Alternative Editorial: Control Shifts in the North of England

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

We’re still strung between Paris and Wigan this week – except now we’re at the Wigan end. From Tuesday to Thursday we were a key partner (and also hands-on facilitators) at the CtrlShift: Emergency Summit for Change, 140 activists, organisers, commoners and entrepreneurs with almost as many organisations represented.

A real meeting of the tribes. And taking place exactly one year before Britain is due to officially leave the European Union, an absolutely vital one. 

We sought to respond actively to the disruption Brexit had caused: framing the moment as an unique opportunity to reorganise ourselves at the grass-roots and community level. If the cry for “more control” was the motivation for the Leave vote, then how do we get more control over our own lives and communities?

Remember that all the main parties advocated a Remain vote in the referendum. So the control question clearly can’t be left to a party-political system that lost control of its own polity.

Our clear goal was to move through an emergent three step process, similar to the one we follow in our Alternative Laboratories:

  • The Friendly (connecting with your fellow travelers)
  • The Inquiry (what are the cardinal questions and vision for the future that we align with)
  • The Action (what will we practically do, starting now)

Echoing the values of the co-operative and collaborative organizations taking part, each day was facilitated to allow self-organisation, rather than a pre-defined schedule. The emphasis was on the hopes, fears, skills and capabilities of those present. This would ensure that any ways forward wouldn’t be abstract, but backed with commitments to action (detailed programme here).

Participants offered ‘solutions sessions’ to engage each other in their particular piece of the jigsaw, whether they were offering perspective, tools or practice. Our stated common purpose was “to develop a shared agenda for shifting power over our democracy, economy and environment, from Westminster and multinational corporations, to people and communities across Britain.”

Three reasons why this is different than before

For some, CtrlShift was a familiar setting, explored with a familiar network of people. Many of the participants were people who have spent decades - indeed whole lifetimes - working patiently to integrate human, social and planetary realms of change and development (what A/UK calls the “I, We, World”). Amongst them were Transition Network, Permaculture Association, Co-operatives UK, Solidarity Economy. There were also many smaller spin-offs, entrepreneurs and freelancers working in the field of organic (I, We, World) practices and theory that have not found their representation in mainstream politics.

But as was heard repeatedly throughout the three days, we are living in fast changing times. The ‘container’ – the cultural and technical space - we are operating in is new and constantly developing. So the conditions for change are vastly different than they were even ten years ago in at least three ways.

Firstly, we have been in a revolution of sharing and mobilizing, for good and for ill, over the past twenty years of the internet. How else can we explain why this group of naturally aligned organizations have not come together before?

Secondly economic and social inequality, climate deterioration and the rates of depression and suicide have increased to the point of high alert. As more people awaken to this reality, the pressure to organize becomes far more urgent.

Thirdly, there are different mixes of voices coming on stream into the public debate – more women in traditionally male spaces, more people of colour in traditionally white spaces. So our ability to have an impact at a wider level is growing. Having said that, it became clear, including at our events in Paris and Wigan, that progress in this aspect - which is vital for gaining the knowledge and expertise we lack in every field - is not good enough.

We don’t know what we don’t know

On that first evening, participation was energetic and optimistic. When asked how many people felt they knew what had to be done to create a better future, about half the room swarmed to the middle.

As in Paris, were they unaware of the ambiguity of the question? After all, if we (in the middle) know what has to be done, why can we not make it happen? If our answer is “well, other people are the problem”, then – in our disconnection from them - we literally cannot know what has to be done. So maybe the biggest part of what has to be done is to take those “other people” with us. Or we won’t get the results we need - in any of the fields we are identifying as in crisis. It’s a simple but profound point, acutely illustrated by Brexit.

This potential problem became real on the second day of CtrlShift. The moment came after groups had discussed “cardinal” questions, then were guided into a fishbowl formation, which would hopefully generate a shared story about what had happened that day. (In brief: a fishbowl is made up from concentric circles of chairs, with a dialogue between 3 or 4 people going on at its centre. One of the chairs there is always empty, so that anyone can walk into the circle and join the dialogue, with an existing speaker obliged to leave.)

In my own experience, the fishbowl is a great mechanism for handling a lot of open controversy or discord in a room. The process of concentrating all our collective attention on the unfolding dialogue in the centre – with those in the rest of the fishbowl practicing active listening – is intense and surprisingly involving for everyone.

At first, this seemed like a calmer-than-usual fishbowl. Perhaps we were focused on our growing connections in Wigan, so there was little compulsion to jump into the chairs in the centre - no need if we were already in agreement.

But when it was suggested that the empty chairs signified the missing voices in the room – the lack of people of colour, those in poverty, diversity of all kinds - a different kind of movement happened. One black woman stood up and moved to the back of the circle, refusing to come to the centre. Without anger, she refused the invitation to join the core of a gathering she felt was unrepresentative.

The next person to stand up took her symbolic lead and stayed fixed in the middle row. His call was for less active building; instead, he wanted more acknowledgment of unexpressed grief for the victims of the system we currently inhabit. Another expressed a dislike of the term “networks”, because it suggested historic relationships (maybe even the “old-pals club”) rather than new ones.

Other voices popped up in quick succession; none of them moved to the centre. We concluded the fishbowl gently: the protest was felt and registered. Unlike many other similar disruptions I have witnessed, this gathering was able to stay in the discomfort of those objections, without imploding itself.

Did that make whatever we were doing at CtrlShift less relevant? That would depend upon the mind-set of whoever is observing. Maybe yes, if we were complacent about it. That is, if we accepted the obvious point that we have not yet been able to find ways to represent the diversity present in our society – but dismissed it as inevitable, and were not willing to respond actively.

In Wigan, I felt our response went like this: it’s true, we won’t be able to make a difference to our multiple crises unless we are working with the people traditionally excluded from the conversations about solutions. We won’t have the information we require - about how they experience their lives, what motivates them and why they cannot take part in solutions that have been offered in the past. We are committed to keep expanding this conversation until we are co-creating our solutions with those voices present.

Is 'inclusion' the right word?

The failures of ongoing governments' inclusion policies are many. Why don’t ethnic communities integrate with the mainstream of society? Why don’t people without jobs take the work offered to them by this current system? Why did communitarianism, or The Big Society, not have any of the desired effects? Maybe because all of these are top-down theories, trickle-down ideas - and then policies - with little or no design input from the people they are supposed to serve.

From this point of view, is inclusion the best word to describe the urgent need for everyone on the inside to look outwards? As this fishbowl experience demonstrated, it may not be appropriate for the excluded to ‘come into’ our temporary micro-container – or even join our network - if it was constructed in their absence and hence not friendly to them. Or maybe not even capacious enough for them, in the way that unlike substances can’t always just blend in a pot... In short, we might need new new words for a coming-together that goes beyond inclusion. And new spaces to gather: take CounterCoin’s initiative to start change-hubs in shopping malls for example. 

If that sounds like an abstract point, it was helpfully exposed in the following morning’s conversation between Caroline Lucas, Co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and feminist sociologist Hilary Wainwright, Editor of Red Pepper which I chaired – three women talking about the future of politics.

Caroline emphasized the dysfunctional nature of our current party politics, highlighting the urgent need to give control back to people in their communities. Her description of a Westminster as a container - "which obliges women to act in the same aggressive and competitive way as the men who designed it" - surely echoed the point made in the fishbowl.

Hilary Wainwright made an exposition of three different kinds of power in society. When power is used for the domination of others, as it is in the current political culture, it misses the potential for power to transform people’s capacity to act. It values power over people, as opposed to power that enables them.

However, that second form of power depends upon the inputs of all the people in the community where it is being exercised – or the outputs will only be useful to those who participated. What is particularly important here, is that the excluded are not only represented by their needs, but by their capabilities too. Otherwise the design of future policy will only ever look like a service, and not enough like opportunities for engagement and future agency.

New constellations

The final day saw the proposal of a number of projects that acknowledged these points. For example, there were arts or leisure projects that looked to engage people directly. They would use their power of attraction to lead people usually excluded from these debates into spaces where a friendly conversation could begin. Some of the individual participants from traditionally excluded groups – including those disrupting the fishbowls - offered to be conduits, increasing engagement with the communities currently operating outside our current network.

For those working to put on CtrlShift for over a year, it was a profoundly confirming experience. If we had imagined a structure in which everyone participating had a clear and fixed role, any unforeseen challenges to that structure might have damaged it irreparably.

Instead, we had imagined a constellation of actors, each of whom were capable of offering some of the transformative actions, structures and cultures we need at this time – but would become immeasurably stronger by collaborating. When new actors appeared of their own accord, pointing at those they were connected to but who were not yet present, it only promised to enhance the constellation: make it richer, brighter, stronger.

Of course, what happens between now and the second CtrlShift next year will demonstrate how serious we are about that. As an active partner, The Alternative UK will be playing its part by opening a series of laboratories at the ground level in communities across the country over the coming months. We’ll be using every means possible to attract the most diverse gathering available in each community.

Join us – whether as a designer or a future participant - if you can.