Category: Politics

Politics

Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

I read a lot of superhero comics growing up. And so, I was intrigued when I came across David Graeber’s brilliant essay Super Position, which dissects the super hero genre — comics and movies both — in order to expose the world view these stories propagate.

Most superhero stories follow the same basic pattern: a bad guy begins a project of world conquest or destruction. The hero finds out about it and seeks to stop the bad guy, and eventually succeeds at the last possible moment. Everything returns to normal until the next bad guy (or even the same bad guy) shows up with a new plan.

It’s a variant of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Man in hole” theory: Man falls into hole. Man struggles to get out of the hole. He succeeds. The end. In short: Trouble occurs, and the hero needs to rise to the occasion to fix it. As Graeber writes:

These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own (..) In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas.

Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.

Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

It is easier to imagine yourself as a superhero fighting crime than it is to imagine yourself living in a society where there’s no crime to fight. And it is even harder to imagine how you can help bring about such a society.

It is easier to fight the symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s easier to give to a charity than wonder why charity exists in the first place. As the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.

In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.

And so, our efforts tend to be humble: A party. A conference. A rally. A culture centre. A food coop. A co-working space. A magazine. A website. A free software project: Projects that can be started up with a minimum of money with a little spare time. Not just to minimize the risks of failure but also to minimize the risk of ridicule.

But even though these projects are humble, we must remember that every such effort is monumental: They are acts of imagination. Attempts at creating something new that challenges the status quo. Something new that we want to be part of. Something that we can point to and say “We want more things like this” instead of always opposing the things we don’t want. Such projects allow for bolder dreams and higher hopes. It gives us the courage to imagine. And to act.

David Graeber on the consensus process

… consensus, unlike voting, is not just a way of making decisions. It’s a process. Coming to a decision is just the final step. If one respects the process, the “spirit of consensus” as some like to say, the exact form of that final step is not all-important.

(..)

.. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what this “spirit of consensus” was really all about. It was clearly not just about decision making. It wasn’t even just about conduct during meetings. It was more an attempt — inspired by reflections on the structure and flows of meetings – to begin to imagine how people can live together, to begin – however slowly, however painfully – to construct a genuinely democratic way of life.

(..)

How often does the average American actually sit down, even with a group of four or five people, and try to make a collective decision in which all have equal say? True, children often do it while playing.

But, for adults, the experience of democracy is largely limited to decisions involving food, or maybe movies. For the college-aged, it probably does, indeed, happen most often when ordering a pizza; for older people, mainly when choosing restaurants.

(..)

It seems to me that the conception of “opinion” – personal opinions, public opinion – also follows from the absence of any real experience of participatory decision-making. In American schools, children are always being asked to express their opinions. It’s a heritage of the Deweyan tradition, a quite self-conscious attempt to imbue children with a democratic spirit.

The problem is that these opinions generally have no effect. Schoolchildren may be asked to decide, and express, what they think about everything from US foreign policy to the organization of gym class, but they are also perfectly well aware that these opinions have no influence on those actually making decisions, even within the school. This continues throughout life.

(..)

.. theorists from Rousseau to Rawls always assume that citizens start with a set of pre-existing interests (usually presumed to be basically material) and then see political deliberation – what an anarchist would call “process” – as the way they compete, compromise, maneuver, and generally try to get as much as possible of what they already know they want.

The notion of “opinion” fits perfectly with this logic. Opinions are also presumed to be pre-formed. At best, they can be manipulated or influenced. They can only be seen that way if no deliberation is really going on, apart perhaps from conversations in bars or over dinner. If one observes how processes of deliberation actually work, it’s completely impossible to see the actors as simply bringing pre-existing “opinions” or “interests” into some political marketplace.

In the process of deliberation – any political deliberation, really, though consensus process is designed to maximise this – everyone is changing their minds constantly, learning new information, identifying with different perspectives, reframing issues, measuring and weighing considerations in different ways.

(..)

“Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, let me try a different approach,” Alexis announced during one debate within Ya Basta!

“Why not?” replied Moose, “Hell, I’ve already contradicted myself at least three times just in this one meeting.”

From David Graeber: Direct Action — an ethnography, p. 318-320.

The development of democracy

I’ve started a new writing project over at the Borgerlyst blog. It is a longer essay on the development of democracy. Of course, there is no one model and understanding of democracy that can match all of the ideas that are related to democracy. So I’m trying to focus on a Danish context (the essay is written in Danish, too).

I’m writing the essay in installments, and there’ll probably be around 15 installments in total. I’ll publish two installments a week, and the first post in the series is up on the Borgerlyst blog now.

So why am I undertaking this project? I think we can learn a lot from how our current understanding and use of democracy has developed. It can help us explore the values that we have come to take for granted. But it can also help us see that the only constant element in democracy is that fact that it has undergone development and change throughout its history. Constantly evolving to match the values and conflicts in our society. And I hope such an exploration can help initiate a bigger conversation on the development of democracy in 21st century.

It is with great humility that I undertake this project. I’m no democracy expert. I am not writing this to expound some great truth. I am writing this to learn. And I hope that you’ll come along and learn with me. The text is in a continual state of beta. In development – much like the democracy that it endeavours to describe.

I’m writing this to show that democracy is not some single and simple model and solution to be implemented and maintained. It is an unending process that we have to develop together, learning from our mistakes as we go along. And as this history also will show, democracy can easily be lost once we begin to take it for granted…

That ever-gnawing inner doubt

One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated.

Saul Alinsky

Civic urges

Today, my friend Nadja Pass and I are launching the first part of our project “Borgerlyst”.

Borgerlyst logo

The word Borgerlyst is a Danish portmanteau of Nadja’s invention. It consists of the two words Borger (meaning citizen) and Lyst (roughly meaning lust, urge, delight, inclination). In short, a sort of civic urge. It is meant as a sort of play on the phrase ‘civic duty’. Whereas civic duty is all the obligations, rules and expectations society forces upon you, civic urge is something like the opposite.

It is the feeling that you get when you feel a positive connection to the society around you. It can both be a sense of privilige for being able to take part and act in democratic processes, but more often it comes across as a sense of positive indignation. Every time you experience something in your life that also affects others in the same way, and you think “this could be a whole lot better”, you’re feeling that positive indignation, a civic urge to improve the world around you for the benefit of all. And when you succeed in realising such improvements, you will feel a civic delight.

Borgerlyst as a project focuses on building greater awareness around such civic urges, and make it easier for us as citizens to connect with others who share our civic urges and initiate projects to realise our civic urges. We hope that by building a positive framing around such civic engagement and participation, people will be more likely to take positive action together, rather than resorting to skeptical complaining or cynical blame games whenever they come across something in need of improvement.

A fundamental idea behind Borgerlyst is the notion that neither democracy nor society will ever be perfected, but is in a state of continuous development. It is in beta. That is to say: We have certain structures and procedures that generally work but there is still plenty of room for improvement. It is an acceptable error state that depends on our being present and engaged. And the drive that keeps us engaged in this way is our civic urge.

Today, we launched our Facebook page and in the coming month, we’ll launch our website at borgerlyst.dk as well. The whole project is focused on Denmark and will be in Danish, but we’d be most happy if the project can be an inspiration for similar initiatives elsewhere. If you’re curious to learn more, let me know.

Open Source Villages

Today, I came across a presentation called “How to Build a Post-Scarcity Village Using Existing Technology“, which introduces a project called Open Source Ecology.

The people behind the project argue that we already have the technological foundations needed to ensure a sustainable and pleasant standard of living, and that with some effort, these technology can be made available at the cost of “scrap metal + labor”. They’re currently experimenting with easy-to-make prototypes of what they consider to be the technology necessary to bootstrap such a village. The goal is to make a “Global Village Construction Set” with open sourced blueprints, documentation, permaculture designs and descriptions that will enable a small determined group anywhere in the world to build such sustainable communities of their own.

As an example of what such a future of resilient communities might look like, they point to a piece of speculative fiction called The Unplugged. In this future, the unplugged are a group of people who voluntarily leave society and the main economy behind. They build on the idea that if we save up enough money, we can all live off that wealth for the rest of our lives (This is the classic capitalist dream of “getting off at the top”, cashing out and living like you want to for the rest of your life).

Unplugging inverts this notion to some extent by offering the opportunity “buy out at the bottom” and build an independent life-support infrastructure and financial architecture – a society within society at the cost of just three months of wages to get started. Of course, then you’ll have to learn how to live such an unplugged life, and work everyday to ensure your own survival – but you’ll be living sustainably and independently.

I find the whole notion of Open Source Ecology to be fascinating, but it seems to me that the people involved in the projects are more interested in the technical and agricultural aspects of building a sustainable village than in the social aspects. In their presentation, they appear to be aware of this themselves as they’ve sketched out a sort ofsocial contract for their experimental village. Though its rough and unfinished nature is apparent in statements such as “can people simply get along?”

I expect they’ll discover that the hard part about building a replicable sustainable village won’t be the technology part but the getting along part.

The myth of perfection

One of the bloggers I read regularly is the American journalist Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis provides insight into the changing media landscape, and has written a book called “What Would Google Do”, which uses Google as a case in point of these changes.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is what Jarvis calls the “the end of the myth of perfection.” His point being that we need to get used to thinking products in a web-minded manner: Always in beta, releasing early to learn and collaborate and improve:

This is of course very similar to the open source mindset I’ve studied in my fieldwork, but I find Jarvis says it well. And not only that, he only also makes it clear that this is not just relevant for software developers, but for almost every walk of life. We have to let go of the notion that we’ll ever achieve perfection, and instead focus on how to provide the best circumstances for continual improvement. The new world order is a permanent state of acceptable errors and continuous improvement.

Jeff Juris’ “Networking Futures”

Some time ago, I read Networking Futures by Jeff Juris. A trained anthropologist, Juris spent 18 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork among anti-corporate globalization activists in Barcelona at the height of the protests against the neo-liberal economic institutions in 2000-2002.

Juris’ main argument is simple enough: That the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movements involve a growing a confluence of forms (organisational structures), norms (political models and ideals), and technologies (the computer infrastructure – typically mailing lists – through which the movement interacts).

Juris points out that these networks are not inherently democratic (they are basically structured in the same distributed manner as Al Qaeda). Rather, the activists continually seek to build networks that promote their core values of participatory democracy, self-organisation and fierce egalitarianism.

Juris concludes his chapter on these participatory democratic practices by quoting one of his informants on his motivations for being involved beyond replacing “the current system of representative democracy”:

One of the things that motivates me these days is trying to figure out how we should organize democracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, given the technological infrastructure at our disposal and new forms of economic integration. How do we deepen our local democratic practices – at work and in our neighbourhoods – and transfer that spirit to the global level?

Throughout the book, Juris circles around this question of democratic practices and involvement, and he uses his book to explore a wide range of aspects of the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movement, including the direct action tactics, the participatory democratic coordination within affinity groups, shifting alliances between various groupings within the movement, the World Social Forums, and the use of digital platforms like Indymedia.

Juris does a decent job of presenting these experimental democratic practices, but I found myself growing ever more annoyed at Juris’ stance – for two reasons:

One: Every chapter ends up concluding that the democratic experiment presented is a confluence of norms-forms-technologies, but Juris doesn’t ever get into what that really means. Because there are so many different practices to describe and explain, Juris ends up spending the entire book focusing on ethnographic descriptions and anecdotes, leaving little room for analyzing and discussing the implications of these practices.

And so, every chapter ends up posing more interesting questions than the ones it sought to answer: What about those deepening local democratic practices? It’s too early to tell, apparently.

Two: Because of the focus on ethnographic description, Juris carefully seeks to position himself as an ethnographer. But even so, he is deeply sympathetic to the cause and committed to providing the movement with helpful research (and, he promises, not just in furthering his academic career).

That means he is caught up in a weird-role as a double agent: Both working for academia in understanding the anti-corporate globalization movement, as well as working for the anti-corporate globalization movement to help them understand themselves better – a position he calls militant ethnography:

For the militant ethnographer the issue is not so much the kind of knowledge produced, which is always practically engaged and collaborative, but rather, how is it presented, for which audience, and where is it distributed?

In “Networking Futures”, Juris talks very much to the academic audience, apologetically describing every element of his political involvement, reflecting on his role as a scientist in a field of subjective opinions, many of which he happens to agree with.

The result is a sort of tightly self-moderated eye-witness ethnography which describes the historical events of the anti-corporate globalisation movement in minute detail but dismisses the grander opportunity to explore where that movement are heading since those heady days of protests and social forums.

Considering this, I find that my main gripe with this book is that it isn’t what I wanted it to be. I had hoped for a book written by an activist full of passion and vision for a better, more democratic and positively human future – like David Graeber‘s excellent Possibilities. Instead, I got a somewhat anemic, academic work that does a decent job at explaining the past but offers little forward thinking.

I hope that Juris does have visions for a brighter future as well, and that he’ll share them with us all at some point.

Unto this last

Some time ago, I happened upon a short essay by Alain de Botton in an issue of Monocle (the article isn’t online, it seems). The essay is a new year’s prediction for 2009. Based on the continuing economic crisis, de Botton argues that we will turn to new paths:

I believe 2009 will be the year when the question of how society should be arranged will cease to be an idle, abstract topic, dwelt upon by ivory-tower-intellectuals after a few glasses of wine, and will instead enter the workday mainstream with a vengeance.

These discussions, de Botton predicts, will lead to the rediscovery of thinkers such as Karl Marx and John Ruskin. Most have heard of Marx, but I knew little of Ruskin. So, inspired by de Botton’s article, I read Ruskin’s essay Unto this last.

Written in 1860, “Unto this last” reads as the foundation of many of the tenets of the welfare state we know today: minimum wage, public health care and schools, unemployment benefits, and so on. The title is a reference to Christ’s parable of the vineyard, which Ruskin uses to support his argument that all workmen should receive equal pay, as they all have the same needs, even if they haven’t worked equally hard.

And that touches upon a central part of Ruskin’s argument: That merchants, manufacturers, capitalists have a social obligation above that of merely making a profit for themselves. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers all have an honour code integral to their profession that are easily recognized as central to the well-being of their society:

The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.
The Pastor’s to teach it.
The Physician’s to keep it in health.
The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.
The Merchant’s to provide for it.
And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.
“On due occasion,” namely: –
The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.
The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
The Pastor, rather than teach Falsehood.
The Lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.

Similarly, the merchant is obliged to ensure both the quality of the products he provides, as well as his word in his engagements with his customers and employees.

Basically, what Ruskin is advocating is a sort of primordial Corporate Social Responsibility: That corporate entities are obliged to focus on the needs of the people it interacts with above mere profit maximisation. Acquiring material wealth in its own right is of little value, it is only the life you lead, as he concludes, forcefully: “There is no wealth but life.”

I found a great introduction to Ruskin’s work in this documentary, which also explains in greater detail how he meant the above statement to be interpreted. It is also some of the best and most compelling art history I’ve ever seen:

Ruskin, a very conservative man in many regards, saw society like an organism or a natural habitat or an eco-system: all its parts completely interdependent, constantly striving to maintain equilibrium. Wealth, then, is our ability to help those around us, as well as being helped when we need it. But whenever this mutual aid ceases and parts of the system care only for their own self-interest, that is what Ruskin calls corruption.

Ruskin saw capitalist industrialization as such corruption – a disruption of interdependent equilibrium of old, where artisans infused their work with their individual creative soul, combining home life and work life in one harmonious whole (Ruskin had some fairly romantic ideas of what medieval life was like).

What I find so compelling is Ruskin’s insistence that mutual aid ought to be a matter of honour above petty personal concerns and ambitions. All professions should mind the well-being of society as a whole as well as their individual self-interest, for we are all dependent on one another. Doctors, teachers (well, pastors at Ruskin’s time), soldiers and lawyers all have clear honour codes, ritually established through oaths, pledges and creeds defining their professional obligations to society.

But merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and the like lack such an honour code. And in the past 40 years (or more), they have embraced the neo-liberal notion that the market – and individuals’ rational economic self-interest – would provide the necessary means to maintain society.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

And now more than ever, merchants and others providing goods and services to a society should be expected to be as honourable as every other professions. Especially in a globalised world where the consequences of one’s actions – both socially, economically and environmentally – might not be immediately evident.

What might such an honour code look like? Well, Ruskin offers a rough idea:

In all buying, consider,
first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy;
secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands;
thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put;
and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed;
in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity: watching at the same time for all ways of gaining, or teaching, powers of simple pleasure, and of showing in simple things which even the poor enjoy — the sum of enjoyment depending not on the quantity of things tasted, but on the vivacity and patience of taste.

Today, there several attempts at making such merchant honour codes. There is the UN Global Compact, the Fair Trade certification, even the International Co-operative Alliance’s statement of co-operative identity.

But I find that there are two problems with all of these:

One: There are very limited options for sanctions against any member who breaks the rules. They are not legally binding in any way. For such an honour code to work, it needs to have clear cultural, social and legal implications – similar to the pledges of other professions. Ideally, it would be something like a GPL license for ethical business conduct.

Two: They focus on companies, businesses or products, and not for individuals. Taking social responsibility is not something that an incorporated entity can do on behalf of its employees and shareholders. It is an ethical commitment that each individual must make and believe in. In a way, it is a return to the more spiritual meaning of Christ’s parable: Unto this last will be expected the same ethical commitment.

One way of doing this may be to return the ideas of the co-operative movement: Where each stakeholder – employee, customer, supplier – has an equal say as well as ethical commitment and responsibility for the conduct of the business as a whole. I find that the co-operative movement, anchored locally and centered around a shared code of conduct may well have a renaissance with the emergence of new digital social tools. But I’ll have to ponder this some more.

Input is welcome.

Why Free Software is important

Mako Hill, one of the founding members of Ubuntu whom I interviewed as part of my thesis fieldwork, posted a brilliant explanation of the importance of free software:

Suppose I see a beautiful sunset and I want to describe it to a loved one on the other side of the world. Today’s communication technology makes this possible. In the process, however, the technology in question puts constraints on message communicated. For example, if I pick up my cellphone, my description of the sunset will be limited to words and sounds that can be transmitted by phone. If I happen to have a camera phone and the ability to send a picture message, I will be able to communicate a very different type of description. If I’m limited to 150 characters in an SMS message, my message will be constrained differently again.

The point of the example is this: the technology I use to communicate puts limits and constraints on my communication. Technology defines what I can say, how I can say it, when I can say it, and even who I can say it to.

This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the nature of technology. But it means that those who control our technology control us, to some degree. As information technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, the way we experience, understand, and act in the world is increasingly controlled by technology and, by extension, by those who control technology.

I believe that the single most important struggle for freedom in the twenty first century is over the question of who will set these terms. Who will control the technology that controls our lives?

Free software can be understood as an answer to this question: An answer in the form of an unambiguous statement that technology must be under the control of its users. When free software triumphs, we will live in a world where users control their technological destiny. We simply cannot afford to fail.

Far too many of us fail to acknowledge the importance of controlling the technology we use. We don’t realise how much we depend on these tools and services, and how many unconscious comprises we make everyday in using non-free software. Sure, you and I may not be able to appreciate the openness of free software that allows hackers to develop and extend the software according to their needs. But I would much rather depend on people who I know and trust rather than corporations whose leadership might change from one day to the next.

So to show my support of Free software, I’ve joined the Free Software Foundation. Richard Stallman may be an uncompromising zealot – but when it comes to keeping technology free, that’s actually kind of reassuring. 🙂