As you, Jonas, pointed out when launching Collectivize Facebook: this is not a substitute, it’s just a pragmatic solution for the moment. So, how can we make this physically felt, this desire and political necessity of assembling? And at the same time acknowledge the necessity not to be able to do that at the moment.
For me, it raises a lot of interesting questions about participation because I think that even before, online participation was often about being visible. There was always this race—which, of course, is also connected to neoliberalism—to be visible and produce more content. And now there is this acceleration of the need to be visible; you have to constantly produce attractive online content and invent new platforms, which, of course, you can’t, because you have to take care of a two-year-old child or you’ll be fired or you’re hungry. So, in a way I think participation online is always infected, sorry about the irony, with this sort of neoliberal purpose. So with online participation, engagement is always mediated by various agendas, and if we are in a sort of crisis, the temporal virality constantly intensifies the crisis, like an echo. And somehow when you’re together in the physical space, you create a different kind of temporality, less infected by all this propaganda. You feel your body and the closeness of other bodies in a tangible way, and then the participatory engagement is completely different.
JS: That’s absolutely true, but at the same time I remember that the way the training camp came about was also as a critique of the very form of the assembly. The idea was to move from assembly to training because of the risk of the assembly slowly becoming a kind of substitute for political action: as long as we are together, as long as there are bodies in a room discussing something, it feels like we are doing “something.” And after the assembly, there is another assembly and another assembly, and it can risk becoming a self-serving paradigm. What would it mean to shift towards the training, to somehow embrace an aspect of disciplining? Not disciplining as a punishing act, but as a way of expanding our capacity of collective action. For me, this question still holds very much in this particular moment intime.
It’s obvious that together with the pandemic there is also a different virus spreading, I call it the “red virus.” There are more reawakened socialists in the world than ever before because suddenly everyone wants universal basic healthcare, basic income, well-paid care-workers and cleaners, and the like; this is a huge base and potentiality that could turn this moment into a transformative one. But that won’t go without a fight, and it still needs incredible organisational discipline. We need a militant imaginary of where we want to get to. What is the kind of world we want to build through this crisis? How does this crisis make visible what is wrong, and what it is that we want to achieve? But we also need structural trained constituents that can enforce these futurities to become reality, because it’s very clear that our opponents, whether it’s the authoritarians or neoliberals, or the combination of the two, have had their plans to exploit crises ready for a long time. Erdoğan knew exactly what he wanted to do, the right-wing Greek government knew exactly what they wanted to do, when it comes to mass precarisation or corporate benefit, or when it comes to dismantling independent democratic institutions. I think we were working on the idea of the training camp to have our own plans and trained constituents ready for such moments as well. So, if there is any form in which we would continue this now, I think we would have to acknowledge the changed choreographies of our intimacies, of our gathering, but at the same time it would have to focus directly on how to spread this red virus, and how to enforce this reawakened social imaginary.
FM: I agree, the trainings now would have a much clearer focus. We offered a very wide array of futures and approaches, and now they would have to be narrowed down. The task would be clearer. I really like the idea of manuals or tasks or structures that would be worked with in different places. We already had discussions about the possible Eurocentrism of the last edition and about its context specificity and the problems that might come with that. There was, for example, a controversy around the training given by Heath Bunting, who recommended touching the police as a strategy to confuse them. And some people said: well, if you do this where I come from, you’d just get beaten up. So, this strategy is obviously not universal.
So, by decentralising the trainings, they could become even more specific. They would have to acknowledge what you can actually do, in what kind of lockdown you might be trapped, what the specific social situation is in the concrete space you are in. This would actually be a gain: to understand what tools, strategies, weapons actually can function in which concrete context.
One example of a local specific context in terms of surveillance could be how the medical masks were used by protesters in Hong Kong to confuse the facial recognition in cameras. Now that the masks are obligatory in many places, maybe they could be used in other subversive ways? Or remember the propaganda and graffiti robots by the Institute for Applied Autonomy? They designed robots that deliver propaganda and draw graffiti so that you can’t find and arrest their human sender. The robots protected the people who wanted to deliver their message anonymously, and now they could potentially also protect them from getting infected… technology can somehow be imagined indifferent ways than just facilitating Zoom conversations.
But I also wanted to go back to the concept of training, because the specificity of contexts brings up some issues regarding why a certain person is a trainer and another a trainee—why should this person delegate their knowledge toother people, and shouldn’t the knowledge be transferred in a less hierarchical way?
JS: For me, using the terms trainer and trainee is not necessarily an imposition of hierarchy, as trainees can easily become trainers and vice versa. What we chose was to highlight competencies related to questions of reclaiming the means of production of the future from people who have been invested in these questions for several decades, when it comes to protest choreography or hacking, for example. But acknowledging competence is not a denial of the fact that there are also other competencies. A different starting question would have resulted in a different division of who can be temporarily regarded as a trainer and who can be temporarily regarded as a trainee. On top of that, if a trainer does their work well, a competence is transferred and, at the end of the training, a trainee becomes a potential trainer. So, for me what seems to be hierarchy is more about a temporal recognition of competence related to a specific question and an undoing of the division of knowledge through the training, because essentially that knowledge is redistributed, and you end up with more trainers than trainees.
Returning to your previous comment, the question of surveillance is crucial—for example, in relation to all of the different apps that are being developed to speed up the “re-opening” of economies for the coming year. Apps through which people will continuously be receiving messages whether they have or have not been in close contact with someone who might be carrying the virus, and are imposed to stay at home in quarantine for another period of time, or might be rejected entry to use public transport systems or going to public spaces, in one form or another. There are a lot of technological tools of surveillance that had difficulty getting into the public market because of resistance against privacy infringement, and now have a perfect occasion to be fully put to the test because when there is a sense of collective emergency, people are obviously much more willing to give up what previously seemed to be extremely important civil liberties. Just out of a sheer desire of getting out of the crisis as soon as possible. And this is what makes it hugely difficult to engage crises transformatively, because it is exactly in crisis that people desire to return to an idea of the “normal.” Even if you hated that normality, it seems better than being at home jobless or not even having a home, or being evicted from your house in the middle of a crisis because you can’t pay your rent or mortgage. This explains, for example, why in a country like the US, where it would be most rational to vote for Bernie Sanders in a moment like this, the desire for Biden becomes even bigger. Because it is the person that represents this idea of a pre-post truth normality. So, that also puts a challenge on how to engage a crisis transformatively; it is even more difficult to mobilise people now for a promise that everything will change, because everything has already changed, and that is what makes people so fundamentally and understandably anxious.
FM: Just a remark in regard to surveillance and tracking technologies: one of the divisions amongst the trainers and the trainees in the last edition of TFTF was mirroring the classic division within the left between those believing in technology as a means of change and those being very sceptical towards or even against technological advancement. That’s also an interesting aspect to revisit at the moment: How much do we believe technology can be part of a progressive change, and where is it a mere threat, a danger? Again, this seems to be a question to which the answers are constantly shifting—especially in a time where tracking apps might to a degree be something that can help us move more freely again.
JS: Here is again the enhancement of already existing policies and infrastructures. For me, when the pandemic started, I wanted to cancel most of the running projects in order to think through what is happening now and not to stick to business as usual and blindly facilitate even more precarious economies that are emerging from this crisis. The lawsuit that lawyer Jan Fermon and I mounted against Facebook was the only one that we stuck to, though, although there was this huge sense of absence not to be able to launch it with 400 people at HAU Theater in Berlin as planned, and miss all the antagonisms and intimacies that are part of bringing an idea into the public domain and trying to mobilise for its support. But at the same time, it felt, at least for me, like a campaign that fit the moment, because everyone has worked for Facebook and no one was ever paid for it. You have a stake, they owe you, so we should own them. We are in a crisis, we need income, and we are even more dependent on social media for which we labour as unpaid data workers. So, somehow it felt like a strategy in which you could use this desire to return to normality: Yes, we will maintain the Facebook platform, you will remain a member, but with an added value, that you will be co-owner, that you will finally be paid for the work that you have done. So, I am very much thinking of how to strategically anticipate the desire to return to normality, and how to turn that normality into an alternative future. Yes, we will keep all of these infrastructures that we are so used to and that create our sense of daily life, but the change will be a change of ownership, a change of purpose, a change of who benefits. I feel that this is the moment when we have to struggleover the infrastructures that we have, but under a fundamentally new paradigm.
FM: But from what you say, it becomes very clear that we actually need training now, because the state of emergency becomes a state of permanence. It is already becoming more or less clear that it will be like this for at least this year, maybe next year, maybe forever, and infrastructures will be built. Yes, these infrastructures will provide a few more intensive care beds, but they will also entail a lot of other stuff that we will not be so happy about. So, wouldn’t that be the moment to actually launch a training—which might be digital, might be instructions, might be assemblies in fifty different places organised with only ten people at each place—all kinds of forms? And to have a clear focus on what we need to prepare, to train for right now—for the immediate future—and the future after that?
One good thing about the training is that it’s a form of disciplining yourself to act, but at the same time, because of their diversity and their different approaches, they also other food for thought on the format itself. A training is a proposition that you have to follow in a certain moment and only afterwards you can criticise it. So, it actually is a vulnerable proposition—but one that you have to acknowledge with your whole body.
JS: I agree that the training is a form of reflection through an embodied experience. And it is a question whether reflection makes sense at all, or has any purpose, without an embodied experience in the first place. There is the challenge to politicise the virus as something that shows a violence in an existing system but opens up the possibility of transformation at the same time. I would say it would be a kind of training for collectivisation; it would need to be something that is much more focused, as you said Florian, on this particular moment, and on the very slim window of opportunity that it provides, but with a huge renewed politicised constituency that is unwillingly more socialist than it has ever been before. It even counts for many neoliberal governments that have been forced to put in place certain measures that they would otherwise have condemned as the worst cultural Marxist propositions.
I am wondering if collectivisation is not another form of assembly, if it’s a form of assembly through infrastructure. Similar to the way that I can see social distancing as something that simultaneously represents a social closeness, socially distancing because I want to care for another body, for another human, for a community. We can also see this distancing as a way of being closer to one another or enabling the possibility of closeness from a collective mindset, a collective mindset that we might not have experienced the same way before in this extremely atomised and individualised society that we are part of. What are we talking about when we talk about collectivisations? We are talking about infrastructures that distribute agencies, agencies of health, agencies of education, agencies of economic viability, and we are much more in that mindset now than we were before. Because we have to, for as long as this virus is active, we have to continuously think of all of our actions in this sense of an interconnected infrastructure. And that can lead to even further atomisation and surveillance or that could lead to another form of reclaiming our collective properties, materially, psychologically, intimately.
FM: Well, fifteen, twenty years ago, there was a lot of writing by Internet theorists and activists about the great chance of collaboration as a form of working together without the need to know or even like each other. It was a favourite myth for many Internet pioneers. So, there is a danger in just following that route. But on the other hand, there is the intimate, direct contact, the limited number of people you can interact with, that also plays a role. So how does it not just become an abstract or even esoteric concept of feeling connectivity with millions? How do we negotiate both aspects?
JS: It is also related of course to the question of what is collectivisation, because we have become very used to understating the term in relation to real existing socialism. But what if collectivisation is neither a strengthening of the transnational corporations, nor a strengthening of the nation state? So, collectivising Facebook would not be nationalising Facebook. Rather, it’s about opening up a spectre of the transnational: collectivising Facebook essentially means to transform it into a transnational self-governing cooperative of 2.5 billion users.
FM: Why do you seem to avoid a certain vocabulary that was used in the discussion around the commons a couple of years ago?
JS: It has more to do with the way that the rhetoric of the commons was so easily integrated into a lot of the neoliberal discourses, or even as a way for states to abandon responsibility. Pointing towards citizens commoning social security in so called “bread funds,” for example, then leads to the rhetoric: “Look, it’s great, citizens can do it themselves, that means they don’t need us, that means that whatever is left of our budget we can invest in making sure that we have a tax-free haven in Amsterdam South, so that we can get more corporations to register in the Netherlands.” In such a scenario, the commons has less to do with common ownership, and more with the state relieving its duties to citizens.
FM: It’s interesting that you put an economic aspect in the foreground. Isn’t there a danger that the very description of all relationships as being economicised is actually—performatively, so to say—producing partly this very economisation? So, it’s again an economic model of thinking about collectivity and commons…
JS: Well, it starts from acknowledging a personal benefit: you worked for Facebook, you were never paid by Facebook, they owe you, and you should own them. But in the steps following, this process opens a possibility of new forms of transnational social organisation that go far beyond personal interest towards a collectivised form of being.
For me, the shift from commons to collectivisation is a very similar shift to the one we made from assembly to training. We are still speaking about the same thing somehow, but we are trying to add the components that include notions of discipline, confrontation, ownership, and not exactly hierarchy but acknowledgment of the fact that we live in a world where there is a fundamental division of power. A world where there are fundamental class differences, which is what this pandemic makes visible as well, and which in the micro-political sense was also very visible at our training camp, when one person says, well, your training of how to deal with the police would never work in Malaysia where I would be beaten up if I would even dare to utter a word.
FM: What I like about the term collectivising are the concepts of the collective and collectivity lingering behind it—for me, that opens more options than only an economic point of view.
JS: So, are we starting a collectivisations training then?
While you are planning your new project, I have another aspect of the trainings for you to think about: I think that one of the interesting things that came out of the unofficial conversations during Training for the Future is not only about the police brutality in a local-specific context. What actually touched me the most was when some participants spoke about forms of communication and listening, and how cultural differences and multiple identities are not being taken into account. How when somebody is given a microphone they don’t necessarily feel comfortable using it, and how some people are not comfortable with the format of the confession that Westerners are so keen on; how some people don’t like to be singled out and asked to speak, while others felt that they didn’t have the opportunity to beheard, because they don’t feel that they can cut in when another person is talking, unless there is a long pause in the conversation. All these things, I think, are really interesting. In a way, they also come up when people are speaking online, maybe even more acutely because it is such a clumsy, awkward, alienating medium. Perhaps this is also something to think about if you’re working on another training.
FM: Yes, but what you described is also related to the problems of assembly: in a way, the training tried to other a different format where it’s basically not about having the microphone, even the human microphone. Or rather: it is actually very clearly decided who has the microphone. So, part of this critique sounds like wanting an assembly.
No, not necessarily, I think it was just a call to think about forms of listening and forms of speaking, that maybe there are more forms or other forms than what we think we know.
FM: Rightfully so, but still the trainings purposely offered an admittedly quite rigid, very different way of interacting, listening, and talking than assemblies. So, it was actually very clearly stated what they aimed for and what they did not aim for. Yes, there are many other ways of doing this. But the training tried to investigate one very specific direction of talking, not talking, and listening.
Assemblies could bring up relating comments, at least from what I remember from Truth is Concrete. I remember how some of the participants felt that some women didn’t feel comfortable talking, or that some of the white, Western men were talking too much. It’s interesting how even in an assembly where there is a supposed attempt to have a non-hierarchical conversation, similar issues come up. It’s not that they shouldn’t come up, antagonisms are, of course, important, and these discussions are by themselves mind-opening, but maybe there is more to explore there.
JS: I remember from that conversation mainly one of the comments that was made, which was: we are training for the future, but our present is not the same, how can you even assume that our futures would be? And this for me relates very directly to existing disparities, economically, culturally, infrastructurally speaking—it really talks about class differences on a global scale that are amplified in a context such as this, in which every participant, every trainee has different feedback. On a personal level, I feel that if we would organise the training camp again, I would put much more emphasis on the care aspect, which was so well structured into the methodologies of the final two trainings by Arrivati and the Schwabinggrad Ballett, and the laboratory of insurrectionary imagination. They showed the training space asa space of care that enables an unsafe safety, safety in order to be able to be unsafe. I realised how exceptional it is to have that competence, to be able to work in that way together with a group; it means to have an embodied understanding of what collective work is. We should learn from that as organisers. What are the keys and tools we give beforehand to feel that there is something to fall back to when necessary? That is one important thing I took from this training experience. The other I already mentioned has to do with these disparaged presents and different futures—it really shows the difficulty of the fact that we were training without a social contract. You bring a lot of people together to train for a variety of futurities, but we don’t have a social contract amongst each other, we are not part of the same party, we haven’t subscribed to the same programme; we are essentially training for the possibility of having one.
The risk of working without such a common understanding is that discomforts and inequalities have no mechanism to be addressed structurally, and it becomes the responsibility of individuals to speak out. Whereas a meaningful organisation has a social contract that enforces shared principles, whether it comes to gender equality or the insurance of equal participation. In our training camp, this was lacking, but this is simultaneously the paradox, because we are trying to train for a set of different futurities in order to be able to assemble such a social contract; we can’t presume it already exists. But then at the same time, it shows how much it is needed, like a basis of principles that doesn’t make everyone individually responsible to voice their discomfort, but in which there is a structure to assure that this discomfort is always addressed and that organisations are corrected or disciplined whenever necessary if they do not live up to these principles.
Or auto-errored if they are always correct.
But I actually think unsafe safety is really beautiful, and it relates to what Florian and I spoke about in our previous conversation, pre-trainings and pre-corona, about the range between overidentification, involuntary participation, and other forms of making people feel uncomfortable. I think that “unsafe safety” is a really precise way to put it, but not so easy to achieve.
JS: No, not easy at all.