BA Eng Lit, MSc Politics, DipHG
This Editorial was first published on The Daily Alternative.
As we edge into the 2020s, we are not in the position we expected to be in almost three years ago, when we started with the question “if politics is broken, what’s the alternative”? At that time, we envisaged a patiently building project – not dissimilar to what one might imagine when moving out of one house into another. Only this would be a new political structure.
If we didn’t like the design and structure of the first, the second would be better. We’d have different kinds of rooms and new rules of engagement. But it would still be a house. And when we finished building it, we’d invite everyone in.
But it seems we are not building a house. The Alternative UK does not provide the simple architecture for somewhere to sit and plan. To think through what needs to happen before going out into the real world. So what is it?
We played with the idea of building a new political party and of course, when you are designing a new politics, that has to be entertained. But in the UK, that’s a trap. With a first past the post system, we could spend the rest of our lives trying to win a single seat. All the while being obliged to take part in the very thing we see failing to deliver on all the major crises – environment, democracy and well-being. Politically, we are stuck in the 20th century on a disintegrating planet.
And yet, we are excited. Why?
What’s happened these past three years is the sensing of a whole new socio-political-economic system that’s tentatively emerging. We’re not talking about the same modes of authority – to be found in government or existing institutions – pronouncing their innovation. This new system is manifesting out of rapid developments in the personal, social and global spheres and our increasing ability to connect them into an ecosystem of change.
As a result we don’t only have a new structure and culture of knowledge arising in our public sphere, but also a new sensibility – a distinctly different way of being political. This development belongs to the people themselves, working at every level of the system. Its energy is both individual and social. Any new politics must think less about harnessing it than serving and partnering it.
At the core is a developing idea of agency. If once we only thought about democracy as the opportunity to vote, today we are thinking much harder about where our individual and collective power lies. Democracy is not only tied to the mechanisms of government – party politics – but to re-shaping our public space in every way.
We-the-people expect to be consulted – even if only via polls and petitions – on our views about data, media, the treatment of citizens: the list is endless. But we are also increasingly seeing ourselves as the answer: social entrepreneurship, cooperatives, commoning – all are accelerating in response to the crises.
While most of this public discourse remains disconnected from the hard power of government, we are fast developing the soft power of influence and attraction to shape their preferences. The original Brexit vote for Leave was achieved against the formal commitment of all the political parties. Extinction Rebellion caused the government to declare a Climate Emergency after only a few weeks of protest. We are currently in the midst of a Citizens Assembly to determine a broad set of recommendations, independent of Westminster.
Around the world we are watching daily uprisings making a difference. Hong Kong youth grind the streets to a halt, now taking over local government. The Gilet Jaunes stop the French government in its tracks, now reshaping environmental policy through a French Citizens Assembly with teeth. Extinction Rebellion cause towns, cities and Westminster itself to declare a Climate Emergency. The Sardine movement shifts public opinion and law in Italy (ref).
Meantime, in the UK, both localism and municipalism are thriving – although powers have not yet been devolved meaningfully to these levels. Even so, we are watching the steady building of a new architecture of autonomy and self-organising for greater resilience.
At one end of the community spectrum of engagement, the most imaginative (for example Fun Palaces) and sensitive (for example Empathy Cafes) reach out to the most vulnerable. At the other end, there are deeply connected and deliberative strategies to take over local councils (like Flatpack Democracy) so that participatory practices can be introduced for everyone.
In the middle are all the smaller, reflexive spaces that allow people to be part of what we call a Friendly Revolution: Neighbourhood Forums, Talk Shops, Collaboratories, Maker Cafes – so many reported in our Daily Alternative. IF you know where to plug in, you have the possibility of a whole new world of community building or activism that is directly connected to the system change we need to address the crises. But that is still a great ‘if’.
Needing better containers for all this activity, Citizen Action Networks are slowly taking shape. Connecting all the people irrespective of their political alliances to the cosmo-local solutions available – meaning the best ones drawn down from all over the world. This is people power: distinct from the kind of populism that causes painful social division and deepening frustration. This is also aligned with the systems change work happening at every level across the world.
At the heart of this transformative public activity is quite a new concept of the human being. Thanks to social media over the past 20 years, we have all begun to see ourselves in a myriad of different lights. We are no longer simply the unit of a mechanistic economy – needing a job, food and a roof over our heads in order to continue as a cog in the machine or the hamster on a wheel.
Today we understand ourselves better as complex – bio-psychosocial-spiritual – entities. We are also opining, reflecting, performing: we are thinkers and doers. We have much to say and feel and we spend a lot of time watching each other. Increasingly we are the target of those who manipulate our data for power and profit.
New tribes have appeared: gamers, youtubers, eco-warriors, spiritualists, masculinists, feminists, trans activists, permaculturists, populists, post-colonialists and infinitely more. While the class system has not evaporated, it has fractured and seems permanently fluid. Its guarantor, the Royal Family, seems to be self-destructing even as the most popular members turn into ordinary celebrities. American soft power, once deemed indestructible, is faltering as President Trump poisons the American Dream and Hollywood is overtaken by Netflix.
Our sense of the globe has interestingly fractured. On the one hand we are increasingly victims of globalisation. Multi-national corporations continue to drive wages down through shifting manufacturing to wherever labour is cheapest. Yet our sense of our world has become strangely flat: the internet brings every kind of culture straight into our homes. We can game with total strangers who can’t speak our language from the comfort of our bedrooms. Share innovations capable of saving lives, through open-source from inventors we will never thank.
At the same time, we have become sharply more conscious of the planet we live on. Through the many forms of news now reaching our ears and eyes, we are now grieving the demise of something we have taken for granted far too long. Thanks to Greta Thunberg, millions of young people all over the world have taken on a responsibility for an ecosystem they barely knew existed until last year.
What is a new politics in the era of radically altered states of ordinary being? It’s not entirely clear yet – although there are plenty of clues. Our Elephant event in December suggested that politics would be serving a more relational system. Less top down, more facilitating and resourcing, self-organising (perhaps federalising) communities. People previously disconnected from each other, but also from their own complex selves, are moving into more integrated relationships and releasing an energy never known before.
This new system only exists in small fractals till now. Some social enterprises, small movements, some Festivals, global networks of wholistic communities. They appear up as new patterns of connection between these different ways of being, acting and measuring outcomes. But there are enough of them showing a similar pattern to suggest they could keep replicating and add up to something that transforms our whole way of being on this planet.
In the face of all this, what is the new politics and how can The Alternative UK give access to it? Until now, we have offered three entry points. Firstly, by reading our Daily Alternative – every day another practice, method or social enterprise that adds to the new system arising. Within that, a Weekly Editorial that connects the dots between them and fashions a new narrative about our emerging future.
Secondly we have been taking part in the system building, but only giving you reports from those activities without being able to offer participation. This stream has included working with CtrlShift in Wigan and Stoke, Flatpack Democracy and Transition Towns across the South West of England, co-initiating and supporting the Future Democracy Hub within Extinction Rebellion. As well as working broadly with other political entrepreneurs around the world.
Thirdly we have been working in communities around the country, helping to create the conditions for Citizen Action Networks to arise. However, for those CANs to be self-generating, we have not authored or owned them – only initiating collaboratories in Plymouth, Brighton, Birmingham and more and then standing back.
In the next iteration, launching on March 1st, A/UK is becoming more participatory. Everyone who joins on the website will not only be a potential co-creator – by contributing time and resources to the architecture we are building – but a direct participant in the new politics. Sometimes through discussion, but also by using the tools and methods available to put yourself and others on the system map and to initiate Citizen Action Networks wherever you live.
Over time, that will build into the capacity to build CAN networks, capable of crowd-sourcing a constantly evolving Living Manifesto. With upcoming tech, A/UK will be able to start decision making. Down the line it will become a 4th Sector platform hosting a number of social enterprises with shared ownership.
But first things first!
For the time being, we are simply moving from being a report on what is happening outside of the 2% Westminster bubble, to being an entry point for participation from wherever you are.