Category Archives: Politics

Politics

On political leadership

I think our great failure to find good political leaders today is a deeper issue. I just read a quote by Laurens Van Der Post in which he said: the reason we don’t have leaders is because we don’t want them, that we’ve entered the era of wanting to be self-led and self-directed. I think he would credit this to a rise in human consciousness.

I don’t think we will ever find a heroic leader that will satisfy us again. So we’re in this transition time of wanting a different politics.

I would say that what we want, as it’s clear in a lot of surveys that Yankelovich and others have done, is for our institutions to give us back the authority and the means for taking care of the major issues of our day in our communities, in our schools, in our local health-care facilities, whatever.

I also think that we still have a lot of politicians, as well-intentioned as they are, who just get swept into the dynamics of our political system which turns them very quickly into self-serving, difficult-to-take-a-stand leaders.

Margaret Wheatley

On symptoms and illnesses

In December, I attended a seminar run by Vibe Strøier, one of the leading lights in organizational psychology in Denmark. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a consultant, helping large organisations deal with organisational change.

As she described her experiences and her approach (which I might write more about another time), it struck me how much of her work focused on helping managers and their subordinates cope with changes that they hadn’t had any say in. Put in another way: She helped people deal with the manifold stresses and pressures that were caused by the structures of authority in which they were embedded.

For instance, she used Heidegger’s notion of Thrownness, which describes how we are thrown into a world full of things that we have no way of influencing, to help middle managers accept the limitations of their position — under pressure by managers, subordinates and customers — and focus on the things that they can actually change instead. In a way, it is quite similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which has spread through its association with Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would seem that the working life of a mid-level manager in a large public sector organisation is comparable to the personal crisis associated with something like alcoholism. Which is sad, indeed. Because that would imply that it is just as impossible for a manager to change the power structures in which he is placed, as it is for an alcoholic to not be an alcholic any more (and as they say, once you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking alcohol but you’ll always remain an alcoholic).

Strøier clearly says that what stresses people out in big organisations is having to deal with an opaque power structure that can (and often does) turn their working life upside down without giving them any say in the matter. But even so, she focuses on helping people cope with having to work under the existing conditions (presumably because she finds that it is infeasible to change these underlying power structures).

To me, this poses some fundamental questions:

  • Are you are working to cure the symptoms or the illness?
  • Are you dealing with the underlying structures causing these afflictions or the immediate consequences that they cause?
  • Is it better to be pragmatic and give up an idealistic attempt at changing the bigger system in order to alleviate the immediate suffering?
  • When do you make a stand and fight to make big change happen, and when do you settle for small improvements?

Thinking about this, I find that this is something of a false dichotomy: You can fight to make big changes happen, but most often, what you will get is a lot of small improvements. The key is in the compromise. As Saul Alinsky wrote:

To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.

A free and open society is an ongoing conflict interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum. Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.

But the thing is: To get even those 30 percent ahead, you have to start out unreasonable. You have to demand it all. You have to go for the big change. If you just accept things as they are and try to make them tolerable, they will never improve. In fact, most likely, they will gradually get worse.

Four Yorkshiremen in reverse

Today, I came across an interesting blog post by Dave Snowden who apparently is something of an expert when it comes knowledge management (whatever that is).

Snowden writes about the dangers of rose tinting — that is trying to map out a route to some ideal future instead of working in the present and relating to the real problems at hand.

His point being that idealists tend to be unable to embrace dissent and learn from it, and so they seek and encourage confirmation rather than conflict. That means that when a group of idealistic, like-minded people get together, it can easily devolve into a sort of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch in reverse, where they encourage each other to develop bigger and bigger utopian fantasies that can encompass all needs and suggestions and thus avoid any dissent.


Drawing of the four Yorkshiremen found on Wowox.com

I’ll be the first to admit to having a utopian bent, so for me this is a welcome warning. I do try to be realistic about the scope of what I’m doing. I find the mental image of “Four Yorkshiremen In Reverse” to be a rather powerful reminder of the danger of such rose tinting.

Snowden goes on to say that you won’t change things by lecturing people on how old fashioned their thinking is. This is similar to Euan Semple’s credo that “to rescue someone is to oppress them.”

Instead of lecturing, Snowden suggests that you put people “into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves it’s sustainable.”

That is certainly something to ponder.

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…

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.