Alternative Editorial: Left behind - or finally leaving the 20th century?

By Pat Kane, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

We are powering on with the friendly revolution - starting from you, and where you are. But we also keep an occasional eye out for developments in the traditional, macro-oriented level of politics. 

It's worth noting when the grinding mechanisms of policy, party and state might be mildly opening up. And particularly when they recognise that an unpredictable, network-empowered populace exists beyond their boundaries.

A few months ago, we noted here that Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has taken to putting Karl Marx in his presentation slides. He’s warning that “new scribblers in the British Library will occur” if governments and corporations don’t handle the profound social transformations of automation properly. 

There’s another massively traditional chunk of the establishment signalling away - perhaps somewhat more strongly - that their behaviour must change, in the face of a nation composed of awakening communities. They might even harbour a few of the scribblers that Carney is warning about. I’m referring to the policy communities emerging around the Corbyn-led Labour Party. 

Particularly driven by the left-of-centre think tank IPPR, and the editor of its Progressive Review journal Mathew Lawrence, there is a developing policy dimension to the British left which sees a positive future in empowered localities. There is perhaps a predictable emphasis on legislating to support the forming of cooperatives, and of workers’ rights to takeover their companies. 

But there is also talk of large institutions to be created (banks and funds) that will directly support municipal ambition and autonomy. The models celebrated are those forged in austerity-strapped constituencies like Preston or Barnsley (themselves inspired by models of local self-help in Cleveland and Detroit). The Wigan Labour MP Lisa Nandy recently made a speech that celebrated this localisation of power, as a much needed corrective to a top-down, paternalistic left tradition. 

(We should also note that this case for localisation is entering into other parliaments on these islands, beyond the Tory-Labour battle-lines. For example, the Scottish Greens in the Scottish Parliament have a “red-line” for supporting the minority SNP Government and their upcoming budget. Which is a commitment to radical local democracy, involving both a shift to land taxes, and ultimately smaller constituencies with greater powers of decision.)

So the party-political weather (for a little spell) looks slightly less than stormy and distant, for those who want to reimagine and re-route politics to a local and human(e) level.

But for us in A/UK, that prospect actually redoubles our commitment to exploring and developing genuine “alternatives” from the bottom-up.

If the tendrils of the Parliaments of this island begin to reach down to tap the potential of local power, it is vital that they meet a confident, powerful and agenda-setting civil society on the way up. Rather than a bored, alienated and susceptible ex-citizenry, pissed off with the system and ready to embark on even more disruptive activity than we've seen in Trump, Brexit and the other European populisms.

Off come the bike-stabilisers

To accentuate the positive, and avoid this negative, there must be daring risks taken with politics-as-usual. Our crises - and the broken trails that have led us here - force us to deal again with the fundamentals of political life. We must examine old certainties and shibboleths. 

And one of those has to be the gap between the discourse of the “left”, and the puzzled and often resistant regard for its claims in the wider society. From March 2017, the Daily Alternative has deliberately removed what could be regarded as the bike-stabilisers of leftist language and discourse.

For example, rather than assuming we know what "solidarity" means, we've consistently asked: what does it actually take for the varied pathways of complex, modern humans to braid together and act, either to regain their powers or to seek more? An artistic project, a method of care or help (of yourself or for others), an open and usable technology, a compelling cultural meme - might these be just as much a trigger for collective action these days as the battle between capital and labour? 

In the age of social media - described classically by Clay Shirky as "ridiculously easy group-forming tools" - we must never underestimate the astounding power it gives individuals and communities to carefully construct, and seek, their "We's".

This is a basic fluidity of association which is also, indeed, a new battleground. We won't be able to understand the incessant overturning of official political establishments by varieties of populism, unless we accept that the power to construct identities is nowadays diffuse, distributed and permanently up for grabs. 

The "political technologists" of Cambridge Analytica and the like may well overstate their effects for commercial purposes. But they're advancing on a historically novel zone of self-determination and self-communication. These networks, despite the threat of the guiding hands of deep algorithms, still empower citizens in ways that can't be anticipated.

So who we decide to be "solid" with, in this matrix of the everyday, becomes a creative act, hardly captured by old assumptions of "solidarity". The clue of our response is in our title: we assume the possibility of an "alternative" course of action or mentality, in any moment. 

You're *so*

Take also the left's characterisations of "capitalism", or the aggressive version of it known as "neo-liberalism". We are inspired by Uffe Elbaek's notion of fourth-sector organisations - ones that draw insight from the best of private, state and civil society practice, in order to answer human needs and aspirations in novel and expansive ways. 

Now, no matter your position on the overall political and economic imperatives of the last 40 years, we are where we currently are - which is under conditions of extreme economic complexity:

  • Where "sharing" platforms like Uber & Airbnb can easily slip into becoming rapacious exploiters, and then find themselves challenged by new cooperative models or strong municipalities (as well as union organisers). 
  • Where the internet opens up a "commons" of copyable information goods, which then get captured again by clever corps like Apple, Facebook or Netflix, and is then in turn challenged by blockchain (promising to restore our "data sovereignty"). 
  • Where automation and A.I. might substitute for so many human labours (mental and manual), that the very basic unit of economic value - the exploitable action of the worker - may simply fall away into irrelevance. Opening up both utopian and dystopian prospects.

How can one just “oppose capitalism" in all this? There is a recognition among some Corbyn-oriented thinkers that they must at least aim for a "post-capitalism" rather than an "anti-capitalism". This means being sensitive and ready for new forms of economics and enterprise arising.

Our emphasis in A/UK is essentially to test these new economic forms against the needs and desires of local communities. No waiting for Whitehall or Westminster to have its “regime captured” by the relevant parties. Who we then hope will loosen (or tighten) regulations or institutions, a little bit this way or that way.

Take new producer movements like Transition Towns, P2P Foundation and Open Coop; or local currency initiatives like HullCoinCounterCoin or Holochain; or new community-rooted ownership strategies (like Monbiot's "politics of belonging" or Chris Cook's "nondominium"). All of these at least bring fresh language and different priorities to the economic lives of communities. (Which, one could argue, the social enterprise sector has over the last few decades has been steadily developing, to its current stage of ripeness). 

So in A/UK we deliberately widen our economic focus, reacting first to enterprises that seek to channel and express as much bottom-up energy as possible. Whatever "capitalism" is becoming, or whatever follows it, we should stick close to the many citizen-driven "alternatives", concretely manifesting (and making humane) these shifts. 

* * *

There are other topics in British left policy, and their place within a wider politics of alternatives, which might be worth exploring later. In particular, the (perhaps initially alarming) theme of “Acid Corbynism”, as promoted by the cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert. This tries to bridge the gap between cultures of adult- and self-development (one of our core themes), and a post-capitalist politics. It does so awkwardly, but interestingly.

And it would be ecumenical to note - as we have done elsewhere in the Daily Alternative - that the current Tory government has returned to its earlier theme of “Big Society”, with its new Civil Society Strategy. Despite understandable scepticism about words actually translating into action, this Strategy also clearly responds to the current vitality of community-led politics, and is worth detailed consideration. 

Yet it’s no more than an occasional consideration. Whatever drivers of change one might identify - a burning planet, the march of the machines, the migration of populations, the long patriarchal fall - we must develop new languages and practices to raise ourselves to the level of these challenges. 

And that means that we keep an analytical distance from the old 20th century discourses of political agency - particularly when they freeze rather than liberate feeling, thought and action.

It’s an insistent question, and it’s ours (and we hope, increasingly, yours). If politics is broken, what’s the alternative? 

Indra Adnan will return next week