insight

Indra Adnan

The Politics of Waking Up 6: Where Is We?

Our current political system means that we give away our power to tiny numbers of people who decide how to run our world. Are we now seeing the conditions for more collective action?

Politics
In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part six. Read parts one, two, three, four and five.

Sometimes I sit alone in my room, just thinking. It’s so intense, I can feel the thoughts tumbling into my head, uninvited. I know this thing - this life that we live - is not how it should be. It should be so much better. We could be so much better. My parents think I’m mad, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks like this. How can I find the others?

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He couldn’t contain his fury. After all the hours he’d spent carefully creating the conditions for a deep, sensitive discussion amongst this important group of thinkers, here’s this equal rights activist banging on about the lack of diversity in the room. She’s ruining everything.

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One of the biggest falsehoods of political culture is that individualists and socialists are separate tribes, implacably opposed. 

Yet remember the kind of developmental processes I outlined in Part 4. There I described our constantly growing ability to relate to wider perspectives beyond our selfish instincts, while still being capable of looking after ourselves.

“With that mind-set you can only construct a ‘we’ when you have a clear opposition. Left v Right, Unions v the bosses, 99% v 1%."

When we live in conditions that get our emotional needs met, looking after the self does not conflict with working well with others. Why would it? Our interdependence seems obvious as soon as you are part of a family, group of friends. Or among any people standing in solidarity with each other.

Within the integral model different expressions of the ‘we’ reflect different expressions of agency. Within the first tier, life is perceived as a zero-sum game and competition is unavoidable. With that mind-set you can only construct a ‘we’ when you have a clear opposition. Left v Right, Unions v the bosses, 99% v 1%. There has be someone to beat to generate the motivation to act. As David Merrick famously said: “It’s not enough that I win, you also have to lose”.

At the level of consciousness that Ken Wilber and others describe as ‘green’, this competitiveness dissolves into relativism. We are all equal, and different: others have a right to disagree. There is no objective right or wrong: the hierarchy disappears. For many this is an ideal way for society to co-exist, in mutual tolerance. At the same time, this new distribution of power does not mean greater collectivity. It’s more of a right for people to live as they choose, often in closed, siloed communities. 
That only 2% of the potential electorate are members of the same political parties that prevent this system evolving is barely remarked upon.
Also, within the first-tier context, where the majority of society is still competing, ‘green’ looks like post-modernity: a surrender to chaos. How often do we see those who are trying to uphold the rights of others being derided by those who haven’t experienced what Wilber describes as “the inner shift past the egoic self”? 

In the second-tier context – which is a more aerial view - it all looks different again. Tolerance of difference, even chaos, becomes an active embrace, a seeking-out of diversity. From this perspective it’s not difficult to find an individual direction and purpose while remaining connected to the whole. The ‘we’ is no longer tribal, nor rejected as illusory, but returns as one’s stronger, more complex identification with ever bigger systems. 

“It is the shopping, driving, flying and wasting involved in industrial and consumerist modernity that has caused this problem. Yet we cannot correct ourselves."

We begin to develop a thinking and a feeling of belonging with the whole human race. And then the domains are ever-widening: the planet itself, including humans, the Universe of planets and so on. In many ways this completes the Russian Doll effect of the integral vision. What might be described as a spiritual quest for ever deeper and wider connection in the adult is often compared to the instinctive, unarticulated experience of the new-born child – although the context is entirely different.

It's possible that spiritual institutions like the Church, Synagogue and Mosque hold the space for the whole of the integral spectrum in our society – keeping a constant relationship with the unknown of the sacred, while we journey through life. But their institutional power also evolves and change, as our culture does. Today more and more people challenge these institutions’ authority and take on that integrating task for themselves, as described in Part 5.  
We give away our power, as billions of citizens, to tiny numbers of people who decide how to run our world. 
The result is that today our Western society is fractured and hard to bring together, much exacerbated by the ‘first tier’ politics and media that thrives on division. Particularly in the UK, a crude winner-takes-all electoral system (known as “first past the post”) denies any possibility of the country being governed as a complex whole. Every politician is required to put party before country, in a daily fight for dominance. 

In the midst of that the people have no collective agency - there is no way for us to work together. That only 2% of the potential electorate are members of the same political parties that prevent this system evolving is barely remarked upon. We give away our power, as billions of citizens, to tiny numbers of people who decide how to run our world. 

As we face a climate catastrophe capable of making our species extinct, we have no integrated alternatives to the failed system that caused it. Worse, we do not ourselves have response-ability. For all the reasons I described in Part 3, we are mostly in tharn: the term used in Watership Down for ‘toxic immobility' – or, the rabbit frozen in the headlights. 

“We are mostly in tharn: the term used in Watership Down for toxic immobility.”

I say mostly, because if you step outside of the mainstream headlines, you will find pockets of people around the world responding to the best of their ability, yet with limited success. They’re trying to persuade people to move towards the exits because the building is burning—but no-one moves. They continue to look around to see if enough of the others are moving, before they break from their own seated position. We don’t have a developed-enough ‘we’ sensibility, giving us the confidence to act on what is necessary for us, together. 

Compare that to the stories we hear about animals collectively sensing that a tsunami is about to happen and signalling a retreat from the coastline. Larger animals taking smaller ones with them. 

New forms of organisation, sometimes combined with technological solutions, try to address what a new collective action might be. But it’s early days. After centuries of the instrumentalisation of people in the name of progress, no-one thinks that reversing the damage is an easy task. Few think it is even do-able. While each phase of our social development brought extraordinary benefits, they also document the collective trauma of men and women (in different ways) becoming increasingly machine-like, serving what emerged as a global economy. 
It is the shopping, driving, flying and wasting involved in industrial and consumerist modernity that has caused this problem. Yet we cannot correct ourselves. 
Agriculture, colonialism, industrialisation, the military complex, free market capitalism – each in their turn robbing us of our ability to come together, as naturally autonomous adults, and make decisions for our collective good. (Never mind the tarnishing of “social” agency under actually existing Communist regimes).  We are, mostly in ignorance, the major polluters of the earth. It is the shopping, driving, flying and wasting involved in industrial and consumerist modernity that has caused this problem. Yet we cannot correct ourselves. 

A new story about our collective agency.


When we see our situation in these quite simple terms, it also paradoxically becomes easier to see what could change and be effective in the future. If we, as people of every kind, are becoming more self-aware—response-able—we may also be learning to collaborate better with others. Not so much to start from scratch in finding solutions, but organising ourselves better to connect to the best solutions available. 

We could defy an old economic system that gives us poor access. In the near future, we may simply rely less on the system that has failed us and more on ourselves, individually and collectively to find ways forward. Less supplicant, more creative. 

Once we start looking at our chances in this more developmental way, the whole landscape changes. We can look at the advent of the internet twenty years ago as the starting gun for power becoming better distributed around the world.

“Today any person with a computer, or even smart-phone, can be taught by Harvard University."

In a very short space of time, ordinary people have moved from having little or no access to the information they needed to make change happen, to almost unlimited access. Today any person with a computer, or even smart-phone, can be taught by Harvard University. Or pick up an invention from the other side of the world, increasingly for free.

This is not without its problems – social media in particular has also accelerated our addictions to buying and following strong opinions. But we shouldn’t ignore that has also created the conditions for these new levels of self-awareness. We talk a lot about our own behaviour, our perceptions of how relationships work, how we succeed and fail – none of which could be discussed by previous generations. Alongside that, we are now able to connect to others with shared interests at the drop of a hashtag. 

In other words, however imperfectly, multiple new forms of ‘we’ are appearing. 
This is soft power: not force, but attraction – the ability to pull people into relationship through spectacle and a good story. 
Does this in any way change the status quo? If we continue to look at power as ‘hard’ - meaning the ability to force outcomes, either with money or military might - then maybe not. Business continues to hold sway through politics – a cartel system that keeps them in hoc to each other. Our economic system – capitalist, neo-liberal – has most of us in its grip as I’ve described above. 

Yet we increasingly see groups of people with relatively little hard power make massive impact upon our lives. Whether it is Nigel Farage whose UKIP never had more than one MP in the House of Commons but managed to sway public opinion with a call upon people’s emotions. Or ISIS who changed the geo-political landscape with a single gruesome video. 

More recently, this might be the power of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion to capture the public’s imagination and put pressure on government. This is soft power: not force, but attraction – the ability to pull people into relationship through spectacle and a good story.
 
“We increasingly see groups of people with relatively little hard power make massive impact upon our lives."

History will show that soft power is nothing new. Joseph Nye described it in his book Soft Power: The Means To Success in World Politics as the reason the USA will never lose its dominance in the global sphere. Despite losing a war to the tiny nation of Vietnam, it is the power of the American Dream – its values and freedoms – transmitted by Hollywood (and now Netflix) that will always draw people towards America, shaping their preferences. 

Before that we might have also called it propaganda and the power of the media. And even earlier, the power of elites to define the dominant narratives of the age through culture. What we might have once thought uncritically of as our common values will likely, over time, be recognised as constructed by those in power. It was only until very recently, for example, that we rarely questioned the BBC’s claim that their journalists simply report the facts. Today, through our shared learning, we understand much more about how that truth is constructed and by whom

All of which adds up to what Joe Nye describes as the era of the ‘non-state actor’. It used to cost the US military millions of dollars to design, print and drop leaflets over enemy territory. Today any teenager can do the same from his bedroom for nothing. That ability to share story, image and information instantly led to easy mobilising. In a short space of time we witnessed the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the Arab Spring (2010) and then the Occupy Movement (2011) which spread across 951 cities across 82 countries. 
People power, which tends to describe large numbers in the public realm more than individual actors, has undeniably become a modern phenomenon. 
People power, which tends to describe large numbers in the public realm more than individual actors, has undeniably become a modern phenomenon. Uprisings occur all over the world, albeit with varying effects. While the Egyptians were able to topple the government, it was only a temporary victory, with a new version of the old guard resuming power soon after. While Occupy changed global culture—landing the notion of the 99% in Western society—it had no concrete plans to restructure democracy. 

However, borrowing from the new practices of digital connectivity, experiments in political parties began to happen across Europe – each remarkably different. Like a series of lab experiments we saw the Pirate Party in Iceland experimenting with liquid democracy, and Podemos in Spain operating through People’s Assemblies and circles.

Two radical green parties - Alternativet in Denmark and Five Star in Italy - played with crowd-sourcing their political programmes, through local “laboratories” and meetups. In Taiwan, the youth-led Sunflower Movement occupied Parliament and achieved an astounding digital transformation of democracy almost overnight. 

“The Alternativet party in Denmark played with crowd-sourcing their political programmes, through local “laboratories” and meetups."

History will surely record a remarkable rise in people’s power in the first part of the 21st Century—although with variable results so far. But how does that register in the face of the news, reported by the IPPC report in 2018, that we are now in an unprecedentedly perilous state with environmental collapse threatening our entire existence? Can the humane, developed and reflexive forces that we have seen arising over the past 20 years accelerate rapidly enough, in order that they can shift power away from the elite-run system that has destroyed our planet?

Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.
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Words by Indra Adnan
Indra Adnan is a psychosocial therapist and Co-Inititator of The Alternative UK, a political platform which responds to the question: if politics is broken, what’s the alternative? She is also a lifelong Buddhist and the founder of the Soft Power Network, consulting to Finnish, Brazilian, Danish and British governments.