The Politics of Waking Up, Chapter 1: What is "I"? Power and agency in politics

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This is Chapter 2 of the blog-to-book being written by Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK, under the overall title “The Politics of Waking Up”, and first published by the Emerge online magazine. Reproduced here with kind permission (category link here).

THE POLITICS OF WAKING UP, Pt. 2: WHAT IS ‘I’? POWER AND AGENCY IN POLITICS

Indra Adnan for Emerge (original copy)

I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of my mother screaming and shouting. My brother had been in a car crash: it was touch and go. I prayed to God in my bed all night. Please, please, please. Let him live, let him live. When I got up in the early hours, I found my Mum staring out the window. My brother had died two hours earlier. That was God over for me.

***

Sometimes I yearn for the old days. When you could be a good parent by sending your kids to school, push them hard to do their homework and generally, just do as they’re told. Now I’m lost. What did a lifetime of toeing the line do for me, or for any of us? We’re ten years away from extinction. Surely everything – everything – has to be questioned now? I sometimes think I should take them out of school: let them work it out for themselves – they’ll probably do a better job. No, that’s ridiculous: they’d never survive. They’re too busy making friends and playing around with stuff.

***

Right at the heart of our triple crisis is the question of agency. Who or what has the power to save us from human extinction? According to the scientists, governments could. But they prove to be in the grip of national and global dynamics they can’t step out of. 

God is either not listening, or sitting in judgement.

Everywhere, people are asking, what is my role in this? What difference does it make if I completely change my lifestyle to cut carbon, if no-one else does?

These questions echo a lifetime of learning about the relative powerlessness of individual human beings against forces they can’t control. Not only that the common people can’t do much about socio-economic systems that are run by inaccessible elites. But also that the evidence is broadly against us: history proves our human fallibility. We cannot control our outcomes. Control is an illusion.

At the same time, evidence to the contrary abound. Entrepreneurs inventing practical solutions to age-old conundrums. Futurists using technology to leap forward into previously unimaginable capabilities. Psychologists revealing direct routes to permanent and sustainable well-being. Spiritualists offering the internal technology to found a Renaissance. Community organisers pointing again and again at how people transform through support and relationship. Art constantly offering alternative existential realties.

Why do we not choose these stories above others? Surely they are the fuel we need to power the challenge we face? There are good reasons. While internally we might be able to grapple with ‘being the change’ we wish to see, we are still living in a bigger story of the separation of domains of action. 

‘Individualists’ are reported as a threat to ‘socialists’ – the ‘selfish’ I as an enemy of the ‘good’ We. Furthermore, too often those invested in community – localists for example – are perceived as a challenge to globalists. One considers the other a dangerous waste of time. 

Yet, if we stop to consider, there is no real reason these different aspects of our action and decision making should clash. 

There are many ways into exploring this question. But on my own journey I was much relieved by the teachings of Buddhism - a philosophical system that seemed to fit better with my instincts. But challenging the materialist teachings of the Enlightenment we broadly live by in the West. 

Buddhism would describe I, We and World as the three realms of our self – the personal, the shared and the perceived. They don’t compete as domains within ourselves: just different lenses with which to observe what’s going on. Practitioners grow to accept that how they experience the outer world is shaped by their inner world. Working on the self is directly related to working on the world. 

Socially engaged Buddhism – there are many schools - works from the point of view that communities of people can create the conditions for individuals to live good lives. World movements of Buddhists also give focus to how nations can act interdependently to safeguard the operations of local communities and the people within them.  

I’m not writing this to recommend Buddhism as a practice: only to share the insights that Buddhism has offered, that are available to anyone, if they can move beyond the simple rigidity of materialism. It’s a logic that reflects our current concerns about the planet for example, directly relating our own sense of ourselves to what we feel is possible for each other and for the environment. 

On the other hand, keeping these realms separate allows those with power to instrumentalise the majority of people as parts of a working machine that delivers for our collective good. Within that mindset, the complex internal lives of individuals is a separate issue from the job of delivering growth for society as a whole. That becomes the purview of biology and psychology: those needing help to thrive are described as ill. 

Politics plays a particular part in this instrumentalisation. While politicians do a difficult job of representing the people in their constituencies - who they clearly care about – they are upholding a political system that makes this separation vital for economic growth. Humans become homo-economicus: requiring only a job and tax credits in return for taking on the job of responsible citizenship. When they fail, they are deviant.

As the failures of our economic systems become more and more obvious, this disconnect at the heart of politics leads to ever greater pressure on people to increase their efficiency as machines. Behavioural science gives rise to initiatives like Nudge theory, which work on the premise we are led by our limbic (early, animal) brains, constantly responding to small fears, always longing for comfort. It’s an easy win.

Yet science has also taught us that humans became distinct from animals at the point we evolved our frontal cortex. Here we developed the ability to observe our own thinking, create new forms of value and above all, to imagine new futures and act upon them. Of all the animals in the Kingdom, we are, as Pat Kane wrote in his essay for The Guardian, the Radical Animals: capable of creating new realities at will.

So what if we do believe, deep down, that humans are capable of much more than this life of servitude to the growth economy which is killing our planet? Not just some of us, but, on principle: that humans are more than these hamsters on a wheel? What can I – we – do with that insight?

It begins with focus. Brain theory will teach us that whatever we give our attention to, will grow our sense of what the world is, in reality. Like computers, what we download becomes our operating system. For good or for ill. When we take our information from the mainstream media, we live by it. Which is why one of the key jobs we do is write a Daily Alternative – offering people constant real-world evidence that humans are ingenious.

Unless we focus on developing a new ‘operating system’ we remain vulnerable to the innumerable calls on our attention, that keep us in thrall to the prevailing culture. 

Alternatively, when we see constant evidence of the fundamentally radical nature of human animals, all sorts of new things become possible. That’s the beginning of waking up.

Indra Adnan is a psychotherapist and the founder of the Alternative UK, a political platform which aims to support all citizens to engage with the complex issues that face our society. In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. Read Part One here.

Illustration for Emerge by
Christopher Burrows.