Alternative Editorial: We Always Knew This
By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK
As we are approaching the first anniversary of The Alternative UK, we feel much stronger and clearer about the task at hand. And it is both much more complex and also much simpler than we could have imagined a year ago. It’s complex because politics - as it is currently narrated by parties in competition with each other - has misrepresented (or to be more generous, not been able to fully represent) what we, ourselves, understand as human and social.
In many ways, the problem is captured Maslow’s theory of human needs that posits material and physical needs as elemental, and social and spiritual needs as developmental – as if there is a hierarchy, the former needed before the latter can proceed. Instead, as Professor Pamela Rutledge simply explains here, the needs are co-existent: you can’t get one met without the other - unless you are completely dependent upon the state.
For example, we won’t be able to provide for ourselves materially, if we don't have status, experience, some measure of confidence and connection to operate effectively in the work market. Also: belonging is not less important than security, it is often the route to security. Similarly, if we ignore the need for autonomy as we focus on feeding the body, we risk depression and addiction.
This separation of physical and emotional needs has led to a vulnerable polity: one that is seized by the conversation about money and jobs, and then targeted emotionally by a consumerist society. We are told everything is about survival and security. But we find ourselves the creatures of an economy whose growth depends upon our addiction to products that superficially meet less articulated but consistent needs - for status, meaning and purpose.
We cannot imagine stepping out of this trap, because we hardly know we are in it. We even like it - because even though we are in thrall to these things, they also satisfy our emotional needs. It's very difficult to imagine we can get those needs met in more balanced, far more exciting and meaningful ways than shopping.
Meantime, this growth economy is destroying itself, because the same ignorance at the heart of consumerism is also destroying the planet – namely the interconnectedness of complex human beings with the complex natural environmnent. A great example of that is eating meat – the consumption of which is still rising year on year. It usually requires us to ignore our own loss of integrity around respect for sentient beings, supporting an industry that is without question destroying the planet. Look away from the slaughterhouses, we are told, or we risk subverting growth!
What is new about this moment is that the generation that benefited from all this blindness – baby boomers, living off the profits of the old model - are increasingly aware of their folly. More importantly, they have given birth to the better-informed millennials, who came after the growth boom. And partly because these millennials are unable to profit so easily, they are less enthralled. They also have tools which can both share information, letting more wisdom flow in the public space, and help them organise themselves around this content.
Lately, the growing evidence of planetary harm is interrupting our daily lives, causing anxiety as well as protest and activism. To address the sustainability of the human race on this planet, we have to become more aware of what we buy and why we buy it. We must see how consumerism hijacks our emotional needs and makes us slaves to the growth rationale when we might be doing more to save the planet. This feels like massively added complexity to our already stressed lives.
Alternatively, we might say it brings much-needed simplicity. We could recognise these new representations of ourselves as people with emotional as well as physical needs, naturally connected to our communities and the planet, as something we always already knew about ourselves, deep down. This becomes closer to a moment of liberation – a sort of awakening from the trance.
This feeling of returning to ourselves is the basis of a new politics. It is championed in all the networks we are participating in and stitching together. It starts with knowing and understanding the self as the first step in understanding your community. The individual is not the enemy of the collective, as is often suggested in current political rhetoric (unless it is narcissistic).
Instead, noticing how we ourselves are driven by emotional as well as physical needs, is to understand how others might be too – the first step to being interested in society as a whole. The second step is to understand further how much our well-being is shaped by our friends and networks, with which we share values and goals.
But to develop that understanding and act upon it meaningfully, we need time to think and space to act co-operatively. Two demands that rarely make the political agenda.
The need for belonging – so well articulated by George Monbiot in all his recent writings– flies right in the face of current party politics, which is built on division. No matter who you vote for, it is pitched as being against the other side. And that other side is in your community, in real time. Going beyond the political divide is vital for communities to start meeting the emotional needs – and imaginative potential - of the people who live there. A people’s politics that is not reductive (or "populist"), but rich, imaginative, ambitious, deliberative.
Conversely, not understanding this has led to policies and structures that frustrate the drives and motivations of people and of the broader society. Instead of a narrative of individual and social flourishing, it’s a perpetual story of casualties, and wasted talent.
Is it time to make a clear distinction between national political cultures and structures and community ones – recognising that they might need to operate quite differently to be effective? The rise of municipalism and localism appears as a threat to national levels of governance. But might all these levels need to accommodate each other better, in a naturally arising federalism, or confederalism even? There’s much to learn from Scotland in this regard.
More personal, social and global opportunites lie ahead - we must shift our thinking radically in the face of a technologically-enabled future. More robots taking over jobs that treated us human robotically anyway; more AI to crunch the massive amounts of data we can now collect; more science to move us away from disease and ageing. In only our first year of operation, alternative futures have become quite clear to us. And it’s more human, not less.
Here is the new, network-driven logic. People understanding their own emotional as well as physical needs, working together with others in geographical but also virtual community networks that help them get those needs met.
Connected to towns and cities, defying the divisive nature of old politics to come together, through projects and assemblies, to make decisions about how to allocate their shared resources. And doing so in the interests of both themselves and the planet that supports their existence.
Connected to networks of such local, municipal, regional units aligning themselves nationally and globally through shared values and practices. Those networks becoming populated enough to begin to influence and eventually shape the behaviour of business and politics at a multi-national level.
In this way, the health of the individual is directly connected to the health of society and onwards to the health of the planet. I, We, World: an always-present Alternative.