Alternative Editorial: Birthing a New Politics

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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

With new political movements, a lot of effort is put into "on-boarding" – getting people to sign up and boost numbers en masse. Occasionally this is done more to impress observers than to actively engage with the new people arriving: the clue usually lies in the quality of the questions you have to answer to gain membership.

If we want to aspire to the promise of democracy – people power – there has to be a qualitiative shift in the levels of engagement initiators aspire to with their members.

As on-line petitioners Avaaz (with 46 million members) would attest, numbers alone do not transform the power of elites. As Leeds United Football Club has been forced to acknowledge - when 51,000 fans signed an online petition to ditch the "awful, horrendous, shocking" new club crest  - focus groups alone do not add up to consultation. As the Brexit referendum increasingly demonstrates, just ticking boxes will not give us the agency we need.

There really is no real democracy without conscious participation of the people – a taking-ownership of the culture and fate of your community, whether local or global. For any kind of shift to occur in the balance of power between elites and the rest, each of us have to find our unique place in the political ecology.

More easily said than done. Under the present circumstances, and for multiple reasons described Is The Party Over? joining a political party is not an attractive proposition:  non-participative meetings, overly jargonistic communications and almost zero agency for policy making are cited.  Which goes some way to explain the low sign-up (2 – 4% across Europe)

As chronicled in the Daily Alternative, there is a plethora of options for activism of all kinds. From food and energy initiatives to non-party political interventions in housing, schooling, banking – all of which would add up to a more democratic culture. But while each project might attract thousands of subscribers, very few of those attracted to the projects are inclined, or free, to be operational.

The current division of our time into Work and Life, gives most of our high energy to the former. Care, friends, hobbies, further education somehow have to share the sleepier margins: before signing on in the morning (whether at home or away) and before bed at night. When given the chance to change that balance – more flexible hours, shorter working weeks – more want it than not. But few are able to, within the span of their own jobs and private budgets.

Yet even those who have the luxury of a bit more time, prefer to spend it on private pursuits than public ones.  How can we re-invent doing democracy as a leisure pursuit? Not to be taken any less seriously, but as a fulfilling, enriching activity of choice? The thing we manage to make time for in the face of more social media or tv? A challenge that stretches us to our limits, drawing on our imagination and creativity. The starting point for meaning and purpose in our lives – maybe some sense of belonging too. A place of learning – as much about others as ourselves. Serious play.

Not always agreeing - but finding the democratic self that can cope with conflict without it escalating into violence.

Our parent political platform (and party) in Denmark gave us six values to base every event on – Humour, Transparency, Generosity, Empathy, Courage, Humility. It's a great framework. In that space, the culture of 20th century, post-industrial, representative, first past the post, party-defined Old Politics finds it hard to thrive. Participants feel more like the selves that left the house that morning, less like servants to a distant machine.

In the laboratories, a new culture is born. First by helping participants see themselves as constitutive members of society – with emotions, desires, predilections and histories. And secondly by facilitating them to meet the others – look each other in the eye, hear each others’ stories, share a laugh. In particular, those used to influence, must see those who have not participated before. The old must see the young and vice versa.

Then the challenges to individual and collective creativity begin. What do we love about our community that we can grow and extend? What are the problems, large and small, that we can find new solutions to within the community? Who are the people who really need watching out for and who are the people who can do that? How do we shift the dependency on old party politics and take at least some measure of control over our own health, security and certainly well being? The promise of autonomy is often what makes people come alive.

To some extent, this may be familiar – particularly if you belong to Transition Towns, or the Permaculture Association: these are human-centred networks for change. No more smoke-filled rooms or rows of chairs looking at the front: here are models for what many people call conscious politics.

Yet it’s hard to free oneself from the constraints on power we have always experienced. While the logic of the 98% - those outside of the party-political bubble – would suggest that it is up to local communities to set their own rules and style of behaviour, the reality is that the narratives of powerlessness pervade.

How can we quickly find better stories? Using the arts, sometimes science fiction, we can project ourselves into the future - and chart what we can see coming that would change our social, culture and political experience beyond recognition. What might our societies look like when automation has relieved us of the most mechanical and routinised jobs and we have time on our hands? What role could AI, 3D printers and biological enhancement play to help us reach our human potential?

How might basic income, citizens assemblies, liquid democracy, artivism energise the role of citizens? How can the new capabilities of the millennials (and younger) transform the space for action?

It’s often at that point that participants in these imaginative exercises feel overtly political – as if they see something they would willingly engage with, would want to be consulted on. They want to safeguard the real possibilities for a thrilling kind of good. Both hopes and fears are expressed:  in our laboratories they might be written on tablecloths, acted out in theatre pieces, rehearsed in mock cabinets. But also thrashed out as ideas that can be played with and met by forging new political structures and policies.

This visceral experience of a new way to be political in daily life, is often enough to waken participants to the possibilities of the present moment. From there, taking back control of the local council, setting up a community currency, reclaiming local landmarks for arts and homes no longer seems something that other people do. It's as if the realisation that the personal IS the political - and vice-versa - can never be forgotten again.