Alternative Editorial: Mastering Overwhelm

Image from website

Image from website

Surprised to be shocked. That’s the only way we can describe that moment this week, when we discovered that Boris Johnson had prorogued the UK Parliament for a record number of five weeks. Thereby depriving the elected representatives of the citizens of the UK their right to continue challenging the decisions of the Executive.

More than that, using the skills of unelected consultant, Dominic Cummings – a proven gross manipulator of the public realm– the Prime Minister framed his actions as a defence of democracy. 

We’re quite familiar with Johnson’s strategy: stealing democracy in the name of democracy. But even we were amazed at this chutzpah. He achieved prorogation by seeking the Queen’s assent – despite previously condemning the Opposition’s threat to involve the Royal Family, to do something similar. And despite saying categorically that he was not in favour of prorogation per se: there he was, doing the exact thing he said he was against. 

It’s that moment when the one really annoying pupil in your class whose been protesting that he would never steal anyone’s trainers - trying to shame you for even pointing the finger at him - suddenly shows you he’s got them in his bag. Ha ha! 

This is no longer about the pros and cons of Brexit: this is about what one man is prepared to do, within a political culture that is built on division. A zero sum game, in which there are winners and losers and leadership is about getting over the line.

But where does that leave us now? It was very noticeable in the following day’s news headlines, that everyone else was equally shocked. Even the papers who tend to back his behaviour, reported the act but held back from approving of it. Did he take a step too far? Is he now at risk of alienating even those who were prepared to support him ‘against their better judgement’.

Our sense is that Johnson wouldn’t care either way. As his career has already demonstrated, taking risks is his style. If he was to fail, he would try again later. It’s the privilege of limitless resources. Doing so in the name of our freedom is his deep subterfuge. 

Not knowing whether jumping off a cliff will result in flying or falling does not feel like fun to most people. Very few of us have a parachute, let alone a helicopter. 

What is the image of Britain that Johnson is hoping to fix in our imagination as he swipes at our comfort zones? Our sense is that it is of an “unfettered” Britain (indeed, many of his cabinet once contributed to a volume entitled Britannia Unchained). Free to soar into the global sphere like a balloon, picking and choosing the best of trade deals from a great height. Free to break the rules. Playing to the rebel archetype, but closer to the Bullingdon bully: doing what he wants. Barely noticing the staff as he trashes the building. 

But what are the ropes Boris is cutting? Possibly human rights laws. Possibly spending restraints – at least in the run up to an election. Almost definitely the cultural and behavioural norms that are currently ensuring social cohesion.

But even more dangerously, for the climate emergency we are now in, is the prospect of this government cutting the hard-won environmental regulations currently in place after COP21. Even while cultivating a green image, the prospect – the tempting illusion - of liberating business to compete with India and China, on the most destructive terms, is very real. 

Check here for the evidence that Jacob Rees-Mogg, appointed Leader of the House of Commons by Boris, is recommending we cut our own climate regulations to match those of India. For more on why India has lower regulations, and how they are carefully calibrated in a global plan, see here. 

Extinction Rebellion, not dissimilar to ourselves, has carefully positioned itself to be non-party political, beyond Left and Right. But this might be a moment of fusion between the environmental and political agendas. 

It’s the first time since the November uprising when the UK is in danger of going backwards rather than forwards in the fight to reach carbon neutral. Like Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morrison in Australia, Johnson is championing the right to put country before planet. 

Even it if means destroying the future, for short-term gains to be shared only amongst the most privileged. Not understanding that goal is oxymoronic – without a healthy planet, no country will survive.

A future beyond this moment of panic

Where does the non-political but increasingly alarmed citizen (up to 85% of people according to Ipsos Mori) do at this moment? Yes, sign a petition, get out on the streets, show your awareness of what is at stake. Even if you think our politics is broken, the whole world is watching. Rising up against all attempts to rob us all of a future will encourage others to do the same. Witness Greta Thunberg in New York City right now.

But what about the hours you spend not amongst those who are energetically in action with you? Those quietly terrifying moments when the truth of what is happening threatens to overwhelm? It’s only too easy, to turn to displacement activity – hedonism, consumption – or nihilism. These lines by singer, songwriter Iain Whitmore, captures it:

Vast empty places

You could never call your own

If you don’t know where to go

Any road will take you there

Our strategy is to focus ever more on a future beyond this moment of panic. Whether it feels like a feat of imagination or a building project in your local community – preferably both at once – you must have a clear direction of play. This is vital for our ability to act. It’s our response-ability. 

Taking that task on, and aligning even your daily habits with that vision does not lead to an easy life. But it connects the “vast empty space” to something that isn’t just answered by consumerism. Something that has boundaries, a direction, a way to measure progress. Pitching yourself against the obstacles you meet builds strength and purpose, rather than spiralling alienation and existential angst. 

That’s why we focus on collaboratories as a starting point for grass roots action. More than protest, these are vehicles for building an alternative future. Starting with the assiduous work of bringing people together from across the community. Which means working below the level of party politics or class and culture divides. 

We invite people into a community space we call the Friendly. It has diversity, not only of identity but also of agency – from entrepreneurs to activists or those widely excluded from society. 100 – 150 is a good number. 

These spaces are a-political, in that there is no party agenda, tackling issues. It’s a space for relationship making and trust building. The tools are more creative, facilitatory, aimed at enjoyment and emotional resonance. Creating memorable experiences that are visceral rather than intellectual. This is where developing strength in community begins.

Those same 100 move together into the Inquiry stage. Here, instead of trying to fix the current problems arising out of the old system, participants re-imagine a future they could look forward to for their community. Something they could invest their efforts into, find their belonging in. In some ways, it is a way of bringing their collective yearning into focus.

The third stage is about Action:where a strategy is built for making that vision real. 

Depending on the size and status of the community, this might be where the ‘usual suspects’ – the people who have been working on alternative systems for decades – can help to connect the goals with projects already underway. It’s where social enterprises turn ideas into projects that can apply for existing pots of funding. Or where original initiatives are matched with similar ideas already materialising in different parts of the world. 

This pattern of activity, which articulates the needs of the community while they bring their possible future into the present, is what we call a citizens action network. Unlike the relationship with the council, which tends to take the form of a shopping list, a CAN both captures the culture needed for sustaining that community and provides a container within which to land it.

A CAN might include spaces to meet, learning clubs, crowd-funding hubs, and much more. It will likely have its own currency, attaching a different kind of value to its activities. And – when the time is right – a digital network, specifically designed to amplify the network of relationships built amongst the people. When all this is achieved, the CAN becomes a concrete unit of a new, broader system, with a new political and active culture, capable of responding to the multiple crises we now face. 

The CAN might be missing piece of the puzzle in the search for individual agency in a shared space. 

More and more people look for something to get stuck into, a way to make a difference in the face of the powerlessness they experience at the hands of current party politics. Taking action in your local community – from volunteering, to community organising or the full-on building of citizen action networks – provides focus, agency, attraction. And a growing story about a new era of people’s politics. 

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