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Change in a consensual way

“Because often when it comes to politics, I am sort of a leader. But here I was a follower: and it was a good experience.” An interview on thoughts arising from Team Syntegrity 2017.

Team Syntegrity 2017Wiebke Hansen was one of 30 participants from Europe and beyond who took part in the Team Syntegrity – or non-hierarchical conference – held in Barcelona on 18-22 June 2017. This is part of a series of follow-up conversations on that event's themes, recommendations and relationships.


Rosemary Bechler (RB): We were wondering how you got involved in Srecko Horvat’s documentary film, Europe’s Forbidden Colony?

Wiebke Hansen (Wiebke): I helped initiate a referendum process, not from the top down but from the bottom, the grass roots. We won the referendum in the end, which was on the remunicipalisation of the energy grids in Hamburg to bring them under public ownership – with a very slim majority, but we won it. And there was a lot of international interest in this story. Srecko was by no means the first to ask us to tell our story, but he was the first to come after us with such a big film crew! They were looking for footage on the crisis in Europe, but also for solutions to that crisis, and they saw our initiative as one such possible solution, mainly I think because this was direct democracy in which everyone was involved in the decision-making – everyone was asked. And also because this remunicipalisation addresses the need that everyone has to be supplied with public services, so it directly addressed the issue that his documentary was exploring. He had contacts in various European countries who looked for interesting examples. For me being filmed that afternoon was like stepping back into a former life, because it was the first time I had been away from the baby since he was born.  That interview was a great afternoon: it was exciting. It was for me the beginning of being once again interested in everything that was happening outside this little home of mine.

The referendum was my first experience of democratic ideas and concepts as they were being deployed in the energy revolution. I came across lots of people who were deeply committed to democratic ideas, as is my partner, by the way. So this was very influential in moving me in this direction too. Mine is a very personal story in many ways.

I had never thought much about democracy before this referendum: it was just a method by which people organise themselves in society, and there could be better and worse ways, but generally-speaking this was a pretty dry topic to be skirted around. Now, when I had to use this instrument of democratic control, it suddenly came to life for me. My role was an interesting one: I was the campaign leader and was right in the middle of everything and connected to everybody since we had nearly 1,000 activists who were working for us during the years and I also  was part of the strategic group, running things. I also got very good advice from a group of very experienced people in Hamburg, More Democracy, who had succeeded in getting Hamburg’s government to buy into some great rules on how to run referenda democratically. It was thanks to their advice and the rules they enforced that we were able to pull off the initiative we were working on; how to plan the schedule, how to collect the signatures, and so on.  We also got on well together! So when I had my baby, I worked a bit from home for them and wrote some articles for them. So we stayed involved. It is all about these personal contacts… My role was an interesting one: I was the campaign leader and was right in the middle of everything... since we had nearly 1,000 activists who were working for us during the years and I also was part of the strategic group, running things.

As an activist I started out working on Germany’s ‘energy revolution’ at various stages in its evolution.  I think I learned the ‘green heart’ and responsibility from my parents, and in my mid-twenties, like many others, I turned to Greenpeace as an opportunity to make a contribution.  As climate change became more of a concern to the environmental movement we worked on this and the ‘energy revolution’ – very much a citizen-led initiative in Germany over two, nearly three decades. I was very interested in the relationship of the economy to the environment. I also worked in an anti-nuclear organisation, and that was how I met my partner, standing in front of a nuclear power plant demonstrating for its closure after a nuclear accident at the plant. I remember thinking, “What a nice guy!” 

RB:  You said in expressing your hopes for Team Syntegrity 2017 that “at best”, you hoped to emerge from it, “part of an international movement for democracy”. What form do you hope that movement will take?

You mentioned Srecko’s interest in the direct democracy of your campaign. DiEM25, however, has just decided, while remaining a movement for the democratisation of Europe, to develop an ‘electoral wing’ to enable it also to participate as a pan-European party in the European elections in 2019.

Wiebke:  I heard something about the organisation for democratising Europe that Srecko is involved in, DiEM25, much later – actually at the Team Syntegrity. It was Agnieszka Wiśniewska from Poland who told me about this and also Emma Aviles from Spain – she was interested in it as well. Some weeks after our Barcelona encounter, there was the G20 summit in Hamburg and I met DiEM25 people at the alternative conference I attended there, some of whom knew me from the referendum campaign. I also met Srecko again, probably on the same day that his DiEM25 meeting was almost sabotaged by someone setting off a fire alarm. There was some idea about doing something together with the Hamburg people, but so far there has been no further contact between us. I’m still interested. I have some doubts about the success of an ‘electoral wing’. I have some experience of a small political party with very similar ideas for Europe as DiEM25, and they tried to have some impact in the German national elections in September. It was a very hard time for little new parties. Unfortunately they even failed to cross the threshold for state support.

Of course, a political party has advantages because it is a familiar format. If you are successful you can achieve a lot. But it also may exclude a lot of people who do not feel comfortable in parties and who do not have a high regard for how people behave in parties. A movement without these encumbrances seems more open to everybody, although of course there might be other people who feel better in parties!

In the past I was mainly involved in non-parliamentary democracy where I feel at home, but it also seems very interesting to me to have responsability in a parliament.

RB:  The sudden rise of the AfD convinced many of us that it was vital to be visible with a European alternative politics in 2019. At the very least the interface between parties and movements needs to be explored in much more breadth and depth – would you agree?

Wiebke: You know for a month I worked for the Democracy in Motion Party, and I had the chance to see a lot. I saw people with a huge commitment, fighting and striving to do some really important things. They achieved a culture of communication which was a pleasure to see. But directly in proportion to the extent that people fear the AfD, they do not see any point in electing a small party that has little chance of traction in the elections. That has not much past and is little known. They would maybe prefer the Green Party, simply because its place in the parliament is assured, and they will at least be able to reduce the number of AfD candidates who come through, even if that means losing this small new voice in their parliament.

So I see the point of an electoral wing, but if there is not a real movement underpinning these new entrants to the field, then they will have little chance to succeed I think. It was the same with my party. They were founded by a few people who mainly are engaged in online petitions. Many people in Germany take part in these online petitions. So maybe this gave them hope for more  support than they were likely to be able to muster.  But this was not a movement where many people got together for a special reason, and had been demonstrating in the streets together and then decided, together, that many of them should establish something which would allow them to have more of an impact in the future.  It was instead a foundation hoping to acquire a movement. And I think that could be the same problem for DiEM25. In Germany, only a few people belong to DiEM25 and will be building a party. It is an idea in the head of a few people who hope to build a movement in the process. This is hard. Especially if you start by aiming for national or international elections rather than local elections. In Germany, only a few people belong to DiEM25 and will be building a party. It is an idea in the head of a few people who hope to build a movement in the process. This is hard...

RB: Your feeling is that there is no short cut to a genuine grass roots movement – its commitment, enthusiasm and learning from self-organisation?

Wiebke: This sounds a bit harsh. There have been short cuts in very special circumstances, the right idea at the right time, so one could try. But you also need the plan to take it one step at a time without the short cut. Take Podemos in Spain. People met each other and there were huge demonstrations throughout Spain that contributed directly to the formation of this party. These people share a common challenge. Maybe, in the UK, Brexit will in time constitute just such a common problem for the people. And then this might be the basis for a bigger movement for something new. But in Germany, this fear of the AfD leads people to Die Linke or to the Green Party, although indeed this reaction against the AfD among progressives was not as extensive as I had hoped.

RB: So who else did you meet at Team Syntegrity 2017 who interested you?

Wiebke: I loved the way that Pavlos Georgiadis talked about the way he works: with a lot of courage, and a willingness to try something new in agriculture, to roll it out and scale it up at the same time as monitoring the results scientifically. That was really something! And that at the same time he also thought about how the farmer felt embarking on such a process of experimentation: what his or her experience would be.

At the beginning of the year, I had attended a seminar over several weeks in order to help me find out what I wanted to do in terms of work over the next few years.  As an unemployed person, these seminars are designed to help people to be self-employed. This made me take a rather good look at myself, as well as my motives for a change of direction. I remembered an older idea that really touched me: that I would like to foster and strengthen the dissemination of certain species of fast-growing trees. These can be cultivated in special ways that allow them to solve a range of major problems in one go. Pavlos’ way is exactly the kind of approach I had been thinking about for these fast-growing trees.

I am a campaigner by profession, and so up till now when I have worked in organisations where  the goal was set by others . I am very good at organising these campaigns and I like it, but it also seems very attractive to me to be my own boss and be driven by my own vision.

For now I want to work half time to spend time at home with my little boy, but in a few years, when he is a little older, why not work on this? I love putting my hands in the earth: this is in my genes somehow. Yes, I love this idea, but I am not ready for it yet and have done nothing so far to make it a reality. For now I just love visiting my sister on the family farm every month or so and watching my son running around with the pigs and the hens and so forth. It is a little glimpse of paradise. But when I do make this step to start working on this idea, I will surely contact Pavlos!

Several of our fellow participants inspired me in the way they think about the lives we lead now. When David Mallory talked about men and women and the relations between them, I was very impressed. I felt that he was talking about what was happening inside me, and I was impressed by his empathy for women. With other people, I just had so much fun – Lofa and I ( we called him Swansea!) got on like a house on fire and we talked for hours and hours with Joan Pedro – very charming-, propping up the bar. Kate Farrell had a sensitivity that touched me. Richard has such a big heart: his topic was talking about feelings, which he did really well. I liked Marley, the way that he organised his ideas. Then there was Birgitta – such a special person with a lot of power and self-confidence.  I thought: OK I can learn from her. What Democracy in Motion had wanted to achieve – she had already achieved, founding her parties from scratch. Her idea of a party was so similar to theirs and I learned a lot from her, thinking OK – I could be a bit like her! This could happen for me in another time!

That was what was so interesting about this Team Syntegrity. In other circumstances I am often the capable strong person who knows how to talk and how to lead, that other people look to. In this circumstance with 30 such powerful people, I felt rather different – a little vulnerable, because in these five days I got in touch with a lot of things inside myself. It also is a question of language, as I am not a native speaker and sometimes had a difficult time trying to understand or express myself, an experience I exchanged with some other participants I talked to about it. On the last day, I almost felt a palpable pain at all the things that I could do and wanted to do to be effective in my society and in the environment – but given my situation in my daily life, that I am not ready to do yet for a while. I have to put my home first. That’s just it.

RB: This Team Syntegrity was particularly full of people who for three and half days seemed to be able to bare themselves to the choices they had made in their lives…

Wiebke: Yes, and that was painful, because I was realising what was not possible for me. Since June I have been even more aware of this gap in my life. But I have my son and my first duty is to be there for my son while he is small.

But I am very glad that I had this experience. It was so strange going home to Germany, because it was like stepping back into real life! I had a stopover in Brussels and had to wait for some hours surrounded by businessmen, with a view, a wonderful view, of a nuclear power plant from the windows!! Oh God! I really appreciated my fellow Team Syntegrity participants then even more! I thought, sometimes it is easier to meet people from other countries whose heart beats for the same thing, than to dwell among people in your home city.

It was great to meet so many people who thought so carefully about the humanity and social consequences of how we live now and what it would take for things to change, and also the responsibility for initiating change. It’s great to talk to people who have this idea of “I am a changer!”  It's not so usual! Sometimes it was hard for me to realise in those moments that I was not quite comfortable in this group because of the constraints in my life. But by the end, I thought “What a great experience!” Because often when it comes to politics, I am sort of a leader. But here I was a follower: and it was a good experience.

RB: I don’t know if you remember saying that one other outcome you hoped for from this event was a message to take back to people engaged in the social change activities that matter most to you. Was your idea of a ‘little home’ for everyone that message?

Wiebke: Since Barcelona, I have often thought back to the idea I had of this ‘little home’. This idea came to me when I was listening to Richard telling us about how his house burned down when he was six years old. I had just come from one of the sessions discussing the far right, and there we were talking a lot about how the people who are driven to join the far right are often lacking something in their lives, like secure prospects of future welfare, for example. It is too easy to treat them like bad people. But if you could talk to them as normal people, not as enemies, and their needs, and what could fulfil them and make for a more balanced life for them in society – then that connection came to me, simply the idea of a little home that everyone deserves. When I say to you that I have a duty to look after my son, I am thinking to myself, this is the ‘little home’ of my son, and it is up to me to take care of it. That’s my life.

But when I talk to people in my country now about current problems like finding homes for refugees, or homes for homeless people, I do use this picture of a ‘little home’. And by this I do not only mean the building. I mean food and water and a bit of love, and security and education, not as a luxury but as the basic needs that should be fulfilled for everybody.

Another message I carry with me now, which may or may not stem from those few days of discussion, is the feeling that I am under less and less pressure to find the one way in which things will be successful, one way for organisations or people in which things should be done. I am more open to the fact that people will do it in the way that they think is right; and that there might very likely be a good result! Even if it is not the way I would do it.  I am under less and less pressure to find the one way in which things will be successful, one way for organisations or people in which things should be done. I am more open to the fact that people will do it in the way that they think is right...

I am more open to this, and maybe it has to do with seeing all those people there doing their thing and seeing that this leads to good results. This helps me very much to live more in peace with myself ! (Laughs).

I am still looking in the meantime for an answer to the question of what I can do now. It’s not so easy. It is like a blank sheet of paper, my professional future, and this feels not very comfortable. But from everything I have learned to date – both as a result of that first referendum campaign, and from this Team Syntegrity in June, I have a certain idea of how to initiate changes in a consensual way. 

Before launching into a campaign I would talk to many different kinds of people about whether my concept was a really watertight one. I would elaborate my idea much more concretely and in detail with their help, and also talk with those who should be putting it into practise later on, and including those who are currently against that idea. I would do all that before I launched a referendum, because for me the referendum should be the last step.

I am so alienated now from the pathway that simply blasts ahead creating enemies that I know it is not right for me. I talked a lot in the Team Syntegrity about how we should not turn those counterposed to us one way or another into an enemy image. And I really believe this. 

The AfD rely on this polarising rhetoric all the time. But after the first excitement over any issue, there should be time to calm down and reconsider. Then you can talk normally. In the first stage, when everything seems black and white, all is extreme and there is no chance to investigate each others’ ideas. Not saying, “You are bad and that’s why you think that.” That just forces people to dig themselves in even further into their position.

I have been in Barcelona again, for a conference on solidarity economies, linked to this remunicipalisation idea, and I got to know this very nice woman from an initiative interested in applying these ideas to the energy grids in Catalonia too. But now they have to wait and see what on earth is going to happen to them! This was again interesting, to talk to people about the referendum and independence. There too it is the same All of a sudden a referendum: yes or no in very polarised circumstances! It is very difficult there.

So I want to thank you very much for the Team Syntegrity and for inviting me and all the others for this great time together. We all need less fear. We need to talk to each other. We should be more open. I really enjoy thinking about that event, so thank you for asking me to talk about it. I hope to stay in touch with you all.

About the authors

Wiebke was born in 1979 and grew up on a farm in the north of Germany. During her studies of Economics and Management she spent a year in Spain. After that she worked for several environmental/ energy transition organizations. Now she has a two-year-old son, and from time to time works as a member of the self-employed for not-for-profit campaigns.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.

Read On

See Team Syntegity 2017:                         Meet the participants –   Results so far          –   The process in their own words.


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