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POC21: Eco-hacking a Fossil-Free, Collaborative Future

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
8th October 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 4.39.45 PM-570x322

At the upcoming COP Summit in Paris (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), no one expects the world’s governments to make serious headway against global climate change. Neoliberal-obsessed governments are more concerned with propping up collapsing capitalist structures than in reducing carbon emissions (which have doubled over the past generation).  Corporations are more intent on preserving their market share and investors in preserving their net worth than in entertaining an environmentally benign economic paradigm shift.  We can be sure, following COP21, however, that world leaders will declare the event a success and let loose their own copious emissions of PR blather.

Let’s face it – we’re more or less on our own.  The impetus for change has to come from the bottom and the local.  Which brings me to the inspirational work of POC21 – Proof of Concept 21 – which stands for “a proof of concept that the future we need can be built with our own hands.” For five weeks – August 15 to September 20 – more than 100 makers, designers, engineers, scientists and geeks converged on Château de Millemont, an ancient castle near Paris.  Their mission:  to work together in developing prototype machines that could radically reduce our dependence on carbon fuels.

The idea of POC21 is to invent inexpensive, modular household devices, farm tools, energy systems and other appropriate technologies that can be replicated cheaply, repaired easily and copied and shared by anyone. “Imagine a new breed of open source products available in your neighborhood,” POC organizers have announced. “This is our vision.”

Among the tools they have in mind:  portable solar power systems, low-waste self-filtering showers, DIY resource-sufficient homes, urban food production systems, affordable electric bicycles and human-powered agricultural machines.  From nearly 200 proposed projects, the POC21 organizers selected twelve prototypes to be developed during the innovation camp.

Consider the Bicitractor project:

Regular tractors do not go well with organic farms. They are expensive and they pollute. They force farmers to take loans from banks and depend on big oil. Bicitractor on the other hand is a small pedal-powered tractor built so small and midsized farms can grow our food without polluting. Each tractor can use multiple modules with different tools for pronging, drilling, weeding. In addition to that, its open source, efficient, and really affordable to build.

Or consider Faircap, a portable antibacterial water filter that can screw on to the top of any plastic bottle, allowing people to safely drink from a stream or pond. Or Sunzilla, a diesel generator without the diesel, that uses solar photovoltaic and can be easily to installed by anyone. Another POC21 project is a $30 wind turbine that uses “upcycled” parts to generate electrical current at 1 kW in a 60 km/h wind.  Anyone can assemble it with a few common hand tools.

The point of all these prototypes is to meet real needs in ways that get beyond the producer/consumer dualism and the unsustainable waste of current business models. The goal is to get beyond planned obsolescence and strict patents and copyrights that prevent people from improving and freely disseminating the tech. By producing things that are durable, versatile, inexpensive, locally sourceable and environmentally benign, the POC21 systems seeks to build basic tools for a new sort of economy.

Convened by Ouishare and Open State, POC21 fashioned itself as an “innovation camp” to make “open-source, sustainable products the new normal.” Here is a video trailer for POC21, “The World We Need.” And here is a story about the project in The Guardian, by Tristan Copley-Smith.

It’s heroic that eco-geeks are stepping up to pioneer new open-source hardware that, if replicated widely, could have enormous impact. But it’s also sad that prevailing institutions of government and business are so indifferent or hostile to exploring paradigm-shifting technologies. Planet-saving innovation devolves to hackers, dismissed as marginal until they’re not. So COP21 delegates will broker the terms of continued planetary decline; POC21 will push forward some intriguing here-and-now solutions.


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Movement, Networks, Open Content, Open Hardware and Design, Open Innovation, Open Standards, Original Content, P2P Art and Culture, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Energy, P2P Lifestyles, P2P Manufacturing, P2P Research, P2P Technology, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

Now Organizing: A Chicago Chamber of Commons

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
8th October 2015


The coming together of commons-oriented projects seems to be intensifying.  Even as the Le Temps des Communes festival in dozens of Francophone cities convenes thousands of commoners, an organizing meeting for a Chicago Chamber of Commons in planned for Saturday, October 10. (You can register for the event here.)

This idea has been kicking around for a while – see this 2013 blog post  – but it seems that the folks in Chicago are serious about making it work. They want to foster deeper collaboration among the many groups focused on shared ownership, the collaborative economy, co-operatives and other mutual-benefit initiatives. The organizers say they want to “connect social entrepreneurs, L3C’s, B-Corps and other enterprises focused on triple bottom line, sharing-economy approaches to commerce and community development.” People involved with economic transformation, environmental protection, community life and culture are also invited.

The day will start with a consensus workshop that will try to come up with a shared definition of the commons. This will be followed with discussions for startup plans for a Chicago Commons, which organizers hope will be the first of many Chambers of Commons across the nation and globe.

In May, Huffington Post writer Sally Duros wrote a piece about the envisioned Chamber of Commerce in which she quoted Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation:

“The old way is this. Here’s a problem. We need resources to solve that problem. We create a hierarchy to direct resources at the problem,” Bauwens says.

“Here’s another way. There are enough people in the world with time, skills and energy who would be willing to work to solve that problem. The new solution is to create a commons and a platform that allows people to self-aggregate and collaborate to solve that problem.”

Here’s hoping that the organizing meeting is productive!


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Conferences, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, P2P Action Items, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, Peer Property | No Comments »

Sustainable Development: Something New or More of the Same?

photo of Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein
7th October 2015


Two years ago when he was 14, my son Matthew grew six inches. Last year he only grew two inches, and this year he has only grown half an inch. Should I be worried?

Of course not. At a certain stage of maturity, quantifiable physical growth slows and stops, and a new mode of development takes over.

Imagine that I did not understand that, and fed Matthew growth hormones in a desperate attempt to keep him growing taller. And imagine that this effort was harming his health and depleting my resources. “I have to find a way to make his growth sustainable,” I would say. “Maybe I can use herbal hormones.”

Our civilization is at a similar transition point in the nature of its development. For thousands of years we have grown — in population, in energy consumption, in land under cultivation, in bits of data, in economic output. Today we are beginning to realize that this kind of growth is no longer possible, nor even desirable; that it can be maintained only at greater and greater cost to human beings and the planet.

The time has come to shift to a different kind of development, development that is qualitative rather than quantitative, better and not more. I wish our policy elites would understand this. Case in point: the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) convey real concern and care for the environment. Yet at the same time they are wedded to the ideology of economic growth — more GDP, more industrial infrastructure, roads, ports, etc. — without considering whether other forms of development could better meet their goals of poverty elimination and ecological sustainability.

The way out of poverty for the “least developed countries,” the SDG prescribes, is to develop export industries to raise GDP (targeting 7% growth). Unfortunately, in many countries this strategy has proven to be a recipe for more poverty, not less. The wealth usually ends up in the hands of local elites, the corporations who extract the resources, and the financial institutions that lend the money for the development. How else to make one’s country “attractive to investors” but to guarantee that they will extract more money than they put in? It is no wonder that while global GDP has nearly tripled since 1990, the number of people suffering food insecurity has also risen, and the middle class has stopped growing or even shrank in many countries.

Then there are the environmental consequences. What are these countries going to export, if not timber, mining products, and other natural resources, along with raw labor power? What else could the roads and ports be used for? The SDGs propose more of the same while hoping for a different result – a good definition of insanity.

A closer examination of what economic growth really is will illuminate the point. Economic growth, as conventionally measured, refers only to goods and services exchanged for money. That means that when indigenous peasants or self-sufficient villagers stop growing and sharing their own food, stop building their own houses, stop making their own entertainment, etc., and instead go to work at factories or plantations and pay for all of these things, GDP rises and they are considered better off. Their cash incomes may have risen from nearly nothing to five dollars a day, but they are now at the mercy of global markets. When commodity prices plummet (as they are now), when their nation’s currencies fall (as they are now), local prices rise and they are plunged into destitution. This would not happen if they retained some independence from the global commodity economy.

Only if we take the standard development model for granted is economic growth a necessity to alleviate poverty. In a system where all money is created as interest-bearing debt, it is a mathematical certainty that poverty and wealth inequality will increase unless income (the ability to service debt) grows faster than the debt itself. The income of many countries and people is now falling, leaving only one option to make debt payments: austerity. Austerity and (conventional) development are two sides of the same coin. Both are geared to opening a country to export its wealth. The prescriptions of austerity – privatization of public assets, removal of trade barriers, removal of labor protections, deregulation, cutting of pensions and wages – are precisely the same as the neoliberal prescription for economic development. These measures make a country more “attractive to investment.”

So let’s stop taking this system for granted. First, let’s address poverty by encouraging resiliency and independence from global markets, in particular through local food autonomy, local control of resources, decentralized political institutions, and decentralized infrastructure that isn’t predicated on generating foreign exchange. Second, let’s remove the underlying driver of the compulsion to monetize – the national and private debts that have been the prime implements of colonialism since explicit colonialism ended in the 1960s. (The SDGs, laudably, make mention of debt reduction. This needs to happen on a massive scale.) Third, let’s start talking about fundamental reform of our broken, debt-based financial system, which both drives economic growth and requires growth to survive. It throws everyone into competition with everyone else, propelling a “race to the bottom” that cannot end until the entire planet has been converted into product.

Switching from chemical to herbal growth stimulants (“green” or “sustainable” development) isn’t going to solve the problem. If development equals growth, then “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Poverty and ecocide are baked into the cake. It is time to transition to a world in which wealth no longer means more and more.

Originally published in the Huffington Post.


Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Guest Post, Open Models, P2P Action Items, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Localization, P2P Movements, Peer Property | No Comments »

Robin Hood Coop funds 3 commons building projects

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
6th October 2015

Great news from Robin Hood Coop. Needless to say, we’re very excited about continuing with our part of the CIC/Commons Transition project, and we’d like to thank the board at Robin Hood for having chosen it. This press release was originally published on the Robin Hood Coop blog. You can read the full text of our proposal here, or through the links below.

Robin Hood Coop is proud to announce its first round of funding for commons producing projects. The coop supports Casa Nuvem in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with 5000 euros, the P2P Foundation’s project with the Catalan Integral Cooperative and Commons Transition in Spain with 4000 euros, and the Radio Schizoanalytique and the Steki in Northern Greece with 6000 euros.

Robin Hood Asset Management Coop was founded in 2012 as an investment bank for the precariat. The goal of the coop is to build new economic space by giving its members access to investment banking (just 60€ is enough) and by allocating a part of the profits to building the commons through sponsoring projects.

Casa Nuvem (see also here) is an autonomous self managed space in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, resulting from the convergence between art, activism, sound, audio-visual and new technologies experimentation. It was born early 2013 from the desire to think and build the future collectively, and to provide grounds for resilience and mobilization in the context of Rio’s wide social injustice and lack of basic rights, continuously intensified by the state policies related to the mega events such as the upcoming Olympics next year. Casa Nuvem is a place of work, research and production that hosts several independent collaborative projects focused on the creation of new exchanges between people and the public space, guided by a festive occupation of the city. Regular actions, workshops, seminars and other open activities are organized in the house, besides frequent interventions in outside target locations. It cooperates intensively with other groups and actors in a network of interactions that values above all the respect towards differences, respect for freedom of expression, freedom of the body, multiplicity of gender, the right to the city and alternative mobility.
(Project proposal)

The P2P Foundation in involved in a practical, grassroots effort to animate a Commons Transition strategy, in real time and real community. The foundation is working as a team with the Catalan Integral Cooperative (aka the CIC) to achieve a self-managed, post-capitalist society based on P2P principles and environmental and social realities. The ultimate goal is to realize a well-expressed, researched and tested set of plans and proposals, ultimately providing concrete examples in real time. In the project, CIC expands and implements the theoretical material proposed by the P2PF in the Commons Transition platform, and the P2PF produces an updated body of work to reflect the experience and shares it with other collectives.
(Project proposal)

Radio Schizonalaytique and the Steki are a project in the Skouries-­Kakkavos mountains in Northern Greece, where the Canadian “low-­cost” gold mining company Eldorado owns and operates mining sites. Local communities have been organized against the construction of an open pit mine and processing plant since 2006. After a house built to monitor the activities of the mine was destroyed, the main organizers transformed an empty storefront into a community action center for hosting workshops, lectures, screenings and cultural events, and as a social center to nurture the creation of a sustainable future for the region. One of the key features of the Steki is the online and FM radio project “Radio Schizoanalitique”, a collaborative project between the activists in Megali Panagia and artists in Berlin, designed to break the control the mining company and its proponents have on the local media.
(Project proposal)

Robin Hood Coop is an activist hedge fund with a twist. Individuals who buy shares become members and decide how the coop is run. One member, one vote. Per the Robin Hood principle, part of the profit generated by the fund is invested into projects building the commons. Third, the money put into the fund is placed in the stock exchange by a big data mining algorithm.

During its first two years of operation, 2012 – 2014, the coop’s portfolio was able to generate enough profit so that the coop decided to allocate 15 000 euros to projects that build and augment the commons. Members of the coop made proposals of projects to fund during March 2015. In total there were 49 proposals. The selection was done in two steps. First, a committee of three members was chosen by lottery out of volunteers. The committee went through all the proposals, discussed on criteria and negotiated, and came to an unanimous agreement of suggesting 3 projects to be funded. The committee’s proposal was then ratified by a general member’s meeting of the coop.

For more info, contact: projects@robinhoodcoop.org



Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Guest Post, Networks, Open Content, Open Models, P2P Action Items, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development | No Comments »

New report by STWR challenges the official discourse on ending global poverty

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
6th October 2015

SDGs - UN celebrations

The Sustainable Development Goals – despite their positive and progressive rhetoric – by no means constitute a transformative agenda for restructuring the global economy and meeting the basic needs of all people within the means of our shared planet.

As we explain in STWR’s latest report, the basic assumptions that define the SDGs discourse – that life is improving for the majority of humanity, that unfettered economic growth and development-as-usual can continue indefinitely into the future, and that the world is on course to completely eradicate poverty by 2030 – are fatally flawed and misleading.

According to estimates highlighted in the report, almost 4.2 billion people still live in severe poverty, and more than 46,000 people die needlessly every day simply because they do not have access to life’s essentials – totalling around 17 million avoidable deaths each year. For how much longer can we allow this daily tsunami of fatalities to continue unabated, while policymakers and agenda-setting institutions are failing to adequately address (or even recognise) the full extent of this global emergency?

The weak outcomes in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underline how it is futile to place faith in the aspirations and vague commitments of the world’s governments, who continue to follow an outmoded economic paradigm while failing to enact the urgent measures that are necessary to end needless human deprivation within an immediate time-frame.

As the report concludes, now is the time to pursue a strategy for global transformation based on solidarity with the world’s poor through a united demand for governments to guarantee the basic rights set out in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: for adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and social security for all. The responsibility for change falls squarely on the shoulders of us all – ordinary engaged citizens – to march on the streets in enormous numbers and forge a formidable public voice in favour of ending the injustice of hunger and poverty in all its dimensions.

You can read the report here:

Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals: uncovering the truth about global poverty and demanding the universal realisation of Article 25


Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Food and Agriculture, Guest Post, Open Content, P2P Action Items, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Localization, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

“Don’t Owe. Won’t Pay.” Everything You’ve Been Told About Debt Is Wrong

photo of Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein
5th October 2015


This article first appeared in Yes! Magazine (August 20, 2015)

The legitimacy of a given social order rests on the legitimacy of its debts. Even in ancient times this was so. In traditional cultures, debt in a broad sense—gifts to be reciprocated, memories of help rendered, obligations not yet fulfilled—was a glue that held society together. Everybody at one time or another owed something to someone else. Repayment of debt was inseparable from the meeting of social obligations; it resonated with the principles of fairness and gratitude.

The moral associations of making good on one’s debts are still with us today, informing the logic of austerity as well as the legal code. A good country, or a good person, is supposed to make every effort to repay debts. Accordingly, if a country like Jamaica or Greece, or a municipality like Baltimore or Detroit, has insufficient revenue to make its debt payments, it is morally compelled to privatize public assets, slash pensions and salaries, liquidate natural resources, and cut public services so it can use the savings to pay creditors. Such a prescription takes for granted the legitimacy of its debts.

Today a burgeoning debt resistance movement draws from the realization that many of these debts are not fair. Most obviously unfair are loans involving illegal or deceptive practices—the kind that were rampant in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. From sneaky balloon interest hikes on mortgages, to loans deliberately made to unqualified borrowers, to incomprehensible financial products peddled to local governments that were kept ignorant about their risks, these practices resulted in billions of dollars of extra costs for citizens and public institutions alike.

A movement is arising to challenge these debts. In Europe, the International Citizen debt Audit Network (ICAN) promotes “citizen debt audits,” in which activists examine the books of municipalities and other public institutions to determine which debts were incurred through fraudulent, unjust, or illegal means. They then try to persuade the government or institution to contest or renegotiate those debts. In 2012, towns in France declared they would refuse to pay part of their debt obligations to the bailed-out bank Dexia, claiming its deceptive practices resulted in interest rate jumps to as high as 13 percent. Meanwhile, in the United States, the city of Baltimore filed a class-action lawsuit to recover losses incurred through the Libor rate-fixing scandal, losses that could amount to billions of dollars.

And Libor is just the tip of the iceberg. In a time of rampant financial lawbreaking, who knows what citizen audits might uncover? Furthermore, at a time when the law itself is so subject to manipulation by financial interests, why should resistance be limited to debts that involved lawbreaking? After all, the 2008 crash resulted from a deep systemic corruption in which “risky” derivative products turned out to be risk-free—not on their own merits, but because of government and Federal Reserve bailouts that amounted to a de facto guarantee.

The perpetrators of these “financial instruments of mass destruction” (as Warren Buffett labeled them) were rewarded while homeowners, other borrowers, and taxpayers were left with collapsed asset values and higher debts.

Continue reading the article here.

Illustration by Steve Brodner.


Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Guest Post, P2P Collaboration, P2P Money, P2P Subjectivity, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals: uncovering the truth about global poverty and demanding the universal realisation of Article 25

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
4th October 2015

The following reproduces the introduction to Share the World’s Resources report about global poverty and the realization of Article 25. You can read the full report here.

The Sustainable Development Goals – despite their positive and progressive rhetoric – by no means constitute a transformative agenda for meeting the basic needs of all people within the means of our shared planet. This report argues that we may never see an end to poverty “in all its forms everywhere” unless ordinary people unite in their millions and demand the universal realisation of fundamental human rights through huge, continuous and worldwide demonstrations for economic justice.

How can governments ensure that people in all countries – as well as future generations – have access to the resources needed to meet their basic needs without exacerbating climate change or transgressing other environmental limits? In other words, how can we (re)organise the global economy so that it embodies the principle of sharing through a recognition that humanity only has one planet’s worth of finite resources that must be equitably distributed for the common good of all?

This is the epochal challenge that campaigners and policymakers have been grappling with ever since a global agenda for sustainable development was first set out in a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, entitled Our Common Future. Almost three decades since the ‘Bruntland Report’ was published, however, governments are no closer to implementing the policies and regulations that can achieve greater equity in a constrained world, despite countless international conferences and commitments that span the full spectrum of social, economic and environmental concerns.

On the contrary, inequality has widened to unprecedented levels over the last three decades, with the richest 1% now owning nearly as much wealth as the rest of the world’s population combined.  As outlined in Part 2 of this report, almost 4.2 billion people still live in severe poverty and more than 4,600 people die needlessly every day simply because they do not have access to life’s essentials. Meanwhile, humanity is consuming natural resources 50% faster than they can be replenished, and CO2 emissions are currently set to increase by a catastrophic four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. These statistics barely scratch the surface of today’s interrelated global crises, which is why achieving truly equitable, just and sustainable economic development remains humanity’s most urgent priority in the dawning 21st century.

It is therefore encouraging to note the scale and ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have now been formally adopted by the United Nations in order to pave the way for a new global partnership to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet”. This new set of targets will define the international development agenda for the next 15 years, building on the apparent success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were implemented in 2000 to a similar fanfare of worldwide media coverage and hype.

If taken at face value, it may seem irresponsible for anyone to dismiss such a well-intentioned and high-level agenda of this nature, if only because it presents a valuable opportunity to improve intergovernmental cooperation and focus the minds of both policymakers and the general public on pressing global issues. Who could possibly disagree with the broad vision and prime objective of the SDGs campaign to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”? As the international community aligns its development policies to this definitive global initiative, however, many civil society organisations and engaged citizens are voicing serious concerns about whether the goals can ever live up to their claim of embodying a “supremely ambitious and transformational agenda”.

Even a cursory analysis of the SDGs outcome document reveals that there are many reasons to question not only the goals themselves, but the entire sustainable development agenda and the political-economic context within which it will be implemented. Unfortunately, the program’s numerous shortcomings have been obfuscated by persuasive and misleading rhetoric coming from UN agencies, stakeholder governments, corporations and the many non-governmental organisations praising the success of the MDGs and heavily promoting the new ‘Global Goals’ campaign. One of the aims of this report is therefore to bolster a counter-narrative to the mainstream view that the existing international development framework is capable of addressing the critical social and ecological crises facing humanity.

In the sections that follow, we also highlight some of the key criticisms of the SDGs and explain why they will not deliver environmentally sustainable outcomes or tackle the pressing structural issues at the heart of today’s global crises. In contradistinction to the commonly held view that governments are winning the battle against hunger and poverty, we demonstrate that – by any reasonable measure of human deprivation – more people live in poverty today than ever before, we are failing to sufficiently reduce or even acknowledge the reality of life-threatening deprivation, and the situation is getting worse rather than improving. We therefore refute the claim that the MDGs halved poverty between 1990 and 2015, and argue that it will be impossible to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030 as long as we continue to pursue a policy framework based on the discredited free market ideology of neoliberalism.

Due to the continued failure of the international community to reform the global economy in line with more equitable and ecological standards, a strategy for mass civic engagement is also proposed – one that calls on ordinary people to demand that governments fully implement the essential requirements set out in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an overriding international priority. In a world in which policymakers remain beholden to outmoded political ideologies and are unduly influenced by powerful corporations, we argue that unprecedented and continuous worldwide protests are necessary if governments are ever to meet the basic needs of the world’s majority poor within an immediate timeframe. From both a moral and strategic standpoint, the report concludes that only a united global demand for governments to guarantee the basic rights set out in Article 25 – for adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and social security for all – can pave the way towards a sustainable global economy based on justice and the principle of sharing.



Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Food and Agriculture, Open Government, P2P Action Items, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, Sharing | No Comments »

Podcast of the Day: Isabelle Frémeaux, John Jordan and the rise of the insurrectionary imagination.

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
3rd October 2015


The following podcast (and text) is reposted from the Transition Network website.

Isabelle Frémeaux (IF) and John Jordan (JJ) are the co-founders of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination.  It’s a collective which , according to Isabelle, “aims at opening spaces, real or virtual, and bringing artists and activists together to work on and co-create more creative forms of resistance and civil disobedience”.  Both have a long history in campaigns and movements, as well as the arts.  I started by asking them to give us an overview of the kind of work they are involved in.

IF: The work we do has several dimensions. We do a lot of experiments. We like to call what we do experimental projects or pieces. We like the idea of experimenting collectively and accepting that sometimes things might fail, and that by embracing that capacity for failure we can be more creative. I’m by training an academic and a trainer, so I tend to be more into the training dimension of what we do.

We do quite a lot of workshops and trainings, from a day to 2 weeks with artists and activists to really see the synergies between arts and activism and often permaculture, and to see how when these three domains merge, we can create synergies for more creative, more efficient, more productive, more resilient projects that we aim to be projects that are geared towards forms of resistance and civil disobedience.

jjifJJ: What we don’t do is ‘political art’. We’re quite critical of the notion of political art, which for us is art which is about political issues. Occasionally we make films and books but we call those “holidays in representation”. The majority of our work is not making films and books, it’s actually making these experiments which are really critiquing representation; the idea that most artists will make a performance about climate change or a sculptural installation about the loss of biodiversity or a film about climate justice.

What we are very clear about is that actually what we like to do, and what we think is vitally important, is to bring artists and activists together not to show the world but to transform it directly. Not to make images of politics, but to make politics artistic. The reason we work with these two worlds is we think that artists have a lot of creativity, a lot of capacity to think outside the box, a lot of capacity to transform things into poetics, yet often have big egos and not much social engagement.

We think activists – and of course these are generalisations – often have a lot of social critique, capacity to work collectively, but often a failure of imagination. Often the same rituals, the same kinds of demonstrations, the same kinds of tools for transforming society. By bringing these two worlds together, we think we can actually create something different.

We are always embedded in social movements. We spent 5 years as organisers within the Climate Camp and at the same time as organising the camp we were also organising workshops and actions that brought artists and activists together. For example one project was the creation of a thing called the Great Rebel Raft Regatta where we buried a whole load of boats in a forest a week before the Climate Camp happened in Kingsnorth.

The Great Rebel Raft Regatta.The Great Rebel Raft Regatta.

The Climate Camp was a self-managed camp developed to create education and alternatives to the climate catastrophe, but it also always had an action at the end of it. This camp at Kingsnorth was actually to stop the building of a new coal fired power station that was taking place next to a power station that already existed. The project that we did, the Great Rebel Raft Regatta basically brought people together into affinity groups. We buried boats a week beforehand in the forest and with the boat was a bottle of rum. We also gave them a treasure map.

One of the Great Rebel Raft Regatta's treasure maps.One of the Great Rebel Raft Regatta’s treasure maps.

We sent people off in their affinity groups to find the buried boat with the treasure map. They would dig up the boat, sleep in the forest overnight, then at 7 o’clock run out of the forest, take their boat onto the river and go and find and block the power station. We got about 150 people, and one boat managed to block a third of the power station and shut a third of it down. For us, it’s really using forms of action that are effective in terms of having an effect on the real world, but also are fun and adventurous. The whole aesthetic of the treasure map and the bottle of rum and the people dressed up as pirates brings a playful element to activism which we think is absolutely fundamental.

You use this term ‘insurrectionary imagination’. Could you just say a little bit more about what you mean by that?

IF: The imagination has the potential and is a fundamental ingredient for insurrection. We wanted to reclaim the offensive and the defiance that is often lacking in art. By calling it a ‘laboratory’ would call on the idea of imagination without having what we feel can be quite a bland understanding and bland connotation of the word ‘imagination’ which is very often seen as something lovely and creative and child-like by actually reclaiming the existence of the defiance of what we wanted to do. This is why we put the word ‘insurrectionary’ in the name of our collective.

JJ: Here’s how we describe it on our website:

The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Lab of ii) merges art and life, creativity and resistance, proposition and opposition. Infamous for touring the UK recruiting a rebel clown army, running courses in postcapitalist culture, throwing snowballs at bankers, turning hundreds of abandoned bikes into machines of disobedience and launching a rebel raft regatta to shut down a coal fired power station; we treat insurrection as an art and art as a means of preparing for the coming insurrection. The Lab of ii is now in the process of setting up an international utopian art/life school on a Permaculture farm in Brittany.

We don’t actually believe in the separation between artists and activists, and we don’t actually believe in those two terms. We think the notion of art as a separate action in everyday life is a very recent phenomenon within the Western tradition. In most cultures there isn’t a separation of art and everyday life.

"Radical Origami Hats". “Radical Origami Hats”.

We think that activism, this idea that activists have this monopoly on social change, is exactly the same as art having a monopoly on creativity. Actually everyone can and has the capacity and does change the world in some way, all the time. So in a way it’s a kind of dialectical relationship, because we wanted to get rid of both those notions.  For us, creating an insurrection or some kind of revolutionary change (which we think is absolutely necessary), we have to provide the alternatives to capitalism and the climate catastrophe and resist the problems that are happening that we can’t divide.

We see the DNA of social transformation as being two strands. Being the creation of alternatives such as Transition Towns etc, and a resistance, a resistance against the fossil fuel industries, the banks that fund them and so on. One without the other is absolutely pointless, because if we don’t resist then we forget who the enemy is and there’s a massive danger that our projects become simply experiments in laboratories for new forms of green capitalism. If we don’t create the alternatives, then of course we simply have a culture of resistance and a culture that’s simply saying ‘no’ all the time and that isn’t sustainable in terms of mental health and personal sustainability because people just burn out.

Historically we see the division of these two movements being absolutely a problem, and I think the 1970s is a classic example. For us in all our projects, we try to make models of alternative forms of living. So we haven’t flown on a plane for 10 years, despite the fact that we have this international art world career, where most of the people in that world spend their life on aeroplanes. We live ecologically, we live in a yurt in a community where we set up an organic farm, where we put the land into production. For us that’s not necessarily political but that’s what we do normally anyway, and resistance work is always done without hierarchy. We teach consensus at the beginning of all our projects and we try and use permaculture principles to make them happen.

As one example, and this is relevant because our latest project is geared towards the COP 21 in Paris, the UN Climate Summit which is aiming to find a universal agreement on CO2 emissions and adaptation and so on in December this year. In 2009, we were invited by 2 museums to do projects around COP15 in Denmark, in Copenhagen. We were invited by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen.

We had already spent some time in Copenhagen. We published a book on alternatives called Paths Through Utopias, unfortunately only available in French, Korean and German. And we spent some time in Christiania in Copenhagen, a self-managed community in Copenhagen. We noticed then, during that time, that there were thousands of abandoned bikes all over Copenhagen. So we thought: there’s the material. There’s a permaculture principle, “create no waste”.  We thought let’s see what we can do with the waste of Copenhagen with these abandoned bikes. Let’s transform them into tools of civil disobedience.


Traditionally, civil disobedience in the Gandhian, Thoreau tradition is through the body and we thought what can we do with the body and a bicycle? We proposed this to the two museums, they both agreed. In the project we worked with the Climate Camp as the movement we were working with and the idea was that we would produce prototypes in the Arnolfini Gallery where we would put 50 people together in an open free workshop, we would teach them the basics of permaculture principles and so on, and we would then go – ok, what can we do with these bikes, and design a prototype that we’d then take to Copenhagen to then scale up.

Then we had an interesting moment when both museums said “you can’t do any welding in the museum”. So we thought ok, fine, we’ll get a container outside and we can put an image in it and it’ll be a more public space anyway, so the problem was the solution. Then they had a phone call from the Copenhagen curator and she said “we’ve got a container, but there’s just one little thing. We just talked to the Police in Denmark, and there are certain rules about what is a bicycle.

A bicycle can’t have more than three wheels, it can’t be more than 3 metres long etc etc. If your objects are outside of those rules then you have to write to the police, you have to show them the design and it will take 3 weeks before they come back to you and say you’ve got the right to go on the road. So we said “well that’s very interesting, but we’re doing civil disobedience. We don’t really care whether the bikes are legal or not”. At which point there was this pause, and she was like “so you’re really going to do it…”


We’ve had this experience in the art world a lot. Basically, a lot of the art world pretends to do politics. They have these very radical texts and radical propositions. Maybe she imagined we were going to build these objects and stay in the museum, but for us that’s not the point. The point is actually to take action. Unfortunately the museum then pulled out, but we did find an ex-squat in Copenhagen which is a sort of art and cultural centre called the Candy Factory and produced a project there. About 200 people ended up being involved and took part in the demonstration against the corporate domination of the UN climate talks.

In a way this is a good example of how we think a lot of so-called political art at the moment, which is very trendy. There are endless biennials, museum exhibitions, theatre festivals which use the word ‘political’, ‘radical’, ‘socially engaged’ and so on. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, a lot of it is what we’d call “pictures of politics”.

You recently wrote that “the Left is very scared of using desire and the body and capitalism and the Right are brilliant at it”.  Can you talk us through what the implications of that are, and for Transition as well?

IF: There is a tendency amongst the Left, and of course these are massive generalisations. A tendency to feel that the problem is what people don’t know and that therefore if we can produce more facts or figures or information or reports and that people know what’s going on; if we can show the maths, if we can have better pictures of the number of species that are going extinct or the number of people that are being affected, the figures of unemployment etc, then people will react. There’s this idea that there is a large number of people who do not act because they don’t know.

Whereas we believe that very often the problem is actually what people do know, that they cling on to things and values that have been the structure of their life for a long time, and that what generally makes people move is not rational thinking but much more often desires and fantasies of what could be.

There’s a beautiful quote by an American author called Stephen Duncan that puts it very beautifully, about “the dreams of what could be”. The dreams of what could be are much more located in the emotions, in the body, rather than in the left brain. It’s really important to combine them. It’s not a question of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying “stop all reports, stop all research, stop all science”. But to not overly rely on them.

The Clown Army at Gleneagles for the G8 Summit. The Clown Army at Gleneagles for the G8 Summit.

The numbers should be there as backup, to be used as crutches, but what is going to motivate most of us is to be able to experience emotionally and bodily a life that is more just, that is more healthy, that is more relaxed, that is more enjoyable. That’s not something that is purely rational. That is one of the knots that is very complicated to untie, the great lie of neo-liberalism and capitalism which is that more stuff necessarily means a better life. We know that it’s untrue, and yet this is something that is difficult to untie. We will manage to untie that by talking and calling upon people’s values.

At the same time, one of the notions that can be of new learning for projects like Transition Towns is that these emotions are the positive emotions of what could be, but also the negative emotions of what we know is wrong with what is going on. Actually, it is a matter of finding the balance and finding how one can feed the other and not overcome the other. Sometimes there can be a tendency to want to deny and obscure the anger and frustration at the injustice and the destruction.

Actually these emotions need to be acknowledged, and need to be used as fuel for resistance, while the emotions of what could be can be used as a tool to move forward to the alternative. It’s the combination of these two emotions that can make the social movements irresistible and indestructible, and very often the movements are indestructible when they’re only calling upon one of those. So it comes back to this DNA of the yes and the no, but I think it’s very true in the kind of emotions that we call upon in ourselves and in other people.

Permaculture is a big part of your work. Could you say a bit about that? Why is permaculture important to what you do?

IF: It offers a very inspiring and stable framework; a very stable value framework. To be able to work in the way we want, we thought that the three main pillars of permaculture are a very efficient way of making people understand that actually it’s not so complicated. Because the principles are a really good road map for working towards the system, and designs that are productive and resilient and respectful. Personally we feel very touched by the idea that you take nature as your teacher and the more you do that, the less you see nature as this external thing outside of you.


More and more you take it as a tool so that you can reintegrate yourself in nature which we’ve been taught to see as this thing…the fact that we very often talk about the environment is telling. It’s this thing that surrounds us, that obviously we’re not part of. Permaculture is an excellent tool to be able to reintegrate oneself into what is actually our only consistent. So we try to use the principles as frameworks for our experiments, and generally the spirit of permaculture is our inspiration.

JJ: And we have this 10 day training called ‘Think like a Forest’ which we have done 4 or 5 times over the past years. It’s actually very inspired – it’s a training in art, activism and permaculture and it really looks at what does art bring to activism, what does activism bring to art, what does art bring to permaculture, what does permaculture bring to art and activism and so forth, to look at it as a system of three worlds. That training was actually very inspired by a training by Starhawk, who’s an anarcho-feminist witch, very involved in the peace movement in the 80s and the alt to globalisation movement, who has a course called the Earth Activist Training Course which we both attended and was very much a big inspiration for us many, many years ago.

We modelled our course on that in a sense where there’s a permaculture element, but instead of having the witchcraft element, we replaced witchcraft with art. Her thing is earth-based spirituality, activism and permaculture, ours is art, activism and permaculture. And in a sense, art is magic. It’s a form of magic. We think that’s one of its powers, that actually things become true when enough people believe in them. Art is very good at weaving the magic that we need in these moments.

[This is an edited version of a longer conversation.  You can hear our discussion in full in the podcast below:]

John and Isabelle are just two of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right).  The book is published at the end of this month.  TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time.  Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015.  Valid until 31 Dec 2015.

Originally published on April 2, 2015, by Rob Hopkins


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Featured Podcast, P2P Action Items, P2P Art and Culture, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, Podcasts | No Comments »

Towards an Open Labour: a call for Corbin to move the Labour Party and the UK towards deliberative democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd October 2015

“Open Labour means three things then: first, to be sure, a much more open Labour party, with a culture and democratic ways of doing things that really is fraternal not sectarian or administrative. Second, a party and movement much more open to ideas from within and without, especially over how the economy and the constitution works in in a European context, in addition to social policy where Labour is on more familiar ground. Third, respecting and working openly with others wherever possible, especially other parties, for example on defending our liberties: seeing alliances as a positive rather than a last resort, most obviously by embracing a fairer voting system. In other words not collaborating instrumentally but being open to being improved externally as well as internally by partnerships, and ending the ghastly, reactionary, Westminster politics of ‘winner takes all’.”

Excerpted from Anthony Barnett:

“How should Labour respond now? It faces a twin crisis of the good and the bad which I described when Corbyn was elected leader. I argued that despite the ruthless efforts that will be made to crush him and his movement there is a “golden opportunity”: that if he “can make Labour part of a wider progressive democratic alliance… he is in with a chance”. I now want to suggest more specifically how this can be achieved. As he starts his novel attempt to democratize both Labour and Britain it is becoming clear that team Corbyn should take a similar approach to the one proposed by the BBC. It is in a good position to do so having already democratized itself in the way it chose its leader. It should replace Old Labour and New Labour with Open Labour.

For it can’t go back to being the traditional trade union establishment party, any more than the BBC can revert to Reithianism. It can’t do so because the public has said goodbye both to deference and the old form of collectivism (which was also a form of deference) that underpinned the post-war epoch. Added to which the Attlee type welfare-socialism depended on the conservative side of the establishment playing the game, as it did through the wartime coalition and afterwards and can no longer.

If Labour is to challenge the individualism, corporatism and privatisation of society overseen by today’s monstrous elite it has to do so with a different political culture: with intelligent, deliberative democracy, not collectivism; through voice, liberty and collaboration based on human rights, citizenship and self-determination. There can be no return to public values unless they are grounded in such active participation of the public. Now that the traditional establishment has abandoned conservative patriotism for global profiteering we need to see elite sovereignty replaced by popular sovereignty.

This poses the Corbyn leadership with a choice full of strategic implications of the most testing kind because they are impossible to foresee exactly. His death has just reminded us of what Yogi Berra told us, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” That is what Jeremy Corbyn is doing now. Two directions open out before him. He can decide that he must take the party down the path of the socialist views he has spent his lifetime defending, bringing with him as many of its expanded membership as possible. The presumption here is that the tremendous burst of support was an endorsement of his pre-existing worldview and its arguments. Or he can decide that without abandoning his own opinions his duty is to follow the novel force that embraced him: uncertain, unruly and full of democratic energy.

The first fork points towards a classic attempt to capture the British state by electoral means and use it to carry through his programme, with him and his team as a kind of elitist anti-elite boosted into orbit by the enlarged Labour membership. This is what the mainstream media expects, as it is a form of politics which however extreme they can understand, it being full of splits and purges. The other fork points to building and encouraging the British public to democratize the state and take it away from elite control as we have known it; a form of politics beyond the ken of mediacrats whose idea of ‘the people’ is a focus group not a force.

All the routines and demands of leadership will press Corbyn to take the first route, of melodrama, heroism, isolation and, most surely, defeat. Not least because, seen from the Westminster optic, the other way looks even risker. Yet only a turn towards the people, not policies, can ensure Corbyn will be the carrier of change. Will he use the wave of democratic support to empower Corbyn or will he dedicate Corbyn to empower democracy?

The received wisdom does not see it like this at all. The pre-conference overview in the Financial Times, dripping with contempt, suggests that the fork in the road that faces Corbyn is between leading without any compromises in his own views or starting to “look a bit like a normal politician” and conceding, for example, that the UK should not leave NATO. The possibility of his doing politics in a different way by reaching outside Westminster to the insurrection has simply not entered their heads.

It may be that ‘open Labour’ is also beyond the imagination of Corbyn and his advisors. There are some indications that it might not be. He told the Trade Union Congress in his first set piece speech as party leader, “Labour must become more inclusive and open”. He told Andrew Marr, who was not in the slightest bit interested, that he wanted Labour to become a more democratic party and Britain a more democratic country. He has appointed Jon Trickett to be Shadow Minister for a Constitutional Convention. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson sees the leadership campaign as demanding a change in Labour’s “internal culture”. Jon Cruddas sees the need for a federal opening, stressing that “England will decide Labour’s future… We have to break out of the traditional top-down, Whitehall knows best approach, and take decisions about England out of Westminster… we need a broad alliance for change – constitutional reform, devolution of power, and citizen empowerment that stretches from Clacton to Bristol, Newcastle to Penzance.” Ed Miliband’s speech-writer Marc Stears, writing in the current New Statesman says “the future is democracy not dirigism, experimental innovation not narrow ideology”[3]. Ben Sellers who worked on the Corbyn social media campaign has responded to Owen Jones’s call for a mainstream media strategy by arguing that social media is not an “echo chamber”. Reporting on the extraordinary numbers touched by the online Corbyn campaign Sellers argues, “It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and ideally their action.

It has been about building people’s confidence by showing them that they are not alone. It has been about showing them examples of other activity around the country, and encouraging them to take action locally”. There are reports that Corbyn will use his leader’s speech to stress the need for the party to turn itself into a great democratic movement.

None of these arguments make a clear-cut case for Labour becoming an open platform, however. All can be seen as leaning towards an enlarged form of sucking in – aimed as making as many as possible part of the Labour tribe, rather than collaborating with others to create an open, citizen politics. The danger is losing sight of the overriding need for a more democratic Britain. And because the country is now a much more plural, argumentative place with different national parliaments and cities with their own national figures, this means doing democratic politics differently without as well as within Labour and its supporters.

Open Labour means three things then: first, to be sure, a much more open Labour party, with a culture and democratic ways of doing things that really is fraternal not sectarian or administrative. Second, a party and movement much more open to ideas from within and without, especially over how the economy and the constitution works in in a European context, in addition to social policy where Labour is on more familiar ground. Third, respecting and working openly with others wherever possible, especially other parties, for example on defending our liberties: seeing alliances as a positive rather than a last resort, most obviously by embracing a fairer voting system. In other words not collaborating instrumentally but being open to being improved externally as well as internally by partnerships, and ending the ghastly, reactionary, Westminster politics of ‘winner takes all’.

Each of these three levels of openness can reinforce each other and together can change the way Britain is governed.

With respect to the party, the immediate issue facing the huge expansion with over 160,000 new members since Corbyn’s success, is whether the incomers will be ground down with endless canvassing and procedures. How will they prevent the older, often wounded figures who have run the local machines through thick and thin, from marginalizing and then boring to death the influx? In the first instance the party needs to address the isolation and unrepresentative milieu of its MPs. The parliamentary party voted almost unanimously against their new leader. But what else could they have done as figures trapped in the Westminster bubble? Rather than treat them as enemies, have fights over reselection and go back to the old sectarian shit, new members should try and prick the bubbles around Labour MPs. They should be adopted by the younger new members, linked to on facebook, asked to make videos of their views, taken to food banks and met with in parliament. They must be hugged not purged. The point I’m trying to illustrate is the need to bring the open energy of the Corbyn wave into the party in lively ways that make sense to people outside.

When it comes to ideas perhaps the best place to start is with a mass read-in of Peter Mandelson’s memo. It looks forward to an increasingly “acrimonious” internal culture and crudely opposes the politics of the street with that of parliament, and protest as against power, as pure alternatives, the assumptions behind which are alone worth consideration. But he is also scathing about the intellectual nullity the party has become and the need for completely fresh thinking, which deserves debate. I know it is a bit rich coming from someone who hammered those with good, challenging ideas to ensure they had no influence whatsoever, as I know all too well personally! But there is a strikingly well-written, passionate explosion of critical concern and alarm at what the elevation of Corbyn might mean from different Labour thinkers who have been constricted by years of tactical asphyxiation[4]. They should be welcomed back from the phantom zone. This too is part of the release of energy that Corbyn has triggered and intense listening should be the order of the day. Now that he has succeeded in ‘changing the conversation’ the new conversation must not fall back into an alternative set of predictable routines and clichés in the tradition of Labour anti-intellectualism that Nick Pearce skewers in his funeral oration for classical social democracy. As Suzanne Moore argues, “hating the media, the Tories and austerity are not policies. They are feelings. Thinking, actually thinking anew, is the challenge”.

When it comes to being open to the country of course the aim is to replace one kind of government with another. To put the human values that Corbyn espouses rather than the market values Blair embodies, at the heart of this they need to be more than just ‘Labour values’; they have to be tested and rooted in the country at large, in collaboration with other parties and institutions. The promise of a constitutional convention points towards this. But others have got to this point and then pulled back at the risk of losing control. Only an open, inventive Labour party that expands the process of public democracy across the cities, towns and nations of the UK, and is willing to be shaped by the energy this releases, will prevent the dispersal of the electrifying forces for a generational change that the elevation of Corbyn symbolises – but is far from being realised.

The unwashed are hammering at the portcullis, that symbol of medieval closure with which the British parliament chooses to brand itself. Given the chance by Corbyn to participate in the assault, they took it. For every one who joined or registered with the party, tens are cheering them on, not to elect Jeremy necessarily, but to haul down the grating, sack the elite, fire the Lords and make the UK a democracy. For Labour finally has “reconnected with the people of Britain”, in the delightfully misconceived words of Mr Blair quoted at the top.”


Posted in P2P Governance, P2P Movements, Politics | No Comments »

The incredible success of the social media Red Labour Campaign Behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Victory

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
2nd October 2015

The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. … It’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.

The account is excerpted from Ben Sellers; the subtitles are ours. This is a must read!


“one of the reasons why social media is ignored by the mainstream is that there is often no single person to hang the story around. Social media campaigning is mostly a collective, anonymous enterprise – and where’s the story in that?

The story has characters, though. It begins in 2011 with a simple Facebook page, Red Labour, set up by Alex Craven – a Brighton-based socialist in the Labour Party. Alex is someone who recognised, at a very early stage, the power of Facebook to counter the continued Blairite dominance in the Party. The Red Labour page was initially set up in opposition to two colours of Labour which had come to dominate the Parliamentary Party – as well as the think tanks and party bureaucracy which buttressed the right of centre bloc at Westminster. The first, and dominant faction was Purple Labour, or ‘Progress’ as they tended to sell themselves. They were the bearers of the New Labour flame, a well-oiled machine with almost insurmountable power amongst the elected elite of the party and able to win parliamentary selections at a canter all over the country.

More recently, a new bloc had emerged, with nothing but a collection of ‘intellectuals’, a load of media connections and the odd MP. Blue Labour were closer to the old right of the party, but had rebranded with some anti-immigrant rhetoric and strange intellectualisations of the traditions of the party and the plight of the white working class. The key to Blue Labour’s influence was their connections to the leader’s office under Ed Miliband, rather than any pretence of building a movement, either within or without the party. If they had, I doubt they would have given themselves the toxic name Blue Labour.

Red Labour was originally set up as a ‘rapid rebuttal’ to New Labour / One Nation Labour spin which was a feature of both Purple and Blue Labour and the way they exercised their power. It chose the best contributions from Labour left social media activists, publicised critiques of the status quo and a displayed a hugely irreverent attitude to the grandees of the party. It was funny, sharp and relentless in its pursuit of hypocrisy within the upper echelons of the party. With it its use of graphics and snappy, shareable content, it soon took off. At a time when people were just discovering the possibilities of ‘mini blogs’ on Facebook, the Red Labour page gained 10,000 followers in short time. Suddenly, the unashamed socialist left of the party had an audience.

At that point, in 2011, the situation of the traditional left of the party couldn’t have been more different. Absolutely without influence, centred around the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – the ‘red’ part of the party had been marginalised by the concentration of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of MPs still organised with the grassroots left of the party, but they tended to be the equally marginalised Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There was a further problem. The LRC was failing to gain any real traction in the party itself. The grassroots movement which we all knew needed to be built, wasn’t developing in the way we all knew it needed to if we were to challenge. With the heavily resourced Progress still trouncing the left in selections and Blue Labour whispering in Ed’s ear, the LRC, for all their commitment, didn’t look like breaking this vicious cycle.

A few younger LRC activists, including myself and Max Shanly felt that we needed to take radical steps and joined Alex in pursuing the Red Labour project. A bit laughably, some of the more excitable sections of the left positioned around the LRC called it a ‘split’ when it was nothing of the sort. It was just that, like Alex, we believed there was a huge opportunity to connect to a whole group that were beyond the reach of those traditional approaches to socialist politics. Though, like many others, we had criticisms of the LRC, it wasn’t fundamentally about that (I still have my LRC membership card) but we decided to target our efforts at building Red Labour. With more of us contributing, the page grew at a rapid pace. It became more creative, more diverse and more focused on changing the party. Red Labour, on Facebook at least, first became one of the liveliest spaces for the Labour left, and soon, at 20,000, the largest (with the exception of the official Labour Party page).

Inevitably, people soon started to talk about taking it offline. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to help people set up regional groups and the wider, more ambitious Red Labour project was starting to take shape, based not on a membership-style organisation, but a looser supporter network. This brought in a whole new group of activists into the Red Labour operation. In about the space of a year (from 2012 to 2013) it had turned into a serious group within the party. We continued with our staples – we had a particular penchant for Nye Bevan memes, for instance – but now people were meeting offline and organising locally and regionally. That made us stronger, but with more of a sense of responsibility.

The point is about Red Labour is that it was always seen a serious intervention into the party, but we weren’t prepared to play by the rules which seemed to have been set out by those on the left and right of us. It wasn’t quite so earnest as either – it was explicitly populist and accessible. As the 2015 election approached, for example, we presented a series of radical policy proposals, but in badge form. We sought out debate, sometimes controversy – and we tested things out, knowing we’d make mistakes occasionally. This was so radically different from the official output from the party, that it continued to attract a following, both on Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally, we’d post things that the whole team wouldn’t necessary agree with. The Scottish Referendum was a case in point. We didn’t have unanimity within the group, so we decided to post both Yes and No articles on an equal basis.

At other times we’d pull posts as dissent became obvious within the organisers group we’d assembled. Our attitude from day one was never to duck an issue. Let’s argue it out – on the page, through the threads. The philosophy was that, on everything from migration to welfare, we needed to win hearts and minds, even if that meant engaging in late night (and sometimes tedious) battles on the Red Labour page. Gradually, we found that regular visitors to the page would take on each other, normally in a fairly comradely way, but our approach was always an interventionist one. This made it fraught at times, but through all that, we stuck together, determined that we could work together and build this project together – and aware that there weren’t many chances left.”

* Pre-History

“At this point (in this no-mans-land between Ed resigning and the Labour left finding themselves a candidate) two important things happened which have been buried amongst all the other factors that have been cited. James Doran, a Red Labour organiser in Darlington set up a Facebook page, ‘We want John McDonnell as Labour Leader’. As we had contacted John already, we knew that he wasn’t likely to stand again, but James decided to go ahead with the page, because if nothing else the group would serve as a pole of attraction for those wanted a left candidate. That’s exactly what happened – with an enormous amount of early interest. It was obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Around the 20th of May, two activists, Chelley Ryan and Beck Barnes contacted us at the Red Labour page, saying that they were planning to write an open letter entitled ‘We want an anti-austerity leader’. They asked if we’d look at it and Naomi Fearon, a member of our organising group, suggested a 38 Degrees petition. She worked on it with me and we collectively decided on the right wording. When Chelley and Beck launched it, the petition got an incredible response. It was shared via Red Labour, but Chelley and Beck- along with Naomi’s help – also did an incredible job attracting interest through a wide range of networks. Within a few days, 5,000 people had signed the petition and then, just as it was about to be sent off to John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, we heard the amazing news that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand. We weren’t sure how this had happened, but later we heard that it was, ironically, John McDonnell who had played the biggest part in persuading Jeremy to stand.”

* Founding

“The next morning I got a call from John McDonnell asking if I could co-ordinate the social media campaign to get Jeremy the nominations. Of course I agreed straight away – this was an incredible chance to play a small part in history. I discussed this with by fellow Durham Red Labourite Paul Simpson and we set up a little campaign headquarters in the People’s Bookshop in Durham and set to work on digging out articles, quotes and images of Jeremy. Both of us had cut our teeth with Red Labour and felt we understood the impact of really good, interactive and provocative social media content. Others across the country started helping out – MarshaJane Thompson and Max Shanly down in London, Adam White in Manchester and a host of others. We used the Red Labour page and our own contacts to kick start it, but the main thing was timing. The Facebook page and Twitter account went live within 12 hours of the announcement – and that was crucial. That enabled us to take maximum advantage of the coverage of Corbyn’s surprise announcement and capitalise on the immediate surge in interest. Within 24 hours, we had a couple of thousand people on the page and had gained hundreds of followers on Twitter.

Once the initial building of the page and Twitter had been done, we determined to get to work on the MP nominations, one by one. Red Labour was a virtual campaign HQ. In amongst this burst of activity, we received a private message from a Labour councillor, which said simply #JezWeCan. He contacted us not long after asking us to not credit him with what we saw as a good pun at the time, and in the delay, another Red Labourite, Hazel Nolan, had tweeted the hashtag (apparently the very first to do so). We thought it was a good joke – a tongue in cheek reference to the Obama campaign slogan – but not for a second did we think it would become the political phrase of the summer. No matter, we posted a meme up on Red Labour with the #JezWeCan hashtag and a picture of Jeremy. That meme would later be turned into a t-shirt by MarshaJane and a load of grassroots Unison activists at Scottish Unison Conference. It was an electrifying buzz to find the left suddenly alive with creativity.

But there was less sexy work to get on with too. The Red Labour collective got to work preparing spreadsheets, we published email addresses and Twitter accounts, drew up lists and crossed names off the lists a matter of hours later. All the time, the possibilities were becoming narrower and narrower. Nevertheless, we carried on regardless – organising Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter writing campaigns. Of course, we didn’t realise how hard it would be, but a strange thing happened: the more resistant MPs seem to be, the more people seemed to want to get involved. People came out of nowhere and took responsibility for huge chunks of the campaign. At first, there was some apprehension – should we be taking a more centralised approach? But after deliberating for all of a few minutes, it became obvious that events had overtaken our plans – it was no longer ‘our’ campaign – it belonged to those who wanted to contribute. And this nominations campaign had become an issue of democracy.

The sum total of the online activity was just incredible – and relentless. This now was reaching far beyond our Red Labour group. Here came the Corbynistas! Some people gave over whole evenings to emailing everyone on the list. Others engaged their own MPs in lengthy debates over twitter. It was a genuinely spontaneous and collective moment. It was an intense week of activity. While we were organising the mass emailing and tweeting of MPs, a thousand activist flowers were blooming. One of the most significant was Stuart Wheeler’s change.com petition: ‘We call on Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn’, which gained over 7,500 signatures – which again was extensively shared on social media and featured in the press. Stuart, from St Blazeys in the South West, was known to us in Red Labour, but again, his petition was a perfect example of someone just getting off their backside and deciding that he was going to give the campaign his all. We weren’t going to bow down to the PLP and their accepted ways of doing things – the “common sense” which said that they knew best who should be on the ballot paper and how the debate should be framed. There was a real sense in which we were determined to have our voice heard, at last. And we did. That’s why, when the mainstream press decided that those nominations were ‘gifted’, it stuck in the craw. And it wasn’t true.”

#JezWeCan: After the nomination

If getting a candidate was part one, and getting the nominations was part two, part three was the big one: how to get a 200-1 shot elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. This time, I took the initiative. I immediately contacted John and asked if I could carry on with the social media campaign role. It didn’t take long to wrap up. I contacted my PhD supervisors who were incredibly helpful – and I was granted a period of interruption in my studies to work on the campaign full-time. The decision to give me licence to develop an independent social media campaign alongside a Jeremy’s personal social media accounts proved to be one of the best decisions of the campaign. I enlisted the help of MarshaJane Thompson, who I knew mainly through the LRC and we quickly assembled a small group of volunteers. Right from the off, this group gave the campaign a massive shot in the arm – and it was constantly vibrant, creative, enthusiastic and absolutely relentless.

I’d argue too, that it was the driver for much of the most positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, it was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for our supporters (in a recent YouGov survey, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population)

I became more of a co-ordinator proper, asking the team to come up with memes, fishing out articles and quotes. In contrast to some of the other leadership campaigns, our social media campaign was completely organic and grassroots. We had assembled a team of activists around the left of the party: people who could design those memes, who understood Jeremy’s politics and who were in touch with the wider movement. There was deliberately no thematic line. It was creative and at times ad hoc, but it connected with people much better than the slick offerings of the other candidates. We had a constant supply of fantastic contributions from Andrew Fisher and the central policy team, and, gradually – a load of good news stories – not from the mainstream press, but from the website team; from those out with Jeremy at hustings all over the country; the enormous rallies that followed; the amazing volunteer operation run by Kat Fletcher and the massively professional phone bank operation co-ordinated by Alex Halligan.

This all fed into the next stage of the election campaign: the CLP nominations. This was being co-ordinated centrally via the ‘ground operations team’, but we used social media to not only raise awareness of the process, but also, crucially, to celebrate the successes. So when a CLP nominated Jeremy, they would get a little ‘thank you’ meme quickly produced by our design team. The response, especially on Twitter, was phenomenal. Throughout, the newly installed regional organisers, 12 strong, were running around, putting in the most incredible shifts to make sure we capitalised on this momentum and secured as many CLP nominations as possible – updating the regional Facebook pages when they could take time to draw breath. When the results started coming through, it was like an earthquake. This was so significant because we had expected to struggle amongst established party members. As those CLP nominations racked up, we realised that we’d underestimated our fellow party members. This was a genuine grassroots revival in the party. Of course, we could all claim we’d seen it coming and via Red Labour we’d always said it was possible, but nevertheless, this was incredible.

Organising ourselves around the phrase that would become emblematic of not just the social media campaign, but the campaign as a whole: #JezWeCan, the social media team – which was split over four cities from London to Durham – worked together in absolute, collective unity, mostly via a single Facebook thread. MarshaJane Thompson, my fellow co-ordinator, was a fantastic ally throughout – totally reliable, she also managed the online shop which produced the #JezWeCan t-shirts, raised a ton of cash for the campaign and organised the huge Union Chapel fundraiser night in London. She carried the Twitter operation for much of the time, ably helped by James Doran in Darlington. I did most of my work from Durham, and when Marsha became officially part of the media strategy team down in London, the whole thing started really clicking. James did much of the Twitter grind of following accounts (even some which later proved not to be quite what they seemed at first sight). Paul Simpson, my colleague at the People’s Bookshop was one of the constants throughout, who built the presence of the Facebook campaign at the crucial stage before nominations and was relentless in publicising Jeremy’s proud history as an M.P.

Unison’s Andrew Berry was our eyes and ears for stories on the ground. The incredibly talented Leonora Partington gave us the most fantastic, fearless graphics – some of which were shared to millions. At times we were firing this stuff out at a rate of knots, so the help of Ruth Berry and Charley Allan was crucial in rebutting the nasty and cynical attacks from the traditional media. Jason Harris was the campaign’s brilliant photographer and captured both Jeremy and our events superbly, which helped so much when it came to producing the shareable graphics. Yannis Mendez’s videos were just brilliant – they really captured the diverse grassroots authenticity of the campaign and rightly received rapturous feedback. Finally, Jack Bond was the link between the social media team and the central campaign – a real team player who at one point drove through the night from London to deliver Durham Miners Gala leaflets, arriving at 3am. We worked so well together – with genuine respect, creativity and comradeship. Nobody even got upset over my pedantry about commas and colons.

The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen.

Our Facebook page gained nearly 70,000 likes in three months, with our top post reaching 750,000 people. On a weekly basis, between 1.5 and 2 million people were seeing our Facebook posts (immediately following the election win, it topped 6 million). In terms of engagement (likes, shares and comments), the average weekly engagement was around the 200k mark, with a peak of 600k in late July, with another peak just after the result of 800,00. 18,000 people signed up to go to our virtual Facebook event ‘I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election’. Our output averaged about 10 posts a day, which over the three months will be close to 1000 posts. On Twitter, we gained 64,000 followers, nearly 250,000 mentions were made of the campaign on Twitter and our top tweet was retweeted 1,800 times. We posted a total of 4,100 tweets (including retweets). Our most successful Twitter storm saw the campaign mentioned 22,500 times in just two hours, but other Twitter ‘events’ saw our campaign trending at various times throughout the summer. At the last televised hustings in Gateshead, our campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. Our top embedded video was Owen Jones’ speech at the Glasgow rally, with 97.1k views and a reach of 291,000. We have also experimented with Instagram, which has a much younger demographic and is focused on sharing images, gaining 1430 followers in a quick time, more than ten times any other candidate.

* Provisional Finale

BEN SELLERS concludes:

“That’s the campaign in numbers, but it’s about so much more than the numbers – it’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.

This is a massive and significant sea change in the way we do our politics. When the over whelming 59.5% vote came through on that historic Saturday at the QE II Conference Centre, we knew that hundreds of thousands were poised to celebrate on Facebook and Twitter. When the first round results were announced, a few audible gasps were heard in the hall, but not from the social media team. We released the #JezWeDid meme – and it was shared to half a million within the hour.

For me, social media now needs to be seen as an integral part of what happens next. Although we rightly have scepticism about the Obama administration, there’s no doubt that as a social media campaign, they are still the model (though we also have a new model now being created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign). What the Obama campaign did was quite radical. They allocated equal resources to their social media operation as they did to their traditional press operation. I think we need to embrace this new, democratic medium and do the same. It’s important to have articles in the Guardian, the Independent, to have positive news coverage wherever possible, but it won’t be enough. If we are serious about winning in 2020, we need to engage in a mass education campaign, making our policy messages accessible and popular. We need to launch the biggest ever social media counter narrative to the storm that is coming our way. We have learnt important lessons over the last three months and we’ve run a great social media campaign, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

The social media campaign has been an incredible experience, not just for those involved officially, but for everyone who has made a contribution – small and big. But all of us know that it can be so much better, so much bigger and so much more effective – if we are bold enough to take up the challenge.”


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