This piece was written for the first New Public Thinking book, Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, available from PediaPress and featuring the work of many other fascinating folks, all reflecting on the year that was 2011.
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This was the year, retrospectively, that I noticed I had become an adult. Not in terms of becoming sensible, taking things seriously, or any of the boring things that the term tends to imply, but rather in terms of taking responsibility, at a deep level, for the world around me.
2011 has been a year of Gnostic revelation, as the deep and critical faults in the world-system become legible to an ever-growing number of people, and the responses to these faults start to gather steam. The real seriousness of the situation has yet to come home to most people, but from the Eurozone crisis to the revolutions in North Africa, from the increasingly blatant fascism in the United States to the continually worsening climate news (and the corresponding failure of international governance), we are seeing more and more a spread of narrative failure. People from all walks of life are waking up to a world where the future they were sold is now inconceivable.
Some of us, and here I speak as much about my friends within the Institute for Collapsonomics, Dark Mountain, and other networks of gestalt realism as of myself, have been living in this world for a while. The growing awareness is often as disturbing as it is confirming. In many ways, we would much rather be wrong.
There are benefits to growing incoherence, however, as with all kinds of turbulence. In a smoothly flowing world, finding places from which to act is very difficult unless you're moving within an organisation big enough to shape the narrative, to affect the flow. That kind of institutional privilege takes time to build, and is rarely amenable to projects that disrupt the institutional worldview. In turbulent times though, there are moments in the flow where a small action can create a large shift, can bring a project into being at a level apparently out of sync with what might be considered larger expectations.
One of the projects that I'm running, the Constitutional Analysis Support Team, came into being in just such a moment of turbulence. Last summer, Iceland rewrote its constitution. The document created by the Assembly is still working its way through the Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament, but the process used to draft it was open in a way that would have been unthinkable almost anywhere in the world a few years back. The process came in part as a reaction to the Icelandic banking crisis and the crisis in governance that it triggered, and in part from the rhetoric of transparency that both open government initiatives and organisations like Wikileaks and the Pirate Parties have helped drive. In this environment, Smári McCarthy and I could step forward and engage directly with the Constitutional Assembly to threat model and troubleshoot the draft constitution, albeit still as outside volunteers.
There are moments, looking back at the trajectory of the past few years, when I get a sensation of vertigo. Projects have gone from unthinkable to serious to finished extremely rapidly, and the hard work becomes less obvious in retrospect. This is part of the same turbulence. The work we've been able to do has happened because we've been in the right place at the right moment, pulled along with currents larger than ourselves.
The idea of thinkability is a useful one, as worldviews shift. The global occupation movements are important in part as a place where large numbers of people have had an insurrectionary experience, have lived in a way which the world says it isn't possible to live. In doing so, they have come into contact with a much broader cross-section of society than they would have in their ordinary lives, and also seen the hard edge of the institutions of power. The societies that are thinkable, having had that experience, are very different. For many, the compromises that our now-current society asks of them have become intolerable. The occupations exist not to become the new functional governance mechanism of the world, but to collect anger and to show people that new possibility.
Sadly, the problems of the old societies are hardly vanishing into a mist around these new emergent groups. In many cases, the new entities are having to confront the issues that society has tried to ignore much more directly — there are no decades-old strategies of forgetting, not seeing, avoiding. In Boston, for instance, the occupation (before it was cleared) had to deal very directly with the reality of the city's endemic drug problems. Likewise, even within our own community of thinkers, I see repeated and vitriolic attacks on basic social agreements that should have been settled decades ago.
The work we are doing requires subtlety and nuance. It is impossible to develop a coherent worldview if you cannot maintain more than one idea in your head at once, and this is most obvious when we talk about social oppression. The issues of poverty and the effort to find a functional and equitable approach to global resource and infrastructural imbalances are some of the most important issues which faces us, but they do not give us the right to ignore the degree to which these issues interact with racial inequality, nor to pretend that women's right to self-determination can simply wait on the sidelines.
The latter issue has been sadly resurgent. As more people understand the seriousness of the current moment and begin to act, many of them are taking an attitude of “women and children into the lifeboats, this is men's work,rdquo; to a degree that would be laughable if it wasn't grossly insulting. In order to make any progress, a basic understanding of intersectionality is not optional. I hope that in 2012 we can do a better job of holding our communities to a basic standard of understanding that equality means equality for everyone, woman or man, black or white, disabled or able, poor or rich, queer or straight.
This is critical in part because of the very freedom that turbulence gives us. We are afforded a chance to step back from all of the social contracts and ask ourselves and the world how we wish to live. If we are unwilling to understand both the urgency of the problems we face and the privileges that we experience in the world, the answer that we come up with will not result in a society capable of responding to the challenges we face.
On the bright side, as part of this process we get to find out just how much of what we thought was necessary in our lives is actually up for negotiation. For me, 2011 has been a year of becoming nomadic. I still have an apartment back in NYC, but I've been there at most perhaps two months out of the year, and I'm looking forward to getting rid of it entirely. That shift, from settled life to nomadism has been helpful for me in questioning the world I live in, but has also shown me a better picture of the privileges I have. I'd invite everyone attempting to do this kind of work to examine their own privilege.
In a similar way to becoming nomadic, the horizontal communalism of an occupation, or of suddenly growing entities like Anonymous or Telecomix signals what is hopefully a deep shift in the way we live our lives. To the extent that we are going to be able to recover from this turbulence, not in the sense of preserving the systems that are currently failing but in the sense of preserving the humanity of our lives, we need fundamentally different structures, organisational modalities that allow us to be fully human and allow us all to have a full-throated voice. The institutions that make up the old world still have power, resources, and a deep grip on our lives; Anonymous will not be taking over responsibility for our global food production system any time soon. However, they are no longer the place where deep transformation of the world is happening. Institutions are no longer creating futures.
One can hope that we will be able to give those institutions good, quiet deaths, a slow and orderly transfer of functions to network structures, albeit with significant mutation along the way. This is sadly radically unlikely. Institutions will resist with every ounce of force they can muster. In this way as in many others, 2011 has been only a rehearsal, a tiny taste of what will likely be decades of chaos. To the extent that it is remembered in history, it will be remembered as “the year before 2012; the year before things really started.”
In the coming year, I expect to see a massive response from the organisations that are seeing their narratives dissolved; much of the course of the next decade will depend on how deeply those institutions are able to either suppress or co-opt nascent network structures. At the same time, the turbulence that we've seen will continue to gather in force; its structural causes have not been diminished in the least.
We go forward hopeful but with our eyes open, aware that we are adults now, and that we are taking a deep responsibility for the shape of the world and the future. We will forge a new world, whether the metal we strike wants to be shaped or not.