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In Conversation With Nuit Debout : Richard D. Bartlett

Article – Richard D. Bartlett

Nati, Hailey and I were in Paris for OuiShare Fest. Nuit Debout is kinda the French version of the Occupy movement, 5 years on. Nati and I were involved in Occupy Wellington in 2011, so we were eager to connect while we were in town.

In Conversation With Nuit Debout


By Richard D. Bartlett
(First published on Medium.com)

Nati, Hailey and I were in Paris for OuiShare Fest (I’ve written about that here).

Nuit Debout is kinda the French version of the Occupy movement, 5 years on. Nati and I were involved in Occupy Wellington in 2011, so we were eager to connect while we were in town.

We made contacts in Nuit Debout and arranged for a conversation on May 22nd, 2016. We met Manu in République, the square where people have been meeting and practicing democracy since March 31st.


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Me and Manu talking outside the temporary photo gallery which is assembled every night from string and clothespegs

We had a fascinating 2 hour conversation. At some point I hope to digest this into an essay, but for now you can listen to the recording or read the loose transcript below. I’ve been liberal with my editorial rights: cutting out parts and summarising things to get the point across more quickly.

Introductions

Nati: doing some activism forever. Now working with Loomio.

Rich: met Nati at Occupy. Inspired by decentralised organising. Cofounded Loomio with other Occupiers + people from Enspiral. Positioned as a neutral space rather than an activist space.

Hailey: collaboration expert for 15 years. Work with Aus government. Creating the conditions for people to do stuff together, and for orgs to do stuff together.

Manu: “I’ve never done any activist shit whatsoever, because I’ve always been so disappointed in old political organisations, in how they work.”

Occupy was not in France so I looked at it from a far distance, curious but that’s it. Telecommunications engineer. Joined Nuit Debuit at once, it was very stimulating, so I joined the Numerique Commission (Digital Commission).

Digital tools to support the social movement

Manu: We put up tools for the different commissions. So we do the website fornuitdebout.fr, questions.nuitdebout.fr, wiki.nuitdebout.fr (with the help of people from Wikipedia).

We tried Loomio inside the Numerique Commission for internal decisions. Approximately 100 people at the beginning, but now much fewer. We didn’t know about these tools but luckily there was a state-sponsored hackathon in Paris, trying to promote citizen collaboration in lawmaking.

There was a shitty law that they got a lot of citizens to engage with, using a cool platform but it was not open source. Etat Lab (State Lab), a kind of activistic agency within government that has a budget to do things. They tried Loomio, they tried everything, and taught us about DemocracyOS, Discourse, etc, tools to chat together and decide things.

After the hackathon we thought at first we have to vote as a movement for things, which was maybe stupid but that was our first thought. So before we vote we have to choose what to vote on. Before that, we need to choose which subjects to discuss.

So we started with a Reddit/Stackoverflow thing to choose topics. Then the second step is discussing them (which we didn’t do), and then finally voting (which we didn’t do).

Parallel to that we decided to try things within our commission. We tried Loomio. It was a success for some subjects, but the more people interacted with the subject, the harder it was to interact with. People got discouraged by the level of emails. Someone would put up a proposal, lots of people vote, then you can’t amend the proposal. If we can’t do it with 100, we can’t do it with 100,000 people.

The tool is good not for choosing subjects, but for talking about them, and for voting it is the best.

It couldn’t handle many many people so we thought we could hack Loomio. We had a couple day workshop. Before voting we need to co-construct the proposal, which is much harder than voting on it. We don’t have a solution for that.

There is a Turkish argument mapping tool called Arguman. You say a proposition, then people can say “yes”, or “yes, but…”, “yes, however…”. Then people can respond to each of those again and you build a map of the argument. But it requires an admin to approve each piece so it can’t scale.

The guys from Etat Lab, they’re developing a tool that can scale. Stackoverflow mixed with an argument mapping thing. You write a proposition, “yes”, “yes, but”, “yes, however”—you can choose your conjunction. Or you can say it is fallacious. Everyone can plus-one or minus-one each argument. It works recursively so lots of yes’s becomes a big vote. There’s no admin so it is supposed to be horizontal, just by voting. A way for a lot of people to interact with a proposition.

People can’t make sense of large arguments, a proposal with an amendment to an amendment to an amendment. You need small ones that are related to a meaning. Trying to bring consensus from the bottom. Very ambitious but very interesting. And open source. They’re doing the framework and we’re doing the UI. A little project (laughs).

Loomio is good for deciding but it seems that deciding is the last step. And we’re not even sure that deciding is good! Deciding for the whole movement will divide it. The opinion of a couple of us is that we’d have more influence if a lot of people collaborate first on a subject.

In a recent citizen collaboration with the lawmaking process, some of the arguments were made by the people had a lot of discussion so government ministers had to talk about it. Government ministers make wrong choices because they don’t know or they don’t have time. So our idea is that if we can say a lot of people think something, they will have to discuss it.

Saying ‘a lot of people from Nuit Debout think this’ is very different from saying ‘Nuit Debout thinks this’. So I might disagree, but if it doesn’t speak on behalf of the movement, I won’t leave the movement.

On the big issues, like the labor law or TAFTA, we think the first interesting thing would be to map what everybody thinks. In government they take someone, give them 3 days to figure out what people think about a complex issue, then move on to the next one.

So we think Nuit Debout can be a force of influence without being a political organisation, just by having a sufficient number of people interacting. That’s a quick summary of where we’re at now.

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The statue in the middle of the square combines memorials for the victims killings in Paris, with protest slogans

Collaborating nationally and internationally

Nati: How do you interact with the other cells of the movement around France?

Manu: We don’t. Well we do, but it is a very weak interaction. We have Telegram and email and Facebook. Too many communication channels. Just within Paris, there’s communication overload. So between cities there’s way too much. It works well for sharing photos of protests and actions in France. It doesn’t work to co-construct things together. We can’t even co-construct things here, it’s not a question of co-constructing with more people.

Nati: What about connecting to related movements in other countries?

Indignados were here on the second day. They built the media centre, with their communications experience. 7th of May, occupiers and indignados came to Paris for a global convergence, 2 days of workshops. Really interesting. They all said ‘we have this experience, we can tell you what we lived, but don’t think that it is a good thing to do!’

For instance, we don’t build things. We build and disappear, build and disappear, build and disappear. I don’t know why this is something that happened here.

Democracy at different scales

Rich: You’re talking about a reinterpretation of government as mass collaboration. On that topic you’ll find heaps of resources and a growing movement. It’s a natural progression from the version of democracy we’ve already got.

The other topic I’m more interested in is at the super small scale, 15–50 people building total solidarity. They’re self-contained and don’t depend on anyone but each other, so every relationship they have outside of that group is voluntary and negotiated on their own terms. Our camp at Occupy Wellington was broken down into many many small working groups. The small group is a perfect environment for an individual to grow. There you see people using democracy as an avenue for personal growth, a for building collective bonds, which is totally different from the big scale thing.

You can see that bias in Loomio, it is designed for small groups. Our assumption is, if we can make it easy for small groups to hum, then we can connect them together at the next order of scale. What’s the consensus of these 50 people? Now let’s get 50 groups of 50 people and find the consensus between them. The first step hasn’t been solved yet. Loomio is probably the best tool for that job but it’s still not very good. It takes a cultural change. Not just a tool, but a change in how we discuss and interact and collaborate and make decisions together.

Manu: Yes it is the best for that. So the Numerique Commission used it, but nobody else did. I think it is linked to the fact that developers on open source projects are very used to collaborating, even at very large scale.Like Wikipedia people, horizontal, digital, asynchronous. Our minds easily project onto tools like that.

Whereas in most commissions, if you talk about a digital tool, they will point out that one person doesn’t have a phone or doesn’t have internet, so they won’t use it. It’s difficult to have any discussion about a digital tool because it leaves people out. That is the most complicated thing.

For us, we do everything on the internet so it is natural. In other groups it is not. In other groups there is a lot of meeting and deciding. I think both have advantages and disadvantages.

Even in groups of 5 people, you can never find consensus just by talking endlessly. You need a cultural change: I need to learn how to leave out my personal opinion which is frustrating everyone, so we can talk about what we have in common. That process is very hard. Here I see it every day. The more activist-oriented people are, the harder it is. The more conviction and deep feelings they have about something, the harder it is to discuss with them.

Right now there’s the experienced activists who started Nuit Debout. In 3 days they were overwhelmed by people coming from all over Paris, assemblies of 4000 people, drowning in them. So the Indiginados started the media centre and started controlling the communication. Now it is impossible for these two groups to talk to each other. There’s public accusations between the two groups. Some are horizontal and non-violent, others are maybe a little bit violent and they have their ideas about how things work and have met each other in previous political fights.



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Someone randomly joins our small group, attracted by the sound of conversation in English. Later we find out it is Tom from Shareable

One of many discussion groups happening every night in the square: there were maybe 8–10 meetings happening at the same time when we were there.

Online and offline collaboration

Hailey: a lot of times in our world it’s about combining and moving between face-to-face and digital. Facilitation skills. Having the presence of mind to call in a mediator. Is that available? Do people do it?

Mnau: For the media center conflict, they tried, but it didn’t work. Maybe the mediator wasn’t up to the task, or maybe the people are too stubborn.

Haily: In the theory of mass collaboration, ‘mass’ starts at 25 people. The amount of people who can’t talk together face to face anymore. I’m thinking about the role of the smaller group to set the conditions for the larger group.

A story. Working with City of Melbourne on their city plan. Ambitious strategic planner wanted to make it as collaborative as possible. Ultimately it was with a wiki where anyone could edit it. There were other examples of this at the time, like the NZ Police Act Wiki at the same time: people showed up and it was terrible so they had to shut it down.

So my colleague and the planner approached the City of Melbourne job with more design. They started by mapping out the existing planning process. All the steps and phases, to a level that the city had never done before! From there they started iterating. Established a wiki. An expert community of professional planners negotiated the skeleton, framework, outline, chapters, topics we’re going to cover. Every iteration was there in the wiki, so when it got to the public, the whole process was transparent.

Ultimately they expanded the circles of stakeholders. There’s a possibility to close back down, say thanks, and move back to the expert community. That has been a pattern of scalable collaboration: you have to nurture the growth from small to large. Accept that some people are experts, but they have to change mindset from having the answer, to framing the question.

Manu: The proposal for the new media center is for it to have 6 separate groups working on the same project. I see effective small groups, and the larger it gets, the noisier it gets. One person, one troll, can fuck up everything. This happened for me on Loomio, one guy who is not even in Paris, all his time is dedicated to write 50,000 word answers to every topic. I thought should we ban people for a few days? We did that with someone else, they were ejected from the media centre and have since then been polluting the Telegram feed for the past 6 weeks. The solution is to do smaller groups. We have to think small. Interacting with a blank sheet of paper with a lot of people is impossible. If you interact with something that is already constructed, it is much easier to say ‘I’m okay with this, and I’m not okay with that.’

Hailey: Design your collaborative process for each situation, as opposed to thinking there’s one way of working that will be set forever. Running 6 groups on the media center I call ‘parallel processing’. It is really effective in workshops, but I wouldn’t stay in that state forever. There’s a step where you come back together and ask what you’ve learned, and what’s a good next step.

Holacracy, when it is done right, reorganises the group every month. In bureaucracies, reorganising is traumatic, people lose jobs, they’re scared.Holacracy makes reorganising normal and safe, and I look forward to the transition because I’m going to get more safe, or I get to explore a new side of me.

The deeper point is the literacy of designing our way of working. That only comes from time, but maybe it is a conversation that needs to be started, that people become concerned with becoming capable collaborators.

Manu: It’s very hard. Especially when you have to decide horizontally what way we’re going to decide.

Rich: I try to avoid, as much as possible, having a big decision. Instead to say, the 5 of us have found a system that is working really well, this is how we do it. If it works for you, it works for you. Instead of saying, “stop everyone, we have to decide on what the best decision-making method is.”

Manu: We’re French! We like mentalising a lot. Think, think, think, debate, debate, debate without getting to an outcome. We’re happy there.


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Food, library, radio station

Rich: I can predict, from my 5 minutes here, that you have some elements of this community that are very stable. A library, medical centre, food. Specific things. Stable here and in all the other occupations. Why are they stable? Because they are simple, straightforward, requiring a small group of people to be committed to a specific action.

Manu: It’s easy to know what you have to do. You have to make food. You reproduce what you do at work. You don’t have to co-decide on a book-filing system.

Whereas if your commission is to rewrite the constitution or redesign democracy, it’s a mess. They don’t know where they’re going. Most people leave the commission because they spend so much time debating which is the process of deciding which process to use. That debate lasted a month, it wrecked the group. The ones who stayed were the pragmatic ones who saidwe’ll try something and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t we’ll learn. That’s a good thing to do!

The Numerique Commission is very iterative, naturally from our experience with software engineering. We know that you can’t just imagine the final product. You think of the first functionality, do it, and then all the rest of your ideas are out of date so you rethink the design based on what you’ve seen work.

The rest of the people are getting to that, but it’s a very slow change. It takes a long time to accept, I’m going to dedicate energy to something that might not work. They don’t understand that thinking about it for ages will not make it better.

Rich: The question of commitment and identity. You have a conflict between 2 strong groups. Each group is committed to itself. They’re not committed between them. You can’t resolve the conflict because they don’t care enough, they don’t need each other enough. How do you get one group of people to need each other?

So Loomio lives within the Enspiral Network. 300 something people. Lots of different teams, ventures. All in the marketplace, earning a livelihood, sharing opportunities, sharing resources, collaboratively deciding how to allocate surplus. They all have ‘skin in the game’—everyone is invested. I’m invested in Hailey’s success and she’s invested in mine. There is a commercial aspect to it, she and I share the Enspiral brand, so I need to trust her to not fuck it up! If Hailey is misrepresenting Enspiral, I have a strong motivation to talk with her and figure out what’s going on. It has grown from 1 person to 300 in 5 years. Not scaling super fast, but it is growing at a sustainable pace. We’re starting to see sorta sibling networks emerging too, like OuiShare.

There’s a lot of room for subjectivity. People can work on whatever they want. There’s some loose alignment: we’re doing something about work, something with technology. There’s economic interactions, so people are building shared resources between each other. It seems like a really stable pattern.

I expect that something like that to come from Nuit Debout. Dozens of ideas, each with small groups of people around them, like seeds. Some of them will sprout.

In the Numerique Commission you have some purpose, some shared identity, it’s probably humming a bit better than some of the bigger groups.

Manu: The big groups are great, they have excellent discussions, but their aspiration is so huge. It’s very discouraging to work and not see the results of your work being out there. I think we don’t need to vote, we need to teach each other how to talk, co-decide, and then do things. Action!

They did the voting process. All these propositions from different people. One week to discuss the propositions. People voted: is this proposition interesting or not, on the 1st weekend. The propositions that were voted a lot for, the people that voted for them were told they can interact with the proposers, on this website. Most of them did not. They were comfortable just saying what they thought and then going home. Just like in a vertical government organisation: you vote for things, you wait, and then complain that it was not done properly. I don’t want to do something, I just want to have an opinion about it.


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The general assembly space: note the hand signals in the background that help the group self-organise

It seems we need things that make us do things. My dream is that the assembly at the end would have a phase like, only people talk who want to propose collective actions. The most impressive thing here: when there were migrants about to be evicted a couple of subway stations from here. A guy said ‘the police is gathering around the migrants, should we go help them?’ 400 people rose, left the assembly, circled the police, and the police left.

The next day, some students were captured by police and the same guy came and said ‘students got captured, should we go?’ 200 people rose, surrounded the police station, and the students were released.

It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

It seems like this is what we should be aiming for. The goal of the assembly is for it to be empty at the end, because everyone has left to do something.

It is much easier to agree on something to do, because not everyone has to do the same thing. At an action, if you want to shout something, you do it with the people that want to. It’s not the same as having a decision to check everyone is okay with it.

A lot of people have to relive that feeling of empowerment when you go together and fight for something.

Rich: At Enspiral, it is very rare that you ask ‘hey 300 people, what should we do?’ It is much more common to say ‘I’m doing this, do you want to help? Do you want to copy? Learn? Something to share?’ or, ‘If I did this, how would you react?’

We use the big group like: I’ve noticed this, is it a problem? Gathering perspectives to get a comprehensive understanding of an issue. Then you have a divergent phase of people proposing solutions to the issue, then you start converging on a solution.

It is rare for that to happen with everyone though. Much more common for this to happen in small groups.

The other pattern is like First you identify a problem with the whole group, then you form a working group, they go away for a while to do research, then come back some time later to report back and propose next steps. Going on back and forth between the big group and the small group.

That rhythm builds trust in the wider community. I can see the small group is working effectively, taking my input seriously, reporting back, so 99% of the time I don’t need to worry about what they are doing.

Manu: The hardest thing is to trust that the others might have the solution. Even though I might have it, they will have it. One of the big surprises for me: I left the group, had an idea, came back, and 3 other people had the same idea. This happens all the time. It builds trust when you see that the collective intelligence actually works. But it takes time. It is easier for me because I’m not a hardcore activist with all my convictions that I know things.

Rich: On the large-scale thing. Do you know pol.is? They’ve just gone open source.

I’ll give you a real example, they used it in Taiwan to figure out what to do about the arrival of Uber. Traditionally when Uber arrives in a new territory, the government is either too slow to respond and Uber rampages through the taxi industry, or they can’t handle the nuance of the argument and they just ban them outright. In Taiwan they hosted a national deliberation about Uber. Livestreamed debates with experts and citizens, plus pol.is. Excellent process design and facilitation, plus cool tech.

So you pose a question: should we allow Uber into Taipei? You express your preference, then align yourself to other people’s expressions. You can see a map of everyone’s preferences are grouped into communities. From there you can identify the different groups at play. Then you host a deliberation with these groups: let’s get the taxi drivers and the young people and the other 6 stakeholders into a deliberation so we can design a policy that works well enough for everyone. Pol.is allows anyone in the crowd to propose a statement and test the level of agreement with the whole crowd. There’s a small group of people in Taipei systematically working with each ministry to transform how they do citizen engagements like this.

Manu: The one tool we didn’t use, but 15M used was Appgree, which sounds similar. They used it to decide the values of the movement. It’s very hard to do that in a movement. We don’t use Appgree because it is a black box, not open source.

Rich: There’s an international community of people working on these problems. I think it is ok that they are loosely connected. Ben is probably one of the most connected people. Like a transfer station in the metro.

Manu: What are your plans for evolving Loomio?

Rich: We want to be sustainable and independent, so we’re designing a business model that balances having people pay for it, while being accessible to people who can’t pay.

We’re a worker owned cooperative, the software is open source. First we got a loan from family and friends. Then we did a big crowdfunding campaign. Then end of last year we got investment in the coop through a ‘redeemable preference share’. A promise to repay the money with interest, up to a maximum amount, if things go well. No governance traded for investment. Ownership stays with the workers, which we treat as stewardship of a vision, not a financial ownership. We want one more round of that investment, which we think will get us to the point where the business model is sustainable.

Once we are self-sustaining, then we have the freedom to move without being answerable to anyone other than users.

This means right now our software development focus is on making it as easy as possible for a group of people to make one decision. It’s not the most exciting problem to solve, but it gets the biggest spread. How do you make a decision without learning about how a tool works, not choosing to signing up, not thinking about it, just you press the obvious button and the decision is made.

A while ago we had 1600 different groups with ‘podemos’ in the name, started by 1600 different people. Technically there was no link between them, but obviously they shared some common identity, and some coordination was happening outside of the platform.

So we started to imagine what our software could do to facilitate the connection between 1600 different groups. We did some early prototypes and designs. Basically the vision is a map of Spain, with a topic, say ‘transport’, and you see a weather-map of consensus. Strong consensus in Barcelona, but some debate in Madrid. So you can dive into the local level to see what people are debating, why is their objection here when there is consensus everywhere else? Are they nuts or do they have something that we all need to learn from? You could filter on topic and location to find your place to engage.

Meeting our economic needs without exploitation

… for me that’s why the marketplace is more interesting than government. I don’t really care about choosing the perfect question and then aligning my opinion with someone else’s, it doesn’t really motivate me.

We had this experience at Occupy, an introduction to democracy, which is pretty cool. But we still had to pay our rent. We live in an economic environment with a material reality. The vast majority of people are exploited so they can pay their rent. That’s the problem. You have to trade your freedom for your ability to live as a human. It’s shit and unnecessary. We can do it differently. The free food and meetings and entertainment and hospitality and education… that shows you it can be done another way. That’s an economic question: how do we meet each other’s needs without exploiting each other? It can be done.

So instead of a political party, instead of trying to get consensus from 1 million people, I’m more interested in: how do you get small groups of people to economically independent and oriented towards the common good? Then how do you connect them?

Enspiral has grown to 300 people in the space of 5 years. A good fraction of them are earning their livelihood doing good work, on their own terms, without resorting to coercion or hierarchy. And Enspiral is not the only one.

That’s what’s next for me: how do we connect the Enspiral’s together? How do we build an international solidarity network?

Tom: People ask us all the time, how do I make this my living? I come from a small community, 225 people in the woods behind Oakland CA. One of the legacy projects of my community was Vocational Projects for Social Change. Trying to answer that question. There’s a need to promote those and empower people to start their own.

Rich: The work context we’re in, where everyone’s a precarious freelancer, that’s an opportunity. The way that you start these networks is to get 5 freelancers together, pool your savings, and insure each other against unemployment and sickness.

Manu: That’s how social security started in France. Workers self-organising. It has to start from small groups of people doing things.

Inter-city collaboration

Manu: What you’ve been saying interrogates me on something I’ve been very curious about, which is, what are the other cities doing? We’re in Paris so other people come here from Nîmes or Lyon or… It’s really cool to have a chat with them, but it only lasts an hour or two, then it’s gone. It’s so terrible because we learn a lot of things and you can’t share it any more than that. I want to know how they decide things. They tell me it is a lot easier because they’re much smaller. We’ve had this problem of being too many. The idea of these groups working on different subjects, they should talk to each other. How do we put them in contact with each other—do we do it algorithmically?


Prototype for visualising Loomio groups by location and topic

Rich: We did a first rough version with Podemos. There was a network: a list of groups associated together. Any group could request to join the network, an administrator would approve you. Once you’re in, all your public discussions are listed on an index, with all the public discussions of all the other groups in the network. That’s all we got to, there was nothing more than that. But just to have that visibility, you can see ‘oh in Barcelona they are discussing X, I want to discuss that’, either by joining their group or starting a parallel discussion with my local group. We didn’t put any effort into the AI sorting and merging stuff—maybe a good project for a Loomio hackathon project. Use the API to pull together separate groups into some coherent space.

Manu: There was a guy who did this 72hr feverish programming project, using natural language processing on our Telegram chats. He found some interesting and some stupid things. One interesting things: one of the most common types of sentences was “I am against…” So introspectively that’s good to reflect on. The outcome was useful within 72 hours of programming.

When you allow people to talk about things. Is it interesting just to discuss, and then after talking to analyse what were the themes: this is mainly what people are in favour of? Or should we do like Loomio, I’m OK or not OK, I agree or not…

Nati: As I see it you start with the discussion. Once there’s a subject that feels like convergence, then you can start a proposal.

Manu: I think that was a mistake we made with Loomio. We launched discussions and proposals at the same time. Simultaneously stating the problem and proposing a solution.

Nati: If you start with the discussion, you can sense how people are feeling, what ideas emerge, and then from there someone will notice when you’re ready to make a decision. For us at Occupy, that’s how our assemblies work. Start with a discussion, then a proposal may emerge. Then people vote, aiming for consensus.

Manu: What are the things you vote for?

Nati: Mainly how to run the camp. We were living all together so majority of the decisions were about practical things. And actions as well.

Manu: You decided you needed to do an action in the name of the Occupy Wellington group?

Nati: We wrote a manifesto. Got to consensus, then shared with other occupations around the country.

Manu: That’s the only thing I have thought is a good thing for the movement to vote on.

Nati: In Occupy the main media problem was them saying ‘we don’t know why they’re there, we don’t what they’re asking for’. The manifesto is to say ‘this is why we here, this is what we want to achieve, this is what we are discussing.’


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One of many discussion groups around the square on any given evening

Manu: Exactly the same happens here. The media has been asking for 2 months, what are you trying to achieve? We don’t know, and we don’t care! We’re doing something together. What are you doing? Come here and do things! Stop writing about us from your glass tower, come here and sit.

Nati: It did start with the labour reform here though right.

Manu: Yes. And the fact that the government has been absolutely reckless for the past 4 years. After the state of urgency, the police can do many more things than they should. They voted it in for terrorism, then last week they started using it to prevent people from protesting.

All the protests in France start in Spring. In Winter we all protest in our houses. Then in Spring we all come out into the streets. Maturation of everyone feeling tired and tired and tired, then something clicks and everyone is out on the street.

Culture change from the movement of movements

Rich: I was chatting with the journalist Nathan Schneider, one of the best writers on the Occupy movement. We were talking about the experience of doing something together that is not outcome-oriented. You’re not exactly trying to deliver something. Somehow that is profoundly meaningful but it doesn’t translate well into the newspaper. So then over time the story gets rewritten to ‘Occupy was a waste of time that achieved nothing, a bunch of hopeless losers.’ How do you as a participant, looking back on it 3, 4, 5 years later, what do you hold on to while the historical narrative is constricting around you to say that you’re just a loser that a bunch of pointless conversations? Nathan’s answer was like, no one can remove the experience that you’ve had.

The experience that I had was no individual was smarter than the group. With the right process you can reliably mobilise those smarts. Not just smarter, more empathetic, compassionate, generous, curious, creative. You can get a group to hum in a way that is superior to any individual experience. That is a lived experience of what progressive ideals actually are. So you might not have an outcome, 6 months from now there might be nothing left. But you’ll have 1) social networks that are set in stone and 2) the lived experience that collaboration is better than competition.

It’s your turn now. In 6 months time, it will turn up somewhere else. They’ll do one thing slightly better and maybe another thing a bit worse. They’ll have their turn.

There’s a growing mass of people around the world that are having this experience that results in an unshakable conviction that collaboration is better than competition, that we can live in abundance, we don’t have to coerce people to make them work together. This cultural shift is happening one person at a time, one experience at a time.


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Oppress the system!

Manu: After a week of going to assemblies without working in any commissions, just listening to people, that was one the most changing experiences of my life: just a week of listening to others. It’s crazy what it does. The radicality of listening to someone who works in a market describe their life unfiltered by the media, it’s crazy. It’s so simple, and so changing.

The first assembly I came to, too late: people were drunk and stupid.

Two days later, I came back and cried three times. Someone started singing a song. I was like, ‘this is going to be terrible.’ It did sound terrible for the first 45 seconds! But nobody said ‘boooo go away’, they encouraged him, like ‘try it! try it!’ At the end he was relieved, so he sang his song. It was absolutely… it was so beautiful! Someone did a poem shortly after. The poem was so beautiful!

Why do we have to wait to have a place where we can share that?

Why is the media only talking about the car burning or whatever? Indeed they cannot transcript what you’re living inside yourself. It’s more a book that you have to read. A book about someone changing through this movement, might be a good way to convey what is the purpose and the outcome.

The second that was most amazing for me: I worked in a startup and a big agency and my own company, and I’ve never seen any people as dedicated as people here.

The fact of allowing everybody to participate in decisions, meaning that they understand why a decision was made is incredibly motivating. To the point that I didn’t think was possible til I saw it.

It’s less efficient, but when you arrive, you get there together. You get to a conclusion that everyone is okay with.

Rich: There’s a difference between speed to decision, and speed to implementation. Doing things collaboratively, the decision takes longer, but once the decision is done the work is mostly complete.

Manu: Everyone’s on the same page. Which doesn’t happen in vertical organisations. So many times I’ve been frustrated at work by doing things I believed were stupid!

Hailey: I would say it depends on whether you’re in a chaotic, complex, complicated, or simple situation. Vertical hierarchical organisations do simple things really well, probably faster. But to move from complex to simple, that’s when you take a long decision with many people.

That was really powerful listening to that Manu.

Rich: It’s so refreshing to be reminded of that feeling. It’s your turn now, thank you!

Tom: It’s like mycelium. Every time the mushroom pops up and spreads its spores, the network increases. The mushroom won’t stand there forever, it has a purpose.

Hailey: How do we know that the transformation is growing faster than it is dying though? We say it’s growing and this is just practice, but are we actually getting chipped away?

Rich: Totally. The #1 tool of capitalism to maintain its dominance is to tolerate this kind of expression. Oh look, another little harmless protest. As long as it dies.

There does have to be a point where you make a systemic critique and a power play. To say, this thing is wrong and we’re going to mobilise to stop it. It can’t happen in these local spontaneous things all the time. I don’t believe that the local spontaneous is going to emerge into revolution.

Manu: One of the things about the Indignados, which we don’t have here, is a real economic crisis. When all the young energetic smart depressed people are out on the street, they represent a lot of the population. In France we represent a small fraction of the population. Most of my friends, from one friend who is a trader to another who is busking in the subway, they say ‘why are you doing this? do you really think you can change things?’ They don’t see the urgent need of changing things.

It makes it very local and small, which is why they accept it. They don’t accept it when we leave the place. The last 2 weeks the Police have been very calm. There was a period when they were very violent. It’s terrible because the only way we can scare them is when we leave the square. But when we go out of the square it gets violent. Then they talk about that violence. When you stay on the square they don’t talk. It’s fucked up.

One guy proposed, maybe the best idea, we should paint the streets with bright colours. Throw buckets of paint on the streets, everywhere. So you can’t wash it. We keep pouring more and more. You just can’t not talk about it. It’s not violent, so you can’t talk about the violence done. You just have to take your car and throw some paint out of the window. If everybody did that, it would be absolutely magnificent!

Rich: this is so French! I fully support that.

I was thinking, when you talk about the media. This is a generalisation but pretty much the media only knows how to tell a story about conflict. So if you want to be in the media, stage a conflict that you win: you prevent the eviction, you get the kids out of jail. That takes a strategic mind to go ‘where is a battle where we have a struggle, but we can guarantee at least 51% of the power in the situation’ and win that one. Then you gather supporters so the next one is slightly bigger.

Manu: this is a challenge. For example they’ve been blocking the refineries in western France for the past 4 or 5 days, so the pumps are drying up. This morning, the police attacked all the refineries at once. they fucked them up. So they lost. They won for a period of time, now they lost.

At a port in the north of France, the dockers are one of the most feared populations. When they leave the port, there’s 3–4000 people walking silently out of the port, it’s terrifying! The problem is it lasts a few days. They say they’ll last at least a couple of weeks, which would paralyse the country, and then they’re going to Thatcherise that. They’ll bring in the police to shoot everybody again. Except if we multiply the conflicts everywhere, I don’t think it will work.

Rich: you were describing how the Numerique Commission has a bunch of techy people. They’re on the Internet a lot. They’re familiar with this iterative collaborative way of working. What you were describing was extremely familiar to me. I think this is the culture of a global citizen. A culture that is different from many people out here in the square. The language and habits are unique. It’s a new culture that’s not localised. France in particular is probably much more protectionist than most states, so you’re facing an uphill battle. What this is here, is the new culture confronting the old culture and testing what level of support there is. I’ve only been here a couple days so I don’t know, but I don’t think you’ve got enough. I think there’s such an established aristocracy that you’re not going to upset it today. But! this is the process of changing that power balance. It’s going to take who knows how many iterations to get there.

Manu: to bring more people, we had the classical concerts. Some of the most beautiful moments. 300 people came, who had never met before, they played the Symphony of the New World and it was amazing. So many people came for that, and even more for the next one. There was a choir of like 500 singers, the whole square was covered with people sitting down listening. Most of them couldn’t hear anything because it was so big!

These kinds of events are really good, but we haven’t been able to transform that into what happens after the concert, like should we have an assembly after? There was a rap concert from a famous French rapper. All these kids came, but none of them came to the assembly after. It didn’t transform, because they didn’t feel the need.

One of the things we’re going to try is to decentralise the movement and make it more local. It is very hard to do something with people that live on the other side of Paris. We’ve been trying to do that but it’s very hard. We’ve done a little civil disobedience here and there, but mainly people are not in trouble enough. They’re like ‘oh that sucks. Europe sucks. But what can we do about it?’

Rich: in the States, when OWS happened, they had a real crisis, which was about housing. People getting evicted from foreclosed homes. One of the most sustainable aspects of Occupy which is still happening now is just to prevent people from being evicted. The parallel here must be the migration crisis right?

Manu: yep. Just in front of my place is an abandoned school. 300 migrants occupied it. Police came after 3 days and gassed everybody. 500 of us sitting in front of the school and they gassed everybody.

They’re using new techniques that are really hardcore. The 1st of May is a tradition for people in France to go out on the streets. I was in the protest. There’s all these old people 50–60 years old. First thing they all said, I’ve never seen so many policemen in my life. Second thing, I’ve never seen so much violence in my life.

The protest is on the street. The police mass around, then cut it in two. Then you have two or three rows of hardcore guys on either side of you, and you’re walking in the middle. Then agents provocateur working for the cops, throw things at the uniformed cops, then the cops start shooting. Usually we have a few lines of people like bodyguards at the first rows of the protest. You can’t get in front of them. But for the first time, old guys and old women from the unions got in front of the bodyguards and took the blows from the police. The police were beating them but they couldn’t hit them all so they decided to stop.

Finally we arrive at Nation Square, everything is cool, then suddenly we hear sirens and see flashing lights, then chaos. You can’t see anything for the gas. A guy got a grenade that exploded in his foot, so his artery got blown. The medic came and tied it off. They were shooting gas pellets. People were protecting the medic trying to work on the guy. There was a beautiful crowd of people circling around the medic, being hit by gas pellets and protecting her so she could work on the guy. So now people are scared to come down here.

There was a really beautiful castle that was built by young architecture students. They gathered all the waste from round the streets and made this huge castle with a dome and paintings and everything, it was fabulous. In 15 minutes, the cops are shooting people, hitting people in the face, pulling people by the hair. They’re like 20 year old kids. The next day you hear about these violent people in République.

That’s their strategy, and we don’t know what to do with it.

Nati: It’s the same strategy everywhere. Undercover cops start violence so the uniformed cops can retaliate.

Rich: there’s a huge book called Direct Action by David Graeber that documents exactly this experience, but from the 90s in the United States. It’s the full description of all the conversations and decisions and tactics of the counter-globalisation movement’s struggle with nonviolence against a violent state.

Nati: we recently watched a documentary called Winter on Fire about the revolution in Ukraine. The interesting part is how society reacted to violence from the state. The cops shut down a small student protest really violently. The next day, like half the population was in the street, like You can’t hit our kids! They tried to shut that one down and it got even bigger.

Manu: We have a tradition of going in the street and not being ok with things. We protest about anything. But it hasn’t been violent for ages. People are not accustomed to violence anymore. It’s really something frightening for many people. Frightening to one extent, but to another extent, people just don’t believe it. They say ‘the police must have a good reason.’

Nati: that’s what the media portrays. When you’re at home watching it on your TV you just see “oh those violent protesters.”

Manu: in the bars in France they have a newspaper called The Parisian, which everyone reads. The front page for the past 2 weeks has always been a burning car. Every day, a burning car. People start to think République is a civil war every day.

Rich: I don’t know how antagonistic that newspaper is, or how much they are just running their model. Obviously the New Zealand context is totally different, but over there we learnt to get our press releases printed. We wrote them in a way that the journalist can copy and paste and publish it in the newspaper. You need a good photo, give them some quotes, and use that bizarre passive tone they use to describe anything, and journalists will cut and paste it into the newspaper. There’s extreme pressure to publish within a deadline, so if you can make it easy for them, and you can meet a couple of friendly journalists, it can be done. It requires a strategic mindset.

Manu: The media team has been focussed on our own media: social networks, TV, radio. But we haven’t done great press releases.

Rich: we did a bunch of creative positive funny actions. The ones with a good photo get printed.

Tom: it goes back to that ‘choose your battles’ strategy where you have a 51% chance of winning. Put a full comms strategy around an action to make sure that story really gets told.

Rich: we also called into talkback radio. Just get on the phone and present your case. There is a huge demographic that listens to those radio stations all day, and you can present yourself relatively unfiltered.

Tom: Dehumanisation allows people to dismiss others. But if there is a real person, people take it more seriously. If a story has details, people can latch onto it, like ‘oh my nephew went to the that school’

During Occupy Wall Street, I was in NYC the night of the Brooklyn Bridge takeover. I was leading an unrelated march from NYC to Washington DC at the exact same time. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge an hour before Occupy came through. So we’re stuck in all the busses and trucks from the march, stuck in traffic, but we had radios so we were picking up signals from private security officers that were around. Some of the guys were dismissive like, ‘oh these activists blah blah blah’. Then one guy was like, ‘actually I heard some of the stuff they were talking about economics and it was kind of interesting.’ There was this whole back-channel, where it only took one person, and we’re listening in as they’re starting to get it, the wheels are turning. One person is like, ‘I dunno, that kinda affects us to!’ It was amazing! I was driving the bus and just so excited. Coz when you do this work you have no idea the thought processes of other people. That gave me so much hope. If I only heard that one conversation, think about all the conversations I never overheard!

ENDS

Richard D. Bartlett writes about working together. Loomio cofounder (http://loomio.org ). Enspiral member (http://enspiral.com ). Scoop.co.nz and the Scoop Foundation are Enspiral Ventures.

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