Alternative Editorial: Complex systems rely on diversity


By Indra Adnan

Diversity: what do we do with it? For once, let’s not limit that discussion to ethnic or gender diversity, but to the bigger issue of all that makes us distinctive, whether personally, tribally or even systemically. 

When you’ve called your new political platform The Alternative UK, you invite every person and project who feels outside of the mainstream of political life, to connect with you. The Daily Alternative is testament – a tribute if you like – to the wealth of ideas, ways of working and good energy available for taking us forward, wherever forward is.

But each of these projects were born when someone saw a gap in what was on offer to effect the change they wished to see. Whether they felt a lack of organisation around services as civil society groups do. Or a lack of voice for the 99% as Occupy do. Or a lack of governance around power and resources as the plethora of non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) that address socio-political issues do. All believe they are working for the betterment of society and the people, but none of them work together because their perspective on the problem and the consequent ways of working are so, well, diverse.

A useful way of looking at the diversity that might promote more empathy and reciprocity, less competition, would be to look at each of these as having a different relationship to power and, as a corollary, a different sense of agency. But there is a stalemate because each needs the co-operation of the other to make broader change happen. For example, those in Occupy might see themselves as relatively powerless in the face of elites. Those working in civil society see themselves as facilitators, giving others access to power – mostly in the form of services but also other kinds of support networks. Meantime, NGO’s are more adjacent to power: although unelected, they choose areas of responsibility within which they can serve those who must be accountable to the electorate. Together they contribute to an ecology of power. 

In each of these sectors – and there are infinitely more - the common experience of the participants has led to ways of working and being together that helps them to answer their emotional needs and build trust within their group. That information is key information for the others – gold dust in terms of designing successful programmes for development, starting at any of these points. 

Yet that information-sharing does not happen easily. Instead, each of these groups tends to caricature the others as embodying the very qualities that describe the limits of their power – a practice which, in psychology is called projection. Hence those who feel vulnerable, see those with confidence as aggressive; those who organise, see lack of control as chaos; those who have power, see those without the means to act as lazy. Of course, with the intention of discerning a pattern here, such a list will be overly simplistic: but I hope the notion that there is a set of dynamics to be understood and managed can be allowed to stand.

In our democracy, ignorance of these differences and how they manifest in behaviour and responsibility – ability to respond – is robbing us of our collective wisdom. Most of us perceive reality as a zero-sum game in which our own particular experience of power must be accepted as the reality. If it isn't, we will either be taken advantage of, or frustrated in our attempts to do what we believe is the most important thing for the whole. 

So when Tony Blair identified communitarianism as the next Big Idea, or David Cameron invented the Big Society, neither were able to see that being community oriented, or relying on family and friend networks, was something that already existed - albeit in a fragile state. Instead of enhancing these bonds, bringing resources to much needed support structures, they insisted on re-inventing them in the image of their own power-driven vision. Hence, some vital charities lost money while buzzy, new agencies, led by young entrepreneurs were set up in their place. Because they lacked the insider knowledge of community life – what specific and vulnerable people actually need - these new constructs died a quick death and much money was wasted.

It’s not until we can perceive the whole of our society as a complex system - one that relies upon diversities of agency to be able to reach out and touch every member of the community - that we can begin to get somewhere new. To bring our society to life, there has to be the capacity to grasp power as an ecology - that is, as diverse forms of agency that can live alongside each other, with a mutual interest in empowering the whole.

The first time I met the Danish Party Alternativet, it was in the form of two members of the party who were visiting Frome to help the Independent politicians there develop. Brian Frandsen and Helle Engelbrechtsen (now a political consultancy) were a sort of odd couple – one a young, gay male artist, the other an older, female, business consultant – who taught empathy through role playing. One particularly tricky game was to act out the needs of politicians, activists and community members. In what is usually seen as a hierarchy of power, we each had to be generous to the other, helping them get their needs met. Playing the game of occupying each other’s experience of power was enlightening and liberating: each position had its limitations. 

The cost of not being able to do this is high. Rather than finding a greater understanding of where the Industrial Revolution left us as a society and how we can begin to develop together, we are only being polarised further by those that stand to gain from it. Trump and Farage – and big business before them – understand, better than most, the emotional drives of the disadvantaged. Their desire for more control over their own lives was translated into rejection of experts and ‘the other’, usually of diverse ethnic origins. Rather than transform the voters' fears, Trump and Farage deepened them and in so doing, were able to set themselves up as their protectors. For no obvious gain so far.

In our Alternative Laboratories we are deliberately looking for the diversity of different agencies - but we won’t take them lightly. Using the skills of artists and facilitators we will work hard on softening the boundaries between people while honouring their differences (see the amazing exercise in TV2's All That We Share video). Because any new politics relies on a greater understanding of vulnerability as both a strength and a weakness (for which see the work of Brene Brown and Ronan Harrington) we will encourage openness, courage, generosity – and everything done with humour. 

Unless the current political establishment are willing to dive deeper into the experience of those without power – seeing them as equal human beings with immense capacities and gifts - their politics will continue to be subverted by the Trumps and Farages of this world. Or to put it more crudely, the pitchforks are coming.

Now, without question, it is difficult to ask those without material advantage to reciprocate: the cultural and structural inequality that comes with material deprivation is not easy to put aside. (The exception is maybe in spiritual environments, such as a Church or Buddhist Sangha, where poverty is honoured as a route to wisdom and nobility. Let’s not dismiss that altogether: it’s a factor in the ecology).

But unless some of those who act for the disadvantaged can look at people with more agency – whether they be creatives or business owners – as potential partners in the struggle to re-imagine society, they will not be able to emerge the real potential of the whole. We cannot remain forever defined as the haves and have-nots on material indices only: we have to be able to firstly acknowledge our deeper equality, treasuring the life experience each of us bring as gifts to the table.  

Those who have experienced those moments of mutual inclusion – each side seeing each other for the true wealth they bring for the first time – it’s like a chemical reaction in a crucible. Suddenly something very new becomes possible for the first time.