Bolo’Bolo, one of the most significant utopian texts of the late 20th century, first appeared in German in 1983 with an English edition the following year. The author (Hans Widmer, under a pseudonym taken from the two most common initials in the Swiss telephone directory) was at the time involved with the Midnight Notes Collective, whose members and collaborators include Peter Linebaugh, Silvia Federici, and George Caffentzis.
The book is by turns a bizarre, satirical and deadly serious proposal for collective living written in some detail. And despite its idiosyncrasies, there have been a number of attempts at putting this plan into practice. The most notable is the author’s own current Restart Switzerland project, which explores many of the ideas elaborated in Bolo’Bolo in the context of Swiss institutions and infrastructure and has fed into the creation of Zurich’s large and ambitious housing co-op Kraftwerk1.
The book’s wider impact can be seen in initiatives ranging from the barrios and spokes-councils of the anti-globalisation movement to the UK’s Radical Routes co-operative movement. Where it diverges from these experiments is in its insistence on being immediately global.
This is no dropout project. Rather, the local communities upon which it is founded are contingent upon global flows of information, labour, and materials. Similarly Bolo’Bolo exhibits an unflinching dedication to the present, to beginning from where we are, that differentiates it from many other utopian works.
Much of P M’s plan, therefore, concerns salvage, reclamation, reinvention, and transformation of this world full of stuff that we made (albeit as fruits of an exploitative relationship). It is an adaptive rather than a palimpsest approach. It is not, though, a project of reform or assimilation. Rather it is a revolutionary work with due attention paid to the means by which capitalism might be abolished.
P M begins by analysing present conditions under capitalism. He understands work as relating to three ‘deals’: the A workers (technical/intellectual) centred non-exclusively on the global North West; the B workers (agro/industrial) on the North East; and the C workers (he uses the term ‘fluctuant’ where we might now use ‘precarious’) in the global South. The emergence of bolo’bolo is dependent upon collaboration between these three categories of worker.
The focus of the book, though, is less on this process of resistance and subversion and more on strategies of social reproduction – the means by which we keep ourselves, our families, our friends, and our neighbours alive, and the means via which society is made and remade. This, for P M as for others in his political milieu, forms the bedrock of class struggle and so cannot be separable from the overthrow of capitalism. It is this focus that makes the text seem remarkably contemporary and relevant in today’s crisis.
To summarise only part of this wide‑ranging project, bolos are communities of between 300 and 500 ibus (people), who, within the bolo, are clustered into smaller communities called kanas. The urban bolos are linked with kodus that constitute the agricultural basis of their self-sufficiency and are arranged according to interest group, life-style, or identity (the long list of potential bolos provided for illustration includes Les-bolo, Play-bolo, Jesu-bolo, and Alco-bolo). Formal communication between these nodes is via assemblies and delegations, travel is borderless, the basis of exchange is the gift, labour is almost entirely voluntary and the only truly private property is limited to what can fit inside a taku, a 50 by 50 by 100cm box kept by each ibu.
The use of invented words is not affectation. In part, there is a clear attempt to shed the baggage of certain ideas through renaming (‘communism’ being a prime example). More importantly, corresponding to the new social relationships described in the text, these words have new meanings that make direct translation impossible. Ibu, for example, can be loosely understood as referring to the individual but the limits, reach and shape of the individual are different here, resulting in an overlap with the social. Similarly, gano refers to what we might call ‘productive space’ but in bolo’bolo, with its radically different approach to work, the meaning of ‘productive’ is transformed.
Humour abounds in the book and its preface is quite open that readers ought to make their own decisions about how much to take seriously. The majority has the character of a practicable plan but there are other parts, such as prognostications about the future that take us right the way to the collapse of the bolos in 2346, that should probably be read differently.
The creatively stimulating provocation that utopian thought has represented in recent history has, of late, given way to absolute urgency. By almost everybody’s account, things simply do not work and cannot remain the same. Taken in the spirit in which it was written (i.e. beginning from where we are, 2013 not 1983), Bolo’Bolo has the potential to provide a fertile contribution to the vital reinvention of our communities.