Alternative Editorial: Notice the Future

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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 the beginning of another year and that familiar mix of great intentions coupled with sluggish capacity. Not just individuals fulfilling their New Year resolution by turning up at the gym, yet querulous about signing a long-term contract. But any bold initiative that ended the year with a summary of its achievements and plan for growth in 2018, now feeling slightly daunted by the gradient of the mountain ahead.

Winter offers the metaphor of hibernation – when the body conserves energy but also incubates a healthy future. But at the moment it feels more like the escapism of sleep, as each day the reports of continuing degradation, violence and corruption continue unabated.

Progressive politicians often quote Antonio Gramsci’s description of this time as the interregnum - that sustained crisis when the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

While it’s comforting that the longest day of the year has already passed and that we are, in a physical sense, already heading for Spring, we cannot bank on that same certainty when we think about the multiple crises that we face together. We may well pick up our energy in the second and third weeks of January, but simply moving faster does not amount to what we are all calling for – a deeper, more radical shift to a new future.

Systems change: easy to evoke, but difficult to enact. Thanks to Einstein, we are familiar with the notion that we can’t get new outcomes with old thinking – but where does the new thinking come from? When we ourselves are embedded in a system – whether that be ‘socio-economic’ neoliberalism, a ‘cultural’ hierarchy or a ‘personal’ family system – thinking afresh is like trying to lift a table while you are standing on it. You keep bumping into the self that was fashioned by this system. 

In a paper written for London Funders, Rachel Wharton (Researcher, New Philanthropy Capital) and Alice Evans (Director – Systems Change, Lankelly Chase Foundation) say:

“Systems change is about addressing the root causes of social problems, which are often intractable and embedded in networks of cause and effect. It is an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that cause the system to behave in a certain way.”

However, the way we assess root causes can also be part of our existing system: to move away from a Marxist analysis for example, would appear as a betrayal to activists on the Left. The same could be said for equivalents on the Right and even the Third Way. Ideology itself implies systems thinking that is long term: we train ourselves to resist fundamental challenges, readying ourselves year after year for one more heave to get our formula for change over the line. 

But even as we have our ideal socio-economic systems in mind, we are trying to emerge them within socio-political systems that belong to the past. Dependent on behaviours we have long called out as insufficient. A first past the post system that makes most votes redundant. And a binary divide – Left v Right – which obliges one side to shout constantly at the other, each fully invested in the other’s failure. As another year begins, we have to ask ourselves, can I go on upholding this system, or must I look for a genuine alternative?

Nature offers some useful clues. The animal that wakes up in warmer weather is not the same as the one that went to sleep in the cold. Due to cell growth and neurological responses – our mammalian capacities - it is bigger, leaner, but also more capable of living in its environment than before. Getting used to the new self it adapts quickly to equivalent changes in the weather, food resources and landscape. Everything has developed: what was once a sapling with tasty leaves, is now a tree to shelter under. In corners all over the globe, caterpillars wake up as a butterflies.

Maybe systems change is not a managerial task – one of identifying the problem and dictating the solution. Maybe systems change arrives through development – within our bodies but also, adaptively, through our social behaviours and relationships. If that is so, the most important qualities are to be able to notice change when it happens and have the courage - and maybe humour - to remain fluid and adaptive to what becomes possible for the first time. 

There’s plenty of evidence that we are living in transformational times. Once we were adapted to hierarchies – everyone acknowledged their place in a largely deferential society. In the early days of an industrial society, we believed in the scarcity of knowledge and resources. Growing self and social knowledge led to adaptations – universal suffrage and human rights. Today we live in the certainty of abundance – both of resources (though badly managed) and information. We are equipped to operate in much flatter networks of distributed responsibility, both locally and globally. Yet we still act as if we are waiting for permission to be autonomous: the 99% rails at the 1% believing itself to be powerless. Like a butterfly crawling along the floor.

In their 2010 book The Female Vision, Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson talk about ‘Women’s Real Power” which is the ability to notice stuff that men don’t. They give evidence of women changing the course of an enterprise because they could read the emotional state, motivations and psychological dynamics of clients better than their male counterparts.

Similar developments have happened elsewhere: when Buurtzorg switched from an automated care system built for efficiency (think clocking in and out with minutes allocated to each task) to one that relied on the nurses noticing what the patients state was, and allocating time appropriately, there were far fewer incidents of accident, depression and suicide. (And far less waste of resources).

Maybe the social development of women, acting more outside the home and in the public space is the system change we have been waiting for: adding more emotional and psychological intelligence to the public space. It’s a change that has happened in fits and starts and has not yet reached our political system where women are still obliged to take on the behaviours of men to drip feed their way into parliament.

Does this mean that we can sit back and let nature take its course and soon we will all be flying around in full winged spleandour? Clearly not: some species of butterfly have not thrived at all and as humans we are perfectly capable of messing up. But noticing the socio-political developments that are on offer and creating the conditions in which the best of them can flourish is a practice we could all take up this year. For that, support your Daily Alternative.