Throwing dice

How is writing different from farming? The question comes to me after combining the two for about a year. The most striking difference, I have concluded, is being more or less in control versus being dependent on what we can call aleas – a word from Latin the root of which can be found in aleatory. In French there is the noun, mostly in plural: les aléas.

I can write, delete, write again, until I have forged a text I am more or less satisfied with. Of course writers may feel that the writing writes itself, yet it is us, writers, who decide whether a text may continue to exist or not. Farming (organically, within a living ecosystem, I add) is more like throwing dice all the time. What will the weather do? Storm, rain, drought, frost, they all impact on cultures, soil, greenhouses, and can hardly be foreseen. Fluctuations superimposed on a trend of global warming, yet it is the fluctuations which count on a seasonal term.

There are fluctuations in the living as well. If you try to respect, even restore biodiversity on your farm, you will have to make do with wildly varying populations of voles and other rodents, for which pumpkins and beetroot are a staple. The cultures themselves may behave whimsical for whatever reason – it is for you, the detective farmer to find out. Then there are the markets, existing by the grace of clients, who may choose to stay home with bad weather, shift to shopping on internet or choose another local farmer (hopefully they don’t go to Leclerc).

For sure, writing is an uncertain business as well. But it is not like throwing dice all the time. Perhaps the frost will destroy my early potatoes – how much energy should I spend on covering them? Shall I plant 10.000 leek, even though the soil is dry and no rain is forecast? Should I order cabbage plants again now that the worm of the white has devoured those planted earlier? Does it still make sense to refurbish this tunnel greenhouse given the winter gales? There is no sense of the finished, and ownership, as with a text.

In our age, the French les aléas has a connotation of risk. Yet there is also the other side of the coin: chance. Or fate, depending on one’s metaphysical orientation. In any case, living with aleas on a daily basis, like an organic farmer does, gives a heightened sense of being with the elements, being with the earth and being with the other beings. Plants, toads, bees, worms, birds, cats and humans, all throwing their dice.

Building resilience

My acquaintance with urban farming started at a vegetable gardening course offered for free[1]. The course involved companion planting on a wasteland in Amsterdam Noord, carefully designed and prepared by social entrepreneur Martijn Schreuder. A book dating from 1980, titled Companion Planting: Successful Gardening the Organic Way, written (in German) by gardener Gertrud Franck served as our textbook[2]. Companion planting is fairly well known among vegetable gardeners, but to get a grasp of the intricacies of designing a year-round vegetable garden Franck’s book has quite something to teach. While still a novice in companion planting, even more when it comes to perennial plants, the underlying principles of sustaining diversity, playing with companionship and avoiding bad chemistry are not hard to grasp[3].

While our harvests were modest, partly thanks to the numerous slugs, the afternoons we spent sowing, watching, weeding and talking proved invaluable. I often got distracted (or enlisted, as Bruno Latour might say) by the beautiful, sturdy wild carrot plants springing up everywhere and I marvelled at the constant swirling of bumblebees on the flowering phacelia. We discussed life, love and politics, shared soup and sandwiches, while watching dragonflies, frogs and an odd hare: more companions on the wasteland.

Perhaps the most important purpose served by the garden and our freely chosen activities there was a building a spirit of resilience. I am aware that resilience is a container notion often used to depoliticize action in the context of a changing climate and an uncertain economic future. But I stumbled on a book which by and large surpasses this criticism and which resonates with the afternoons spent on the communal wasteland/garden. It conveys what it may mean to build a spirit of resilience, as a 21st Century sequel to a 20th Century spirit of resistance. Petit traité de résilience locale by Agnes Sinaï, Raphaël Stevens, Hugo Carton and Pablo Sevigne[4] is something of a mixture between a scholarly and activist treatise on resilience.

The authors delve into the scientific meanings of resilience and invoke spiderwebs, chameleons, roses, antcolonies, butterflies and coelacanths to explain the multiplicity of its meaning, but they also discuss politics and power. As with many positive notions, the crucial question to ask about resilience is: “what kind of resilience do we want, whereto and for whom?” Certainly not resilience “as used by those (Davos Forum) who want to strengthen the financial structures which favour the rich and which are among the causes of collapse” (p. 33). Instead, the authors envisage ‘communal resilience’, based on mutual aid, solidarity and kindness towards strangers. This hardly sounds radical, and neither do the three axes of their politics of resilience. Until one realises that it concerns a deep re-localization of power.

The first axis of the politics of resilience is about re-localizing work. It involves the creation of local, low-tech employment that cannot be outsourced, such as permaculture and artisanship. One realizes that it could be a radical turn as the authors foresee agriculture to become one of the major sectors of employment. To note: it concerns fossil-free organic agriculture and permaculture, both labour-intensive. It also involves thermal solar power instead of photovoltaic, the latter power being of questionable sustainability. Local healthcare, woodstoves, low-tech printing, short-wave radio, computer-free tools for arithmetics (such as the abacus) are also part of the resilience toolbox. Those who worked on alternative life-styles in the 1970s will not be surprised, though it may seem radical in the current age to do away with the computer. From a resilience point of view, however, preparing for a breakdown of the digital makes sense.

The second axis involves enhancing the resilience of cities in the face of climate change. Local governments have come to realize that reducing carbon emissions and measures to adapt to a changing climate can be economically advantageous. All this guarantees little in terms of resilience in the wake of disasters, and spontaneous aid within and across neighbourhood communities remains indispensable. And in many parts of the world, the price of petrol remains an inflammable for social conflicts. Rationing petrol and electricity while redesigning infrastructures and urban space would be a prudent two-pronged approach to enhance resilience, the authors argue. Here the intervention of authorities, based on political choices, is clearly indispensable. The authors do not dwell on how to build and mobilise democratic political will on these matters. Will it emerge by necessity?

The third axis sounds like complex engineering. It involves “conceiving infrastructures according to the principles of redundancy, modularity and adaptability for different scales and uses” (p. 41). It does not become entirely clear what the authors mean by all this, the concept of modularity for instance is mentioned only once and nowhere explained. When discussing local resilience, their main concern is territory, and the activities employed on ‘a territory’. Inspired by ecological and permaculture thinking, they propose that “each element of a territory fulfills multiple functions and each function is supported by multiple elements, like in nature where multifunctionality is the norm” (p. 65). This may all sound rather technical, it does involve a turn away from modernist thinking, where functional differentiation is the norm. It also reminds me of a feeling of joyous creativity when, for instance in the garden, one has to make do with what is available. Materials can be used for purposes hitherto unimagined. In the garden, both innovation and art are not far away if you allow yourself. Perhaps the principle of redundancy also includes room for the ‘non-functional’.

The most radical proposal, and also the most difficult one to imagine, concerns the status of territory. “Territory becomes the central actor in the (sustainable) production of wealth and the economy (based on solidarity), by leaving the relationship between culture and nature to the responsible self-management of local communities. Territory is considered a common good” (p. 67). This proposal would deserve a treatise in itself, in fact, the authors refer to such a treatise[5]. The literature on commons thinking is vast and fast growing, and I have read very little of it, so I will not comment on this point. But to me it seems indispensable to start thinking the commons and experimenting with it, even while the reality of land grabbing and concentration of resources make it a far away reality in most places[6]. The spirit of resilience is like that, it feeds on ‘active hope’, Sinaï, Stevens, Carton and Sevigne assert. Learning about companion planting is part of it, too.

[1] An important source of inspiration for me to start exploring urban farming and permaculture was the documentary Tomorrow / Demain, which seems to have inspired many like me.

[2] I found a copy of the English version Companion Planting. Successful Gardening the Organic Way. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Thorsons Publishers Limited, 1983.

[3] Though the world is full of surprises, such as ‘amphibiosis’: in the microbial world mutually benefical relationships may change into parasitic ones. See Martin Blaser Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014, p. 105

[4] Agnes Sinaï, Raphaël Stevens, Hugo Carton and Pablo Sevigne Petit traité de résilience locale Paris: Editions Charles Léopold Mayer, 2015

[5] Alberto Magnaghi La Biorégion urbaine. Petit traité sur le territoire bien commun Paris: Eterotopia France / Rhizome, 2014. In Amsterdam, interesting discussions on the commons are taking place at Pakhuis De Zwijger. E.g. Christian Felber presented his views on the common good economy on Sept. 18, 2017

[6] Just as an example: an account of the difficulties in protecting the commons in a country like India, in this article by Madhu Ramnath

Love of Europe

A decade ago I would not have emphatically expressed my love of Europe. But things have changed. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise in parts of Europe, Brexit has happened, austerity policies have ruined the fabric of society especially in Southern Europe, people have died in terror attacks, xenophobia is widespread and refugees are detained on Europe’s borders, a shocking breach of the Geneva convention. All that is reason for sadness and shame, and these are feelings I regularly have when checking the news. But perhaps because so much freedom and dignity is in danger, love is what I feel foremost.

My father, who taught classics in secondary school, once told me how he saw teaching Greek humanism as his calling. He had experienced war as an adolescent and like many of his generation he wanted to contribute to a Europe free of war. Keeping alive history and tragedy written on both sides of the Mediterranean thousands of years ago was his personal answer to the horrors of the war.  I did not often listen to my father’s lectures, because he spoke too much, but his calling stuck in my mind. And my father’s love of the French language and landscape made us go to the beaches of Brittany or the gorges of the Dordogne during long summer holidays. So probably some of the love of Europe that I feel has been nurtured in me since I was a child, and I realize the privileged conditions.

My feeling of love for Europe thus lingered in me subliminally until recently. I liked to see myself as a world citizen, rather than a European. But in the current situation it feels there is something to stand up for. In his book A Heart for Europe, sociologist Dick Pels details the backgrounds and reasons for what he calls Europatriotism. A drawing of a princess Europa, holding a surprised and silly looking bull above her head figures on its cover. For Pels, this image captures Europe’s horizon: “it anticipates the taming of the bulls (or bullies?) of this world by a strong woman called Europe, the attractive heiress of European freedom, democracy and prosperity”[i]. This surely is an attractive image, and it does convey a power that is both firm and gentle.

I gladly embrace Pels’ Europatriotism, also its civilizational ideal of “democratic virtues such as openness, modesty, curiosity, self-critique and tolerance, and learn[ing] to resist absolutism, authoritarianism and xenophobia”[ii]. But there is one aspect of his Europatriotism that bothers me. That is Pels’ assertion that it is necessary to “draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’”[iii], because it would somehow be ‘naive’ not to draw a line. Since there is already so much ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this world, would it not be wiser to be looking for common ground while building on the civilizational ideal? Is it necessary to focus on differences and demarcations to enact a firm identity? Pels himself presents the sociological insight that identities can be layered[iv] and the political insight that ‘the people’, also the people of Europe, is a collection of minorities[v]. If Europe’s soul is a normative ideal, a never ending project, rather than an objective essence[vi], could we not live with some indeterminacy on where it begins and ends? Perhaps we could say the people who died in Ukraine on the Maidan waving the European flag died as Europeans. Perhaps becoming European is a life-long challenge for all of us.

[i] Dick Pels (2016) A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism Bristol:  Good Works Publishing Cooperative, p. 25

[ii] Idem, p. 105

[iii] Idem, p. 19

[iv] Idem, p. 20

[v] Idem, p. 76

[vi] Idem, p. 16

Capitalism and the escape to the commons*

“Before capitalism will go to hell … it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way”[i]. In the introduction of How will capitalism end?, Wolfgang Streeck interlaces his precise and nuanced academic discourse with a few stark images which add to the feeling of urgency one is caught in these days. It is fascinating and shocking to read his diagnosis of contemporary neoliberal society and the multi-morbidity of capitalism, but I like to look beyond the decay towards signs of emerging alternatives. Perhaps we cannot move the body, but circumvent it, taking ‘escape routes’ collectively and leave the cadaver to the elements? Before I present my belief in newly emerging institutions based on everyday experience, let me briefly summarise Streeck’s diagnosis.

We live in a post-democracy, in which finance has become a government of its own. This private government, consisting of the globalized financial industry and the central banks has left public governments without any means to resolve conflicts and to defend themselves against ‘the three apocalyptic horsemen of contemporary capitalism’: stagnation, debt and inequality. The long term trends of declining growth, rising debt and growing inequality reinforce each other, as much else in the downward spiral we are in. The spiral of self-destruction became palpable with the sequence of debt crises since the 1970s and the onset of neoliberalism. It deepened with globalization destroying territory-bound defenses against the commodification of labour, nature and money and public government sliding into global governance. Since the financial crisis of 2008, these trends are continuing for the worse and ‘recovery’ amounts to worsening labour conditions and underemployment. Precarious employment, all sorts of flexible labour constructions and ‘disruptive innovation’ make for vulnerable, unorganized workers left to their own devices. This condition is being applauded in neoliberal discourse under such terms as ‘resilience’ and ‘creativity’. Add to this the pathology of ‘systemic disorders’ such as ‘oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy’, plus the self-reinforcing dynamic of public governments increasingly relying on and being lobbied by private firms in warfare, and you have, by and large, Streeck’s ink-black diagnosis of contemporary society.

But that is not all. Concomitant with the worsening power of labour and the celebration of individual competition and resilience under neoliberalism, Streeck sees a ‘pulverization of collective agency’ amounting to a state of social entropy. The sociologist sees something akin a Hobbesian state of nature as the inevitable interregnum that awaits us, since there is no opposition that can match the power of private government and no new order in sight:

“With individuals deprived of collective defenses and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on the motivation of individuals to cooperate with other individuals on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and greed and by elementary interests in individual survival”[ii].

Why does Streeck see only social entropy? I will not go into a theoretical discussion, but I like to take from the book Escape routes by Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos[iii] the outlook that every day, simple acts born from dissent and a desire to escape oppression can add up to transformation. Escape is something like free energy, not the energy expended with resistance, and it may result in self-organization. This is what I feel when I hear people talking about their personal engagement with some cooperative activity around food, energy, housing, education, care and other basic issues around which new institutions can be built, or actually are being built. Everywhere in urban areas, collectively maintained food gardens are springing up, often on wasteland. These playful commons initiatives are precarious, given the pressures to build on land where square meter prices are sky-high and the demand is huge, but they indicate a changing mentality. Outside the cities, Community Supported Agriculture is a growing phenomenon all over Europe[iv]. The Youth Food Movement appears to have embraced a paradigm shift in thinking about and experimenting with the whole materiality and symbolics of food, motivated by the wish for a fairer and sounder food system. I think these initiatives are saplings which can grow into firmly rooted institutions. This is far too optimistic for Streeck’s taste – he would probably see this as hopelessly naïve ‘resilient hoping’ as neoliberalism requires us to do. But there is more than capital on this earth – it even seems hardly important at all.

*This post also appeared at DiEM25 NL’s blog.

About DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement)

[i] Wolfgang Streeck (2016) How will capitalism end? Essays on a failing system London/New York: Verso, p. 36

[ii] Idem, p. 14

[iii] Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos (2008) Escape routes. Control and subversion in the 21st Century London/Ann Arbor, Mi.: Pluto Press

[iv] European CSA research group (2016) Overview of Community Supported Agriculture in Europe