Alternative Editorial: A thought experiment

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

That we are living in interesting times is not disputed. Change is upon us. Whether we are celebrating more fluid identities or bemoaning the power of social media to shape our collective destiny, few would argue that life is pretty much the same for our children as it was for our parents.

The problem with change is that it threatens our security: it is typically described as moving from stability to chaos. And there is plenty of evidence – as Naomi Klein describes in Shock Doctrine – that strong, self interested forces know best how to capitalise on the vulnerable at these times.

But let’s do a thought experiment: instead of the word change, let’s substitute the word development. Let’s imagine that, instead of events occurring solely at the will of malign or benign actors, they also occurred as the next stage of our evolving circumstances and capacities. If individual development is about becoming more capable, more agentic – what about social and global development? Not so much the aid related development of poor countries by rich countries - which has its place - but the self-development of societies and the people within them, which can be, but isn't always related.

This week at the annual Chatham House Conference (The Royal Institute of International Affairs), the theme was The Changing World Order: the highest of stakes!  We explored not just new trends and shifting cultures, but what the emerging global pecking order might be – who’s lining up to be in charge? At the heart of the inquiry was the phenomenon of the Trump Presidency and, to a lesser extent, Brexit.

Both were desribed as the consequence of the ‘new populism’ – a rising tide of the less differentiated, emotionally reactive, largely disaffected masses. While it has yet to play out in terms of hard power – guns and money – the loss of soft power, reputation and influence, has been significant. All eyes are now on China to offer new models of authority.

But how would that look as The Developing World Order? Rather than look at whose turn it is to lead from the front, might that prompt us to look more broadly and look for signs of new agency developing? If so, we’d find a lot of movement.

Whether or not we like the results brought about by the US elections and the British referendum – there is some evidence that there were a lot of first time voters involved. While many were bemoaning the loss of the status quo, many others were – and are – celebrating a first feeling of being heard.

However we now respond to their experience of democracy, we should not be trying to silence it. If your politics are different from those that reached the ‘left behind’ – in some cases through lies and emotional manipulation - it’s your challenge to engage on better terms now. After such an emotionally-driven vote, we can’t pretend any more that people don’t care.

And there is plenty of activity that could be seen as answering to the desire to ‘take back control’ coming from the grassroots of society. Regularly blogged on the pages of the Daily Alternative are evidence of increasingly sophisticated localism. It’s not only the independents taking back control of their local councils (Flatpack Democracy etc) - but also new food and energy initiatives that are making regions more autonomous and resilient to climate change.

Add to that the rising tide of municipalism: towns and cities developing their own forms of governance, health and transport systems and even local currencies. Mayors are playing a new, more visible and effective role, often far closer to the people than an MP – in thrall to a political party – could ever be. The intention here, well described by George Monbiot in his new book Out of the Wreckage, is to give rise to a slower, more relational, politics of belonging and autonomy.

Some will say, "what influence can these uneven developments in small disconnected places have on the bigger picture – the old entrenched powers, in league with business and the military industrial complex"? Maybe very little to start with, but when networked, they start to develop strong, coherent stories of possibility that others want to copy. Starting only with sharing values, the developing tools and practices made available to everyone make the learning curve for those that follow easier. With the internet, this becomes exponential.

Even so, the most challenging vision of change that has yet to be articulated as meaningful development is the tech revolution. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the internet has only been usefully around for ten years: we’ve been in the midst of a global revolution whose impact we are only just beginning to fathom. The developmental curve ahead of us, with automation, artificial intelligence and human enhancement will be even steeper.

The future threatens to ‘run away with us’ and till now, the fear factor of losing jobs and designer babies has dominated: dystopian futures abound. What will it take to change that story round to one of developing human ingenuity, coming to answer the social and political problems that the industrial revolution, for all its material advances, helped to create?

As Tom Lombardo, Director of the Centre for Future Consciousness has been saying evolution itself is evolving. Now that we understand the power of story – soft power - we must become the active shapers of our evolution, in a way that benefits the whole of humanity. Can we reframe the 21C, not as the hapless result of the 20th C but as the glorious answer to it?

What would that mean for the Changing World Order discussed at Chatham House? Well, possibly that what occured with Trump and Brexit is only a symptom of a much bigger story of global development occurring. And that the view from the nation state – superpowers in particular – will be limited if it doesn’t pay careful and respectful attention to the liberated energies of the non-state actors who are beginning to manage themselves differently.

The early days of this shift are local and municipal – lower levels taking back control of resources (material and cultural) in the face of unsustainable national level policy. But the next stage development is transnational: witness the Mayors for Peace and ICAN, who may well succeed in making nuclear weapons illegal, simply by joining up the dots of like minded players on a global level.

While the phenomena of Trump and Brexit are still being discussed as “change" we must control, the real opportunity is to think about them as “development" we must must engage with. For that, watch this space.

This is an editorial from our Alternative Weekly Newsletter (sign up here, and previous newsletters here) which begins to pull together the many strands of socio-political change reported in our Daily Alternative blogs and give some shape to the emerging politics of the future.