insight

Indra Adnan

The Politics of Waking Up 14: Freedom and Independents

As Brexit proved, ‘taking back control’ can always be played upon in the collective psyche, but a broader social independence cannot be achieved without collective organisation.

Politics

30.3.2020

In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part 13. Read the rest of the series here.

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“You’re asking me what I want but telling me I can’t have it. That I should think about the others. But what if I’ve never had a say in anything? It’s not my fault things have turned out the way they have. It’s actually yours. Mate.”

Trying to stay true to myself is like spinning plates and juggling at the same time. Every day I read something new that rings a bell, resonates deeply in the depths of my being. But it also invites me into a new group or media stream to explore that further. Trying to keep up with these new kinds of belonging and all the possibilities is exhausting and confusing. I try to bring them back to the inside of myself, so I can just be with that new me emerging. But, you know, FOMO.

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In the party-political battle ground between the Left and Right, both sides have had to cede important language and ideas to their Opposition. 
While at the heart of society these distinctions can find their equilibrium, in politics and the media they are polarised.
I won’t start with any over-arching definition of their positions here, but only draw attention to the heavy costs both have paid to stay in this binary division. The Left, for example, cannot use the word Freedom because it implies that the state should reduce its role in running the public space. The Right cannot talk easily about Care or Welfare, without reducing its emphasis on self-reliance. 

While at the heart of society, these distinctions can find their equilibrium – every circumstance finding its own dynamic - in politics and the media they are polarised. Because the Left sees caring  for the most vulnerable as its primary duty, its regulations – designed to offer the best protections – are caricatured as the nanny state. Because the Right sees the Family as the front line of care, with the state withdrawing from the private life of adults, it is seen as avoiding responsibility. Of course, any of these epithets can also be true – and often are. But on the whole, they are false divides: neither sets of voters or politicians would willingly give up any of the values mentioned by either side.

Rather than try and find a compromise – a centrist position – can we not transcend and include those positions? Find a new starting point to think about what we need to develop individually and collectively to make us capable of meeting the current crises? That doesn’t mean starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel. It means, rather, bringing all our capacities into relationship and collaborating for ingenious leaps forward.

“The first Indy Mayor, Peter Macfadyen, wrote a short manual on how to take over your local council which he called Flatpack Democracy."

Easier said than done. Yet in some parts of the UK, that is exactly what is happening in the phenomenon known as Flatpack Democracy. Seventeen residents of the town of Frome, each coming from a different ward in the parish (small English town political units) stood together as Independents for Frome. Amongst them were previous rivals - two ex-Labour councillor, two from the Lib Dems. The rest had never stood for public office before, but some were Conservative voters.

What brought them together was a long-standing impatience with the local council. Despite being led by different parties at different times, the council had never shown an interest in the views of the local inhabitants. Local money was poorly spent with no consultation. Any attempt by citizens to offer proposals was routinely stifled by protocol.

Independents for Frome had a simple campaign message: vote for us and we’ll tear up the local council rule book and involve you in decision making. The first time they stood, they won 10 of the 17 seats – enough to take over the council. They did exactly as promised and radically changed the culture by introducing participatory budgeting. In addition, any good idea any local citizen had to improve Frome for all its inhabitants - which could not be funded within the budget - would be connected to possibilities of outside funding. The second time IFF stood in local elections, they won all 17 seats. The first Indy Mayor, Peter Macfadyen, wrote a short manual on how to take over your local council which he called Flatpack Democracy. Today there are 21 Flatpack Councils and as many as possibly hundreds in the making if the sales of the manual are anything to go by.
From birth onwards we struggle to become capable of standing on our own two feet as a means to survival and then fulfilment.
But of course, like Ikea flatpack furniture, it’s not always as easy as it sounds to put together or to maintain once it’s up. Standing against established parties in your hometown can look like a betrayal of good principles and ‘the greater cause’ to longstanding supporters on the Left or Right or Middle. In addition, while the prospect of winning the council is attractive, the job of running it is demanding. Even when you have a new, exciting, relationship with your own constituents, you are obliged to have an old, entrenched one with all the layers above you. Fighting for independence often leads to a loss of freedom at another level.

Like the concept of freedom, independence is always relative. Even so, it remains a siren call and for good reason. As explained in Chapter 3, the need for autonomy – the ability to have control over our own circumstances – is one of the nine essential emotional needs. From birth onwards we struggle to become capable of standing on our own two feet as a means to survival and then fulfilment. To bring a child up is more than a feeding and housing challenge, it is the task of moving them through the stages of total dependence to independence. If they mature well, they will propel themselves to inter-dependence, understanding their well-being depends upon the general well-being of others. 

Losing our freedom, as we would if we were imprisoned for example, is seen as the ultimate punishment for a human being.

“As Brexit proved, ‘taking back control’ can always be played upon as an essential need within our individual and collective psyche."

Of course, that constant need for autonomy can be temporarily met by illusions of control. Such as giving people infinite choice in the supermarket – hundreds of biscuit brands for example - without ever giving them the healthy choices they may want or need. Or the choice between Leave or Remaining in Europe, when, either way, we have to have solid ongoing material and cultural relationships with our neighbours to be able to survive and thrive. 

When you have lived a life with only superficial control over your circumstances, genuine independence can seem very daunting. We might be constantly calling for it, but if the conditions in which it can be achieved are not there yet, it will look more risky than rewarding. Within a large community of people – a city, region or small nation – there is always a broad range of capacities on the continuum between dependent and independent, according to the circumstances people have been living in (Chapter 4). Not simply material but emotional and psychological too. 

In a single town, you might have the privileged safe, the privileged unsafe (freelance / entrepreneurial, physically challenged or simply unhappy), the protesters, counter-culturalists, civil society actors, activists, social entrepreneurs – all seemingly calling for change, but with vastly different capacities for responsibility. A broader social independence cannot be achieved unless there is at least enough of a core of responsible actors capable of supporting the rest on their journey. Wanting it is not enough: it needs organisation.
Brexit proved that ‘taking back control’ can always be played upon as an essential need within our individual and collective psyche. 
Yet, as Brexit proved, ‘taking back control’ can always be played upon as an essential need within our individual and collective psyche. What might be more surprising is that the instinct for independence is arising by itself in many more places and for different reasons all over the world. 

Scottish and Catalonian Independence are both popular movements that have grown in significance, as the larger states that contain them show their inability to cope with multiple crises. In psychology, what’s known as self-determination theory shows how feelings of meaning, mastery and autonomy are sustainable resources for personal wellbeing. As for selves, so for aspiring regions and stateless nations: the call to national self-determination itself can breed a deep sense of confidence and purpose, among the committed.

Independistas are sure they can do better for their citizens. Isn’t this evidence that our growing development, both as individuals and groups, makes us more responsible for overall outcomes in our society? The key question today is less about whether or not that instinct for independence is positive - and more about the optimum size for self-organising units of governance. 

“Can municipalism really thrive without a strong localism for building trust between those living side by side in smaller towns and villages?"

Cities are increasingly acknowledged as the new frontier for healthy citizen engagement. But can municipalism really thrive without a strong localism for building trust between those living side by side in smaller towns and villages? Equally, how can we avoid excessive competition between cities for the nation’s shared resources? Each level of independence from the upper tiers has to be carefully worked out.

Movements and uprisings bring a mixture of offers. Within each seems to be some elements of pure anger or frustration that demands a response from higher authorities as the answer to the problem. But these movements also tend to carry new methods and practices that would deliver solutions somewhat more evolved than the authorities can bring. The movements are often demanding that those with power be more sophisticated than they are, or can be within the structures and cultures they inhabit and maintain.

Routinely these new elements are carried by the increased diversity of the new from the old. More young people, more women or people of colour that the establishment has not included. But also less privileged people, bringing insights from the wider population. It is their intelligence that is usually missing from the established system - originally designed to deliver on their needs (like the welfare state) but tending, instead, to maintain the established order.
Extinction Rebellion are now preparing to work much more closely with broader communities, on their own terms.
Until now, the successful movements – those that have successfully pierced the public imagination – have been top-heavy on protest. As a result, when they are in the eye of the media, it is difficult to land the innovations they are bringing. 

However this may be changing. While Occupy, for example, introduced new ideas about democratisation, they couldn’t land the new culture with the general public. Extinction Rebellion however, who have many Occupy veterans within it, are now preparing to work much more closely with broader communities, on their own terms. This is partly to include those that don’t agree with their disruptive methods. Is that what we mean by r-evolution?

How does all this impact upon any one of us, as individual human beings, obliged to enter into the voting booth on our own to make decisions about the future? Watching my own next generation grapple with a very different balance of personal and public power than I grew up with, it looks complicated. While there is a new culture of self-expression and individual creativity championed by the internet, there are also much more intensely applied efforts to capture our attention and control it. 

“While Occupy introduced new ideas about democratisation, they couldn’t land the new culture with the general public."

Our new-found freedoms are potentially a sham when we find ourselves playing ever more deeply into a digital public space still owned by those who have always been in power, only now in league with new corporates like Facebook and Google. Which, the same as the old corporates, see us only as data waiting to be mined for their financial gain. Add the technical wizardry - and unashamed emotional manipulation - of the kind of on-line campaigning that got Trump (USA), Johnson (UK), Morrison (Australia) and Bolsonaro (Brazil) elected - and the public looks more vulnerable than ever.

On the other hand, our personal and collective self-awareness is also growing rapidly. We understand more about fake news than our parents did (it was always there, in the classic form of propaganda). We are in better touch with our health - including our mental and to some extent, social health. We are more involved in debates about identity, whether gender, sexual, cultural, class, age or national. And we are more capable, through all the forms of media we consume, of observing the behaviour of others. 

To be able to withstand the accelerating external pressures from outside, it’s clear that we need to rapidly build our internal strengths for self-mastery. In that sense, any politics for this new age must understand and serve our urgent need for more personal autonomy. But at the same time, it must do that in ways that create the best conditions for our greater collaboration, as people facing multiple common crises. 

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