Category Archives: articles

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.)

1.

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)

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.

Dealing with our own shit (Dark Mtn)

In December 2012, Nick Stewart and I travelled to Oaxaca where we spent two afternoons filming with the Mexican activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva. Among the fruits of those afternoons was a dialogue published in the fourth issue of Dark Mountain. Starting from the extraordinary turns of Gustavo’s life, we follow a thread of conversation that leads through his friendship with Ivan Illich, the political possibility of friendship itself, the way in which even the attempt to speak about climate change brings us up against our own arrogance, and the question of whether we are ready to deal with our own shit, both physically and morally.

There were eagles riding the air overhead as we took the backroad out of San Pablo Etla to the Casa Esteva. The taxi driver had left us at the crossroads: at ease in the highspeed free-for-all of the highway, he had no desire to risk his exhaust on the unpaved road ahead, so a young man from one of the neighbouring households drove down to collect us. It was three months into the dry season. We bumped across the bed of an empty stream before climbing again towards the adobe house among the trees.

After days in downtown Oaxaca, its streets clogged with fumes, the air up here was a release. Twenty-five years earlier, when Gustavo Esteva and his partner left Mexico City to settle here, they must have felt that same contrast. For Gustavo, it was a return to his grandmother’s village: the grandmother who, in his childhood, was not allowed to enter his parents’ house by the front door, nor to speak to her grandson in Zapotec.

‘For my mother,’ he told me, ‘the best thing that she could do for her children was to uproot us from any connection with our indigenous ancestry, to avoid the discrimination she had suffered.’

Read the rest of this article as a PDF (15 pages).

Black elephants & skull jackets (Dark Mtn)

Vinay Gupta is one of those characters around whom stories collect and opinions divide. He has a bulldozer of a brain and a huge sense of mischief, he is often absurd and sometimes indefensible – and between 2009 and 2012, when we both lived in London, he was one of my closest collaborators.

In this piece for the first Dark Mountain book, originally published in May 2010, we talk about how growing up half-Indian shaped his thinking about disaster management and sustainability, what it takes to become an ‘old culture’, and the origins of the Institute for Collapsonomics.

Before I know who he is, Vinay Gupta has started telling me about his plan to start a small African country. The drug factory is the important part, apparently – that and the Gurkha mercenaries.

We’re sitting on the bare floorboards of a townhouse in Mayfair: five storeys of gilded mirrors, marble hallways, handpainted Chinese wallpaper and furniture that looks like it just came out of a skip. In one corner, a large bracket fungus is growing out of the wall, about two feet below the ceiling. It’s the kind of scene that makes you think the world as we know it already ended, you just weren’t paying attention.

It is January 2009. For months now, the world economy has been visibly in chaos, and even the politicians are starting to acknowledge that the consequences of this won’t be confined to the financial markets. Gupta seems like a man who relishes chaos.

You can download the rest of the article as a PDF – or order Dark Mountain: Issue 1 which also includes new writing from Jay Griffiths, Alastair McIntosh, Paul Kingsnorth and many others.

 

Image: Vinay Gupta by Mark Charmer

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.

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