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What can the digital age offer political life?

Credit: Koukichi Takahashi/Unsplash

An Olympic year always presents a mixed spectacle – sporting prowess meets power politics, where the world’s superpowers parade medals and accolades that would unlikely be achievable without their exorbitant wealth and resources. But 2021 has taken this display of economic nationalism to a deeper level.

While the four superpowers – US, China, Russia and Great Britain – championed their wins across multiple podiums earlier this month, Olympia, a historic ruin and home of the first Games in Greece, was burned to the ground by climate-change-fuelled wildfires. Just one week later, the UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change reported that this year’s global temperature rise is ‘unprecedented’ and due to ‘human influence’ – the main offending nations being the Olympics’ biggest medal winners.

In July, blind former-Paralympian James Brown was convicted of being a ‘public nuisance’ for protesting the climate crisis. In October 2019, Brown climbed onto an aeroplane at London City Airport in order to draw attention to the possibility of human extinction.

In recent years, decades of social injustice have reached seemingly new levels of visibility thanks to movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion occupying online and offline spaces. Our disillusion with institutional power has been a long time coming 

Are we humans heroes or villains? This disjunct in narratives is only one reason that trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that there is ‘an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions – business, government, NGOs, media and leaders around the world’.

This is no surprise to those of us who have watched how the authorities in many countries have conducted themselves during the pandemic. In recent years, decades of social injustice have reached seemingly new levels of visibility thanks to movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion occupying online and offline spaces. Our disillusion with institutional power has been a long time coming.

Ready for system change

Over the past 20 years, since the growth of the internet, we have been in an unprecedented revolution. Everyone with access to the world wide web can go from being passive recipients of curated news, to becoming the news themselves through using technology to let the world know what is happening where they are – as we saw with the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

Yes, the internet has become a tool of psychological manipulation and hyper-surveillance – but it still gives rise to a level of connectivity and group formation we could hardly have dreamed of before.
Now, a less performative form of organizing, creativity and sharing is beginning to thrive. As Buckminster Fuller’s famous quote goes (‘build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete’), more and more people are focused on system change, instead of piece-meal reforms. We just need to look at the deeper currents below the waves to see significant development arising from the evolution of that early connectedness.

Countless smaller initiatives have been inspired, operating with different forms of agency, coming together to get more traction and results. 
For example, a global marker of the Covid-19 pandemic taking hold was the sudden growth of mutual-aid networks. Neighbourhood self-help groups – in India, Africa and all over the UK –  stepped in to do the work that the state would not. They checked in on the frail and housebound, delivering them food and medicine at a time when it was dangerous for them to leave their homes.

Many saw a lot of future promise in such resilience and resourcefulness. Would these networks be the people who keep energy or food supply-chains going, when extreme weather shuts them down? 
But, instead of becoming stronger as Covid-19 developed, these civil society networks have often seemed to lose energy. Daily meetings became weekly meetings and, in many cases, they have ceased altogether.
It can be argued that the failure of local government to resource such networks is key. Instead, councils often take credit for the outcomes of voluntary labours (mostly done by women). A party-political system bent on winning votes while sowing discord is not a healthy seed-bed for such initiatives.

At The Alternative UK, we can see forms of power beyond the failure of party politics. We gather them under the term ‘cosmolocalism’ – drawing down the intelligence of the global community into the local community, using digital networks to access materials, designs and conversations. 

At its most advanced and futuristic, this is neighbourhoods sharing blueprints for medical equipment, houses, furniture and much more, which can be used and realized wherever other people are (MIT’s FabLabs are the model). At its most familiar, it means a Zoom campfire of collaborators and co-creators, sweeping across national borders. The possibilities are endless.

Drawing on both our research and our advocacy, we propose that the social model which best takes cosmolocalism forward should be called a CAN. The ‘can-do’ pun is obvious. But the letters stand for a range of actions (‘community agency’, ‘citizen action’, ‘climate action’) that can help forge a strong local network. 

Some say climate change has no postcode. However, in these online rooms the burden of responsibility is accepted by those in the Global North

Strong is key. These CANs are literally ‘containers’, in which somewhat scattered types of local power and resource can gather their forces – be they civil society, social enterprise, artistic and imaginative – and build new relations of trust together. Digitality ensures that these relations and resources easily find support from other global experiments. 

Drawing on that trust, many enterprises become possible, such as new kinds of ‘fourth sector’ economic activity, self-provision in energy, transport and food. These human networks use (and are not used by) digital networks, which accelerate our capacity for organizing with, and learning from, each other.    

Changing the shape of power

If you accept our framing, you’ll be able to see CANs everywhere, past and present. They include Transition TownsEcovillagesParticipatory Cities, and (more municipally) the Fearless Cities network. But what is most exciting is how widespread these similar patterns of micro-system formation are – what we believe is a fractal emergence.

The Alternative UK regularly convenes meetings of people involved in CANs. The Zoom rooms are crowded, full of an energized swapping of insights and resources. From the iKhaya eLitsha Hub in Cape Town, part of a network which shares resources and grows food together; to Roberto Hinestrosa’s network of social enterprises in Tijuana, that have come together to develop more sustainable ways of working. We’ve heard from Coalville Community Action Network in the UK  about how they have open-sourced their budget for refurbishing a building as a work-hub. In September we’ll be hearing from a burgeoning CAN in Australia and another in Costa Rica.

Despite the disparity of their circumstances, there’s a shared emotional commitment among the people we speak to. Some say climate change has no postcode. However, in these online rooms the burden of responsibility is accepted by those in the Global North.

The CANs have not only practical action plans but ways of working – paying better attention to the relationships between them. They are intent on curating diversity, ensuring deep listening and facilitating conflict transformation. It’s a new axis of agency – connecting the ‘whole’ human to their ‘whole community’, in the interests of the ‘whole’ planet: I – We – World.

One of the clear values at the heart of the CANs we work with is genuine local autonomy. This might mean occasionally being funded or supported in some way by local authorities, but not becoming dependent or trammelled by their political agenda. These networks aim to offer belonging to all people in the community, not partisan groups.

Does that mean they have no political ambition? Not entirely. But we believe a new politics will only grow within what the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel used to call a ‘parallel polis’ – the people, organized and agentive, shaping the state from outside the party political system.

Today, People’s and Citizens’ AssembliesFlatpack Democracy and a whole host of hi-tech deliberative tools like Pol.is and Sensemaker could add up to a substantial parallel political structure capable of changing the way power is shaped, nationally and transnationally. Crucially, the tendency of these people-powered structures is to facilitate planet- friendly action locally, whether they initiate a Climate Emergency Plan, grow local vegetables or crowdsource a hydro-electric dam for sustainable energy. 

So even as we face the apocalypse, the emergence of a new socio-economic-political system capable of steering us away from the cliff-edge shimmers before us. But we must invest heavily in that future – with our time, our attention and all available forms of capital – to make it a reality. Are we ready?

Indra Adnan is the author of The Politics of Waking Up: Power and Possibility in the Fractal Age, out now on Perspectiva Press. She is also Founder of The Alternative UK.


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