DiEM25-UK – launching at Conway Hall

DiEM25 meets in Conway Hall, London, 28 January 2017.

Like all
DiEM25 gatherings, more than half of the meeting was made up of conversations
involving those attending. To set the scene and introduce some
important initial ideas, the morning began with brief contributions from Brian
Eno, Elif Şafak, Agnieszka Wiśniewska, Igor Stokfiszewski and, finally, Yanis
Varoufakis.

The first
speaker, the British musician and composer Brian Eno, began by noting that the
venue, Conway Hall in London, was a place he knew personally because in the
late 1960s he used to come here to hear avant-garde music concerts. This
memory, in turn, reminded him of another time, like the present one, when
everything was changing and when a great deal of radical rethinking was going
on. He noted, however, that in the 1970s much of this kind of thinking was
reversed by an Ayn Rand-inspired selfishness that developed into simplistic
ideas of how societies should run themselves and which even begun to question,
as Thatcher famously did, whether there was, in fact, any such thing as
society. Eno pointed out that although the 70s were followed by a few decades
of prosperity and a huge amount of wealth creation, this wealth was eventually
concentrated in only the hands of a few and we simultaneously saw the
stagnation of the wages of everybody else. For Eno this dangerous gulf finally
became clear to everyone last year and marked the end of a forty year period of
decline. Suddenly the idea of doing politics, which people of his generation
often thought was “akin to masturbating in public and to be avoided at all
costs”, was something once again worth engaging in.

Eno, a
key figure in the development of electronic music, was also keen to note an
important phenomenon concerning the interrelation of technology and democracy.
He told the meeting that many of his high-tech friends in places like Silicone
Valley had carefully avoided politics for a very long time because they
expected that technology would “be the de facto solution to our problems”; for
them politics unnecessarily “complicated the plot.” But recent events had
helped us all understand that merely going along with “the drift of things” is
not enough because “the technologies won’t make the choices for us, they need
our guidance and our input as well.” The need to make conscious political
choices was memorably summed up by Eno when he said that after the election of
a serial liar in the form of Trump and, in England, of [Boris] Johnson, people
had finally begun “to realise that that the laissez-faire doesn’t work — while
we’re laissez-ing they’re still faire-ing — so suddenly we’re starting to think
that politics might be worth doing again.” Ultimately, Eno felt that this was
what DiEM25 is about: it is a movement to revive and reinvigorate this thinking
that we must make choices.

The next
speaker was Elif Şafak, the Turkish author, columnist and academic who brought
to the meeting an important set of perspectives from the current Turkish
context. She began by noting that if you come from a country where democracy is
obviously and openly being seriously challenged “you simply did not have the
luxury of being apolitical.” But, she reminded us, one of the important,
wonderful things we could learn from feminism is a recognition that politics is
not only about what goes on in parties and parliaments but also about “what
goes on in our private spaces, in our bedrooms, in our kitchens, in our daily
lives; politics is where ever there is power.” Şafak felt that the important
thing to see here was that when approached in this broader sense it was, in
fact, now impossible truly to be apolitical.

Şafak
also noted that it was vital to ensure that politics ceases being merely a
matter of “Left verses Right”. These old binaries led only to catastrophes and,
for her, the question today is whether we are “pro tribalism and isolationism
or in favour of a progressive constructive humanism?” She pointed strongly to
the need to develop a real, deep sense that we are genuinely all in this
together. She observed that we need more people who are acquainted with
different cultures to become involved in the public space and to speak up — and
we also certainly need more women’s voices and stories to be told and heard.

Şafak
then raised a question about “populism” and noted that one of its strategies
is to undermine knowledge by speaking to gut feelings. This requires us to do
two things. The first is to acknowledge that those on the liberal, left and
progressive end of the political spectrum have not been at all good at
connecting with people’s emotions. She reminded the meeting of the need to
allow people to talk about their anxieties, angsts and angers, since this is
“an age of anxiety.” The question is how do we create a language for those
people (not in the room), who have been attracted by the kinds of “populism”
which have so successfully already picked up on these emotions? For Şafak, to
address this properly it is vitally important that we develop our own emotional
intelligence and find ways to make it possible for people to talk about
immigrants, refugees, about losing one’s identity and culture but in a way that
channels those feelings into better, more democratic and inclusive ways of
being together. The second thing that the rise of popularism requires us to do
is never to forget the vital importance of knowledge and facts but always to
ensure that they are spoken about with emotional intelligence. A key overall
point from Şafak was that writers have an important role to play because they
are in positions to bring about this mix by adding good story telling to facts
and knowledge.

The next
two speakers were Agnieszka Wiśniewska and Igor Stokfiszewski from Krytyka
Polityczna
(krytykapolityczna.pl) and DiEM25’s Co-ordinating Committee.

Wiśniewska
saw her work as chief editor of a political magazine as a matchmaker between
grass roots movements, activists and academics so that, together, they can
begin to fight for progressive change and real democracy. She told the meeting
that her passion for DiEM25 was because it provides an ideal context to meet
people from different backgrounds and skills but who still share the same
ambitions.

Both
Wiśniewska and Stokfiszewski noted that they were in the UK because they had
many friends now working here and they remind us that theirs was a community
that had been seriously shaken by the Brexit vote, the rise of anti-immigrant
rhetoric and also the increase in violence which has, as we all know, included
at least one horrific murder. Wiśniewska and Stokfiszewski were aiming, in the
first instance, to work with DiEM25 in the UK to build
a progressive force so that there is a chance for a fair and sustainable
transition out of the EU for everyone— including the Polish community. But this
UK-centred concern allowed Stokfiszewski
to offer the meeting an additional wider, pan-European point. He did this by
raising the rhetorical question of why the leftist project in Poland has, up
until this point anyway, failed so badly? For him the answer was that in Poland
they had been selfish, they had not understood that “it is not enough to work
in one country alone to achieve progressive goals — it has to be a wider project”
and that they now knew they needed “to work pan-Europeanly and globally.” For them, DiEM25 is the project which can
help achieve this; DiEM25 is “a new
choice and an opportunity to be seized.”

Wiśniewska
concluded that soon Poland will be a major
battleground for progress and liberty and she expressed a hope that they will
be able to learn what do in order to “reverse the course of authoritarianism
that Poland is currently taking.”

The first
part of the meeting was then concluded by some remarks by Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis
reminded us that, in 2016, passion came back to politics, but in the wrong way
for it was now fuelling not progressive polices but regressive ones. He
rehearsed DiEM25’s “radical remain” position of being “in the EU against the
EU” but reminded the meeting that we failed to convey to those sympathetic to
DIEM25’s position of “constructive disobedience” that we could, in fact, change
anything; our inability as a progressive movement to impress upon people that
we could win government was why we lost the referendum.

Key to
understanding the current situation is the need to see that the clash between
the so-called “liberal establishment and the popularist xenophobic insurgency”
is not what it seems. He admitted that to some extent it can be seen as a clash
but, in truth, it is more accurate to see the two blocs as accomplices, to
realise that they need and empower each other as much as, in France, Marine Le
Pen helps empower François Fillon and vice versa. This fake opposition is,
Varoufakis notes, “the cause of great suffering” and the only genuine
opposition or antidote to this is a group like DiEM25 — a progressive
internationalist movement.

But, as
Varoufakis observed, it is vitally important to realise that we are very far
away from being efficient, we need to be honest and “look ourselves in the
mirror as progressives and realise that we are dismal failures. The Labour
Party, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, Independent Progressives,
are all in disarray. Corbynite Labour is too scared to talk to Caroline Lucas
of the Green Party in case the Blairites attack them even more harshly. Nobody
talks to the SNP in case Scottish Labour gets upset and the net result is that
the Tories have complete and utter dominance of the political scene. This is
why DiEM is here.”

At this point,
Varoufakis offered his view on what he hoped this meeting will be able to begin
to bring about:

“At the moment,
we have this image of being a nice collection of people who have interesting
things to say about Europe. But who cares about Europe: we’re now out of Europe
and we have serious problems now to consider in this country!? So DiEM is
irrelevant. And they are right! And they are also right to think that we’re
useless and irrelevant as long as we fail to convince them that we have
something pertinent to say about daily life in this country. And (this is also
true) as long as we fail to project the essential respect that we must have for
people’s emotions, as Elif said, for the genuine spirit of discontent amongst
those who voted for Brexit. Now, DiEM came out of resistance, throughout Europe,
to the scapegoating of the weakest citizens for the failures of the
establishment. I think that it is essential to understand that the majority of
those who voted for Brexit are our people. If we don’t see that, we might as
well just go home and watch television. It is essential that poor whites in
Leeds, in Wales, in the suburbs of London, in the inner city, get a feeling
from us that we understand their plight and that we respect their concerns,
their worries, their fears, their angst, just as much as we do that of the
Polish immigrants, of LGBT people, of the minorities, of the Greeks, the Turks
and so on and so forth. If we fail to do that in a British context we’re
irrelevant. We’re just another irrelevance that speaks good prose.

Remember what we’re trying to do today. We’re going to
transform DiEM25 into a British organisation. Maybe we should have a different
name for it — to signify that it is now addressing British concerns and it is
putting forward proposals for dealing with the real sources of discontent. And
there are two of them:

Involuntary under-employment, which is the bitter
fruit of austerity and involuntary immigration, which is the bitter price we
have to pay for an economic model which concentrates all decent jobs in very
small areas forcing people from the north of this country to migrate to London,
from Poland and Bulgaria to migrate to Britain, to Germany or to France.

If we don’t manage to put forward, as a British organisation,
a proposal for a New Deal for the United Kingdom and then, once we do that, to
explain and to convince the people in the north of England in particular, that
this must go hand in hand with a New Deal for Europe, we will have failed.
Thank you.”

Some of the breakout sessions during the event.

Part two

Srećko
Horvat then opened the meeting to the floor and the following questions and
points were raised. In what follows, the individual points of the discussion
are summarized in short paragraphs:

  • A question was raised about the relationship between the situation in
    Turkey and the election of Trump? Elif Şafak immediately responded by reminding
    the meeting that we mustn’t confuse majoritarianism with democracy. Şafak also
    said that she was more worried about the constitutions in Europe than about the
    situation in America because the nature of European constitutions means “there
    is a darker potential here.”
  • Another intervention drew our attention to the need to be aware of the
    role of technology in the present situation. Not least as it is leading to a
    post-employment situation. Horvat noted that this kind of question is forming a
    key part of the discussion about the New Deal.
  • In the discussion, the importance of the
    media was raised, as was the question of how
    we might go about reconstituting the media, especially given that it is owned
    by so few individuals. Eno noted that the internet has often reinforced
    prejudices and that this is a real problem to be addressed. In his opinion we
    should now advocate for the end of anonymity on the internet. Horvat noted that
    DiEM25 is also working on these matters through its comms team.
  • A further question was raised about whether DiEM25 was concerned about
    the future of Europe or the future of the EU (as an institution).” Is it
    working to prevent the collapse of the Euro?
  • A point was raised about the fact that although England voted to leave
    the EU Wales and Scotland voted to remain. This in turn raised the question of
    whether there is something that needs to be done uniquely in England?
  • The question was asked (by an engineer) about what would success for
    DiEM25 look like in a qualitative and quantitive way? How do we focus and
    become able to work together quickly? The speaker felt pragmatism was clearly
    required.
  • The question of populism returned and a point was made that what may
    be required is, if not precisely populism, then certainly a popular
    communicable message.
  • An observation was made that although we’ve got a point of departure, we
    haven’t got a point of arrival. The suggestion was that we need to paint the
    picture of the arrival and it has to be beautiful.
  • The point was made that we need to persuade the liberal establishment to
    adopt DiEM25’s aims but, were we to succeed in doing that, how will we stop
    DiEM25 itself becoming part of the liberal
    establishment?
  • It was noted that the current DiEM25 manifesto seems out of date for
    Britain. Horvat commented that in the next part of the meeting a group would
    convene to start working on a new and specifically British manifesto.
  • A novelist spoke about feeling inert and asked generally about the
    purpose of writers and artists in the current situation.
  • A question was asked about how we might speak of the values of social
    change without using socialist terminology that can so often switch people off?
  • A philosophical observation was offered on the “winning verses losing
    binary.” The feeling was that if we continue to talk like this we’ll be in
    trouble and perhaps we should change to the language of improving and changing.
  • The question was asked of what populism means when the vote was so
    evenly divided 48% to 52%?
  • The question of emotional intelligence was again raised. DiEM25 is about
    what makes us human so if we can meet our emotional and physical needs then
    things need not driven by beliefs that divide but by what makes us human and
    what we share. When people get angry it goes into black and white, and yes and
    no, territory and DiEM25 may be able to help get people away from these
    binaries.
  • The issue of older people and Brexit was raised and of the need to focus
    on what sort of rights and equalities older people both need and would like.
    The speaker felt this was especially important because the EU guaranteed them
    but Theresa May is saying that these are only guaranteed until next election.
    This raised the additional question of whether there was the possibility of
    having meetings centred on what people might want from Brexit?
  • The matter was raised about the need for the evolution of the political
    system itself and it was noted that there were problems in having the manifesto
    first — to do this may be to put the cart before the horse by deciding what the
    people want before engaging with the people. It was also noted that fourteen
    votes in a lifetime of an individual is not enough — there’s not enough
    granularity there to deal with the real, deep issues that face us. Their
    suggestion was that we move towards a House of Citizens.
  • A point was made that although there is always the need for nuance in
    politics, we must be careful not to get too bogged down in it when people are
    suffering right now.
  • Picking up on the earlier comment on older voters — a point was
    made about young people. The young speaker said that although, yes, younger
    people may be more progressive, they also often don’t vote. He additionally
    expressed the feeling of being excluded from the conversation because
    youngsters didn’t always know all the facts and so, in response to this, he had
    got together a reading list of “200 books” which, he said, was ridiculous
    because most people aren’t going to do this! His general point was that it’s
    important that DiEM25 can be expressed to others in an accessible general way
    and become an organisation that can tell or assure him that his energy is being
    put in the right place.

Responses from the panel:

Elif
Şafak noted that Turkey experienced how politics could all too easily divide
family and friends and the biggest mistake would be to go back to identity
politics. Dualities are unhelpful and we repeat them at our peril because the
only the popularists will benefit from such a politics. She added that we
shouldn’t leave patriotism to the nationalists or faith to the religious. In
the end this is all about solidarity; it’s about the knowledge that history can
go backwards and that it’s OK to love one’s country but only insofar as we
always remember we are more than that. She also emphasised that popularists
have a big problem with pluralism. Therefore,
it is important to emphasise multiplicity and to refrain from binary
oppositions and polarisations etc., to remember we live in a liquid world and
need to reach out to people outside our own echo chambers.

Srećko Horvat chairs.

Şafak
responded to the earlier question about the role of literature from the floor
and noted that this is a question which has been asked throughout history. Her
feeling was that we must continue to write our poetry etc. and that it’s not
just a luxury to continue to write. Popularists aim to dehumanise the other
but, she reminded us, story tellers can re-humanise the other and combat this.
As such, engaging in literature is a vitally important thing to be doing.

Brian Eno
pointed out that societies cohere either around hope — the idea that we can
build a better future together — or around fear — the idea that the future is
dangerous so we must stick together to fight it off.
He felt that over the past twenty years fear had dominated. He observed that
governments like fearful populations because they’re easier to control. On the
other hand, populations that aren’t fearful but hopeful are creative
and chaotic; it’s not easy to keep creative populations in line. He remarked
that what we need is a creative population and that all of us were in one way
or another present for that reason.

Eno also
thought it was important to address precarity in general and for us to move
beyond the idea that human beings are merely units to be plugged into any job
that happens to be going. He thought we were being turned into third-world
sweat shop workers (or at least he felt that this was what working people feel)
— people no longer respected as humans. His hope was that in DiEM25 we could
begin to build a future that is hopeful and that revolves around the idea that
we could make something, not just as good as the old days, but something
better than has existed before.

Yanis Varoufakis concluded by picking up on this point
of Eno’s that for hope to flourish it needs a vision of a creative population
that is not kept in line by fear. Indeed, he thought that this should also be
our vision. However, he was insistent that none of this is going to happen if
we have these meetings, feel fantastic and then do nothing afterwards. Therefore,
he said, it is important that this meeting produces teams of people that make
it their business, not only to spread the word, but to create a narrative that
speaks to people’s needs out there and which doesn’t just speak to great
universal principles. For Varoufakis the three basic needs to which we must
speak are as follows:

1) The
need for job creation — without investment he noted there is no job creation.
Investment in physical, wealth producing stuff (machines and people) is the
lowest in Britain today since 1945.

2) The
need for basic social housing to reverse the Thatcherite malaise of council
house sales. There has to be a programme to restore to people the ability to
live in a decent home in their own communities without the need to leave to live
and work elsewhere. he observed that if we don’t do this all our emotional
intelligence and poetry will be wasted.

3) The
need for a Universal Basic Dividend. Varoufakis pointed out that one of the
greatest fallacies of capitalism and of free market ideology is that wealth is
created individually and then appropriated through the tax system by the state.
The reality is, he noted, exactly the opposite — wealth is created collectively
and then privatised. Since capital is produced socially it should be enjoyed
socially. In the light of this Varoufakis told the meeting that DiEM25 has been
developing a policy, not of a Universal Basic Income, but of a Universal Basic
Dividend. This would not be funded by taxation but through a Trust Fund into
which a percentage of the shares of every corporation is to go, where the
dividends amass, and which are then distributed to all as a Universal Basic
Dividend. In Varoufakis’ opinion this is the only way to share the returns of
automation across society.

Varoufakis
was concerned to point out that these ideas were just some of that need to be
taken out into the real world where real people discuss their real needs.
What’s needed, in his mind, is a New Deal. He asked the meeting to remember
that Roosevelt’s New Deal was designed to address fear and the fear of fear.
Consequently, he felt we must come out of this meeting with a determination to
get together to put forward very realistic, moderate proposals for what can be
done tomorrow to fund a Universal Basic Dividend, social housing and a jobs
programme.

Varoufakis
offered this as a small example of what could be done now. He reminded us that
the Bank of England has been printing money now for many years in order to
refloat the financial sector, buying, in other words the debt of the
financiers. Now, if instead of that, he asked us to imagine what would happen
if we had a Public Investment Bank, like the Post Office used to have (the Post
Office Savings Bank) issuing bonds? The Bank of England could buy them and then
that money could go directly into research and development into, for example,
green energy. This he said was one simple practical proposal that could be part
of a New Deal for Britain which could address the syndrome of TINA (There Is No
Alternative). He pointed out that we don’t need a socialist revolution before
we can offer an alternative, in fact, the Bank of England could do it almost
immediately in conjunction with a Public Investment Bank that could be created
within six months. So, he asked, “Why are we not doing it?” In his mind the
rage of people must be directed at the question of “why are we not doing that
which we could do today within the capitalism we have? Not to
create socialism but in order to stabilise the society we have and address
basic human needs.”

Varoufakis
felt that if the discussion is about what can be done in Britain today — forget
Brexit, forget what we want the European Union to be — in order to address
these basic needs then he trusts that it will be very, very simple to bring Europe
back into the conversation. Because, when you start thinking about the three
basic needs in Britain suddenly it becomes automatic to link this to the
importance of a similar deal for France, for Germany and for Europe. It becomes
clear — as the Greens realise in connection with climate change — that you
cannot properly deal with important matters on your own; there has to be an
alliance between all these countries implementing similar policies.

Varoukais
said that the proposal he is putting on the table of this meeting is for a New
Deal for the UK based on four or five areas where we can develop simple,
moderate common-sense policies that will appeal to all people, without any
mention of Brexit, the EU, Europe or even DiEM25. He
felt that once we start such a conversation then we will create the political
infrastructure for people from Labour, for people who are progressive
Conservatives, for people from the Greens, for independents who are
disillusioned, for those who are not currently politically involved. His hope
is that when we are no longer just in Conway Hall but everywhere, then the
discussion about Europe will return in a civilised way which allows people to
avoid the false binary opposition that exists between official remain and
Brexit.

Varoufakis
began to conclude with a point about popularism. He did not believe it was
possible to be both a democrat and a popularist; democratic popularism is for
him a contradiction in terms. In his definition “popularism is the tactic of
promising all things to all people without meaning any of them in order to
usurp popular consent and then turn it against the people.” Varoukakis
emphasised that this was why he was a democrat and insisted that we in DiEM25
should be in the business of putting the demos back into democracy. He
acknowledged that to do
this we needed to become popular but not at the expense of embracing
popularism. He added that the UK manifesto must, therefore, include very simple
ideas about how to put the demos back into British democracy.

Lastly,
he reminded the meeting that Burkean Tories talk about restoring sovereignty to
the British Parliamentary system and he thought “we needed to adopt that, to
steal it from them because it’s a fantastic idea. But they will not do it, only
we can do it because they don’t want to do it. They are really popularists,
using the language of democracy in order to deny it to anyone except
themselves. They want democracy for the rich, for those who are in surplus, and
deny democracy to those they considered discarded, morally defective and
therefore poor. It is essential that we restore that and we introduce
constitutional proposals in the UK Manifesto of DiEM.”

—o0o—

The
meeting then broke up into four small working groups with the following themes:

  • The drafting of the UK
    Manifesto and to consider a name for DiEM25 in
    the UK.
  • Media/Communications
  • Barebones organisation
    including fundraising
  • DiEM25 Voice
    — the artistic core.

Reports
of progress from these groups will be forthcoming in the coming weeks.

—o0o—

Yanis
Varoufakis began to draw the meeting to a close by announcing that there were
to be two more groups which people could join and sign-up to at the close of
the meeting. The first was one to discuss a UK economic policy that would parallel
the Green New Deal for Europe which will be formally launched in Rome on March 25 (the sixtieth anniversary of the EU).

The
second group was one which would focus on the alliance building that DiEM25 in
the UK needs to develop.

Varoufakis
finished by making it clear to the meeting that:

“DiEM25 wants to be as inclusive and anti-sectarian as
possible. The intention is not to create a party that goes against Labour, the
Greens, the SNP. Rather the objective is to become the movement that energises
them at long last to get their act together. So we need alliances, with Labour
with the SNP, with progressive Conservatives, with anyone with sense and
sensibility who is willing to participate in the attempt to create a
progressive international insurgency against the insurgency of the neoliberals
and against the insurgency of UKIP.”

—o0o—

The
meeting concluded with a few further points from the floor.

The
movement’s Volunteers Coordinator, Judith Meyer,
reminded people that they could be in touch with DiEM25 by emailing
info@uk.diem25.org

A
question was asked about the Labour Party’s decision to force MPs to vote for
the triggering of article 50. Varoufakis replied by outlining the current
DiEM25 position that was recently decided by referendum within DiEM25’s
membership. This can be found on the DiEM25 website.

The final
comment came from a woman who came to the meeting with her daughter because
both her children had felt so hopeless about their future after the Brexit
vote. She wanted to thank the meeting for giving her, and her daughter, things
to do and hope for the future.

There can
have been no one present who didn’t agree with Yanis Varoufakis when he said he
could think of no better way to end this meeting.

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