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.