Alternative Editorial: One Year On

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Yesterday we celebrated The Alternative UK’s first anniversary in style: trapped in our homes by the weather, re-designing our website and meeting with fellow alternativistas from the US and Denmark. In other words, as the environment keeps shouting at us to get a move-on, we do. As are all the people we highlight in the Daily Alternative: every day another initiative responding to the multiple crises we face in this early part of the 21st Century.

There’s a fine line between being alarmed – the North Pole stopped freezing yesterday at the same point our local rivers froze over -  and being motivated to act. And we have to step over that line. What our activities have taught us over this past year is that fixing our eyes on a possible future and moving steadily towards it, is imperative. What's needed is less reacting to bad news, more solution oriented steps, however small. As if you were on a rope bridge crossing a crevasse: don’t look down.

To the vast majority of people not actively engaged in a project or movement for change, even this calmly advocating editorial would sound extreme. The way our current party politics has framed the issues as a fight between ideologies and their domains of power has diverted the media. Instead of waking us up to the real dangers we are in from the destruction of the environment by big business, it keeps us in thrall to its commitment to growth through consumerism. The only choice we are offered is between which party is going to give us better access.

While we are collectively in a trance, the planet burns and melts. How to reach those who believe they are having a good time of it – because their wages allow them to get their emotional needs met by shopping? Or those with lower wages – often driven down by a market-driven globalisation - who have been convinced that staying on this hamster wheel is the only way to keep aspiring? No amount of shouting at people who are enjoying their dream is going to work. They won’t thank you for waking them up.

When we first began to ask the question "if politics is broken, what’s the alternative?" we often confused people. It was as if we were talking down politics itself, while trying to establish a new politics. The shift from a politics of the 2% Westminster bubble to a politics originating from the people, the heart of society, was such a big jump that we could hardly call it politics any more. It’s more like communitarianism, or the Big Society. But experience has taught us that neither of these conceptions, on their own, has the requisite amount of power to rise to the emergencies of our time.

Yet, starting a new national level party is also not the answer at this point in the history of the UK. Until the culture of political parties changes, from a top down culture to a genuinely bottom up, distributed leadership model – not flat, but at arms length - any new party will be trapped in the same irrelevant mud-slinging, zero-sum game that all new parties are obliged to take part in, once they get a seat in Westminster. It won’t be able to move fast enough.

But there are opportunities at the municipal and local level to make changes that could force the national level to change both behaviour and strategy. As we’ve talked about many times before on the pages of the Daily Alternative and in our editorials, if enough towns and cities were making autonomous decisions on the big issues – energy, food, work, community empowerment – and came into alignment with each other about priorities, the parties would listen. They want the votes.

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As it stands: each party believes they already have a devolution agenda. The Tory party’s Localism Act versus the Labour party’s promised to ‘look at’ increased federalism. But they miss the elephant in the room: if politics divides a community between Us and Them, how can it come together properly? This is exactly what Flatpack Democracy overcame when it stood as independents: some of their councillors were previously from opposing parties who decided to drop their party allegiances in the interests of their own community finding a shared identity. Unless that is the priority, that community will always exclude a significant section of its own people and will find it hard to generate the belonging that so many crave. A belonging that, if properly nurtured, will lead to genuine empowerment. 

For a community to start answering the needs of its own people – emotional as well as physical – it needs to put community feeling and identity high on the list. This is just as important for those who are privileged and want to feel safe and welcome in their home as it is for the marginalised and excluded, who need belonging to survive, and then thrive. 

This means working out shared values and common aspirations, but also daily joys: a well tended park for example is a source of well-being for everyone. Or a good food or energy policy – green, local, cheap – benefits all. But getting these normally isolated constituencies together in the same space long enough to even meet each other, let alone co-create their shared space, is not easy. 

Generating alternatives, among ourselves

This is the task we have set ourselves in the Alternative laboratories and we are learning new tricks every day, soon to be revealed as we make them a priority in our second year. What we do know is that such a space needs to have embedded at least these values – the same ones that underpinned the Danish Alternativet laboratories when they stared 4 years ago: courage, generosity, transparency, humility, humour and empathy. It must be friendly but also transformative – reaching deeply into the soul, and the imagination, of those gathered. 

Yes, we have been in revolution of connectivity and information for almost 20 years now. And it has delivered change beyond our imaginations – some good, others less so. Are we freer now that we are addicted to connectivity? It’s hard to say. But the revolution is stepping up into a new gear as power itself is morphing. Hard power – whose instruments are guns and money – is anxious to strengthen its grip. Putin’s new nuclear weapons, and Trump's planned military parade are one thing - but one might add to that Uber’s shape-shifting to hold onto its market shares or Amazon’s rush to invade our homes with their expensive services. 

But soft power – the power of influence and attraction – is also ambitious. On the one hand, it connects people so their voices can be heard – from petitions to citizens assemblies. But on the other hand, soft power can be harnessed and manipulated by interest groups who trigger emotional reactions and harvest the signatures, from Brexit to vigilante groups. This populism is a distortion of what could rise – a people’s politics based on more thoughtful, deeper understanding of shared problems and more imaginative, creative solutions. 

To access this capability in ourselves and with others, we need to be open to each other – we need to be friendly. If it’s hard to walk through the door where the solutions are being co-created, for fear of being ignored or humiliated in any way, people won’t enter. The masters of meeting this challenge are the creators of Fun Palaces who launched their 5th year of community honing events yesterday, having grown to 340,000 thousand active participants in that time.

That space must also be compelling enough to attract diverse constituencies: why spend your time doing this important work if it is going to be a gruelling task? Life is too short. People have too many options for creating value in so many different ways these days – why choose the one which they can’t understand or sense the purpose of?

Which is why our labs are driven by artists and facilitated by skilful conflict transformers: we’re aiming for a fun and friendly ride every time. With the added bonus of finding the others in your community and making stuff with them that genuinely improves the lot of all who live there. Like a lego theme park in which you get to build a new totem pole or a whole new housing concept together.

Perhaps most importantly, we never lose sight of the profound connection between the I, We and World . The Alternative UK will be picking up all the ideas and methods the labs generate, and making them open-source on our website. In addition, we will be inviting participants to imagine how the initiatives they invent require a new policy – or even government department – to enable or enhance them. These will begin to shape our Living Manifesto.

And as communities continue to copy and share practice, forming networks of like-minded, increasingly autonomous communities – as explained in last week’s editorial - they will have an impact at the national level and onwards at an international level. This is how one person, in one town, by working with neighbours in a friendly way, can have a direct effect on the planet.

For more of this: join the Friendly Revolution, in year 2 of The Alternative UK.