The Politics of Waking Up 8: Relationship As The Rebel Act
Personal and social disconnection is at the heart of the system destroying our planet.
In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part eight. Explore the rest of the series here.
Occasionally they disagree, sometimes forcefully. But instead of standing behind the brick walls of their competing rationales as they used to, they now take the time to hear each other out. Both listening intently for the words that speak to them directly, make sense on their terms. So far it hasn’t failed. One of them always sees something in the other’s explanation that hits home. At which point he goes, yeah, ok, I get it. It’s still a miracle to both of them that only one year ago they were looking at each other as ‘the enemy’.
She always dreaded that moment when the homeless person would get on a train and start to talk. Explaining why they are standing in front of you, dirty and ragged, needing whatever coins you might have to get a bed for the night. She hated the way everyone looked down at their hands. The stories they were telling themselves that she could hear loud and clear in her head. Professional beggar! Druggie! I deserve to keep the money I made through my hard work! It always took every bit of courage she had to reach into her pocket, look the poor person in the eyes and say, “there you go, good luck mate. I hope you find a bed tonight”. And it breaks her heart every time when the look she gets back is gratitude. As if that tiny bit of attention meant everything.
We could be working with the natural bounty of the earth, receiving its gifts of food and energy and living in the abundance.
When we talk about the causes of our multiple crises – environmental, social and personal – we often hear the blame laid at the door of neoliberalism or market capitalism.
At the same time, in other quarters we will hear the same answer being offered to the question, how did we achieve the magnificent progress of the past century?
What both are pointing at is the Darwinian – survival of the fittest – logic around the promotion of the global growth economy. The cities we have built, the freedoms people enjoy, the amount of choice we have around what we can buy. All depend upon an idea that nations and groups of nations should be free to keep generating more and more money to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
The flip side of that is such growth has only been possible as a result of beating nature at its own game. We could be working with the natural bounty of the earth, receiving its gifts of food and energy and living in the abundance. Instead we have extracted from the earth its generative resources and burnt them. Like eating the goose that lays the golden egg.
The question I have been posing throughout this series so far, is how and when did we give permission for that to happen? It’s not enough for one side of the political divide to blame the other, because whichever side you align with, no-one is immune to the effects of the success of the growth economy. Some more than others, granted. But we have all benefited from the illusion of abundance it brings. And we are now all suffering from the reality of the damage it’s done: the climate, the social division, the addiction and depression. When did we say yes to all of that and how can we now say no?
In the first section of this series – What is I? - I focused on the sharpest point of the workings of the growth economy: its attraction for individuals. How our given emotional needs are harnessed by an ingenious advertising industry to turn us into consumers. When a handbag can give us the vital status we need within the society we depend upon for our survival, we have no qualms about buying it. We are hooked and enslaved.
Later in that section, I suggest that we can develop the internal resources to become aware of our collusion with the external forces designed to harness us. In so doing, we can free ourselves and get on the road to better balanced lives where we use our own, inherent resources to get our needs met.
Even the most educated people will look at those who vote differently from them as dangerous, or evil.
But the vast majority of people live in circumstances that prevent that development: it’s very hard to even imagine getting off the hamster wheel. How can we bear to give up what have become the small joys of life – eating what we want, spending what we’ve earned - when they are the only rewards we have for our slavish work? Our kids would hate us for pulling them out of the rat race. Even as they suffer from the endless competition between friends that this consumerism fosters. We don’t seem to be able to pick up this table while we are standing on it.
On deeper inspection, the whole edifice depends upon multiple levels of disconnect. The disconnect within ourselves around our desires and drives and how we can get them met. The disconnect between each other as we constantly compare our relative success at securing the tools we need to thrive socially. The disconnect between our immediate group of friends or family and our community as our lives - harnessed to this consumer cause - leaves us little or no time to spend together and understand each other’s lives.
Follow the trail of disconnect upwards from there: the disconnect between cultures, classes, levels of agency. If you think this is inevitable - after all birds of a feather flock together - then consider how birds themselves occupy the skies freely. They don’t live in ghettoes of alienated species as we do. While birds of prey are able to victimise the smaller birds, there are great illustrations of how swarms of birds - murmurations - come together to foil the predators.
Our fundamental disconnects at the individual and community level are amplified massively by a political system that thrives on opposition, while holding in place the growth economy (what we call cartel politics). Aided and abetted by a media industry whose business model is to generate emotional reaction – feeding off the disruption it causes. While some parties are less friendly to large, manipulative corporations than others, they all continue to describe the human being within it as simply homo economicus: driven by material needs.
Politicians do not talk about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual human being that is still, in the 21st century, being instrumentalised by growth, despite all the evidence of the harm it is doing. The day after the tragedy of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, George Bush said the most patriotic thing every citizen could now do in defence of their country was to go out and spend money.
Each of us in ever-smaller bubbles: physically better off than we were centuries ago, but now operating as alienated individuals in service to the machine that is killing us. We walk around our towns and cities, convinced that the people we see around us are either our competition for resources or a threat to our survival. Even the most educated people will look at those who vote differently from them as dangerous, or evil – forgetting that each one of us has been absorbed into an all-pervasive narrative that divides to conquer.
We can get our own emotional needs met in ways other than through buying and consuming stuff.
Is there any way out of this - now deeply entrenched – systemic disconnect? Can societies that are completely curdled ever get back to being rich coherent mixes of people working together for our mutual benefit? To find the answer to that we might have to look away from the mainstream news that is over-invested in ‘business as usual’ and look at examples of social innovation that make a difference, of which there are many operating as experiments at different levels of society. Each of these prioritise making new relationships to build trust.
Community organising has long been undergoing a transition from mobilising methods that lead from the top and front, to forms of spontaneous self-organising that depend more on the facilitation of all the voices in the room. Transition Towns, Flatpack Democracy, Collaboratories, Commoning – all use and promote listening, relating and co-creating tools in their strategies for change.
At the civic level, there are plenty of examples of participatory methods arising. Framing them is a changing story about the importance of relationship as constitutive of mental and social health. Hilary Cottam, who, together with her team at Participle, gave rise to the notion of ‘relational welfare’ is beginning to have influence at government level – though she would say it is a long, slow journey. Ironically – but usefully - the best case for moving from treating the vulnerable in society as isolated units in the care economy, to inter-dependent citizens in an eco-system of health, is financial.
All these slow burning developments have been accelerated by the sudden and growing awareness of the ‘climate window’. Particularly through the work of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. They are are having remarkable success in cutting through the consumer trance to wake us up to the environmental emergency we are in. A rapid loss of trust in our politicians to act in the interests of future generations is throwing people back on their own resources at the community level, where they can prioritise their shared resilience in the face of the coming turbulence. For some, the emergency is bringing people together in ways they’ve never experienced before.
Key to this will be the growing awareness amongst all of us, that we can get our own emotional needs met in ways other than through buying and consuming stuff. Discovering our built in resources, such as our ability to empathise, to have rapport, to understand each other imagine new futures is what waking up feels like. That community itself – the joy of being in connection with others, building trust, co-creating – is the means to our survival. And happily, this is built into our design as psycho-social beings.
In that sense just reaching out to someone outside your bubble to break the trance of disconnection is the most revolutionary act of all.