Alternative Editorial: No Longer In Thrall

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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

It’s an increasingly rare event, but I was sitting watching Newsnight yesterday with my family last night. We had turned on to observe Emily Maitlis discuss Matthew Wright’s interview with Nigel Farage who appeared to be calling for a second referendum on membership of the European Union. What a clown we thought -  a clever clown, though.

Next Emily turned to interview Michael Wolff, whose book detailing his observations of the early days of the Trump Presidency have entertained us for a week now. How can the President of the most powerful country in the world survive such a sustained and pitiless revelation of his childishness and incompetence? He probably will, though.

At some point I stood up: tired of sitting in thrall to a television beaming observations on the world of power. I had other stuff to do (like you, dear reader). Other worlds to attend to.

The age of populism is upon us. Power accrues to those who capture the zeitgeist – the common feeling. Our media bends to entertain us, while we observe our politicians surf the waves of crowd-sourced emotion - themselves framed and manipulated by marketing maestros, who know how to arouse the public. One moment we are offered outrage; the next, hope.

It’s a circus and we know it: but is it wrong? Only if we continue to be in thrall, hoping against hope that someone will come along and be the adult in the White House again so that we can all be safe. Only if we refuse this moment to radically re-organise ourselves and our societies, away from the spectacle of elites. 

Like adolescents moving into a state of responsibility, we can build a future that better suits this age of distributed knowledge, increased mobilisation and psycho-social awareness.

This revolution began some time ago, some say with the availability of the internet, others with the liberalisation of the 60s. Historians are wont to say that revolutions come in waves – the birth of agriculture, of industrialisation and now mass connectivity. 

We can study the patterns through whatever prism we choose – free MIT on-line courses or spiritual teachers. But let’s not hide from it. We are in a transition from one way of being together on this planet, to quite another one. And we need a new idea of politics – defined by the dictionary as governance – to get the best out of it for humanity and the planet we live on.

Some reading this will say it’s a fuzzy call, pure idealism - as if we could come together for the common good. And let’s confess, it was once. John and Yoko singing All You Need is Love was more about yearning and righteousness than analysis and strategy. In the public sphere, Lennon’s brutal demise put an end to the dream quality of what was nevertheless a vital call for change. 

Now, looking back, John Lennon’s life heralded much needed progress on equality and human rights - a progress that continued in his wake. We have a far richer panoply of diverse possibilities jostling for position today than even he “imagined”.

To some this looks like chaos. And with a media whose business model is to dramatise daily changes, development looks like danger – the imminent loss of your secure and settled state. But with a different perspective, development is advancement. It’s the outcome of collective intelligence - operating at levels we can’t always control but should engage with actively, to bend it towards progress.

The Chrysalis and the Interregnum

Let’s go back to that well-used metaphor, the transition of the caterpillar into the butterfly. The chrysalis stage (what Antonio Gramsci might have called “the interregnum”) is the most intriguing. When the many-legged insect has exhausted itself and gone into a deep sleep, it gives way to what biologists have creatively named the “imaginal” cells - tiny blueprints of what is to come.

Interestingly – particularly for all those enemies of post-modernism and radical pluralism – these early, few cells are initially attacked by the immune system of the chrysalis. It sees them as a threat to the memory of the caterpillar they were built to protect. The task inside the chrysalis is for the imaginal cells to bind together and create a viable prototype of the butterfly they contain within and between them, each a part of the butterfly straining to emerge. 

As the old structure breaks down it looks like mush – the chaos we seem to be witnessing in our public space right now. But if you know the pattern, you can spot the new taking shape.

Hold onto that idea of the butterfly – or more accurately, the estimated 20,000 species of butterflies in the world - each one itself a riot of colour and detail. And new species of butterflies are constantly born (one in Russiaone in Israel last year). Chaos, in a nurturing environment, leads not to madness, but explosions of robust new forms, each of them stable. In the case of butterflies, they go from creeping and crawling creatures to works of art, free to fly where they choose.

While we often evoke this process with awe, it is not magical, it is biological. Under a microscope, each step can be identified as a natural strategy for life’s unfolding. It’s not woolly, wishful thinking, it’s science.

Armed with that metaphor, how do we encourage the shift from social confusion to beautiful social forms?

Observing the chrysalis that is our global society, there is much activity which we try to capture in our Daily Alternative. The old carapace – which we might identify as the White House – is almost unrecognisable, except as a symbol of the chaos it has engendered. Its authority is disappearing fast.

New, far more autonomous entities are appearing, what political theory calls non-state actors. These are movements, medias, memes that re-shape our idea of the public space in ways previously unimaginable, for good and bad.

But to bind and integrate these often intangible influences, we need sustainable, resilient yet fluid units of operation. Less overbearing superpowers (or even large nations) which have no possibility of meaningful connection to the citizens. And more small nations, or more regions, cities, towns, even villages, where communities can experience autonomy while still feeling the relationship and belonging that is essential to human flourishing.

These communities, whilst connecting internally, also have to network with other communities actively. They must resist the pull-back to the hierarchical structures of the past, inventing new forms of governance to service the future they are collectively imagining. 

These governors themselves have to shift - as Hardt and Negri recently described in Assembly (here & here) - from a strategic to a tactical role. Their job isn’t to create grand visions and impose them on footsoldiers - but to harness and distribute resources to the burgeoning creative forces, now arising at ground level.

No doubt some of you reading are still thinking, “this is all too flowery for me”. In particular, those of you used to power, who occupy structures with clear lines of measured responsibility.

But others are already on this flight of imagination with us: feeling their way into the future and devising the new forms, structures, practices and cultures that support its viability. 

Still others are simply curious, arriving at The Alternative’s laboratories ready to meet the others and begin to play – something we’ve done since infants, as a means of making sense of our environment and gaining agency. Join us if you like: it’s fun and there’s beauty on offer.

As we switched off Newsnight another meme popped into our news-stream: Oprah Winfrey for President! Imagine that – from one mega-wealthy serial entrepreneur to another, although this one female, black and fluent emotionally and spiritually. That could be a lot more fun to watch.

Even so, we switched that off too. And got back to work.