Alternative Editorial: We've All Got To Upgrade

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

Ever since we decided to step outside the news bubble generated by the 2% of people who are members of political parties, we’ve had a different experience of daily life.

Instead of being in constant ‘tharn’  – like deer caught in the multiple headlights of crises and powerlessness – we’ve danced somewhere between excited and frustrated. Excited by the clear evidence that we are in the midst of a revolution which started at least 20 years ago. 

This is the largely, non-violent revolution brought on by the internet. It has good and bad aspects, but it represents a revolution of human connectivity and mobility nevertheless. Giving rise to daily streams of ingenuity – which we try to capture in our Daily Alternative.

But we have also felt frustrated. The immense power released from human beings getting access to information and each other across communities - and way beyond, to nations and the globe - is so fractured. It can’t constitute the kind of shift in our shared fortunes that would tell enough of a new story about our society to impact the mainstream media. (The few green shoots in the MSM - in places like the Guardian and Channel Four News, as we blogged here - only show the overall paucity). 

Instead, the bubble culture – small groups of like-minded people gathering in echo chambers on Facebook, Twitter or Meet-ups – persists. Once our networks were limited by our local proximity to people, like football clubs or mothers groups; but even on-line gatherings are still defined by communally-familiar interests and hobbies, and many are still gender-led. You might ask: what’s new in human behaviour?

It’s particularly frustrating that the possibility of mass access to digital tools – meaning Wi-Fi and handsets could be made available to everyone, if the political will was there – have not led to a better democracy. Better meaning more people participating in delibertative decision making around our shared resources. 

What’s clear, in all three of our arenas of activity – publishing The Daily Alternative , networking the networks (from CtrlShift to the Summer Festivals ) or opening ‘community collaboratories’ – is that the obstacles to this better democracy are not coming from one direction only. If government suddenly moved to a system of liquid democracy - which means giving every person the right to vote on the shaping of policy and distribution of assets - it’s unlikely we’d get instant take-up. Or that everyone would be positive about the prospect. The political class’ fear of a popular vote – both due to the possibility of manipulation or a broader distrust of others’ capacities and motivations - is well known. We don’t easily come together.

At the same time, many are themselves reluctant to take part in decision making for innumerable reasons – only some of which we grapple with here on a weekly basis. It’s our mantra that only 2% are member of political parties, only 30-40% of citizens vote in local elections, only 65% regularly turn out for national elections. That we need an Alternative appeal to people to take part in the running of their communities, both local and national, we already know.

But should we be surprised? After all, how many of us are still living in the reality of industrial and post-industrial society - both of which instrumentalise our energies and put them at the service of a growth economy, to the point that we have had very little time to be fully human?  We work seven to ten hours a day (some of us more), in jobs that keep us like hamsters on a wheel; running as fast as we can, but getting nowhere very interesting. What has that done to our ability to connect with each other; to feel empathy for those outside of our immediate range of vision; to even be able to hear the needs and anxieties of those close to us?

Large sections of the public have had many decades - indeed centuries - of “robotic” work, requiring only automatic responses, for very little reward. What has their alienation done to our societies as a whole – our collective capacity for imagination, creativity, desire?

In locations where people have been most enslaved by an economy that only sees them as workers, or worse, machines, there has also been exclusion, particularly at a very local level. Where there are lack of finances to take part in community gathering, leisure activities, or the consumer society, this creates - from childhood onwards - developmental trauma. This manifests as shame around having a lack of social skills and opinions, which makes participation, even in local community, a fearful prospect. Instead, a thick wall of defensiveness – often closed and aggressive – enables the excluded to protect themselves from exposure.

How can we upgrade ourselves from the 20th century sensibility – so characterised by lack of time and resources, and the consequent lack of human responses? This is as much a question for the privileged. They often project their personal frustrations about lack of agency, or not getting their emotional needs met, onto other generally more vulnerable people around them. How can these privileged be at ease in a society that resents them, or threatens their - often hard-won - gains? (That structural inequality coarsens all social relations in a country is the point of the forthcoming book from Wilkinson and Pickett, The Inner Level). 

Some reading this will think I’m just summing up the challenges about inequality and flourishing that our parents and their parents faced: what’s new here? Or actually, do we face a very specific moment in time – where the remnants of the 20th century settlement are beginning to give way to a very different set of possibilities, that history will recognise as distinctly 21st Century? Marked by the liberation of extra time into our lives, through the digital distribution of work and automation of tasks and jobs? An awakening – via information, social media and live gathering – to our collective selves?  The self-empowerment of people at grassroots level?

What can we do to educate ourselves, en masse, to take this set of possibilities and run with them? Do we need to organise, rather like Denmark did in the 19th Century when faced with national bankruptcy, ways to educate ourselves not so much about the sins of the past, but the opportunities of the future? How can we develop ourselves, as humans and as citizens, to be capable of better relationships with each other, and become more agentic in the coming world of opportunity? 

Perhaps we could imagine some form of social learning club that would take us all into another vision of the future? Maybe a citizens’ version of the education that Kaos Pilots – founded by Uffe Elbaek, later founder of Alternativet - offers to graduates to become socio-political entrepreneurs? (There may be susceptibility to such ideas at the highest levels: Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, proposed a entirely new future-ready “middle” education process in his recent speech, which we blogged about here)

We’re not proposing this to any existing political party, but firstly and primarily to community actors - those with an interest in finding ways to bring diverse ranges of people living in their locality to learn together. Without that, society will not be able to take full advantage of the change on offer, but will only polarise further. It’s one of the many questions that will arise in our Community laboratories – in Plymouth, Manchester, Kings Cross – over the next six months. Come and join us.

A Kaos Pilots class in Aarhus, Denmark

A Kaos Pilots class in Aarhus, Denmark