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"We Are All Ibus, and Basta!" French Interview with bolo'bolo Author P.M.
"We Are All Ibus, and Basta!"
[Translated and Introduced by Patrice Riemens]
The year 1983 saw the publication, in German-speaking Switzerland, of one of the oddest books ever: bolo'bolo, writen by one 'P.M.'. The book was nothing less than an overture toward an alternative model of society - at the global scale. A concrete utopia of sorts, based a multitude of self-supporting communities called Bolos. Thirty years later, the model has lost nothing of its potency. What probably can't be said of capitalism.
Starting with a random flip through the pages of bolo'bolo, the book, might not be the best of ideas. One risks encountering slightly over-the-top statements, which might baffle the reader. Like on page 149 (*) "Every IBU shall get his NUGO from his BOLO, and also his TAKU", or, at page 115: "A Islam-BOLO will not rear pigs, a Franco-BOLO will need a hen-house, an herbs garden, and cheese, A Hash-BOLO cultivates cannabis, an Alkohol-BOLO malts and hops (and will house a distilery in one of its sheds)". Chance is that the dumbfounded reader will quickly dispose of the book, to be put away in the 'weirdo' or 'New Age' department. And that would be a sorry mistake. Bolo'bolo might sometimes border on the absurdist, it is nonetheless far more serious a book than it looks like de prime abord.
It is a bipolar book indeed, funny and serious at the same time. All at once, it zaps thru the sky of ideas, and stays solidly on the ground. With two feet on earth, and the head leaning towards an in(de)finite future.
Two-sided from head to tail. Maybe this bicephalic dimension explains why there is a timeless magnetism and a mystical aura surrounding bolo'bolo. Published for the first time in Allemanic Switzerland in 1983, the book has since been translated in many parts of the world (in China, Turkey, Portugal, etc.) There have been three editions in French (1985, 1997, and now, 2013) [and two in English, in 1984 and 2011, both by Autonomedia, NY —trans.]. To spice up the mystery a bit further, it's author, the Swiss writer P.M. has deliberately opted for anonimity (**).
In the past thirty years, he says in the Paris cafe where we are meeting, this is only the second interview he has ever agreed to.
bolo'bolo, the book, is split in two very distinct parts. The first one constitutes a scathing indictment of the industrial age and of the slavery imposed upon humanity by the "Planetary Work Machine" ((PWM). The second part is actually quite startling: P.M. draws a fairly precise outline of what a post-capitalist society would look like if implemented at a global scale. It is a concrete utopia of sorts, with its own language ('asa'pili'), in which individuas ('ibus') live in communities ('bolos') of five hundred people who give preference to autonomy (in terms of food, energy, etc.), while practicing hospitality ('sila'). The rest follows as of itself: frontiers have been dismantled, private property abolished, there is a world-wide federative political system, and large-scale conflicts have been neutralised by the collectivity. 'Keep dreaming?' Not at all retorts P.M. - "if everybody goes for it and doest her/his bit, Bolo'bolo can be realised at the global scale - in five years flat! "
So make no mistakes, there is nothing prophetic about bolo'bolo. If the book still keeps its punch thirty years after its first publication, it is foremost because of the power of proposition (suggestion) it carries all along. Yet it is intended only as a first attempt, with its attendant errors and awkwardnesses - both fully assumed. P.M. is everything but a guru. And he does not pretend to unfold a fail-safe programme, he merely points out possibilities and challenges for the reader to pursue the investigation - as in a collaborative utopia. The ball is now in your court ...
Emilien Ballard (E.B.), for Article 11 magazine:
Could you please tell us more about the context in which Bolo'bolo was written?
P.M. (well, that's P.M. ;-)
To understand the basic substance of the book, one needs to go back to the beginning of the 1980s. Those were the days of a kind of pan-(western) European urban uprising. It was a historic moment. Squats were growing in numbers all over the place: Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam. And there were 'actions' everywhere. At that time, my home was Zürich - it still is - and we were holding demo after demo: activism was a full-time occupation. In the space of a few months we had occupied over fifty houses, including a large building which we made into a kind of youth center, a meeting place modelled after the Italian 'centri social' autogestiti' (self-managed social centers).
This was a movement at the European scale: we all knew and were helping out each other. Vienna, Hamburg, you name it: contacts were established, experiences exchanged, methods swaped. We were all dreaming of an independent form of insurection, away from established political parties and labour unions. Of something (radically) different. We had no idea how
Unfortunately, this form of European insurection did not last for long. Already by 1982, the struggle against neo-liberalism was lost - the latter won a knock-out victory. The elections of Francois Mitterand (1981) and Margaret Thatcher (1982) confirmed our defeat, with both the Left and the Right concurring on an even more savage brand of capitalism. A wave of evictions swiftly followed: the police was lashed out against squats in all big European cities. Some of these managed to hold on or to move somewhere else, but on the whole, we lost ground. Stalemate was the best we could manage. Our revolt was reduced to isolated battles for spaces in the cities. Despair was fast becoming the norm among activists.
In those days I was both involved in the movement and acted as an observer on the outside. I was writing a lot then, and had already two - three novels to my name. And amidst this generalized despondency we were all falling prey to, I took the decision to leave for Greece with a few friends. I wanted to overthink it all, away from the hustle and bustle. It is there that I made a beginning, by jotting down a list of items, as prelude to establish the groundwork for a new society. It started with the most basic of all issues: the individual. From there on, it branched out to various other problems, notably those regarding relations between an individual and her/his environment, and how to organize that on a different footing.
The idea was to draw a panorama of the scale of possibilities. What is achievable? What is desirable? And how? My approach strived for utmost modesty, was it only because otherwise even twenty books wouldn't be enough! My simple wish was to come out with a snapshot, a kind of support on which one would be able to build on in future. My sole ambition was to offer a proposition that could be transformed into action - in one go.
In the foreword to the 1997 French edition, you wrote: "This draft should not be taken as an utopia or a system based on a particular theory. It must be seen as as a set of concrete propositions intended as a departure point for discussions about our future."
I am still thinking in those terms. Even though it's a bit disingenuous, since the book carries a fairly strong ideological message. If you give it to read to a right-wing type of person, sHe'll say it's 'goofy leftist'. But I couldn't care less: I didn't write it in order to go again the ideas of the other side, but to push forward those ideas which are dear to my heart. The aim was not to ask people to resist, but rather to incite them to think further, from out of their own point of view. All that what you don't like, just steer away from it, and let it die by itself.
When I was writing bolo'bolo, I wanted to go beyond the conflicts that were so central to the seventies. As I saw it, violence, which was very much everywhere, was a dead end. Of course I was in touch with the desperados in the movement, who went for the armed struggle, I understood their hopelessness, but I thought their actions counter-productive. We had lost the war and they said "fine, we'll win it with guns". I didn't believe in that at all, I wanted to propose something else, to break clean with the negative approach.
In fact this book comes across as a positive encouragement ...
One can read it both as a political disgression and a practical proposition, which has to be taken seriously. It has been quite useful to some actual collective projects, which have borrowed specific elements from it. But in any case, I don't believe one should plan for everything, it is far more important to start out from certain principles. It is more advisable to go after the essentials of daily life than to invent a completely new society in all its sophisticated details. Think first about things like housing, food, and the elementary components of social life.
Nonetheless one can point out a few fundamentals: an anti-immigrant bolo is totally implausible, for instance, since it would go against the very nature of an organisation form grounded in hospitality and tolerance. But aside from this kind of extremes, it is up to each and everyone to find out one's own recipe and go for it. I do believe in utopias, as long as they do not impose a cast-iron model. Inspiration, not duplication, is the name of the game.
That is why I have listed such a large number of possible bolos in the book, each which its peculiar characteristic. Every city hosts christo-bolos, vege-bolos, hash-bolos, etc., the idea being not to force people into taking up a pre-determined identity, but rather to let them decide which cultural framework suits them best, without turning it into a decisive identifier. In a certain sense, the Bolo'bolo project stems from a somewhat existentialist philosophy: we are humans, we eat, we talk, and that's basically it. One can very well live without an identity, without a name even. We are Ibus, and Basta! The rest is just dead weight.
bolo'bolo has been diversely understood, depending on various national contexts. I know for instance that the Turkish version has been intensely circulated in Istanbul, and was seen as the little bible of anarchism. A total misinterpretation if you ask me: my approach was precisely against such fetishism. There cannot be something called 'bolo-ism'!
In the book's timeline, you stated that the project would see its completion over the next five years. We're thirty years latter, and we're still waiting ...
I did draw up that calendar with the idea that it was actually not intended to be adhered to. It was just an idealistic projection, a joyful provocation. I was already 35 years old by then, and I knew very well that things move slower than one would wish. But I do believe that an idealist time-line should be part of every ambitious project. If you write " we might achieve this over the next century" it could prove difficult to gain traction and let the spark ignite. Sometimes, modesty should be put aside, lest one does nothing at all. As far as I am concerned I am an optimist with ideas, and a pessimist with politics.
Optimism is inded what pervades the whole book. And when you put it down, you have the impression that little is needed for the model to become reality ...
Well, that's the point. bolo'bolo's main argument is not about a blueprint for individual happiness but simply a way to (re)organize collectively and rationaly a world that untill now has been walking on its head. The book is not based on any sociological or political system. It's just common sense, and a set of measures to organize life in the most pleasant and environmentally sound way possible. With the overriding idea in mind to leave behind the belief in economic growth as the prime mover of human society.
There is nothing really new in bolo'bolo. It simply presnts bits and pieces everybody is familiar with, just that nobody puts them together in the same manner. The idea was not to create a new 'ism' but rather to stitch together a repertorium of normality. With one obvious, but implicit fact on the background: that normality is not the present-day capitalist reality.
Yet this "capitalist reality" is very much what rules the roost at the moment.
According to David Graeber, a friend from New York who considers himself an anarchist, capitalism is nothing but badly managed communism. In his view we all already live under communism since we all co-operate with each others and capitalism needs society in order to survive. Without the permanent collaboration of workers, consumers, etc. the whole system would collapse. It simply amounts to the fact that this communism is run in the worst way possible by capitalism because the latter is so totally obsessed with making profit.
I like this approach because it goes against the received wisdom. The generally accepted view is that one needs first to get rid of capitalism in order to instore communism, but David Graeber just put that course upside down. Communism has always been here, he says, one only needs to grate away its capitalist crust.
Large-scale change can occur faster than you'd think. Actually the fresh wave of urban insurections sustantiate this hypothesis of speedy change: just a few days suffice to dethrone a Mubarak or a Ben Ali. But it's in the follow-up that things turn messy. Because world capitalism stays in place. And that is because this system does not only exist on the outside:
The great majority of people do not believe in capitalism, they do not endorse it, they simply accept to make do with it. German psychologist Harald Welzer describes this in terms of 'cognitive dissonance': one may very well know, and yet act completely at variance with one's knowledge. bolo'bolo is based on the opposite proposition: let's go for the way of life we really feel to be the one we agree with!
(*) pages as of the newest French language edition, Paris, Editions de l'Eclat, 2013:
(**) His French editor pretends he is a native of and inhabits Amberland, an imaginary island about which he also wrote a travel guide. (Actually P.M. lives and teaches in Zürich -transl.)
(***) In the 2013 edition's new introduction, P.M. is emphatic: "True, we've acumulated some delay, but why not agree to meet again in 2018 for a mega party on the smouldering ruins of the PWM?
Translated (Q&D) by Patrice Riemens