Alternative Editorial: Democracy Come True

This and below: street art in Mostar, Bosnia.

This and below: street art in Mostar, Bosnia.

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator, The Alternative UK

Over this past week we’ve been invited to talk at a very diverse range of gatherings. Within a 24 hour span we were engaging with a group of London Futurists asking Will Democracy Survive the Age of Big Data and AI?   and a Birmingham gathering of community-focused actors exploring Radical Childcare . Both were challenging, massively inspiring discussions, at opposite ends of the usual spectrum of agency: the global v the local.

Yet the issues were absolutely overlapping to the point of being identical: namely, what does it mean to be human and can a new understanding of human capacities lead to better outcomes for the whole of society?

These are not small questions: nor are they new. Steve Hilton’s More Human 2015 and Douglas Rushkoff’s project Team Human (the book published on Jan 2019, but discussed here at Virtual Futures and featured at Future Fest) are both on that road. They are important in their different ways for the discussion happening at policy level. Both argue for new ways to see and organise people that would give us important new outcomes.

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If there is a difference, it’s maybe that Hilton is still operating from a centralised, strategic perspective: ‘leaders’ must look ‘people’ in the eye and act ‘kindly’, humanistically. Whereas Rushkoff sees the people, the citizens themselves, as the radical actors, transforming the public space through self-organising.

Even so, when challenged at his recent events, Douglas acknowledged that he doesn’t have that experience himself – he’s a writer, not an organiser. He hopes that people read his books and get that they are capable of so much more than has generally been asked from them until now.

Between those two perspectives, or possibly in another space altogether, we have those who have been working with human beings all along, specifically caring for them. Social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, parents have always known what it takes to bring a ‘human’ into ‘being’. But their deep knowledge has not been properly valued by politicians whose attention has been on the growth economy.

As we now know better, making money and power the 'primary' way to solve the ‘secondary’ problems of society has resulted in self-sabotage. We’ve left it far too long to shift our resources to where it really matters: in that sense we can be grateful to Farage and Trump for shining the light on the power of the people.

Which is why the Alternative UK's commitment is to exploring the space of community self-organising as the most promising for answers to the biggest problems. It's not so much about how we get more people to vote, or how we give them more justice down the line – all of which will never be less important than it has always been. But more: how do we help them see themselves as the answer?

While there are movements of ‘wokeness’ too many are still living in the story of their own weakness, even ineptitude. For many, the only role open to them is taking part in the economy as robots – doing boring jobs that should be automated anyway – and acting as supplicants to those with power, in order to secure the material basics. Quality of life is not even on the agenda.

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In our presentations at the Radical Childcare gathering, both Pat Kane and I emphasised the importance of 21st C humans moving beyond their simple ‘labouring’ contributions to society. Pat’s presentation described our essential capacity to ‘play’ our way beyond our current limitations (ref The Play Ethic) and what it takes to give that full rein.

In my presentation, I talked about the emotional drives that sit alongside our physical needs from the womb. And how, as pattern matching ‘imagineers’, we will always be trying to get those needs met in creative ways – unless our innate capacities to do so are corrupted by trauma or oppressed by the way we live our lives. Getting those capacities resourced, in ways that respond adequately to the problems we face, is itself a new politics.

In the meantime, how do we amplify the great work of those people – call them citizens, call them non-state actors – who are waking up to their own capabilities and starting to work together to solve problems on the ground? What kinds of information – tools, methods, visions – can be shared and promoted to help this release of human capital into our failing society?

This is not a simple task. As we write, other actors are amassing vast amounts of money to harness the very same citizens we are hoping to work with – for a project that will cause the kind of divisions in society we haven't seen since older, darker days - and perhaps in virulent new forms.

Steve Bannon’s “Plan to Hijack Europe for the Far Right” (sic) sits nicely alongside Arron Banks’ plans to start a new populist movement. Their methods include data capture on social media, helping them to refine the triggering of base emotions (anger, fear, aggression), which will be met by 'direct democracy' – meaning referenda (national or local) or liquid democracy. Their strategy depends on speed of response and intervention, and the harnessing of individuals’ ‘wants’ – both of which can be easily enabled with enough money to buy the relevant political technology.

But what we see the need for at this time instead, is a slowing down of the democratic process: deeper engagement, more time for deliberation, healing as well as creating More quality than quantity, more meaning than boxes ticked. More transformative experience – aha moments - than simply just getting the job done.

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Movements like Transition Towns have been using these faciliations tools for decades – open space, world café, fish bowls – and its time for them to be mainstream community practice. Our own focus on the power of the arts to bring people together and find emotional resonance also help to shift political culture into a new era. And on a more civic level, Flatpack Democracy and Citizens Assemblies do a great job of serving the people’s voice.

But to challenge the triggering and harnessing tools, the emotional overwhelm method of Bannon and Banks, we need more soft power – the ability to attract, connect, frame and reframe – so that no-one is left out of the debate. Those that are traditionally quiet, or passive in the face of aggressive demands on their attention, must be understood and valued better, engaged in the process of coming together and allowed to choose their own style of contribution.

The idea that we are inevitably divided between two poles – Left and Right, Leave and Remain, Us and Them – has to be continually disproved. How? By people meeting under friendly auspices and developing effective tools together to meet the challenges they share.

In many ways - after a century of alienated work, atomised society and neoliberal markets that measure us up and put us in a table of competitive competence - the most revolutionary thing that any one of us can do is to make relationships with others. Meet that person – who is a different culture, gender, or who has always stood on a different political platform from you – and just make a friend out of them. Defy the past: collaborate.

Only in that way can the great dream of democracy – the idea that every single one of us should be participating in the co-creation of the outcome for all of us – can begin to be realised in ways it has never been before. Democracy come true.