Alternative Editorial: Shifting Control


By Indra Adnan

Since launching The Alternative UK political platform, we have been in the business of making constellations. By this we mean identifying the many networks of activity which would be essential to a new politics and bringing them into relationship with each other.

As described in last week’s editorial, a community constellation is not simply pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which somehow identify domains of interest and fit neatly into each others' contours. But it is a complex picture of different forms of agency - an action or intention producing an effect - that lie on a continuum of power. And it has to cohere somehow, if a community is going to reach everyone and also get the most out of the diversity available. From all this, social flourishing is the outcome we hope for.

The key is learning how to see those without means as the guardians of the knowledge  needed to transform society. They have the jewels of insight and experience – which is how and why our societies fail. If social actors of all kinds can’t get access to the experience of alienation, as it looks and feels to the marginalised, they won’t be able to offer something better. In tech terms, they don’t have the code. In human terms, they don’t yet have the common empathy, nor the culture of diversity.

Civil society actors who have been working on the front-lines of deprivation and service needs for years have the experience and skills of engagement. But they have rarely had the resources they need to bring the vulnerable into safe spaces where trust can be developed and relationships grow. They have rarely had the experience of seeing the effects of long term relational welfare sufficiently, to see what might happen next for people who reclaim their social lives.

So also in that space will be wise people who have spent decades developing an economic theory of change and the cultures which can support them. Many of these are people with a profound relationship with the land, such as those who lead the Co-operative movement, Transition towns and the Permaculture Association, who have both theory and practice on what would lead more directly to flourishing communties. But until now, little experience of power representative or legislative power.

In the midst of this, knowing how to bring the creatives – those with the confidence and skills for expression, imagining and transformation – into that same space is massively challenging. How can we ensure their imagination is not constrained by our collective experience of the past? What kind of facilitation is needed for them to feel free to offer what they can? What kind of hearing can be developed on all sides?

Then add to that, the futurists: those that know well what is coming down the line in terms of artificial intelligence, bio-engineering and quantum data crunching. How can they engage with those that fear their technology and distrust their power?

This is why Alternativet – and more recently, The Initiative sister party in Sweden described here in the New Yorker – relies heavily on skilled facilitators to run their political laboratories. Leading from the front usually means panels and speeches without any opportunity of quality response and experimentation with the majority of people present. This model misses the jewels and the synergies that would bring the room to life, making a different future for our societies percievable.

But why is this moment any different from previous moments? Why are we now seeing these constellations that many would say have always been there? Because for the past ten years we have been in a revolution of connectivity: the ability to both mobilise (get people behind a Big Idea) and organise people (help communities with their own ideas to become effective themselves) has increased exponentially. (For the distinction between mobilise and organise, see Dr Hahrie Han).

The evidence is everywhere, starting with the Arab Spring, through Occupy, and more recently Brexit and Trump. But there is also a teeming multitude of new localist and municipalist projects – we blog about them every day in the Daily Alternative. More people’s voices are being heard by more of us listening – both for the good and the bad of the whole of society.

These abundant forms of agency offer concrete new opportunities for shared control over governance and resources, at many levels below the national. The move into a massively more participative democracy that began with the Independents for Frome and captured in the toolbox known as Flatpack Democracy, is currently being experimented with by over 70 other town councils across the UK and Europe. People Powered Brum is taking that model into a major city council this May, offering to deploy techniques like Liquid Democracy and Citizens Assemblies to engage the greater numbers.

Such a fundamental shift of control across the UK - from a hierarchical, top down structure to a flatter more distributed, often localist structure - could go a number of ways. Smaller units of power could become more self-interested and begin to act in ways that benefit their immediate economic growth, but not the wider interest of the country or the planet. For example, liberating the use of fossil fuels (eg, by bidding for fracking contracts).

Or it could go the way of handing greater control to big business by means of quick-fire, emotionally driven referenda, such as described here in the New York Times. This approach plays heavily on the idea that people already know what they want and the revolution of technology is there to deliver on their desires.

This is irrespective of how much those desires have already been artificially created - whether by commerce and its advertising/marketing, or by political institutions that ask and frame the questions. However, to question the nature of that process is often described as accusing people of being stupid – not knowing what they want – and anti-democratic.

But it could also go the way of a more deliberative particpatory experience for everyone. We could acknowledge that those in full time jobs or demanding lives of care have never had the time or space to think much about the impact of policy, or the way we spend our local budgets or any amount of shared issues of concern or opportunity. Thus our priority would be for more space and time to come together.

In his recent report on Citizens Assemblies in Gdansk, Marcin Gerwin of Permaculture Global demostrated how, after being exposed to more information and the chance to discuss issues with well-facilitated groups, the majority of people taking part in the Assemblies, experience a change in their original opinions.

Of course, none of these participatory experiences take part in a context-free space: there are always assumptions about power and values framing the issues we discuss. Those who believe in trickle down economics, or the primacy of the market, will be less interested in fully participatory discussions for fear they would create resistance to a model that depends upon the central idea of people as working in order to consume product. Their preference would be for short, sharp, speedy engagements that only engage superficially.

But those who always had all the people in mind, were capable of seeing their complex needs and capabilities, who put their trust in co-operation and who see our shared resources as common – those consciously co-creating the Good Society - would probably put an emphasis on quality of engagement. Using the powers of art and creativity, that might still be speedy – or not –  but definitely enjoyable, because having a good experience is part of it. But it will always be ambitious about engaging people deeply, moving them to think in ways they haven’t thought before. With a view to shaping a future we can all look forward to.

Ctrl-Shift, a three-day gathering in Wigan on 27-29th March in which The Alternative UK is a partner, will be exactly that. It will bring together people from national, regional and grassroots organisations who can see the urgency of the moment we are in – who can see the need to actively shape the polity that is now beginning to participate, and are looking for their autonomy. Not in what appears as a politically neutral, fear driven, simple majorities way, but in a deliberative, relationship-defined, human-potential way. Identifying and making best use of the tools, practices and tech now developing.

Our ambitions are sky high: to tell new stories of shared agency, paint new pictures of thriving communities and begin to create new structures for taking efective action accross the UK that anyone can enter into, regardless of their political history. If you identify with this urgent need, but may never have seen yourself as part of a bigger movement now coming together until now,  come along, Be part of this increasingly diverse, emerging constellation of committed actors. It’s going to be good.