The Jamie Oliver of anarchism

David Graeber is sort of the Jamie Oliver of anarchism: he demystifies the ideas and practices of modern activism and explains complex issues in a non academic language.

What makes him stand out as a left wing political thinker is also his actual experience of practical political organising, from the globalisation movement and Occupy Wall Street. That puts him in a special line of writers, like when Che writes about guerrilla warfare or Lenin about the state and the revolution. You don’t have to agree with these people to find their point of view relevant for discussion.

Unfortunately, this is also something that alienates him from “mainstream” Marxism. Most people in these circles base their ideas about organisation on the structure of the labour movement a hundred years ago. But lets face it, the organisational structure of the dominant protest movements of the last thirty years has been completely dominated by anarchist and feminist ideas.

I take the blame for the millennials

In ’97 I was a quinoa-eating, gender-confused, yoga practising vegan, buying second hand clothes and de-cluttering my room.

Me and others like me took the fight for the kind of lifestyle that the millennials take for granted. We fought against parents, the school cafeteria and the general perception to normalise all these things that we thought constituted a better lifestyle.

I don’t regret any of these things, yoga really helps my back problems. The sadness in retrospect comes from knowing that all these things didn’t help create a demilitarised, direct democratic society with economic equality, which I also hoped for in 1997.

While the millennials have a wider range of options when it comes to a lot of important choices in life, they are much worse off than my generation when it comes to some of the basic conditions of life — they have more unemployment, more income inequality, less housing and more mental health issues.

And I take part of the blame for that. Capitalism has an astonishing ability to co-opt and commodify every subversive act that doesn’t directly threatens its existence. So while I think it can be a good thing to have an alternative culture and lifestyle, that culture also needs to take some swings at the people that benefit from the exploitation of most of us. And I don’t think we did that enough.

Are we safe yet?

If you have been to cognitive behavioural therapy, which is pretty standard now if you go to a therapist, you will know that they will look at what kind of safety behaviours you do. These are behaviours that make us feel good in the short run, but sustain our problems in the long run, like for example drinking alcohol or overeating to deal with your anxiety. The kind of things that our mind tricks us into thinking will make the problem go away, when in reality it only makes things worse.

I think a lot about this when I’m at airports. Many of the tedious things we do before boarding a plane is explained to us as “security measures”: putting your deodorant in a little plastic bag, getting searched, answering questions about who packed your bag. A lot of these extra measures were introduces or strengthened as a part of the War on terror over fifteen years ago. So with all the effort, time and money going into security, we should all feel extremely safe by now.

Is it far fetched to think that there is a collective anxiety at play here, and that we in Europe and the US deal with it in any way possible that does not actually look at the causes of terrorism, immigration and war? That we rather go through another security check, put our liquids in a plastic bag and take off our shoes before we go through the metal detector, just to feel that quick fix of security?

Pirates as democratic role models

A cool thing about pirates, that I only learned just recently, (the other ones being obvious: a bad-ass flag etc etc) is that they were extremely democratic, both in political and economic matters.

By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris —, Public Domain,

The 17th century pirates, during the golden days of ship-robbing in the Caribbean, elected their captains and quarter masters (the person responsible for the staff) and divided their loot equally among the staff, with some extra stuff for the captain (a cooperative counselling company in my city does the same thing, equal pay for everyone but an “anxiety bonus” for the coordinator, who gets to deal with some of the more anxiety creating stuff, like managing the workforce. Fair enough. The captain had to lead the battles, which probably also kept him awake at night once in a while).

This is maybe not what you would expect from violent outlaws, especially at a time when the rest of society, and in particular the other ships, had strict and brutally enforced hierarchies with no room for voting or fair distribution of wealth.

The pirates had in one way or another fled that oppressive society, knowing that if they got caught they would face a certain death. They were good fighters with nothing to lose, which ultimately made them impossible to govern. A despotic or unpopular captain wouldn’t last long with them, and an unfair distribution of the loot would create a mutiny. There was only one way to run a ship with these kind of people — with a just and democratic system that everyone could agree on.

Trying to think rationally about the nation state

There is this weird void in rational thinking when it comes to the state, and it really confuses me.

The far right holds a belief in the state that is somewhat religious. It’s unclear exactly what they love about it, and the affection don’t seem to be based on any rational ideas. They clearly don’t love everybody living in the particular geographic area at this given time, not even the ones who’s relatives have lived there forever. Historically they’ve also been known to mess with the nation state’s geographic borders, which really is the only thing that defines it from other states.

The conservatives and neoliberals seem to have a pretty clear idea about what the state is for: they let it do all the policing and warfare and leave the decision making to the capitalists. They also like the state to bail out crooked bankers if needed. What’s confusing about them is that they pretend to dislike the state, but really just want it do all the dirty work.

The whole spectrum of the left is confused on a much higher level: “it will fade away”, “we need to control it”, “it’s the enemy” and so on. Neither the communist/social democratic or anarchist camp ever get into any deep discussions about this (believe me, I’ve read their books).

My main question are: 1) Is the nation state a relevant tool to solve the big problems that humanity is facing right now? 2) Is it a practical entity to decide on day to day issues or administer our common wealth?

If we forget about the police and military for a while (which can and often is organised locally, regionally or internationally anyway), we’re left with the governing. I would say that decision making basically is about trying to solve common problems. The thing about common problems is that they need to be addressed on the right level. Kind of what the EU calls “subsidiarity” (“the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level”). It goes the other way too — you can’t solve an international problem in your local council. And geographically, it’s hard to solve a problem that happens somewhere else. In practise, this means that my city is a good place to decide about how to build our local park or how to deal with the trash, but not so good for solving the war in Syria or take international measures against climate change. That could be dealt with regionally in the Middle East (yes, that means that the US should stay out of it) or globally.

So it comes down to which entity is the right one to deal with any given problem. These entities don’t need to be geographically based, since we have ways to communicate with other people than those within shouting or horse riding distance.

So for my first question earlier, there’s the world market, climate change, global poverty and war. I would say the answer is no. These are problems on a global or at least continental level and we need to deal with them on that level. For the second question I guess it sort of depends on the issue. I might be confused about this, but I can’t really see for which particular problems the state is the exact right entity. I’m sure there are specific cases, but often it’s probably better to deal with things on a more local level.

I think this confusion has major political consequences. People feel alienated from national politics because it’s just not able to deal with things the right way. The traditional left (in a small country like mine) that still pretends it can set economic policies on a national level, will surely lose support, because people see that it’s just not working. The conservatives benefits from this, because they can still use the state for policing, but they never touch the real challenges people are facing. The far right is probably the ones taking the issues of decision making most seriously, but all they’ve got is a short term strategy of isolating each country (and being assholes to people they don’t like).

What’s lacking, especially in the left, is just some political imagination. There is no god given choice between a super strong nation state or everybody just hunting and gathering. We can organise in any shape or size, and we can’t expect one entity to solve all of humanities problems, be it the nation state, the UN or your local squat pub. But we have to be very practical about addressing some life threatening problems on the right level now, or we’re done.

Trapped between network and hierarchy

Technologically, we are headed for zero-priced goods, unmeasurable work, an exponential takeoff in productivity and the extensive automation of physical processes.

Socially, we are trapped in a world of monopolies, inefficiency, the ruins of a finance-dominated free market and a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’.

… everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.

Paul Mason, PostCapitalism

Paul Mason sums up the conflict of systems on a societal level pretty well. The dying hierarchy and the emerging network. But what messes with you on a personal level is not just the hierarchy, but the fact that you’re constantly being trapped between the two systems.

Like when your boss finds your Instagram account where you make memes about your sexual identity and mental health issues. Which is really empowering on a personal level but not very good for your sales career. Or you are expected to check your work email when you are sunbathing on the Canary Islands. Which would be fine if all you ever did was chilling and checking the occasional email, but you’re trapped in an office most of your time, and your free time is precious as fuck. Or you’re unemployed and can’t pay your rent, cause thanks to automation we don’t have work that much. But it’s not like you’ll see the benefits of that.

The new celebrities of social media are the ones that supposedly have found a way of escaping the hierarchy altogether to only live in the network. My uneducated guess is that the people who pull that off are either:

  1. Exceptions, which are allowed in the hierarchy to make it look like there is an escape from the system if you’re lucky, talented or hard working.
  2. Really poor, but keeping up appearances.
  3. Selling the dream of living in the network to people who want to believe it. Like those inspirational speakers who talk about having a start-up, but make all their money from public speaking, not the actually start-up.

And no, having other people work for you is not a way out of the hierarchy, it’s a way of sustaining and prolonging an exploitative system.

I had a worker-owned cooperative for some years and thought that might be a way out, but it mostly just worked according to the same hierarchical logic, with the difference that we got to be our own exploiters.

There might be a forth way, and I’ll definitely do what I can to try to find it. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Algorithms are making internet into a small town

There is a sense of familiarity to how Facebook’s and other Internet giants’ algorithms are presuming what we want or don’t want to see. Having grown up in a small town in the 90’s I know what it is like when you only get exposed to cultural influences from the people in your immediate surrounding and with similar views and ideas.

As the Internet giants increasingly use algorithms to predict what we like and steer our preferences, what they really are doing is to replicate a small town.

What used to be so great about the Internet was that it offered a way out of this. You could explore political views, culture and ideas from anyone, anywhere, just based on what you searched for. Growing up without any other options that playing football, hockey or being a nerd it opened up immense possibilities to explore any subculture ever heard of.

The difference now is that Facebook rather wants me to see what people in my own area, with supposedly similar views, are up to. That sort of narrow-mindedness was the reason I moved to a bigger city when I was 18. Now I need to move to more open minded parts of the Internet.

Designing a guiding app for digital democracy

This is a description my project for as a part of the Collective Intelligence for Democracy workshop in November 2016 for MediaLab Prado Madrid.

In Sweden, more young people use Facebook every day than who voted in the last general election. This is an international trend, and most certainly does not come down to lack of interest in politics from young people, but from outdated and excluding tools and processes for democratic participation.

Digital tools open up completely new possibilities for instantaneous participation, discussions and decision making, without relying on geographical proximity. If traditional political instances and organisations do not adapt to new ways of working and thinking, they will keep losing trust and members. If they take advantage of the new possibilities of participation they will have enormous potential.

In the rest of Europe, we look up to you in Spain. You have found ways of implementing some interesting digital services in your local municipalities, political parties and NGO:s, and the rest of Europe has a lot to learn from you.

So we know that there are a lot of interesting tools already available, that needs to be tested and evaluated in local contexts.

In my organisations, Digidem Lab and ABF Göteborg, we are planning a long term project starting next year together with Sweden’s Local Municipalities, the Green Party, The National Council of Swedish Youth Organisations, Young People with Disabilities and Young Media. The project will research new ways for young people to get involved with digital democratic processes.

What we have seen in the run up to this project is that there is a demand for new technology, both in municipalities, parties and NGO:s. But also an urgent need for concrete examples of implementation, cost efficient solutions and practical guidance. And we think that this also is true in an international context.

Digidem Guide, the project that we will develop during this workshop, is an app guiding organisations to the digital tools that meet their specific needs for direct democratic participation via the Internet. The app will help organisations to find the right tools for digital democracy based on criteria like field of application, scope, need for security, technical knowledge and licensing.

The target group is decision makers in NGO:s, political parties and local municipalities. By developing it in an international context with all the valuable experiences from other team members, we will widen the reach to an international audience.

The project’s aim is to make existing tools available to a wider audience without technical knowledge or previous experience in the field. By broadening the user base we will also be able to get better feedback on the tools to help proceed the development further.

As a web strategist who has worked for NGO:s for about fifteen years, I know that it takes time to introduce new technologies and new ways of working. Having said that, there is often a willingness in organisations to find ways to get people involved and widen the reach of the organisation.

My experience is that usability is the key to succeeding in introducing new digital services. We need to be sure that the new tools and workflows that we introduce are as intuitive and user friendly as possible. To be honest, that is not always the case with open source applications. Therefore, to make the tools work for everyone, we need to involve people from all sorts of backgrounds and levels of technical experience who are willing to do user tests and evaluations, and help developers and designers in finding the right tools for the right task.

The development and design of the app will be focused on early user testing with the whole team, and I would therefore very much welcome the participation of activists, politicians and NGO representatives in the process.

The development of the app will kick off with an the initial workshop where we share ideas and visions for the project, after which we will all start researching and collecting tools to document in the app.

As I said earlier, focus then will be on creating an early prototype, with open source app frameworks, that can be tested by the whole team. We will prioritise the three most important improvements, and work on them until the next iteration of user testing and development. The process will be repeated three times, while we will also integrate a shiny user interface and a user friendly back-end for adding content. After that, we will be ready to launch the app as a web interface and eventually an Android and iPhone app!

I am very much looking forward to this workshop, as an opportunity to combine experiences from Sweden and the Spanish and international community, and to find ways of networking and collaborating on an international scale.

People you can trust

My monthly round up of positive news and strategies for social change, the August 2016 issue. Subscribe here.

There are some people who you just know can trust. Who have organised and stood up for justice before, who are doing it now, and will most likely keep doing it in the future. Here a a few of them that did great stuff in August:

The people of Barcelona, the amazing story of one of the most progressive cities in Europe:

The teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, fighting for higher wages and against corruption:

Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, still standing up against capitalism (the TPP agreement which no-one knows what it is about but it’s an international secret trade agreement, so it’s probably not about basic income and better bike lanes)

The Greek anarchists, still standing up for refugees and against police repression:

Indigenous American activists (with some backup from Leonardo DiCaprio) are taking on a oil pipeline in North Dakota:

Also, there is now an app for you if you’re a refugee caught in the German bureaucracy:

Rihanna and Snoop join the revolution

My monthly round up of positive news and strategies for social change, the July 2016 issue. Subscribe here.

While all the lights are on the presidential candidates at the moment, the grass-roots movements for social change and racial equality are gaining momentum in the US. Black Lives Matters protesters have been shutting down highways and Bernie Sanders’ supporters are taking to the streets. According to activist and reverend Osagyefo Sekou the new political awakening will take new forms:
 “The occupation of public space, the rejection of traditional leadership and calling into question systems that previous generations sought to become a part of.”
 “The age of Ferguson demands that we ask a different set of questions,” he added. “Much of it is not going to happen in electoral politics; it’s going to be young people in the streets. I am not saying don’t vote. I am saying vote and. Voting is not the end goal. Voting is harm reduction.”
 The last month has also seen hordes of artists and performers turning into political activists. Beyoncé told her fans to contact their congressional representatives, Snoop Dog and the Game met with new police cadets and T.I. joined protest marches.
 All the artists getting on board also has the upside that there’s a new playlist for the uprising:
 In the UK, some guy named Smith (who is a basic Drowzee) is challenging Jeremy Corbyn (a mighty Charizard) for the leadership of the Labour Party. Hopefully, this will push the party to become against nuclear weapons again.
 And Snowden is designing a cool phone case:
 See you next month!

Your generation is going to fix this 🛠

My monthly round up of positive news and strategies for social change, the June 2016 issue. Subscribe here.

The parliamentarians of the British Labour Party tries to blame Brexit, England’s elimination from Euro 2016 and the loss of their empire on Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s grass roots showed their support for Corbyn in their thousands at a spontaneous rally outside of parliament.
 Spain had their second election in half a year and new left wing party Podemos are closing in on the social democrats and widening the gap to hipster neoliberal Ciudadanos.
 Here’s Chantal Mouffe on Brexit and the Spanish elections:
 Is there an European revolt going on? Yes, and you can read about it in this book!
 Or in the New Left Review:
 “Your generation is going to fix this” — Michael Moore has hope for the future.

The time I almost shared a stage with Julian Assange, Slavoj Žižek and Yanis Varoufakis and the…

In a weird series of event in the last four months, I almost got to share a stage with Julian Assange, Slavoj Žižek and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister.

Like many others, I was horrified by the treatment of the Greek people at the hands of creditors, bankers and European politicians.

To get the full story of what happened I started to follow the Greek finance minister’s blog, where he published transcripts from the Eurogroup meetings. A professor in economics, describing himself as an ”erratic marxist”, he shouldn’t really care about saving European capitalism, but did anyway. Because he thought that the alternative was going to be worse. He seemed like the most trustworthy person in the whole Euro circus.

After the Greek defeat, Yanis started a tour of Europe to get his story out and form what seemed like a all-star network of European leftists.

I was on parental leave at the time, maybe a little bit restless. And I’ve been involved in struggles against powerful institutions in the past, so in October last year I spontaneously sent him an email:

I saw the interview with Aaron Bastani where you were calling for mass civil disobedience to democratize Europe! I’ve been involved in various European action groups (mainly NATO- and nuclear weapons related) and would be happy to help setting something up through contacts in different parts of Europe, maybe as a part of this network you’re organising?

The reply came after exactly one hour:

Excellent. Will be in touch.

My first email wasn’t that thought through, and I didn’t really expect an answer. But now I was apparently in on something! I got some contacts together and sent over, and eventually got a reply that he was busy working on a manifesto for the network. I got an early copy of it to comment on, which felt cool.

Not much happened after that, until suddenly on Christmas Eve (not a holiday for revolutionaries), I got an invitation for the launch of the new network, Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM).

After reading the email five times — Yanis style of writing is long-winding and dramatic to say the least — have a look at the long version of the manifesto at the DiEM website and you will know what I mean — I still wasn’t sure if I had become some kind of central figure in this thing and what was expected from me now. But it seemed like I was going to give a speech in Berlin on the 9th of February.

The launch is scheduled for Tuesday 9th of February. During that day, two important meetings will take place:

1. A public meeting in the main theatre that will feature a short video … a short presentation … followed by short speeches from central figures in this (you would be one, if you care to join).

2. A private meeting of the central figures (to plan the next steps), and, separately, of volunteers who will be (wo)manning the organisation.

This raised a lot of questions. None of which I would manage to get answers to from Yanis or his assistant. Either way, I didn’t want to miss out, so me and my partner took some days of from work and got plane tickets for us and our one year old to go to Berlin for an event on a Tuesday night.

My parental leave came to an end and it was time for me to start working and for my son to start kindergarten, so not much time to think about the future of Europe. When I finally got around to sending my comments to the last version of the manifesto, they had just finished it. But they used my suggestion and made a last minute addition:

A Peaceful Europe that deescalates tensions with its neighbours to the east and around the Mediterranean, and stands as an alternative to the militaristic expansionists ambitions of NATO.

In Yanis-manifesto-speak it reads:

A Peaceful Europe de-escalating tensions in the East and in the Mediterranean, acting as a bulwark against the sirens of militarism and expansionism.

Good times! I was in on this again! Still no answers about the event in Berlin though. Were I and my partner in the planning group? Was a supposed to give a speech? When, where and how?

And we never found out. Luckily my brother-in-law lives in Berlin, so we went to stay with him for a few days, that we spent trying to get hold of someone who knew if we had tickets to the event, and what to expect from it. At one o’clock the same day as the launch, we found out that we would have tickets for hanging out in the hallway at to the launch. In the evening, we found out that the planning meetings had been earlier in the day.

It is a weird feeling to be deprived of something that was way more than you expected in the first place. I was super annoyed the whole first hour of the launching event, before I came to terms with it being a great event with fantastic speakers.

What the f**k would I do there on stage with philosophers, economists and European parliamentarians? Probably being to nervous to make any sense at all.

That being said, I do have some concerns about the strategy for DiEM, and because of the vague but still flattering first invitation, I did prepare some things to say that maybe could add a perspective to those of the professional thinkers and talkers on stage last Tuesday. Also, it is about the risk of being ignored, which seems fitting 🙂

Thank you Yanis, for a bold and wonderful initiative and a magic opening night in Berlin. Here is my half finished short speech:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be a part of this.

The thing I really like about this initiative is that it knows who it is up against and has a plan to succeed.

Many campaigns for social change, be it by NGO:s, leftwing parties or anarchist networks, sadly don’t win. But the even sadder part is that they don’t even plan to win. They plan to influence, raise awareness, ”be part of the solution” or in successful cases win over a majority of the population. And on an individual level feel good about themselves or be part of a team or subculture that they like. That’s okay. But it will not win campaigns.

My hardest lesson as an activist comes from the mobilisation against the war on Iraq. We had all the facts on our side. We organised the biggest global demonstrations in history. But we didn’t win. Why? Because being right and having the majority on your side isn’t always enough.

We saw the same thing in Greece this summer. A majority wasn’t enough win the fight against the powers of Europe.

The reason is simple. Being in power basically means having the power to ignore other people.

That is why every movement that wants to fundamentally challenge power structures in society has to have some kind of leverage.

The labour movement had the capacity of shutting down the production. The suffragettes to disrupt the political process.

The greatest threat to our movement is not that they crush us, but that they simply ignore us.

And we need to find ways to make that impossible.

The good news is that other movements has paved the way for us. We can’t simply copy their methods, but we can build on experiences of successful campaigns for social change by:

  • Setting up parallel institutions that can’t be ignored
  • Disobeying their laws and regulations and
  • Stopping their oppressive practices

Stopping things can be done in many ways, and together we need to plan for actions that corresponds with our aims and goals. Some general ideas are to:

  • Physically blockade their institutions
  • Occupy their centres of power and
  • Hack their secret documents and make them public

In short, to paraphrase the Occupy Wall Street activist David Graeber:

”Acting as is if we were already free”.

I think this gathering is a first promising step in the direction of freedom.

Now lets take the next step and make our demands impossible to ignore.