Inspired by social movements sweeping Europe, Indra Adnan says a divided UK is ripe for a new form of grassroots politics.
When Indra Adnan stepped of the boat to Bornholm, a rugged island off Denmark’s Baltic Sea Coast, she was thrilled to be attending a political festival called Folkemødet, a lodestar for progressives across Europe.
It was June, 2016, and the gathering was infused with a sense of the possible. In Denmark, the Alternative, a newly-formed grass-roots party with a crowd-sourced manifesto, had stunned the establishment in Copenhagen by winning nine seats in the 179-member assembly. Radical outsiders were shaking up the status quo from Iceland to Spain. As the festival got under way, a news story breaking in the town of Birstall in northern England punctured the Utopian bubble. Jo Cox, a British member of parliament, had died after being shot and stabbed multiple times while campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union. The referendum on Brexit was then still a week away. As a long-standing member of Cox’s Labour party, Indra could barely fathom the murder of such a much-loved left-wing figure. But as her shock gave way to grief, she sensed a new path opening before her.
If Cox’s death had laid bare the depths of the bile and dysfunction infecting Britain’s political system, Indra believed there was an antidote. She could sense the fresh energy exploding all around her on Bornholm: shining through the eyes of dancing festival-goers, musicians, artists and the eclectic mix of speakers taking turns at the microphone. The unexpected gains made by the Alternative in Denmark the previous year had shown that individuals engaging in public life in creative ways could have a real impact on their communities, their countries — perhaps the whole planet. Indra knew in that moment she had to ignite the same spirit in deeply divided Britain.
Working with her partner Pat Kane, a musician, writer and futurist, she began sketching out plans to adapt the participatory aspects of Alternative to create a platform dedicated to fostering a new type of politics. Whereas activists had traditionally focused on building movements capable of persuading governments to implement their agenda, Indra would focus on helping people to drive the changes they wanted to see in their communities for themselves.
“We just launched something and said: ‘If politics is broken, what’s the alternative?’ Indra says, speaking at 42 Acres, a co-working space in East London’s Shoreditch area. “When the story among the vast majority of people is that they are powerless, to help create conditions where they can begin to feel their power again is the first step to us rescuing ourselves.”
Perched on one of the beanbags strewn about 42 Acres, which occupies the upper floor of a converted church, Indra is clearly at home in the centre’s yoga-and-crystals vibe. But there is nothing starry-eyed in her sense of personal responsibility for the welfare of the planet.
Since Indra and Pat launched The Alternative UK on March 1, 2017 at a packed event at the Impact Hub in London’s King’s Cross, the movement has held ‘co-laboratories’ in London, Plymouth, Eastbourne, Frome and Brighton. The meetings work like this: Indra and local facilitators create spaces where people can get to know one another, explore what’s going on in their area, and allow themselves to dream up new futures as a prelude to concrete action. Pat also runs a daily newsletter filled with stories of transformation at the personal, community and global level to serve as a source of inspiration and ideas.
The goal is not so much to build The Alternative UK’s profile as a stand-alone project, but to use its facilitation model to further energise a ‘network of networks’ of the many existing initiatives by activists, creatives, visionaries and techno-optimists who share Indra’s intuition that just as crises burgeon in all directions, the moment is ripe for fundamental change.
“Everything for me is an inquiry around agency: What is the human being? What is power? Who has it? How do we develop it?”
“Everything for me is an inquiry around agency: What is the human being? What is power? Who has it? How do we develop it?” Indra says. “Because we have a story about ourselves that we are powerless, and that only certain people have power — and it’s a lie.”
Indra’s emphasis on the importance of helping individuals and communities regain a sense of self-command is rooted in a personal journey inspired by her lifelong Buddhist practice and a gloriously unstructured career spanning politics, journalism and the arts. Born to an Indonesian father and Dutch mother, Indra lost her older brother in a car accident when she was eleven. The family received a phone call saying he had been taken to hospital, and Indra spent the whole night praying to God to spare his life.
“At some point in the night he died. I woke up in the morning and it was over,” Indra says. “That was my trauma moment, and also the most enabling thing of my life. That’s the beginning of my journey of understanding: ‘What is agency’? ‘What is power?’ At that point, as a child, I thought I could pray to God to make something happen — by the morning I was over that.”
Struggling to cope with her grief, and the impact of her brother’s death on her parents, Indra began to develop her own form of spirituality. “I sort of made up my own religion in the process, because I had to,” she says. “I made up that my brother wasn’t dead: he was elsewhere, in a different space, in a parallel universe — and I just had to accept that, but maintain my connection with him.”
Though some Eastern paths can provide tempting ways to bypass difficult feelings, Indra’s words resonate with a conviction that suggests she's never used spirituality as an escape hatch. In another place and time, she would more likely have been cast as a high priestess than a mystic: intent on acting in the world, not transcending it.
Indra can trace this drive to engage back to her early encounters with Buddhist activism. In her early 20s, she accompanied her Indonesian uncle, who had adopted Nichiren Buddhism after marrying a Japanese woman, on trips into remote parts of Indonesia, where he would teach people a way to awaken a deeper sense of connection through chanting. The work had to be undertaken delicately in the mostly-Muslim country. But the practice brought so many people into such profound contact with a deeper dimension of themselves that entire communities began to spontaneously self-organise and transform, Indra recalls.
“We would visit one day, and they would have nothing – they were just dependents waiting for the army trucks to arrive, to bring their provisions,” Indra says. “In a short space of time – a six-month gap between the first visit and second visit — they would be building their own roads and making connections with the outside world.”
Looking back, it seems clear that the transformations Indra watched her uncle facilitate in Indonesian villages must have foreshadowed her later decision to set up The Alternative UK. But in the decades between those two turning points, her worldview evolved during her parallel journeys down spiritual and political paths.
During her late 20s and early 30s, Indra ran a number of Buddhist-sponsored projects, including conflict and peace forums inspired by the work of Johan Galtung, a sometimes controversial Norwegian sociologist and mathematician viewed as the principal founder of the discipline of peace studies. Indra also ran a Peace Journalism Project aimed at helping reporters at media organisations examine the extent to which their institutional biases were causing them to unconsciously serve, rather than challenge, vested interests in business and politics.
Indra went on to juggle various freelance roles while raising her son as a single mother, including curating spaces and talks for the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where she put on a six-episode series called the “S-Word: Spirituality in the 21st century.” Indra also spent two years running the Downing Street Project, which aimed to boost the role of women in politics. She was astonished that within three days of launching, she and her co-founders had been invited for a meeting with Sarah Brown, wife of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown – a powerful early illustration of the emerging power of social media to create new connections.
Fascinated by the many forms political power could take, Indra founded the Soft Power Network to link people interested in ways to create outcomes without using force. In the five years before she started The Alternative UK, Indra served on the management board of Compass, a leading left-wing think-tank. During that time, she campaigned – unsuccessfully – for selection by the Labour Party as a parliamentary candidate for London’s Hampstead and Kilburn constituency. Indra also became involved with Perspectiva, a think-tank co-founded by Swedish entrepreneur Tomas Bjorkman and Jonathan Rowson, a chess grand-master and philosopher, to explore the connection between personal transformation and broader social change.
The more closely Indra observed the British political system, the more she began to appreciate that it served to divide people in ways that blocked fundamental reform and left the vast majority of voters feeling powerless. A practicing psychotherapist, she became increasingly persuaded that anyone seeking to challenge this paradigm would first have to do the often exacting ‘inner work’ of facing their own shadows.
“You need women in the space to spark this collaboration between people"
“The human revolution has to occur on the inside. Each one of us has to beat our own demons,” Indra says. “We have to overcome our own egos: we have to overcome our resistance to action, we have to stop hiding. And the most important thing is we have to collaborate with others — that’s proving to be much harder than you would imagine among like-minded people.”
A ferocious networker, Indra spends much of her time seeking to connect with the many organisations she sees as part of a wider ‘ecosystem’ working towards transformation at different levels. Examples of the kinds of initiatives The Alternative UK is working with include: Perspectiva and therapists in the Human Givens school; civil society groups such as the Transition Town movement, CTRL-Shift, and the Permaculture Association; and trans-national visions such as the Soft Power Network, the Great Transition, and the Good Country project. Indra also works closely with futurists and technologists, such The Fourth Group and the London Futurists, Enspiral, Loomio and an architect named Indy Johar who co-founded Dark Matter Labs, which applies complex systems science to urban renewal.
“The environmental problem that we have is in a way a test of mankind — one that we have devised for ourselves.”
Despite the vanishing timeframe to avert catastrophic climate change and the risks posed by a resurgence of populism across the Western world, Indra’s faith in the future is rooted in her vision of human beings as ‘radical animals’ — a phrase coined by her partner Pat to reflect the way in which people, under the right conditions, can access extraordinary reserves of ingenuity and creativity to solve the problems they create. It’s this vision of people’s innate capacities that gives Indra her adamantine faith that bringing people together to explore their visions, as much as their difficulties, can unleash miracles.
Indra wants many more people to focus on facilitating this process on a global scale – and that’s where she believes women have a critical role. To illustrate her point, she draws an analogy between the process of triggering an evolutionary leap forward in a community and making mayonnaise. When a chef manages to titrate oil into a bowl of egg yolk at just the right pace, then the clear liquid suddenly coheres into a thick, creamy sauce — a fundamental transformation that seems to takes place in an instant. Indra believes that similarly dramatic social changes will only take place at scale if women are able to bring their relationship-building skills to the fore.
“The work that women have always done to hold communities and families together in the private domain now has to be brought into the public domain to bring the power actors together,” Indra says. “You kind of need women in the space to spark this collaboration between people – that’s what the mayonnaise factor is.” Just as an individual can experience a shift in consciousness as a result of spiritual practice, Indra believes that societies — perhaps even the whole planet — can go through a similarly rapid metamorphosis. Under the right conditions, Indra dares to believe that ‘radical animals’ might be capable of achieving far more on a shorter timeframe than many people might assume.
“The environmental problem that we have is in a way a test of mankind — one that we have devised for ourselves. When we beat that, it’ll be the exposition of our powers as human beings. But we’re so far from doing that because the narrative is we’re totally powerless in the face of this problem,” Indra says. “It could be really an exciting ride these next ten years, but we have to win that on the inside first.”
Matthew Green is a journalist and author. After 14 years working as a correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he wrote his new book Aftershock: fighting war, surviving trauma and finding peace, which documents the struggles of British military veterans seeking new ways to heal from post-traumatic stress.
Photos by Harry Mitchell
Harry Mitchell is a London-based photographer whose work has been featured in GQ, Telegraph Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, 11Freunde and The Financial Times.