In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine.
There came a moment when nothing made sense any more. The planet is burning her teachers said, as they booked their honeymoon to Bali. The planet is burning the scientists said – only faster now. But still they flew and consumed and threw their plastic. What is this life, she thought? What game are they playing that I can’t play? Her body shut down. She stopped eating, drinking, talking. Her parents turned to look at her but could not make her smile.
They looked at themselves and saw what they were doing that was killing their daughter. So they stopped. They started a new game called ‘stop the planet burning’ and asked her to join in. Slowly she got the hang of it. Feeling stronger she started to play the game in the streets. First a few, then a thousand, then a million joined in. But not enough – yet - to stop the planet burning.
For that we need a new game.
At a time when we need clear, strong leadership at the international and national level even people who broadly agree cannot collaborate successfully.
In this age of multiple crises, we have recently moved into a moment of acute challenge for every one of us: catastrophic climate breakdown. It is no longer disputed by scientists – in whom the public trusts - that we have ten years left to avert the extinction of the human race on planet Earth.
However, at a time when we need clear, strong leadership at the international and national level, committed to responding to the scientists recommendations, we find ourselves hopelessly fragmented and fractured. Even people who broadly agree cannot collaborate successfully.
This is not simply a familiar, if escalated, reality. Like a series of conflicts that only need resolving for everything to be better. The problems are systemic and wicked: requiring unprecedented competencies and political will to resolve. One might observe, that it is a time in our social and political history – the world over - when we are especially incapable of showing strong leadership and coming together to take clear action.
For the first time in history, any individual with access to broadband, can see themselves as an actor in the public sphere.
There’s a reason for this. Since the birth of the internet, only twenty-five years ago, we have been in an information and connectivity revolution. In many ways this has been an incredibly exciting time. For the first time, everyone has access to learning, opportunity, free entertainment, infinite choice of stuff to buy. And to each other. Not only as potential friends but as recruits to an event, or a cause.
People are also experiencing themselves in a radically different way. For the first time in history, any individual with access to broadband, can see themselves as an actor in the public sphere. Anyone with a desire and capacity to perform their opinions or ideas, can now do so. Often finding an audience ready to engage and amplify what would until only recently have been a private thought.
Watching each other online has been enlightening. Did we really know before what we know now about human behaviour? Observing our own activity on social media, did we even know ourselves? As social animals? And all this is happening even within each of the bubbles that we inevitably frequent. The few times we stray out of our comfort zone into a completely different field of activity we can barely process what we are reading.
In many ways history might look back at this period of history as incredibly rich. To borrow the Chinese phrase wryly, a thousand – no, millions – of flowers are blooming. Each one offering a different perspective on life, a different way of expressing reality. People who once felt alienated from the mainstream of society, are finding - by way of Facebook and Twitter hashtags – others like them to share time with.
Patterns that were previously visible only to those who study markets, have become more obvious to all of us. For example, that we are not simply creatures with material needs. But diverse bio-psycho-social-spiritual beings with complex emotional needs. Those needs play out in the ways we gather, respond to events, make life-choices.
For example, in the UK, Cambridge Analytica identified the mind-set of a very specific demographic – the 3 million people who never voted, as having a need to take back control of their lives. Not taking control – something that would suggest aggression. But taking back control – our right to what was once ours. Playing into that keenly felt need with slogans and promises, won the Leave vote. Albeit with no realistic plans to be able to deliver it, as our current political breakdown is illustrating.
The public space is wide open for a new political idea. Since Brexit over 90 new parties have been registered in the UK.
But Leave were not the first to use emotional tools. Before them the advertising industry, the popular media – even our parents to some extent – played a similar role. Turning us into consumers and hard-working cogs in the machine of our growth economy – something both Left and Right have been committed to throughout the 21st century.
What is different today, is that we are increasingly (though not yet universally) capable of observing our own manipulation and reflecting upon it. Our attempts to enlighten each other or call third parties out for poor behaviour is an international sport.
However that growing awareness has also led to the infinite fragmentation of previous social solidarity. Only 20 years ago, people could identify easily with broad categories like class, religion, family or place. Today in the UK, Brexit has revealed how even families, let alone old demographic groupings such as age or race, can no longer agree, for a whole host of reasons. Too many people are finding themselves, ploughing their own furrow, looking for the attention, energy and possibly the resources of others.
Our politics reflects this extreme fragmentation. Only 2% - 5% of the population across Europe are members of political parties. Previously non-negotiable categories like Left and Right are coming into question, particularly outside of Westminster. New questions like Leave or Remain or, in the case of Scottish Independence, Yes or No are dividing the previously aligned Progressives or Tories.
To the political observer, it’s a spectacle of dysfunction. Politicians, without the capacity to lead in chaos, are disrespected and abused.
At the same time, our old national and global economic models have been failing spectacularly. Over the past decade we have experienced complete global financial meltdown, changed next to nothing and may now be heading for a repeat. More recently we have faced the impact of our relentless growth economy upon our planet. Our belief in neoliberal capitalism is collapsing as we begin to consider the possibility of our own extinction.
What if politics itself is really broken, meaning completely unfit for purpose in these wholly new times?
Innumerable books, think tanks and experiments have pointed at increasingly feasible socio-economic alternatives. Calling out the disconnection at the heart of a market economy. Showing new mechanisms for reconnecting personal and social to planetary health.
But our political system does not seem able to shift to these possibilities. While groups and even recognisable movements line up alongside new ways of addressing our problems, the majority of people will never know about them.
In many ways, the public space is wide open for a new political idea. Since Brexit over 90 new parties have been registered (ref) in the UK, hoping to step into the vacuum. Many of them contain the word United, or Britain, as if the need to come together and heal the polarisation is clear to everyone. Yet none hit the nerve that UKIP did – citing the desire for autonomy lying underneath the goal of coming together. If UKIP had been willing or able to follow up their harnessing of people’s complaint with a community strategy for action, it would have been a story of social development. But the culture of participation is absent.
But what if politics itself is really broken, meaning completely unfit for purpose in these wholly new times? Politicians and parties, largely caught up in old ideology and binary dynamics, stuck in a top down agenda for controlling us – the people. Lacking the imagination to get us away from the past? Maybe what is needed today is a politics that puts the need for human agency at the heart of the project? Connecting people to a more sustainable and technologically-enhanced economy? So we can be part of building the future?
If that sounds idealistic, then look carefully, because - in small ways - it is already happening.
Or maybe you’ve been following the UK Preston model, a new form of localised economy that is transforming the Northern city. This was itself an imitation of what happened with community wealth building in Cleveland, Ohio
. Or the Participatory Cities model in Barking and Dagenham. Or just watching what happened when Scotland formed its own Parliament with a proportional system? There are so many examples of new forms that express a desire for action independent of central government or its tributaries.
We need a new idea of politics that prioritises the importance of communities coming together outside of the division created by national level parties.
Instead, the need for agency – for the people, in the place they live. These are not initiatives that settle for small ambition: they are cosmo-local, connecting people to the best solutions available from all over the world.
From a political perspective, you might be aware of the growth of citizen led, community action such as Flatpack Democracy
. Fostering independent politicians, often in sufficient numbers to take over the local council and change the rules of engagement. Experimenting with participatory budgeting, people’s assemblies. Citizen Action Networks that bring conflicted communities together, offering them creative spaces to become connected with the solutions already available.
What is crucial to this kind of modelling, is that they do not offer detailed blueprints that can only be successful elsewhere if rigidly followed. Instead they are prototypes arising from a pattern of values and organising principles that people can relate to emotionally as well as practically. And for this reason, can be picked up and developed under local conditions. This patterning suggests a fractal possibility – rapid imitating and replicating, based on self-similarity rather than rigid structures. But free to express itself authentically, locally.
For example, the Preston model is about community wealth building. It describes how anchor institutions in any given town can invest inwards rather than sourcing all their services from around the world. A simple switch that emphasises the importance of the community in wealth and building, which has rejuvenated the local economy. It’s an idea that is being copied all over the UK quickly, as it doesn’t rely on a central body to scale it.
Another example, the Well Being Economy re-purposes business to create the conditions for human flourishing. This can often be achieved by shifting the model from a single to a triple-bottom line. Elinor Ostrom’s Commons model, Transition Towns and Permaculture all echo similar patterns and principles – linking person to community to planet. As organic systems, they replicate natural and human organising, meeting emotional as well as physical needs. They feel less like hierarchical structures for towns and cities to fall into line with. More like an open field in which different kinds of flowers bloom.
Is this the new model that Buckminster Fuller once called for to make the old one obsolete? Maybe. However, within the current system it will have to suffer its fate like any other, as a political football to be kicked back and forth between two parties and ideologies. We need a new idea of politics that prioritises the importance of communities coming together outside of the division created by national level parties. Without the possibility of energetic engagement by all the members of a shared community, we won’t be able to accelerate out of this very tight corner we find ourselves in.
A fractal politics must shift the focus away from Westminster and look for the local and municipal energy that can connect human flourishing with planetary flourishing.
This means moving into the broader culture of agency described above. But it also means offering citizens opportunities to upgrade their personal capacities. Technology that gives everyone equal opportunity to be community builders. Learning clubs where anyone can learn the tools of self-mastery – physical, psycho-social, spiritual. Plus beautiful spaces in which people can meet, transform conflict, experience joy as well as grief. Such citizen action networks, occurring organically in towns, cities and regions can also be seen as fractals of the bigger, more cohesive economic eco-systems of change described above.
And when this emerging connected, relational culture is becoming established in a community - only then – maybe add to the mix, the digital networks capable of capturing their decision making. Not singularly around ideas arising from the local citizens – which will be important - but also deliberating the cosmo-local solutions that will halt the destruction of the planet. Whether liquid democracy or blockchain or any kind of proportional system, a rich, connected community should become capable of digital voting.
Standing back, these kinds of self-similar, self-replicating, patterns of individual human and community development, connected to the emerging planet-friendly new economies, add up to a possibility of rapid, fractal change.
To accelerate that possibility, a fractal politics must shift the focus away from Westminster and look for the local and municipal energy that can connect human flourishing with planetary flourishing. Not simply described by jobs and housing, but on the more complex, humanly complex terms that these new times have generated. Build platforms that prioritise communities working together across old divides, liberating the energy of autonomy, agency, futurism. Design the party and political system that serves that.
It’s an ambitious vision for tumultuous times. But one might argue, far more natural and conducive to human flourishing than anything we have had until now. And it’s close.
Over the next fourteen weeks, I’m going to dive deeper into why and how a new concept of the human being is the starting point for a new politics. How unlocking complex humans within complex systems is already re-making both place based and virtual community. How breakthrough tech can be better harnessed by integrated communities. Which in turn are increasingly the platforms for the cosmo-local collaboration the planet urgently needs to continue supporting the human race.
And then I’ll challenge you to share what you’ve got. To make this happen. In time.
Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.