Alternative Editorial: Beyond the Binaries

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

An Aymara man holding a Wiphala flag representing the people of the Andes

An Aymara man holding a Wiphala flag representing the people of the Andes

Night and day. Forward, back. Left, Right. To perceive the world as binary is the human condition. Maturity helps us grasp that what looks like oppositions, are in fact co-dependent sides of the one coin. You can’t have a back without a front. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

But when democracy is at issue, settling for a binary reality leads to division – two sides invested not only in their own success, but in the failure of the other. Our current political system, in which every seat is contested on a first past the post race, has resulted in a culture of competition. The Westminster Parliament feels like a football derby: when the other side gets the ball, their opponents’ fans create whatever havoc they can to get them to drop it.

Occupying this oppositional world is a hard habit to break. Just as it’s hard to imagine Summer when you are in the midst of Winter, few of us can imagine switching teams – or more than that, becoming a generic fan: someone who enjoys the game for its own sake. Instead we tell stories about the other side, imagining then to be deluded, lacking something so essential to human flourishing, that we feel free to disrespect them, hate them even.

The repeated attempts at post-partisan politics – from both sides of our political spectrum – have failed to ignite. Maybe because they appear as compromises: moving to the centre (and leaving the sides behind). Or triangulating – a move which leaves the leader dangerously exposed. And that failure leaves us with the tyranny of the 51% - across elections and referendums: a politics that settles for the unhappiness of the other half.

Behavioural scientists may leave you trapped in that dilemma, when they suggest that we can only find belonging through identifying a common enemy: tribalism can be deeply satisfying, offering meaning and purpose to people with difficult lives. Yet there have been bold moves outside of the political establishment to radically shift the numbers. Think of Occupy, who captured us with their evocation of the 99%: the people versus the elite. Yet nothing has yet taken hold, as a result of that thought experiment, which shifts the outcomes in election time.

Maybe we are complacent. After all, when the other side wins, life goes on and we live to fight another day - the good fight. But where it is a life and death matter – in the world of war and peace for example – human ingenuity comes more into play. Not simply the immense skills of conflict resolution – negotiated settlements between warring parties - but beyond that, the practice of conflict transformation has much to offer.

Pioneered by the ‘father of peace studies’ Johan Galtung, conflict transformation recognises that there are never two sides to an argument: there may be as many as twelve. Resolution built on compromise can never be enough, all parties have to buy into an entirely new idea of the future that leaves their conflict behind. For that, a trained facilitator must do the patient work of listening, understanding, empathising and then challenging each party to go beyond their current reality. Finding what is common in their visions and developing that together is what makes a future possible for all of them.

How to apply this to situations less urgent, less bloodstained? Even in our circumstances, conflict transformation would not be easy to do across a complex polity like the current UK - going on 66 million people, with already strong traditions of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and where borders are already porous and negotiated and London appears to operate outside of those boundaries altogether.

But it is possible in smaller units – local communities, municipalities, towns, cities. One might say that is what’s happening in places where people have turned away from the established parties (that only 2% of the population are members of) and started independent initiatives. 

When the Independents from Frome, for example, took over the local council, there were refugees from all the main parties working organically in the interest of the whole community. Does that mean that binaries disappear? Not likely - each meeting raises issues that have to be discussed. As the philosopher Chantal Mouffe says, agonism (the eternal struggle of viewpoints, accepted as necessary by both sides) is healthier than antagonism (where crushing your opponent is the highest value). But when the culture is one of transcending differences, rather than defeating each other in a zero sum game, it generates more buy-in from, and belonging for, the community.

Of course, this does not have to be a political initiative – it can be a community exercise with a variety of outcomes: local currencies, energy platforms, liquid democracy, cross-community arts projects. As we write, The Alternative UK is developing a laboratory process that generates these possibilities for communities of all sizes – watch this space.

Some of you reading will be thinking, that’s all very well at a local level, but how do you scale that up to a bigger level? The current Brexit crisis - with different areas, regions and even nations in the UK expressing differing majorities for Leave and Remain - presents an acute challenge, if we want to build communities with belonging, autonomy, meaning and purpose. 

Could the grass-roots appetite for hands-on democracy start to meet, and maybe even accelerate, the slow pace of British constitutional evolution? Might options like federalism, confederalism or maybe “plurinationalism” (a united nation of strongly self-identifying peoples, as in Bolivia) become less abstract, and begin to live and breath?

And our answer, readers, would be that this is the alternative to the current politics of division that we are now actively developing with the network of networks, largely outside the political bubble.

This coming week, local elections in Denmark will see our ‘mothership’ Alternativet, contest the story and culture of our evolving politics as we have tried to describe it here. Niko Grunfeld’s Mayoral manifesto for Copenhagen, which profoundly links the health of the people with the health of the planet is on trial. He takes - as his dual-mandate - to both ambitiously develop the best city in the world and the best city for the world. It’s a moment of political transcendence.

The Alternative is a global movement of politcal platforms that share that intention. Come join us.