Alternative Editorial: What's ‘The Enemy’?

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Challenges come in waves. This week we encountered four quite different settings for essentially the same conundrum. 

The first two were in Montreal where The Alternative political party (Denmark) and platform (UK) were the politicians in residence at the Fine Arts Faculty at Concordia University in Montreal. 

From the start this was an exciting project with the potential to transform those who took part in it. I can’t speak for everyone who joined – but my own goals were to do with stepping out of my comfort zone, to access something new. And to be co-creating that with millennials or younger. Can we discover the political in the artistic, and the artistic in the political, in ways that create value for the participants and possibly for the wider society? 

Within that was a clear desire to go beyond what is generally meant by political art, or creative politics, to something closer to discovering a new sensibility that enlivens us, makes us more agentic.

At the mid-point of this process, there were many moments of discomfort – made all the more compelling given the Expo 67 setting. While the artists came to share their practices and perspectives, we the politicians were in organisational, quasi-campaign mode. 

One side was looking for unbounded expression, the other for structure and efficacy: quite a clash of energies. At times there were differences of age, ethnicity, gender that generated conflicting cultural tropes, language, patterns. If we hadn’t acknowledged from the outset that our goals were ambitious, we might have ruptured.

Earlier on in the visit, in another part of the faculty, I was working within even more potential discomfort when giving a talk on The Age of Feminine Intelligence. Both feminine and intelligence are words that confront people with norms they may or may not have bought into. Particularly in this moment of unequal and rapid global change. 

While the workshop emphasised that the inquiry was focussed on identifying the stories we tell ourselves, and the narratives that govern our shared social and virtual space, I was still expecting to encounter sharp challenges from some of the participants. And rightly so: we cannot take the feminine, or the masculine for granted in any way.

The second pair of challenges I mentioned at the beginning came as we planned our collaboratory in Plymouth. The most important – but also most difficult – part is reaching the parts of the community that rarely engage. 

Whether for reasons of being excluded by organisers, or for not having the resources to join in. Or by preference – not wanting or able to move out of their established patterns of activity.

Within this bigger ambition of inclusion, we found our own obstacles. The first was the outsider, insider division: how can we facilitate an event in someone else’s neighbourhood? 

While all the stakeholders that we have been identifying and making relationship with have welcomed us – we are still, inevitably, conscious of being visitors. Of exploring local customs, behaviours, histories and playing it back to the people who originated them. 

As we invite participants to re-imagine the future, what is our role? As one ambivalent local warned us: people have had enough of outsiders “doing change to them”. 

And in the very rich, diverse region of South Devon, there is a whole other level of challenge: competing speeds of change. 

On the one hand, we have decades of gradual Permaculture development, captured by Transition Towns. While their practices and projects are targeted at transformational change that can save the planet, their mode is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Their expectations for growth are more fractal (beautiful prototypes, echoed and copied) than "scaling things up" - practices driven by a central body.

On the other hand, we have the social entrepreneurs: efficiently establishing new forms of business that have measurable social impact and are robust and sustainable. They are more likely to pick up technical solutions to questions of development, to think about exponential growth. They won’t be thinking that this busy-ness sacrifices human connection or relationship: but that it enables it.

All of these examples describe the challenges of diversity – but not quite as we have come to understand that word. The more familiar, contested differences are of age, ethnicity, culture, gender. Others are less easy to define: differences of agency, of feeling able to act, for example. 

It’s not as easy as it used to be to define class or privilege. A whole new class called by some the precariat, represented by those on zero-hours contracts, is especially vulnerable. Meantime, those that have learnt to manage the turbulence of a freelance existence feel free and in more in control of their own lives. 

Add to that the significant differences arising from adult development – whether you ascribe to the Maslow hierarchy, Wilber’s integral maps or any other. There are genuine clashes between people who look at their ability to act upon their environments quite differently: for example, between those who rely upon rational, conscious strategy and those who trust in the unseen wisdom of luck, chance, even chaos.

Where am I going with this? What is the conundrum that unites all these quite disparate challenges? It arose in a conversation I had within my own friendship group, more than once this week. Is it possible for us – the people of any one region, nation, or even globe – to come together in the face of our common crises? Or do we have to go on, as we are, always identifying the enemy and competing to win? Is this what we need to galvanise ourselves to make change happen?

Is the divisive nature of our politics – the repeated splitting of citizens down the middle between Left and Right, Yes and No, Leave or Remain – an expression of our human nature? Maybe we simply wouldn’t move, if we didn't identify something opposed to our goals? Not simply in an antagonistic way, hoping to beat the other in a zero-sum game. But even in an agonistic way – the free contestation of ideas, just for the energy it brings? 

And for the sake of this argument, this might include moving on from facing down each other as ‘the enemy’ to facing down climate change as the ‘real enemy’. So the fundamental question might be: can we not act to change things, unless we face an enemy?

Or is that a myth? One that we have honed and perfected after centuries of living in opposition to Nature or fighting with our own shadow? Isn’t it equally compelling to take on the task of building something together? To work hard at giving birth to a new life or solving a complex problem? To do the emotional labour of getting on with someone you don’t agree with, or of moving past your ego into a bigger cause? 

How about the energy associated with enlivenment? Dancing, risk-taking, play? And the pure attraction of beauty – not just of a person, but of an idea or an unexpectedly good result?

I’m not sure that any of us know what the great motivators of future generations will be. But after a 20th Century built on competition, war and relentless growth – a singularly masculine public space - isn’t it possible that we are ready for something different?

Maybe people coming together will be the ‘new’ factor – a sign that human beings are waking up out of the trance induced by constantly labouring to consume (our own "robotic" past). Taking back their minds, their power, but most importantly their right to convene - irrespective of their differences. 

And when that happens, stand back. That'll be a kind of power we haven’t experienced before.