Jean Lievens, a dear friend and key P2P Foundation collaborator in Belgium, has passed away, though his spiritual and intellectual legacy will live on amongst his family, friends and co-constructors of a more just world.
He died on Tuesday, September 6, 2016, and his funeral was held in Ostend, Belgium, on Friday the 16th. Jean had been having health problems for about a year, but was unaware of a more serious condition until his last 10 days.
I’d like to offer some of my memories of our work together as well as reflections about continuing his legacy. I write this in both a personal capacity and as a co-member of the P2P Foundation network.
I got to know Jean the second year of our studies at the Free University of Brussels (V.UB.), probably in 1978. Jean was first a student in the business school Solvay, while I was doing Political Sciences. We met in the student movement Aktief Linkse Studenten (Active Left Students), were members of the Flemish Socialist Party’s youth wing, and both believed in Trotsky’s analysis of the permanent revolution. I would leave just a few years after my time as a student, as I could not square living through the Thatcher/Reagan counter-revolution with the ever-optimistic predictions of the political tendency we belonged to. Jean would leave much later (in his mid-thirties I believe), after having been a full-time organizer and editor-in-chief of the radical magazine Vonk. What was striking about Jean was his generosity to his friends and his reliability as a co-worker and comrade. Jean also had some personal issues to deal with. He came out as gay, and for this he was not accepted by his parents. It would take decades before acceptance came, but he went on to become friends with his father and accompanied him in his final years.
When Jean quit the radical movement he belonged to and gave his life’s energy to for many years, he was also at a loss. Without savings due to very low wages, and with no prospect of a sufficient pension, he had to re-arrange his life. He was lucky to find a cheap apartment in Brussels which he bought and transformed into a jewel of wonderful, if eccentric, taste, and started working as a copywriter for corporate magazines. Given this context, the writing was always excellent and informative about societal trends. We briefly met again in the mid-nineties, after having lost touch for many years. This career worked well for Jean until 2008, when the crisis of capitalism led to a dwindling of his client base, due to cutbacks in corporations. This is when Jean decided to get a job in the city of Brussels, in the department that manages the housing stock. Although he liked the social mission and respected his colleagues, Jean thoroughly disliked the bureaucratic procedures, and it made him feel depressed for several years.
It was then that we met once again, and I could share my enthusiasm about my own work for the emerging peer-to-peer and commons movement. Like Jean, I had composed with the dominant society for many years, and struggled with the anti-social and anti-ecological nature of contemporary capitalism. After experiencing personal burnout and deep crises in 1996, I decided to reconnect with the engagement for social change of my youth. While investigating which approach was appropriate for our times, I decided that P2P dynamics would give social movements the leverage for self-organisation and change. It took Jean nearly 3 years to go through the literature and understand my analysis, but when he emerged from his own study, it gave him a new positive outlook on life. He combined his full-time job with enthusiastic participation in the P2P project in the evenings. He exhibited tremendous energy.
It is thanks to him, as co-author, that I could produce the Flemish book, De Wereld Redden, and its French translation and counterpart, Sauver Le Monde, both of which made a definite impact. Since about 2005, I would be a regular guest during my lecture tours, in his amazing apartment at the Stalingradlaan in Brussels. We talked and thought into the wee hours of the night, and Jean became a much-sought after lecturer in Flanders, while also writing various Dutch-language articles for the more thoughtful magazines such as De Wereld Morgen.
It is difficult to express what a good friend he was, how supportive, and how spoiled he made me feel. Jean was purchasing many of the books I wanted to read, was a master chef of wholesome food. My family also had the opportunity to stay on occasion in his home. My wife became a great admirer of Jean; she considered him like a saint. Jean in return came to visit us in Thailand and had plans to come back in February 2017.
Jean began having health issues about a year before his passing, first expressed as a knee problem, but later as digestive issues that prefigured the disease that would fell him. Despite this, he was still giving plenty of lectures and made many plans. One was to found P2P Foundation Belgium as a separate legal entity; another was to co-author an English conversation book with me (the rough version is finished, awaiting further work to complete it). He was wondering how he could once again make his activist life a primary focus, but had not yet found a satisfactory solution. He also had a warm and active family life with his parents, sisters, nieces, and especially his godson, Sam Kestens.
Jean is leaving a big hole in our hearts, as our fond memories can’t compensate for the warm support he gave us, but we are very committed to honouring his engagements and legacy. Frank Theys and I are finalizing a funding round for a documentary that will be dedicated to his memory. At the recent Prix Ars Electronica awards ceremony, Stacco Troncoso dedicated to Jean the Golden Nica award that we received as the P2P Foundation collective. We will finish the English-language book we started with him, and I am seriously considering naming a new commons-oriented policy institute after him.
Jean left us far too early and far too fast, but his legacy and his gifts will live on in our hearts and our own practice for many years to come.
Michel Bauwens, for the P2P Foundation