Alternative Editorial: We're Looking In The Wrong Place



By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

We recently had a mystery leak from our bathroom into the flat below. Disaster! We couldn’t see where it was coming from, but the water was seeping through the ceiling of a child’s bedroom and threatening the electrics. It’s not the first time it happened and each time the emergency plumber would come to fix what looked like the problem. Six months later it would happen again.

Eventually, with the help of a specialist ‘leak detector’ we discovered that the cause of these serial leaks wasn't the old pipes, but a problem with the heating system that was putting undue pressure on them.

And there's a challenge for us: all that time and money spent on fixing the symptoms, never guessing there was an underlying cause.

I’m reminded of this distinction more and more recently when looking at the presenting problems of our ‘leaking’ social system. Where, despite thoroughly worked out ideologies and robust bureaucracies and institutions, the level of suffering at the vulnerable end of society and the rapid destruction of our natural environment has been deteriorating for decades. And this is under the stewardship of governments from both Left and Right. The problems are urgent, but the responses are inadequate.

Are we looking in the wrong place? Whether the offer is to liberate our markets ever more – most recently through Brexit. Or to liberate tax-payers’ money to fix the leaking vessels of the NHS and our welfare system ever more. Either way, we’re not getting to the heart of the problem – where and why the heat is being generated.

Of course, there are a number of very important alternative (and big picture) ways of looking at our problems, being taken seriously by all political parties. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics links our obsession with economic growth to the destruction of our environment. Wilkinson and Picket’s Spirit Level links inequality directly to loss of well being as the cause of social ills. Peter Joseph’s New Human Rights Movement identifies the degradation of public health – addiction, crime, sickness - directly with capitalism itself. All begin to put the health of the complex human being in society at the heart of a new economic approach.

But where are the effective and urgent social solutions going to come from – those that are capable of re-booting society in ways that allow flourishing to become part of the solution? At the moment, our politics looks like a number of helicopters coming to the rescue of a stranded family, but each with their ladders swinging about and just out of reach of those whose time is running out. How do we leap from theory to practice?

After 18 months of observing the socio-political system from the perspective of The Alternative UK, we can see movement from two directions – top down and bottom up. From the top, both left and right are talking actively about devolution, handing power down so that more decisions are taken at the smaller-national, regional and municipal level. The Conservatives think more about localism and care in the community – two ways of getting towns to be more self-sufficient with less funds. The Labour Party is thinking more about municipalism in the form of stronger city councils and mayors. And connected to Labour but independently-minded, the Preston Model persuades businesses and pension funds to invest their funds inwardly toward the cities they operate in, rather than internationally where the wins have, in the past at least, been easier.

Both resonate in different ways in different parts of the country: both localism and municipalism are growing in practice but there is a wide gap still to be crossed. And that gap is not a straight road that both parties should simply keep travelling along in order to meet each other. It’s more of a vortex, or even a Bermuda triangle, into which too many expensive attempts at top reaching bottom have disappeared (think Blair’s communitarianism and Cameron’s Big Society).

It’s partly because the two are operating at very different speeds. The top is in the context of a highly competitive global economy where profit is the only measurement. The bottom is in the context of powerlessness and austerity – where scarcity slows everything down. The power imbalance between them is too big.

But it’s also because the information coming from the bottom up – not the political movements but the locals themselves who are coping with everyday life on the ground – is too complex for governments to process. As Hillary Cottam brilliantly describes in Radical Care , what is really needed – relationship, networks, technology – is not offered on the long list of blunt interventions from social services.

But even when they adopt a more big-picture stance, do any of these new political movements really take on the fundamental shift that Raworth, Wilkinson & Pickett or Joseph point at in their books? Namely that the current economic paradigm of profit and growth – as the only measure of efficiency – is fundamentally destroying our planet and our communities? Ignoring both the complex needs of human beings, but equally importantly, their inherent, complex strengths – choosing instead to subjugate them to a painfully simplistic economic straight jacket – could be the core problem itself.

Although Joseph doesn’t make it explicit, he calls for a science of complex human need, both physical and emotional, to be at the heart of any political project. One that hopes to give rise to wellbeing societies that make us capable of living sustainably. We’ve identified one framework before in A/UK - the Human Givens model of emotional needs and capacities - but there are many. Transition Towns and Permaculture Association have their own. Each of these initiatives deliberately operates under the radar of current party politics, for fear of being co-opted and distorted by them.

But what Joseph also points at is a future in which human beings are no longer obliged to do robotic labour and how technology will solve many of the intractable problems of today. It’s a controversial vision and one that needs processing by humans with humans, before being fully unleashed.

We are fully aware of and often working with these political initiatives occurring around us. Which is why we are focusing our energies on political collaboratories. On the ground, with people in their own communities. It is here that we can engage both human emotion and human ingenuity to explore the possibilities of the future. It’s here that we can bring diverse communities together, reaping their diverse inputs to find solutions not tried before.

It’s here that what Rob Hopkins might describe as ‘market garden’ level projects - helping humans become whole and social - could meet municipalists that are genuinely interested not just in power and control, but in flourishing. Or technocrats who, when they link the local to the global, are as invested in human potential as they are with speed and scale

If you are interested in the ongoing design and development of these collabs, do join us – or support our work. If politics is broken, this is where the Alternatives are taking shape.