Contributed by Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK
We live in exciting and tumultuous times. We live in times of multiple crises, yet, according to Stephen Pinker, we’ve never had it so good. The debate rages on whether we should pay more attention to all that is collapsing, or all that is emerging.
Where is the real opportunity for humanity at this point in the 21st century? To leap outwards, with all that is promised from artificial intelligence, human enhancement and automation? Or to step inwards, to a deeper understanding of the fragility of our lives, our societies, our globe? To accelerate or to slow down?
2017 was a political awakening for all of us with Trump and Brexit — for reasons that are still being processed. In the UK only one party, with only one MP, stood resolutely for Leaving Europe — but had a decisive 52% of the people on his side.
Since then, accusations of fake news, emotional manipulation, and downright lies have raged from both Left and Right, with no hope of reconciliation in sight. On both sides of the Atlantic, the only clear message is that no political elite will be able to act with impunity any more: those “left behind” can easily be mobilised to sabotage your agenda. The numbers do count, after all.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In my 2016 Compass paper “Is the Party Over?”, I revealed that only 2% of people in the UK are members of political parties (4% across Europe). Of course, more people vote and react to politics, but only a tiny proportion of our population is framing the issues and setting the debate on how we govern ourselves and distribute our common resources.
Within those parties, the regular members have effectively no say or role, except to knock on doors at election time and get the votes out for a manifesto they were not consulted on.
Add to that a mainstream news culture which is only economically sustainable by feeding on the dramas of opposition and fear of the future, and you have a recipe for apathy. Unless people can find some purchase on power, they will turn away.
This kind of disconnectedness creates a latent force that others can harness. Cambridge Analytica demonstrated this amply through their use of our personal data to customise their marketing. Pent-up frustration and anger can easily be triggered by those who know how.
Within this dynamic between power and people, would it be helpful to introduce more referenda, more opportunities for people to express their opinions more easily — for example, through liquid democracy? Or will that only exacerbate the divisions we already experience?
Is democracy only about everyone shouting their preferences loudly, so that tribes can compete effectively? Or should we think more about how we can better transcend our divides, so that we can get more done about the difficulties we share?
For that we need a new kind of politics that recognises not only the rights of individuals — hard fought-for throughout the 20th century — but also their power in the digital age. And at the heart of that challenge lies our concept of human needs and consequent behaviour.
If politics thinks only about our material needs — money, food, shelter — it will be sabotaged by our emotional and spiritual drives. Our need for security, control, belonging, autonomy, privacy (described as the Human Givens by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell) are clearly shaping the public space today and have political consequences for how we face the future.
Can national level, top-down politics provide the conditions for these needs to be met? It’s hard to see how when Westminster feels utterly disconnected from the lives of its citizens.
Instead, there is a growing appetite for more local and municipal political activity, where people can see and relate to each other better. This is not simply about railing at the party-political establishment, but at re-orienting the political conversation outside of the 2% political bubble. Communities are looking for strength by coming together in the face of their vulnerabilities, and political partisanship can easily obstruct that.
But attending more to the grass roots is not about “folk” or “parochial” responses to global problems. On the contrary, “taking back control” of your own agenda with people you trust where you live, is quite likely to lead to more ambitious, creative visions of the future than any national government can afford to offer.
This is already evident in Scotland and Wales, where achieving some governmental autonomy has created space for a range of radical policy proposals, in land, energy, banking, and even leisure. But it could equally be the case for Somerset or Birmingham, both of whom have nascent localism movements and mechanisms for reclaiming power — through experimentations with local democracy, local currencies and participatory budgeting.
Local mayors are increasingly seen as the new heroes of global agency. While they are nimbler compared to nation-states, for example, by being unburdened by military budgets and free to associate interdependently, they are also more linked to their constituents at home.
If we did have means and methods for greater participation, at a level we feel is manageable, would that not be the best context for the rapid development of radical technologies?
Citizens Assemblies could decide on the best use of AI and local data; on the cooperative use of 3D and distributed manufacturing machines; on shared and equitable access to human enhancements. Yes, this might well prompt a competition between areas, to establish the best models and practices. But a race to the top is much better than a race to the bottom that so much of our current politics, under the influence of corporate globalisation, creates.
At ‘The Alternative UK’, much of our energy is directed toward forging new narratives for a techno-progressive future. Narratives that look at the past as an age of scarcity, in which people were trapped in robotic lives (whether at “work” or in “recreation”). Where we operated in service to an industrial and post-industrial economy which alienated us from ourselves, in mind and body.
Before us are the possibilities unleashed by the fruits of human ingenuity: solar flight, quantum computing, a vital and lengthening old age, multi-activities transcending “work” and “leisure”. But our politics are not yet fit to do the job of distributing their benefits justly and fairly across society.
Already the information revolution — and its tools of access, connectivity and organisation — have helped more of us understand our own needs and drives better. Let’s use the call of the future to radically upgrade our politics, put more power into the hands of more people, and look enthusiastically forward.
Indra Adnan is Co-initiator of The Alternative UK political platform, part of a global network founded by the political party Alternativet, founded by Uffe Elbaek. Indra is concurrently a psycho-social therapist, founder and Director of the Soft Power Network, writer and producer. She has consulted to the World Economic Forum, Indian, Finnish and Danish governments, NATO, the Scottish Executive and the Institute of Contemporary Arts amongst others. She writes regularly for The Guardian and The Huffington Post.
Her publications Soft Power Agenda, New Times and Is the Party Over? are available on www.indraadnan.com @indraadnan @AlterUK21