BA Eng Lit, MSc Politics, DipHG
If the 60s popularised the question “who am I?” the 2010s are increasingly prompting the equally baffling “who are We?”.
For some this looks like an easy question and it would be answered by naming the tribe they most identify with: The Left, The Gooners, Wasingi. I hope you jumped there because if you already know what a Wasingi is, you’re one of a rare and special breed.
I spent some time with the Wasingi on Friday afternoon at their annual Festival on the Wasing Estate near Reading. Describing themselves as an experiment in self-reliant community, the adherents are ‘conscious evolutionaries’ rather than a campaign for change – there’s no rapid onboarding here. I was invited by Amisha Gadhiali – author of the book and podcast The Future is Beautiful, to talk about what The Alternative sees as a new political sensibility currently emerging.
I was greeted on the outskirts of the event by a man who told me I was too late to enter: the gathering had initiated participants through a series of rituals, the previous evening. Coming and going, taking the community lightly, was not part of the ethos. Focus, attention, commitment to the time spent together was key to its ability to create value.
No argument from me: I’m an advocate of slowing politics down to a pace that allows people to participate as their full selves. So how did I suddenly find myself on the outside of this group? I quickly re-framed myself as a visiting speaker, not intending to join in the experiment but just offering an intervention and was given the nod. But it made me think about boundaries – the need for them, and also the challenge they pose.
Stepping inside the Wasingi domain, myself only 20 minutes off the motorway from London, I could feel a visceral change. The people in this space were living in a different rhythm, using different forms of communication between each other. To preserve its privacy, I won’t describe in too much detail. But suffice to say it was a warm, cross-generational space, full of diverse offerings of activity coming from the within the community itself. I was a rarity, coming from outside.
I shared a two-hour session with the formidable Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of Ancient Futures, Co-Director of The Economics of Happiness and founder of – amongst other things – Local Futures. Helena took us on an enormous sweep of history: it began with what she learnt about ancient cultures from her time in Ladakh, India, right up to the fundamental dysfunctions of the current system. She described the complex human capacities that humans possess, equipping them to be happy with each other with very few material needs. And Helena lamented the loss of the kind of supportive communities she feels are most natural to us.
International trade, she said, is the single biggest cause of climate change: some of the most basic ingredients in our shops have flown hundreds of miles to get onto our shelves.
But while localism is posited as the starting point of the future, the spectre of the current system, so expertly managed by such a small band of managerial, governmental and financial actors – no more than 10,000 out of a global population of 7.5 billion Helena suggested – loomed large. There is much for us to oppose.
But this brought me back to the bigger question I began with: who are We? Helena’s analysis – one that we share here – rests on a steady assumption: that understanding what it means to be human, in a bio-psycho-social-spiritual way, connects all of us.
But that proposition can only be useful if we allow that human nature has developed from its original evolved conditions – the patterns of behaviour that Helena identifies from ancient times. Today, we have all been encultured by own own appetite for progress – and as a result, we no longer see things in the way our ancestors did. Modernity was also constructed by humans.
Stepping into Wasinga was almost like stepping back in time – a reconnection with the land and a stripping-back of our sophisticated trappings (material and psychological) that have divided us from each other. But could the civilisation evoked in Wasinga survive the pressures of modern life outside? A modern life that we are all playing along with, everyday: still buying the exotic fruit far from home, still getting into diesel-using Ubers, still indulging in our digital broadband (which is infinitely more fossil-fuel expending than writing letters or meeting up in person).
And so the “We” that sits at the centre of our urgent discussions cannot always be counted on. Most of the people I know would choose to continue this lifestyle rather than go back to something closer to our human origins. That doesn’t necessarily make them selfish or even deluded. There are many arguments from their perspective – which assumes that modernity is our condition, but it can come in a sustainable yet complex form – that have to be included (and often are on this website). Take Jeremy Rifkin’s zero-marginal-cost society, or David Wood’s London Futurists vision, to name but two.
Being able to move from narratives that are pure, ideologically or historically, to new ones that allow a certain degree of not-knowing what the future could look like – this is crucial for bringing people together. Our political divides are simply not helpful in this regard: neither the Left nor the Right for example, can claim to be the party of the communities. While Labour’s John McDonnell champions more devolution, the current Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright and the Minister for Civil Society, Julia Unwin have set in motion some radical new powers to community residents to participate in local decision making.
Other divides – of class, gender, age, culture, privilege of movement or agency – are all, at the same time, real and bogus. Real in that they had an oppositional starting point in history; bogus, in that they are always evolving into something other than that, developing points of commonality and mutual dependence.
Even the classic divide between individualists and collectivists – one I hear a lot in civil society speakers deeply invested in the We – is evolving, not least through social media. The mainstream papers have always poked fun at practices aimed at cultivating the ‘self’ – calling it navel-gazing, fluffy, narcissistic (all of which it can be, in extremis). But social media has no trouble in embracing self-development in the same breath as social development and linking the two domains of practice as inter-dependent. When we in A/UK speak of I, We and World, they may sound like great, discrete, domains. But they are simply different lenses through which to see the whole of life – we all have them.
This is why we have to see the task of coming together, in the face of multiple crises, as conflict transformation – and happening in real time, at the grassroots, where the people are. Citizens coming together from diverse communities of belief. But also diverse levels of agency – the power to get things done. Rather than battle out the issues along traditional narratives of justice and equality, it might be better to tap into people’s yearning for something better than what we all have now. Future visioning and making.
Of course, space must be made for the pain we bring into the room with us: which is why in our collaboratories we work with skilled facilitators and artists who are sensitive to whoever and whatever is present. But the hope is to be able to locate each one of us, the unique souls that we are, in a shared space of challenge and opportunity. And allow something to arise from our common need for meaning, purpose, belonging and connection.
We can play with the ambitious idea that when we pool our prodigious human resources, as Amisha puts it, The Future is Beautiful.