On shared presence and new traditions

Written by Ocean (DK/SE)

+ ylva (FIN), Lou (SE), Stille (DK/NL), Toni Bashy (DK), Minerva (FIN), Shastin (SE), Liero (FIN), Lev Tahor (DK/PL), Alfred (DK), David (DK/BE/ES), Aaron (DK/UK), & Kay (UK)

Photos by Lev Tahor & Ocean

Ever since my late adolescence, I’ve been at unease with Danish culture. I think that’s because it’s a culture where it’s hard to be genuine—as being genuine means trouble and conflict in our vocabulary. It may be difficult to understand when you’re not from here, but in Scandinavia we try hard to not cause any tension (absolutely no tension at all!) by compromising, adapting to scenarios with well-meaning presumptions, and excusing our lack of energy for not taking responsibility or initiative. We’re not risk-takers. We’re socialized to think of risk as irresponsible. We dread failing. We eventually stop trying.

One of the biggest struggles in my own life is overcoming the types of cultural mannerisms I inevitably adopt when I’m in Denmark. My strongest weapon in this fight is an annual gathering that I have helped organize for the past three years in Southern Sweden. Here, comrades from around Northern Europe meet to contemplate the state of our lives: politically, communally, mental health wise, and much more. The gathering has served as a place where I become inspired to stick around and keep fighting the fights I need to fight. Leaving Scandinavia behind has felt like the easier choice at times—and a bunch of friends I respect have done just that.

In order to get out of bed inspired, I’m very dependent on looking towards the larger gestures unfolding. Carrying big ideas makes the endless chain of small actions exciting. Talking in ambitious terms is unfortunately not an appreciated trait in Northern Europe. At the gathering, however, we experiment with such gestures and dare to share bolder statements that expose our dreams. We need such a place to return to, because it offers us what we lack in our day-to-day.

Our annual gathering sets an important precedent for sharing life in the Northern European context. Its format invites us to speak truthfully on matters that deeply affect us and that we, because of the conflict-avoidant cultures we come from, sweep under the rug (voluntarily or involuntarily). At the gathering, it’s more difficult to hide and so we allow ourselves to make mistakes and to try new things in the safe micro-cosmos established during the week. When at its best, it becomes a wild place to be.

Especially in Scandinavia our sense of collectivity is so bound to the state. Those of us who are trying to build structures of life outside the frameworks the state offers meet a lot of social challenges. At the gathering, we try to recognize that deepening our relations is one of our most powerful forces. We are people who were not supposed to meet. The state would rather see us isolated in each of our individual communities. Our commitment to meeting becomes our dynamite.

One would think that Scandinavia, with its cooperative history, would be the ultimate place to explore the frontier of a life in common. Paradoxically, the social reality of our region makes for abundant challenges when trying to establish common grounds for autonomy. Growing up in highly systematized societies, high standards inevitably become internalized. We have created a culture where interpersonal needs get expressed in indirect ways and are barely shared on a day-to-day basis. We are more used to asking the state for help than asking each other.

Countless projects here never develop past the stage of ideas, as the messy process of materializing them causes too much anxiety and discomfort. We are used to living comfortably within the state-setting and, even though we suffer, finding basic stability elsewhere is not something we have learned to do. The projects that succeed on our latitudes are often run by friends that have known each other for decades and tend to become quite insular. Trust and sense of belonging can take a very long time to manifest.

The sense of commitment we try to cultivate at the gathering is less dependent on long friendships and, instead, based more on shared ethics. Our goal is not to have everyone be the best of friends—even though there are plenty of friendships among us—but to focus on formalizing methods that can communize our lives.

We look at communism not as an alternative that removes itself from the outside world. We have a bone to pick with society. We want to involve each other and our surroundings. In the future, we will hopefully become resilient enough to hold strategic conversations on how to position ourselves against the rise of fascism in Northern Europe or the social-economic control of Scandinavian societies. The gathering is a promise of working towards such nuance in our positions. It’s an opportunity to find ways to reaffirm our desires to build communes and to learn how to defend ourselves outside of our immediate affinity groups.

Slowly, but steadily, a small transnational network of Gatherers is growing. To be honest, they give me a lot of hope. The Gatherers make me proud of my regional belonging.

In the fall of 2020, I conducted one-on-one conversations with twelve of them. Below, I share glimpses of the wisdom and aspirations for a life in common that they hold.

I have structured their words into expressions of three struggles and three counter-experiences, so as to give an idea of the common challenges we face as well as how we use the gathering to counteract them.

Isolation, Hopelessness, and Impasse are what we struggle with and experience as blocking our ability to organize our lives according to our ethics. Community, Hope, and Breakthrough are what we practice and taste at the gathering in order to overcome these difficulties.

ylva (FIN): When we're at the gathering, we are reminded that we're on the right path—one that breaks with our sense of loneliness and political isolation. We get to create magic together and build up our fighting morale. The tight schedule of the common daily rhythm is a practice in creating infrastructure that can transform our daily lives away from the isolating mechanisms of capitalist societies. On the path of going from theory to practice, we experience that another form of life is possible as long as we nurture the truths that we hold collectively.

Shastin (SE): At the gathering I get out of the bubble I live in. I see what we experience similarly and differently in our different contexts. The gathering confronts me with the importance of friendship as a foundational aspect for giving life meaning. When we are there together for a week, I cannot not expose my need for wanting contact with others. I have no back-ups or possibilities for setting up walls there. When I attended the gathering for the first time in 2018, I was not prepared for the strong experience it would turn out to be. To find people with whom I could have affinity with. That erased a certain nihilism in me.

Ocean (DK/SE): I feel claustrophobic within the local Danish context. The gathering helps me grow a feeling of belonging to our whole region, by finding a home within our network of comrades that goes beyond the borders of the nation-state.

Lev Tahor (DK/PL): With the pandemic, it became very clear this year what being so alone and isolated from others does to me. In gathering, coming back to a more communal way of being, doing simple tasks like cooking together suddenly have even more value. This year was my first time of physically participating and it took me time to digest and arrive in the house. Going from being very isolated to being with a lot of people took time to adjust to.

Kay (UK): The gathering was quite the opposite than what I am used to when going to new places. Usually I go with my friends and don’t make new friends. At the gathering, I felt assured that people would want to meet me. Together we met without a specific purpose or focus. We had to navigate a more open atmosphere collectively from the pre-set intentions.

Stille (DK/NL): The gathering facilitates a whole network which adds to my immediate one. The network I come from was an anti-network. I found that the sentiment at the gathering is more of a counter-network. The difference for me is that the “anti-” doesn't imply what you are for by showing what you are against, whereas the “counter-” defines and builds upon what you are for. Like prefigurative politics. Since my first gathering and then participating again this year, my politics have grown. I think the “counter-” is more sustainable for us, as well as for our surroundings. That's what is unique to me at the gathering.

Alfred (DK): To me, community is like sex and love in the sense that you learn by practicing. To take for granted that you know how to engage in community is a fault. Even those of us who think of communism a lot have to practice by applying it.

Toni Bashy (DK): When at the gathering, my understanding of the community that we are is beyond those of us who gather. Through practice, we connect to a broader community around the world—from Kurdistan to the ZAD and other rural initiatives around Northern Europe.

Kay (UK): The shift in intentionality for gathering opens up another way of relating to each other. That is something in itself. I think what we who gather have in common is a set of values, not a political program. We look for ways to relate to each other that feel safe, which means relating as persons and not as representatives. The surrounding forest does the magic of helping you arrive with whom you stand in front of. The forest helps you meet. The gathering is a center of gravity outside the urban setting that I otherwise rely so much upon. Even those of us who live in the same city, like London or Copenhagen, don’t get to see each other as much as we could, so spending a week together in the forest also strengthens our bonds.

Ocean (DK/SE): I have experienced at the gathering that I feel more safe to set my own standards. That I dare to set an intention and that magic happens then. In my opinion, community happens when people with different positions find ways to stay together. It’s a weak notion of community to think that everyone of us has to agree on everything. That is only possible if we suppress a lot. Learning to have more compassion for our differences, so that we can do things better together without triggering each other, feels crucial to learn.

Minerva (FIN): I would love to hear more about what is happening in our different local contexts. I wish we could gather more than once a year, since coming together obviously helps us grow. The growth may only show itself after years, but I believe in the act of gathering as part of generating a larger process of transformation within our movements.

Lou (SE): We rely on each other to figure out how to create the lives we long for. As society leaves us in hopelessness and with depressive thoughts, we must sort out what strategies to adopt. It's my experience that we are much more affected by capitalist society than we would like to acknowledge. At the gathering, we don't shy away from that fact and work to break down all that holds us inside the hopeless internalized mechanisms of society—by spreading a feeling that it can be possible to live beyond the control of capitalist ethics. It's another way to attack capitalism, by learning to live a way that is not formed by its mindset.

Aaron (DK/UK): Most people in my circles are either depressed, burned out, or constantly distracted by being busy. When I first attended the gathering, it came from a need to get out. Being offline in the beautiful surroundings of the forest, accepting that all other responsibilities are on the backburner, allows space for a kind of focus and reflection that feels far too rare otherwise. It’s a deeply good space and time to simultaneously reflect on our lives and nurture new commitments, ideas, and friendships.

Toni Bashy (DK): At the gathering you are allowed to be responsible for others for a time. One can facilitate workshops, cook, and engage in creating a nurturing space for others, which we lack opportunities for in our day-to-day lives. The gathering is a safe space for trying to take responsibility for processes that mean something to us and display the inner resources we carry. We can leave our shells and experience the joy of doing. The gathering becomes a framework for overcoming and regaining our belief in what we hold dear. It’s a week of skill-sharing, without making it the only center of importance as some anarchists tend to do. What makes me feel hopeless is the fact that we do not learn to take care of each other’s basic needs and mental fragilities. Communism is about basic needs and the gathering is a week of applied communism.

Ocean (DK/SE): The gathering is culturally out of the norm, which took me time to understand. We will only grow in small numbers. We will never be the norm, not even among larger so-called affiliated political circles. Today I have a lot of appreciation for the small group of people gathering, but during the first year I participated I thought the social culture at the gathering would be the norm for when arriving back in Copenhagen. Realizing that’s not the case was devastating.

Lou (SE): Sometimes our ways of life can feel so dead, but in moments like the gathering it's truly alive. The commune becomes alive as we share space, food, and emotions with each other. I get hopeful. With each year it becomes easier and easier to generate moments of a life in common.

Ocean (DK/SE): I believe that you can learn a lot by playing around. The play counters understanding everything on a high intellectual level. When we play, we can't stay in the mind—we have to do, trying it out and seeing how it goes. Play can build us up socially and turn us away from always meeting over dark and heavy matters.

Toni Bashy (DK): It makes me very happy when the structures we practice get successfully implied in other places, like the big autonomous house where Stille lives in Copenhagen. The organizational transformation they did there is amazing. That’s where the effect of the gathering extends itself.

David (DK/BE/ES): It brings me joy to connect with people where skills around shoplifting are openly shared amongst us, where such a tool can legitimately become part of how we organize ourselves economically.

Stille (DK/NL): At the gathering, we center joy and pleasure as much as theoretical discussions. I think we do better when they co-exist. It feels special to have a whole week of talking life and politics with comrades in the forest. During the week we cover a wide range of silly madness ("HEPULI, HEPULI, HEPULI! ") to theoretical seriousness. [The Finnish word hepuli describes a mood of being completely silly— Translator’s Note.]

Minerva (FIN): The power of beauty. Creating beautiful moments together that lift our spirits.

Stille (DK/NL): I have collaborated with multiple people from the gathering in political projects outside of the gathering. That would not have happened if we hadn't had the possibility to find each other at the gathering.

Alfred (DK): To me, setting small reachable goals and doing something that can succeed leaves me with hope for our future. We can’t crush capitalism, but we can make a gathering.

Lev Tahor (DK/PL): I think the gathering is a way to deal with the general hopelessness of society. Seeing how we can make things happen together is empowering. At the gathering we organize around shared responsibility. It’s important that we become more accountable to each other. Even in corona-times it has proven to be possible and that people will show up. It’s a lot of work to have people come together and requires effort to maintain the network, so that’s something in itself. Besides that, I had a great experience in terms of understanding how to organize in different ways. There are several organizational tools that I now have with me.

Aaron (DK/UK): I want to make more intentional conversations in my everyday network now. To build deeper trust. I see that I can use tools and experiences from the gathering like restorative justice and the wheel of consent to initiate that. Training Muay Thai every morning also made clear to me the importance of commitment to physical conditioning.

Toni Bashy (DK): When we gather to discuss, the content of our discussions is not always the most important. What is important is to create a room that is a bit holy. Where you speak truthfully and there’s respect for what is being said. That’s not a room of the day-to-day. We need truthful speaking. We hunger after truthful speaking and free ourselves from making anxious assumptions about each other. We need truth to live on like plants need water to grow. The atmosphere of truth is one that we all understand. We can make statements that are a bit more visionary and important than what you dare say in the day-to-day. I live on such moments of truth for the rest of the year.

Liero (FIN): I can be so caught up in my everyday life that I don’t get to reach out to new people. Thereby I can’t grow. Coming to the gathering I learn to spend time, waste time, decompose in a productive way with friendly strangers. It was a lesson for me, knowing that I still have some learning to do in regards to doing what I really want instead of what I think I ought to want.

ylva (FIN): At the gathering we are organized into a common daily rhythm of sleep, food, and activities. Our daily lives are in most cases organized in the opposite way—where we live alone or in smaller units, having to make every day-to-day decision on our own. My experience at the gathering is that we practice organizing ourselves around reproductive labor in a way that we take collective responsibility even for individual needs like dietary allergies.

David (DK/BE/ES): We have to invent our own path. Finding people where you can speak openly about the kinds of organization of life that we believe in. How can we sustain our forms of life within the capitalist conditions that we are given? I want to shift the norm and not have the capitalist norm forced upon me. Family members can really throw me out of myself with their questions around careers and relationships. I want to get to a place where their questions don’t provoke me more, but where with confidence I can turn the questions around and give rich answers that stem from my ambitions and not merely react to their premises.

Lev Tahor (DK/PL): I doubt if I will meet people from the gathering again. Is there really a possibility for continuity? Will the others reach outside of their small networks? I’m unsure. I had a good time at the gathering though and got inspired to think of my future in Denmark as less individualistic. My past was very communal. I haven’t experienced that in a Danish setting, so in that sense the gathering was a good experience. I still struggled with all the social anxieties that I feel in Copenhagen, which was somehow unexpected. I don’t find people so curious. I’m socialized very differently. Northern Europe in general is an uncomfortable social environment for me.

Ocean (DK/SE): Especially after the first gathering, I experienced that when we got back to Copenhagen the social guards were up again, both from other people and from people who went to the gathering. We started to internalize the social dynamics that we had tried to counter at the gathering and had a hard time keeping spirits up during the year. I felt hopelessness and the fear that we would not establish and sustain contact with each other.

Liero (FIN): Why don’t we think of Europe more like the US, as a single unit? Europe becomes so much bigger in our minds than it deserves to be! As someone living in Helsinki, it’s pretty strange not to feel any kind of real affinity with folks living in Stockholm or Tallinn right across a small body of water. By the simple act of spending time together, we could start to feel a sense of shared fate or belonging, by being engaged in lived experiments that have a similar, if not the same, direction.

Toni Bashy (DK): These two terms are important for us to understand in relation to each other: revolution and reformation. Revolution occurs when we do something for the first time that works so well we want to do it again. Revolution is empowering. Reformation, on the other hand, is a bit heavier—trying to solidify the revolution by implementing it in day-to-day life. Reformation is not inventing, but doing the boring, invisible, and farsighted work of extending the revolution into reality. The gathering is revolutionary practice. The time in-between is time for reformation. I know that these can be big words, but to see the bigger perspective in what we are doing without ridiculing it—I think that’s healthy for us. We should rise up and not speak down to ourselves. See the greatness in our meeting. It’s Northern European to not speak about yourself in big terms. Let’s change that.

Stille (DK/NL): Even among our political affinity groups we gatherers are a minority. We who practice theory are not the norm. At the gathering, we create a hub where life in common blossoms in rich ways. As for now, that hub is what’s important to nurture, so it can keep making ripples and effects into bigger and smaller contexts outside of its actual time and space.

Minerva (FIN): The Kurdish Freedom Movement encourage us to organize ourselves and thereby have more solidarity with ourselves. The revolution is within us and in between us. We need to build up instead of breaking down and getting wounded in the battlefield of the big systems. We can create revolutionary moments together and see that the ways of life we are fighting for are possible. When we test our theories in practice, we can make them better if they don’t work like we imagined. We get to see that there is a lot of magic among us. It’s easier to be against—it can be scary to say what you are for. If we don’t articulate what we are for, we’ll stay in the impasse of what we’re against.

Shastin (SE): We are growing as a collective, more than just me growing as an individual. Our larger contexts are getting wiser and stronger and more mature. The gathering is a stabilizing place for collective growth. We set an example through practicing what we dream about. It’s challenging for many to make it happen, to get to participate, but it can give energy to know that it happened.

Kay (UK): The Tekmîl structure reminded me how difficult it is to give and receive critique. This has been very helpful for me to begin that process. We are not socialized to help each other grow through critique. It’s interesting to look at critique as something helpful, even a gift.

This has been a glimpse into our journey so far. Let me be very honest: it has been fragile and, in many ways, still is. We want to create a tradition and a place for ourselves to return to, one that will be able to contain more than just our youthful dreams of a life in common.

The challenge is to teach ourselves to build sustaining structures that allow us to become growing adults within. A place where we can raise kids and become masterful artisans. A life in common is not merely a dream—it’s a devotion we do our best to keep alive.

This text is dedicated to my mother Inga. Fearlessly you contain my deepest pains.