In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part 15. Read the rest of the series here.
***Looking at her grieving for our natural world was extremely uncomfortable. On the one hand he knew she was right and they should accept the inevitability of a grim future: the science has it. On the other his body told him he was young! Full of vigour, imagination, arrogance. Surely that counted for something?
How long have I listened to you saying “we need a more diverse community? More women, more people of colour or from the other side of town”? What’s stopping you getting up out of your chair and just getting to know them? Going to where they meet, listen to their voices and get involved? Hey presto, you’ll be part of a more diverse community.
The vast majority of people are left behind by their own goals, be they personal or political, not for lack of intention, but for lack of capacity.
Where does the future arise from? Not a small question and one that touches on every aspect of power and agency that I have been exploring in this series. Can we predict, organise or control the future – or is it determined by a greater force, such as God or fate? Can we know for certain either way?
What is the relationship between the present and the future? Simple logic would say that the future arises directly from now: you can’t step into it from any other place or moment. At the same time, the way we run our societies would suggest that we believe otherwise. That somehow, we can give rise to a future by intending to change: not “being the change” right now.
Whether Gandhi ever spoke the famous words “be the change you wish to see” or not, the idea has resonated through the decades. It’s compelling to believe that simply aligning yourself to your goals will change history. For example, moving towards a greener food and energy plan to save the planet. Yet the specifics of Gandhi’s adopted lifestyle – extreme and self-directed - and his enlightened skills in identifying the key symbolic actions that captured the imagination of millions: these are less often talked about.
We may think it’s common-sense, but the relationship between intention and action is hardly straightforward. We all know the difference between intending to get fit, for example, and actually putting those trainers on every day and establishing a routine that would lead to physical health. The difference between embracing an idea and enacting that idea can be brutal: without a clear plan to link the first to the second, there is zero result. If we believe character is key to agency – as many schools of thought do - how do we describe the qualities?
Gandhi’s ‘being’ was very active, strategic and ambitious: his intellect, fierce. It was quite different from the gentler, appreciative and forgiving ‘being’ espoused by some spiritual groups, who also talk about the future as something we can’t control. Yet many who have similar strong characters to Gandhi will never make the impact that he did. And others with far gentler dispositions, such as Rosa Parks – who, though courageous, was kind and compassionate in her relationship with those around her – will also change the world.
The vast majority of people are left behind by their own goals, be they personal or political, not for lack of intention, but for lack of capacity. In mundane terms that might mean a lack of resources – time, space, energy. Modern life has designed our days to be enslaved to the growth economy: obliged to make money to maintain the consumerist lifestyles we’ve become addicted to. We have to be put in service to toxic businesses 7-10 hours a day, just to put food on the table or keep a roof over our heads.
Imagine if the vast majority of citizens saw their own role in shaping our collective future, rather than seeing themselves as powerless.
At the same time, even those with enough material resources will have limitations on their emotional capacity to step directly into action. Each of us have a narrative of our own agency which depends on our personal history of acceptance and rejection, success and failure. It takes confidence, mental and physical space to make the kinds of changes we know would create a better future for all of us. As it stands, only people with the means – economic, yet also psychological – can live their lives broadly as intended, with some measure of control. But only some.
For that reason, any alternative politics would focus on creating the conditions for each person to develop their capacity for self and social development together – what we might call response-ability. This isn’t simply an education based on absorbing information – although that matters. But a life-long, living, developmental incubation of physical and emotional capacities that make one resilient and creative. As support for this, think Universal Basic Income, plus the kind of personal and social learning clubs that the Scandinavians enjoyed in the 19th Century. Imagine if the vast majority of citizens saw their own role in shaping our collective future, rather than seeing themselves as powerless, dependent upon those in authority to make all the changes.
At the same time, what shapes those goals we might set ourselves? If we only have access to the thoughts in our head as we go about our pressured lives, much of what we are hoping for will be defined by what we already know, or what we can imagine from our narrow base of experience. Some of us may demand more and better jobs, while others only dream of less work and more free time to develop things.
The broader our access to the reality of those outside our social and media bubble, the better we can begin to plan for what is needed to create the conditions for general flourishing – the health of a common environment (or ‘commons’) we all depend upon. Politicians will say that is what they spend their whole time doing: all we have to do is choose between their party prescriptions. Yet only 2% of people sign up to political parties. Maybe it’s time for the 98% to step into more response-ability.
On top of the diverse kinds of learning mentioned above, we also need the impetus to think beyond what the mainstream culture believes is possible or desired. In that sense, social media can be a crucial tool, in the way it informs and also stimulates the imagination. Anyone with elementary technology (85% percent of people in Europe, 67% globally, now use mobile phones) can express their own ideas for innovation. Although we are still largely constrained by global corporate control of the internet, there is plenty of evidence that experimental thinking and acting is going on all the time.
Being open and exposed to new concepts, tools and practices from all over the world is crucial to individual and local development. Whether this exposure reminds us of ancient practices from indigenous tribes, or leaps forward in technological empowerment, it is how we join up the dots - between the cosmo-local and the local-possible - that will make the most of our human and social potential, wherever we are.
As I write, we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a new low for governments worldwide.
In that sense, it is crucial that young people are always feeding their imaginations
into wherever collective futures the wider society is planning. Their capacity for and therefore access to new tools and practices, often free of what might be seen by their elders as historical constraints, can radically affect the way we think together. At the same time, young people need a good relationship to what’s been developed before, saving them from constantly reinventing the wheel.
As I write, we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a new low for governments worldwide as it becomes ever clearer that, despite warnings from scientists for over a decade, they could not prepare for a future they knew was coming. In many ways this wilful ignorance only echoes the bigger picture: our lack of political will and capacity to face the ongoing triple crises – personal, social, global - I have been pointing at throughout the series.
Yet because this is a virus, potentially threatening any human being and their family regardless of privilege (though social inequalities are shaping its impact), the problems have become much more visible. Everyone feels the crisis directly: even if none of your close family or friends are vulnerable, someone you see regularly will be. This is not happening to a far-off country; it’s in your community, on your doorstep, maybe in your home.
That countries with inadequate or run-down health services are struggling to cope with the sudden increase of demand is no surprise. But the evidence that some countries are clearly doing better than others with similar levels of wealth makes this a very political moment.
Some of the conditions for success or failure are easy to reveal. For example a medical expert at the White House shared a programme of action that could be quickly implemented in a pandemic, which was on stand-by throughout President Obama’s term in office. Crucially, that programme was scrapped by President Trump when he entered office and has had to be created from scratch in this emergency. In the UK the high rate of death can be partly directly attributable to the number of care beds available which, at the start of the campaign, were the lowest in the whole of Europe (228 per 100,000 of population compared to 621 in Germany and Lithuania).
Styles of leadership have come under the microscope: it has been interesting to see which qualities have inspired quick and collective responses from the people. Attempts at Churchillian (meaning character-led) calls to follow instructions that were not, in fact, grounded in recognised expert advice failed in the UK. Major institutions decided to isolate well before the government recommended and the PM’s ensuing U-turn caused much confusion and therefore lives.
Only 9% of people want to return to ‘business as usual’ after the effects of the pandemic are over.
In New Zealand and Taiwan meantime, a more feminine approach
was to defer to the scientists for safety instructions but concentrate on the building of trust between government and people with many opportunities for warm communication. To help parents struggling in lock-down, Jacinda Ardern held a press conference just for children. Tsai Ing-wen relies heavily on the community relationships already served by state-of-the-art technology. Local leaders deliver food and are in ready communication with citizens. Neighbourhood support networks are in operation and digital tech available to report daily on symptoms. As long as you remain infected you receive a daily allowance to stay home.
Across the world, in a counter-cultural moment, the whole of society has been asked to play their direct part in protecting everyone else. Individuals and domestic groups are required to self-isolate at home, not simply to stay safe themselves, but to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe from our inadvertent actions. For some that has been a wake up-call, collapsing what is often felt as a distance between individual action - personal responsibility - and a good outcome for the whole community.
In the absence of an effective, centralised organisation of care across the nation, spontaneous mutual-aid networks have sprung up in neighbourhoods everywhere. In Hackney, London, 7000 people signed up overnight to deliver food and medicine to the vulnerable. It’s become commonplace to hear people in vox-pops say how shocked they were at how much better they were at responding to need than their council.
Where might this new experience of agency at the grassroots level lead to? In The Alternative UK
’s networks there is plenty of talk of citizens reclaiming more of their power to make decisions and plan action in the future. Some politicians will be happy about that: it has long been their goal to share the burden of community care with willing volunteers. Others will be nervous: more community responsibility could end up colluding with governments. While volunteers take on the responsibility of caring for those impacted by a dysfunctional system, Westminster might simply continue to spend public money on subsidising the very industries that threaten the health of the planet.
But in the midst of these old political agendas, according to a major Sky News report, only 9% of people want to return to ‘business as usual’
after the effects of the pandemic are over. Many want to keep their temporary arrangement of working from home, organising their own balance between professional and family attention. Others prefer the experience of less pressure from busy streets, constantly compelling them to choose and buy stuff they don’t really need. Still others are shocked by how quickly the environment has improved through the drop in our use of transport and want to keep going in that direction. It’s an inspiring story – about awareness of, and increasing sovereignty over, our personal and community reams.
This moment could bring about the convergence of a number of conditions that seemed impossible to orchestrate before. Namely our collective waking up to a new possibility for the future – our own health directly related to the health of the planet – at the same time as a growing sense of our own agency for delivering outcomes. It could be that through the challenges of this pandemic, we have suddenly forged the capacity for individual responsibility and a new trust in our powers.
Of course, I’m taking maximum liberties with very scattered bits of evidence and pulling them into an integrated picture of possibility. Yet by doing exactly that, doesn’t it make it easier to not only choose that future, but also begin to act as if it were on offer? Surely, if more of us do that - working together as Alisdair Gray might say, “as if we were in the early days of a new civilisation”
are we not, in doing so resolutely, bringing the future into the present?
Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.