Alternative Editorial: Our ideological echo chambers

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Between Paris and Wigan, I have been considering this question: how do civil society organisations (CSOs) affect people on the ground, in their homes and communities?

A civil society organisation is a wider category than a non-governmental organisation (or NGO). As the UN suggests, CSOs are “all non-market and non-state groups who organize themselves to pursue shared interests in the public domain”.

A wide field, and one which was explored at the annual meeting of the Smart Civil Society Organisations (SCSO) in Paris last week – and which we’ll take on at the Ctrl-Shift conference in Wigan this week.

There’s been much thinking about systems, and many concrete conclusions, arising between these two events. But I’m approaching it all with a political mind-set – seeking to assess their impact on the democratic deficit and real living conditions.

The Paris event was entitled “Agora for the Great Transition: Systemic Activism in a Polarised World” (agora meaning the Greek classic definition of a public space). 

An excellent paper summarising their research over the last year was provided. But a striking graphic on two axes started us off – see below - on which we were invited to situate ourselves, by placing our own photo on it:

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Putting your face on a diagram was challenging, hubristic. Am I able to put myself on the line as ‘knowing’ what has to be done? Am I willing to be shot down for that? Anticipating hesitation, we were assured we could move our faces at the end of the event – but we should take part in the experiment.

Overall, the Agora was a three-day roller coaster. Here’s the journey (which withholds all names, under Chatham House rules).

We were treated to a number of provocative new perspectives. The first, from evolutionary biology, looked at whether we are evolving towards the capacities we need for an abundant and fair future - or not. There were many mind-boggling pieces of information that suggested we were far from it.

For example, the over-production of food continues unabated in the global North - while hunger and famine remain in crisis in the global South. Our inability as a species to collaborate and co-ordinate for the flourishing of the planet was presented as crippling. Someone half-seriously called for the threat of Martian invasion to bring us together.

History was echoing right outside our playspace. The news feeds were reporting that President Trump had just appointed the most hawkish National Security Adviser, John Bolton to his administration. Was Trump about to go to war in an effort to unite Americans behind his chaotic Presidency?

Some of the most experienced and thoughtful participants you could hope for were participating here - leaders of economic think tanks, experts on evolutionary biology, long-term funders of global activism. Yet some of the most challenging contributions came from the youngest and least experienced amongst us

One young woman asked whether or not we had the right people in the room to even begin to assess the limitations of our current systems? This will be familiar to those who have studied the issues of power and privilege in mainstream institutions.

While she focused specifically on whether the white and male architects of the current system, which in her analysis had resulted in such damage across the globe, should continue to steer the ship, there were other calls in the room that went beyond that.

Can members of any elite – which would include all of us in the room – possibly see what needed to be done when we don’t have access to the vital information we need? Namely what capabilities, not simply needs, are available in those places suffering most from the effects of economic and cultural globalisation.

Some of you reading might already be rolling your eyes: how often have one of your meetings been disrupted by activists telling you that you have no right to hold this meeting without including representatives of the people who are most affected by your actions? And the cry comes back – “but if we don’t act ourselves, optimising all of our privilege, who will?”

So, are we locked in a stalemate that proves the perspective of the evolutionary biologists – that, for lack of collaborative capacities, we will end up defeating ourselves?

Or maybe we are genuinely in a moment of change. What could be more uncomfortable than the backlash from the liberal establishment (led by Jordan Peterson ) which appears to block young people’s idealism for equality? Could we be more confused as a species - fighting amongst ourselves about who wants human flourishing most?

What was evident in Paris – and other scenes we have participated in since the launch of The Alternative UK – is that there are consistent calls for more information of the kind that more inclusion might bring. And they are getting louder, and gathering more energy, every day.

As a result, more women are able to move to the front of these debates, with more men making space for them. This isn’t simply because of fairness, but so that everyone in the room can be fully informed – which is vital to making progress in the causes they’ve dedicated their lives to. This information is what Hilary Wainwright might refer to as ‘tacit’ knowledge, or Scilla Elworthy – in The Business Plan for Peace – as feminine intelligence (FemmeQ).

However, the call for Southern voices in the room – bringing information from those countries worst impacted by the current global economy - was more difficult to progress. There were counter-questions – “why should people produce carbon travelling to such meetings? Wasn’t the input from those working in global NGOs – some in daily contact with African, South American, Middle Eastern countries – not sufficient?”

Does that mean there is complacency in this space – I don’t think so: there is a clear passion for inclusion. What we are mostly hearing, I believe, are defenses against a failure to attract a more diverse audience to the agenda as it is presented here. And maybe a reluctance to target diverse participation through a fear of tokenism.

How can inclusive principles work in a Parisian room of systems theorists? Only perhaps, by acknowledging the partial nature of our thinking and a willingness to be part of, rather than the whole of, any solution offered. Every network is a network of networks. Every system a system of systems. Can we map it better?

We moved on to narrative building and storytelling which proposed that maybe it was time to construct a new myth to underpin new and better actions for the future. It’s a fashionable ask (see the first chapter of George Monbiot’s latest book, Out of the Wreckage).

But who has the tools to do so, in a way that appeals to which actors first? And is there a line to be drawn between that and marketing - or propaganda - of the type we have been subject to all our lives? Again, outside of our “agora”, the headlines were echoing our conversation: Cambridge Analytica were being legally challenged for harvesting poorly managed Facebook data. And this in order to manipulate voters with customised stories in both the Trump and Brexit elections.

Is there not also a positive story to be told about the influence of Facebook and social media in general? If we only look at the headlines which privilege bad news, are we trapped in a nihilism that disempowers the most vulnerable people further? After all there is plenty of evidence of a growing audience for good news – which implies more sharing of information about how we are as altruistic as we are competitive.

How can all this greater self-awareness (and system-awareness) help us push through “the Great Transition”, as many civil society organisations put it – “the ascendancy of a new suite of values: human solidarity, quality of life, and respect for nature”? We looked at the relative virtues of eight different projects that could effect this shift -  from the municipalist movements to blockchain technology (a full report to be published soon).

What was interesting, even in this group of experts, was how much our assessment of these projects changed before and after discussion. It’s an echo of a much larger point, picked up many times in this blog, about democratic and participatory innovation. 

Firstly, deliberation is crucial. Badly informed referenda or liquid democracy on its own, may not make the most of our complex decision-making powers. Citizens Assemblies meantime, prize their ability to change peoples’ minds after six months of education and thinking with others on a topic.

Secondly, how important is consensus? What I experienced in Paris was a plurality of possibly solutions to any problem, each of them suited to a different perspective on life. How can we avoid narrowing down the field, or making too many ideas wrong simply out of a desire to have one notion win over the others? This is just as important for economic as it is for social solutions. Can co-operatives sit alongside entrepreneurs, when there may be different people more suited to each mode, living side by side in a community?

The up-coming meeting in Wigan is called Ctrl-Shift, a name which points exactly at the issues raised in the Paris Agora. Namely, how can we loosen the dominance of one kind of power, one manner of “taking control”? What's new is that this shift doesn’t mean the defeat of an opponent, but collaboration between a plurality of solutions that better echo the diversity that’s actually present in our world.

This is not a simply a fairness agenda (though it would be fair). It’s also a call for the knowledge we don’t yet have, that has been suppressed, to answer the problems we have not been able to answer till now.

There is no doubt that some of those answers are coming from the next generations – millennials and after – who can see solutions that have only recently come on tap, including the power of organising and technology. So, when they speak up – with all the energy of youth - let’s try to listen hard.