All posts by dougald

The fairly Big Society (Closer)

For those who don’t follow British politics, the ‘Big Society’ was supposed to be David Cameron’s vision for running the country. It started out as an attempt to distance the Conservatives from Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ By 2013, when I wrote this, it had all but vanished from view. This piece was written for Closer, a one-off newspaper of ideas for an independent Scotland.

Whatever became of the Big Society? It still gets mentioned, sometimes, as a joke: its humourless punchline, the lengthening queues at volunteer-run food banks. At Westminster, the Tories forgot their flirtation with social capital, localism, community organising and got down to the business of cutting, privatising, outsourcing, fracking and inflating a new housing bubble. So David Cameron’s one-time big idea gets written off as a warm fuzzy makeover for the Thatcherite desire to shrink the state, the kind of neoliberalism from which an independent Scotland might hope to liberate itself. Yet this obituary misses what is worst about the mess that was the Big Society. The Tories did not simply invent a half-baked cover story, they took other people’s ideas for a joyride, then smashed them into the dead end of their own ideology. The challenge now is to salvage what is worth saving of those ideas from the wreckage.

Read the rest on Bella Caledonia.


Image: Front cover of Closer, designed by Kieran McCann.

Haunted by Shadows of the Future

On Sunday 30 March, I’ll be travelling through time and space to be part of HORIZONS at the Tensta Konsthall.

Twenty minutes ride on the Blue Line from downtown Stockholm, Tensta is one of the ‘million programme’ suburbs, concrete estates thrown up at an alarming speed in the late 1960s. Over the past six months, the Konsthall has been hosting exhibitions, conversations and events under the banner of Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden.

As part of this, STEALTH.unlimited are bringing together what they describe as ‘a jam session on future scenarios for Tensta’:

HORIZONS is an attempt to
 re-set Tensta into probable, speculative, or perhaps rather unseemly futures in the year 2030. Will this, yet unknown Tensta be an autonomous zone, where the residents of this disregarded part of Stockholm have successfully taken their destiny into their own hands? Or 
will its multi-faceted society prove so vital that this ‘new Sweden’ comes to dominate the entire country by 2030? Or will Tensta’s original but unfulfilled mission – of creating an environment that acknowledges and gives space to a fully liberated and democratic model citizen – ultimately be re-created? And what would such a citizens’ liberation and equality mean if we could live it today?

When Ana and Marc from STEALTH invited me to be one of the four contributors creating scenarios for the event, I asked if they were sure they had the right person.

But while I don’t know Tensta as a place, I do have some sense of the new Sweden, because I’ve spent much of the past year surrounded by fellow immigrants, learning the language and working out how to make a life in this country. Without giving too much away, my scenario for 2030 is about the difference that the New Swedes – my classmates included – could make to this country’s ability to adapt to a future in which the age of mass prosperity has become a distant memory.

Having checked out the other contributors, it promises to be an exciting event:

Adam Tensta (hip-hop artist, challenger of vested cultural norms and laborious creator of one’s own realities, born and based in Tensta)

Gunilla Lundahl (cultural journalist, writer and editor with a long-standing commitment to urban culture and discourse since her start at newspaper The Worker in 1955)

Tor Lindstrand (architect, assistant professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH-A), and a cross-disciplinary performer, editor and thinker).

HORIZONS is free and open to all. It’s happening at 14.00 on Sunday 30 March, 2014. You can read all about it on the Tensta Konsthall site – and there’s also a Facebook event.

What good is information? (Aeon)

An essay about the journey from information to meaning, how LSD helped create the story of the internet, and why we’re still bored when we have Google.

On my morning bus into town, every teenager and every grown-up sits there staring into their little infinity machine: a pocket-sized window onto more words than any of us could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, more pictures of people getting naked than we could ever get off to. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable, this cornucopia of information. Those of us who were already more or less adults when it arrived wonder at how different it must be to be young now. ‘How can any kid be bored when they have Google?’ I remember hearing someone ask.

The question came back to me recently when I read about a 23-year-old British woman sent to prison for sending rape threats to a feminist campaigner over Twitter. Her explanation for her actions was that she was ‘off her face’ and ‘bored’.

Read the full version at Aeon magazine.

Commoning in the City (STIR Magazine)

The starting point for this article was the Commoning the City conference held at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in April 2013. It ran as the cover story for the summer issue of STIR magazine – and the full text is now available on their site.

Of everything I hear during these two days, the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

We are not witnessing a turn towards anarchism, exactly, but something more pragmatic: a shift in the general mood, reflecting the reality of people’s experience after five years of this unending crisis, itself coming after decades of neoliberalism. It is the attitude that underlies the Squares Movement, from Tahrir to Syntagma, the Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park. If those camping out in cities across three continents were reluctant to distill their discontent into a set of demands on government, this was not simply a utopian refusal to engage with the compromises of political reality; it was also a conviction that to put hope in government is now the most utopian position of all. This is also the attitude that has driven the rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and it has all the uncomfortable ambiguities such an example suggests.

Into this vacuum, the commons enters as an alternative to both public and private. I find myself wanting to push this further, to suggest that it indicates a significant historical rupture, in at least two senses: a breaking of the frame of politics as a tug of war between the forces of state and market; and the failure of the project of the public, the promise of liberal modernity to construct a neutral space in which we could meet each other as individuals with certain universal rights. This latter point is particularly uncomfortable, we discover during our conversations in Stockholm, since many of our ideas of social justice are founded on that framework. Yet if it is true that the rise of the commons reflects the failure of the public, it is not clear that we can simply expect to borrow its assumptions…

Read the rest of the article here.


Image: German Gullon

The Dark Shapes Ahead

The dark shapes ahead are islands. Beyond them the sea shines and the sky seems a soft reflection of its light, and beyond both of these, the faded darkness of the next line of islands. This goes on for hours.

The thousands of islands – tens of thousands – that merge into the Stockholm archipelago are one of the gentle wonders of Europe. This side of midsummer, their trees are a deep green that fades easily into darkness on a cloudy evening. Here and there, where land meets water, a red-painted house by a small landing stage. Where the channel tightens, you can see old fortifications: a marker of the times in which Sweden was a great power in Europe, and in which power in Europe was settled with armies and navies.

Today, the big ships sailing through these straits are cruise liners and ferries full of Swedish and Finnish holidaymakers. Three hours into the crossing, as we pass into the open waters of the Baltic, the disco of the MS Silja Serenade is screaming with children in party clothes playing musical statues.


We are living through a moment of crisis in Europe of a kind that has not been seen for generations: not since the 1930s, or the summer of 1914. I hear this from people whose reading of events I do not find easy to dismiss, and I see traces of it in the news stories I follow. I do not think it is possible to talk about ‘resilience’ in Europe today without doing so against this background.

And yet it remains a conscious effort to hold this in focus, while the blur of normality goes on around us.


All week the air seemed to be holding its breath, until by Saturday the only answer was water. We went swimming twice: diving in the afternoon from a jetty at Ulriksdal, then again at almost midnight, closer to home, the sky not fully dark, walking down to the shore in our dressing gowns. The surface of the water was black and silver, a different substance to the one we swam in earlier.

I had been thinking about the slipperiness of history, how it escapes our grasp. When we study a war in school, the first facts we learn are the last to be known to anyone who lived through it: when it was over and which side won. Those who do not remember the past may be condemned to repeat it, but hindsight is very nearly the opposite of memory. To remember is to be returned to a reality that was not yet inevitable, to recall the events which shaped our lives when they might still have gone otherwise.


I imagine conversations taking place in Europe in the 1930s, as history darkens, and two thoughts come from this.
First, that there is no wise moment to leave a bad situation, when leaving carries a cost. There is only a choice between two kinds of foolishness: to be too early and risk losing much for nothing, or to be too late and risk not being able to leave at all.

Then, a second thought, that leaving may not be an answer to anything. This is not to speak against self-preservation, only to notice that it is not always a sufficient cause to carry us through.

If someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be: to take responsibility for the survival of something that matters deeply. Whatever that is, your best action might then be to get it out of harm’s way, or to put yourself in harm’s way on its behalf, or anything else your sense of responsibility tells you.

It seems to me that, if we can talk about such a thing as the tasks of resilience, then today these tasks will share that quality of taking responsibility: not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical, and may be different for each of us.

This was written in July 2012 as part of The Resilients project. I had been invited to make a journey around Europe in search of ‘cultural resilience’, which I came to think of as ‘the capacity to endure’. The website for the project is gone now, but a little more information can be found here.

Image: fhwrdh