This summer I received the opportunity to attend a German festival where people take one week to live and discuss how to live in a utopia.
If there is one thing, everyone could agree on it is likely to be: the world in its current state needs urgent improvement. How exactly could we create a better, more sustainable, more human-friendly world? For four years, there has been a German utopian festival dedicated to living and discussing this question.
This summer I was lucky to be asked to join this event. Participants are drawn by lot with a waiting list in case people have to cancel their participation. I was unlucky with the lot system in 2016 and 2017, but a sufficient number of cancellations allowed many other people and me to attend this festival at very short notice. The utopival festival is called a congress for and by its participants. Everyone may join in the production of common meals, ideas and projects, e.g. by attending and providing workshops.
I was hesitant to join because I expected this week-long event to be very practical with individuals exchanging concepts and ideas of the projects they are currently working in. My own life is currently very full with activities which, hopefully, will allow me to finally land a job with a company seeking a human rights expert for its corporate social responsibility and human rights due diligence issues. Hence, I already knew that I could not take on more projects.
Collective Efforts despite Divide et Impera
I still decided to join because we need more collective solutions to our collective issues, for instance absent corporate responsibility. The Guardian phrased the core issue nicely with this article which Sofia shared with me:
“Even before the advent of neoliberalism, the capitalist economy had thrived on people believing that being afflicted by the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfillment – was in fact a personal deficiency.
Neoliberalism has taken this internalized self-blame and turbocharged it. It tells you that you should not merely feel guilt and shame if you can’t secure a good job, are deep in debt, and are too stressed or overworked for time with friends. You are now also responsible for bearing the burden of potential ecological collapse.”
Placing the burden of saving our collective world on the shoulders of individuals limits our capacity to create change as a group. Divide et impera is the Latin expression for the idea to divide a group into smaller parts which then have less power than the group as a whole.
Working in Fair Trade in Germany, I have encountered numerous demands by politicians that consumers should inform themselves better and make better buying decisions thus driving companies to change. I have also encountered numerous individuals who take the time to inform themselves about alternatives to exploitative supply-chains and production lines. There are thousands of people who spend hours debating where to buy food, clothes, how to travel and take holidays in sustainable ways. Meanwhile standard companies continue their cost-cutting, profit-maximising business because the great majority of people is either unable and/or unwilling to join imagining and demanding alternative ways of individual consumption.
I am not blaming individuals, especially not those who are already over-worked and over-tired with just making ends meet financially, emotionally and socially, e.g. ‘social stress’ because you feel bad because you cannot find time for your friends as you have to work.
During my life as a human rights law student I had never encountered these practical tools for organising work, especially group work. Yes, these tools are standard use in corporate contexts, and yes, they are very different from the way left-wing and alternative groups are currently organising themselves. At the utopist event I spread their content because I am convinced: perceiving structures and processes as evil just because you opponent uses them does not solve the problem. It especially does not solve the problem if the problem affects everyone and requires collective action. And yes, it may seem easier to ask an individual to change because you avoid long discussions and clashes of conflict. Buying your own fair trade t-shirts is easier than creating a group for changing public procurement, e.g. for clothing for municipal workers.
Since collective action has more impact than accumulated individual action, I wanted to learn more about how to organise myself and others for collective action at this utopist festival.
Regulation Crushing Utopia?
I only participated in the utopist event for three days because the official camp was asked to close by the police. Unfortunately, somebody had informed regulatory authorities about the event. It became apparent that the organizers had not secured the permissions necessary in Germany, for instance for holding an event with such a great number of people and for having a big fire place close to a nature reserve. It cannot have come as a big surprise that some unknown person called in on the regulatory authorities when noticing the recurrent smoke from our fire place and/or the large amount of people in this rural area close to a nature reserve. Upon discovery, we were asked to leave by noon next day.
I approve of having regulatory authorities checking up on fire places close to or in forests. European news this summer is already filled with countless reports on forest fires. I can even understand that the rules for holding a gathering of 70 and for 130 are different. Some participants erupted in anger about ‘the state’ and ‘the system’. Yes, arbitrary state actions and police violence, e.g. at the G20 protests, deserve criticism and various forms of resistance. However, I do not see a connection between ‘the evil system’ and the organisers’ failure to ensure that the utopist event could be held.
Building Utopia Requires Organisation…
This is also a question of taking responsibility. Strangely enough the thought occurred only after I reached home. If you organise an event without any regard for the legal framework and you get caught, you cannot put the blame on the entity in charge for ensuring that everyone abides by the rules – even if the same rules were ignored three times before for organizing the same kind of event in the past three years. Pushing blame on the regulatory entity is exactly what big business does when states take up their courage and ask for corporate misconduct to be stopped and remedied. Rejecting self-responsibility is one of the core issues we deal with in Business & Human Rights.
If I want corporate actors to swallow huge costs and accept huge losses in profits by taking responsibility for their actions, I cannot refuse to take responsibility for an ordinary fire place close to a nature reserve. If I want to create a space where 130 people have the leisure to discuss how to live and organise a more sustainable and human-friendly world for a week, I need to ensure that the space cannot get closed down for good reasons.
It is very sad if great ideas and projects do not get to be realised because of absent organisation skills. Ironically, some of the workshops which did not get to be held aimed at providing participants with the skills and materials to better organise themselves as individuals and as groups. The most interesting workshop I attended shared methods on group decision-making with various ways of creating consensus which I had never heard about before. I would have loved to attend the other workshops which were cancelled due to the sudden ending of the official camp.
…and Honesty About Our Natural Limitations.
I have not been on the organisers’ committee so this criticism is cheap talk to some extent. However, I post this as a general remark. There are too many initiatives and projects pursuing the creation of a more sustainable world which ignore the context of their actions. Especially, they also ignore natural limitations.
Currently, alternative initiatives and projects regularly do not respect that the human capacity to work, especially to work for free, is limited, and people act in disregard to the fact that each day consists of 24 hours. Mistakes and omissions, such as ensuring legal requirements are met when holding an event for 130 people, are more likely to occur when people are stressed out and overwhelmed. There is nothing to be gained by self-exploitation. As long as we pursue self-exploitation and ignore our natural limitations, it is highly unlikely that we will convince others that our nature’s resources are limited and that we all including companies need to respect these limitations.
As one of my fellow participants said during a workshop called Think Differently, Act Differently:
the only real way to change things is by leading by example.
And no, this does not claim that you are responsible for saving the world by yourself. It encourages you to organise your life in a way which opens up resources for you. Resources like time and energy to join groups where we build skills and capacities for collectively solving collective issues.