Alternative Editorial: New Democracy Practices

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By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator, AUK

You couldn’t have made it up.

On the 29th March 2019, the day the UK was supposed to be leaving the European Union, two very different but profoundly related events were occurring at the same time.

In Westminster a cry of frustration and dysfunction, as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, for reasons only history will be able to explain in the future, found it could not deliver on the ‘will of the people’. While the British people voted 51.9% to leave Europe, PM Theresa May’s third attempt to get the negotiated deal through Parliament was defeated again by 344 votes to 286.

 For some reason, the representative system that looks so straight forward to the mainstream press is showing its deeper reality. Democracy is really much more complex than one person, one vote.

At the very same time a Citzens’ Action day was being held in Plymouth, where the Brexit vote was higher than the national result at 59.9% (on a turnout of 71.4%) in favour of leaving. Unlike the increasingly angry protest that built during the day in London, this was a low-key gathering of diverse people wanting to take action of all kinds.

They were being drawn into a conversation about how their action could respond to the big problems of not only Brexit but, in parallel, climate breakdown.

The event was co-hosted by Plymouth Octopus Projects, the Real Ideas Organisation and The Alternative UK. They represented three quite different domains of activity – citizens action/civil society activity; social enterprise; and ‘new politics’ - who came together as a natural development arising from previous gatherings. We were collaborating.

To many – including ourselves – this would look like a gathering of the ‘usual suspects’: people who, despite their different foci, have long been active in improving the lives of the community. Many of them knew each other already and the fear of Friday’s event being a re-run of a familiar conversation was always present.

Yet this new combination of organisations and agendas brought out their differences - and gave voice to some of the unrecognised tensions in the broader community. This was useful. Not only does that process reveal the blocks to progress hitherto unknown.

But at the same time, it offers new groupings around which different kinds of energy can arise. A project which looks simple but is difficult to grow, will always benefit from disaggregating – separating into its component parts and re-assembling.

I’m not planning to give away too much detail here: partly because it’s still in process and the subtlety of the dynamics have to be given space to emerge. But it’s also because any other town, city or region trying to do the same will have different elements to bring together – it would be wrong to name them as ‘correct’ or ideal.

Having said that, some of the elements can be helpfully named. Not least because the over-simplifying of the mainstream media narratives around the Brexit vote threatens to destabilise the whole of the UK. This is at a time when the need for communities to pull together in the face of climate crisis has never been stronger. We really don’t have a choice right now.

The day began with the question: how can this day of gathering be different from any other you’ve attended before? It was an attempt to challenge each of us to take responsibility for the outcome of the day from the beginning. This was one of our triggering questions that, given time, could have run on all day. Not least because we asked each of them through the prism of the relationship between the individual (“I”), the collective (“we”) and the bigger picture (“World”).

Our next question asked why we do citizens action – and the answers followed these three prisms. The ‘I’ responses ranged from “it’s about a having naivete” to “gives me a sense of purpose”. The ‘We’ responses included “the government is not delivering” to “there is a social need”. The ‘World’ focus included the needs of the planet as well as the threats arising from globalisation.

Some said they found it really useful, but challenging, to distinguish between the different realms. After all, aren’t my own needs interdependent with our shared needs and that of the planet? Yet they also agreed that the dominant media narratives encourage these different realms to compete.

The ‘me’ culture is often seen as inimical to the ‘we’ culture – with intolerance coming from both sides. When this antipathy is emphasised – eg, when looking good or having status means constantly upstaging the next person – it’s the planet that loses out. Consumer culture is built on comparison and competition.

With the second question (what citizens action can we celebrate so far?), the I-We-World frame brought attention to far more than civil society organisations, projects or businesses. It also highlighted more relationship-oriented actions – like friends and family, support networks, clubs and gatherings.

Then the third question: what made your citizens action successful? People spoke of the importance of self-development sitting alongside leadership training, as action to develop and support the citizen.

Our inner need to express vulnerability, build resilience, find courage was given its due – something equally important as building networks and establishing social enterprises. Not just nurtured in the private realm, as an individual choice, but something that needs collective resources and spaces, so that every citizen would be able to cultivate it.

Yet there were tensions in the room that our questions were not yet surfacing. The afternoon began with more of a provocation: can we project ourselves into the future and imagine what is happening in 10 years-time? Not only from the perspective of how has our work grown, but also from the perspective of how the context (social and historical) for that work will have changed.

We asked people to see the future through three lenses:  a) a dying planet that would be ten years into the twelve-year deadline for action described by the IPPC report; b) the oncoming age of automation and artificial intelligence and c) the aftermath of a broken politics.

Our kick-off question was: how do we imagine a World in the future, experienced personally, socially and globally? It tested the audience in ways that only some were willing to indulge.

We began naming the tensions in the room – not in a confrontational way (put your hands up) but through establishing “continuums”. These were two different positions, represented by the opposing walls of our big room in the Devonport Guildhall. Between the walls we suggested a straight line, on which we invited people to physically place themselves. For example, the first continuum was: “on the spectrum from fearful to hopeful, where do you stand”?

Without giving away too much about our gathering, the tensions that regularly arise in our gatherings include:

1) Gentle emergence < > urgent need to take action (meaning, slower v faster)

2) Gathering those who share values < > attracting those who don’t share our values (meaning, us/them v all of us)

3) Human centred < > need for digital facilitation (meaning, human v machine)

4) The good society < > call for freedom (meaning, progressives v anarchists)

While these continuums do a good job of holding the tension in a room, there always comes a point when a new distinction prompts a call to action. People who were only minutes before trapped in an amorphous, superficially aligned group, unable to express their inner frustrations, suddenly experience a group of people around them who agree exactly with their point of view. That’s the moment where they need to split off and plan something together.

On Friday that surfaced as three groups:

1) the people who wanted to go faster, but with a deeper call to identity and ownership

2) the ones who wanted to go slower, create more spaces for more conversation with more people, but who still see that as a political act

3) those who wanted to work at a more meta-level, recognising the new tribes that were arising in the geographical as well as temporal space between South Devon and Plymouth. And hoping to bring them into a loose relationship with each other.

Each group came out with a concrete action that could take their intention forward: and each group looked like a team of people willing to bring it about. Time will tell.

I imagine that many of those that took part on Friday will remember quite a messy day, with multiple moments of frustration. It will take regular meetings, both separately and together to sustain that momentum: to hone the confidence, individually and together.

Because, as Greta Thunberg says pointedly, again and again: Hope alone is not enough.