They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

“We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

This is the story of Nabeel Taha, an Iraqi radio presenter and cartoonist (that’s his artwork pictured), who fled his home after an exhibition got him into deadly trouble with Daesh. Continue reading “We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep. Continue reading Calais: From Crisis to Community

“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

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.”

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 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.

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.

Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-29 011

The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

Calais June 2015 2015-06-21 063

There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 024

The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 031

The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 020

Critical Mass to Calais: Bikes Beyond Borders

As you may have heard, we’re launching a critical mass-style ride to Calais in solidarity with the migrants who are living there, persecuted by the French and British authorities and ignored by the rest of the EU. Here’s a bunch of answers to frequently asked questions, which should be useful to anyone tempted to come along.

What’s the big idea?

We’re riding bikes to Calais, to give to the migrants who are living there. The best ideas are always the simplest.

Why?

The vast majority of people living in the camp have left their home countries for reasons of war and persecution in search of safety and security. Now, having been forcibly evicted from autonomous camps in Calais to a new tolerated zone, 7km from the town centre, there are in the region of 4000 people, including women and unaccompanied minors, living in conditions of poor sanitation with minimal access to support and services.

See my very short film and a couple of stories on conditions in Calais.

Most cyclists can relate to the sense of freedom, mobility and self sustainability afforded by the bicycle. For people living in the camps, bicycles are an invaluable asset, improving quality of life by increasing access to basic essentials like the local shop and support and advice services, currently an hour’s walk away. Some organisations have already began taking bikes to the camps, but many more are needed.

Where can I find out more about the ride?

This is the event page on Facebook (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view). You can also contact us through Facebook or by email on [email protected]

We will also be holding a little meet and greet picnic on Saturday 15th of August, on The Rye in Peckham Rye (it’s a park) from 1pm. Bring something to share and any bike donations you have!

What is the ride route and schedule?

The ride will end in Calais over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. Those are the only parameters. Everything else is up to the individual riders.

More specifically, we (the original group of friends who came up with the idea) are going to set off from London (or Barnehurst, the last station in the Oystercard zone) at about 10am on Saturday the 29th and cycle along National Cycle Network routes 1 and 177 to Rochester.

Then we’ll head south, through the Kent Downs. We’ll sleep there, approximately 25 miles from Dover. On the Sunday morning, we’ll cycle the last miles and catch an afternoon ferry to Calais.

That’s us, but different riders will do things at different speeds. In any case, ferries will only take a maximum of 20 bikes, so arrival in Calais will be staggered over the Sunday.

Nothing about the ride is obligatory: some riders will only be coming as far as Dover, some will take a train down, some will part train, part ride.

A group of activists are planning a punk gig and pay what you can dinner in Calais on Sunday evening.

Can I come on the ride?

Please do! The more the merrier. All you need to do is:

  • Source your own bike to give away.
  • Pack up your panniers with food and a tent (if you’re staying overnight).
  • Book a ferry to Calais for the Sunday afternoon.
  • Meet us on Saturday the 29th.
  • Get cycling!

Let us know you’re coming through the Facebook event or by email on [email protected]

What will happen when we get there?

We’ll cycle the bikes and hand them over! In the evening, some people are trying to organise a pay what you can dinner and a punk gig, if that’s your sort of thing.

Some people will be staying over on Sunday night as well. You’re welcome to stay or take a ferry back that evening.

How will we get home without our bikes?

You can walk (~2km) from the camp to the port or take a taxi, a bus or hitch a lift. The ferry will take you to Dover and there are regular trains from Dover Priory (30 minute walk from the port) to London. You can also catch a coach from Dover to London, cheap if you book in advance.

What if I’m media and want to film / write about / photograph the ride?

Yes, you’re welcome to come on the ride as well! In fact, that’ll be the best way to share the story. On past excursions to Calais, we’ve had great experiences with sensitive media people coming along with us.

VICE: Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists by Charlotte England.

Sunday Mirror: Children of the Calais camps: Terrified refugee orphans have even lost wasteland they called home  by Gemma Aldridge

How many people are coming on the ride?

This ride is open to everyone and there is no formal sign up procedure – much like Critical Mass or the Dunwich Dynamo, if you are familiar with those rides – so we’re unable to say how many people will be coming.

While we really hope hundreds of people will turn up and “swarm” down to Calais on their freedom machines, Facebook RSVPs are highly unreliable so we can’t really know whether it will be 7, 70, or 700. Hopefully more!

Who is donating the bikes?

You are! The idea is that people coming on the ride will source their own bikes to give away. There are 7 times more unused bikes in garages and gardens in London than out on the roads!

The Bike Project will be donating as many bikes as they can for people to ride down. We’ve also had offers of bikes from as far afield as Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Norwich.

How else can I support the ride?

We’re raising money to cover expenses, like support van fuel and ferry, plus any other bike supplies the migrants might need – bike pumps and helmets, for example. Please donate and share!

Can I interview the ride organisers?

There are no organisers of this event as such. It was the idea of a bunch of friends and it’s really snowballed since then.

Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you’d like to interview the friends who have brain-childed this event is to come along to the social on the 15th of August. We’re hosting a bring-your-own-and-share picnic meetup on Peckham Rye from 1pm. See the Facebook event for a map and more details.

Contact us through Facebook or [email protected] for more information.

Can I interview other ride participants?

We can’t speak for anyone else, but we expect some people will be up for it so long as they are sure you are not going to Daily Mail it up!

Can I interview migrants in Calais?

See my advice to media, journalists and film makers in Calais.

SEE YOU ON THE RIDE, YOU CRAZY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

Advice for Media, Journalists & Film-makers in Calais

Firstly, I don’t consider myself part of the media, a journalist or a film-maker. However, I have published many writings about my experiences in Calais and have produced a short film showing conditions in the camp. I have also spoken to many journalists and film-makers who have gone on to produce content that is very much within the mainstream media, including The Independent, The Sunday Mirror, BBC radio and VICE magazine, as well as independent film-makers, bloggers and magazines.

So, although I don’t consider my primary concern in Calais to be the media – I mostly teach English and make friends – I do think it’s very important to share the stories of the people who live there and to be a part of a information movement that promotes the humanity we share with migrants and refugees, rather than one which protects the material inequality that divides us.

All that is preamble to some basic notes and advice for media producers of all shapes and sizes who want to work in Calais. Please note: this is to be read in addition to my general advice for people visiting Calais.

Before arriving in Calais

Do your research. I don’t mean reading the Daily Mail or even the Guardian. Read the Calais Migrant Solidarity and Passeurs d’Hopitalités (in French) blogs. These are both run by long term activists in Calais and are full of the important day-to-day news that media outlets skip over.

Feel free to contact Calais Migrant Solidarity (check their website for their email address and, more reliably, their phone number) – but do not expect them to do your job for you. They will not set up interviews with migrants and they will not show you around the camp. Most likely, they will guide you to their website.

Working in Calais – short term

If your trip is short – just for the day or perhaps two days – my advice would be to follow simple ethical guidelines. I’m sure you’ve thought of these points already, but I think it’s worth repeating and reiterating.

Don’t film anyone without asking their permission – even from a distance. Many of these people are “illegal” (whatever that means!) and are justifiably suspicious of people wielding video cameras because it might (unlikely, but it might) get them killed or deported. Many don’t appreciate the attention, so don’t assume anything and always ask permission. It was for this reason that I decided not to shoot any people at all for my short film, which made the results suitably bleak!

Be careful not to treat your work, and the migrants themselves, as a means to an end. Frankly speaking, many, many film makers and journalists come to the camp in Calais and I feel that some of them go looking for a big news story or to profit through their line of business from the misfortune of others.

Having said that, many migrants are very eager for media coverage in the hope that it will ameliorate their living conditions or help pave the way to a fair resettlement programme. Your work really could become a small but important contribution to justice for the migrants, but, equally, don’t abuse their hope or make promises that you can’t keep.

If you get too close to the police, they may demand your camera and confiscate your memory cards. Big media companies are usually okay, but smaller indies or activists are at risk. Stay alert.

Working in Calais – long term

If you’re lucky enough to be able to commit a week or two, a month or several trips over the course of a year or years, then congratulations! You will be able to really get under the skin of migration, deep into the stories of migrants and witness the frontline battle that rages. Courage! And remember: the best stories don’t come out of nowhere or overnight.

I first went to Calais in the summer of 2014 and I have been back there many times since. I have seen tear-gassings, evictions, pitched battles with steel bars, cricket matches, film showings and a New Year squat party – but I still consider myself an innocent novice and learn a thousand things every time I visit.

I have made a few friends, who are still unfortunately living in the camp and I feel more and more welcome each time I go back. The last time I was there, teaching English for a week, I slept in the camp and I would suggest this as the best way to get to know people and understand camp life.

However, if you want to stay in the camp, you must:
a) be brave.
b) make friends.

Luckily, most people living in the camp are absurdly friendly, but ultimately it comes down to how personable you are. It’s obvious, but be nice!

On a more practical note, unless you speak good Arabic or Tigrinya, I’d recommend finding someone who speaks English, explaining what you’re doing and, above all, making friends. If you’re one of the good guys, they might invite you to camp with them.

The camp is roughly divided into mini-encampments of 5-20 dwellings, usually split along ethnic lines. There are plenty of Sudanese and Pakistanis who speak decent English – some fluently, no thanks to me! That should get you started.

During your stay at the camp, try to contribute something beyond your project: teach English or how to shoot films, fix bikes or shelters, keep the fire going.

Finally: Remember that this is their home and respect their customs and rules.


If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

NOTE: Conditions in Calais change on an almost daily basis. This advice is based on information from late June 2015.

Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, "Who pays your wages?" I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. "Why are you here, then?"

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty. Continue reading Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

The History of John and Henry and of Frederick

Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.

“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”

“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.

So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:

John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”

I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.

I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?

The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.

The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.

Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.

I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”

I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”

“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”

Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”

“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”

Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.

I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.

The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.

A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

The Open Air Prison of Calais

Riot police look down over the camp from the flyover. From below it looks less like a flyover than a prison wall. Five riot vans stand guard, half a dozen riot cops in each, just looking down on us. I take a piss into the bushes underneath their machine gun gaze. It makes me feel safer.

At the entrance to this open air prison, off rue Garennes, there’s a driveway of asphalt, where two games of football, a set of tennis and a cricket match are in progress, each game modified and adapted to the conditions. Spectators range the banks on either side, while the riot police keep score and umpire (maybe).

Saving four on the leg side are a range of new hire toilets, installed just a couple of days ago in response to a battery of complaints by migrants and by French charities on the migrants’ behalf. Before these new arrivals, toilet facilities were located in the bramble bushes, or a 15 minute walk over sand dunes in the Jules Ferry Centre.

Drinking water taps have also recently been plumbed into the arid ground. Three months of traipsing to and fro for basic facilities such as toilets and water are over. But to call the conditions satisfactory for human existence would be a grievous violation of the definition of the word “satisfactory”.

4,000 people live here, in a bewildering ingenuity of tents, wire fence cages and pallet wood houses. One man from Senegal has even managed to build a traditional house, complete with thatched roof. Another skilled carpenter has constructed a two-storey house of wood, with a twin room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks the road to the Jules Ferry Centre.

But most of the denizens of this sorry open air prison survive in throw-away festival tents, held together with gaffer tape and rope. The wind blows hard enough to rip open my shelter on the first night. The rain soaks heavy in Calais.

These people need proper shelter, they need many more water taps and many more toilets. Above all, they need proper nourishment.

The Jules Ferry Centre, the French government’s concession to humanity, provides one meal a day at 5pm. No breakfast, no lunch, just a kind of a supper, doled out at the end of a three hour queue. Many migrants rise above this desultory charity, preferring to fend for themselves, sharing large communal meals with their communities. Sacks of potatoes stand sprouting in the sun.

Many of the migrants here are Muslims, currently observing Ramadan, not breaking their fast until sundown, long past the 5pm cut-off time for Jules Ferry. From somewhere, the internal economy or networks of solidarity, my Sudanese friends summon up a traditional meal of stew, grilled chicken and hot harissa paste, with rice pudding for dessert, all laid out on a carpet covered with a bed sheet.

We sit and wait, clock watching. My neighbour offers me a date to break the fast. Then the call to prayer bursts out from somebody’s mobile phone. The sun finally dips below the motorway and the Calais sky blushes in embarrassment, silhouetting the riot police as they look on through binoculars.

We can eat.

The Ghetto of Calais

Almost the first sight I saw on my return to France was three Afghans making the walk of shame, back out past the barbed fences, trailed by a crawling Port of Calais car, window wound down.

Not a good sign, I thought.

But the sky was cerulean blue and the wind just freshening as the sun made out like it was going to be here until Christmas; the Afghans looked unbothered and the port authorities merely bored.

Cycling back into Calais town centre, though, I saw no more migrants. Compared to last summer, the streets were empty. Good sign or bad sign? The numbers of migrants here is already supposed to be higher than last year, four thousand by some estimates – so where are they all?

At the beginning of June, numerous camps and squats in the town centre were evicted and closed down. Gone are the Leader Price camp, the Galloo squat and the Egyptian house. These join the earlier evictions of Tioxide and the Afghan camp in the Zone Industrielle des Dunes. Chased from the town centre, their former inhabitants have no more cause to be in Calais. There is nothing for them here.

The mayor’s plan to cleanse the town seems to have worked.

I can’t help but feel a small corner of relief for the people and businesses of Calais who rely for their income on the clean tourist image that the mayor is so eager to portray.

Over the past few years, the people of Calais would struggle to feel pride for their town. Every street corner wore the badge of the failures of French welfare, UK immigration, EU foreign policy and the failures of humanity in general. Now, with the migrants largely corraled and confined away from the town centre, the effect is diluted and visitors can start to forget the “migrant problem”.

So I couldn’t help but feel a little glad that Calaisiens appear to have “their” town back.

But the greater part of me fears for what that absence means. It means up to 4,000 migrants are being forced to live in ever more restricted areas, more tightly controlled by the police and much, much more densely packed.

I fear because I know what happens when you squeeze more and more air into your bicycle tyres. Already this year, fights have broken out between groups of migrants, living in difficult conditions and in unnaturally close quarters in the Jules Ferry camp grounds.

(I won’t call these camps “jungles” because this light-hearted gallows humour name, given to the various wild camps of Calais, has been seized upon by the right wing press and used to promote their portrayal of the migrants as little more than animals, fit only for the jungle. The truth is the other way around: our governments are treating them as animals.)

Recently, tents were set on fire in the camp, in a dispute over control of the parking lot where many migrants try to cross into the UK. A wooden church was also burnt to the ground. The dispute, however, could have been over almost any real grievance or imagined slight – disrespect, drunkenness, a misplaced word – because increasing population density alone causes increasing incidence of violence.

Remember how fractious you get on long coach journeys, confined, packed close together with your fellow travellers who go from being charming strangers to stinking, inconsiderate, corpulent, greedy, selfish freeloaders in the space of just 9 hours.

Add to that the migrants’ growing frustration at a life interrupted by war and blocked by bureaucracy and you have too too much air squeezed into your bicycle tyres. It’s going to burst sooner or later.

I cycled, via the boulangerie, to Richelieu Park, in the centre of Calais. The sun grinds its heel into the yellowing grass. Two young boys share a bicycle, one pedalling, the other standing on the footholds on the back wheel, hands on the shoulders of his mate, looking for all the world like a Roman emperor. This is their empire again. Palm trees stand in rows, while the young take the sun, the elderly the shade.

A year ago, this park, and parks like it, would have been filled with lounging migrants, waiting for the evening and their chance to cross into England. Police, too, would have been strolling the grounds, moving people on in a haphazard, half-hearted manner. Today, both are gone. So too is the Salam food distribution that used to take place on a field behind the nearby town hall. Anything that might attract migrants has been excised from the town centre.

So I cycle for half an hour, out of town. The parks and polished streets of central Calais start potholing as the houses straighten up into apartment blocks and then abruptly flatten out into red-roofed bunglows. I overtake a boy carrying a fishing rod lance-like on his bike. Shopping centres skulk past, warehousing all kinds of cheap comestibles, from rack to ruin.

I cross the river and the wind hits me. Nothing but forty-foot lorries, factories and not much else. The rue Garennes is long and straight, built to service the industrial parks that line its verges. Some are still operational, choking fumes into the evening, others bear only the air of dilapidation and neglect.

This is where the migrants start to appear, on the side of the road, traipsing, schlepping, some carry boxes and bags, baguettes and energy drinks. Some coming towards me, heading into Calais, to try to cross at the Channel Tunnel. Others walk in my direction. I follow the trail underneath a motorway bridge and into the camp.

Here is where I shall sleep tonight. With those four thousand others, out of sight and out of mind.

Migrant Mythbusting!

There are probably as many myths floating around about migrants and migration as there are UKIP voters. (Fascinating fact: there are as many foreign born nationals living in the UK as there are UKIP voters.) In this post, I bust a good few of them:

They’re stealing our benefits!

Let’s make this absolutely clear with a quote from the House of Commons: “Asylum seekers are not eligible for mainstream welfare benefits whilst waiting for a decision on their asylum application.”

Asylum seekers can apply for financial support and accommodation. The accommodation is offered on a “no choice” basis and only outside London and the south-east. Financial support is £36.62 per week for a single adult. Asylum support rates have not increased since 2011, despite the rising cost of living.

In comparison, a destitute British person claiming financial support will receive £72.40 (Job Seekers Allowance) and will be eligible for Housng Benefit.

If migrants were after handouts, then they should stay in France: they have quicker access to housing and benefits there.

This is all despite the fact that, according to a University of London survey of 2001-2011, non-EU immigrants to the UK paid out 2% more in taxes than they received. EU immigrants paid out 34% more. Benefit tourism is a myth.

Well they’re stealing our jobs, then!

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK – unless they have been waiting for a decision on their case for more than a year.

Busted

They’re only coming because we’re a soft touch on immigration!

This could not be further from the truth. The UK’s asylum process is draconian: 65% of applications were rejected in 2013 and we accepted less than 5,000 asylum seekers.

The UK is not seen as a soft touch by migrants either. In 2013, the UK received far less applications for asylum than Germany, the USA, France, Sweden and Turkey. Most countries saw a significant increase in asylum applications between 2012 and 2013; in the same period, the UK’s share of total asylum applications dropped from 6% to 5%. For every 1000 inhabitants, the UK receives less asylum seekers than Belgium, Montenegro, Austria and Leichtenstein.

These are not the statistics of a country that is a soft touch or that is even seen as being a soft touch.

Busted

They should stay at home / in France / anywhere else!

There is a philosophical argument here as well as a practical one. As British passport holders, UK citizens are allowed to travel almost anywhere in the world; in many countries they are allowed also to set up businesses and seek employment. These benefits are no more deserved than a lottery winner “deserves” his winnings. It’s luck. Similarly, being born in Syria at a time when the country suffers terrible drought and civil war, is no more deserved.

Beside this philosophical argument, the truth is that most of these people do stay at home or in other countries. The UK take significantly less asylum seekers than the rest of the EU. Overwhelmingly, the burden of asylum seekers and refugees is absorbed by neighbouring countries. The Syrian civil war has created around 3.8m refugees. There are 1.3m refugees from Syria currently living in Turkey and 1.8m living in Lebanon. In the UK, we have accepted just 24. The ones that do attempt the dangerous journey from their places of birth to the UK face great difficulty claiming asylum.

Legally, the Dublin Regulation states that migrants fleeing to the EU should claim asylum in the first country they come to. Logically, therefore, the UK should never need deal with asylum seekers because they MUST travel through other EU countries in order to reach ours.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the Dublin Regulation was pursued by the rich northern European countries of the EU, particularly the UK and Germany, in order to keep the “asylum problem” as far away as possible.

So why don’t the Calais migrants stay in France?

When asked this question, the main reasons cited by migrants are:

  • They have family and friends in the UK.
  • They speak English.
  • They face racism in Italy and France.
  • There are more jobs in the UK.

This is backed up by the demographic distribution of migrants in Calais. There main groups of people there are from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. If these people speak a foreign language, it is English. Migrants from French-speaking countries such as Algeria do indeed stop in France.

Busted

They’re violent criminals!

Two facts:

  1. After 1996, immigration to the UK rose sharply, from around 300,000 people a year to as much as 600,000 people a year.
  2. After 1996, violent crime in the UK fell sharply, from 4.2 million violent crimes in 1995 to only 1.94 million in 2011/2012.

Independent studies by both Oxford University and the London School of Economics find that there is “virtually no evidence
in any country to suggest links between migration and violent crime”.

Violent crime statistics are matched by property crime statistics: rising immigration in the last ten years is paired with falling property crime rates. What you really want now is a pretty chart:

Falling crime chart

Busted

Britain is full up!

If that’s true, then why are there over 600,000 empty homes in the UK? Why have a third of those been empty for more than six months?

Immigrants make up around 13% of the UK population, a figure that is broadly similar to most other parts of the developed world – Germany, the Netherlands, France, Norway, Spain and the USA all have immgrant populations of around 12-14%.

There are around 7.8m immigrants living in the UK; according to a 2005 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, there are 13.1m British nationals living abroad. I wonder if Australia, Spain and the USA moan about all those Brits clogging up their roads?

Busted

They’re illegal!

Some people may travel to the UK illegally because, unlike you, they are not allowed to travel legally. They might have had their passport confiscated by a military dictatorship; they might have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As soon as they apply for asylum, however, they are legally permitted to remain in the UK until their claim has been assessed. This process, by the way, isn’t exactly a bed of roses. Asylum seekers are often treated as we might treat criminals: by putting them into detention centres or tying them down with electronic tags.

Some people may attempt to work in the UK illegally (because £36.62 a week isn’t an awful lot to live off), but it is highly unlikely that they will be taking jobs from British workers. These “jobs” are run by gangmasters paying as little as £3 per hour – now that’s illegal.

Busted

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.

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

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

Header image © Lia Rädler

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

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!

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

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.”

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

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

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!

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

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.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

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!

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

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?

This is the nineteenth 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 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.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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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.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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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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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.

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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!

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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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Header image © Lia Rädler

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.

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

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Header image © Jakob Isselstein

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!

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

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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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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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.

Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

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…

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