Alternative Editorial: Three Steps Back
by Indra Adnan, Co-initiator, AUK
We’re thirteen days into 2019 and the only developments we see on the political front are further deterioration of the space upon which the spotlight is trained. In the UK, there is open warfare – not only between the Left and Right, but between the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House who has been actively sabotaging Teresa May’s plans.
Both claim to be speaking for ‘the people’. But in a nation without a constitution and a political culture that has no mechanisms for hearing what the people think or feel, that’s an abstract claim.
In the US, the President is holding the entire country to ransom by shutting down his government until he gets the money he wants from Congress to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Like May, he claims to be fulfilling a promise he made to ‘the people’, even as his shut-down deprives those very same people of their wages and services. Another claim on behalf of that notorious abstract.
Where can these claims and counter claims go? These politicians are not looking at the politicians in front of them – the persons he or she could engage with, collaborate with, resolve conflict with. Instead, they are performing in front of their Twitter audiences, their Facebook fans, the mainstream media cameras they hope will catch them in a good light. In an age of revolutionary connectedness, they are profoundly disconnected with each other and any possibility of resolution, let alone transformation of the difficulties we face.
2019 will be a year in which the most of us must find the mental muscles to tear ourselves away from this spectacle of false power. A spectacle staffed by men and women, trapped in an old-school structure and culture, that ensures the promises these operators make are impossible to deliver on. However noble the commitment on one side to helping people or planet, the other side will do whatever it can to frustrate it.
This is a self-destruction of the machinery of our democracy. Is that what any of the people vote for, in any election or referendum?
In 2018, A/UK talked almost incessantly about the emergence of new socio-political forms. Ones that could – if they came together in new systems of effective action - begin to help more people find meaningful agency. We are not the only ones hell-bent on showcasing positive news, or telling new stories about human and social potential.
But what might be unusual are our collaboratories - events and processes where we link these bigger stories with opportunities for original, systemic action on the ground. Here we create spaces of whole-system play, in which individuals, organisations and cosmo-local ideas can meet and experiment, finding new solutions that have impact. Places where ‘the people’ – specifically members of a community - live and work but also yearn, dream and invent.
These collaboratories rarely provide obvious, logical solutions to problems that already exist on the radar (and in any case, they don’t have the powers to deliver on them). For example, to acknowledge the homeless and agree that we need more affordable housing is not the primary purpose of these spaces – except maybe as a message to be sent to those who hold the coffers. Instead, these gatherings have (at least) three quite different functions and outcomes.
Firstly, co-labs bring people together that do not regularly meet. In order to counter the divisions that are manufactured by the political parties, these deliberately take place below the party-political radar. As an act of deliberate curation, these spaces include at least: civil society groups already working with the vulnerable and excluded; practitioners of individual development – mind, body or spirit; artists and creatives; tech and business entrepreneurs; community members often overlooked by socio-political gatherings; and anyone else we bump into or are friends of those already attending. Coming together over food and drink, we meet, play games and get related.
Secondly, co-labs participants use their newly developing relationship to inquire into how each of them see their community. What they like about it, what they don’t and – through the use of arts and facilitation – how they might re-imagine it for the future. This might take the form of newly drawn maps of connections that need to be made across the terrain they cover. It might appear as a demand for new learning, spaces to talk more, or new means/techniques of gathering their resources. If we’re doing this well, it results in social actors and social makers finding each other, then collaborating in new ways to produce solutions to local problems.
In the light of Brexit, these growing networks offer citizens spaces and tools for coming together to heal. But more importantly, they address the causes of Brexit too – offering people belonging, meaning and purpose. They can also map out social “ecosystems” that can help communities prepare for taking some control over their own futures.
Thirdly and ambitiously, co-labs can give rise, over time, to citizen action networks (CANs) that become the foundation of a very different kind of politics. Imagine that the people occupying these CANs decide to stand a candidate of their own in a local town council – one where there is little or no opportunity to participate in decision making. Or imagine groups of CAN members taking all the poorly performing council wards or parishes within a City, shifting the balance of power towards a greener, more people-and-planet empowering future?
Let's move our gaze back again to Westminster, where every one of those malfunctioning party politicians is responsible (directly or indirectly) for many millions (indeed billions) of pounds worth of resources. Each of them are then, in turn, subject to billions of pounds worth of lobbying and vested interests. In that light, perhaps the local and municipal strategising we’re laying out here looks very remote and small.
However, we prefer to think of our proposals in a more evocative – even poetic – way. Visualise a tiger, taking three careful steps back before it makes a giant leap forward. So each one of the steps we described above, happening in a number of cities or regions across the country, is a slow (or maybe a steady and deliberate) step backwards from the centre –outwards and downwards, towards the people. Gathering not only useful tools and practical experience on the way, but also the accelerating power of stories of hope. In a very short space of time, the word would go out – there IS an alternative.
From this perspective, 2019 could be ambitious in an unprecedented way. The default politics is about railing against the current party-political machine and hoping for ‘one last heave’ against whatever party you oppose.
Instead, we could make it the year we set off a new mode of political behaviour and sensibility. One which requires us to understand ourselves – individually and collectively – better, as people with imagination and agency. To open ourselves up to experiment, creativity and radical re-inventing of our future. Just for the fun and empowering joy of it.
And all the more enjoyable for knowing that, if we do this with energy and commitment, it could lead to the 2020s as the first decade of a very different kind of politics. A very different kind of exercise – and experience - of power for all of us.
If you’re up for it and want a collaboratory to open up near you - join us, call out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll help you get going.