Alternative Editorial: WOKE

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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.

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

One day, hundreds of years into the future, our ancestors will look back in wonder. How is it that only 1% of the people had all the wealth and 99% felt they were powerless to do anything about it? How come only 3% of people were members of political parties, making all the political weather, and the 97% let them run the show?  

How come the majority of people worked eight hours a day, for barely enough money to look after their families – accepting the conventional wisdom that economies can only offer them such narrow options. Why did those with money spend so much of it buying things they didn’t need to impress people they didn’t like? How did they put up with a media that almost exclusively ran bad news stories – collected from all over the world - keeping them in a state of constant anxiety and thereby in thrall to those in authority?

Were they all asleep, asks our future citizen? What could possibly have put them in such a trance-like state, that – like the grown-up elephant still imagining himself restrained by the sapling it was tethered to as a baby – they could only keep behaving as if they had no strength or power to get their real needs met.

Of course, there are instant political and cultural responses available and each will be well founded non-sequiturs. Whether we are looking at the role of capitalism, class and hierarchy from the Left, or the constraints on markets, loss of order and state dependency from the Right – neither have found a way out of the anomalies to deliver flourishing societies. They remain trapped by each other – unable to see their common humanity and hence actively invested in each other’s failure. It’s a way of being together that leaves us all vulnerable to elites, single-mindedly profiting from our confusion. Inequalities persist, the planet burns.

By contrast what does it mean to be awake – not just individually, but collectively too? Is it the same as woke – a term adopted by Black Lives Matter from the long tradition of  ‘staying woke’ to social and political constructs that led, and continues to lead, to black oppression?  Yes, in as much that BLM describe themselves as ‘woke’ – because they are no longer in thrall to the social and political narratives that oblige them to be patient around the gradual development of social justice for all. The problem, BLM says, cannot be answered with a theory of change, but by how we are perceiving black people in the present moment. Are they due the full weight of our service and protection? Are we able to respond to need directly, without hiding behind the walls of bigger-picture analysis? How many of us for example, scowl at someone who offers a poem in exchange for help to get a bed for the night?  Inwardly accusing them of being 'part of the problem' instead of offering some change?

As movement’s co-founder, Opal Tometi described in The Atlantic “I think the two-party system isn’t working for us. And it hasn’t worked for us for generations—let’s be very, very honest about that…The tolerance of shallow understanding from people of good will, the awaiting of a more convenient season, the acceptance of order at the expense of justice—Black Lives Matter has run out of patience with all of that”.

Is it cultural appropriation to use this term more widely? Or might we be paying homage if we adopt it to address how more of us can shift into what we might call the radical present. It’s not easy to do. If we believe nothing can change until our kind of government delivers the conditions – especially economic – for us to be equal, then equality depends upon something external to us. If we believe that we can’t take back our confused minds until Rupert Murdoch stops misbehaving, then our well-being depends upon something we cannot control. And yet, increasingly, there are examples of people and communities who are not waiting.

Pam Barrett, Mayor of Buckfastleigh (to mention only one of her many positions of responsibility) shared a ‘woke’ moment with us recently. Having taken back control of her own council in ‘Flatpack Democracy’ style she regularly encourages others to do something similar. But when they are faced with the local council rulebook, regular citizens baulk: how can we possibly understand all these principles of order and bureaucratic structures? Do what I did, says Pam: cross them out and start again. If a local council is run on practices that exclude the majority of its citizens from taking part, re-design one that is.

Woke does not mean ignoring history – there are profound lessons to be learnt. But it does mean not being bound by history: to be awake means to be free to act with agency as a human being. Again, this is not easy to do and it is worth asking ourselves why – not only collectively, but personally too. When confronted with evidence about the relationship between eating meat and climate change, for example, why do we continue to eat meat and blame Donald Trump for endangering our planet?

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that in this early part of the 21st Century, we are all, relatively traumatised by a 20th Century defined by hard power: competition for dominance or just survival that was expressed through force – guns and money. While trauma is not a word that relatively privileged people would choose, those without privilege would recognise it easily: that level of deprivation that freezes the mind, making it incapable of imagination, robbing people of their will power.

Neurology supports this ‘feeling’: when we are consumed with survival, we actively stop ourselves from dreaming of alternatives - it’s too much to handle. We only think of material needs and ward off anything beyond that as irrelevant. But even people who are not in the extremes of poverty are inured to taking action because they are trapped by consumerism and other addictions that keep them installed on the hamster wheel of a global economic system that is slowly destroying us.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see neoliberalism as a deliberate, orchestrated system of disconnection that immobilises individual agency while empowering an elite. The notion that we cannot have control over outcomes for our communities, because the global economy is best served by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, is at the core of a political philosophy that separates citizens from their own power. A culture of measuring value according to economic criteria only, robs us of assigning value to those things that help us get our emotional needs met: relationship, care, belonging. Which is why, even relatively prosperous societies still suffer from epidemics of depression, addiction and crime.

Media barons that are prepared to frame all news as catastrophic or threatening, because that prompts people to buy their products, are hugely complicit in our powerlessness. But even those amongst us who know that, remain in thrall to their agendas. We say it often here: it’s like trying to lift a table while you are standing on it.

When The Alternative UK aspires to ‘woke’ it means understanding that ‘taking back control’ of global outcomes starts with taking back control of our own minds. That with control over our own thinking – reclaiming our common need for individual autonomy – we are more capable of working with others. When we work with others to achieve our common purpose of a warm, supportive community in which we can experience belonging, we are also in a better position to connect with other communities doing the same – even in the face of a national politics that might be telling us that is irrelevant in the face of corporate globalisation.

Those of us with deep inner resources – brought about either by a caring environment or years of mindful practice - can do that today. And they can also help others to do the same by creative, imaginative - playful - means. Not entertainment, but activities that reach past the natural defence mechanisms that prompt our brains - designed to defend our integrity - ensure we survive in any condition. Knowing that we can do that, and acting with that certainty, is the difference between asleep and awake.

If politics is broken, The Alternative is woke.