament by people who were recognisable to their voters, who had worked in ordinary jobs, been self-employed, knew what it was like to live on the minimum wage or to queue at the job centre.

9. The movement

Over the past weeks, tens of thousands of people have found a faith in politics, a faith they never had, or thought they had lost long ago. It is not a blind faith nor an unquestioning one, it is not dogmatic. At its root, it is a faith in each other, as human beings, that we are something more than just self-serving consumers.

The future of the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership would depend on what happened next with the movement which had grown up around his candidacy. ‘The job of this movement is not over,’ he told them. ‘There are four and a half years until the next election. We can’t wait that long to start rebuilding society, we need to start today, in the places where we live.’

There were three things that needed doing, now, he went on.

First, to start conversations that went deeper than doorstep canvassing, those five million checkbox encounters that had amounted to so little in the general election campaign. Labour needed to listen to people, not just when they fed back the soundbite opinions circulating in the daily papers, but in spaces where they had room to reflect on their own experiences, and to start making sense of the forces shaping their lives. The task of creating those spaces started in people’s kitchens, in rooms above pubs, in empty units in shopping centres, with house parties, meet-ups or pizza nights. Members of the leader’s team would show up to these events, sometimes the leader himself, and party organisers helped find guests and speakers, people to get the conversations started and to carry ideas from one town to the next.

The second task was for members of this movement to get active in the places where they lived, offering practical help and support to those hit hardest by austerity. ‘There’s a word for this,’ Corbyn told them, ‘an old fashioned word: it’s called solidarity.’ This was a movement for a society where no one would need a food bank, but while food banks existed, its members were going to be there, alongside the people running them and the people dependent on them, because these were the people with whom society would be rebuilt.

The final task would be a voter registration campaign on a scale that Britain had never seen.

10. The voters

The panic and despair of the Labour establishment at Corbyn’s victory was based, more than anything, on their certainty that he could never deliver electoral success. (That the same people had been certain, two months earlier, that he could never succeed in the leadership election did not cause them to question this.)

What were the factors that proved them wrong? The effectiveness of the voter registration campaign – not only in getting people onto the electoral roll, but in generating a wider sense that, this time, voting would matter – was clearly part of the story.

But another part of it was the gap between the way the political establishment thought about voters and the messier reality of the voters themselves. Most people don’t have a political opinion or identity in the way that people who dedicate their lives to politics tend to think of these things. The left-right spectrum is irrelevant to them, not because they subscribe to any of the analyses used to argue that this frame is obsolete, but because the words just don’t mean much. What they do have is a gut-level feeling about the direction in which society is travelling and a trust in their own intuitive judgement about whether someone trying to persuade them of something believes the words coming out of his or her own mouth.

Mainstream politicians had tried to respond to UKIP by borrowing as much of their rhetoric of xenophobia as they could get away with. Just like Gordon Brown with Gillian Duffy, the assumption was that UKIP voters were bigots, it’s just that bigots had now been identified as a target demographic. Yet this was too simple an interpretation of UKIP’s support, which was rooted in a deeper, vaguer sense that things were headed in the wrong direction, had been headed that way for a long time, and that nothing these voters heard from the mainstream politicians seemed to acknowledge this or reflect the experience of their lives.

11. The obstacles

Among the reasons people wrote off the chances of Corbyn’s Labour was the hostility of the press. Yet so much ink had been thrown at Red Ed and his Britain-hating dad, there was no stronger vocabulary left with which to damn his successor, so the message that Labour was lurching dangerously leftwards just sounded like more of the same. Except that what viewers identified when watching Miliband was his awkwardness, the constant sense that he was trying to work out who you wanted him to be, whereas you could see that Corbyn knew who he was and was happy with it.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the shadows of the defence and intelligence communities, contingency plans must have been drawn up for the possibility of a prime minister committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from NATO. But whatever its calculations, there were no outward signs of the deep state moving against the Labour leader.

The other predictable source of hostility, big business and the City, was preoccupied with the fall-out of the second wave of the global financial crisis, which broke in the autumn of 2016. It was that October that Labour first took a clear lead in the polls. The party also benefited from the damage done to the Conservatives by the deepening paedophile scandal.

12. Back to the allotment

Of course, in the end, the people who said Jeremy Corbyn would never become prime minister turned out to be right.

In September 2018, in his conference speech, he announced his intention to step down as leader. The leadership campaign that followed could hardly live up to the drama of 2015, but it was historic for another reason, as it led to the election of Labour’s first woman leader. Three years earlier, when she was among the backbenchers elected to Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, few would have identified her as on the left of the party, but the platform on which she stood combined the anti-austerity commitments of her predecessor with a pledge to reform the electoral system.

As for Corbyn himself, he was only too happy to leave the despatch box and get back to his allotment.

13. Beyond a nostalgia for social democracy

It is August 2015, it’s getting close to six in the morning, and this is a story a man has been telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

Does it even come close? I’m not sure.

I can convince myself that there is a movement happening that could go far beyond the leadership contest, that the reach of the kind of politics Corbyn represents could go a lot wider than those who identify as on the left, and that a Labour party that confidently made alternative arguments would have a decent chance of reshaping political debate, despite the hostility of the media. (A hostility that hardly goes away if the party tries to play it safe, instead.) The hardest part is imagining the parliamentary party coming together around a Corbyn leadership, or at least giving it a chance.

At the level of political ideas, despite a lot of what’s being written, Corbyn’s platform hardly comes across as ‘hard left’. (For comparison, try watching this televised debate with Militant from 1982, where Peter Taaffe declares that Labour should nationalise 80-85% of the economy and ‘introduce a socialist plan of production’.)

What I do get from his campaign is a distinct flavour of ‘the Scooby-Doo theory of neoliberalism’: the idea that, if it hadn’t been for those meddling neoliberals (Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan, Blair), we could have got away with a social democratic end of history. That way of thinking always feels like it gives its enemies too much credit, makes them masters of events, rather than the opportunists that they were. Neoliberalism today is hollower than it appears, but that doesn’t mean we know what an equivalent of social democracy looks like for a world of international capital and networked individuals – or what an equivalent of social democracy looks like that knows how to include the people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats and climbing fences at Calais.

These are hard questions, but the space in which we can articulate them and think carefully about them seems to be opening up. Whatever else comes of the Corbyn surge, it should help to enlarge that space.

The most encouraging thing I’ve noticed in his campaign is the crowdsourcing of policy ideas: 1,200 people contributed to the Northern Future document. This has to be better than a policy-making process concentrated among the London-based thinktanks and inner circles populated by PPE graduates who have never worked anywhere beyond Westminster. It seems like the best chance for developing the principles of those supporting Corbyn into a policy platform that is not simply nostalgic for the golden age of social democracy. And it’s how Landon Kettlewell would make policy, if he took over Labour.

14. The reality-based community

There’s one other line that’s been ringing in my head as I read the churn of comment pieces, the phrase that Karl Rove used to Ron Suskind. ‘Guys like you,’ he said, ‘are in what we call the reality-based community.’ For many, it summed up the delusions of the Bush regime, and belonging to the reality-based community became a badge of pride. But I always thought that Rove had half a point, when he made that distinction between those who study reality and those who create it.

The alarmed voices of the Labour establishment surely think of themselves as the reality-based community. The panic grows as they find those enthused by Corbyn are seemingly immune to reasoned arguments. But reality is complex, it isn’t just composed of facts, those facts are always entangled with perceptions, and with stories that shape those perceptions. A lot of the reality to which Labour’s realists are currently appealing is made up almost entirely of perception, since its facts consist of the results of opinion surveys and focus groups. It’s worth asking whether these methods borrowed from the market research industry really plumb the depths of the electorate, or even its shallows. Not to mention, at what point perceptions that have become dislocated from the facts get to overrule them, whether in relation to the effectiveness of austerity or the impact of immigration.

Another chunk of the reality to which the realists are appealing consists of stories. For a story to work, it needs to show a certain respect to the facts involved, but there will often be more than one story that fits the facts. When Polly Toynbee writes that her heart lies to the left of Corbyn, but the 1983 election result tells her this would be futile, she is invoking what has been the definitive story of Labour’s wilderness years and its return to power under Blair, the story of ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Other stories are available, though, including one which might mention that, when the Tories took the seat of Lewisham East from Labour at the 1983 election by a margin of 1,909, they were helped by the 9,351 votes polled by the breakaway SDP, whose candidate was Polly Toynbee.

15. You get one chance

It’s nearly time for breakfast. I’ve been practicing like this, the last few mornings, because I want to believe that there is a constructive insurgency going on, a wave of networked disruption that will renew the Labour party, remind it why it exists and open up the politics of the country where I did my growing up. I want to believe that the party can take this and not just tear itself apart.

Give me a few more days, maybe I’ll have got enough practice.

Meanwhile, here’s one thing I am sure of: if Corbyn doesn’t win, there will never be another chance for a grassroots surge of this kind within the Labour party. The system for electing a leader will be reformed all over again, the gap that Miliband opened will be sealed and the control of the parliamentary party reasserted. And perhaps the result will be that the pendulum of politics continues to swing jerkily from blue to red and back again, as if by some ahistorical force of nature, but my hunch is that the gap between the reality talked about by politicians and the realities of people’s lives will continue to grow, the pressure will continue to build, and sooner or later it will find a way to break through the cracks of the existing system. Since I’m writing this from Sweden, which many of you still think of as the spiritual home of social democracy, let me remind you how ugly that can look.

Taking The Power to Westminster

“How does it all look from over there?” people ask me, meaning the general election that is going on back in the UK.

The first answer is, strangely familiar. Sweden had a general election last year where the big parties of left and right got historically low votes, the Social Democrats and the Greens formed a minority government with the support of the Left party (though they wouldn’t let it into their coalition), the balance of power in parliament is held by the Sweden Democrats (think a slightly browner version of UKIP), and a second election was called and then called off again only when the centre-right alliance (think four different factions of the Conservative party, standing under different names) made a deal with the government to provide limited support. The details are Borgen-like, but squint so the details go fuzzy and you see a familiar shape. The rituals of voting work differently, but in both these countries, as in lots of other parts of the west, something similar is going on – what I’ve come to think of as a crisis of democracy that goes deeper than politics as we know it knows how to reach – and these unsettled election results are what that buried crisis looks like on the surface.

The second answer is nothing to do with Sweden: it’s personal, it’s about the kind of life I’ve had and the age that I’ve reached. I’ve been following UK elections with an unhealthy attentiveness since 1987, but this is the first time when there are significant players who are my age, some of whom I crossed paths with when they were rather less well known than they are today. Rachel Reeves lived on the same staircase as me as first-year undergraduates in Oxford and her passion for social justice and dedication to the Labour party as the vehicle for this has been unswerving from that day to this. When I listen to Chris Mason’s entertaining Election Desk on Radio 4’s PM programme, I have an extra chuckle because I remember him crashing in my spare room the week he worked his first few shifts for the BBC at Radio Sheffield. I’ve been getting my geek fix from Alberto Nardelli’s data analysis for The Guardian, while recalling pitching School of Everything to him in the days when he worked at Unltd. And I’m certain I remember Rowenna Davis – who is fighting an impressively organised battle for Labour in the super-marginal Southampton Itchen – throwing brilliant, awkward questions at me after a rambling talk I gave at a squat in central London a few years ago.

Name-dropping is about as attractive as nose-picking. But what I have in common with all of these people – none of whom I know well, but all of whom I have a lot of respect for – is that our lives have passed through places like Oxford, the BBC or the London social-activist-thinktank scene that are totally alien to the experience of anyone outside a circle of at most a couple of hundred thousand people in Britain. (You could probably draw the circle rather smaller than that.) And without bringing anyone’s good intentions or the worth of what they are doing into question, I think this is part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my own little quixotic long-distance intervention in this election campaign. If you happen to read Crossed Lines, the occasional newsletter I’ve been writing, then you’ve been hearing for weeks about #dontjustvote. But I’ve been slow to write about it more publicly because, if I’m honest, right up to when it got underway on Friday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what it really was or why I was doing it.

One thing it is is a week-long tour by my very old and dear friend Billy Bottle and his other half Martine Waltier, winding their way from Devon to Westminster, pitching up on high streets and seafronts, in marketplaces and community cafes, playing an exuberant acoustic rendition of Snap’s ‘90s rave-rap hit The Power, jamming with local musicians who turn up to meet them and starting conversations with everyone they meet along the way.

There is a kind of a message running through the project, the clue to which is in the name – do go out and vote next Thursday, but don’t let anyone tell you that your role in democracy is over for another five years when you leave the polling station.

But what gets clearer with every stop along the way is that this is not a campaigning project with a message it wants to get across to people, this is about what happens along the way, the conversations you get into when people realise you’re actually interested in what they think and what they feel about the state of the country. I’ve been keeping in touch with Billy and Martine as they go and helping to write up the experiences they have along the way in posts like this:

Everyone we meet feels disillusioned, disengaged, disenfranchised. They all feel like they’re not being heard. A lot of them aren’t voting. Yet they also believe that we as people do have power, they just can’t see a route to change that goes through the ballot box.

We’re not pretending we’ve got any answers. We’re definitely not pretending that wearing fluourescent tights and playing a song in the street is a way to change things. But it’s a way in, a way to start meeting people, catching little snatches of a tune that this country is humming under its breath, that nobody’s quite remembered the words to yet.

I’m not claiming that this is an intervention that is going to affect the course of this strange election, even if it was partly inspired by a short story I wrote where a Facebook post ends up (possibly) doing that. But two-and-a-half days in, I’m starting to understand why this matters and why I’ll be spending as much time as I can this week, in my lunch-breaks and on commuter trains, doing my bit to help tell the stories they are picking up along the way.

Firstly, one reason I’m doing this is because I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of role art can play in making sense of the mess in which we find ourselves – and I think what Billy and Martine are up to might have some clues to that. One reason I love working with them is that I have total confidence in them, not just as performers who come alive wherever and whenever they play, but as people who will roll with and play with whatever happens, and that’s what’s leading them into a constant stream of fascinating encounters, only glimpses of which reach the Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr we’re running for the project.

More than that, I know that a lot of what I’ve written lately could sound like I don’t believe that art that tries to be political can work – but that’s not quite true. What I’ve been poking at is the problem with art that thinks its job is to deliver a message to a (hopefully receptive) audience. What I believe in, though, is another kind of political art which doesn’t have all the answers, which makes a space in which people can meet each other and come alive together, where words are given to thoughts and feelings that hadn’t quite been articulated before, not carefully pre-prepared words, but words that arrive unexpectedly in the middle of things. This is something I’ve felt in the work of Troja Scenkonst, the theatre collective I’ve been collaborating with in Sweden since last summer – and you can get some sense of this in the talk I did with Lisa Färnström from Troja.

It’s what I love about the work of artists like Lottie Child, what I pick up from the impro practice of a teacher like Keith Johnstone. It’s what I’m hoping to talk about in the conversation I’m holding in Malmö on Thursday night, where I’ll be jamming words with the sounds of the saxophonist Ola Paulson.

So far, so arty… What about what’s going to be happening back in Britain on Thursday?

Well, for what it’s worth – and I’m not imagining saying this will shift a single vote – I do desperately hope that some combination of MPs will be elected that makes it impossible for David Cameron to form another government on behalf of the rich and the worried. (There aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to support a Tory government, but there are enough worried people, hoping the housing bubble’s mirage of prosperity doesn’t evaporate, hoping the things that happened to the poor and the unemployed and the disabled in the last five years aren’t going to happen to them…) I also hope that if such a combination of MPs is elected, the massed forces of the British press doesn’t succeed in preventing it forming a government.

I have some deep currents of loyalty to what Labour has meant to previous generations of my family, but I don’t have any illusions about what a Labour-led government is likely to mean in practice. But the ballot box isn’t a tool for building utopia, it’s a tool for damage limitation. So if I was voting in a seat where my vote had a chance of making it more likely that a Labour MP was elected rather than a Tory or a Lib Dem, that’s how I’d be voting. If I could help elect a Lib Dem rather than a Tory, I’d do that. In any other situation, including the safe Labour seat where I’m registered to vote, I’d vote for whichever party came closest to standing for something I could believe in, so that when the votes are added up we can all point to how absurd the system is that is set to give one party on 5% a single MP while another party on the same kind of share of the national vote gets 50 MPs.

So, in the unlikely case that you wanted my advice on who to vote for, there you have it. Meanwhile, back to the musical duo with the frizzy hair and the unfeasibly fluorescent tights…

What I’m getting from talking to Billy and Martine about the conversations they’re having along the way is a kind of below-the-radar read on the election in England. The gentle futility of their journey takes them out of the game of serious politics, played by the Oxford-BBC-thinktank types, and into the everyday worlds that they’re passing through. And out of those worlds comes a murmur of the great welling of discontent that lies about a quarter of an inch below the crust of our societies.

Whatever uncomfortable parliamentary coalition is cobbled together in the weeks after polling day, I expect that murmur to get louder over the years ahead. Something like it has already found its voice in Scotland, up-ending the confident assumptions of the entire London-centred establishment, and making an unmistakable contribution to the strangeness of this Westminster election. UKIP may tap into one part of England’s restless dreaming, the Greens into another part of it, but for different reasons, both parties struggle to become its voice.

In one of the newsletters where I started sketching out the ideas for #dontjustvote, I wrote that so much of what has happened politically in the past five years – from Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and its darkening aftermath, from the Indignados to Occupy, Beppe Grillo to Russell Brand, the Clacton by-election to the Green surge to #milifandom – would have sounded like wild political science fiction the last time Britain went to the polls.

I don’t expect the next five years will be any less weird. I don’t expect, sadly, that any result at this election will fully take the weight of austerity off the backs of the most vulnerable, or hold off the next financial crisis that could well make the autumn of 2008 seem just an early tremor, or reverse the polarisation between London and the rest of the country, and between the playboy London of the few and the struggle that, to varying degrees, forms the reality of London for most of its residents. I don’t expect a beautiful revolution led by the wildly gesticulating Russell Brand and commentated on with carefully calibrated enthusiasm by Paul Mason.

I don’t know what to expect, but like tuning the dial on an old radio, trying to make out a distant AM signal, I’m certain I’m picking up some weak transmission from the streetcorners and seafronts of southern England that my friends are strumming their way along as they take The Power slowly towards Westminster.

So, go out and use your vote on Thursday for whatever seems the least worst option, but be ready for whatever unexpected forms democracy comes to take in the days and weeks and years that follow. (And if anyone tells you that democracy ends at the ballot box, ask them how we got the right to vote. Clue: it wasn’t by voting for it…)

And meanwhile, if you’re anywhere along the south coast of England, check out this map of the route that Billy and Martine are taking and go give them some love.


The moment when the White Rabbit goes past

Back in November, I started writing an occasional email newsletter called Crossed Lines. Mostly, it just goes out to the couple of hundred people who have signed up to receive it – but I thought I’d share the latest issue on here. If you like it, then here’s where you sign up for more.

This letter comes to you from a hotel room in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. The hotel is called the Arctic Eden. From the window, I can see the mine buildings that crown what’s left of Gironvárri, the mountain the city came here to devour.

The way I was told it, the Swedes knew there was a mountain full of iron ore, somewhere in this landscape, but the mountain was sacred to the Sami and they had no intention of letting the Swedes find it and tear it apart. Until eventually some prospectors got an old Sami man so drunk that he let out the secret.

The history section of the website of the company that owns the mine that tore apart the mountain is headlined: ‘Faith in the Future since 1890’.

In the foyer of the Folkets Hus is a scale model of the city. A red line loops across from the mine, taking in the whole downtown and chunks of the surrounding neighbourhoods. On the underside of the model, a reef of ore slants downwards more than two kilometres into the ground. As they keep following it, digging it out, the city itself will be undermined. The red line marks the zone in danger of subsidence. The answer is to take down the city and rebuild it three kilometres to the east.

You can take a bus from the current city centre that drives straight into the side of the mountain, the road spiralling down into the mine to a depth of five hundred metres, but that will have to wait for next time, because this time I came here to see a play.

Jag Kommer Härifrån is a story about what it means to come from a small place, to grow up with the idea that everything exciting in life is waiting for you somewhere else, somewhere bigger and brighter and more open-minded. Watching it, I was back in Darlington, twenty years ago, full of the desire to escape. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, it seems to me now, but there is a problem when it hardens into a claim about the objective superiority of life in the big city, held to be an obvious truth by people old enough to know better. This is the attitude I think of as ‘urban supremacism’ – what Anders Duus, who wrote Jag Kommer Härifrån, calls ‘metronormativity’.

The train from Stockholm to Kiruna takes seventeen hours. That’s a lot of time for talking – and the other reason I am on this trip is for the luxury of that time together with Anders and my new boss, Måns Lagerlöf, the director of theatre for Riksteatern. I still struggle to get my mouth round words like ‘boss’ and ‘job’, but for the first time in a decade or so, I have both of these things. Since January, I have spent much of my time in an office in a tower block in the concrete surroundings of outer Stockholm, trying to work out what it means that I am now the Artistic and Audience Development Lead for Sweden’s national theatre. If this job had been advertised in the newspaper, it would never have occurred to me to apply, but it came to me by one of those chains of coincidence which I have learned to trust.

I guess if you grew up in Sweden it probably seems normal to have a national theatre that is also a grassroots movement, a network of over two hundred volunteer-run local associations that own the national organisation and arrange performances in smaller and larger places, up and down the country. To me, this sounds like the start of some extraordinary story: the moment when the White Rabbit goes past, staring at his pocket-watch, muttering to himself, and you know that you have left behind reality as you knew it.

So, when the laughter and the applause have died away, the staging for Jag Kommer Härifrån is packed and loaded onto the tour bus, ready to head on down the road to the next town on a forty-date tour that stretches the length of the country. And having seen one of our productions out on the road for the first time, the organisation I’m working with just got a little more real to me.

I’ll be writing more about what I’m actually doing, as these newsletters get going again, and as I get further into the process of figuring it out. I should say that I’m working 70% (as we say in this part of the world) which means I still have 30% of my time available for writing, speaking and other freelance projects. Most importantly, I’ve wound up here because the things I’ve been thinking, writing and speaking about seem to resonate with what they want to do over the next few years, so this is a chance to put some of my ideas into action.

Jag Kommer Härifrån has fun at the expense of the hipsters of Södermalm, buying their organic groceries at Urban Deli on Nytorget. That bit reminded me of Venkatesh Rao’s essay, ‘The American Cloud’, where he suggests that today’s America consists of a Jeffersonian simulation, an imagined version of small-town life, running on a Hamiltonian platform of mechanised processes the scale of which is uncomfortable to think about. He starts with the example of a Whole Foods store, its pre-distressed wooden fittings connoting authenticity, while behind them is the concrete and steel of which the building is actually made. Steel that came out of a mountain like the one outside my hotel window.

The deposit of iron ore under Gironvárri is one of the largest and richest ever found. When mining began, there were 1.8bn tonnes of it down there. As part of the project of moving the city, the municipality held an architectural competition. The winning design was called ‘Kiruna 4-ever’. Today, less than half of the original ore remains to be mined. It seems that Kiruna has accepted the need to dismantle and re-mantle itself with little complaint. I imagine that only a city whose existence was this bound up with a single industry could be so accepting. The current rate of extraction of iron ore is over 25m tonnes a year. The new city hall will open next year and by 2021 the beautiful wooden church will have been rebuilt on its new site. The full project of moving the city will be complete sometime in the mid-2030s. By my reckoning, that is about when the ore will run out. I suppose that’s what they mean by faith in the future. Still, ‘4-ever’ seems an ambitious timescale.

That was a taste of Crossed Lines. If you’d like this kind of thing to turn up in your inbox on an occasional basis, here’s where to go.

Image via Tekniska Museet

In the future, everyone will be powerful for 15 minutes (February 2012)

For reasons I’ll come back to another day, I’ve been working a lot with theatre and democracy lately. So it seems timely to republish this essay, first written for Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, a book of reflections on the events of 2011 that I edited with Keith Kahn Harris. Another of the contributors, Andrew Taggart, observed that the most striking thing about the book was the speed with which it came about, barely three months from conception to publication. I’m not sure how well our reflections have stood the test of time, but I continue to come across people trying to figure out the same questions. (For example, the immediate prompt to dig this out today was this interview with Astra Taylor, where she makes a similar point about why consensus decision-making might work better for a Quaker meeting than an Occupy General Assembly.)


Rioters smash the windows of banks, the drum beats towards war with Iran, protests fuelled by social media take over the streets of another capital city. As 2011 reached its endgame, the cinematic surface of Mike Bartlett’s play, 13, could have been taken from the next day’s headlines. Into its dark, refractive world, where everyone seems to be having the same bad dream, comes an unkempt young man named John, whose friends had given him up for dead. He takes to giving sermons in the park, pulling at the materialist threads of a fraying society. Someone films him and posts it on YouTube, and soon his message is spreading, sparking a movement whose aim is not just to stop the war, but to start… something better.

If the positive vision of the movement John finds himself leading was left undefined, this gave it a certain symmetry with the Occupy encampment across the river, at the steps of St Paul’s. In each case, the desire for change struggled to find a clear articulation, while cohabiting uneasily with matters of belief. As the play builds towards its conclusion, John meets his antagonist in the form of a polemically atheist and pro-war establishment figure – part Richard Dawkins, part Christopher Hitchens. Then his downfall comes when one of his followers acts on her interpretation of his message, with murderous consequences.

Bartlett seems to be using theatre as a form of public thinking: not simply to present an argument, but to make the process of thinking public. ‘In the moment of writing,’ he told an interviewer, ‘I genuinely changed what I thought.

I wonder if this willingness to rethink out loud, to voice our uncertainties, might be emblematic of a generational shift which leaves the winner-takes-all polemic of Hitchens or Dawkins looking suddenly old-fashioned: an intellectual Maginot Line, built for a kind of war we no longer fight? Among those whose thinking holds my attention, there is a fluidity to the way ideas emerge, flowing in and out of the projects, actions and movements with which we become involved. Careful thinking is valued, but being right is less important than contributing to the unfolding of the conversation, and discovering something you hadn’t seen. This reflects the habit of publishing our conversations in real time, thinking aloud in written form, sharing our ideas in progress through blogs and Twitter exchanges that weave into our face-to-face encounters, and formal publications that crystallise out of the wider conversation.

Continue reading In the future, everyone will be powerful for 15 minutes (February 2012)

Crossed Lines: An occasional email newsletter

Writing is terrifying. You have no idea where your words will go or how they will come back to haunt you. It freaked Plato out twenty-five centuries ago and it freaks me out today.

Your only hope is that the reader will assume good faith. That she is willing to step inside the text and feel through your words, rather than put them on trial and find them, as they will always be, wanting.

The internet is wonderful in more ways than I need to tell you, but it does not abound in a willingness to assume good faith. Words unaccompanied by bodies are more easily misunderstood. It is easier to be careless or unpleasant through a keyboard than in the flesh. Mailing lists go to war over which way to open a boiled egg. Comment threads sprout into a hydra of misreadings, some wilful, some innocent. Not always, but often enough to make us wary.

Years ago, at an exhibition opening, I staged a battle reenactment of a (pretty tame) mailing list fight. Twelve of us sat around a table and read aloud twelve minutes of extracts from what had been twelve thousand words of mails. The guy whose attack on me had triggered the original episode agreed to read my words and I read his. It shook us both.

The internet is not often a safe place to be vulnerable. Good writing, unless it is well-armoured polemic, requires vulnerability. I suspect this is why so many of the writers I know have an angst-ridden relationship to the internet.

To write with no fear that your words will be held against you, that is what it takes for written words to come alive. And the model for this, I think, is the letter you write to a friend. There are certain books which started life as letters and they come alive in this way. I am thinking of John Berger’s ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’, parts of which must have been written as love letters, but I realise that I could be thinking of any of a dozen of Berger’s books or essays. I am thinking also of Hugh Brody’s ‘The Other Side of Eden’ which grew out of his letters to his friend Ted Chamberlin. Where technologies open gaps between us, whether the technology is the internet or the alphabet, friendship can make those gaps disappear into irrelevance. When you write to someone you know to be a friend, you don’t worry about whether they will assume good faith.

I stumbled into blogging more than ten years ago. I was living in wild west China, one of maybe two dozen foreigners in a city of 400,000. This is not the place to try to explain how the experience changed me, but some days it was all too much. I started writing “round robin” emails to friends back home, then I got guilty about clogging the inboxes of those I never heard back from, so I started using a site called LiveJournal instead. After a couple of months of posting there, I realised with a jolt that two people I’d never met had started following my posts.

For a long time, though, blogging still felt intimate, a place where I could talk through whatever I was working on and assume that anyone who was interested enough to be reading would assume good faith. Then it didn’t feel like that anymore. Lots of other things happened, I moved countries and changed the shape of my life, and I let my online life drift for a couple of years. Then this year, as I found my feet in Sweden, I started this site as a place to write about the work I’m doing.

I think it works. It’s a public home, a place for publishing things. But lately I’ve been feeling the itch for a more personal way of writing over the internet. Around the same time, I started reading email newsletters from people like Warren Ellis and Deb Chachra – and I was struck by how different a newsletter can be to a blog.

A newsletter arrives in your inbox without demanding any response, which makes a pleasant change from most of the rest of the email you get. Still, it has to be interesting enough to actually make you want to read it. There’s no comment thread. Often, there’s not even a public archive, so it lives somewhere just a little more intimate. Sometimes it can feel like a personal email a stranger has sent you by mistake.

So, because clearly none of us has enough words in our inboxes already, I thought I’d try joining in the renaissance of the email newsletter. I give you Crossed Lines, an occasional letter about what I’m reading, writing, thinking and talking about. And about what ever else I feel like writing about. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The first letter will go out at sunrise, one morning in the near future.

Sign up for Crossed Lines here – make sure you click on the link in the Confirm email from TinyLetter.

(Image from here.)

Stir to Action: Crowdfunding a workshop programme

STIR magazine has been going for a couple of years now, based in Bridport, Dorset, born out of the moment of the Occupy and Transition movements, and doing its best to bring together currents of action and reflection, hacking, commoning and cooperation.

I’ve written for them a few times, most recently a review of Martin Shaw’s magical books about myth, wilderness and wildness in the latest issue. Here’s a taste of that piece:

What is at stake is not the planet, as such, but a way of living within it that we have created as a species, parts of which go back tens of thousands of years, while other parts are barely a generation deep, though we already struggle to imagine living without them. Our sense of loss at all the shadowed beauty being driven out of existence, our guilt, our still-remaining desire to feel proud of our place as a species – all of this exists in tension with our attachment to what we know and our sense of powerlessness within the structures we have built. These forces play out within us and on a planetary scale. To understand the relationships between the inner and outer worlds that define the crisis, something like the subtlety of mythological thinking is required, its ability to dance with paradox and its openness to surprise. And perhaps, even now, there remains within the stories the capacity to make those relationships anew. For as Shaw says, that has always been the power of story, to ground us in such a way that universe becomes a cosmos.

You can read the rest of that piece and lots of other great articles from people like David Bollier, Annemarie Naylor, Siôn Whellens, Anna Laycock and Tom Hirons (another Dark Mountain storyteller) in Issue 7, which is available here. I particularly enjoyed the cover story, Dan Gregory‘s essay ‘There Is No Such Thing As Capitalism’, which resonates with JK Gibson-Graham’s ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’, another book I’ve been reading lately.

Anyway, what prompted me to write about STIR today is that they’ve just taken the next step in their larger project, launching a crowdfunding campaign to create a six month programme of workshops. The aim of these is to bridge the gap between reading about inspiring cooperative projects and actually making these kinds of projects happen in the place where you live.

Here’s a video where Jonny and Abby, the founders of STIR, explain a bit more:

They launched the campaign a couple of days ago with the aim of raising £5000 to cover the costs of the workshop programme and they’ve already passed the £1000 mark. I’ve just made a small contribution. If you feel inspired to join me, the campaign site is over here. As you’d expect, there’s a menu of offers available to supporters – in this case, many of them involve the work of the fine illustrators who make the magazine itself such an attractive read.


Update (05/11/14): I wrote this in haste, during the run-up to FSCONS. The videos from the day should be available soon – and we’re looking for other ways to develop the #FULLCOMMONISM conversation. Meanwhile, for a more detailed treatment of the core distinction between two ways of seeing the commons, see Ivan Illich, ‘Silence is a Commons’ and Anthony McCann, ‘Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”‘.

FSCONS is the Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit, an annual gathering of politically-minded hackers. Last year I gave a talk there about why “post-scarcity” is such a problematic concept. They liked that enough to ask me to put together a whole track at this year’s conference, which takes place this weekend in Gothenburg. That’s how #FULLCOMMONISM came about.

#FULLCOMMONISM is the thing I’ve been going on about for a while (like here and here), an insistence on how big the difference is between seeing a “commons” as a pool of resources to be managed and seeing a “commons” as an alternative to resources.

The moment you treat something as a resource, you’ve already commodified it. This sounds totally abstract, until you think about friendship, one of the few areas of human experience where we still have any common language for talking about the idea that not everything should be treated as a resource. When someone you thought of as a friend treats you as a resource you say, “I feel used!” – and people know what you mean.

The idea of “the commons” has been on a long journey out of the history books and into lots of areas of public discourse. I don’t mean it’s become a household word, but it is in danger of becoming a buzzword, everywhere from conservation to architecture to internet politics. One effect of this is that same word increasingly gets used in different ways, sometimes incompatibly different ways. I believe there’s a desperate need for a shared language for talking about why some things shouldn’t be “used” (and also when it might be OK to “use” things). That’s why #FULLCOMMONISM matters to me – I want to defend a way of talking about commons that helps us hold onto the possibility of other ways of treating each other and the world, rather than allowing it to be smudged into another approach to exploitation – a more sustainable and equitable way of “using” each other.

I’ve written a chapter for a book that the University of Gothenburg are putting out soon, in which I take this further, sketching out a set of connections between what I think of as the “logic” of commons – the ways of thinking and acting that go with “commonism” in its full sense – and the logic of friendship, hospitality and gift. I argue that this logic is at odds with another, dominant logic which forms the hidden consensus between the supposed opposites of “public” and “private”. But that’s more than I can go into this afternoon…

For now, this is an invitation to join us in Gothenburg on Saturday – or online, where there should be videos of Saturday’s talks appearing in the near future – as we try to flesh out the kind of commons I have in mind, the thing that Anthony McCann often calls ‘the heart of the commons’. I’ll be helped in this by a fascinating group of fellow speakers, some of them longstanding co-conspirators, others new friends, who are interested in this kind of conversation about the commons:

  • Evren Uzer von Busch will be talking about communal meals on the streets of Istanbul in the wake of the Gezi Park protests.
  • Christopher Brewster will be talking about water, friendship and conviviality, where commons and infrastructure meet.
  • Geraldine Juarez will be talking about piracy and friendship (and Piracy as Friendship).
  • Lars Noväng will be talking about trying to turn ideas into reality with The Friendly, the organisation and project space he created in Malmö.
  • And finally David Hilmer Rex and Aslak Aamot will be talking about Organisational Imaginaries, new social infrastructures and ways of thinking about what we have in common that shape the ways in which we come together and collaborate.

This is all just one track within a conference that will be full of fascinating talks and conversations – and it’s also just one step in the development of a line of inquiry around the commons that is rooted in ideas from Ivan Illich and Anthony McCann, that I hope to take forward in other ways in the years ahead.

Tickets are available through the FSCONS website – 600kr for the whole weekend.

Remembering Uncivilisation

As you may have gathered by now, the weekend after next is Futureperfect festival – but it’s also the anniversary of the last Uncivilisation, the annual Dark Mountain gathering that we ran in the UK. There are plenty of differences between the two festivals, but what they have in common is the quality of conversation we’re bringing together – and I’m delighted to have some old friends joining us on Grinda, including Smári McCarthy and Ella Saitta, who were on the legendary Collapsonomics panel at Uncivilisation 2011.

Meanwhile, this seemed like a good time to share this essay that I wrote for the latest Dark Mountain book. Though I’m glad to say the 14-day weather forecast for the Stockholm archipelago is looking rather more encouraging…

The skies opened and all the waters in them fell at once. It was a rain so hard I remember the weight of it on my shoulders, so loud you had to shout to have a chance of being heard. Yet, uncommonly for England in summer, it was not a miserable rain. There was something triumphant about it. Perhaps because we all knew we would soon be in vehicles, heading back to the sheltered lives we had come from. Perhaps because we had already endured a weekend of hard showers, woodland mists and other watery intrusions. But also because it felt somehow like a seal of approval, a full-throated elemental roar in answer to the voices raised here in the past three days, the past four years, at the last moment of the fourth and last Uncivilisation festival.

Insist too hard on the significance of a poetic coincidence and you will make people uncomfortable. Better to recount such moments as jokes the world seemed to join in with than as some kind of revelation, but my experience of those four festivals includes several of them. The first came that first year, before we had found the site in the Meon valley that became our home, when several hundred people gathered in Llangollen, unsure what to expect. The landscape was darker, wild and splendid, but the venue itself was a converted sports hall. We had never organised anything like this, and our hosts were used to organising comedy nights and concerts for local audiences who bought their tickets, sat in their seats, enjoyed the show, applauded and went home. We were unprepared for the logistics of a festival and unprepared for the ways in which a festival comes alive. There were a hundred things wrong: plastic beer in plastic cups, a campsite too long a walk from the venue, a main hall where rows of seats faced a stage where speakers could barely see for the dazzle of the theatre lighting. Yet somehow, in spite of it all, this became a place where magic could happen.

The moment it happened for me, that year, was on the Sunday, as Jay Griffiths spoke about the shapeshifting power of language only for gremlins to take hold of the sound system so completely that the technicians could barely coax a murmur from it. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the room reassembled, people sitting in circles around Jay on the stage and on the floor. And there, the spell was broken, the face-off between speakers and spoken-to giving way to a shape as old as stories.

From there on in, the memories seem to dance with each other, as we found ways to open the circle and let others step in, until I am not sure which of the things I remember happened to me and which I only heard about. The wild figures in the fields, on the edge of sight. The late night tellings that bewitched us around the fire. The daylight stories of loss and pride, still fresh and urgent on the tellers’ faces. The music that picked up at the place where words ran out. The rhythm of rain on the roof of a marquee. Thirty people penned inside a square of rope to reenact the memory of a Russian prison cell. The sharpening of a scythe. Laughter and fooling and horns and antlers. At the end of everything, a singer’s voice going up into the night.

Someone said, one Sunday morning, almost embarrassed, that this was the closest thing they had to going to church. All along, it was there, the awkward presence of something no other language seemed fit for, the wariness of a language that so easily turns to dust on the tongue. Here is one way that I have explained it to myself. A taboo, in the full sense, is something other than a reasonable modern legal prohibition: it is a thing forbidden because it is sacred and it may, under appropriately sacred circumstances, be permitted, even required. Now, the space that we opened together, as participants, was a space in which certain taboos had been lifted: some that are strong in the kinds of society we have grown up in, some that have been stronger still in the kinds of movement many of us have been active in. Not the obvious taboos on physical gratification—most of what they covered is now not prohibited so much as required, in this postmodern economy of desire—but the taboo on darknesses and doubts, on naming our losses, failures, fears, uncertainties and exhaustions. In response to our earliest attempts to articulate what Dark Mountain might be, people we knew—good, dedicated people—would tell us, ‘OK, so you’ve burned out. It happens. But there’s no need to do it in public and encourage others to give up.’ Instead, it seemed, one should find a quiet place to be alone with the disillusionment. Perhaps become an aromatherapist. If I have any clue where the power of Dark Mountain came from—knowing that it came from somewhere other than the two of us who wrote the manifesto—then I would say it came from creating a space in which our darknesses can be spoken to each other. (From here, among much else, we may begin to question why the movements we have been involved in seem accustomed to use people as a kind of fuel.) By the second or third year of the festival, though, I found myself wondering if the sacred nature of taboo might not work both ways. If a group of people creates a space in which taboos are lifted, perhaps this in itself is enough to invoke the forms of experience for which the language of the sacred has often been used?

That is how I have explained it to myself, at least, for now; and if there is any truth in such an explanation, then it bears also on the role of those who take responsibility for creating such a space. We did not know, when we agreed—rather lightly—to that original invitation to host a weekend in Llangollen, that what we were creating was nothing so safe as a programme of talks, workshops and performances. Those elements were there, but they leave out much of what mattered most to those to whom the festival came to matter. The other, harder to name elements, which seem to have something to do with the sacred, call for another order of responsibility. The hard thing is not to create a space in which taboos can be broken, but to do it without people getting broken.

I have been reading stories from the 1960s, counterculture stories, uncomfortable reading, because there are things I want to understand better about the much-mythologised moment in which all that took place. There are plenty of broken taboos in those stories, and no end of broken people. By comparison, we were weekend amateurs, going nowhere near so high or so hard or so fast, but someone who had been through those years and lived to tell the tales told me this festival was the closest he had known to a reawakening of what he knew back then. If so, then here is confirmation that the taboos in which there is power today are of a different kind, for there is more hedonistic excess on a Saturday night in any high street in England than there was in four years of our Uncivilisation.

In the end, I think we learned to carry the responsibility, to hold this kind of space with care, though it took the wisdom of others who joined us at the heart of the festival-making. Nothing in the process of writing prepares you for such work, for a writer’s responsibilities are as bounded as the binding of a book, and the space from which writing comes is a solitary one.

We didn’t set out to start a festival, a festival happened to us. From those who came to it, we learned more about what Dark Mountain might be and what it might mean than we could ever have done at our desks. It felt good to have created it—and it feels good now to have brought it to an end. After all, there are reasons why no one tries to start a publishing operation and an annual festival as part of the same small new non-profit business in the same year. Somehow, we got away with it, although the price was paid in the fraying of our wits, and also in the inevitable carelessnesses—most of them small, but none of them unimportant—that happen when you are always trying to do too much at once. There are also reasons why a journal which is increasingly international, and not exactly enthusiastic about air travel, might not want to spend half its year organising a single event in the south of England.

For the next while, then, we are going to concentrate on doing one thing and doing it with the care it deserves, the thing we thought we were doing in the first place: bringing together books like the one you hold in your hands. We brought Uncivilisation to an end while it still felt like a joy rather than a duty. But the sparks from all those late night campfires carried further and there are friends of Dark Mountain organising events in the Scottish lowlands, the former coalfields of South Yorkshire and no doubt other corners of the world.

When the horns had sounded and the thank you’s and goodbye’s had been shouted through the downpour, a circle of friends sat for a few minutes in the shelter of a yurt. We sat quietly, the silence broken after a few moments, as one after another spoke about what he or she had taken from being part of Uncivilisation. Few of us had met before that first gathering in Llangollen and our stories echoed something I have heard over and over, from people who came every year and from people who came only once. A feeling of being less alone. For all the intensity of the mountain-top moments, what stays with us, what carries us through life, is this, the quiet magic of friendship.

This piece was first published in Dark Mountain: Issue 5, along with a photo essay documenting the four years of Uncivilisation – not to mention a whole lot of amazing essays, stories, poetry and art from around the world. Meanwhile, if you can make it to the Stockholm archipelago next week, there will be the chance to pick up some of the same threads at Futureperfect festival (14-17 August). For more information, see this post – or book tickets on the festival site.

On The Urgent Need to Slow Down

There are two weeks to go until this year’s Futureperfect festival kicks off – and every day now, I’m hearing from new people who are coming, people I’m excited to know are going to be there.

I’ve come to see gatherings like this as a necessary luxury.

A luxury because they allow us to take a couple of steps back from the day-to-day realities of our work, whatever that may be.

And a necessity because, without stepping back like this from time to time, we will drift off course, lose sight of that element within our work that is hardest to put into words, the element that was why it mattered in the first place.

In these spaces, we get to stretch out our minds and our souls a little – to have the conversations we never quite find time for among the rhythms of everyday life, or at more goal-oriented events and conferences. We step into festive time, a time of leisure in the deeper, older senses of the word: the kind of leisure that was long understood to be the precondition for learning. The leisure that allows us to attend to what matters.

I believe that such spaces matter all the more, given the tangle of crises around and ahead of us. I’ll say what I mean by this in a moment – but as I work my way around to doing so, you might like to put on a little music from one of the artists who’ll be creating the kind of leisurely atmosphere I’m looking forward to at Futureperfect…

Over the last few weeks, with some of my new collaborators here in Sweden, we’ve been starting to put words to the kind of work we want to do together in the name of The Västerås Group: the organisation that has been growing of the conversation series I hosted here in Västerås earlier in the summer. (Recordings of the first five conversations are available to download here, the rest are coming soon.)

There’s a question we’ve found ourselves circling around, which goes something like this: What do we do when our maps no longer fit the territory?

We seem to be living in a time of disorientation. A time of people who feel lost and confused, who followed the route they were given, but didn’t get to the lives they were expecting. Institutions whose levers no longer seem to work. At the root of this are a set of entangled crises: among them, the unravelling of the promise of economic progress, of the structures and culture of democracy, of the ecological fabric on which all of this rests.

These crises are still only starting to poke through the collective map by which our societies steer, the collection of models and stories that make up what I often think of as ‘official reality’. Politicians and the media struggle to incorporate them into their ways of talking about the world. But the lurching sense of disorientation is a product of the gap between that rapidly-dating map and the realities of everyday life.

And so, as we’ve been talking about what The Västerås Group might actually do together, we’ve started to sketch out what it might mean to build a practice around the redrawing of our maps. Taking account of the unmarked obstacles, resisting the illusion of a return to the way things once worked, learning to spot the unexpected paths where we had been told there was only a dead end.

Just now, for me, all of this comes around to Futureperfect. For the obvious reason that this is the first project we’ve undertaken as The Västerås Group: to host the festival’s Cocreation Space, a huge tent at the centre of the festival site, full of cushions and comfy sofas and conversations, where our Festival Faculty will be inviting people back from the more formal sessions going on over the four days, picking up the loose ends and unanswered questions, trying to draw each other beyond our preformed ideas, into the process of thinking together.

And for the larger reason that the space of necessary luxury and leisurely conversation seems to be a precondition for the kinds of work that we’ve started to identify as belonging to the process of redrawing. Gatherings like this are one form of such a space, there are others. They respond to a need that grows stronger in times of disorientation: the urgent need to slow down.

So here is my work-in-progress, back-of-an-envelope map of some kinds of work that make sense, when our maps no longer fit the territory. (I suspect it will be a while before we distill all this into a simple explanation of what it is we’re doing, but I hope the conversations on Grinda in two weeks’ time will help that process on its way.)

  1. Acknowledge the scale and significance of the gap that has opened up: the discomfort of losing our bearings, the attachment we have to how we thought the world worked and how we thought our lives would work out. Make room for this loss, and for the doubts and fears and darknesses that come with it. Wait for your eyes to adjust, without rushing to answers or to action. Allow it to pass from the level of information and facts, into the kind of knowledge we feel in our bodies, the kind that leaves us changed. (If I had to sum up why Dark Mountain has mattered to people, I would say it was because without fully realising what we were doing, we made room for this kind of process – a theme Paul and I talked about in the Five Years on a Mountain video.)
  2. Give attention to the maps, models and stories we grew up taking for reality. Take a step back and allow them to come into focus. Notice them, name them together, so that we can recognise the moments when they slip back in to our thinking, uninvited. This is the kind of attention I associate with what Cat Lupton calls ‘the place between stories’ (which always reminds me of ‘the Wood between the Worlds’ in The Magicians Nephew). It’s a process I talk about in this short video with Ākāśa Innovation.
  3. Give attention to the elements within people’s everyday experience that are left out of the maps and models we inherited. If loosening the hold of our existing maps means stepping back to the in-between place where we can reflect on the maps themselves, the counterweight to this – the guard against getting lost in our reflections – is to step closer to the unmapped texture of experience. Look for the places where things no longer work the way they used to, and also for the huge areas where people’s experience was never reflected in the map. There is pain here, exclusion and damage, but this is never the whole story: there are clues also, pockets of life that may have endured precisely because they went unmapped, possibilities that we had missed. I think of those lines of Eugenio Montale:
  4. History isn’t
    the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
    It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
    and hiding places…

  5. Find different ways of having conversations. The situation is too messy and too serious to spend our time acting out the kinds of point-scoring debate that have too often passed for grown-up public discourse. With nice timing, a deck of Group Works cards arrived in the post this week from Dave Pollard, offering ‘a pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings’, while Mark left a comment pointing me towards the example of Council Practice. Willow Brugh, one of the other members of the Festival Faculty, is working on a ‘recipe box’ of different flavours of conversation for the Cocreation Space. How do we move beyond these as ‘alternative’ techniques? How could we help parts of the mainstream media out of the dead-end of pointless backward-and-forward arguments that pass for intelligent discussion? That might sound naïve, but it’s what Per Johansson, one of our Festival Faculty, has been doing with his series for Swedish Radio’s P1, Människan och Maskinen (Man and the Machine) – and the response they’ve experienced suggests there is a hunger for this kind of media. Much closer to the hard end of broadcast news, I see something related in the way in which Paul Mason bridges between the networked conversations of social media, intellectual analysis and reporting for a mainstream TV channel.
  6. Recognise the role of culture and the imagination. Not to be pressed into service as a means to an end, a delivery mechanism for a message we want to communicate – but a place where the wilder sides of ourselves come to life, where the familiar can be thrown into question and new shapes can arrive from no-one knows quite where. Here, again, we meet a necessary luxury. I’m getting particularly interested in the role of theatre in this – not least, for some of the reasons that Paul Mason touched on in his review of the National Theatre’s Great Britain – so I’m excited to be bringing to Futureperfect the founders of the young Swedish theatre company Troja Scenkonst, currently working on a project called The History of Swedish Democracy, along with the remarkable Bembo Davies of the Institute for Non-Toxic Propaganda and the Society for the Promotion of Human Rites.
  7. Aim to create projects and experiments that continue to make sense in the widest range of possible futures. There is a criterion here, to be worked out further, which might start to help us shape practical work. Perhaps the unMonastery, which both Bembo Davies and Ben Vickers (Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Gallery and another of our Festival Faculty) have been involved with, is an example of this kind of experiment? I’m looking forward to hearing more about how its first phase in Matera has gone.
  8. Create pockets within our organisations and institutions that have permission to experiment with other maps. To operate according to other assumptions and other scenarios. And to exercise judgement as well as measurement, to take seriously things that don’t show up in the criteria other parts of the organisation are accountable to. (Christopher Brewster and I discussed ‘The Limits to Measurement’ as part of the Västerås Conversations – and he’ll also be joining us at the festival.) Again, this is something that needs working out, but it feels like there could be a rationale for a small part of an organisation’s resources to be used in this way, as a hedge against “map failure”. This is a conversation I’ve had a few times over the years with Ella Saitta, one of the hacker-thinkers who’ll be joining us at Futureperfect.

I don’t know if these kind of reflections are what the Futureperfect guys expected, when they appointed me as their Festival Professor.

As a model, it is a work in progress, a sketch of some of what’s been bubbling up in our conversations – and I owe a particular debt to Lucas Grind, who has spent the most time grinding through these ideas together with me. (He’ll be at the core of our Cocreation Space crew – as well as DJing on the Saturday night…)

But hopefully it’s also a taste of what to expect, if you’re thinking about joining us in two weeks’ time. Meanwhile, I’m going to take my own advice and slow down for awhile. I look forward to seeing some of you on Grinda!

Futureperfect is happening from 14-17 August on the island of Grinda in the Stockholm archipelago. Tickets are available from the festival website.

Friendship is a Commons

Two different ways of thinking go under the banner of the commons, today. One speaks of the management of shared resources; the other struggles to remember a form of social relations in which the world is not seen as made up of resources. The law of the commons was unwritten, according to Ivan Illich, because it protected ‘a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’ In our commodity-intensive societies, where do we find the traces of that unwritten reality?

Out of my conversations with Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca in late 2012, there was one thread that wouldn’t be left alone. Two or three times over those afternoons, Gustavo had returned to the theme of friendship: as the starting point for the new commons, the category for the reconstruction of society.

The following spring I was invited at a few days’ notice to speak at the Commoning the City conference at Stockholm’s Architecture Museum. It was a chance to pull on that loose thread, to try to make sense of why friendship might be a good starting point from which to think about the commons and about political possibility today.

I went on to write about the experience of the conference and the thoughts it prompted in an article for STIR magazine – and I still have unfinished business with this tangle of themes. Until I find another way back to them, though, here’s the video of that talk.