The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

Weird stuff happens. People really do experience telepathy, alien abduction and pre-cognition.

In the UK, we usually push such stories to one side and either forget about them, or (worse) medicate them. David Luke, Senior Lecturer for Psychology at the University of Greenwich tries to understand them. Continue reading The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

The Elevate Awards

Every year, the Elevate festival recognises organisations and individuals who have done outstanding work in the struggle against alienation, selfishness and capital; in the struggle to liberate creativity and compassion in the name of humanity and the planet.

The Artivism Award supports creative projects as ambidextrous as Elevate, projects that use the left and right hand, both art and activism, in concert. Meanwhile, the Steiermark Award and the International Award honour the festival’s local heart and global vision.

The €1500 prize money is as welcome to the winners as the publicity granted by the Elevate stage is to all nominees.

Nominations for the Artivism Award included Hypertopia, an ambitious city planning project, NANK Wien, a revolutionary shoe factory, openArtist, a piece of open source universal creative software, and Reni Hofmuller, a musician who took the opportunity to recognise the refugee protest camp here in Graz.

Hassan, a Syrian living in the protest camp, delivered an impassioned speech to the Dom, describing his journey to Europe like “ashes blowing in the wind, while our wives and children are still in the land of death”.

The winner of the Artivism Award was Manu Luksch, an artist who studies Big Brother and the constant surveillance of CCTV cameras.

Festival chocolatier, Josef Zotter, was on stage to present the Steiermark Award and once again the breadth of local activism was an inspiration, showing that not all action must be grand in order to be revolutionary.

A food cooperative, a network for regional self-sufficiency, a homely social centre and a group dedicated to the promotion of digital data encryption were all recognised on stage with interviews and presentations. But the winners were AllerLEIHLaden, a social club based in Graz where people can swap and gift their unused objects that would otherwise collect dust.

Given this year’s Elevate theme, creative response, it is fitting that the International Award celebrated a very immediate response to perhaps the greatest political and social challenge facing European citizens today: migration.

The White Helmets are a group in Syria who respond to rescue survivors from bombed out buildings. So far, over 70000 people have been saved by their fast reactions. On stage in Austria is a video screen and on the video screen is Mohammed, the scars of war clearly marked on his face, to accept the award on behalf of the White Helmets.

“Thank you to the Austrian people and I know that you support us from your heart,” Mohammed says. “I’m so happy to feel somebody behind us.” Mohammed himself had been seriously injured and then rescued from a collapsed building before he joined the White Helmets to help others. “I should help the people because we are all human, we must help each other,” he says.

The work is not easy, of course, and the rescue missions themselves have recently been targeted by bombing. “Thank you to the people who support us,” Mohammed says. “I will make sure that the money will be for injured people and for the situation.” Applause echoes around the Dom in standing ovation.

Vandana Shiva, a bolt of colour in the darkness of the cave, picks up the threads of the Syrian story. In 2009, there was a drought in Syria, a particular tragedy in the fertile crescent where agriculture first took root. Following this drought, one million farmers were displaced. This was the first wave of refugees, forced to the cities, where they were met with violence instead of justice.

Vandana sees the parallels with the 1984 agricultural crisis in the Punjab. In the same year as the Bhopal disaster that killed 3000 people after a pesticide factory leak, Punjabi farmers protested the use of chemicals that was destroying their agriculture, just like it would destroy Syria. The protests descended into violence and the violence was recast as religious conflict: “No more about land and water, no more about farmers’ livelihoods,” Vandana says. “And exactly the same thing has happened now.”

“My own history goes back to my own mother being made a refugee by India and Pakistan being chopped up along religious lines in 1947,” Vandana explains. “A world order which is based on grabbing the last drop of water, the last inch of land and the last seed can only create refugees.”

“We’ve got a twisted mindset that labour and land are inputs into an economic process,” Vandana says. “Land is the earth, she’s not an output; she supports all life. Humans are not just labour; we are bursting with creativity, as the Elevate festival so deeply celebrates.”

But Vandana assures us that there is a way out of this economic process. “If only we align our energies and our intelligence and our hearts with the amazing creativity of nature, and, instead of seeing ourselves as conquerors and masters, we start to see ourselves as co-creators and co-producers, there is limitless abundance.”

In order to reach this abundance, however, we must come together. “As fear becomes the currency for winning the next elections, let’s hold our hands together, let our hearts touch the earth and say we will not be conquered through fear, hate and insecurity.”

Vandana shares, as she did last year, her favourite quote from Gandhi: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for a few people’s greed.”

Elevate: Lightful! Yes! Workshop

I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)

First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.

“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”

You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:

Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.

Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.

Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.

Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?

Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.

Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.

Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.

Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.

Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”

The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.

Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.

Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”

That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.

Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”

You Are What You Don’t at Elevate Festival

I’m super busy working and writing at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria at the moment. But between catching thoughts, ideas and arguments in my butterfly net of words, I managed to find time for a conversation with Christian Payne, AKA Documentally, which he kindly recorded and uploaded to Audioboom.

We talk about Calais and his recent trip there, as well as positive constraints and new publishing models – including You Are What You Don’t at Unbound.

You can listen to the conversation below and make sure you check out more audio from Documentally at the Elevate Festival – a dozen conversations with people even more fascinating than me! 😉

Elevate Creative Response/Ability

Creative Response is the theme of this year’s Elevate festival. Fittingly, this was a vast, sprawling session that spread over two hours, with six guests and more than a dozen contributions from the audience. Unfortunately, that means this blog post can only be a short introduction to a small part of the stimulating discussion.

Creative response is the brain-child of film-maker and writer Antonino D’Ambrosio. He starts the session by trying to capture some of the main ideas behind the concept.

“It’s how we’ve survived as human beings since the beginning of time,” Antonino says. “It’s a rejection of the things that hold us back and advancing systems that bring people together. And you do that through creativity, not just film, music, art, photography, but economics, science, in every way we can break down these barriers socially, politically, culturally.”

For many on the panel, Antonino’s definition of “creative response” was not one they had come across, but the ideas were, of course, already embedded in their personal creative philosophies.

DJ Ripley finds the idea “very appealing”, but makes the point that not everyone is struggling for survival – under the current system, some people are doing very well, often through exploiting others. For her, therefore, “creative response is particularly rooted in people whose survival is and has been challenged right now.” As a DJ from New York, Ripley is aware of her great privilege and must herself consciously resist the temptation to exploit the musical resources of other cultures, which she describes as a “delightful buffet” – a short step from the cruel domination of colonialism.

Cultural researcher Elisabeth Mayerhofer picks up on Antonino’s comments about creative response being a tool that brings people together. Tracing the history of the artist in the western world, she makes the point that eighteenth century emergence of The Artist was “very intertwined with the concept of capitalism”. It was only when capitalism emancipated the artist from feudalism, through the financial independence afforded by the market and intellectual property rights, that they were able to rise out of the community and into the position of cultural Genius.

Today, however, Elisabeth sees the slow erosion of the role and self-perception of the artist as genius. New forms of intellectual property, including the Creative Commons, are acknowledging that everything is created out of what has gone before. “The artist is moving back into society,” Elisabeth says. “In the end, the production and the consumption of art both have a very strong aspect of collectivity. You can’t think of arts without community.”

Mike Bonanno from activist collective The Yes Men tells a story that illustrates what’s possible when a little creativity is stirred into the pot. He was in Australia at a conference for accountants – “These are people who are not usually associated with creativity,” Mike notes – and announced the shutting down of the World Trade Organisation, to be replaced by the Trade Regulation Organisation. He wasn’t expecting what came next, however.

“They were so thrilled with the idea that the framework had changed and they’d be able to do something good with all of their expertise that, without us asking them, they formed working groups at the luncheon that followed the speech and started to rebuild the World Trade Organisation themselves – and they started by redesigning the logo.”

When the laughter falls away, Mike tells how these high-powered accountants, who’d spent their lives off-shoring money for the super rich, discussed where they could site the headquarters of this new organisation so that the least developed nations could have full representation.

“The point is that lifting that weight gave them this moment where they suddenly felt incredibly creative and spontaneously became these incredibly creative accountants.”

For Elevate moderator Daniel Erlacher, this perfectly encapsulates creative response at its most powerful: activism combined with creativity to create a new world.

Elevate: The Politics of Data in a Quantified Society

“Are you a robot?” says the disembodied telephone voice. “You sound so much like a robot. Will you say ‘I am not a robot?’”

So begins a presentation from Marek Tuszynski and Stephanie Hankey from Tactical Tech, a presentation that lurches easily from the surreal to the terrifying, but ends with a full bodied embrace of evil.

The central question Tactical Tech pose is: what does it mean to live in a data-ised society, for individual and for corporations?

The luckless telemarketer on the end of the disembodied question refuses to confirm that she is not a robot. That’s the point: when we’ve automated ourselves to the eyeballs with algorithms, how do we still know that we are not being controlled by robots?

Balthasar Glattli, a Swiss national councillor, gave away his smartphone data so that everyone who had voted for him could see exactly what he was doing. From the data that leaked freely from the phone, analysts were easily able to track where he was, who he was talking to and what he was likely to be doing. Over time, it was simplicity itself to build up a network map of all his friends and colleagues.

Marek makes the point again: This is not a hacked phone. This is information that you all have agreed to share with the network provider – and with anyone else who buys that data. “Data is not a carrot,” Marek helpfully points out. “You can’t eat it and it’s gone.”

And if you’re thinking that “vintage” phones are the answer, Marek will swiftly disabuse you of the notion. Non-smart phones still broadcast meta data – location, movement, times, connections – from which you can build up a very detailed profile of a user.

Marek shows us a tool called Trackography, which shows tracking data for media websites all over the world. Every time you browse for your daily news, you are inadvertently sending data to third parties all over the world. Some of these companies you already know, like Google, Amazon or Facebook; but some are completely masked and anonymous.

Marek shows us what happens when we browse through 7 local and national Austrian media sources: Trackography counts 95 unintended connections with institutions all over the world, curious about your clicking behaviour.

Next, Stephanie Hankey introduces us to the marketing concepts of geo-targeting, geo-fencing and geo-conquesting. Geo-targeting is pushing people content based on their location. Geo-fencing is about marking out 100m² areas and targeting adverts at people who are in those areas right now, or who have been there within the last 30 days, say. Geo-conquesting takes it to a new level. This is when a company can see when you’re on a competitor’s territory and pushes you an advert to attempt to lure you away.

Stephanie herself was a victim of geo-conquest just yesterday. As she arrived at Frankfurt airport, she was pushed an ad by Easyjet, innocently asking if she wanted to buy a flight. Easyjet don’t operate from Frankfurt, but they knew she was there and they knew she hadn’t flown with them. But, as Stephanie says, “Paranoid is okay, paranoid is good.”

Furthermore, while older tech companies do have a slightly different business model – Apple and Microsoft also make money from selling soft and hardware – as data reaches further into our lives, more and more companies are joining the data model, including the car industry, to take one notorious recent example.

But Stephanie and Marek aren’t here only to terrify people with the reach of data into our lives. They are also here to encourage us to take control back from the algorithms.

Life insurance companies have started giving customers a discount for wearing a device that tracks your physical activity. The discount is worth about €50 per year. These devices track your geo-location, of course, but also your exertion. Using those two data streams, it is easy to tell, just for example, who is having sex, with whom and how much they’re both enjoying it. Is that worth €50?

But why not take the €50 discount and subvert the business model: fix your device to a metronome, to the wheels of a taxi cab, on the end of a drill or to your dog’s collar.

These comedy subversions belie serious questions, like what constitutes political autonomy in the quantified society? Stephanie questions whether “Big Brother” is even the right metaphor. “Big Mama” might be better; these data-driven surveillance intrusions seem utterly banal, rather than sinister.

Churchix, for example, is a surveillance tool that uses facial recognition software to track which of your flock regularly attends your mass. How do these things become normal, even for a church? Even if Churchix doesn’t take off, how did it come to pass that someone thought this was a good idea?

Corporations have been leading the way, of course. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has spent $14m buying the 3 houses around his property so that he would have no neighbours. Contrast that personal decision with Facebook’s real name policy and business model that encourages us to make the private public. And let’s not forget that it’s a business model that made a $3bn profit last year, paid UK staff bonuses of £35.4m, yet only £4,327 in UK tax.

According to Stephanie, these huge data corporations are going around government. They see themselves are being “uber government” and it seems unlikely that they will be pulled into check now.

Microsoft have developed a chip the size of Scrabble tile that can be implanted into women and control their fertility. Calico are in the business of “radical life extension”, curing death. Google are building a space rocket so they can mine the moon.

These are not the things we think of when we think of our favourite Silicon Valley apps.

Marek ends with a provocation to action: How can we counter the creativeness of these uncompanies?

Tactical Tech have a number of projects to help people answer this question:

Elevate Creative Response: Opening Speech

“My speech was going to be very simple,” Antonino D’Ambrosio says with leather jacket Italian-American charm. “The Elevate festival is creative response, thank you.” He takes a step back off stage and smiles.

Antonino steps back, more serious. “I’d like to acknowledge the refugees who were on stage,” he adds. “Please give them a round of applause.” The applause rises again for migrants who are fighting for compassionate and humane treatment in Austria and around the EU.

 The Elevate organisers used their opening show to give a louder voice to migrant protesters who have set up a permanent camp near the police station in Graz. That voice is broadcast live on Austrian television and videostream online around the world. They’d been welcomed to the stage with the biggest round of applause of the Elevate opening night.

The refugees gave a simple speech also: “We are not from Iraq or Syria, we are just humans like you,” a young man called Hussain says. “Many of us want to serve this country as a thank you for putting us in a safe place. We can do something for this country, but we are unable under the current conditions. Please help us. We are humans, just like you.”

Back to Antonino: “This is a point that makes me fucking very angry, being an immigrant kid from the United States and seeing what’s happening.” He echoes Hussain’s words. “There are only one people. When you’re creating situations through wars of aggression in pursuit of expanding a dying economic system and watching countries like Greece collapse, you’re affecting your own people.”

For Antonino, this idea is deeply embedded in the concept of creative response, and the Elevate Festival embodies the concept perfectly: “Ideas that turn into action, actions that bring people together, [helping] people to think differently about the world around them, to remember that we are indeed one people.”

“Creative response is about reminding people that we share the human condition,” Antonino says. “And that requires storytelling.”

 Antonino developed his concept of creative response as a counter to the Reagan and Thatcher ideology that was dominant when he was growing up – and that has been successful to a great degree in fostering today’s political and social cynicism, the idea that “society” does not exist, that compassion is a form of weakness and that self-centred consumerism is selfless.

But Reagan and Thatcher were wrong. Compassion is not weakness; compassion is central to the human condition, central to the cooperation, coexistence and communication of families, which are the founding blocks of a society that does exist.

“Don’t fight back, fight forward,” Antonino urges us. Creative response stakes out what we are for, not what are we against. Antonino uses storytelling to look back at the past, understand the present and, in the words of punk demigods The Clash, “grab the future by the face”. This leads us to the overwhelming question: “What kind of a world do you want to live in?”

That question raises a discussion over “the possible”. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, notes that, in the United States, flying to or even colonising the moon is talked about as being “possible”, but decent healthcare for all or eliminating poverty is not “possible”. Here, creative response has the power to change our definitions or ideas of what is possible.

“Before I step off the stage, I want to ask you a question that Ai Weiwei had asked me: Imagine one day that the hateful world around you collapses and it is your attitude, your words and your actions that put an end to it – would you be excited?”

“This is our challenge, our creative response, our big vision of the world. Not I, not you, not them, but we. A dream that we dream together is reality. We are creative response. We own the future.”

We stand, raise our hands above our heads, join them with our neighbours. We are creative response. We own the future.

Elevate Outroduction

This is the last in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as we enjoyed being there!

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Words beget worlds. From “consumer” to “citizen”, the words we use and the stories we tell do create the world we live in today and the not yet worlds we can imagine for our future.

For all our technological advances since the invention of writing in ancient Sumer, we cannot yet experience life exactly as another experiences it; we must use words to share our stories. In order to receive each other’s stories clearly, we must practice empathy. From empathy comes solidarity and from solidarity comes community, resistance and change.

Politics is a story. When politicians tell us stories about immigration, immigration wins elections. When politicians tell us stories about hope, hope wins elections. Economics is a story. When economists tell us stories about consumerism, we become consumers. When economists tell us stories about cooperation, we become citizens.

Surveillance is also a story, extracted from us without our permission, and told back to us in ways that change our behaviour. The corporate media tell us stories of fear and tragedy; advertisers tell us stories of luxury and anxiety. We hear thousands of stories every day and it’s hard to know which to believe when those with the most money get to shout their stories loudest.

The Elevate Festival is a festival of storytelling that gives voice to the quiet stories. This book is amplification. I hope you have, within these pages, heard fascinating, shocking and inspirational stories. I hope that, like me, you feel stronger for having heard them and are ready now to act by sharing your story with the rest of us.

We must hold onto our right to share our stories directly with each other; we should not have our stories mediated through third parties who try to control and profit from them. Our stories are not the sum of our data and our stories are not theirs to sell, they are ours to tell.

Whatever your message, whatever your medium, have a creative-response. Share your story because, ultimately, life isn’t about survival; it’s about sharing.

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Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. If you did, let me know!

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This header image is beautiful.

The 2014 Elevate Awards

This is the twenty-seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The Elevate Awards shine a light on people and projects that cultivate a more sustainable, innovative and just planet. Goaded on by our host Herr Hermes and watched by the crowd in the Dom Im Berg and on Elevate’s live media channel, the award nominees have the chance to share their work. The winners also take home two thousand five hundred Euro in prize money to elevate their work to the next level.

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There are three awards to be handed out tonight. The International Award is given to projects based outside Graz, the Artivism Award to artistic groups with a message, while the Steiermark Award is presented to projects from the local region of Styria.

The International Award garnered twenty-four nominations from across the world, from Latin America to South Africa, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Ksenia Ermoshina, the jury representative presenting the award, made special mention of the fourth placed nomination: the solidarity letter for the liberation of Josef S, a German student who was arrested for participating in an anti-fascist demonstration. “Everyone could be Josef S tomorrow,” she says. “As a Russian,” she adds, “human rights are being oppressed everywhere – and the western world is not an exception.”

The international jury came to unanimous decisions on the top two nominees for the award. Both were projects concerned with internet privacy. “Maybe we’re all paranoid on the jury,” Ksenia jokes, “but we do think that, for all of the twenty-four other projects, encryption, privacy and security are needed.” Second place went to riseup.net, which provides secure communication for activists. “This platform helped me and my friends when we were fighting against Putin’s regime in Russia,” Ksenia says, “and helped a lot of people all over the world.”

But the winner of the 2014 Elevate International Award is Cryptocat, an encrypted internet chat application. “I think it’s a great choice,” Ksenia explains, “because their initiative is about making privacy accessible and easy for everyone – even if you don’t think you’re a radical activist.”

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Nadim Kobeissi, the founder of Cryptocat, comes on stage to accept his gold painted statue and oversized cheque. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he says. “I think I know how to say, Ich liebe dich.” The audience laughs. “Am I supposed to say a few words?” he asks Ksenia. “Encrypted please,” she replies. Nadim laughs. “Do you all have your AES encryptors ready?” Bafflement creeps over the crowd. “I don’t know if anyone got that joke,” he adds. Then we laugh.

Nadim explains the ethos of Cryptocat. “I’ve never appreciated that some people took something and tried to make it more complicated instead of simpler,” he says, echoing the Van Jones quote from Let Fury Have The Hour. “There’s a lot of elitism in technology and that’s always bothered me,” he adds. Nadim started developing Cryptocat in college.

Nadim wasn’t even studying computer science, so relied heavily on the open source community. “They were the people who pointed out better ways to do encryption, security problems and ways to make Cryptocat more secure,” he says. Nadim feels this collaboration, community and mutual respect was and remains the most important aspect of the project. “If we deal with each other and the world honestly and transparently,” he says, “this is what ends up benefiting us and benefiting the public.”

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Everywhere I look now, I’m seeing creative-response, no less in the code of Cryptocat than in the nominees for the Artivism Award: from a photographic exploration of the housing conditions for asylum seekers in Tirol to a theatrical extravaganza called Sorry, we’re fucked – YOU are the climate catastrophe!. The winners were decided by a public vote on Austrian national radio FM4, involving more than two thousand three hundred people.

That vote chose a group called Partycipation, who, through their camps and festivals in Lower Austria, encourage community and lively exchange on an intellectual and practical level. They bound on stage to give us a demonstration that involves a song about how “the fishes are going to love me more than you ever done” and a drawing of dancers with broken hearts skipping hand in hand across an ocean. Julian Leutgeb explains that Partycipation are trying to show how art can be meaningful and fun.

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The Steiermark Award, organised in cooperation with the local Kleine Zeitung newspaper and regional broadcaster ORF Steiermark, attracted twenty-seven local projects. After the counting of over one thousand five hundred public votes, the winners were Kama Graz, an organisation that flips the usual educational experience of asylum seekers on its head.

Instead of forcing them to attend German classes and classes in Austrian law and culture, Kama Graz provides the opportunity for migrants to use their talents to become teachers. In Austria, as in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working throughout the long years their case is considered by the authorities. Teaching these classes gives them an opportunity to use their skills and to participate in society. The classes are also the perfect setting for exchanges between asylum seekers and local residents in Graz, over an African cookery class or a lesson in martial arts. Creative-response begets creative-response.

Hermes throws in one last gag before closing Elevate 2014. “I’ve heard I’m booked until 2024,” he says, “so the festival will continue!” He bows low, the lights play over the applause, and Elevate is over.

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***

As for me, after four days of discussions, deliberations and dancing, I am a stronger person than I was before. I am stronger because I know I am not alone in believing that a more commonistic, connected and creative world is possible. In fact, thanks to Elevate, I don’t have to only believe; that world is already here, waiting for me to join.

In a post-party human circle, thirty or forty of the organisers, producers, artists, activists, technicians and musicians who make Elevate elevate, raise shots of Zirbenschnaps to the only toast we’ll ever need:

“Ich liebe dich!”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Awards Show 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

The header image is a free cultural work under Creative Commons, author unknown. Thank you!

Amy Goodman: The Journalist Connection

This is the twenty-sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Amy Goodman, host of the independent daily news show Democracy Now!, has been working to change the dominant narrative of capitalist media for three decades. “In independent media,” she says, “we have to tell the story as it’s happening and we have to de-construct the story being told in the rest of the media.”

The success of Democracy Now! proves that there is a mainstream appetite for alternative narratives, but the programme is almost unique, eschewing advertising dollars and funded entirely by its listeners and viewers. Corporate or government-sponsored media will always have the bigger resources to dominate the airwaves. And, as we all know, the first rule of journalism is: Whoever pays the most gets to tell the story.

Strangely, Amy believes that journalism should be something else. “Go to the person closest to the story and let them speak for themselves.” She calls this the first basic tenet of good journalism. “If they can’t speak,” she continues, “if they’re disappeared or if they’ve been imprisoned, if they’re afraid for their life or their livelihood or their family, tell their stories until they can tell their own.” It sounds straightforward enough, but doesn’t seem to be followed on most corporate or state media, which Amy claims are dominated by “a small circle of pundits, who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong”.

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One example of the mainstream media’s incompetence in representing the people’s narratives, was their response to the Occupy movement. “The corporate media would often mock the Occupy movement,” Amy says. “Most of corporate media ignored Occupy for a week. There was even a segment on CNN about Occupy called Seriously?!”, which mocked the movement for the crime of trying to connect crises.

The people could see a narrative that was not permitted by the corporate media or by the government: the connections between Troy Davis, climate change and the treatment of military veterans; the connection between the war at home and the war abroad. “These issues are all connected,” Amy says, adding that, despite not being taken seriously by the media, “it’s not the weakness of movements to show these connections.”

The truth is that the government and the corporate media were afraid of Occupy. And, regardless of the frequent accusations that the occupations didn’t change anything, they are still afraid. Occupy gave us a new vocabulary of resistance; if you talk about “the ninety-nine percent” or “the one percent” today, everybody knows what you’re talking about. “They occupied the language,” Amy says with obvious pride.

We know that corporate media and governments are still afraid because the response of the one is still ridicule and the response of the other is still militarisation. The 2011 riots in the UK were almost exclusively characterised as the work of a criminalised underclass, rather than as a consequence of the shooting of a black man by the police or as a reaction to rising inequality and a government that is in it for themselves.

In the US, the killing of an unarmed eighteen year old African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer triggered popular peaceful protests. The protests were met by tanks, automatic weapons and tear gas. The officer who killed Michael will not be prosecuted.

According to Amy, the corporate media have been conveyors of lies to protect the push for war. The mainstream media, she says, has been “for the state”, instead of “the fourth estate”; disabling journalism’s important social function of helping hold government to account for their actions.

Given this sorry state of affairs, the role of independent media like Democracy Now! is more important than ever. “We go to where the silence is and say something,” Amy says. “We’re there to bear witness.” She still believes in the power of journalism. “When you hear someone tell their story,” she says, “you don’t have to agree with them, but it’s the starting point for understanding and that’s the starting point to peace.”

So when Amy says that journalism has the capacity to be the greatest force for peace in the world, I believe her. Stories are our way of sharing different points of view with each other, helping us build empathy. And I like to think that, if you feel empathy for someone, you won’t then go and shoot them in the head.

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Amy’s faith in journalism comes directly from the power of the grass-roots voices she airs on Democracy Now! She refuses to believe that people are apathetic, despite demoralising statistics like low voter turn-out. “I thought they were civically engaged,” she says, “but just perhaps in different ways, thinking that their vote might not make a difference.”

For the last nineteen years, she has dedicated herself to finding those alternative stories of engagement that aren’t often heard on corporate media. Amy describes these grass-roots voices, concerned with war and peace, inequality and injustice, as “not a fringe minority, not even a silent majority, but a silenced majority”. For Amy, this majority are silenced by the corporate media, who ridicule and scorn them, or refuse to tell their stories.

The government silences voices in an even more literal way. “Obama’s prosecuted more whistle blowers than any other administration,” Amy says. In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks, government seems to be attacking even well-known journalists who try to protect their sources.

“When Glenn Greenwald came back,” she continues, “he said that, when populations feel they’re being surveilled, they become less creative and more sheepish.” For Amy, the fight against surveillance is bigger than all of us. “We have to fight back against the fear,” she says. “It’s where creativity is, it’s where Elevate is: it’s people conspiring together.”

Amy settles back with a half smile on her face. “Which is why we have to take the media back. You’re the me in media.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Interview: Amy Goodman – Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Dean Puckett & Sengwer: Conservation vs Communities

This is the twenty-fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dean Puckett is a film-maker from the UK. His films Crisis of Civilisation (based on the book by Nafeez Ahmed) and Grasp the Nettle are Elevate favourites; you can see his promo stickers all over Forum Stadtpark and in the most unexpected of public toilets.

He is currently working on two documentary films, one set amid house demolitions in the Kenyan mountain jungle and another set in a volunteer-run radio station in Totnes, Devon. They might sound very different, but they are bound together by Dean’s driving fascination: communities. “I’m fascinated by how human beings function in small communities,” Dean says. “It’s kind of anthropological,” he adds. “People open up to me. I remember, as a kid, people would just come up to my mum at the bus stop and open up to her. I’ve inherited that.”

I ask Dean how he sees his work in the context of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s concept of creative-response. “Any art is creative-response,” Dean says. “It doesn’t have to be political, but with the Sengwer, there’s a fundamental injustice that I’ve been attracted to.” The Sengwer are a Kenyan tribe whose ancestral lands have been demarcated as national park by the Kenyan government, in a programme funded by the World Bank. Dean is filming the resistance to what has become a brutal campaign to evict the Sengwer from their homes.

Sengwer man

Grasp the Nettle (embedded at the bottom of the page) is another politically-charged film, about an environmental activist community in London. Dean lived and worked alongside the activists as they occupied a stretch of waste ground in Kew and followed them to a three month occupation of Parliament Square. There is one key difference between the Kew occupiers and the Sengwer in Kenya, however. While those at Kew chose their struggle, the Sengwer have had their direct action forced upon them; their houses are being burnt to the ground.

What draws Dean to make these kind of activist films? “I do get addicted to those kind of things. I’ve always felt like a total outsider myself,” he says. “It’s like a force of nature,” he adds. “I’m not thinking, I want to be a film-maker, I just feel utterly compelled to make these films.” The fact that film is the medium through which he tells these stories appears to be entirely coincidental. “I always wanted to be creative,” he says. “My career as a film-maker has risen hand-in-hand with the tools of my generation: digital cameras, YouTube. It was just the thing that I got into.”

Dean is keen to stress that his films aren’t “black-and-white” campaign films. “There’s quite a lot of humour in my work,” he says. “I’m attracted to the absurd, even with the Sengwer.” Despite the ongoing destruction of their way of life by the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS), Dean does not want to gloss the Sengwer as the one-dimensional miserable victims you often see portrayed in emotional campaign films.

Embobut Forest

“There’s a gallows humour there too,” Dean says. “One minute they’re talking about getting arrested and their house getting burnt down and the next minute they’re joking about their co-wife.” It’s these contrasting moments that capture reality in full colour. “Nothing’s black and white,” Dean says. “There’s often humour side-by-side with tragedy.” He doesn’t want to ignore those elements of life, which would limit the scope of his films. “You can either do a campaign film about the Sengwer,” he says, “or you can do a film about the life of the Sengwer.”

I appreciate his nuance. I feel betrayed when I see a one-sided film that doesn’t concede areas of grey; it makes me distrust the premise, no matter how well-intentioned. “I think that’s my strength as a film-maker,” Dean says. “I embed myself in the community and allow the grey areas to come out.”

It’s exactly the same approach he took with Grasp the Nettle, which shows every aspect of activist life, from the everyday struggles of cooking and cleaning to the more extraordinary struggles with accidental arson and a self-proclaimed messiah. “It’s about what it’s really like to live in an activist camp,” Dean says. “I do agree with the anti-war message, but I didn’t want to make a campaign film.”

Dean feels the same about his work with the Sengwer. He does believe that his film can make a difference – he has recently been contacted by officials from the World Bank and believes that pressure can be brought to bear on them – but that isn’t the limit of his scope. He wants to show us the Sengwer’s way of life in all its richness and complexity. “What some NGO films do is give you a warped view of Africa,” he says. “I understand it’s sometimes appropriate, but if you’re going to make a film about a community, then people should find out how they really are.”

Sengwer man and boy

Dean remembers shooting one beautiful scene of a group of women sitting around in a hut, chatting. When his interpreter translated the conversation later, he discovered they’d been talking about how they thought Dean should give them money for the filming, while another person off-camera berated them for such an idea. “The world on the one hand is a dark place,” Dean says, “and these funny moments can really bring things down to earth.” He quickly adds that this kind of cynical conversation was a rarity. “The Sengwer are a wonderful, warm people,” he says. “It’s surreal,” he adds. “You’re in this misty forest, up on a mountain, and people are having their homes burnt down, but you’re enjoying being around these warm people.”

Dean found the same thing when he went to support around four hundred travellers who were to be evicted by riot cops from Dale Farm in Essex. “On the one hand, they’re about to have their homes destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand they’re cracking jokes.” This is another common thread to Dean’s films: communities under siege. Grasp the Nettle was a film about a community under siege by police, by the government and, eventually, by themselves as well. “It’s about the human spirit,” Dean says, “to laugh even when the worst things are happening.”

Dean’s words remind me of a fundamental flaw in the capitalistic ideology of more, more, more: we humans have only a limited range of feeling. While more might be more for capital, more isn’t more for us. You can always add five pounds to the bank balance of a billionaire, but you can never add five “pleasure points” to the happiness balance of a boy bouncing around on a trampoline. The human scales of happiness, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering, love and joy are finite.

This explains why you can neither measure nor compare the joy of staring into the eyes of your newborn baby niece with the joy of sharing a lingering kiss with a lover or a gasp of fresh air after being sucked under by an ocean wave. It also explains the absolutism of our emotions; how, whenever the worst thing imaginable happens, it feels no worse than it did when you got fired from a job you loved, when your teenage crush ditched you or when you lost your favourite blankie as a kid. Prisoners on death row are as happy as lottery winners.

Understanding the finite nature of our emotions explains otherwise difficult questions: How can disabled people be happy? How come billionaires get depression? How could I ever come to terms with the death of my grandmother? The answer is simply because there is no profit and loss account of emotions, there is no capitalism-style more, more, more.

The moral consequence of this realisation is not that we should leave the Sengwer – or anyone else – to find the light moments in the darkness of their suffering. The daily hardships of their persecution has a chronic damaging effect on their happiness that no one deserves.

Dean illustrates this with a story about two Sengwer women he met, who had just been released after being arrested by the Kenyan Forest Service. To escape, the women had to tell the KFS that they didn’t live on the land, but were just passing through. As they were “just passing through”, the KFS decided that the women wouldn’t need the bags of flour that they had carried all the way over the mountain. They slit the bags with knives and poured the flour out onto the floor. The two women passed the incident off with a laugh, but faced the prospect of a night away from home and a week without flour.

Sengwer woman

No. The moral consequence of the finite nature of our emotions is that we should support each other, not in our pursuit of more, more, more, but in our pursuit of enough. The Sengwer are having their enough, their homes, their livelihoods, taken away from them by people who are pursuing more, more, more. The same is true, on a broader scale, across the entire continent of Africa, where western corporations extract natural resources for profits that rarely return to their country of origin.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we subject ourselves to capitalism’s addiction for more, more, more, when we humans fundamentally can’t process more, more, more? We have nothing to gain in going after more precious metals or more money or more slaves; we have enough. Ultimately, happiness is not gold, frankincense and more, but a blood red sunset, a dive into a cold river or an apple straight from the tree. We have no more need of more; happiness is enough and there is enough enough for all on earth.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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(Yes, that is the same Simon in Grasp the Nettle who inspired me to write about why we need people who go on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures!)

All photographs © Dean Puckett, taken from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for his film Sengwer.

The Commons Connection

This is the twenty-fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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For Silke Helfrich, editor of The Wealth of the Commons, the commons is both a ready replacement for capitalism and the empowerment we need to act. “I see the commons everywhere,” she says. She describes the commons as a practical application of the African concept of ubuntu: your well-being depends on the well-being of other people. “If you feel connected, the commons is in you,” she says.

However, Silke sees a crisis that Nafeez failed to mention: the crisis of the way we’re taught to think. “What do you learn at school?” she asks. “To get a job and be better than other people.” Not a particularly illuminating education. For Silke, the commons gives us a way to reconnect our ideas to society in a useful way. At the moment, she says, “the social state is not with the people”.

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, agrees. “We’re seeing a fundamental transformation of social institutions,” he says, “the hollowing out of representative democracies and centralised, repressive institutions taking over from more civil government.”

Felix sees our social organisation moving out of democratic reach, under secretive policies that mean we can’t know what’s happening, but “must simply trust that it’s for our good”. He also makes the point that surveillance, as Nafeez’s revelations about the Minerva Research Initiative would suggest, is intended to manage internal security because “they do a crummy job on external threats”.

However, this rise in what Shoshana would call “surveillance capitalism” faces growing opposition from the commons movement. “These two contradictory things,” Felix observes, “are based on the same structure: the internet.” Currently, the construction of repressive institutions is happening much faster than commons collaboration, but Felix is keen to stress that there is a conflict going on and we can take another side. “What makes commons so valuable,” he says, “is it’s a way of overcoming capitalism: I am because you are.”

However, Felix also warns that it will be almost impossible to properly scale the benefits of the commons without what he calls the “transformation of the state to a commons-enabling state”. That’s not to say that such a transformation is impossible or unthinkable, but it will require radical change, if not quite revolution.

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Nafeez, though, cautions us not to create a third ideology of the commons, to go alongside the market ideology and the state ideology. He believes that we can transform the state through the commons without necessarily needing to scale everything. “Act as individuals creatively in the context that you’re in,” Nafeez says, recalling Antonino D’Ambrosio’s theory of creative-response. “There’s no way I can stop the NSA,” he explains, “but I know what I can do in my community.”

This theory of creative-response is an important weapon for taking on the challenges we face with optimism, even when pessimism might, as one audience member daringly suggests, be more realistic. “We’re going to have to take direct action and be ready for that struggle,” Nafeez says in reply. “Whoever said pessimism is more realistic?” He looks out at the audience, challenging. “You’re part of the problem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re pessimistic. Stare into the face of the abyss and be optimistic about it.”

Felix looks confused, however. “You don’t have to be an optimist,” he says. “This is not a spectator sport; you’re not supporting that team or that team.” He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. “I don’t think capitalism will innovate itself out of existence,” he says, “but I think there are interesting possibilities that they can be nudged in one way or another.”

The economist and activist Friederike Habermann is perhaps optimistic about being optimistic. “The struggle for life is life,” she says, rather philosophically; engagement in struggle, political or otherwise, is what makes us feel alive. Friederike cites a study by neuroscientist Tania Singer, which shows that, if we are trained for one week in solidarity and cooperative techniques, then our tendency to show solidarity and cooperate increases.

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“We have been constructed the way we are for hundreds of years,” she says, “and within one week we can change a little bit. That’s encouraging.” Although she concedes that the pessimists are probably right, Friederike will not stand with them. “I work with people I feel the optimism with,” she says.

A twelve year old girl in the front row stands up to ask a question: “How can we interest other people who aren’t doing anything?” Silke turns to her and replies, “It’s not about interesting them,” she says, “it’s about being interested in them. It’s not about convincing them, it’s about touching their hearts; and you can only do that if you are interested in where they come from.”

You can call it whatever you like: empathy, ubuntu or the commons; it is our humanity and we must find a way of lacing it like a connecting thread through every aspect of our socio-economic organisation, or else run the risk of mutually assured oblivion.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Everything is Connected

This is the twenty-third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed is looking into the abyss and what he sees is crisis compounding crisis: climate change, global economic meltdown, food shortages. Each crisis is so cataclysmic, and the science behind each so specialised, that it is difficult to understand the complex connections between them. “It’s created this very serious problem that we’re underestimating the scale of the problems we’re facing,” Nafeez says. “We’re always playing catch up trying to understand how these things work.”

For example, in the last couple of years, the rate of global warming increase has slowed, resulting in a “global warming pause”. “This was predicted by the models,” Nafeez says, “but what wasn’t predicted was how much heat would be stored by the oceans. At some point that’s going to be released.” When it is, the rise in atmospheric temperature won’t simply cause a single crisis for the agriculture of the tomato; it will trigger crises throughout every aspect of human existence, many of which are unforeseeable.

It almost makes you look back fondly on an age when we knew less. Science today means that we know enough to know that we’re in big trouble, but not enough to understand exactly how these interconnected crises will dictate the future of the human race and what we can do to influence that future. Ignorance was bliss. Perhaps the ultimate crisis we face today is a crisis of connection.

Nafeez doesn’t blame individuals for the crises we suffer, but rather the dominant global socio-economic system of capitalism. However, he says we must understand that, although the fault is systemic, we as individuals are complicit in perpetuating that fault.

“So much of what happens in the world today is not the result of one person’s decision,” he says. “It’s the result of a system, it’s the result of multiple processes, multiple decisions made in different ways.” The complexity of this decision-making process is such that, as Nafeez says, “no one has to take complete responsibility”.

Who is responsible for the global increase in carbon emissions that is leading to the crises of climate change? The men pumping oil out of the ground in Iraq? The Chief Executive of Shell? The manufacturers of cars and aeroplanes? Thomas Cook and the international tourism industry? Thomas Edison, inventor of the first mass-produced household electrical product, the light bulb? The President of the United States? The United Nations? The Chinese? You and me? Such responsibility is an impossible thread to untangle because it runs through each one of us. The crisis of connection has led to a crisis of responsibility.

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Unfortunately for Nafeez and the rest of us, those who have the most power to take responsibility don’t allow for alternative ways of thinking about the problems we face. “The people who essentially run the show,” he says, “think that the way they do things is the best possible way.”

More ominously for the rest of us, according to Nafeez, it’s not the Department of Health or Transport or Environment who have been charged with managing the shocks of crisis on society, it’s the military. “If you’re going to ask a man with a gun how to solve the problem of the Arctic melting, what’s he going to do?” Nafeez asks. “Blow the Arctic up?” He laughs. “Yeah, that’ll solve everything.”

In fact, far from helping prepare society to withstand crises, governments are investing in programmes that are more about protecting themselves from the social fallout of those crises. Nafeez tells us about the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, a social science research programme set up in 2008 and funded to the tune of eighty million dollars every year, which will use social media to predict domestic “insurgencies”.

As part of the project, Arizona State University are developing a data mining programme that will allow authorities to analyse threats from the information we share on social media. “This was about tracking dissent,” Nafeez says. “This could end up determining who goes on the drone kill list.” Rather than addressing the crisis of responsibility in a positive way, governments are turning on their own citizens.

Nafeez sees his job as helping to solve the crisis of responsibility by addressing the crisis of connection. He tries to “create narratives, join the dots of crises and create meaningful visions for people”. As part of that mission, Nafeez has recently published a science fiction novel, set in a not-too-distant future where the US and UK have re-occupied Iraq to quell an Islamist insurgency. He didn’t realise, when he started writing six years ago, how soon that not-too-distant future would be: Now.

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Nafeez, whose writing career started in academia, before moving onto journalism and film-making, is exploring fiction as a new way of reaching out to people. “As someone with an academic background,” he says, “it’s been a challenge for me, trying to find ways of communicating what appear to be really complex ideas in a way that most people can actually find accessible and engaging.”

Critical to Nafeez’s approach is engaging people emotionally; he believes that emotional involvement leads to reflection and action. “If you can tell stories in a way which can engage people,” Nafeez says, “I think that gets to the heart of how to get someone to reflect creatively in a way that actually impacts on their life.”

The bare ideas and concepts that you find in academia or journalism, by contrast, can be very theoretical and abstract, without bringing people to the point of change or action. “Fundamentally, it’s really about where you think change is going to come from,” Nafeez says. “Can you do change just by having dry academic conversations amongst people who agree with you? Or do you need to use different methods to make these ideas accessible to a mass audience?”

The way Nafeez has made his novel more accessible is “loads of blood, action, violence, swearing” – all the stock ingredients of a thriller, not usually found in a sober academic tome. “We don’t always have to look at these really serious issues in a way which is gloomy and depressing and uninspiring,” he says.

This is precisely what Antonino D’Ambrosio is talking about when he talks about creative-response. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why politics, law and economics are bogged down in interminably boring jargon is precisely so that most people don’t get engaged, don’t get involved and don’t look too closely: they are subjects made boring by design.

Creative-response, however, is demotic and popular. It is fun by design and there is no reason why it can’t be applied to these so-called boring subjects. Nafeez agrees. “That’s really what I’m excited about looking at,” he says. “How you can use mediums like fiction or art or music to engage people emotionally with these radical ideas.”

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For Nafeez, engagement and action will only come if people feel they are able to do something. For that reason, we have to be careful about the way we talk about these crises. “It’s important to frame our predicament in the right way,” he says. “Otherwise you end up with frustration and overwhelming: What can little old me do?”

Echoing John Holloway, Nafeez says we must re-frame the crisis of capitalism. “It’s not that the world is dying, it’s that paradigm that’s dying,” he declares. “By the end of this century – and that’s using the most optimistic figures – this system will be over.” What system will take its place depends on how we respond now.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Interview: Nafeez Ahmed – Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Data Disasters

This is the twenty-first in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Anton, from CryptoParty Graz is equally fearful. “There is no mass damage from mass surveillance,” he says, finding only a few small examples of people who have suffered from internet surveillance. “There was no big data disaster. I am afraid that we’ll need something like that to happen before the rest of the users wake up.”

Micah Lee, the man who put Edward Snowden in contact with Glenn Greenwald, hopes that the NSA leaks have been the first alarm clock. “But you might be right; that might not be enough,” he says. “We know they’re spying on everything we do, but people haven’t felt bad things happening to themselves.” He hurriedly corrects himself: “I’m sure some people have. If you live in the United States and are Muslim, I’m sure you are a lot more terrified than I am, living in the United States and being white.”

Nevertheless, historical examples of such data disasters come easily to mind for the panel. When they invaded the Netherlands, the Nazis used government data on religion to round up Jews; while, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US government used census data to round up Asian Americans. Today, of course, data collection is much deeper and more comprehensive than during the Second World War; a modern data disaster could be instant and inescapable. “Now, we’re just bleeding data with everything we do,” Micah says, “and this data is available to people who will start internment camps in the future.”

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Felix is, however, quick to point out that most people don’t think of their governments as Nazis and the comparison could be misleading. “It’s not about the wholesale repression of entire populations, but the very precise targeting of individuals,” he says. “So it’s very hard to notice until it arrives at your doorstep and then you’re the only one when it arrives because it arrived at other doorsteps at other times, in other contexts.” Surveillance capitalism is not a problem for you, until it is – and then it might be too late.

The issue for Shoshana is less a privacy catastrophe than “a ubiquitous digital infrastructure that is monetised and that those revenue streams are produced by the interventions to modify our behaviour”. Shoshana quotes former NSA operative William Binney, who says we are very close to living in a “turnkey totalitarian state”, where we live in a permanent condition of “anticipatory conformity”. Shoshana coined this term in 1988 to describe the self-censorship we perform when, for example, we decide not to tweet a joke about bombing an airport.

Today, we are one stage on from self-censorship; our behaviour is being manipulated without our awareness at all. It’s the world of stimulus-response. “And that world comes in quietly,” Shoshana says, “without a big data catastrophe.”

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Power and “Social Gravity”

This is the twentieth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Nadim Kobeissi, creator of the encrypted chat app Cryptocat, criticises Shoshana’s argument from a different direction. “There is a kind of politics that I have grown to dislike very much, which is the politics of us versus them,” he says. “It’s very effective, when you are wanting to mobilise a political movement, to use absolute terms,” Nadim adds, taking issue with the strong language that Shoshana uses: “usurping the internet”, “they’re conquering the internet” and “they’re taking privacy rights for themselves”.

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“It was never a question whether Google was harvesting user data,” Nadim points out. “It’s not the case that they have usurped society by forcing people to sign up for Google. People were voluntarily signing up and they were, in return, receiving a legitimate service.” Nadim sees the rise of Google and the tech giants in many more shades of grey than Shoshana has perhaps shown us. “Is it really like there’s this bunch of bad guys who are conquering the internet with internet soldiers?” he asks, his voice rising with incredulity.

But Felix is exasperated with this perception of the exchange, which he sees as a strain of Stockholm Syndrome. “I think this is a common misunderstanding of how power works,” he says. Felix explains that there are usually two ways of exerting power: the “hard power” threat of violence and “soft power”, like Hollywood films that give you “ideas” on how to lead your life.

“The way Google exerts power is neither through one nor the other,” Felix says. “I don’t meet anyone who likes Facebook, but I also don’t meet anyone who says, Okay, I’m going to quit it,” he adds. “This is a form of power that makes you voluntarily do something you don’t want.” All these technologies enable you to do some things and constrain you from doing other things; the problem is that you must either accept it or reject it wholesale. Here Felix agrees with Shoshana. “This is not a legitimate choice because it is: Do you want to talk to your friends or do you not want to talk to your friends?”

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Felix illustrates his argument by bringing it right into the room. “We’re in a German-speaking country and we’re having an English-speaking discussion,” he says. “So the price to contribute to that debate is to learn English.” This cost, of course, has consequences. People whose first language is English will have no problem expressing themselves clearly, while people for whom English is a second or third language will find it much harder – but, remember, we’re all “free” to participate or not…

The same is true for using Facebook or Google. “We are free to operate under these conditions,” Felix says. “They don’t tell us any more what to do, but they just slant the playing field.” This exertion of power might be subtle, but it is no less effective than hard or soft power. Felix returns to Nadim’s objection: “Yes, this is not a territory that gets usurped,” he says, “but this is a territory that is getting slanted; to do certain things becomes harder, to do other things becomes easier.”

Felix calls this “social gravity” and it is changing, both online and off. You can choose to walk against the slant, but doing that will make your life more difficult and, unless you are superhuman, gravity eventually wins. I no longer have a Google account, which is annoying when I want to post or comment on YouTube videos, but I have kept my Microsoft account for email because that’s just too complicated to quit.

“We think about these things as communication platforms, but they’re not,” Felix says. “From the point of view of those who create these platforms, they don’t care what you say, as long as you produce data. They’re not about content, they’re about constraining and shaping behaviour.” Furthermore, as more and more people use these platforms, the slant gets steeper and steeper.

“A lot of people face a big dilemma,” Daniel says, “because you are drawn into these things; all your friends are there. Some people don’t even access their email any more.” This subtle social gravity is tilting us towards surveillance capitalism, whether we like it or not. “You can post every day, I hate Facebook,” Felix says, “and they like it, because you use the system!”

“I thought the analogy was interesting,” activist and cryptographer Bill Budington says. “It becomes slanted and then you lose your balance and, as time goes on, it becomes so slanted that the effect of gravity overtakes your ability to resist it.” He gives an example of the US government serving legal papers on people through Facebook because of their real name policy. “Facebook wants to become incorporated into the state apparatus,” he says. Do we want to live in a world like that?

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Who Will Cook Capitalism?

This is the eighteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, immediately takes issue with Shoshana’s central recommendation. “I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the alternative is to cook capitalism again or face a wasteland,” he says. “Historically what cooked capitalism was the real competition with socialism that put pressure on capitalist institutions and states to mitigate against these tendencies that are inherent in unregulated capitalism, that they increase social inequality.”

For Felix, social inequality is not our biggest problem; it’s a side-effect of the current way we have organised ourselves. He argues that we need to extend democratic participation into the running of the economy, before society descends into anarchy. “This new capitalism,” he says, “creates surplus populations that become very unrestive, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere. And that’s very dangerous.”

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“First of all, Google is not the only problem,” says social media critic and educator Miriam Rasch, “so we have to talk about it in a broader sense.” But she argues that Google already intervene to nudge our behaviour in a particular direction, through algorithms, filter bubbles and the automatic suggestions they provide in their search, for example. “For the billions of users of Google, it looks like an objective tool,” she says. “The first step would be to explain that this is not the way it is.”

Although Miriam accepts that algorithmic interventions lead to an inequality in power and privacy between the few at Google and the many of its users, she does also suggest that Google’s automation “makes the majority into some kind of equal un-individual mass”. She means equal in a bad sense, but I suppose it does also mean that Bill Gates and Barack Obama get the same rough treatment from Google Search as I do, which is something at least.

However, like Felix, Miriam is sceptical about looking to our institutions for solutions. “It’s a problem in the whole of society that everyone is gathering all this data about you,” she says. “You can hardly live your life without going along.” In the Netherlands, where Miriam lives, they have a chip card system for the transport network, much like the London Oystercard. The card gathers data about the holder’s travel around the country.

“This is a lot of data gathered by my government about me and I don’t know what they do with it,” she says. Miriam pays for a card that allows her unlimited travel at any time throughout the Netherlands and yet, curiously, she must still scan her card for each journey. That can only be for the unknown purposes of data collection. “So it’s not only Google or the tech companies,” she says, “it’s really about our real daily lives.”

Micah Lee, chief technology officer of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agrees. “The problem is bigger than Google,” he says. “Google really did pioneer a lot of this stuff, but, at this point, every time you do anything, there are databases logging this information.” Micah tells us about traffic cameras placed at intersections in cities in the US that log every licence plate number that passes. “This is used to catch people running red lights,” he says, “but this is just a database with a data set that can show exactly where people have been driving.”

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If Felix, Miriam and Micah are sceptical about trusting government institutions with protecting us from the worst ravages of capitalism, Nafeez Ahmed is downright scathing of Shoshana’s proposal. He describes institutionising as a “totally banal response to the scale and systematic nature of the crisis”. Nafeez wants us to be more ambitious: “Surely we should reclaim the commons,” he says, “reclaim public ownership and break the monopoly of the corporations.”

Shoshana takes the opportunity to respond. “I’m not suggesting that we recreate the institutions of the twentieth century,” she explains. “We’re not going back to those social conditions.” She draws on the writing of George Orwell, where he defines cowardice as taking whatever is happening now and assuming it will continue to happen in the future. To make that assumption is to subjugate yourself to the power structure of the moment and that is cowardice.

“The future is not a straight line from the present,” Shoshana says. “The real challenge,” she adds, “is taking the challenges we face now and understanding how we create the new institutions that reflect our conditions of existence today.”

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Reality is the Next Big Thing: Keynote

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Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. Shoshana begins her keynote speech with a simple question: “Why does Google matter?” But her answer penetrates far beyond the company’s profit and loss, share price or market capture to address the root existential threats Google poses to our society and democracy.

(Shoshana explains later that she is “focusing on Google as emblematic of a new mode of practice and a new mode of capitalism”. It’s not just Google, as demonstrated this summer by the revelations that Facebook have been manipulating the emotions of their users without permission.)

Shoshana starts her analysis by describing the new business model that she and her colleagues have seen rising since the 1970s. “You can call it neo-liberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism,” she says. “The label is less important than understanding its consequences.” And the consequences have included, not only social exclusion, stratification and inequality, but also reactions to those consequences – fundamentalism, despair, violence – and the reactions to those reactions – repression, resistance and extremism. “This is a business model that I consider to be contemptuous,” Shoshana says. “Contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.”

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Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has written an incomprehensible modern classic critique of twenty-first century capitalism, called, not incomprehensibly, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Shoshana is one of the few people who have read past the introduction and she reports back from the trenches. “I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence,” Shoshana says, snuggling up to the microphone like a magician. “Ready? Okay: Capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw.” There’s a titter in the audience.

She elaborates: “Piketty demonstrates that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se, but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints.” According to Piketty, that’s the kind of raw capitalism that produces such pernicious inequality. The solution is therefore simple: “We need laws, we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible,” Shoshana explains. “And that’s the stuff we have lost in the last thirty years.”

While neo-liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) has been merrily dismantling the laws, social institutions and collaboration that made capitalism palatable, many people took refuge in this new thing called the internet, which promised autonomy, freedom and creativity. “But the thing we need to understand now,” Shoshana warns, “is that the online world, which used to be our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways.” By which she means the capitalism of, among others, Google. The critical question for us is: Will these new forms of capitalism, developing in the networked world, solve the problems that we face today – or are they going to make them worse?

Although Shoshana sees some positive developments for capitalism online, she also sees some really dangerous developments, “developments,” she says, “that are really hard to grasp because they have been designed to be undetectable”.

This is the context in which Google matters. Now back to the original question: Why does Google matter? Google matters because they have pioneered a wholly new business logic, new in the history of capitalism. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses, applications and start-ups. If the Google model is already the dominant model in the online world, then, assuming that the current rush from offline to online commerce continues, it follows that the Google model will become the dominant model of the entire capitalist system. And that, says Shoshana, is a very dangerous prospect indeed.

In what way is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: customers and employees. This is no longer true. We, the service users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who purchase its data analyses. As users, we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. We are not needed as customers.

Google, the third most valuable company in the world, employs less than 48,000 people. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. The success of twentieth century capitalism was founded its employees; at the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was also the largest private employer on the planet. “That gives you an idea of how we’ve flipped this model,” Shoshana says. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many workers. Most of us are not needed as employees.
So if the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data.

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“Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so-called big data is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls big contraband or big stolen goods, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch. “I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices,” she says, “designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual, but now also the real world.”

These practices are complicated by collaboration between corporations and state security services in the surveillance of citizens, and further complicated by the accelerating pace of these practices. “Google is now investing in drones,” Shoshana points out, “in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything.” This is creating a massive infrastructure of big contraband collection.

This new economic logic, where we are not required as customers or employees, but only as data sets, has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google, she explains, is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And this new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. “What is key to understand is that populations, that is all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served,” Shoshana says. “We exist to be harvested, harvested for behavioural data.”

These developments are moving very quickly. Google have already progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing, to making predictions of things we might do. Now, according to Shoshana, they are “actually intervening, in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways, to modify our behaviour, to shape our behaviour, in order to try and determine what we will do next”. No, wait, there’s more good news.

“Every single point in that process is going to be monetised and marketised,” Shoshana says, “turned into revenue streams for Google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behaviour to serve their financial interest.” This is becoming the new economic model, this is becoming the new reality of our lives. “Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour,” Shoshana says. Reality is the next big thing.

You might think this would hail the end of privacy. Far from it. There is actually a lot of privacy, but it has been redistributed. “Instead of everybody having some privacy,” Shoshana says, “the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights: they have all the privacy and we are left with no privacy.” The surveillance capitalists use their privacy power to prevent us from being able to inspect or control their behaviour.

Shoshana sees this unilateral usurpation of our rights as going far beyond simple business; this is now serious politics. “Google represents a revolutionary new politics,” she says. “It’s a revolution from above. It’s not a coup d’état, it’s a coup des gens – it’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state.” This is a remarkable reappraisal for a company whose company slogan is Don’t be evil. “That’s why Google,” Shoshana continues, “which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future.”

This overthrowing of the people, Shoshana says, is caused by an “automated passivity, that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition of stimulus and response”. Shoshana compares what Google is doing to behaviourist researchers who put rats in a maze and give them rewards and electric shocks in order to determine their behaviour. “That’s the direction that surveillance capitalism is taking us,” she says.

Shoshana now returns, somewhat sardonically, to the question of whether surveillance capitalism will solve our socio-ecological problems or make them worse. “Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality?” she asks, rhetorically. “Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced?” The questions hang, hopelessly. “My answer to that is no. Instead, it’s going to institutionalise these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate.”

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Must this be our destiny?

Shoshana urges us to turn and make eye contact with the person sitting next to us. “When you look at the people beside you,” she says, “you are not seeing illiterate serfs. This is not the fourteenth century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual.” I’m flattered. “That’s who we are,” she adds, “and people like us are not going to let Dark Google be our future.”

Staying positive, we have to remember that surveillance capitalism is still very young. “We are only at the beginning of this new information civilisation that will dominate the twenty-first century,” Shoshana says. In 1914, the Ford Model T car had only been in production for six years and General Motors was a small start up company; both became giants of twentieth century industry and neither destroyed democracy. Shoshana puts this success down to “the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplified capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses”.

In other words: we cooked twentieth century capitalism. “Just what Piketty was talking about,” Shoshana says. Capitalism in the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption in the twentieth century.

Now we must fight those political battles all over again. To avoid the risks of slipping back into a nineteenth century world of inequality, where raw surveillance capitalism gives us all bellyache, we all must now don our aprons, our oven gloves and our toques and become economic chefs. Google’s raw economic model must be made palatable through a reassertion of democratic rights, oversight and law.

Our future depends on us finding alternative, pro-social forms of information capitalism that, as Shoshana says with passion, “do not subjugate us, but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life and do not try to usurp our rights, but rather allow us to flourish”.

For Shoshana, it is essential that we develop our solutions through our democratic process. “In the shadow, in the gloom of today’s Dark Googles, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era,” she says. “But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now.” Shoshana’s support for state democracy seems to be less a warm endorsement and more a cold fear of likely alternatives: despotism, oligarchy or military junta.

“The real road to serfdom,” she continues, “is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future, that they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism.”

Having raised the spectre of a future where democracy has been obliterated by surveillance capitalism, Shoshana tries to reassure us. “This is the wasteland,” she says, “but I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it and I do not anticipate it because I believe in you.” She jabs a finger at us and smiles. “My hope for the future rests in you, in each one of you.” She leans back into her leather padded chair on the other side of the planet. “That’s the promise of today. So go, do.”

Shoshana beams into her web cam, sending the smile down the fibre optic cables, patiently watched by the NSA and Google.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Fair and Open IT

This is the sixteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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IT: Systematic Exploitation

The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.

Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.

This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.

The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.

At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.

Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.

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Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.

We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.

Fairness and Open Supply Chains

In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”

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There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.

Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”

It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.

Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.

The Power Relations of Openness

The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.

At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.

Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.

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In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”

Openness is a Business Model

This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.

Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.

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Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.

All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”

Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.

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Fairness and Openness Together?

“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”

For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”

Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).

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Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.

Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.

Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.

Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.

Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.

Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.

There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Research for Transition

This is the fifteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Michel Bauwens, director of the P2P Foundation, starts the workshop by quoting anthropologist Alan Page Fiske. Fiske describes four basic ways of interacting around resources. The first is the gift economy, which is based around equality matching. The second is authority ranking, where what you get is relative to your rank. The third is market pricing, the dominant model in capitalist society. But the fourth is what interests us: communal shareholding, where an individual exchanges, not with another individual, but with a collective. This is the commons.

Because of the networks that we’re building on the internet, Michel believes that we’re beginning to put the commons at the heart of our economy. This new way of creating value, he says, is profoundly different to the usual capitalism. Firstly, it’s not based on labour; it’s based on contributions and, secondly, we’re not creating capital; we’re creating commons.

Michel outlines his ideal three-level structure for a functional commons economy. At the base is commoning itself, the creation of the commons or “peer production”. Next, Michel envisages the creation of cooperatives based on the commons, so that people can actually make a living. This is “peer property”. Overseeing both these levels, would be enabling institutions, so that cooperation can endure through time. This is “peer governance”. I would repeat that, unfortunately, this is Michel’s ideal, not yet the reality.

The reality is that, rather than cooperatives, the value of the commons is predominantly extracted by “for profit” companies. Facebook is Michel’s most extreme example of this. The value of the company comes almost entirely from volunteer contributors: its users. But Facebook Inc. extracts 100% of the value. Hypothetically, if Facebook had been happy with “only” the five billion dollars they asked for when they floated on the New York Stock Exchange instead of the sixteen billion they got, they could have paid over a hundred thousand contributors a hundred thousand dollars each. An extraordinary thought, especially when you consider that Facebook is now worth ten times that initial public offering.

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The problem with this current economic model is that most of the value created is not put back into the commons. This is what Michel calls the “value crisis”. Thanks to advances in technology, more and more people are able to create “use value” – by writing interesting blog posts, uploading funny videos or beautiful photographs – but, of that use value, only a marginal amount is being put on the market and, overwhelmingly, that marginal amount is captured by platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter. As Michel says, “The feedback loop between creation of value and distribution of value is not working.”

The P2P Foundation, of which Michel is director, aims to observe these emerging economic processes and ask: How do we transition to a system where we have a thriving economy based around shared resources?

Michel had the opportunity to explore this question in unprecedented depth when he was appointed director of the FLOK research team. FLOK is a research project at IAEN, the Ecuadorian university for public services, who were invited by the government of Ecuador to “fundamentally re-imagine” the country, based on the principles of the commons. This extraordinary opportunity emerged from Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan published in 2009 called the “Plan of Good Living”.

“Ecuador is a new colonial economy that depends on extractive exports: bananas, oil, agriculture,” Michel explains. These are, however, low margin profit items and Ecuador is forced to import high margin goods, such as information technology, from the west. “Part of this problem is intellectual property rights,” Michel says. “The Chinese manufacturers make three percent profit on the iPhone, but Apple make seventy percent profit.” These high margins keep developing countries like Ecuador in a state of dependence.

Thanks to intellectual property protections, such as those covering iPhone technology, knowledge is largely privatised. One direct consequence of this is that there are only three science labs in Quito. A patent-protected microscope costs six thousand dollars. According to Michel, however, we could build an open source microscope for only six hundred. “If there was a commons,” Michel says, “you could have thirty science labs in Quito.” These sorts of open hardware projects are already happening, at L’Atelier Paysan and Farmhack for instance, but we need to scale up.

Intellectual property rights are antithetical to the knowledge commons, but are one of the foundations of capitalism. So any transition away from dependence on patent or copyright protected products would be a radical, if not revolutionary proposition. That radicalism derailed the FLOK project. Although Michel had been invited into the country by the government, who had promised to sign any conventions that came out of the process, it was obvious that there were many powerful interests who did not want FLOK to be a success.

Michel is proud of the participatory FLOK process, however. They held twenty-four workshops in the twenty-four provinces of Ecuador, using Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, covering topics such as the high price of medicine and “terminator” seeds. These workshops were aimed at common citizens, to elicit their reactions. FLOK also held conversations with around seventy organisations, including indigenous farmers, a Linux usergroup and a 3D printing hacker space.

“On the basis of this input, we created the first proposals,” Michel says. They ended up with eighteen legislative proposals, covering topics such as biodiversity and open hardware. They took these to the government. After three days of discussions, the government refused to sign the conventions. “The reality is we were not paid for three months,” Michel says. “Clearly a number of people didn’t want us there. The president of the country didn’t even know what we were doing.”

Despite this failure, the project was still a success in terms of developing a commons transition plan, which can now be acted upon by anyone interested in transitioning to a commons-based society.

One limitation of the FLOK project in Ecuador was that it was only about the knowledge commons. In addition to knowledge, Michel counts three other “fake commodities”: land, labour and money, making four commons in total. We need to ask the question, how would land, labour and money function if they were commons, not commodities? Through answering questions like these, Michel aims to create a culture of commons policy-making. “We want to politicise the commons,” he says, warning us that this isn’t some fancy theorising, but a pressing need to protect ourselves from the aggression of capitalism.

The welfare state is an achievement bequeathed to us from the politicisation of labour in the last century. “This is structurally dissolving in the west,” Michel warns. “All our achievements based on labour are in danger and are being dismantled as we speak.” Michel’s solution is this politicisation of the commons. “If you want a new narrative,” Michel says, “you need to start thinking about the commons, of which labour is a part.”
Michel defines commons structures according to two axes. On one axis is who has control of the commons, ranging from totally centralised to totally distributed. On the other axis is about what happens to the end product of the commons: Is it for private profit or for community benefit?

Facebook is an example of a centralised and for profit commons. “Facebook extracts capital from our exchange, from our human cooperation,” Michel says. “You could argue that capitalism is moving towards letting us do the work and extracting from our exchange.”

Bitcoin is an example of a distributed and for profit commons. According to Michel, ninety percent of Bitcoin is not used for exchange, it’s hoarded. “It’s the anarcho-capitalist dream,” he says.

Local community benefit farming is an example of a distributed and for benefit commons. This is preferable to the two above structures, but Michel thinks this is not enough. He prefers the centralised and for benefit commons, on a global scale. We have states, multinationals and NGOs that operate on a global scale, but no body that represents the commons. “Make it locally, organise globally,” Michel says.

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The reason why we need a global organisational structure for the commons comes down to the realities of putting food on the table. “The key problem working in the commons is it’s easy to volunteer,” Michel says. “But after a few years, you have a choice of either going back to a hierarchy or you try to make a living on your own.” But how can individuals profit from their work contributing to the commons when, by definition, it is a commons? “You cannot commodify your commons,” Michel says. “If you asked YouTube to pay you, you wouldn’t be making commons, you’d be making commodities.”

This problem could be partially solved by cooperatives using an open value accounting system, like Sensorica. Sensorica allows people to log their contributions to the cooperative and received in return a “karma score”. If anyone in the cooperative wins a contract off the back of the commons, the money earned from that contract would flow back to all members according to their “karma score”, not just to the person who won the contract. This is a way of ensuring that all effort is rewarded fairly, even before there is any financial return on that effort.

But there are more fundamental reasons why we need a global organisation for the commons: capitalism simply doesn’t recognise “externalities”. This could be anything from pollution that kills fish in the sea to the cost of bad working conditions to the national health service. “If it’s legal, it’s okay,” Michel says of capitalism. “We want an economy that recognises externalities.”

Michel’s answer is a reciprocity licence for businesses that do commons production. He explains: “Everybody with a common good orientation can use our commons. Every not for profit and every for profit who contributes can also use the commons. But for profit businesses who don’t contribute have to buy a licence.” This licence embeds the concept of reciprocity. “It’s still a market, but it’s not a capitalist market.”

Michel finishes by introducing an alternative market that already exists: the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC). Their ideology is: Everything they can do outside the capitalist market, they will do outside. They only use the capitalist market as a last resort. “They try to create a cooperative circular economy,” Michel says, “which also creates a commons, because everything they do is open.”

For example, CIC pay the bare minimum amount of taxes to the Spanish state. “They don’t recognise the legitimacy of the Spanish state,” Michel explains, “but they realise its reality.” Instead, they have an internal tax system with social and environmental characteristics. This “tax” is shuffled around between internal departments; they operate, ironically enough, exactly like a multinational corporation in this regard. This “tax” is re-invested into the community, healthcare, food, shelter and support. Over eight hundred freelancers work inside this system and are “taxed” by CIC. Now CIC are trying to demonetise their internal economy.

Michel’s dream is for a global community of commons contributors, bound together by a social charter, using open book accounting and an open supply chain, to create a global economic system that is both outside of the capitalist market and outside state planning.

This is the commons.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Let Fury Have the Hour: Antonino D’Ambrosio

This is the fourteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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“Let fury have the hour
Anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?”
– The Clampdown by The Clash

Let Fury Have the Hour by Antonino D’Ambrosio is a documentary that follows a whole generation of artists and activists, from rappers and punks to comedians and lawyers, who use their creativity to respond to reactionary politics. That’s the bare synopsis, anyway. In visceral experience, it’s a ballistic assault on the mind, shot through with adrenaline, that will dynamite any resistance to participation and creativity. You will be split between running out of the cinema screaming and melting yourself down into your seat for the next screening.

The documentary took seven years to make and Antonino filmed seventy-five conversations with artists, fifty of which made it into the final cut. “The original idea was to have a hundred voices,” he says, “to really push the boundaries of film-making.” Some of his intended interlocutors disappeared or went into exile, like Chinese artivist Ai Weiwei. “This inspired me more to make the movie, as a testament to them,” he says. “I’d like to dedicate the film to Ai Weiwei and to the city of Graz.”

The lights dim and we hold onto our seats.

An hour and a blood-pumping half later, we emerge, sweating. “The movie is not finished,” Antonino says, “with each screening it continues to be made with the audience.” So here are some of our questions and comments, along with my attempts to capture Antonino’s responses.

Was it difficult to get these artists involved?

No one said no to me. The artists never usually get a chance to speak like this, but these were just discussions that I would have with anyone. It was a discussion about how they see the world, how the essence of what they do is based on connecting. I wasn’t from that generation; I only discovered The Clash in 1983, when I was twelve. I think they really appreciated that I wasn’t quite of their time period.

What about the music?

There are forty-five pieces of music in the film, including fifteen original tracks. There were originally sixty pieces, including an entire album by Thievery Corporation. When I make a film, I switch off the visuals and, if I can follow the story just in the soundtrack, then I know I’m onto something.

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How can we distinguish creative-response from a potentially harmful ideology?

Ideologies are reactionary, they want to hold onto power. Creative-response is anti-ideological because creative-response is openness to ideas. Be flexible and fluid. Your idea might be a good starting point, but always keep bringing in new ideas.

Once, Nazi officers came into Picasso’s apartment in Paris and saw a photograph of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of the Nazi strategic bombing of civilians in Spain. The officer remarked, “This painting, did you do this?” “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”

Aha.

The film ends before electronic music starts. Can electronic music be creative-response, or is it too abstract to be political?

When I’m creating, I don’t distinguish between genres. And, quite frankly, when you make overtly political music, it’s often not very good. I love the remix, the re-imagination of electronic music. You can find inspiration anywhere if you keep your heart and your mind open.

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Creative-response can go in the opposite direction. Punk is used by the far right, for example.

In some ways, I wanted to reclaim punk, because it did fall into the hands of the far right a little bit. When you come from a position of hate, you’re doing terrorism. That’s not creative-response. What’s interesting about the interviews is that, not only did these punk people stand up to fascism then, but they still stand by their politics now.

Are you only preaching to the choir?

We, the choir, still need new songs to sing. Our time is here, it’s now. We have the ideas and they don’t. The way I look at it is, if I feel this way, then there must be someone else who feels that way.

How do we get the creativity to change the world?

Well, what do you think? We all have the talent to creatively respond. Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but always as a citizen of the world. Citizenship is repressed in the US; there is very low voter turnout. At the end of the day, that’s what citizens are doing; their creative-response is participation.

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What else do you do for a living?

I’m an author and a visual artist as well as a film-maker. I’m able to cobble the three things together and make a living. I’ve created a non-profit network called La Lutta, so it doesn’t cost me much to make these films. The budget of Let Fury Have the Hour should have been around a million dollars, but it didn’t cost that.
Artists support my work. I have some patrons. And every time I do something like this, it leads to something else that will help me grow as a person and as an artist.

What was the point when you realised you had to do something now?

I take my responsibilities seriously as a human being on this planet. So when I realised I had a talent for this storytelling, I kept doing it.

Creative-response for me is also looking after my daughter. My daughter is my greatest inspiration. She inspires me to be greater than myself – and that’s one idea of creative-response. There is an incredible demand to never give up. She was six years old when I was editing and people like Chuck D would come in and sing to her.

I think the impact of political bands is very small.

For me, art and culture doesn’t change anything. We have to change. These are just tools. I love The Clash and their songs about working class people – but it was still up to me to do something about it. Picasso painting Guernica didn’t stop war, but it stopped a fourteen year old boy growing up in Philadelphia from thinking that war was a viable solution. Twitter doesn’t change things, Rage Against the Machine doesn’t change things, we change things. Like Joe Strummer said: “Without people, we’re nothing”.

And what’s the measure of impact? I don’t think about quantity, but quality. We have to push each other, inspire each other, give each other strength. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s done something has done it because they’re afraid; they’re afraid that things aren’t going to change.

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Do you have a favourite medium of expression?

Human expression. All artists are writers in some way. But, in terms of medium, for me it’s writing. I can really engage intimately with what words mean. Everything I do is writing, including the visual.

What’s that great Van Jones quote in the film?

When he went to Yale, Van Jones’s father said to him: “The next time I see you, you’re going to be smarter than me. But I want you to know something. There are only two kinds of smart people in the world: there are smart people who take very simple things and make them very sound complicated to enrich themselves; and there are smart people who take very complicated things and make them sound simple to empower other people. Now: the next time I see you, I want you to be that kind of smart guy.”

Did you face a lot of criticism?

The right wing don’t give a shit. They have the power, this doesn’t threaten them.

Any final words?

The film is a starting point. Where can we go from here with creative-response? What kind of a world do you want to live in?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

New Media and Creative-Response

This is the thirteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

At the 2008 Elevate Festival, Ronaldo Lemos, Project Lead of the Creative Commons Brazil, talked about the “commons of the mind”. He said that the internet had created a plurality of business models for media distribution – iTunes, BandCamp, Gumroad, Amazon, eBay and YouTube to name half a dozen. The question is whether this is a good thing for creative responders or not. Daniel Erlacher proposes that, compared to the corporate publishing model of the last century, today’s plurality makes distribution much more complicated for artists.

Those complications can also bring with them a certain freedom. Ursula Rucker has experience of both worlds: she released three albums on a traditional record label, but has released her last two albums herself as digital only downloads. “It may be harder because you don’t have someone taking care of you,” she says of the record industry, “but they were never taking care of you in the first place.” Antonino laughs a knowing laugh. “Now there’s a freedom,” Ursula adds. “You do it yourself; you’re not on a leash.” She smiles a wry smile. “At the same time, though, you do have to figure out how you’re going to do it.”

Another possible benefit of the collapse of old models of media distribution since the rise of the internet is that artists are allowed to fail a lot more now, without editors or publishers or producers peering over their shoulder. “I’m independent,” Deanna Rodger says. “I write my stuff, I put it out, I perform where I can.” She argues that, in this new media world of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the artist has more control. “You don’t have to tick any boxes, you don’t have to jump through hoops,” she says. “You’re also generating your own network and you’re getting instant feedback, which is only going to make you a better artist because you’re listening to the people who are listening to you.”

“New media is not a utopia of independence or creativity,” Antonino says. “You have to have a vision,” he adds. “That’s been there since Picasso painted Guernica. Work that’s timeless and timely has vision.” For him, social media are just the tools that we happen to have for creative-response today, but tools are the means, not the ends. “The ends is this.” He breaks the fourth wall of the stage and seems to connect with each one of us in the audience. “What we’re doing here is social media.”

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Everything for Antonino is about connecting with people, that’s his creative-response. The main purpose of his film, Let Fury Have the Hour, which took seven years to produce, was and is to connect with artists, collaborators and human beings. “These are just tools so I can be here with you today,” he says. “I would never have thought, as a fourteen year old kid in Philadelphia, I’d be sitting in Graz talking about this work – it’s an amazing privilege and honour.” We should remember, Antonino says, that clicking Like on Facebook is no substitute for being in the room, connecting with each other. “Real participation demands that we’re here, present, together.” Antonino reaches out to Ksenia and Daniel either side of him: “Like this.”

Deanna agrees, but takes a more global view. “Not everyone can afford to go to a show, or afford to come to Austria,” she says. She is keen not to downplay the significance of minute social media interactions either. “It might only be a re-tweet,” she says, “but that can be the start of something.” For Deanna, creative-response is built up slowly. A little burst of creativity, a tweet, might take only a few seconds, but the satisfaction of getting that tweet favourited by friends or re-tweeted by strangers might lead the nascent artist to ask the question: That only took me five seconds; what if I spent a day on it? From these modest beginnings, the artist slowly develops a vision and a voice. The virtue of this start-small method is that, as Deanna says, “There’s no excuse for not doing it because it is so simple and then you build on it.”

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And that is exactly how I got started as a writer. Since I was about eighteen, I’d said I was going to be a writer – sometimes I even boasted that I was going to be a writer who turned the world upside-down with my words. But that’s all it was: words. Until, one day, I realised that, if I wanted to become any kind of a writer, I would need to stop talking and start writing. So I started with the smallest possible story: fifty words long. It’s so short that I might as well reprint it here:

The Interview
The car pulled a parabola into position in front of endless low roofed warehouses. The steam from the looming cooling towers drifted across the Sun. The violins on the stereo screeched to a close and the chill of the air froze. In ten minutes he would be in the interview.

I think the world just about managed to keep itself on its axis, but that’s not the point. My plan was to write a new story every day, each day adding five words to the word count. Over the course of the next six weeks, I wrote another forty-one stories, ending up with one that was two hundred and sixty words long. It might not sound like a lot, but it was a start. Within a month of finishing that two hundred and sixty word story, I began writing my first full length novel. Within two years, I had finished that novel and published my first book of travel writing. I was a writer.

Daniel Erlacher suggests that the music industry has changed as a result of the growth of the internet, citing the fact that artists now make more money from their gigs than from their records. “It’s always been that way for me,” Ursula replies without hesitation. Chris Hessle, the electronic musician IZC, counters the popular denigration of what he calls “the old vinyl economy”. One accusation is that the music business simply doesn’t have the money any more. “There’s not less money,” he says, “but the money’s going somewhere.”

For Chris, it’s quite obvious where that money is going: Apple, Spotify, Amazon and the other major online distributors. Apple is the most valuable company in the world; they don’t seem to be too bothered that there’s “less money” in the music business. “There’s less money, but it’s only in our perception,” Chris argues. He runs a small traditional record label himself and, on his visits to the pressing factories, sees that “the money stays within the scene and creates jobs for people who are within the scene”. Apple’s profits from iTunes, in contrast, fund a technology company.

On this analysis, it’s hard to argue that today’s system of the financial control of artists is any more free than last century’s. Nafeez Ahmed makes this exact point. “We haven’t got away from centralised control,” he says. “We’re still beholden to these opaque systems of rights and ownership. You upload to Facebook, but how much do you actually own and how many rights are you giving away?”

You’ll be glad to hear, dear reader, that I’ve taken the trouble to answer this rhetorical question. You’ll be further glad when I tell you that you retain the intellectual property rights to any videos, music, poetry or photographs that you upload to Facebook. However, the second you post something on Facebook, you grant them a licence to do whatever they like with it, including using it for commercial purposes if they so desire. No wonder Nafeez is asking, “How can we move beyond being shackled by technologies still very much controlled by big corporations which have their own interests?”

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Antonino reminds us that the construction of the internet was publicly funded, by the military and educational institutions. He laments the fact that the internet could have seen the democratisation of technology, as well as art. But, according to Antonino, Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was “one of the great con tricks we pulled in the United States” and helped concentrate ownership of the media into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. “After the economic collapse in 2008,” Antonino adds, “I thought there was a great opportunity for us to think about how society in general was organised, but then everything started getting funnelled back into this hegemony.” For Antonino, at the moment, the primary use of the internet seems to be “to promote more consumption and not more participation”.

Deanna takes us back to the fundamental question of distribution. “As an artist,” she says, “I want to make [my work] available to as many people as possible. As those are the tools I have at the moment, I think those are the tools I should use.” For her, it’s irrelevant whether or not she hates Facebook (she thinks she does), because she can use these tools to come together with others. “It’s not about how much money I can get from it,” she says. “It’s about how much change I can try to inspire. If that’s using Facebook because that’s where I know a hundred people will look at it, then that’s what I’m going to use.” She even challenges Facebook to use her work: “If they take it, then I’m going to write a new poem. Have that one, because I’m going to write a better one.”

Daniel Erlacher has more fundamental problem with social media. “I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says to Deanna. “I can’t follow you and I don’t want to; you exclude me.” When we laugh at his bluntness, he quickly adds, “Sorry, not literally – it’s a big dilemma.” Daniel doesn’t want to participate in this exclusionary social media at all, but when artists use Facebook or Google to promote their work, they become adverts for Facebook or Google. “Every click is an active invitation for other people to find you there,” he says.

Deanna concedes that it is important for artists to become more aware about social media and their channels of distribution, but she’s frustrated with how difficult that is becoming. All she wants is to write and perform, without worrying about whether or not Google owns a licence to all her YouTube videos. “What am I going to do? How am I going to be more aware?” she asks, getting more and more agitated. “How am I going to learn programming?” She hesitates. “I’m going to google it – jokes!” She laughs, we laugh, Ursula touches Deanna’s sleeve in solidarity.

There is, of course, a mid-way between most people’s total acceptance and Daniel’s total rejection of corporate social media. “We should use these mainstream channels and we should show our face if we are not afraid,” Ksenia Ermoshina says, but she also urges us to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, outside the internet, where we can come together in physical space.

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“It’s up to you,” Ursula says. “Are you able to balance using this vehicle but not becoming it?” Chris agrees, saying, “I think that it’s perfectly fine to use all these corporate structures, but I’m a bit scared to be depending on them.” He sympathises with artists like Deanna who just want to create. “These days, when you sell your music via iTunes, for instance, it’s not so easy to change your channels of distribution,” he says. “We’ve become already quite dependent on these channels, in my opinion.” As more and more people join social networks, the pull of those social networks becomes stronger and stronger.

So how much creative-response is there to these corporations? Daniel doesn’t see any. Antonino quotes John Sayles, the US film-maker, who says that “we all work for corporations in some form”. For Antonino, as for John Holloway, there is no such thing as purity. “Part of creative-response is finding the free space and not thinking about things as black and white,” he says. “Public Enemy, of course, Fight the Power – major label. It’s important that we have sophistication and nuance about how to use that.”

Antonino ends with a story of how his friend and artist Ai Weiwei found the free space on Twitter to subvert an attempted Chinese cover-up of the shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan. Seven thousand schoolrooms collapsed in the province during the earthquake of 2008, leading to the death of up to five thousand children. Every day since, Ai Weiwei tweets the birthday of one of the kids killed.

“That’s a sophisticated way to work with the system to do something that’s an amazing creative-response, so those children are never forgotten,” Antonino says with pride. In this way, creative-response is able to stretch out its fingers and touch people beyond its time and place. “Fighting them at their level is a difficult proposition because they have the wealth,” Antonino adds. “But we have the numbers, we have the better ideas. We have to remember that, we have to get to the free space.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Creative Response/Ability >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Creative Response / Ability

This is the twelfth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

What is Creative-Response?

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.

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Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”

Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.

For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”

Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.

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Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”

Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.

Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.

These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”

In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.

For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?

According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.

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What does Creative-Response mean to You?

Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”

In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”

By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).

Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”

For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.

For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.

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Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.

But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.

By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.

At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”

Art as Activism?

This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.

“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”

Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.

For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”

Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”

Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.

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Creative-Response Today

Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.

Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.

“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”

Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.

This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”

So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.

“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
Corporations owe
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Media and Technology

This is the eleventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Media and technology have always developed hand-in-hand, from the development of written language in Sumer five thousand years ago, through postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television, to the successive innovations that have made today’s instant media possible over the internet. This marriage of media and technology is capable of astonishing feats, such as the democratisation and emancipation of knowledge on Wikipedia; but it also enables more sinister operations, like the total population surveillance uncovered by Edward Snowden and others last year. During this session, the panel explored all its aspects: the good, the bad and the future.

The Good: The Commons and Wikimedia

The first Elevate Festival took place in 2005, the same year YouTube launched. Facebook was still a student network, Twitter did not yet exist and the iPhone was two years from its debut. Wikipedia was a relative granddaddy at four years old, but had only half a million articles in its English language edition. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, was a guest at that first Elevate.

Jimmy spoke of the difficulties of managing a collaborative project, where anyone can take part. “I continue to be amazed at the huge number of people who are good in the world,” he said. “It’s almost everybody.” However, he also warned that “there are some people who are just absolutely impossible”. He insisted on the importance of remaining open, without being naïve about the existence of contributors who become impossible to manage. “By not banning a troll, you effectively ban a lot of good people,” he said. “The biggest mistake we make right now is we’re too tolerant of trolls, because of the nature of Wikipedians being so friendly, we can’t believe that someone could be such an asshole!”

Nine years and about 720 million edits later, Claudia Garád, Executive Director of Wikimedia Österreich, tells us that, “in general, we can be quite happy”. She is proud that Wikipedia is one of the biggest community projects ever developed, predominantly built by volunteers. “Now we have paid staff,” she says, “but they mostly deal behind the scenes, not in the encyclopedia.” From those half a million articles in 2005, the English Wikipedia has grown to over four and a half million articles in 2014. Claudia is also proud that Wikipedia publishes in 287 languages, including Bavarian and Alemanic. “This is important to be reflected in our digital legacy,” she says.

Today, however, Wikimedia faces new challenges. The proportion of women editors is consistently low, around 7-10% (it’s difficult to say exactly because editors on Wikipedia are anonymous). There has also been a decrease in the number of volunteer editors from the industrialised nations. “We don’t have enough volunteers to maintain the status quo and continue building the world’s knowledge,” Claudia says. “We have to take action against that.”

Michel Bauwens puts this decrease down to a fundamental fault in the governance of Wikipedia: it is no longer a meritocracy. “In Wikipedia,” he explains, “there was a fight between inclusionists and deletionists.” Inclusionists wanted to include everything and anything in the encyclopedia, while the deletionists maintained that the subject matter should be of “significant interest”. “This creates a layer of administrators who know the rules, but not the subjects,” Michel says, giving the example of the radical deletion of a plethora of fake Barbies from China. “Adding something to Wikipedia has become political,” he says. “If you cannot mobilise ten or twenty people, you won’t get your article in Wikipedia.” Since the deletionists won that battle, Wikipedia has declined in terms of contributions.

One of the problems with dealing in knowledge is that there is never any end. There is no point at which you could describe an article as perfect. “There are different phases,” Claudia says. “The highest rating is Excellent, where the status quo is good enough, but there’s always something to add.”

Another challenge, brought to light in the 2010 Wikipedia documentary Truth in Numbers, is that new users have difficulty editing. According to Claudia, this is “a big challenge for new volunteers”. She attributes the challenge to two aspects of the maturation of Wikipedia: “On the one hand, we don’t have much low-hanging fruit,” she says. “It’s hard to find something you can contribute to easily.” The second difficulty for new volunteers is that the regulations concerning edits to Wikipedia have become very complex. In general, there are no locked articles, but Claudia tells us that, in Germany, articles do have to wait to be checked by someone more experienced. “It all depends on the first person who deals with the new volunteer,” she says, suggesting that a new editor can be easily put off by more experienced Wikipedians. “But you have to understand the frustrations of editors as well,” she adds. “They spend most of their time dealing with trolls. You lose patience after some time.”

Yet Wikipedia is still the first stop for anyone on the internet researching anything. This is an astonishing feat, considering the increasing totalisation of the web, coalescing around the major technology companies like Google and Facebook. Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world, the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled and all of its content is free to distribute, modify and edit under the Creative Commons licence.

We should look after this unusual beast in our garden.

The Bad: Surveillance and Media Monopolies

Surveillance has been on the Elevate agenda from the very beginning when Phil Zimmermann, creator of encryption tool PGP, was a guest. Since that first festival, according to technology blogger Christian Payne, “there’s been an awakening” about what governments and corporations are doing, or could be doing, with our data. We know this thanks to the work of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange and many others.

“There are potentially huge databases of our every move, with whoever, wherever, whenever,” Christian Payne says. “It’s definitely changed my behaviour,” he adds, “especially working in difficult situations where I’m risking my life and other people’s if I accidentally share my location.” But he is optimistic that, thanks to this awakening, our “lethargy will pass” and we will start to act against this surveillance, on both personal and corporate levels.

Micah Lee, wearing a Tor t-shirt, is “digital bodyguard” to Glenn Greenwald and the man first contacted about the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden. Micah says that cryptographic tools have historically been almost unusable. “It’s still pretty terrible to use in a lot of cases,” he adds. As he is quick to point out, his own work is no exception. The whistleblowing platform that Micah helped to develop, SecureDrop, while pretty easy for sources to use, is very complicated for journalists. “Journalists have to go through a lot of training,” he says, “and learn how to use air-gapped computers and how to boot to TAILS USBs and you do two vector authentication and download a bunch of randomly named files and decrypt them somewhere else and burn CDs and…” “When I see secure communication going on,” Christian Payne says, only half-joking, “it’s like peering into the Matrix!” The room laughs.

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Despite this interminable list of hoop-jumping, “things are getting a lot better than they used to be”, according to Micah. “It’s possible for me to take my phone, download an app and then have an encrypted phone call with somebody for free,” he points out. “And anyone in the world with a smartphone can do this.” So while PGP is still complicated, Micah does see reasons to be optimistic; there has been a “huge renaissance of alternative messaging systems” that aim to solve the problem of combining good security with good usability.

Of course, we could have secure solutions soon, if only the big technology companies threw their enormous resources at the problem. And Christian Payne sees the first glimmerings of hopeability in this area. He reports that senior sources at Apple are now saying that the reason they sell very expensive technology is because “data is not their business model”. Christian Payne is hopeful that Apple will aim to compete with Google on the privacy concerns of their uses, by making beautifully designed and easy to use products and services that come with built-in secure data protection. If we’re willing to pay a premium for it, of course.

One of the negative developments in internet security since 2005 is that, back then, traffic was more decentralised. Today, most internet traffic, on its way to its final destination, passes through the servers of a handful of large corporations, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon Web Services. Miriam Rasch calls these “media monopolies”. The problem is that most people don’t understand why it’s such a problem to have these monopolies.

“The majority of the people have no clue why they should not be using Facebook,” she says. “Or why they should not only use Google when they search something and what the problem even could be that they have Gmail and search every location they go to on Google Maps.” Without educating people about the possible dangers of these media monopolies, as Miriam says, “they won’t use the alternatives, even if they are easy to come by”.

In Europe, Google has a near monopoly on search, around 95% of the market, according to Miriam. On the plus side, compared to switching social networks, it is relatively easy to switch your search engine; as Miriam points out, “you don’t need all your friends to get on there”. However, it is almost impossible for competitors to do search better than Google because they have almost limitless resources to put into their hardware. “If you want alternative search engines,” Miriam says, “then you need an alternative index of the web.”

Google have indexed 40 billion pages; their biggest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, have indexed only 13.5 billion. Some people have suggested that we build a pan-European alternative search engine, but Miriam wants to know who would be the keeper of that search engine – politicians? “After the Snowden revelations, we don’t trust politics any more,” she says.

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Daniel Erlacher’s solution is publicly funded media, democratically controlled with public oversight. But Miriam argues that even this wouldn’t be the end of the problem. “You shouldn’t have one thing other than Facebook,” she says. We need more than one alternative to really have an alternative; either / or is not much of a choice. And that is an enormous undertaking. “The only way to fight Google is to have a lot of money,” she says. “I’m always really charmed by all the small projects, but if you really want to make the fist, you need this huge amount of cash from somewhere.” Christian Payne steps in again: “Does anybody have more money than Google? Please put your hand up.” We laugh knowingly: most countries on Earth don’t have as much money as Google.

As our laughter trickles down the drains of despair, Micah raises another threat posed by these media monopolies that I had not previously run into: their threat to open internet standards.

“Email has been around for a very long time and it’s an open standard,” Micah explains. “And anyone can run their own email server. There are lots of different ones to choose from and a lot of people could choose to run their own or organisations can run their own.”

We do a quick straw poll of the room: “Who here has Gmail? Hotmail?” About half the room laughs, guiltily. “This open, decentralised standard is getting centralised, largely into Gmail and a couple of other big email providers,” Micah says. “Most companies these days [use Gmail] because it’s a lot cheaper than running your own infrastructure.” Even Guardian News posts their email with Google. Yes, the newsroom that was courageous enough to publish Glenn Greenwald’s stories on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks send all their communication through Google’s servers, where the security agencies can browse with apparent impunity.

So what?

This isn’t (just) about surveillance. At the moment, Gmail is email, an open web standard. Anyone with an email address can contact anyone else with an email address. It doesn’t matter who provides you with your email address – Hotmail, Gmail, Riseup, whoever – you can still read and send email between providers. It’s so simple that we don’t even think about the open architecture underpinning the whole system. But what if Gmail moved away from the email web standard? What if Gmail became more like Facebook’s messaging service? If you’re outside Facebook, you can’t contact someone inside, and vice versa. You’re cut off. There’s nothing to stop Google one day deciding to do the same with Gmail.

If you think this sounds unlikely, then Micah warns us that Google has already done this with one of their products. Google Talk (now Hangouts) used to run on the Jabber/XMPP open messaging standard. “Anyone with a Jabber account on any Jabber server could talk to Google Talk people,” Micah explains. “This was great until Google decided to change Hangouts. Suddenly everyone who’s locked into Google just gets cut off from the rest of the people using the standards.” Now consider the fact that Gmail has been installed over a billion times on Android smartphones. At what point will Google decide that they have a critical mass of users and can afford to cut everyone else out, leading to a stampede to their services and a total media monopoly? “They could do this, it’s possible,” Micah says. “They did this with their chat.”

The kicker to all this is that Google are only in this position of power because, well, they offer really good services. “It’s always up, it works well, they have really nice design and a really nice web interface,” Micah says, with an awed mix of respect and fear. In fact, Google’s products and services are so simple, so reliable and so damn useful that people are choosing monopoly. “But it’s important that if you’re using open standards, like Jabber or like email, to make sure that they stay open,” Micah adds. “And that’s the danger.”

Christian Payne’s response to the media monopoly trap is fun and games, something that Google’s robots and algorithms aren’t too good at. “I take great pleasure in emailing a friend who has given me their PGP key,” he says, “knowing that there is a robot scraping all of the Google content going What the hell does all this mean? How am I going to sell anything to him, it doesn’t make any sense!” If everyone used encryption, even for the most banal of messages, then the everyday surveillance of our email would become impossible. “We all need to cause trouble,” Christian Payne says. “We need to get badges for it: You’ve caused twenty percent trouble in your email this week!” The room applauds. “If we could only use game mechanics to encourage people,” he adds, “then maybe we could make it work.”

Miriam nods in agreement and introduces us to a web browser extension called ScareMail, which makes email “scary” in order to disrupt NSA surveillance. According to the website, ScareMail “adds to every new email’s signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms”, which then “acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense”.
Automated trouble-making. I love it.

The Future? Distributed Networks and Secure Data

The problems of surveillance and the problems of media monopolies are problems of concentrations of data. Knowledge has always been power; today, in our networked world, data is knowledge is power. As the internet matures, that data-power is being concentrated into the hands of the big players. Google, Amazon and Wikipedia all have power because they hold data on their servers. Whether that power is used for good or evil is entirely down to who has control over the servers. At Wikipedia, the control is with the community, motivated by the growth of the commons. At Google and Amazon, the control is with the board of directors and, indirectly, the shareholders, motivated by their annual return on investment. Taking back power and alleviating the threat of surveillance and media monopolies means distributing control of the network and taking back our data.

At the Elevate Festival in 2007, Sascha Meinrath, founder of the Open Technology Institute and community internet pioneer, spoke about the importance of networks to independent media production. “We realised, in indie media, even though we were covering stories nobody else in town was covering, we didn’t have a way to distribute it,” Sascha told Elevate. “It wasn’t enough to own the means of media production,” he explained. “If we didn’t have a distribution system in place, we still couldn’t get the word out.” So they started to create a local distribution network in the mid-1990s, “literally stringing up ethernet cables between houses”. For Sascha, building networks was “the natural extension of radical media activism”.

FunkFeuer is a local, volunteer-run and non-commercial network, such as Sascha described, with chapters in cities around Austria. Christian Pointner helps run the FunkFeuer network here in Graz. “Normally people have an Internet Service Provider,” he explains. “Most people do not know how it really works, they simply switch the computer on. The idea of FunkFeuer is to build our own network in cities.” We watch a video of Aaron Kaplan, from FunkFeuer Vienna, clambering around on rooftops, setting up wireless repeaters, throwing the network a little wider over the city.

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This is all very interesting, but why would you bother?

Aside from Sascha’s argument about owning the means of media distribution, aside from concerns over surveillance and aside from doomsday scenarios where fibre optic lines or telecommunication towers are sabotaged and we’re all relying on these volunteer networks to deliver emergency aid, there is one clear and present threat to the internet as we currently know it: network neutrality.

At the moment, every bit and byte of internet traffic is treated equally. There is no way to jump to the head of the queue and download that episode of Tenko faster, no matter how much money you have. This is what we mean by “network neutrality”. But it is under threat. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the people who own the pipes down which your data flows, are getting a bit ornery about the demands put on them by government and by business. They feel like they should be getting a bigger slice of the commercial pie and they are threatening to break network neutrality by charging for premium services. This could mean Google paying for priority when you watch a YouTube video and Vimeo or Netflix users can, in the words of John Holloway, get out of the way.

You can be sure that independent media outlets will not be able to afford to pay these premiums; this will mean more and more traffic, more and more eyeballs, will be drawn towards those that are able to pay. At the moment, independent media sites like Democracy Now! are able to compete for attention with Fox News and The Mail Online. When network neutrality is gone, will that still be so? Or will they become part of a second class internet, dragging its feet with slower and slower delivery? Many people believe that this is a fundamental threat to the internet’s founding philosophy of equality (including Barack Obama). But, of course, if you build your own network infrastructure, like FunkFeuer, you can maintain neutrality. It’s your network; you decide. Or, as FunkFeuer’s slogan would have it: Don’t log into the net – be the net!

Unfortunately, since 2007, the growth of FunkFeuer in Austria has been stalled by the rapid spread of 3G networks. Until then, FunkFeuer had been getting a lot of support as a city-wide wireless network. Now, with the rise of smartphones, that kind of network is no longer needed by most people. However, Christian Pointner reports that non-commercial volunteer networks in other countries are seeing better progress. “Catalonia is more successful and it’s really big in Athens too,” he says. “Athens Wireless has a lot of content in the network as well; it’s not just the internet.” This could be file-sharing, documents, videos, music. What we think of as “the internet” could be so much more than just the internet if we had control of the network servers. Christian Pointner dreams of connecting all the independent networks, from Berlin to Athens. “We can cover short distances,” he says with pride, “such as from Graz to Maribor.” That’s about 60km. There certainly is a long way to go.

Where FunkFeuer decentralises networks, FreedomBox, first introduced at Elevate in 2011, decentralises data. “FreedomBox is a small personal server,” Markus Sabadello, one of the developers, explains. “The idea is to own part of the system.”

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations last year, we know how insecure our personal data is on the internet. Currently, all our personal data goes through the servers of corporations and we basically have no control over who uses it and how. “We know Facebook and Google are doing these things with our data,” Markus points out, “but we’re still using them!” He would like to see FreedomBox become the alternative to corporate control of your personal information, where you can store all of your personal data on your own personal server and you decide who can use it and how.

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FreedomBox is a software project, designed to deliver a secure server for your data. “You could load it onto a ten year old server in your basement,” Markus says. “It could even be conceivable on mobile devices.” But it is still in an experimental phase. “It’s not defined what the FreedomBox does,” Markus says. “It’s like when the first PCs were sold. People at that time were asking what does the computer do? Does it write letters? Does it play chess?” FreedomBox faces the same problem with definition: it’s a home server, it’s for file sharing, emails, encrypted data exchange, blog hosting… “No one knows what it will do when it reaches maturity,” Markus says.

It is clear that there are many passionate, hard-working developers working on potential solutions to the myriad problems we face in this brave new networked world. But I fear for the forces driving technology. The built-in distributed power of Wikimedia seems to be an exception, uniquely protected by its early adoption and now seemingly unassailable position as the first place we go to for knowledge online. On the planet, there are more than enough resources to build secure and easy-to-use encryption, a publicly-funded search engine, distributed and anonymous networks and secure personal data storage with adequate legal protection.

Unfortunately, unlike Wikimedia and the technology of knowledge, the momentum behind these technologies is not distributing power to the people, but centralising power in the hands of a small number of super-giants. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple are all now producing devices that we carry in our pockets; they control the entire communication chain, from the top level of the internet, through the software we use, right down to the hardware we hold.

I wouldn’t say we have lost the race – after all, we are only at the very beginning of this new digital epoch – but we have a lot of catching up to do if we are to even understand these new challenges, let alone solve them.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Socio-Ecological Transformation

This is the tenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Our generation faces a unique series of ecological challenges, from climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, to how we can feed the world and leverage bio-technology without damaging the planet’s fragile ecosystem. But the ecological transformations necessary to answer these challenges are impossible without a corresponding social transformation in the way we fuel our cars, grow our crops and organise ourselves. As Ulrich Brand, professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna, says, we need nothing less than the “ecological modernisation of capitalism”.

Climate Change and Geo-Engineering

The People’s Climate March in September showed that, as activist Mona Bricke says, “we have reached a tipping point of movements”. She singles out 350.org as a unifying movement established to connect with the leaders who handle climate change. “In Copenhagen,” she says, “we got the impression that things were at a stand still and we knew we had to go back home and fight climate change at home.”

Mona’s home is Germany, from where she reports some interesting contradictions. The state of Brandenburg, for example, has transitioned to using 100% renewable energy for its citizens. All well and good, but they still mine and export coal to other communities. Mona tells us that, earlier this year, an eight kilometre line of activists stopped the huge coal mining caterpillars from working. “Little people stopped them,” she says, with obvious delight.

But there is trouble ahead. “You have a problem if you try to solve all problems,” Mona warns. For instance, the proposal of gas fracking as an alternative to coal mining. “We have to say no to that,” she insists. “The alternative to coal can by no means be fracking and it cannot be nuclear power either.” To illustrate the problem, Mona describes how, in the UK, activists against coal mining have turned to oppose fracking – while more coal than ever before is being used in the power stations. “We can’t move from one opposition to another,” Mona says. “We need to see the big picture.” It is inevitable, in the transition to renewable energy, that we will need to rely on some temporary gas power stations, she suggests.

Pat Mooney, a leading expert on technology and the environment and Elevate guest in 2009 and 2012, introduces us to geo-engineering, temporary climate hacks to alleviate the effects of climate change until such a time as the problem can be dealt with more permanently. Geo-engineering might seem like a reasonable strategy, given the real prospect of runaway global warming, but some of the proposals are extreme: blocking sunlight from reaching the earth by pumping sulphites into the air like an artificial volcano, for example. “Solar Radiation Management” proposals like this will, it is hoped, buy time to develop the technology to implement other schemes that capture carbon and bury it in the ground somewhere.

Pat describes these proposals as “two dreams” that allow companies to say “we don’t need to do anything else, we don’t need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions because we have these answers”. Unfortunately for those people who want “business as usual”, I’m sure you don’t need Pat Mooney to tell you that the idea of setting off artificial volcanoes “is simply crazy”. “The wealthiest countries,” he explains, “will make the decisions about how they will disperse these gasses into the stratosphere to block the sunlight.” As usual when there is a global price to pay, technical studies show that this kind of geo-engineering could be “devastating” to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and wreck havoc with the monsoon in south Asia.

“In 2012, we were successful in getting a moratorium against all forms of geo-engineering,” Pat says. Will geo-engineering still happen? Well, according to Pat, yes. “Even though the UN moratorium is in place, the United States isn’t a part of it itself,” he says. “And we know that research is going on anyway in places like Russia and China,” he adds. Pat foresees the situation becoming so desperate over the coming years that we’ll reach the point where “governments will say they have no choice but to deploy geo-engineering and we’ll just have to hope for the best”.

Pat points out that the pressure on governments from the big energy companies is huge. “The fossil fuel companies have fifty-five trillion dollars worth of infrastructure they want to protect,” he says. “They’ve got twenty-one trillion dollars worth of assets in the ground and they will do anything in their power to exploit that fossil fuel resource.” They’re not going to let governments end the party. “For them, it’s simple enough to say we’ll use solar radiation management to delay the effects,” Pat says, “and then we’ll find a way to bury the stuff eventually.”

Into a sickened silence, we contemplate the sacrifices we all must make so that fossil fuel profits can go on unhindered. “The only way to prevent this,” Josef Obermoser suggests, “is a huge global movement that is able to create so much pressure that this is not going to happen.” “Exactly,” Pat agrees. “If there isn’t a huge public debate about it soon, then they will continue. It will be China, Russia and the United States, probably together, going ahead with Solar Radiation Management.”

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Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology was initially developed as companies tried to find alternative ways of producing bio-fuels, Pat says, to “solve the problem of stealing food from people to feed their cars”. Now, however, the synthetic biology companies have moved away from bio-fuels and are creating flavour and fragrance crops that they can brew in a vat. “It threatens the livelihood of about a hundred million farmers right now,” Pat warns. “Crops like vanilla from Madagascar and saffron from Iran are all now being developed to be grown from vats rather than in the field.”

Synthetic biology is not like genetic modification, but instead builds and replicates DNA precisely, to make exactly what is needed or wanted in the marketplace. The proof of principle was established in 2010, when J. Craig Venter was able to recreate an entirely artificial self-replicating life form. “It really is a manipulation of life at its most fundamental levels,” Pat says, “and much more pervasive than genetic modification.”

As with geo-engineering, there is an international movement to regulate synthetic biology. “Last week in Korea,” Pat tells us, “the UN Commission on Biodiversity met, 194 countries. Almost all of them came out calling for a moratorium on synthetic biology until it can be properly regulated.” Almost all of them; the moratorium was blocked by the European Union and Canada. “They have agreed to establish a regulatory system to try to control synthetic biology at the national level at least.”

Yeah, but how close are we to actually having these synthetic crops in our food chain? “You’ll be able to buy so-called natural vanilla which has been brewed in a vat from Switzerland sometime later this year or early next year,” Pat says. Oh. Synthetic biology companies are finding it difficult to scale up production, so they’re concentrating on small, expensive products like vanilla and saffron; flavours, fragrances and cosmetics. “They’re not taking over coffee or palm oil at this stage,” Pat says, “but they may well soon.”

“Oof,” Josef sighs, shifting in his chair. “Very scary.” Pat laughs, leaning into the webcam. “I’m sorry to be saying only terrible things!” he replies. “Both geo-engineering at the maximum level and then synthetic biology almost at the nano scale.” But Pat is not a doom-monger. “We are looking for solutions as well,” he says. “The United Nations is paying attention.” Pat’s organisation, the ETC Group, have made a proposal to the UN, accepted by many governments, to establish capacity for technology assessment. This will give governments a systematic way to track these new technologies and hopefully have a public debate about them “before they’re forced down our throats or onto our faces or into our clothing”.

It would be easy to characterise Pat as a Luddite, a man who hates all new technology and is determined to stop its progress. That would be a gross misrepresentation; Pat is highly respectful of technology. Indeed, his socio-ecological concerns about technology are products of his great respect for its power. “People are becoming aware that technology is an extraordinarily powerful engine that’s driving a lot of social decisions,” he says. “We need to get control of those social decisions ourselves again.” He reminds us that we don’t have to blindly accept everything corporations, laboratories and human ingenuity can create. Pat wants us to retain control over the technologies we choose for our societies, “making sure the good ones go forward and the bad ones don’t”.

GMO and TTIP

The battle for control over the use of technology is unrelenting. There is currently a world-wide UN moratorium on the use of the so-called “terminator” seed, a genetically modified organism that dies at harvest time, so that farmers can’t store the seed for the next year. “They can sell the commodity,” Pat says, “so you can still make wheat or rice from it, but farmers will have to go back and buy seed again from the company.” As Josef says, “it’s a self-destructing life form”.

This “terminator” seed is completely banned in Brazil and even Monsanto, one of the world’s leading GMO producers, have publicly vowed not to pursue its use. And yet… “We’re expecting that they will overturn the ban that exists in Brazil against terminator sometime within the next few months.” The legislative bills are already with the Brazilian Congress, delayed only by the Presidential Elections. “Twelve thousand years of farmers being able to save their own seeds will end,” Pat says and urges us to join the campaign, supported by the Catholic church, against the lifting of the ban. “Write to the President of Brazil saying that we don’t want this legislation,” he says. “It’s not a lost battle.”

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Irmi Salzer, a member of La Via Campesina and an organic farmer, has more bad news, however. She reports that, although Austria had previously promised they would not allow GMO crops, “now they’re hedging their bets before the resistance gets too big”. She is worried that the decade-long fight against GMO might have to get more active. “The free trade agreement, TTIP, will overturn all the victories we’ve won,” she says. “It’s a Trojan Horse. This new agreement will be an opportunity to force through things that people have been trying to do for years.” Still under negotiation, TTIP could result in EU countries aligning their GMO and bio-technology regulations and protections with current, and more lax, US law.

Irmi shows us one crucial difference between current EU and US law, which TTIP could overturn, with potentially catastrophic consequences. In the EU, since an agreement on sustainable ecological protection in 1992, new technologies have to be proved safe before deployment: the burden of proof is on the companies developing and selling the technology. In the US, however, this principle is considered irrational and hysterical. “They want the opposite,” Irmi says, “that the opponents to a technology have to prove it is dangerous.” According to Irmi, TTIP will make the corporate overthrow of the long-standing EU ecological agreement much easier.

To make matters worse, democratic resistance to TTIP is proving difficult. Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, citizens of the EU are able to propose legislation if they can find support from at least one million citizens from at least four different member countries. This is called the “European Citizens’ Initiative” and is one of the very few examples of legislation that promotes direct democracy anywhere in the EU. Unfortunately, it cannot be used to stop the TTIP negotiations because there is no legal agreement yet to challenge with a popular legislative proposal! This leaves us in a Kafkaesque situation where, as Irmi says, “negotiations have to be concluded first, before any protests can start”. In other words, legal objections can only be lodged by citizens of the EU after TTIP has been signed into law. The Self-Organised European Citizens Initiative Against TTIP and CETA has already gathered well over one million signatories, from all over the EU. It should be clear to the governments pursuing TTIP that popular opposition is massive, loud and indignant; but we are legally powerless to stop the secretive negotiations.

We can see and hear big business building this Trojan Horse, but only when it has been dragged inside the city walls can we attempt to destroy it.

Food Sovereignty

In search of good news, Irmi turns to discuss La Via Campesina, a transglobal organisation that stands up for peasant farmers all over the world. It’s difficult to say quite how many farmers are represented because some countries keep no registers, but La Via Campesina estimate up to two hundred million people.

La Via Campesina coined the term “food sovereignty”, the right to produce your own food on your own land. The concept is in direct opposition to the global corporations and market institutions who currently dominate our food supply. “We see ourselves as part of a movement that wants to bring about social change,” Irmi says. La Via Campesina is a global solidarity movement, not just about the local environment and the “Buen Vivir”, the good life. They campaign for access to land, seed variety and local democratisation of the food supply. Not unreasonably, Irmi believes that it is the people who actually grow the food that lands on your plate who should be the ones negotiating any free trade agreements, not global corporations locked away in fancy tower blocks.

The principles of La Via Campesina are to resist, to transform and to build. “We have to work on all of these three levels,” Irmi says. “Resistance alone is not enough; we need to bring about transformation, build food co-ops and undermine our political systems.” The social and ecological aspects of transformation are, as we have seen, inseparable.

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“The movement is successful and growing in Austria,” Irmi says, with defiance. One of the projects involved is Kleine Farm, run by Ulli Klein. Kleine Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, a model imported from California, where the farmer is independent from the capitalist market economy. “We do not have to sell according to unit prices,” Ulli explains. They work out how much they have to earn to run the farm for a year and then manage their agriculture accordingly. At the moment, Kleine Farm supplies one hundred households with fresh, organic produce.

“The strength of Community Supported Agriculture,” Ulli says, “is that the behaviour of consumers is changing. People are taking responsibility.” The farm has also become a community space, where people can help out on the farm. “We publish a weekly farm newsletter and inform people about the reality of agriculture,” Ulli says. “We organise activities on the farm. The community is moving closer together.” Anna Ambrosch is another organic farmer from near Graz, whose BIOFUCHS project will be starting a community supported agriculture project next Spring. The movement is, quite literally, growing.

David Steinwender ends the session with a run down of the many socio-ecological initiatives in Graz: a seed library, farmers markets, food coops and community gardens among many others. “Elevate is the perfect venue to start the socio-ecological transformation,” he says. “After all, it is us people who will be able to bring about change.”

If we want to address climate change, then we must join the grassroots renewable energy movement and fight the fossil fuel future deployment of artificial volcanoes and geo-engineering. If we want to feed the world, then we must support small community farmers and organisations like La Via Campesina and fight industrial-scale synthetic biology, GMO and the totalising force of TTIP.

If we need an ecological revolution in the way we look after our planet, then we must lead a social revolution in the way we organise ourselves.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Democracy

This is the ninth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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In his opening speech to the very first Elevate Festival, John Holloway declared, “I hope that it will be a moment of rebellion, a fracture in capitalist domination.” A typically optimistic call to democratic revolution, but what has changed since then?

“2005 was not the most interesting year for democracy,” Graz-based activist and researcher Leo Kühberger says. “The autumn that started in 2005, ended in 2008. Now we are living in the winter. No one knows how long this winter will be and how harsh it will be. And we don’t know when spring will come and what it will feel like.” Despite this gloomy forecast, Leo does see shoots of optimism. “Fifteen years ago,” he says, “it was not possible to use the C-word: Capitalism. But the crisis and the protests made that possible – and even the other C-word: Communism.” Despite the freedom to consider alternatives, Leo notes that there has also been a rise in state authoritarianism and aggression.

“I remember the first time I read ‘anti-capitalist movement’ in the newspapers,” political scientist Friederike Habermann says. “I was really excited.” According to her, the reason why the C-words are being used again is because, as Vandana Shiva suggested last night, “there are no more tools left to boost the economy”. The only option left is to reconsider our commitment to capitalism. “Many people are saying that we have to reverse. People are talking about Crisis 2.0,” she adds. “People are starting to feel their lives being affected by the crisis. More than a third of Europeans have a psychological disorder every year.”

The 2009 festival, appropriately enough, took the motto “Elevate the Crisis”. In a video flashback from that festival, we watch Gabriele Michalitsch as he says that the economic crisis was presaged by a social crisis, in which the combination of poverty and social deprivation encompassed a significant proportion of the population. From that same festival, we watch Joachim Hirsch argue that existing government structures are losing their clout and that there is a distinct lack of social alternatives. He says that Herbert Marcuse’s idea of the one-dimensional society has never been more applicable than today: critical thought and opposition to the dominant paradigm have withered away.2 Already in 2009, Joachim was calling upon us to change, not the political party in government, but what we consider to be a worthy life. “It’s about making politics one’s self,” he said and I’m sure John Holloway would agree.

In 2007, Elevate welcomed Cynthia McKinney, former Democrat US Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate, to discuss the theme of that year’s festival: “Elevate Democracy”. “The government,” she said, “if it is to regain its relevance to our lives and reflect our values, must truly become of us, by us and for us. That means citizens must actually do something about our current predicament.” Her suggestion was that citizens should run for office: “This is resistance.”

However, Cynthia lamented the dismal participation rates in the US. “We’re lucky if we get 50% of those eligible to vote to actually cast their vote,” she said, “especially in what we call off-year elections, in which the president is not on the ballot.” Cynthia contrasted this figure with the turn out in Europe, frequently above 70%, and in Venezuela, which in recent years has seen turn out in presidential elections closer to 80%. “Obviously, people in Europe and Venezuela feel that their vote is important,” she declared, “that their party or candidate actually can win, that it is good to vote and that not voting is costly.”

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In fact, Austrian election turn out has been falling, from over 90% in the eighties and over 80% in the nineties to around 77% in the last decade. Voter turn out in the UK has also fallen, to just 65% at the last General Election in 2010, having been consistently, and sometimes considerably, over 70% from the Second World War until the new millennium. In the US, voter turn out since the Second World War has averaged just 51% and the world’s foremost democracy has never had an election that has represented as many as two thirds of its registered voters, let alone its total population.

Although I can’t find any evidence to substantiate Cynthia’s figures for Venezuelan participation (she claimed that the last seven elections had seen voter turn out averaging 90%), there has been a marked increase in voter turn out in Venezuelan presidential elections since the turn of the century, from 56% in 2000, to almost 80% last year. But what is more striking is that, in that same time period, over seven million citizens have been added to the electoral roll, taking the percentage of the whole population voting from less than 50% to 80%. That is a remarkable stride forward for democracy.
How did Venezuela manage this? As Cynthia suggested, by making politics relevant to people.

During the nineties, there was a crisis of representation in Venezuela. No one trusted the government and many people experienced the state as racist. So when Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, he didn’t really have a political programme. He promised instead to inaugurate a constitutional assembly to redraft the constitution. All of society were able to submit their proposals, which were then reviewed by experts and put to a public referendum. Were people still politically apathetic? Well, actually, yes; voter turnout was only 44% for the referendum. Apparently, it takes time to build participation. But the new constitution was adopted in 1999 and included such articles as the human right to free healthcare, with a clause prohibiting privatisation. Chavez was re-elected in 2000 with almost 60% of the popular vote, winning all but one state in the country.

There have since been similar constitutional movements in Ecuador (2008), famous for being the first in the world to recognise legally enforceable Rights of Nature, including a prohibition on the extraction of non-renewable resources in protected areas, and in Bolivia (2009), where the natural resources of the country were nationalised and a restriction put on the amount of land that could be held under private ownership. Both popular constitutions were supported in referendums by an overwhelming majority, with participation rates of 75% and 90% respectively. If you make politics relevant, people will become participating citizens.

At last year’s Elevate Festival, we heard from Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Katrín Oddsdóttir about the “Iceland Experiment” in constitutional reform. Although it was not ultimately successful – the constitution was collaboratively written and approved by public referendum, but not implemented by the government – the process was hugely popular and engaged hundreds of thousands of citizens in their democracy, which, in Iceland, is almost everybody. This year, we catch up with Birgitta via videolink from her home in Reykjavík. She is Iceland’s first Pirate Party member of parliament and chief sponsor of IMMI, a parliamentary resolution to turn Iceland into the world’s first “international transparency haven”, including protections for whistleblowers, protection for internet service providers and protection from “libel tourism”.

“I’m very pleased with developments in the international arena, not as pleased with the situation in Iceland,” she says, once she’s turned the music off in her living room. “We have probably the worst government in the history of Iceland currently. It looks like the minister that is supposed to be making sure that the IMMI laws get written is not doing jack shit.” But she hasn’t totally given up on the project. “We’re going to have to be innovative and creative about getting these laws changed,” she says. “I’m optimistic that we can make the main changes go through.”

As for Iceland’s new constitution, Birgitta says that it’s “in sort of a coma”. But again, she is optimistic. “We have to remember,” she says, “the beauty of crisis is that it will allow you to push things through that you would normally not get through. There will be another crisis and we’re ready with lots of good stuff.” Despite her frustrations, she still loves crisis. “Crisis,” she says fondly, “is the only time in our societies – and even in our personal lives – that can be used for radical change.” It seems that one thing radical political thinkers have in common is a love of crisis.

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In between feeding her cat – “She has an eating disorder, she’s always hungry!” – Birgitta is currently working on getting rid of data retention in Iceland. Then she will turn her attentions to intermediary protections, to protect internet service providers from prosecution for the traffic that happens on their servers. “I think that is really critical,” she says. “Also it’s very important that we get some changes in the copyright laws,” she adds. “Copyright laws will often over-ride intermediary protections and it requires that the intermediaries are made into police.” And nobody wants that. “There is lots of tough work to do that requires international collaboration, but I am optimistic.” She laughs nervously. “I have to be optimistic otherwise I might just as well give up.”

From the United States, Venezuela and Iceland, back to Austria and Graz. “Over the past ten years a lot has happened,” local activist Leo Kühberger says. “The pace is increasing in small towns like Graz.” Leo describes how, compared to the nineties, there are many more protests and student movements in the town today. Thousands of citizens successfully marched in protest against the budget of Styria, which would have paved the way to greater privatisation. There are ongoing protests against the use of hydroelectric power, as well as many smaller initiatives and Occupy Stadtpark.
However, according to Leo Kühberger, Graz is almost exceptional in Austria for its small political victories. Even here, protesters “haven’t quite managed to structure the protests to really change the power relations in the town,” he says. “But this is true across the world,” Leo adds, before giving an honourable mention to the popular and apparently democratic and inclusive resistance of the Kurds in Syria against Islamic State and the ruling Assad regime.

Friederike Habermann picks up on Leo Kühberger’s positive example of Kurdish resistance in Kobane – because she doesn’t see an awful lot of optimism elsewhere. “If we look at Greece and the solidarity economy there,” she says, “there is a lot of disappointment.” Nevertheless, she does sense inklings of hope. “Maybe the leftist movement is going somewhere,” she says. “There are more women participating, there is free entrance to events like Elevate.” She is inspired to this optimism by her memories of the Occupy movement. “We made no claims, made no demands. We simply said that we wanted something different,” she says. “We were living in a different time and sphere. We can take many different ideas for how to proceed in the future.”

One such idea comes from Jeremy Rifkin, an economic and social theorist who has the ear of governments around the world. In a book called The Zero Marginal Cost Society, he outlines the emancipatory possibilities of a radical future in which self-replicating robots and the emerging “Internet of Things” deliver almost entirely free goods and services, shifting us onto a new economic paradigm. If current trends continue, Rifkin predicts, capitalism will innovate itself out of existence.

An optimist might hear the echo of a world not yet born, burgeoning with the global collaborative commons; capitalism long forgotten.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate the Commons

This is the eighth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Addressing the oft-repeated accusation from the mainstream that alternative thinkers have no practical proposals for a replacement to capitalism, I hereby present Exhibit A: the commons. In an echo of John Holloway’s opening speech, Silke Helfrich characterises the commons as “putting hope into practice”.

The idea of commoning is that there are certain things that all of humanity holds “in common” and that responsibility for and access to those things should be shared equally among us all. Examples might include the air we breathe, the languages we speak and the water we drink. Commoners seek to extend and protect these basic shared resources; while capitalists seek to privatise and profit from them. Unless you happen to live right beside a fresh water spring, the water you drink has already been turned into a commodity that you pay for. Perhaps you believe that the air you breathe is a more genuine commons, free of commodification and profiteering. But would you say that you had an equal share in its pollution? Does this pollution make its way onto the balance sheets of industry in a way that reflects the damage done to your lungs?

What other resources should we have in common? Perhaps you might think the seeds that grow our food should be a common resource, provided by Mother Nature herself. But genetically modified “terminator” seeds that die after harvest have already been developed, so that farmers are reliant on buying more from the supplier. What about life-saving drugs? Private pharmaceutical companies using patent protection are systematically withholding life-saving drugs from the people who need them most. Or the internet, should that be a commons? According to a 2013 study, a quarter of all US internet traffic goes through Google’s privately owned servers; in 2011, that figure was just six percent. What about democracy, surely that must always be a commons? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated behind closed doors by the US and the EU, threatens to extend intellectual property rights and could clear away the national regulatory rights of individual EU countries, raising the prospect of the corporate imposition of genetically modified organisms and shale gas fracking. In return for this gift from our commons, TTIP promises the average household an increase in earnings of about fifty dollars per year by 2027. Not exactly win-win.

Silke Helfrich is so obsessed with commoning that she has, quite literally, written the book (well, co-edited it, at least). “The definition of the commons is a commons itself,” she says, slyly. “It is always developing. Commons are a process, another state of being.” As a process, Silke explains that it takes hard work to maintain the commons; they have to be made over and over again.

Michel Bauwens, the founder of the P2P Foundation, describes the commons as “any shared resource which is governed and owned by its community”. He also makes the distinction between material and immaterial commons; the distinction between common land and common language, for example, or between open hardware and open software. Michel sees a problem in that the material world is still governed by the old world, the corporations. “Capitalism destroyed the old commons,” he says, “and the socialist state was even worse!” While there are organisations working for the immaterial commons, like Mozilla and Wikimedia for the open software and knowledge commons, there are no organisations working for the material commons.

Silke Helfrich sees no such distinction between material and immaterial commons. “I’m convinced there are no immaterial commons that do not grow out of material,” she says. “Programmers need to eat.” She prefers to look at what these different commons have in common. “It’s about sharing resources that aren’t owned by any one person and never will be owned by any one person,” she says. Michel Bauwens responds by agreeing that, although the material and the immaterial are inseparable, the nature of the differing goods demand different rules. “The immaterial,” he says by way of example, “doesn’t mind freeloaders.” For Michel, this means that we have to create new forms of governance, new forms of ownership, “to create a seed from which something new can grow”.

Michel Bauwens is excited about the potential for commons production to help us move, as he says, “from anti-capitalism to post-capitalism construction”. He would like to combine open source knowledge and distributed machinery to create a new means of production that will not bear the hallmarks of capitalism, such as planned obsolescence. “If we add green – cradle to cradle design, shared resources – to the hacker mentality,” Michel says, “then we have a revolution.”

One obvious question suggests itself: If the commons are such a great idea, then why don’t we have more? What are the threats facing the commons?

“The value capture,” Michel answers, simply. “More and more people are creating commons, but the use value is created and the market value is captured almost exclusively by capital.” For Michel, this is a real problem in our society. “As a commoner,” he says, “I can’t make money from it unless I become labour for capital.”

This is an obvious contradiction and one that makes a commoning life currently unsustainable; under the economic conditions of today it is not possible to remake the new world in the shell of the old. For Michel Bauwens, we need to build commoning institutions and regulatory frameworks that allow us to make a living from our commoning work. This work, trying to move from theory to reality, is exactly what John Holloway meant when he talked about hopeability. Hope needs to find an echo in the world; there needs to be potential in the old world for the new, fertile ground for the seeds.

For Silke Helfrich, another threat to commoning comes from what she calls the “monoculture of thinking”, meaning classical economics, taught in universities and parroted in the media, which restricts what people are able to imagine as possible. For many years, classical economics has almost ignored the commons because it does not produce financial capital. A monoculture of thinking such as this returns us to the idea that change is not possible if you can imagine the end of humanity more easily than you can imagine the end of capitalism.

Talking of the end of humanity, Silke Helfrich raises a more serious threat to the commons: the ongoing depletion of natural resources. “At a global level we have little time,” she says. “Natural resources are becoming scarce.” And, without natural resources, there will be no material basis for the commons; without anything to share, there can be no commons. “This, in my opinion, is the bigger threat,” she says. “But I’m really enthusiastic about the opportunities.”

Silke Helfrich’s enthusiasm for the commons shines through in her optimism for the future. In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Silke was studying in Leipzig, East Germany. “We didn’t know in the summer what would happen in the autumn,” she says. “We didn’t know what the world would look like.” She sees a similar potential for radical, overnight transformation in the commons. “Technology means we can get the commons idea out into the world,” she says. “Big infrastructures and investment are not needed. We are in a transition where people are taking things into their own hands. We have to redefine what work means in terms of commons, what infrastructure means, what a unified state means.”

Michel Bauwens, however, sounds a warning note. “The only reason we have a welfare state is because we have a labour movement,” he says. “But that is weakened and can no longer defend the welfare state.” His solution you should be able to guess by now: “We need to change from labour to commons. We need to rethink politics around the commons.” Michel is hopeful, not for the labour parties, but for the new transformative political parties springing from the wreckage of European austerity: the various European Pirate Parties, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece.
“Everything is connected,” Silke Helfrich says, in conclusion. “The commons are older than every state in the world and they have a future,” she adds. “The commons are the basis of an emancipatory society.”

From Wikipedia and Mozilla to urban gardening and food cooperatives, we can help build this emancipatory society by joining our local commons movement. Let’s continue putting that hope into practice.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Question Time with John Holloway

This is the seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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During the course of the workshop, John Holloway invited interruptions, interventions and interrogations. Once called for, they came in an abundant torrent of curiosity and enthusiasm. Here are some of the questions and comments, with elements of John’s responses.

Who is “we”?

“We” is a question in the first place. I don’t know who “we” are. The fact that you’re here, and that some of you are nodding along, makes me think we are a “we” in the first place.

“We” is also an attack on the third person. To talk in the third person is to create a barrier. I don’t know how far that “we” goes; it is an open “we”. “We” is increasingly the way anti-capitalist movements are talking about themselves. It’s not a dogmatic “we”, in the sense that “we” all agree with “me”. It’s an open “we”.

I hear a clear antagonism in your talk, but in reality it is very unclear who is working against whom.

Lenin said the question of revolution is “who” against “whom”. I think that’s completely wrong; it’s “how” against “how”. Capitalism is a “how”, it’s a way of organising. We’re all involved in it. The world we want to create is a world that moves against capitalism – and we’re all involved in that as well. The “how” against “how” cuts straight through us. Some people benefit from the “how” of capitalism, but the issue is not “who” against “whom”. The issue is “how” against “how”.

Why should we think that after the end of this capitalism there will be something different?

Maybe we shouldn’t. I think there are millions of reasons for saying there is no hope, no way out of capitalism. There are millions of reasons to say we are stupid for being here this morning. But even if there’s only a tiny chance, then my humanity depends on my exploring that possibility.

Maybe now is the time to improve conditions within capitalism, not fight against it.

The question is how do we reconcile our dreams with the reproduction of capital? And that way danger lies. We can all do amazing things within the system, but at a certain point we have to raise a red flag and get rid of the system that is destroying us.

Can we give up? I don’t think we’re capable of giving up. Lots of things can be done within capitalism. Capitalism suffers from constant inadequacy; it has to become more aggressive to survive. Even with all the possibility of reform, we’ll still face constant attack. I think we have to say that, yes, we must work for reforms, but also we have to stop the aggression.

How do you deal with the daily hypocrisies of capitalism? For example, accepting that child labour is used to sew the cheapest clothes.

Become aware of it. I think we have to give up the notion of purity. There used to be this notion of revolutionary purity. We need to think in terms not of “who” against “whom”, but “how” against “how”. That antagonism cuts through us; we are all schizophrenic, in the sense of self-divided.

Capitalism needs our labour, but capitalism also needs us as consumers.

We can fight as consumers, but that’s passive. We have to take as our basis that we are creators, doers. Doers whose doings are perverted into the form of a labour which creates capital and creates value.

What will this new society look like? Exploitation will always exist; it’s impossible to have a society that will keep everyone happy.

We don’t know what it would be like. To devise a solution that goes ahead of the movement is hypothetical. At the moment we don’t even have the possibility. A post-capitalist society would be one where we come together in some way and take decisions about what it would be, to create a society that would be self-determining.

I don’t agree that there would always be exploitation; do you exploit your friends? Who is it that you want to exploit? I don’t see that we have this built-in decision to exploit other people.

For me, we would no longer have money. Now, money is the way in which we relate to one another. It is not the only way we relate; you don’t relate with me through money. You have different forms of relationships that push against money.

What is the role of the state?

The state is, for me, so inextricably bound into the reproduction of capital that it doesn’t make sense to attempt to use it for social change.

Institutions are not the answer either. I just don’t think they help very much. I am in an institution; I like it a lot. I’m also against the state, but I receive my salary from the state. We are all in contradictory circumstances, but does it help to think in institutional terms? I think not. If the institution where I work has an energy, it’s almost in spite of the institution.

The state itself is a contradictory place. Elevate is funded largely by the local state, but is an event where we can discuss exciting things like anti-statism.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Think Crisis, Think Hope

This is the sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Think Hope

“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of his metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”

It’s early Friday morning and John Holloway, Professor of Sociology at Puebla University, is sharing his ideas of hope and crisis. Two extra banks of chairs are pulled out, students perch on the floor, the balcony door is opened for ventilation, someone is sent to copy another thirty sets of workshop notes. The people of Elevate are eager for hope, it seems.

John begins by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Oacaxa 2006, Athens 2008, Cairo 2011, Istanbul 2012, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different.” This is a remarkable statement to make in a society where it seems that any form of protest is dismissed by government and media as “looters… criminals”, “the same game, the same trap, the same aim” and “wanton vandalism”. “These expressions of hope are expressed,” John explains, “not in the long term building up of the Party, but in these volcanic expressions of rage.”

But before you drop this book and rush out to smash some windows, you might want to ponder Greece.

Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism; at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.

“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? The question reminds me of Deanna Rodger and the channelling power of her teenage creative writing workshop. For John, the answer is the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage. Even this dignified rage, however, must find an echo within the world, as Ernst Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope. For us to have true hope, the world must at least be able to respond to our hope. Or, as John says, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”
“Across the world,” John says, “we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.”

I have felt this frustration myself, as one of millions of citizens who participated in the global anti-war demonstrations of 2003: no response, only the endless bombing of Iraq. And again in 2011, as one of millions of Occupiers around the world trying to find an alternative to the excesses of capitalism: no response, only a multi-trillion dollar bail out of the richest in society. This total lack of response to democratic protest is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all,” John asks, “how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: Can we even imagine the possibility of change in the world?

Hope explodes volcanically, but hope also ebbs – or is commodified and religionised. This ebbing of hope in the last twenty-five years, John calls The Great Disillusion. “The Soviet Union was horrible,” he says. “But it was, in spite of that, and paradoxically, a symbol of hope for many people.” Even if no one would want an alternative society like the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was at least proof that we could create something that was different. “Over the last years, there hasn’t been a reduction in anger, but there’s been a shrinking of horizons,” John says. “People no longer think of how to get rid of capitalism and this narrows our mind.”

John’s generation, anti-capitalist hippies in the sixties, over the course of the Reagan and Thatcher eras, became disillusioned with the possibility that capitalism could be opposed. This culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall and “the end of history”. Their view, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, has become: “Capitalism is the worst form of economy except for all those others that have been tried.” This disillusion was passed on as blind acceptance to their children. For their children, the question of questioning capitalism was never considered until the 2008 economic crisis and, more specifically, until the Occupy movement brought the idea that “capitalism is crisis” to the mainstream.

For most, however, the question is once again creeping away under the every day threat of austerity and poverty.

Chart of Inequality

Hope and Historicity

This generational difference hints at the basic Marxist point that capitalism is a historically specific form of organisation. “Marxists believed that we were able to go beyond capitalism and have a happy ending,” John says. “I think we can no longer believe that.” Instead, John follows German philosopher Walter Benjamin in characterising history as an express train rushing us towards our doom: “We are locked inside and we don’t know how to get out.”

But capitalism has only been around for a few centuries. “There is no reason to assume that capitalism will go on forever,” John says. “And yet, it is easier to think of the end of humanity than the end of capitalism.” With the newspapers full of runaway climate change, the Mayan apocalypse and nuclear holocaust, people talk a lot about the end of humanity. What they don’t do is talk about the end of capitalism.

Unlike the Marxists, John believes that the hope of a happy ending is not inevitable, but only possible. “To think hope is to feel the push of the world that is not yet,” John says, before adding, “this is Bloch or my Bloch.” Ernst Bloch wrote that hope depends upon the push of the world that does not yet exist. John’s been doing some hopeability research while here in Austria. “In the last ten years in Graz,” he says, “there are five social centres that did not exist before, there are the urban gardening projects – these are the pushes of a world that is struggling to be born.”

But, despite these nascent struggles and despite the fact that capitalism is proving itself over and over to be a disaster, we continue to lose the battles for hopeability. We get no response from government, or from the media or from broader society and, as John says, “we think of ourselves as the eternal losers, morally justified – perhaps there’s no way out”.

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Think Crisis

Marx was in exactly the same situation, in a world of struggle. What Marx wanted to ask was how to go beyond hope and ground that hope in reality. “If we can only see that the system is weak or mortally wounded, then that will help us think how we can go beyond it,” John says. “What we want to find is some sort of fragility in the system that we can latch on to and think: We are not the losers in all this.”

John argues that crisis is a category of hope: only through crisis can we find a new way of doing things. The crisis of Fukushima led to the end of nuclear power in Germany, something that had been fought for by activists for decades. The economic crisis in Iceland resulted in a popular assembly to re-write the constitution. But, at first blush, the crisis of capitalism doesn’t seem very hopeful. Austerity disproportionately hurts the poorest in society, we are not “all in it together” and our protests are violently put down.

If we are the ones who suffer from crisis, then perhaps there is no way out, no way of turning crisis into hopeability.

But John has found a way out. “Capitalism is a system of domination and we refuse that,” he says. “Therefore we are the crisis of capitalism.” Our suffering is only apparent if we externalise the crisis. We must instead internalise the crisis and embrace the fact that, by being human and wanting to be free of this system of domination, we are throwing the spanner in the works. “Once we say that the banks caused the crisis, we’ve lost,” John says. “No: we are the crisis of capitalism, that is our pride.”

Huh? I don’t feel much like a crisis, John. But that’s just my perspective. John has other ideas.

I don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to a productive day of creating value as part of a capitalist economy; I wake up in the morning and start working on this book. But, according to John, I’m deluding myself; there is another way to look at my day’s work. “We create capital,” he says, “But because of the thingification of social relations, we don’t recognise that is what we’re doing.” Even this book creates capital value for someone out there, if only the printing and recycling companies.

As John says, the fact that we are the ones creating capital, “has to be understood as capital’s weakness”. All systems of dominance suffer from the dependence of the rulers upon the activity of the ruled, and capitalism is no different. If we can find a way to refuse capitalism, then we do become the crisis.

Furthermore, this dependence of capitalism on our labour is only sustainable through constantly renewed aggression. Constantly renewed aggression, however, will inevitably only provoke more of us into becoming the embodiment of crisis: strikes, protests, riots, occupations, refusals. “The class struggle,” John jokes, “is the struggle of the alarm clock – get up out of bed and create some value!”

I suppose the question now is why shouldn’t we just surrender to the aggression and the dictates of capitalism? After all, isn’t it the “worst form of economy, except for all those others that have been tried”?

The critical problem with capitalism is that, as John says, it is driven by its own inadequacy. A profit is never enough; capitalism demands greater and greater profits, as measured in economic growth. This demand drives a process of what John calls “totalisation”, the integration of all human activity into the pursuit of profit. Driven by its own inbuilt sense of inadequacy, capitalism will not rest until all human life and all planetary resources are funnelled through its profit motive. And then it still won’t be happy. The more capitalism dominates, the more capitalism must dominate. This is a basic factor of the way capitalism measures itself: in growth. Capitalism never says “that’s enough now”; economic growth of 0%, where things stay the same, is a disaster for capitalism. The aim of capitalism is growth on growth, year on year; the more capitalism dominates, the more it must dominate. And that economic growth represents another portion of the world funnelled into the totality of capitalism and swallowed up.

Debt is another expression of the incapacity of capitalism and the inadequacy of its domination. “We don’t generate enough surplus value for the system,” John explains, “so we create it in the hope that tomorrow we will.” The vertiginous rise of what economists call “consumer debt” in the last two decades is little more than a bribe or a white lie to cover the broken promise of capital growth. Most people simply don’t benefit from capitalism, but it can’t be seen to be that way, so we give them interest-free credit cards and zero deposit mortgages. “Debt expansion is the basis of an increasingly fictitious world,” John says. “This world is volatile, aggressive, fragile, random.” Debt is one of capital’s tools of totalisation, sucking more and more people down the funnel. If capitalism was a success on its own terms, then why do we have government stimulus packages, bank bailouts and subsidies for the automobile industry?

“We are pushing against the process of totalisation,” John says. “In universities, students don’t just want to learn; they want to think. Farmers don’t just want to use pesticides; they want a good relationship with their animals.” Revolution, therefore, can be seen as a process of “de-totalisation”, a movement against the centralising aggression of capital. To borrow a line from the Zapatistas: How can we create a world where many worlds fit?
Not without a fight is the answer. Remember the example of Greece? If you don’t do what capitalism wants, then be prepared for a fight. “The chronic inadequacy of domination,” John says, “pushes capital into fiercer, more violent measures to control human activity.” This aggression will naturally provoke a defensive reaction in us, the victims. “This defence is usually conservative defence,” John explains. “We want to go on living the way we were living before, even if we weren’t enjoying it much.” But this conservative defence can overflow into something else: the Zapatista movement grew out of a conservative defence against the Mexican government selling off communal land, for example. Now, the Zapatistas self-govern their entire region, almost independent from the government.

“The growing aggression of capital is something that that will go on for a long time,” John warns, “but capital is unable to subordinate us sufficiently; most people at some point will say no.” Indeed, John argues that capitalism, at some level, is antithetical to our very humanity. Capitalism’s drive of inadequacy bleeds into our every day lives as an insidious neuroticism, a feeling that we ourselves are inadequate: We are not beautiful enough, we are not intelligent enough, we are not working hard enough, we are not rich enough, we are not happy enough, we are not enough.

That might sound like reductive pop psychology, but one recent study among many has shown that an intervention as tiny as using the word “consumer” to describe ourselves instead of “citizen” is enough to make us more selfish, more miserable and less concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the state of our planet. As the authors of the study say, “the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism – cues that are commonplace in contemporary society”.

In other words, if such a small change to our discourse can have such a large impact on our well-being and our politics, then what kind of an effect will living completely submerged in the logic of capitalism have? What kind of effect is the impossible aspirational logic of advertising having on our natural altruism? What kind of effect is the acquisitive logic of consumerism having on our treatment of the planet’s resources? What kind of effect is the transactional logic of money having on our human relationships?

But the very toxicity of capitalism to humanity is a cause for optimism for John. “Our desire for love is the obstacle for capitalism,” he says. “We are the crisis of capitalism and that is the basis for hope.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Mimu: Instant Choir

This is the fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Mimu is late, bounding on stage, puffing, out of breath from running up the mountain into the Dom Im Berg cave. “There are many musicians,” she says, once she’s caught her breath, “that are actually preparing their instruments so they can work with every sound quality that that device is able to give. And I was thinking: but no one plays the audience.” She smiles. “This is such an unused resource and I really want to see what is possible.”

So she gets us to take out our mobile phones and exchange phone numbers with the person next to us. There’s a buzz of chatter and a clattering of bottles as feet shuffle. “Please exchange phone numbers really quickly,” Mimu says, “so we can proceed to the actual happening.”

The actual happening involves calling the person next to us, switching our phones to loudspeaker and experimenting with what Mimu calls “something like a really, really easy ping-pong delay with your phones”. The closer the two calling phones are to each other, the more apparent feedback loop. “And also,” she adds, “if that is working, you can add some sound like bah, oh, ah and you will see that it is going to be looped.”

“So please call each other now, switch on loud and enjoy the silence.” Something remarkable begins to happen. The cave is filled with digital crickets, or perhaps bats, chirping and kurking. Mimu holds the microphone to the front row phones. Monkeys join the crickets and wooahs loop around the walls of the cave.

“This is just a small example of an everyday hack,” Mimu shouts over the monkeys. “Just an example of how you can misuse, playfully, technology that surrounds you.” She laughs as the crickets continue their chirping unabated. “I used to call it the instant choir: human resources as an instrument.”

Dr Vandana Shiva: We Need to Elevate

This is the fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dr Vandana Shiva fills the screen, a fifteen foot pixilated message from India. Vandana was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel prize”, in 1993 for her work on the social and environmental costs of development, particularly the violence of India’s Green Revolution.

“We are facing multiple crises,” Vandana Shiva says with a slight smile, “crises of planetary dimensions.” We face a climate crisis. Over five hundred people were killed and over eighty thousand evacuated from their homes in Kashmir during September’s disastrous floods, making it impossible to argue when Vandana says that “climate change is not about the future; it is happening today”.

We also face an economic crisis, which has brought about a widening divide between rich and poor. Perhaps more significantly, however, this crisis is the crisis of a system. This modern capitalist economy has left half the population of the world redundant. Echoing John Holloway’s earlier remarks, Vandana says that, in this economy, “there is no place for small farmers, no place for future generations”. She describes it as “a world of corporations and oligarchs, extracting the last bit of profits from the earth”.

Finally, we face a political crisis and the erosion of democracy. “What we now have,” Vandana Shiva says, “is not a public state, working for democracy in terms of of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a corporate state, working for the interest of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”

For Vandana, these crises arise from a particular way of thinking about the world: the scientific capitalist paradigm that describes the universe as solely mechanistic. This viewpoint encourages division and separation between ourselves and the resources of the planet. “The reality of our lives,” she says, “is that there is an earth that gives us everything and we are co-creators and co-producers with the earth, to produce our food, to harness the water, to make sure all our human needs are met.” Gandhi’s words are never more appropriate than today: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for some people’s greed.”

Vandana Shiva states her anti-capitalist thesis explicitly: “The economic model that turns nature into land and a commodity, people into labour and a commodity, and capital as the creator of value, is at the root of both the exploitation of nature as well as injustice.” She goes further. “Capitalism is a system that was wrong to start with,” she says. “It has been held in place for a few centuries by shifting every policy to make the false assumptions of capitalism work for a while.”

There is much evidence to support this view. Were it not for agricultural subsidies, the industrial-scale farming of capitalism wouldn’t be able to survive. “That is why half of Europe’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy,” Vandana explains. By 2011, the US alone had lent, spent or guaranteed twenty-nine trillion dollars to keep capitalism alive after the economic crisis of 2008. Vandana describes the current negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) as “another artificial measure to keep a dead system afloat”.

In its most terrifying garb, TTIP will hand corporations the power to sue governments for “loss of profits”. This could ensure that our common goods, such as the National Health Service, our genetically modified organism-free fields and the data we’d like to keep private on the internet, are open to commercial exploitation.

If you think that this sounds like a lot of balony, then consider the fact that these kind of bizarre legal agreements are already in place. One Swedish energy firm is currently suing the German government for billions of dollars of “lost profits”. Why? Because, having seen what happened in Japan when the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded, the German government took what would appear to be a perfectly reasonable public health decision to stop using nuclear power. The final cost to the German tax-payer of this ghoulish pursuit of profit will not be settled democratically either: the matter will be decided through an arbitration tribunal, as if the needs and desires of profiteers and of the people bore equal weight. TTIP threatens to give unelected corporations the power to force policy on elected governments, and you can be sure, as Vandana Shiva says, that corporations “will make decisions for themselves, to keep raping the earth and to keep ripping off from society”.

All of these examples of policy manipulation are described by Vandana as “life support systems for a dying order”.

The insecurities caused by the failures of capitalism create social polarisation. “Insecurity deepens divides,” Vandana says, “so we have the rise of politics of exclusion.” This politics of exclusion leads to a rise in fundamentalism, pitting people against each other on the grounds of religion, sect and ethnicity. “Diversity has been turned into a major problem,” Vandana says, before turning the whole argument on its head. “But diversity is the solution for the future.”

Vandana Shiva believes that the crises of capitalism also represent an opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that puts humanity to work, not in the service of exploiting the earth, but in healing her, by saving seeds, planting trees and rejuvenating water resources. “It’s limitless how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Regenerating the earth needs our hands and our hearts and our minds.”

Who will lead this regeneration? “Every worker fighting for justice. Every unemployed youth demanding a place in the scheme of things. Every small farmer telling the world that it is small farms who feed the world.” The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s food production comes from the work of small farms, rather than from industrial production. Vandana Shiva singles out women for special responsibility. “Women,” she explains, “through having looked after the economy of care and the economy of sharing and an economy of responsibility, can shift to make the entire economy based on these principles of caring and sharing, not exploitation and destruction.” These shall be the leaders of our regeneration, but, as Vandana says, “there is no person who is irrelevant to the transition we must make if we have to survive”.

“The message I have for you at Elevate,” Vandana Shiva says, “is what your festival is about: We need to elevate. We need to elevate our knowledge. We need to elevate our consciousness. Let us elevate our energies, let us elevate our solidarity, let us elevate our imagination.” She raises an eloquent hand and a smile burbles about her lips. “There is nothing beyond our dreams and there is nothing to prevent our dreams from being turned into reality if we are committed.” Her voice takes on a playful warning tone. “In any case, there is nothing to lose but our extinction.”

She leaves us with a beatific smile.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Patrick Wurzwallner: Head Cleaner

This is the third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Patrick Wurzwallner, hair scraped into the blonde ponytail that appears to be the distinctive tribal mark of an Austrian artist, settles himself at the drums. After the intensity of John Holloway’s opening speech, Patrick promises us a “head cleaner”, a short solo percussion piece. “At the end,” he says, “I would like to invite you to sigh, as relief.”

Silence settles as he adjusts his seat, his sticks. Then, with a slight intake of breath, he raps a singular totemic beat, managing the reverberations with his left hand.

Head slightly shaking from side to side, the bass kick steadily joins. Louder. His left hand doubles the rhythm, pulsing. Then the hands split off in two directions, spiralling frequencies faster and faster.

Rapid blurring climax, both hands in concert again. Now on the one drum, slight, coming close together. Slower. Until just a pulse on the kick drum, like letters on an old typewriter.

One foot keeps up the beat while Patrick prepares pans on the drums skins. Thin tinny clang-tings. A quick one-two on the snare, right arm in the air – and a collective sigh of release.

John Holloway: Opening Speech

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the second such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, John Holloway’s Opening Speech. Enjoy.

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“My opening speech has a title. The title is: Opening Speech.” John Holloway laughs with our laughter, stepping away from the Elevate podium and swiping at the air in front of him, as if he’d just thrown a frisbee. But the title is no whimsy.

Nor is his decision to speak in German. “Mainly it’s a protest against Englishification,” he explains. “Not from a nationalistic point of view, but because of the social narrowness that is brought along with this Englishification.” John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico, so is well aware of the effects of a cultural hegemony.

Balancing the levity of the laughter, John Holloway justifies his carefully-chosen title. “A speech that opens is just what we need in this world, a world that is closing.” By that, he means a world where alternatives are being closed off and all of human activity is being funnelled through a shoot marked Capitalism.

I’m sure that John Holloway’s choice of imagery – opening and closing – is not coincidental. The British legal process of removing land from common use and passing it into private ownership is called enclosure. A better example of what John means by “a world that is closing” could not be found. Once land is privately owned, the alternative option of subsistence farming is impossible and growing food suddenly becomes a matter of access to capital, rather than skill or knowledge of farming.

John Holloway peers hopefully out at his three hundred friends in the Dom Im Berg audience, out at his unknown audiences on Austrian national television, on the internet livestream and in smartphones hashtagging on international social networks. “Maybe this is the speech that opens the festival that opens the world,” he suggests.
For John, the cause of the closure is clear. “A certain logic is being imposed on all aspects of life,” he says. “The logic of money, the logic of profit, the logic of closure.”

“In the countryside, this logic tells us that you can’t expect to live as your parents did, growing only the food that you need to survive,” John says. If you’re thinking that the last time your ancestors grew the food they needed to survive was the Middle Ages, then bear in mind that there are over 100,000 subsistence-level farms in the UK and it is estimated that 40% of the world’s population are small farmers, most of whom cultivate less than five acres (two hectares) of land.

But this new logic of closure means that, according to John Holloway, “to survive, you must farm mass production, or you must make way for motorways, for dams, for mines”. He smiles, wryly. “Or, even better, why don’t you just disappear altogether?” A third of the urban population in the developing world now live in slums, thanks to rapid urbanisation and migration from the countryside. This is in part due to the closure of traditional subsistence farming as an alternative to capitalist industrial-scale agriculture.

Many people would argue that industrial-scale agriculture is a necessary consequence of the massive growth in the world’s population in the last fifty years. This argument flies in the face of statistics that, while an estimated 70% of the world’s food production comes from small farmers, the overwhelming bulk of government subsidies and research funding goes to supporting conventional industrial agriculture. Indeed, Professor Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, argues that small farmers are the only people who can feed the world, rather than just the wealthy nations. But, regardless of the validity of the increased population argument, it does not follow that dispossessed small farmers must live in poverty. That is a consequence of the logic of money.

“In the cities, the logic of money tells us that you can’t do what you want with your life,” John Holloway says. “You must earn a living and that means you must do something that increases profits; that increases the power of the wealthy.” This is the nature of capitalism; without redistribution, profits will aggregate in the hands of the owners of businesses. “And this is what is happening,” John continues, “an obscene concentration of wealth across the world; a huge growth in the power of the wealthy, in the power of money.”

The richest 1% in Europe own a quarter of the continent’s total wealth, and that figure has been rising steadily since the 1980s. In the US, the richest 1% own a third of the total wealth of the country, rising to levels of inequality not seen since the 1930s. As economic researcher David DeGraw says of the situation in the US, “It’s got to the point where 0.5% of the 1%’s wealth could eliminate poverty nationwide in this country.”

But back to John Holloway. “If you do not want to follow the rule of money,” he says, “if you want to do something else with your life, you are either mad or a criminal and should certainly be locked up.” Hand-in-hand with the rise of inequality in the US since the 1970s has been an astronomic rise in imprisonment of the general population, from less than half a million in 1970, to well over two million people today.

“The dynamics of money,” John continues, “are shattering the hopes and dreams of youth; dreams that are broken on the reality of unemployment – or, often worse, the reality of employment!” The laughter this time is not so warm; it bites with a harsh edge. I wonder how many people listening are living with the reality that the market logic of money demands unemployment. Full employment – by which I mean enabling the talents of all men and women on the planet – to capitalism means inefficiency.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the logic of money and employment are separable. Every living being yearns to pursue meaningful work, and most of us do, whether we are following the logic of money or not: the mother or father raising their kids at home, unpaid; the volunteer nurse travelling to West Africa to care for Ebola patients, unpaid; the sports fanatic updating within seconds the World Cup Final Wikipedia page, unpaid.

“It is not just that we live in a world of closure,” John Holloway warns, “but the enclosure is getting tighter all the time. Money cannot stand still. The rule of capital is faster, faster, faster.” The success of capitalism is predicated on year-on-year growth, which means that we must find ever more ways to exploit capital resources, whether that means fossil fuels or workers.

“This rule means out of the way to the people who are too slow,” John says. “Out of the way with the people who are holding things up; out of the way with the people who don’t speak English; out of the way with the protesters, into the prisons, into the mass graves. Out of the way with the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico who disappeared a month ago.” The students were arrested by police after a protest, handed over to the Mafia, shot dead and their bodies set on fire.

John Holloway pivots his speech to optimism, inspired by the words of Ernst Bloch, author of The Principle of Hope, a book written in exile from the despair of Nazi Germany. John argues, like Bloch, that our future depends on hope – not on a silly, blind hope that things will just “turn out right” – but a hope founded and grounded in practice.

In Bloch’s day, hope was still bound up with the idea of the Party and winning control of the state for the workers. “But now the Party is over,” John says, waving encouragement to the flickers of laughter for his pun. “After the depression, this is what I needed!” He laughs, before delivering more depression. “Hope lies not in building a party and not in winning control of the state, because the state is an institution integrated into capitalism and cannot be used to overcome it.”

But if we don’t have Bloch’s state-building hope, then what hope do we have? John essays an answer. “Hope,” he says, “lies now in the millions and millions of us who say: No, we will not accept your destruction of the world, your guns and your wars. We will not accept the rule of the rich, the rule of money. Not any longer.”

John Holloway’s hope is not only rejection, but a rebuilding of an alternative to capitalism’s corruption of the state. “We shall do things in a different way and connect to one another in a different way,” John says. “We do not want your totality of death and we do not want any totality,” he adds, referring to the failed Communism of the USSR. “We saw in the last century what happens when one totality is replaced by another and now we say no.”

John Holloway’s alternative is alternatives, plural. “We break away from the totality of capital death in a million different ways,” he says. He urges us to rebuild the commons, to reverse the enclosures that have already occurred in our societies and to fight to prevent future enclosures. We will have to fight on almost every field: for our land rights, for our water supply, for the environment that we share with other forms of life. “We fight to open a gap between the future of capitalism, which can only be death,” John says, “and the future of humanity, which can still be life.” He takes a breath. Then adds, “If it is not too late already.”

“Ernst Bloch pinned hope to the power of the not yet,” John explains, “the power of that world that does not yet exist and therefore exists not yet; in our refusals, in our dreams, in our pushing against capitalism. We have to learn to listen to the leaders of this world that does not yet exist and sing their songs with our full voices.” He quotes Arundhati Roy, one of those leaders: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Three hundred people hold their breath and listen.

Out of the respectful silence, John Holloway closes his opening speech. “Thus, in my opening speech,” he says, “I want to open this world. My wish for the festival is that it will be an Opening Festival, that it sings the songs of the world that has not been born yet, that it sings these songs as loudly and as beautifully as possible.”
The rising of this opening audience to this opening speech for this festival of opening gives me a sniff of optimism that Elevate 2014 will jam a rubber sole against the slamming doors and prise a common crowbar into the cracks of capitalism.

Let’s make it happen.

Deanna Rodger: Read My Lips

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the first such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, Deanna Rodger’s poem Read My Lips. Enjoy.

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Deanna Rodger’s steel-capped poem, Read My Lips, kicks down the door to the tenth edition of the Elevate Festival. The poem embodies the elemental forces of Elevate, its gravity and its magnetism; the creative-response to not being heard.

Sometimes – by which I mean often times – it can feel like we are not just being overlooked or ignored, we aren’t even being heard over the sound of seven billion people upgrading phones, paying treadmill rent or pawning for a payday loan. Not being heard is about the most frustrating emotion a human can feel. It’s the emotion that spawns violence, anger and hate.

“As a teenager, I was really pent up,” Deanna Rodger tells us. “I had a lot of anger living inside of me and I didn’t have the means to let it through.” But we don’t have to respond to not being heard with unfocussed anger; we can use that anger to respond creatively.

Luckily, teenage Deanna Rodger ended up at a creative writing workshop, a reluctant tag-along for her best mate. “I didn’t really want to do it,” she says, “but then they said, Write about fire, and I thought, Ooh, I can definitely write about fire! I know what it feels like in my belly, I know what it feels like in my heart, I know what it feels like in my brain.” She has been writing and performing, burning anger into poetic fire, ever since.

The solitude, space and silence of, not school, not work, but creative writing is what gave Deanna Rodger her voice. “Not having to worry about my spelling or my punctuation or even it rhyming,” she says, gave her “that freedom to write whatever was in my head and then mould it into exactly what I wanted to say.” Writing allowed Deanna Rodger to respond creatively to the anger she was feeling, reclaiming it as something useful and empowering. And we hear her in a way that we wouldn’t if she’d stayed stuck at the angry stage, with empathy, love and solidarity.

The Elevate Festival gives voice to people, projects and ideas that are not being heard, or not being heard loudly enough. For four days in October, people from all over the world come together in Graz to hear each other and to relay, amplify and broadcast each other.

Elevate is, like Deanna Rodger’s writing, a creative-response to not being heard. But it is also a demand that we shall be heard.

Creative-Response, Urban Exploration and Twitter

I am being edged out of participation in a society that communicates in the language of technology. In a couple of years, I predict that I won’t be an owner of a mobile phone. Already I am receiving messages from unknown friends that my non-smartphone cannot read because they (presumably) contain HTML, a language my phone doesn’t speak. Over the next couple of years, more and more communication will happen in languages that my phone cannot interpret, as more and more people start using smartphones and start to forget that there could ever be an alternative. Well over a billion smartphones have been sold in 2014 alone and, already by 2013, more than half of all American adults owned a smartphone, with over a million Google Android devices being activated every day.

In the next couple of years, my phone will become next to useless and I will become one of those people who are whispered about at parties – He doesn’t even have a phone.

Already I miss out on a vast amount of communication that happens over proprietary systems, driven by the smartphone technology boom. The average smartphone user checks his or her phone a hundred and fifty times every day, using an average of forty-one mobile apps. I don’t blame users for this, but it drives us all into the hands of the closed communication systems that are promoted on these devices.

SMS and email are open systems. In other words, anyone can send anyone else an SMS or an email; it doesn’t matter who provides them with the service. But not just anyone can communicate through Twitter, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, Instagram or any of the other communication tools that are supposedly at our service.

None of these “tools” is like a phone book. A phone book is a collection of telephone numbers attached to names that anyone can use to contact anyone else. How quaint. If you weren’t in the phone book, however, that didn’t mean that no one could contact you and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t contact anyone else; it just meant that your number was private. Facebook, to take the most popular example, is not like this. In order to contact someone on Facebook, you have to register with Facebook. Likewise, in order for someone on Facebook to contact you, you have to be registered with Facebook. It is a predatory system; it feeds off its membership; the more time you spend on Facebook, the more sustenance you give that mode of communication.

With well over one billion users, choosing not to be on Facebook is, to a certain degree, choosing not to participate in communication with those people. Facebook has around 1.35 billion active users. WhatsApp: 600 million; Instagram: 300 million; Twitter: 284 million; Viber: 209 million. Likewise, choosing not to have a smartphone is increasingly choosing not to be able to communicate with your friends. You can’t even use WhatsApp or Viber without a smartphone. I still have no idea who is sending me those unreadable messages.

As Shoshana Zuboff says, this is an illegitimate choice, it really is. Systems that used to be open and free are being fenced off and monetised. Email is open and free; Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are not. If you use Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, you can never communicate with me without contributing to the business model of these closed systems. There is a further risk, with the current threat to network neutrality, that a “First Class” internet will be established, excluding those like me who opt out.

What’s the problem with social media?

I concede that I’m probably in a minority who feel disgusted that Facebook are profiting from my communication with my friends; that they are mining my communications for data in order to more effectively sell products to me, my friends and family. British Telecom might have profited from my telephone calls to my friends back in the nineties, but my calls weren’t bugged, screened and fed back to me in the form of personalised advertising.

I think it’s important at this point to distinguish between the traditional way that advertising paid for “free” services and the way that companies like Google are able to provide “free” services. Cable television, for example, uses the traditional model: adverts are beamed in a fairly scatter-gun fashion at just about anyone who hasn’t bothered to switch over or get up to make a cup of tea. The advert hopes to influence your purchasing choices maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of weeks when you go shopping. Google, however, extracts data from you and can use that data to influence your purchasing choices directly, right now. There is a big difference.

But perhaps you feel like exchanging your data for “free” communication is a good deal. I accept that this is a price that many people are willing to pay for a “free” service. Fine, but there’s a lot more to my objection.

By using Twitter, I would not only be contributing to a business model that I fervently disagree with, I would also be shutting down options for other people. I would be adding my voice to communication that happens in exclusive, fenced off, proprietary and predatory spaces; rather than in inclusive, open and free spaces. That closed space keeps some voices out. The thought disgusts me. I don’t want to be a part of that clique.

But perhaps you feel like Twitter gives voice to more people than it excludes; certainly a lot more than are excluded by illiteracy or a military dictatorship2. Good point, but there is still more to my objection.

Twitter, it is worth pointing out, is not a democratic organisation. It is a business and will operate to extract the maximum wealth from us. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, WhatsApp, all likewise. There is no democratic oversight for these businesses, aside from government regulation. Unfortunately, these technology businesses have significant advantages over government regulatory bodies, namely much greater financial, computational and intellectual resources. More sinisterly, they are fulfilling a surveillance role for our more secretive governmental bodies that will always mean that regulatory bodies are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. But what, you might ask, is wrong with this hobbled regulation?

Well, as Shoshana demonstrated, perhaps the greatest consequence of the rise of these exclusive, fenced off, predatory, proprietary technology companies is the threat of the total erosion of democracy. As Shoshana explained, Google has pioneered a new economic logic: the company needs us as neither employees nor customers. If Shoshana is correct and democracy did indeed grow from the need for capital to employ labour, then what will become of democracy if the world is filled with companies like Google, vastly profitable, with a minuscule workforce? Google is the oligarchy of the internet age. Their only oversight is their “corporate mantra”: Don’t be evil4. Their clemency is extended on a whim. With annual profits of twelve billion dollars, a highly educated workforce with development interests including artificial intelligence and drone technology and a user base of one billion people, great evil is certainly within their power.

Beneath this threat lies the real problem: Google, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the rest make good products. That is the real problem, as Micah Lee identified. Because these products are so good, we are choosing this closed future for ourselves without really thinking through the undemocratic consequences of what Shoshana calls “surveillance capitalism”. And, as more and more people choose this future, it becomes harder and harder for people like me to choose any alternative. We either go along with the masses or we refuse to participate in mass society. Can you see the dangers inherent in these “choices” now? Sorry to employ the meretricious appeal to fascism, but the Germans chose Hitler.

Those without smartphones or a Facebook account already feel like an excluded underclass. Without a revolution in communication, it will only get worse.

How can we operate in this closing world?

Bradley Garrett is famous for taking a scenic photograph from the top of the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, recently erected on London’s riverside with buckets of Qatari money. The shot is famous primarily because the Shard wasn’t quite finished yet, it certainly wasn’t open to the general public and he was seventy-six stories up in the midnight air, peering over a ledge.

For obvious reasons, that photograph, and hundreds of others taken in equally adrenalin-pumping circumstances, became exceedingly popular on social media. I believe the term is “viral”. Popularity on social media led to a surge of interest from the mainstream media and suddenly Bradley’s night sport (and PhD research subject) of “urban exploring” was blown into the limelight. What Bradley was doing was not only borderline illegal, but it was also a great insult to the powers that would try to control our movements in the city. Bradley challenged the physical closed space in a spectacular, creative fashion that brought awareness of the enclosure to people who would otherwise have just gone on about their day. Creative-response.

I’m sharing this story because Bradley’s experiences with academia, social media and mainstream media can teach us something about how to get our message heard and change people’s perceptions of their world; precisely what we try to do at Elevate. “The only way to forge broader coalitions and get people talking about the politics of closed space and the control of narratives over our histories,” Bradley writes, “is to use the same techno-cultural media circuitry that is constantly entangling and distracting everyone.”

In other words: Never mind the threat to democracy, get a Twitter account.

Bradley, however, has one major caveat. “The danger here,” he says, “is that if you try to change the system from the inside, often what becomes changed is you.” Participating in a social media that encourages constant changing fashions, that advertises luxury goods, exotic holidays and foreign brides, will have a detrimental effect on your health and happiness.

Interestingly, given the dubious legality of his activities, Bradley is more afraid of the media than of the police. “While the authorities have largely failed to stop us,” he says, “the media is still working diligently to de-tooth urban exploration by buying us out.” Appropriately enough for a man used to evading the British Transport Police while running the Underground, Bradley has an escape route for the media as well. “Now that we have used their channels to broadcast our messages,” he explains, “it’s important that we slip the net and re-form as something equally inspiring and hard to pin down, and then reform again from another angle.”

Those words capture the essence of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s creative-response and his exhortation to be “flexible and fluid”. They could also be the beginnings of a battle strategy for using social media in the spirit of revolution.

1. Be hard to pin down. Do not give the social media corporations your life and livelihood; use an alias if you wish, lie to them.

2. Be inspiring. It is the message you communicate to us that is important, not the accumulation of surveillance data on social media servers. Use and abuse them to broadcast your message, not theirs. But you must make that message inspiring. It must be creative-response; it must speak with passion and with compassion. If it does not, then leave Twitter and keep working until you have something to say.

3. When your broadcast is over, burn your accounts without nostalgia or mercy. Be a citizen, not a “consumer”.

And, for pity’s sake, save your brainspace and use an ad-blocker.


The ideas contained herein are taken from my work with the Elevate Festival. The book of the festival is available now in paperback from lulu.com. It’ll be arriving before Christmas for download…

Me interviewed by Documentally

Last week at Elevate, I had the honour of being interviewed by Christian Payne, AKA Documentally. In the interview, we talk about the Alphasmart Neo, why I started writing, travel, Calais and the superiority of an analogue book.

I can also recommend his many other interviews at Elevate, with luminaries such as Antonino D’Ambrosio and Elf Pavlik. I’m honoured to be in such company!

Shoshana Zuboff: Reality is the Next Big Thing

I’ve been blogging from the Elevate Festival in Austria this week. Here’s a little something from yesterday…

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. This post is a summary of her initial statement, which kicked off Saturday afternoon’s panel ‘Reality is the Next Big Thing’. Continue reading Shoshana Zuboff: Reality is the Next Big Thing

Think Hope, Think Crisis

“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Puebla, Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of the metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”

John was in Forum Stadtpark early on Saturday morning, sharing with a packed room his ideas about hope and crisis. I only have time here to share a tiny proportion of what he said, but the ideas fell like the Autumn rain outside.

John started by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Athens 2008, Oacaxa 2006, Istanbul 2012, Cairo 2011, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different. These expressions of hope are expressed, not in the long term building up of the Party, but in these volcanic expressions of rage.”

But there is a warning in the wind: Greece.

Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism, but at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.

“Greece is a clash of hope on the one hand and the reality of crisis on the other,” John says. “Crisis hits struggle on the head and knocks it down. And, if that is the case, how on earth do we think about revolution? How on earth do we think about hope? How on earth do we think about radical change?”

“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? For John, the answer comes from the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage.

John returns to the inspiration for his opening speech: Ernst Bloch and his book ‘The Principle of Hope’. Bloch says that our subjective hope has to find an echo within the world itself. In other words, the world has to respond to our hope – or, in John’s words, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”

“Across the world, we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.” For example, the millions-strong global anti-war demonstrations in 2003 drew zero response from governments, who went ahead with the invasion of Iraq. This is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all, how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: How do we think about the possibility of change in the world?

During the rest of the workshop, John went on to discuss hope and historicity, crisis, debt and commonising – but your humble writer has not the space to share more! You’ll have to find John himself or wait for the Elevate 2014 book, where I’ll be able to explore John’s ideas in much more depth.

What the Woop Woop is Creative Response?

Antonino d’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. Then, all at once, Antonino discovered the mysteries of punk, rap, graffiti and the skateboard. And, as he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his sidewalks into skateparks, he realised that another world was possible.

These art forms, which grew up in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, Antonino calls “creative response”.

The rest of this evening’s panel contributed their ideas of what creative response means to them as artists. For Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, “creative response is everything I do. It’s why I’m sitting here, why I don’t give up.”

Ksenia Ermoshina’s creative musical response is with experimental noise. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for everyone who is marginal – for us, here,” she says with gathering excitement. “We are kind of noise for global corporations. Let’s be noisy, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture.” On cue, the crowd breaks into applause, laughter, whooping.

“Creative response is saying aloud the things that are on your mind,” says Deanne Rodger, a British spoken word artist. “The things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, make me feel small, marginalised. Creative response is an exploration of the self.”

For Austrian electronic musician IZC, creative response is not so simple. “For me, my music is not always a conscious direct response to something I read or saw – but it’s in there. It takes some detours and it takes some time, but it’s in there.”

And, of course, as Antonino says, the Elevate Fesitval itself is a creative response: electronic music and visual arts side by side with intense political discussions. Dom Im Berg, the heart of the festival, is a cave that was hollowed out by slaves and is now transformed into a place for all to come and celebrate our common struggles.

“We all have the talent to creatively respond,” Antonino says, in conclusion. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world. That’s very important.”


For a fuller exploration of creative response and Antonino’s ear-popping soul-dropping film, “Let Fury Have the Hour”, you’ll just have to wait for the book of Elevate 2014!

Elevate Festival Opening Speech: John Holloway

‘My opening speech has a title. The title is: Opening Speech.’ John Holloway laughs with our laughter, stepping away from the Elevate podium and swiping at the air in front of him, as if he’s just thrown a frisbee. But the title is no whimsy.

Nor is his decision to speak in German. ‘Mainly it’s a protest against Englishification,’ he explains. ‘Not from a nationalistic point of view, but because of the social narrowness that is brought along with this Englishification.’

(Half a dozen sentences into the festival and already my spell-checker is choking on a new word. I love Elevate.)

Balancing the levity of the laughter, John justifies his carefully-chosen title: ‘A speech that opens is just what we need in this world, a world that is closing.’ He peers hopefully out at his three hundred friends in the Dom im Berg audience, out at his unknown audiences on Austrian national television, on the internet livestream and in smartphones hashtagging on international social networks. ‘Maybe this is the speech that opens the festival that opens the world.’

For John, the cause of the closure is clear. ‘A certain logic is being imposed on all aspects of life,’ he says. ‘The logic of money, the logic of profit, the logic of closure.’

‘In the countryside, this logic tells us that you can’t expect to live as your parents did, growing only the food that you need to survive. To survive under this new logic, you must farm mass production or you must make way for motorways, for dams, for mines. Or even better – why don’t you just disappear altogether? Millions of people are forced off the land, to move into the world’s slums.’

‘In the cities, the logic of money tells us that you can’t do what you want with your life. You must earn a living and that means you must do something that increases profits; that increases the power of the wealthy. And this is what is happening: an obscene concentration of wealth across the world; a huge growth in the power of the wealthy, in the power of money.’

‘If you do not want to follow the rule of money, if you want to do something else with your life, you are either mad or a criminal and should certainly be locked up. The dynamics of money are shattering the hopes and dreams of youth; dreams that are broken on the reality of unemployment. Or, often worse, the reality of employment!’ The laughter this time is not warm, it is edged with cold reality.

‘It is not just that we live in a world of closure, but the enclosure is getting tighter all the time. Money cannot stand still. The rule of capital is faster, faster, faster. And this rule means out of the way to the people who are too slow. Out of the way with the people who are holding things up. Out of the way with the people who don’t speak English. Out of the way with the protesters, into the prisons, into the mass graves. Out of the way with the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico who disappeared a month ago.’

John pivots his speech to optimism, inspired by the words of Ernst Bloch, the author of ‘The Principle of Hope’, a book written in exile from the despair of Nazi Germany. John argues, like Bloch, that our future depends on hope – not on a silly, blind hope that things will just “turn out right” – but a hope founded and grounded in practice.

In Bloch’s day, hope was still tied to the Party, to winning control of the state. ‘But now the party is over,’ John says, waving encouragement to the flickers of laughter for his pun. The room catches and thrills with three hundred rhythmic clappings. He thanks us: ‘After the depression, this is what I needed!’ John laughs, before delivering more depression. ‘Hope lies not in building a party, not in winning control of the state, because the state is an institution integrated into capitalism and cannot be used to overcome it.’

But if we have not Bloch’s hope, what hope do we have? John essays an answer.

‘Hope lies now in the millions and millions of us who say: No, no. We will not accept, we will not accept your destruction of the world and your guns and your wars. No, not any longer. We will not accept the rule of the rich, the rule of money. Not any longer.’

‘We shall do things in a different way and connect to one another in a different way. We do not want your totality of death and we do not want any totality. We saw in the last century what happens when one totality is replaced by another and now we say no.’

‘We break away from the totality of capital death in a million different ways. We commonise. We force cracks in the system. We fight for our earth, the earth of people and other forms of life, before the capitalist system destroys it completely. We fight to open a gap between the future of capitalism, which can only be death, and the future of humanity, which can still be life.’

John takes a breath. Then adds, ‘If it is not too late already.’

‘Ernst Bloch pinned hope to the power of the “not yet”, the power of that world that does not yet exist and therefore exists “not yet”: in our refusals, in our dreams, in our pushing against capitalism. We have to learn to listen to the leaders of this world that does not yet exist and sing their songs with our full voices.’

John quotes Arundhati Roy’s beautiful expression of Bloch’s same idea: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

‘Thus, in my opening speech, I want to open this world. My wish for the festival is that it will be an Opening Festival. That it sings the songs of the world that has not been born yet, that it sings these songs as loudly and as beautifully as possible. Thank you.’

The rising of this opening audience to this opening speech for this opening festival gives me a sniff of optimism that Elevate 2014 will jam a rubber sole against the slamming doors, hurl a tonne of dynamite at the thickening walls and prise a common crowbar into the cracks of capitalism.

Let’s make it happen.


John Holloway is a Professor of Sociology at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades in the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. He has published widely on Marxist theory, on the Zapatista movement and on the new forms of anti-capitalist struggle.

You can read all of my blogging from Elevate on these pages – or on the much prettier Elevate site.

Bob Dylan live at London Feis 18 June 2011

Quite simply: the best Dylan show I’ve ever heard. Okay so that’s only out of two, but it was also right up there with all the live recordings I’ve heard: The Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975, the Halloween Show in 1964, 1965 at the BBC, and even the infamous 1966 tour of England.

Honestly. Every time you hear Dylan live there’s a moment’s hesitation before you realise what the hell he’s playing and then – bear grins. He’s not content with being a Dylan jukebox on stage; he played a couple of songs straight, but most of them were twisted and refracted in ways that threw new meaning on the lyrics.

Even the ones he did straight featured extensive carnivalesque organ solos. Seriously, I’ve never seen Dylan looking so relaxed. He was having a ball up there. Compared to 2003, when I last saw him, there was so much energy, so much playful creativity, so much identity up there on stage. And the old boy’s 70!

Forget the sunshades, forget the pixie boots and the skinny jeans, forget everything; the reason Bob Dylan is an inspiration was embodied last night. He has been working professionally for about 50 years, he has published 34 studio albums, he tours constantly (102 shows last year) and yet still he is innovating every night. I mean, I don’t know if he ever actually said this, but it sums up just about the best lesson anyone can learn from the man:

I write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away.

If you can do that, then surely, whatever you do, you’ll be set up. Forget the fashion, hard work is where it’s at.

And please listen to this before it gets pulled off the internet for copyright infringement. It is a gut-twisting rendition of ‘Forgetful Heart’, from ‘Together Through Life’, only Dylan’s 33rd studio album. He still got it:

http://vlog.xuite.net/play/MXFTMWxiLTM1NTM0ODcuZmx2

Setlist

1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking (Bob on keyboard): Totally baffled 90% of the crowd. Gleefully mischievous.
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob center stage on harp)
3. Things Have Changed (Bob on guitar): I can’t remember why this was so good, but so good it was.
4. Tangled Up In Blue (Bob center stage on harp): Ballad style, stretched out, languid and missing a number of verses. No Italian poets that I noticed.
5. Summer Days (Bob on keyboard): Guitar lick twisted with a sour note that could have been ironic, given the weather up above.
6. Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob on guitar): Yes it was beautiful. Done as a straight-faced romantic ballad.
7. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)
8. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Bob center stage without harp then keyboard): Slowed down to a contemplative funereal march. More sorrowful than apocalyptic vision.
9. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
10. Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on viola): Drenched in pathos. See essential-viewing video above.
11. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)
12. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)

13. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard): Bob’s sop to the singalong crowd – and how we loved it.
14. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard): Recaptured from Jimi Hendrix, thank goodness!
15. Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on guitar, Donnie on violin): In a nursery rhyme style. All the patronising preaching gone, replaced by whimsical wisdom. Thank you and good night.

For those who like to keep an eye on these things, we had:

  • 1963 x 2
  • 1965 x 4
  • 1967
  • 1975 x 2
  • 1979
  • 1997
  • 2000
  • 2001
  • 2006
  • 2009

Which shows you what he thinks of his 80s production…

Palestinian Jokes: No Laughing Matter

There’s a Arab proverb that says: “I laugh, therefore I exist.” So here are some jokes from Palestine, proving that they do – still – exist.

The Hebronites

The Palestinians tell jokes about the Hebronites in the same way that the English tell jokes about the Welsh, or the French about the Belgians. Here’s one that is (apparently) a true story:

There’s an old man living on his own in Hebron. His only son has been arrested and is in prison in Israel. The old man desperately wants to plant some potatoes in his garden, but he doesn’t have the strength any more and, with his only son in prison, there’s no one who can do it for him.

So he writes to his son, saying, “I want to plant some potatoes in our garden, but I don’t have the strength to work the soil any more. What should I do, son?”

The son gets the letter in prison and writes back, saying: “Whatever you do, do not go anywhere near the garden – I hid weapons there!”

When the old man gets the letter, he’s shocked and doesn’t go near his garden. In the meantime, the Israeli army have found out about the letter and, the next morning, the old man wakes up to find hundreds of soldiers in his garden. They dig up every inch of the soil, searching for the weapons – but they don’t find any.

Mystified, the old man writes to his son again: “The soldiers came and dug up the garden, but they didn’t find any weapons, now what should I do?”

The son writes back: “Now you can plant your potatoes!”

Have you heard the one about the Christian Hebronite who converted to Islam? One day he met a Muslim Imam and the Hebronite said to him: “If you can show me how clever you Muslims are, I will convert to Islam!”
“Okay,” said the Imam. “Do you have any children?”
“Yes, I have one child.”
“Is it a boy?”
“No,” said the Hebronite.
“Then it must be a girl!”
At this the Hebronite bowed down, crying, “Oh Allah! You’re powers are truly great! I convert to Islam!”

There was once a Hebronite called Abd Ali who owned a shop in Ramallah. One day he got a visit from the police. They pointed at his shop sign – “Abd Ali and Associates” – and asked, “Who are your ‘associates’?”
“Oh, it is just me, it is only the name of my shop, that’s all.”
The police shouted at him: “That is dishonest!” and then beat him up.
Abd Ali was so humiliated that he left Palestine and went to Saudi Arabia, a very devout and strict nation. This time he was very careful about his shop sign. He called his shop: “Abd Ali, the One and Only.”
He was decapitated.

Political Jokes

“We’re living through a big joke!”

(This was not a joke.)

One day in the market a man loses his father… so he buries him.

A boy asks his father for two shekels for a return bus trip to a checkpoint.
“One shekel should be enough,” his father says, “you’ll be coming home in an ambulance!”

The French President, the US President and the Palestinian President all appear before God. They each approach him in turn, presenting their dearest wishes for their countries.
The American President says, “I wish for those cowardly French to commit troops to the War On Terror.”
God replies, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the French President approaches God and says, “I wish those damned Americans would stop killing for oil!”
God answers, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the Palestinian President approaches God, very humbly and says, “I only wish for a Palestinian state.”
God replies, “Well that will never happen in MY lifetime!”

A dentist from Gaza goes to an international conference on wisdom teeth. A French dentist comes up to him and asks: “How do you extract wisdom teeth in Gaza?”
“Well,” the Gazan dentist replies, “first we use a scalpel to make an incision into the neck, then we break the jaw and drill into the gum. Then we get some pliers and pull the tooth out from below.”
“My god!” the French dentist exclaims. “Why so complicated?”
“Because in Gaza, you’re not allowed to open your mouth!”

Just a Joke!

This was told by a giggling school-girl – naughty!

A man rushes home, quick, quick, quick.
Grabs his wife, quick, quick, quick.
Runs to the bedroom, quick, quick, quick.
Switches off the lights, quick, quick, quick.
Makes a tent in the bed, quick, quick, quick.
Says: “Look at my watch – it glows in the dark!”


I got all of these jokes from the excellent short film (No) Laughing Matter that was shown at the Palestine Film Festival in London yesterday. If you ever have a chance to see this film, then do so. You can see a teaser below.

(No) Laughing Matter – teaser

A Tribute to Juliano Mer-Khamis

Two and a half weeks ago, on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, another political activist was assassinated: the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Juliano Mer-Khamis (29 May 1958 – 4 April 2011)

Juliano was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Israeli father and always declared that he was both 100% Jewish and 100% Palestinian.

His mother, Arna, fought in the Palmach during the first Arab-Israeli war, but turned her back on Zionism and became a peace activist. Juliano himself enlisted as a paratrooper in the IDF, but was thrown out for refusing an order to force a Palestinian man from his car.

In Israel, Juliano identified himself as a Palestinian; in Palestine, as a Jew. This was typical of his brave and confrontational character.

He was a “beautiful and energetic man” who, according to his friend and colleague Stephan, was dancing on the tables the night before his assassination to celebrate the première of his latest project. Juliano had intense passions, exemplified by his love of food: a cup of olive oil for breakfast and a glass of Black Label at night.

The Freedom Theatre

Edward Said urged upon us the importance of narrating the Palestinian story, and that’s exactly what Juliano did through his films, his plays and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

Juliano’s ambition for the Freedom Theatre was to “give these children a piece of normality.” The theatre didn’t only tackle political inequality, but also women’s rights and religious intolerance and the theatre quickly became a centre for liberal thought in Jenin. The theatre works on three levels: theory, art and (political) action.

As an example, Juliano’s recent production of Alice in Wonderland managed to tackle women’s liberation, free will and resistance as well as putting on a great show. Juliano made Alice a Palestinian girl who is forced to marry by her family and seeks refuge in Wonderland.

According to Juliano, “art and politics are one,” and his attitude was: “you can’t free the land without freeing the mind.” That made Juliano himself a cultural freedom fighter.

Juliano’s tragedy

The tragedy of Juliano’s life is that he was well aware of his vulnerability, but naïve “to the point of fantasy,” according to his friend Ala. He confided to him: “I will only leave Jenin with a bullet in my head…” Three years ago he gave this extraordinary interview on Israeli television:

Juliano wouldn’t have wanted to be called a martyr of freedom, but that is what he was.

Juliano was shot down by a Palestinian from Jenin, the very people he was struggling for. Juliano’s colleague at the theatre, Ala, talked about how this betrayal had damaged his unconditional affection for the camp. He said he was like a father who is angry at his eldest son for fighting with his youngest. Nevertheless, he will cover them both with the same blanket at night and give them the same kiss. “I kiss you Juli,” Ala said before breaking down in tears at the memory of his friend.

The ongoing threat

Juliano was shot not because of his failure, but because of his success. The Israeli press might be wallowing in schadenfreude, celebrating the fact that a Palestinian peace activist was killed by a fellow Palestinian, but Juliano’s Israeli friend Uli doesn’t remember that discourse in the press after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.

However, the Freedom Theatre today is very weak. They have some support in Israel, some support in Palestine and some support abroad, but it is fragmented and threatened on all sides. When Juliano’s body was carried away, students from the theatre lined the streets and applauded – but Jenin refugee camp wasn’t with them. The threat to the theatre remains.

http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/


This is a review of An Evening in Honour of Juliano Mer-Khamis at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London on Wednesday April 20th.

The speakers were:

Stephan Wolf-Schoenburg, an actor and teacher at the Freedom Theatre. He was a close friend of Juliano’s and a witness to his assassination.

Ala Hlehel, an author, translator, and filmmaker. He is the editor-in-chief of Qadita.net

Udi Aloni, a filmmaker. He was a friend of Juliano and was working on two films with him at the time of his death.

Osnat Trabelsi, a filmmaker and founder of Trabelsi Productions. She was a colleague and friend of Juliano’s.

The End of the Era of the Dictators: Who’s Next?

Yesterday, a metaphor broke out over Trafalgar Square, as dark clouds rolled away over Egypt and the gloom of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year tyranny was dispelled in the bright winter sunshine of people power.

Amnesty International’s Rally in Solidarity with Egypt in Trafalgar Square

First Ben Ali in Tunisia after 23 years, now Mubarak in Egypt after 30 years – who’s next? The speed of the fall of these dictators is astonishing. The Tunisians deposed Ben Ali in 28 days; the Egyptians have ousted Mubarak in just 18 days.

Anatomy of a Revolution

We can see from the two time-lines below, that the response of both the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes has been both predictable and doomed to failure.

The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes both responded to the just grievances of their people with increasingly desperate threats, violence, cosmetic governmental reshuffles and sweet-talk of a childish “just five more minutes!” variety. But persistence, fortified by the justice of their cause, has won the day for the people.

Tunisian revolution time-line

  • 17 December – Self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia sparks nationwide protests.
  • 28 December – Ben Ali calls the protesters “extremists and mercenaries”.
  • 29 December – Ben Ali reshuffles his government.
  • 6 January – Tunisian lawyers launch a general strike.
  • 8 January – Six protesters killed by the Tunisian police.
  • 13 January – Ben Ali announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 14 January – Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia, after 23 years in power.

Egyptian revolution time-line

  • 25 January – Widespread protests in Egypt.
  • 29 January – Mubarak reshuffles his government.
  • 1 February – Mubarak announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 1 February – Mubarak calls some of the protesters “outlaws” and calls their protests “unfortunate clashes, mobilised and controlled by political forces that wanted to escalate and worsen the situation”.
  • 2 FebruaryViolent clashes between anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak provocateurs.
  • 10 February – Mubarak denies he will be stepping down, but will be handing more powers to his deputy.
  • 11 February – Mubarak resigns, fleeing to Sharm el-Sheikh, after 30 years in power.

What’s Next?

How the hell do I know? But all my wishes are for a peaceful return of power to the people of North Africa and the Middle East. They deserve it.

The Revolt in Egypt: Causes and Consequences, a brief review

Yesterday, I went to the King’s College London Middle East Research Group seminar on the causes and consequences of the revolt in Egypt.

I only stayed for two of the speakers, Dr Ashraf Mishrif and Dr Michael Kerr, because, well – just because.

The Economic Causes of the Egyptian Revolt

Dr Ashraf Mishrif made a prediction: either Mubarak would announce his resignation; or he would assume more powers to deal with the revolt. In other words: even the ‘experts’ haven’t got a clue where this revolt is going to end up.

Ashraf went on to talk in more depth about the economic causes of the revolt, safer academic territory.

In the last three or four decades, there have been a number of economic policies put in place by regimes in the Middle East in general, and in Egypt in particular – and they have all failed. The two economic reform programmes promoted under President Mubarak have had only limited success.

The years 2006-2008 showed solid growth at 7%, but this has not been felt by the majority of the population. Poverty has grown in absolute terms: from 17% in 2002, to 19.8% in 2010. There is also high inflation in Egypt at 11.8% and high unemployment at 9.8%.

And it’s not just in Egypt that we see this economic crisis: in Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and many others. Even the Gulf States have high unemployment, at around 9% in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example.

The Egyptian regime refused to allow opposition groups to help plan these economic reforms – and this was a big mistake, politically and economically. The result has been that the regime has bound themselves to only a small segment of the Egyptian business community and the 7% growth has benefited perhaps as little as 10% of society.

During this time of growth, the Egyptian government also failed to put in place an effective social security system for the unemployed. This all meant that, from around 2004, workers and unions were rioting against the unfair and precarious economic situation. This unrest spread to the youth and to the middle classes, resulting in the present revolt.

What is the Egyptian Revolt?

Dr Kerr argued that this was not a revolt against Mubarak, but a revolt against failed Arab nationalist politics.

The revolt is certainly not (yet) a popular revolution. Only 2% of the population have been involved in the protests. Why might this be? Fear: of what the regime might do; but also of what might replace it. The Egyptians only have to look across at Algeria and at Iraq for frightening examples of what happens when revolts go wrong.

The revolt is not an Islamist movement. The relative silence of the Muslim Brotherhood shows that they are not seeking a leadership role in this revolt. It also shows how effective the regime has been in restricting the Brotherhood.

The Consequences of the Egyptian Revolt

There is the strong possibility, Dr Kerr believes, that the Egyptian government will paint personality change to look like regime change.

We’re not on the cusp of big change in Egypt.

The problem with the revolt is that there is no obvious or credible alternative in Egypt. The regime has played its cards very cleverly by, for example, injecting a small number troops into the crowds to raise tensions and to pit the Egyptian people against each other. This has caused the US to flip and flop in their response to the revolt: they only want to protect their interests.
You can trace political unrest in Egypt back to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. The US foreign policy towards the Middle East has changed twice in the last ten years, from supporting the status quo under Clinton, to the interventions of George W. Bush – and now back to supporting the status quo under Obama. The Egyptian government have been using this to their favour.
The Egyptian people are not able to agree on what they might want to replace the regime: all they want is simply to be rid of them. The lack of a plan is not surprising, given how quickly the revolt rose up and spread. No one predicted this: 

this came out of the blue.”

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 is also not a particularly happy example for the protesters to follow. The gains of that revolution have been largely reversed. The pendulum has swung back towards Syria and the US appear to have accepted this, returning their diplomats to Damascus.

“The Egyptian regime could still claw back their position of three weeks ago.”

What follows the departure Mubarak is unclear. If there is a general strike, then the US will be forced off the fence and will have to support a regime – perhaps militarily – that protects their interests in Egypt. Egypt is too important a support for US influence in the region for them to let it go.

Will the revolt in Egypt set off a domino effect? Yes. However, the Syrian government won’t fall: it is more credible than the Egyptian regime. In the Gulf, the distinction is that they have a lot of money. If the regime there is foresighted, they can use some of this money to put in place social reforms that would keep the population from revolting.

To conclude: this revolt came out of the blue, driven on by the youth through technology and beefed up by the international media. But, Dr Kerr warned, the media is fickle. Once the televisions are switched off – what then?

“A revolution can disappear if you switch your television off.”

Review of Shirin Ebadi: The Role of Women in Promoting Peace in the Middle East

This is a review of a lecture given by Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 February 2011.

When she came into the room, Shirin got a rapturous welcome from the crowd, packed into the stairwells, in the aisles and on every seat. The international press, students, alumni, her family – all were here. She was introduced by Baroness Kennedy, President of the Board the Governors at SOAS, who called her a personal heroine.

Shirin qualified as a judge but, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a menial clerical position. She battled for many years for her position and eventually was allowed to practice law in her homeland in 1993. I was reminded of the long battle that Nelson Mandela faced to practice law in South Africa under Apartheid. Thirty years ago she was just an Iranian woman trying to make her way in the world, but her life was taken over by exigencies, by circumstances, and perhaps she had no choice but to become a heroine, in defence of her own life.

And so we listened to this human heroine, in translation.


Who is Responsible?

“The Middle East is in turmoil and the people ask, “Who is responsible?””

There are three reasons for the current turmoil, Shirin says. They are, in increasing level of importance:

  1. The Palestine-Israel conflict.
  2. The intervention of outside powers in the region, the US/UK in Iraq, for example.
  3. The lack of democracy and widespread human rights violations.

1. The Palestine-Israel Conflict

“Until there is peace here, there will be no order in the Middle East.”

The Oslo Agreement is just a document on paper, Shirin says. Radical extremists on both sides prevent the Oslo Agreement from being fairly applied. Violence from one side, leads to worse violence from the other side. In addition to its immediate effects, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a source of other conflicts, for example between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis has also been exploited by governments.

What role can women play?

Women are opposed to the continuation of war. Palestinian and Israeli mothers have formed the Committee of Mothers for Peace. They negotiate dispute resolution between Jews and Muslims, always with the question: how long must we mourn our children?

However, in political peace negotiations, their voice is not heard. It is the war mongers who “negotiate”, but peace negotiations will bear no fruit without including women. Women may not have political positions in Palestinian politics, but they are the voice of civil society and are very important. The peace negotiations collapse because they exclude feminist movements. 50% of the world is female. You can’t ignore 50% of the world and hope for peace.

2. The Intervention of Outside Powers.

The Middle East is resource-rich and avaricious nations want their resources. The excuse is always to “advance democracy”, but the result is always a rise in Islamic fundamentalism – and the first target of Islamic fundamentalism is always the rights of women.

What role can women play?

Women in Iraq have set up committees to try and create working opportunities and training. Iraqi women are struggling, not only against the Islamists, but also for their national sovereignty.

This intervention by foreign powers stems from the main reason for the current turmoil in the Middle East: a lack of democracy.

3. The Lack of Democracy.

If the Middle East had strong democracies, they would not allow foreign powers to intervene in their domestic politics. It is crazy that Saudi Arabia spend $60bn on purchasing weapons from the US when their own people don’t have welfare. Sadly, for various historical reasons, countries in the Middle East do not have real democracy.

Even supposed “democracies” are not true democracies and their leaders are not fairly elected. For example, in Syria, the presidency is now hereditary, Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father Hafez. In the UAE, there are no elected parliaments; they are appointed by the king. The same is true in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. The only exception to this is Turkey, who do have a better level of democracy.

Iran claims it has elections every two years and that this makes it a democracy. But in all the elections, candidates must be approved by the “Guardian Council”. Any criticism of the government will result in the candidate being refused the right to stand for election. The Guardian Council is made up of twelve members: six directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six others elected from a selection chosen by a man who is, in turn, hand-picked by the Supreme Leader.

For the elections in June 2009, three hundred names were put forward, but only four were approved by the Guardian Council. All four had previously held important posts in government, including one previous prime minister.

Therefore the most important problem in the Middle East is the lack of democracy.

The End of the Age of Dictatorships

There has been a patriarchal culture in the region for years and women suffer. There are also large gaps between the social classes. Many are deprived of their rights. Freedom of expression is also limited.

But for how long can dictators rule by military coercion? Now, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the people are asking for their rights. The age of dictatorships is over. Thanks to technology, people are getting closer and are able to organise. Look how quickly the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and now the same will happen to Mubarak and then in Jordan and Bahrain.

The protests started in Iran many years ago, the latest episode was seen in June 2009. Millions of people protested peacefully, but were met with violence and bullets. You can see all of this on YouTube. Then the government lied about what happened; they said that the bullets were fired by protesters. Many journalists were arrested to clamp down on the real news getting out. Reporters Without Frontiers report that Iran has the highest number of journalists, writers and bloggers in prison.

The economic situation in Iran is dire at the moment. Economic growth in 2009 was 1.6%, lower than Afghanistan and Iraq. So, despite the violence, the people haven’t given up. The government has increased executions: from January this year, there has been an average of two people executed per day. But the voice of protest is heard louder every day.

When the Egyptian people started to protest, the Iranian government said: “Listen to your people!” But what about when the Iranian people protest? The Iranian government says that there must be free elections in Iraq – can we have them too, please?

What role can women play?

“The rights of women and democracy are two sides of a balance.”

You can’t be democratic and deny 50% of people their rights. Women’s rights are the forerunners of democracy.

The feminist movement in Iran is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East. It began a hundred years ago with the constitutional revolution, while Turkey was still under the Ottomans and there was still a Czar in Russia. The strength of the movement is also explained by the fact that there are many highly-educated women in Iran. More than 65% of people at university are women. There are female professors and senior administrators.

But the laws passed after the revolution are discriminatory against women. For example, the value of a woman in law is half that of a man.

“My brother would get twice the compensation that I would if we were involved in the same road accident.”

The testimony of two women is worth the same as that of one man. A man can have four wives and divorce without reason. It is very hard for a woman to get a divorce. A married woman needs the permission of her husband to travel.

These laws are simply not compatible with the level of education in Iran. For example, the current health minister is a woman: does she need her husband’s permission to travel abroad to take Iran’s seat at the World Health Organisation? What if he refuses? The legislation is not compatible with the society, therefore the feminist movement is widespread.

There is no leader of the movement, there are no regional branches, but it is present in every home that believes in equality. And the movement is stronger for this: there is no one person to imprison or assassinate. That a woman can be arrested for “seeking equality” only makes the movement stronger. Results do come, too: for example, in 2004, the custody law was amended in the woman’s favour.

In my opinion, the Green Movement used the feminist movement as a role model. There are no leaders to depend on, it is also a horizontal movement. Women have also been at the forefront of the Green protests.

Democracy can only be achieved through peaceful means, not through guerilla warfare. The Committee of Mothers in Mourning meet every Saturday and carry photos of their children and simply look at each other in silence. They throw birthday parties for people in prison so that no one will forget them, held in their homes in order to evade street protest clampdowns.

Iranian women’s groups sent messages to Egypt and Tunisia, urging women to make sure they protect their rights. Just getting rid of a dictator won’t make everything fine. Another could take his place, perhaps he might have a different ideology, but it is the same dictatorship.

In Tunisia, the secular society is relatively strong. Women are now saying that they want equality. Rashid al-Ghannushi says he is not another Khomeini, but still Iranian women must warn them of the possible dangers of revolution.

“I am confident that democracy and peace will come to the Middle East.”

Facing Disaster In the Middle East: Do We Have Only Bad Options?

This is a review of a talk given by Stephen Kinzer on the 10th of January 2011 at LSE. I should make it clear at the start that Kinzer was talking specifically about US foreign policy. He was talking, not of justice, but of what would be in the interest of the US.

The Bad Attitude of US Foreign Policy

When the US took over the dominant position held by the British Empire in the Middle East, they learnt the wrong lessons. One lesson they didn’t learn was: if you can’t adapt to changing conditions, you’ll lose your authority, both political and moral.

In the dying days of British influence in the Middle East, they hauled Mohammad Mosaddegh, Prime Minister of Iran, before the UN Security Council in a dispute over British oil interests in Iran. It didn’t work.

The US have shown a similar attitude in their dealings in the Middle East. “We don’t like to take advice,” Kinzer says. The US like to think that they, uniquely, “get it,” and that other countries, including countries in the Middle East, just don’t get it.

This attitude was effective during the Cold War. The US exerted immense influence and were able to coerce other countries into doing things in the interest of the US – even when it was against their own interests. That time is OVER – but the policy hasn’t changed and it doesn’t work anymore. We can argue about the details, but the Middle East is not going the way of the US. It’s a worse place for the US now, no doubt.

One thing we can learn from history is that empires rise and fall; and they only survive if they are able to adapt. If the US is unable to adapt then their time at the top will soon end.

Partners

If the US is unable to dictate any longer, what should they do? Stephen Kinzer argues that they must look for partners with whom the US can act in concert and to whom the US can turn to for expert advice in the region. The US must abandon the idea that they alone know what is right for the Middle East.

So who are those partners? There are two criteria that the US must look for in potential partners:

  1. A society that looks like the US. In other words: not the Saudis!
  2. A states whose long-term strategic goals are similar to theirs. In other words: not the Saudis! The brand of radical Islam funded by the Saudis all over the globe are turning out a generation of “lost boys, chanting the Qur’an and hating America”. Incredibly, the US are financing their own assassins.

The Problems with the US-Saudi Relationship

Social similarities and like-minded long-term goals are not the only things that determine foreign policy. The US and Saudi are inextricably linked by oil and defence contracts. The US gets 11% of its oil from Saudi. The Saudis spend a huge amount of money in the US. They recently negotiated a $60bn deal for arms.

They also spend their money very cleverly, splitting it between many different states. This means that Congress or the Senate find it hard to oppose Saudi policies because so many states have a vested interest in Saudi. Massachusetts, for example, has 100,000 jobs reliant on defence. No Congressman would dare oppose the Saudis for fear of losing those jobs. In this way, the Saudis wield influence over the US political system.

Stephen Kinzer identifies two other countries that do satisfy both of his conditions for partnership with the US.

1. Turkey

Firstly, Turkey have been a NATO ally for over 50 years. In the last decade, though, Turkey has also adopted an intriguing role in global geo-politics. They are trying to be deal-makers and peacemakers. They are friends of both Iran and the US; friends of both Georgia and Russia; friends (perhaps until recently) of Israel and Hamas.

How have they managed this?

  • Through the success of their capitalist system.
  • It’s a role reminiscent of their Ottoman history.
  • The recent rise of devout Muslims in government increases their moral position in the Middle East.
  • Significantly, they have challenged US foreign policy recently, over Iran and Gaza, for example. This greatly increases their political legitimacy in the Middle East; they are not just NATO’s lapdog anymore.

And all of this is good for the US. It makes Turkey a credible voice in the Middle East.

Instead of supporting Turkey in their new deal-broker role, the US killed a Turkey-negotiated deal with Iran. The US gave Turkey a slap on the wrists and said that the deal was full of holes. No doubt that it was, but they shouldn’t have killed it dead, they should have accepted the help and used the flawed deal to build something better.

Turkey has an ambition to be in the top ten economies in the world. They are currently at number sixteen. If they want to get into the top ten, they need a stable neighbourhood. 80% of foreign companies in Iraq are Turkish, for example. It is firmly in Turkey’s interest to broker these peace deals and the US should use that interest. If the US don’t do more, then Iran and Turkey could form their own geo-political block without the US, possibly with India as well. There is no golden rule that says that only the US can form economic blocks.

However, Turkey does have serious domestic challenges to face: problems assimilating minorities; historical grievances; and ultra-nationalism. These domestic problems will necessarily restrict their influence in the region, but their rise has been a great story.

2. Iran

This was Kinzer’s curve-ball and he knew he had to justify his choice for more than Turkey.

Iran’s social affinity with the US

  1. Iran has a vibrant, dynamic democratic civil society, in contrast to most of the rest of the Middle East.
  2. They’ve had a constitution for a hundred years.
  3. If you can peel away the religious rule, Kinzer says, they could be more democratic than Turkey.
  4. Iran is “the most pro-US country in the world,” Kinzer says, referring to US popular culture. The people of Iran are as open to US influence as the regime is closed.
  5. Farsi is the fourth most popular language on internet, incredible considering the size of the nation and the supposed “closed” nature of the society. Kinzer told an anecdote about Sean Penn visiting a market in Isfahan and an old market-trader, who spoke no English, asked him what it was like to be married to Madonna!

Iran’s long-term strategic goals

Iran also has strategic goals very closely allied to the US – if you ignore emotions.

  1. Iran is a big enemy of radical Sunni groups, like the Taleban. These groups are in fact funded by our current supposed allies, Pakistan and the Saudis! Iran would be a natural ally of the West against this type of terrorism.
  2. Iran has a huge ability to stabilise Iraq. In fact, Iran could be our ticket out of Iraq – if they are reassured that a stable Iraq would not be used as a launchpad for a US invasion of Iran.
  3. Iran could have the same influence in Afghanistan also.
  4. Iran also wants to keep Russia out of the Middle East.
  5. The Iranian oil industry needs massive investment of the kind that only the US can provide.

Kinzer goes further and says that there is no US goal that can be achieved without Iran: the Palestine-Israel conflict, a nuclear-free Middle East, ethnic conflict in Lebanon, etc..

The problems with Iran

Of course there are great problems facing any potential US alliance with Iran.

  • The US have their policies set.
  • The US and Iran have had a dysfunctional relationship for a long time.
  • The US still feel wronged after the 1979-1981 US Embassy hostage crisis. The US are feel that Iran got one over them and they’ve never been able to hit back. This is a clear example of emotion getting in the way of sound diplomacy.
  • The current regime in Iran is also a concern for the US. Kinzer points out that we don’t fully understand the machinations of the Iranian political system, but that Ahmadinejad doesn’t hold the final decision and power. 

    Rapprochement might not be easy, but the US could at least try.

    The problem with current US policy is that it is restricting Iran down to one issue only: their nuclear ambitions. The US want Iran to surrender their highest card, but that’s never going to happen – it makes no sense.

    A way forward: The Shanghai Communiqué

    Instead of demanding this, the US should do something like they did with China in 1972 in the Shanghai Communiqué. This was a short document that contained:

    1. Everything the US didn’t like about China.
    2. Everything China didn’t like about the US.
    3. A promise to negotiate over these issues rather than use force.

    This kind of document clears the air and opens the agenda for progress in negotiations. There is one further block to US negotiations with Iran: human rights. Perhaps the Helsinki Accords are a better model than the Shanghai Communiqué.

    The US need concessions from Iran, but that will only happen if Iran feels safe. Turkey have advice for the US here: compromise. India is also saying this. These countries want to help the US, but they don’t want to listen.

    Kinzer admits that closer ties with Iran would not be an easy sell. He argues that, although the US would prefer to wait for evolution in the Iranian regime, the need for negotiations is too urgent to wait, so they should try anyway.

    Why would Iran promote stability, when it is against their interests?

    Kinzer points out that stability is in the eye of the beholder. What is stability for the US in Iraq, for example, strikes Iran as destabilisation. The US handed Iran the great prize of Iraq; they would never have been able to take Iraq without the US invasion. But the US must now recognise the reality that Iran is the regional power.

    Why would Iran change its anti-US stance?

    Kinzer gave a number of reasons why they might:

    1. Iran needs security, like any country. That is the reason Russia negotiated the Helsinki Accords.
    2. A change in stance could increase the current regime’s popularity.
    3. The popular Green Movement has only bad options at the moment. The best they can hope for is the current regime to become less isolationist. So such a move would have widespread support.

    Kinzer warns that the problem with making these kind of deals with the elites is that they are usually unpopular with the people, so any deal transfers some of that unpopularity to the US as well. The most important thing that the US must avoid is doing anything that would make it harder for the US and Iran to negotiate in the future!

    Will it happen? Confronting “Pathologies”

    One potential problem with Kinzer’s vision of US partnerships with Iran and Turkey is that both Iran and Turkey have a history of dominating the Arabs. Because of this, the Arabs of the Middle East might react badly to perceived influence from those countries.

    However, Kinzer points to the fact that Iran and Turkey support Hizbollah and Hamas, popular Arab movements in the Middle East. The US, on the other hand, have bet on unpopular despots, like “Pharoah” Mubarak in Egypt. The Iranian and Turkish approach simply has to be more popular.

    Unfortunately, the kind of rapprochement needed with Iran will only happen if the US can face other “pathologies” in their political mindset. Kinzer is talking here of the “pull of Israel.” Israel is what separates the US from all its allies, he says, even the UK. But, at the moment, Kinzer can’t see this political mindset changing.

    The relationship between the US and Israel, Kinzer says, is like that between “me and a drunk-drive friend.” We want to help him steer better. Kinzer says that the US should tell Israel, you must change or:

    • Either we’ll recognise the state of Palestine. 
    • Or we’ll recognise the sovereignty of Israel over the whole territory and Jews will become a minority in their own land.

    Only the President can decide this sort of change in foreign policy  – and it is the kind of thing that would only happen with a second term president. Obama, however, is not looking like he wants to make any changes to US foreign policy. Obama himself has little experience with foreign affairs and the people around him are very conventional.

    The Problem of Israel

    Israel, Hamas, the blockade of Gaza, the West Bank settlements are all fundamental to the problems in the whole Middle East. All of the region’s problems are interwoven, which might make you think they are too complex to untangle. But it could be that a break in one place might cause others to break through.

    Israel and the radicalisation of the Middle East

    The West Bank Israeli settlements and the Israeli treatment of Gaza have radicalised the whole of the Middle East – in fact Kinzer is surprised that Palestine hasn’t radicalised MORE. This is why Turkey has become so popular in the region recently; for their response to the Gaza blockade, particularly during the Gaza flotilla debacle. It is not anti-Semitism, it is a response to an injustice.

    Hamas have to be involved in any negotiations. The US aren’t good at facing hard truths, but they must face this. The truth is that Hamas are in trouble from even more radical groups who are asking, “Why are you not attacking Israel every day?” The longer the US fail to negotiate, the worse things will get. And why don’t they do anything? The US government’s intimacy with Israel, which distorts what should be a rational diplomatic decision.

    Israel on self-destruct

    Israel has been pushed in a self-defeating direction by its own policy. Through their own actions they are destabilising the region, but it is impossible for them to defend their position with force forever. Geographically and demographically they are in a losing position. Their only chance of long-term survival is regional stability and normalisation of diplomatic relations with their neighbours.

    The Israeli and Iranian relationship

    Kinzer considers an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to be unlikely. Iranian nuclear capability is further off than previously thought. During an off-the-record conversation with an Israeli chief of intelligence, Kinzer was told that, while everyone thinks Israel is scared of Iran nuclear weapon because Iran might bomb Israel, that is only half right. Israel do fear Iran getting nuclear arms, but not for that reason. The true reasons are that a nuclear Iran might set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that Iran would gain immense intimidatory power.

    Kinzer’s response is that nuclear armament will happen; perhaps not in Iran just yet, but other countries around the world will get nuclear weapons at some point. Given that inevitability, we must learn how to deal with it when it does happen.

    He suggests that Iran could approach Israel themselves, instead of trying to negotiate through the US or the UN. Iran, Kinzer says, are better placed to approach Israel directly than any of the Arab nations. Most Iranians, despite the rhetoric of their government, have tremendous respect for Jews, tremendous respect for their history, their education and their contributions to world progress.

    Conclusions

    The US must change their current foreign policy. Their “global management” role is not economically sustainable. The Global War on Terror, farcically renamed “Overseas Contingency Operations,” is extremely expensive. The US spends $1 trillion a year in Afghanistan alone; there are 75,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany – why?

    The US political “pathology” is possibly changing. The Israeli blockade of Gaza and the West Bank settlements are changing US public opinion, led by US Jews scared that these actions are fuelling global anti-Semitism.

    Kinzer expresses his frustration with Israel over the case of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel. Israel wants the US to pardon him; “they want a favour, after kicking the sand in our faces!” This perhaps illustrates the frustration that the US intelligentsia feel towards the perverse political decisions of the Israeli government.

    Kinzer states the questions facing US politicians today:

    1. What should the policy be? Kinzer likes to think he has outlined one set of options.
    2. How do we sell it to the people? A much harder proposition.

    Stephen Kinzer finished with a challenge to the US political leadership, taken from Rumi, the Persian poet:

    “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”


    This was an excellent talk, covering a complex topic with clarity and humour. It was particularly strong for the solutions that it offered. It was good to hear a US commentator who was able to see a future that served both US interests and also the interests of peace.

    Secular Jews, Religious Jews and Arabs: The Zero-Sum Game of Israeli Multiculturalism

    This is a review of a talk given by Professor Menachem Mautner, a political and legal theorist from Tel Aviv University, on the 1st of February 2010 at Oriel College, Oxford. Again, apologies for the lateness!

    I would like to make quite clear at the beginning of this review that Professor Mautner discusses Israel exclusively. He does not refer to the problems between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His concern is the problems facing Israeli society.

    Israel’s Multicultural Society

    Since the 1970s and the end of Labour’s hegemony in Israeli politics, Israel has been a multicultural society. But there is a war of cultures going on, the society is divided in two ways.

    The War of Cultures 1: Secular Jews vs Religious Jews

    Secular Jews, by which Professor Mautner meant “liberal western” Jews and religious Jews, by which he meant “traditional, Judaism” Jews have twice come close to civil war.

    1. First when settlers were withdrawn from Gaza and Northern Samaria. There was a lot of opposition to this move: 20,000 police and soldiers faced off against the settlers.
    2. Secondly, during the al-Aqsa intifada riots, in the face of retaliation by the Arabs.

    The Jewish enlightenment of mid-19th century Germany marks the beginning of the opposition between the secular and the religious Jews. From the 1930s to the 1970s secular Jews, represented by the Labour movement, were in political hegemony. Their values were secular, democratic, modern and western.

    By the end of the 1970s their power had waned and in 1977 there was a political turnabout in Israel and Labour lost control. Since 1977, there has only been 6 years that Labour were in hegemony. In the 1980s Labour institutions lost power and they have never properly recovered.

    The War of Cultures 2: Jews vs Arabs

    20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. By 2020 it will be 23%. Israel is clearly bi-national, but Jews deny it. The 1992 constitutional laws describe Israel as Jewish and democratic only. Arabs are allowed rights as individuals, but not collectively.

    • Arabs are excluded from significant political decisions on foreign policy and defence.
    • Israel doesn’t recognise any Arab holidays as public holidays.
    • There are separate cities, neighbourhoods, institutions, newspapers, schools etc. for Arabs in Israel.
    • In all indices – literacy, development, life expectancy, etc. – Arabs rank significantly lower than Jews in Israel.

    This is an explosive mixture, Professor Mautner says, that could lead to a violent struggle.

    But solutions are on the table. In 2006/07, Arab-Israeli intellectuals produced a policy paper, ‘Arab Vision,’ outlining a bi-national state like Switzerland, Belgium or Canada.

    A Zero-Sum Game

    But there is a connection between the two divides: it is a zero-sum game.

    • If the secular Jews move towards the traditional Jews, the Arabs suffer.
    • If the secular Jews move towards the Arabs, the traditional Jews will revolt.

    And this situation will only get worse. The demographics are changing: 50% of school children are from either ultra-orthodox or Arab groups. Israeli society is becoming more polarised between the two groups at the extremes.

    There is nothing unique in the Israeli multiculturalism. What is unique is that the pressure on the system comes from the centre, not the fringes. The problems faced by Israeli society are more like those faced by Turkey, Egypt or Algeria, not Canada or Belgium.

    Although secular and liberal, the government funds ultra-orthodox groups who oppose these values. As a comparison, the Bob Jones University in the USA was stripped of its tax-free status by the Supreme Court because of their racist admissions policy. Israel will never do something like this, Professor Mautner says: it would cause a revolt by the religious Jews.

    The Outlook

    There are essentially two types of religious Jew in Israel: the ultra-orthodox Jews and the religious Zionists.

    • Ultra-orthodox Jews reject Western values and ideas including democracy and liberalism. They would support a theocracy which excludes women entirely.
    • Religious Zionists, on the other hand, take their ideas from the West as well as from tradition. They go to universities, the theatre and opera. They are democratic and have a religious feminism. They would object to a theocracy and would support liberal politics. They hold the key to the future character of Israel – but which way will they go?

    Individualism represents a real danger for the multicultural state. It could polarise opinion and the common good will suffer. Professor Mautner proposes that republicanism could prevent this, if all citizens are able to deliberate over the common good with no exclusion. Labour republicanism has been strong, but it excludes the Arabs. Now it is weak and they can’t cultivate a shared idea of the common good.

    Israel needs to actively pursue a Rawlsian liberal regime representing pluralism and tolerance, an inclusive liberalism, not a universal liberalism.

    Specific Measures for the Future:

    It contrast to some of the theorists I’ve heard speak, Professor Mautner outlined seven specific proposals to bind Israeli society closer together and to make the country a safer and more democratic state for all its citizens.

    1. Establish a constitutional court

    The constitutional law is currently developed by the Supreme Court, but this is now viewed as biased. A new constitutional court would be staffed by lawyers representing the major cultural groups so that it is no longer divisive.

    2. Reshuffle the education system

    Currently there are five types of schooling, secular, religious zionist, Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. They rarely intermix. Israel needs mixed schools, some already exist, but it needs more.

    3. Change the 1992 laws about the nature of Israel

    It is a nation for all Israelis, not just Jews. Israel should become a “Jewish, democratic and Israeli state.”

    4. Include Arabs in national symbols

    Including the flag and the national anthem.

    5. Include Arabic as a national language

    On a level with Hebrew.

    6. Acknowledge the implications of multiculturalism

    Respect for a people means a respect for their culture. Most Arabs are versed in Jewish culture, but not the other way around.

    7. Use the example of 10th and 11th century Spain

    Where the Jews enjoyed a golden age under Arab leaders.


    It was a blessed relief to hear someone put forward concrete, rational proposals for the better integration of Arabs into Israeli society. It’s going to be a long and hard road to travel – overturning institutionalised racism, such as that outlined by Professor Mautner, does not happen overnight – but it will be worth it, for all concerned.

    The Making of Modern English Anti-Semitism

    This is a review of a talk given by Dr Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, at Oriel College, Oxford University on Monday 1st March 2010. Apologies for the lateness – it’s been lying dormant in my notebook for almost a year now!

    This talk was given as a warning. Dr Julius was keen to point out rising anti-Semitism in left-wing universities. This talk was given at the beginning of “Israel Apartheid Week,” in which many British universities, including Oxford, took part. Students and their professors are dangerous because, presumably, they are intelligent and their words and opinions carry great weight. This new rise in anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, has developed with the recent rise in anti-Zionism, particularly after the invasion of Gaza in 2008.

    The Four Types of English Anti-Semitism

    Dr Julius referred to the “amnesia of Anglo-Jews,” they have forgotten the long history of anti-Semitism in this country. There are four types of anti-Semitism to be found in English history.

    1. Medieval anti-Semitism

    Medieval anti-Semitism reached its zenith (or nadir?) in England in 1290, when King Edward I ordered the total expulsion of the Jews from England. This expulsion was an utterly original English idea, lethal and exterminationist in conception. It was the first national expulsion of Jews and other European nations followed suit (France in 1394 and Spain in 1492, for example). However, Dr Julius does say, in “defence” of the English, that the idea had reached its moment and could have happened elsewhere.

    2. English literary anti-Semitism

    Dr Julius argues that only in England has literary anti-Semitism reached canonical status. He cites the examples of Chaucer (The Prioress’ Tale), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) and Dickens (Oliver Twist). The plot of each of these dramas, Dr Julius says, is basically the same. There is an innocent (usually a child), who is tricked by a conspiring Jew, there is usually murder or blood involved, but then a “miracle” saves the innocent and the Jew is punished.

    Dr Julius argues that this English literary anti-Semitism continues to the modern day, with writers like Tom Paulin, most notably his poem Killed in Crossfire published in The Observer newspaper in 2001. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/18/poetry.features1]

    3. Quotidian or social anti-Semitism

    This type of anti-Semitism flared up in England in the 17th century and limps on today. It takes the form of condescension toward and disregard for Jews. It is something one can live with, Dr Julius says, but is demoralising.

    4. Anti-Zionism polluted with anti-Semitism

    This developed in England from 1967 onwards. It is when opposition to the Zionist project of the Jews, i.e. the state of Israel, becomes tainted with anti-Semitic, i.e. racist, views. It can be secular, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

    The purpose of all this anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, is for its function. It is a useful tool, it gives an answer to any problem: just blame it on the Jews.

    The Problem of the Holocaust

    “The Holocaust has blinded us to modern anti-Semitism.”

    The Deborah Lipstadt trial, in which the right-wing historian David Irving lost a libel case for denying the Holocaust, seemed to show that the threat to Jews still comes from neo-Nazi right. Dr Julius emphatically denies that this is so. The Holocaust, he says, has distracted us from the real threat – the left.

    Dr Julius cites five reasons why the Holocaust has given us an entirely incorrect image of the average anti-Semite:

    1. The Holocaust totalised anti-Semitism

    The Holocaust defined antisemitism as wanting the elimination of all Jews. Today, however, anti-Semites recognise “good Jews” (those running Israel Apartheid Week, for example) and “bad Jews” (those who still who cling to the Zionist project).

    2. The Holocaust was state-sponsored

    This is not the case with anti-Semitism today – in the West, at least.

    3. The Holocaust spoke German

    Anti-Semitism became associated with a particular national source or paradigm. The Holocaust equated anti-Semitism with the Nazi genocidal type.

    4. The threat came from the political right

    This is not the case today; the threat is also from the left. Liberals find it hard to understand the national character of Judaism, which leads to anti-Semitism.

    5. The Holocaust made us think anti-Semitism was genocidal

    That is, thankfully, not the case with English anti-Semitism today.

    Anti-Semitism in the UK today

    Dr Julius sees 1967 as critical in the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK. The increase in Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories between 1967 and 1973 led to the famous / infamous 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. The 1982 Lebanon war did little to enhance international opinion of the Zionist project and concomitant with the rise in anti-Zionism, Dr Julius detects a rise in anti-Semitism.

    This anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism gained strength after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the growth of radical Islam in the UK, empowered by the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall in the same year marked the final collapse of the socialist project and led to increased hatred of the US and Israel from the political left.

    Dr Julius sees the response of the political left to Israeli actions in Gaza, particularly the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement of the trade unions, as “exorcising deep-rooted anti-Semitism.” He also warned that, if the Conservatives won the 2010 UK elections, then things could get worse, as Labour are pushed to the left, back to their traditional power base.

    In the discourse of the political left, Dr Julius sees Jews portrayed as having a demonic quality. The boycott movement characterises Jews as Nazis, a characterisation that is familiar from medieval times, when Jews were called “pigs”.

    But, believe it or not, Dr Julius is optimistic. He says that the dominant English norm is pro-difference, and against any divisive racism, such as anti-Semitism. He says that the empowerment of Muslims is very recent, only since 1989, whereas Jews have a history in the UK going back a millennium.

    Conclusions

    Dr Julius says that historiographical battles have to be fought. He cites the book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh as important for undoing the “Nakba narrative” of the Palestinians. This book essentially blames the Arab elites for betraying the Palestinian people by refusing all negotiations with the Zionists.

    Dr Julius believes that the boycott movement should be fought, in general politically, but where necessary using the unions’ own rule book to block racist policies.

    Dr Julius also argues that Jewish anti-Zionists have got it wrong. Jewish anti-Zionists are a feature of contemporary Jewish politics. From the 1800s to 1945, Jews fell into one of three political camps:

    1. Assimilation: Jews should be individuals in individual states.
    2. Revolution: through socialism, Jews will find equality.
    3. Zionism: the Jews need their own state.

    Dr Julius says that after the Holocaust there was “no politics” until 1967. Then the question became: what is Israel’s future? That is when Jewish anti-Zionists really came to the forefront of Israeli politics. But Dr Julius argues that their diagnoses and prognoses are wrong and because of that they are unwittingly colluding with the anti-Jewish project.

    One of the proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to reform Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories into one state, not as it is now, “a Jewish and democratic state”, but as simply “a democratic state”. Dr Julius describes this proposal as “rubbish”.


    This was an interesting talk. I must confess that I don’t subscribe to his opinion that anti-Zionism goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Anthony Julius was born in 1956, only 8 years after the birth of Israel. He was 12 in 1967, a very impressionable age.

    I’m not saying that some anti-Zionists aren’t also anti-Semites. However, the state of Israel has been around long enough now for most people to be able to distinguish a Jew from an Israeli and, importantly, an Israeli from the state and government of Israel.