Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to make sense of the ‘brexit’ vote and it’s implications for me and my family, as well as the grass roots movement in which I have been an enthusiastic participant. And like everyone else, I’m reading interesting opinion pieces and analyses across the spectrum, talking to friends and colleagues, and pulling at every thread trying to weave together some fabric of understanding of this moment in history. Nobody knows what’s next or where we’re heading. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
Regardless of your vote, your analysis, your personal circumstances, we’ve all got to step back from the anger, demonizing, and fear. Generating this kind of negative energy perpetuates division and is ultimately self harming. What we need are cool heads and compassionate hearts. Above all, we need practical action. Re-read your Macy or Camus, if necessary, but we must summon the courage to face the reality of our situation in this society and our role in it. All you systems thinkers, students of complexity, advocates of holistic solutions — isn’t this the moment we’ve been training for?
For those involved in creating alternatives to ‘neoliberal’ political economy at all scales, from local to macro, and are cognizant of the potential for chaos, shocks and collapse wrought by climate change, ‘black swan’ events, and mass migrations, we know a UK-EU breakup is simply a chapter in a long unfolding story. For those paying attention to polls, the rise of right wing nationalists, and more importantly, the circumstances of millions in this country who don’t have decent opportunities for authentic economic security or political participation, ‘brexit’ winning the day shouldn’t have been any more than a mild surprise. In this giant complex adaptive system that is our globalised political-economic system, with all it’s supra-national, national, regional and local elements, there will be bigger and more unpleasant surprises. What can we do now to help us anticipate the next chapter?
I propose that the project of ‘resilience building’ has been thrust into a new light and this should spark some critical reflection for everyone who’s got that on their agenda. Millions of people across Britain feel they have no future, no power, no voice, no possibility, that democracy, government and the economic system don’t work for them or their communities. These conditions have been developing in a particularly aggressive way since domestic ‘de-industrialisation’ and the global neoliberal revolution of Thatcher and Reagan. It’s unjust and provides fertile soil for a politics that thrives on fear, disempowerment and ressentiment, a politics that’s authoritarian, manipulative, and divisive. These are the conditions that make UKIP possible, just as similar conditions in Europe and the US support the extreme right wing in those places. Obviously, there are scary historical precedents that demonstrate what’s possible when this kind of politics rules.
So, what does resilience building look like in this context? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I know it can’t just be ‘more of the same’. I’ve spent the last many years engaged in a movement whose aims are economic relocalisation, community resilience and ecological regeneration. I’ve been inspired by the amazing people involved, and the practical, sometimes ingenious, solutions held up as beacons lighting a path to a better future. Never have they seemed more relevant, these exemplars, but they’re too few, isolated and disconnected. Given the forces shaping the current political-economic dialectic, our movement has basically been irrelevant and invisible. The present ‘brexit’ chaos reveals the fragmented and stagnant political energies across the length and breadth of the country. There is a real opportunity to engage, channel, and mobilise these energies in positive ways. The problem is the solution, a ‘permie’ might say. This could be our moment, but only if we’re prepared to reorient ourselves to better address the challenges ahead.
It may be that our movement isn’t yet a movement, so maybe this is where to start. There are many initiatives, networks and NGOs drawing upon the energies of a rising tide of citizen activation. We share a similar diagnosis that the economic system is the root cause of global warming, environmental destruction, inequality, political corruption, etc. And a similar prescription that, roughly speaking, economic relocalisation, community resiliency and ecological regeneration form an important part of what’s needed to deal with these wicked challenges. But while we may have these things in common, we’re off blazing our own trails, heads down working on our own little piece of the puzzle, promoting our own models and brand identities. We compete with each other for mindshare of key constituencies, especially funding bodies of all types. And funders, for all their good intentions, perpetuate competition by preferring the bright shiny novelty, rather than building out the boring but effective.
So, we all need to connect, align, and collaborate — this should be obvious. Who? Lots. Transition, permaculture and eco village initiatives and their respective network organisations share natural affinities. Cooperatives, social enterprise and green business, ‘new economy organisers’, commoners, community development organisations, sustainability groups, community land trusts and housing groups, renewable energy groups, food groups — there is plenty of overlap, shared interest, complementary skill sets, and we all speak the same language, more or less.
But we don’t need more top-down, hierarchical structures or hubs. What we do need are more horizontal, democratic, and heterogeneous networks comprising groups and organisations that think and act like productive nodes, looking for opportunities to share information, learn from others, and explore adjacent possibilities. It will take venturing out of our cultural and professional bubbles, putting aside ‘not-invented-here’ attitudes, and investing a little extra effort. It can begin as simply as attending each other’s events, connecting via social media, or meeting someone new for morning coffee. Organising ‘convergence’ events would seem a practical next step. Expanding and deepening our network of connections will create the conditions for amplifying our positive impacts, spreading innovations, and building an effective movement.
Next, we need to make economic development our priority and we need to work hard to make it happen. This is important for many reasons — absolutely essential, in fact. Too many of our brothers and sisters are suffering from lack of decent housing, healthy food, and prospects for building a fulfilling life. This should be reason enough. But as we’ve seen from the referendum campaign, and lessons we’ve learned from history, bleak economic conditions lead to desperate and destructive politics, and worse. And, at the moment, all the smart money is betting on bleaker economic times ahead. There is no resilience, sustainability or wellbeing under these conditions, so we must work to create different conditions.
The kind of development we’re talking about must be focused on meeting the needs of people and communities, be ecologically benign or regenerative, be accountable and just, and so on. ‘Think tanks’ and campaigns have their place, but nothing persuades and motivates like practical action and tangible results. Supporting the development of this or that community enterprise is part of the solution, but only a tiny part. We’ve got to scale up our ambition. What’s needed are systems-based approaches that create the conditions for lots of new economic actors and relationships to emerge, not just locally but across entire regions. This means mobilising the financial and social capital that already exists locally and regionally, to support progressive start ups and growing enterprises — sole traders, CICs, coops, open source — a diversity of models is a good thing. We should be building out and/or supporting other elements of ‘new enterprise ecosystems’, as well, such as access to land and buildings, incubators, co-working hubs, training and mentoring programmes, citizen investor networks, ‘anchor institutions’, regional banks, etc., that can sustain and reproduce the process over the long term. We can’t sit around and wait for philanthropy, government programmes, or an entirely new government, but it’s possible that in all the current tumult, all of these may become positive forces. And if so, let’s ensure the ‘top-down’ complements but doesn’t drive the ‘bottom up’.
A robust pivot toward economic development will require a shift in perspective for just about every kind of group in this movement. For some, it will mean overcoming aversion to words like ‘economics’, ‘entrepreneur’, ‘investment’, ‘business’ — we need to embrace them and give them new meaning. It will require connecting the dots in ways that locate whatever we’re already doing inside a holistic view of economic development. And it will require solidarity, mutual support, and investing in one another. We’ve got to create change-making livelihoods for change makers, for obvious reasons. But we can’t be satisfied with a kind of development that only serves the progressive parts of the country. It’s got to happen in the places where the anger, fear and ressentiment is growing stronger. And it’s got to happen with true solidarity and authenticity. Gaggles of left-wing urban intellectuals descending upon the hinterlands to teach ‘them’ about ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘new economics’ would be counter productive, to say the least. Instead, we need real listening and sharing with people outside of our usual circles. This is a core competency for many in our movement, so let’s make the most of it.
There’s another big shift we need to make. We’re on a trajectory of increasing polarity and diminishing democracy in this country and it has nothing to do with the EU. Given the warming of the planet on it’s current trajectory, I assume that a healthy and just democratic politics is the best way to deal with its challenges, as well as everything else we’ve been talking about. It’s merely a hypothesis, because we don’t yet have one. But the alternative to more and better democracy, is more and worse of what’s in play, now. We can’t be content to sit on the sidelines and let others figure it out. We’ve got to engage in the political life of this country, our counties, cities and towns, not just as individuals, but as a movement. Some of our organisations are campaigning, developing policy alternatives, lobbying party functionaries in London. Valuable work, but that’s only one aspect of the struggle for systems change and it’s not nearly enough. We have to create the conditions for a new practice and a new vocabulary, not just in the Capital, but everywhere — political relocalisation, perhaps?
What might a new politics look like, at least in the context of this movement’s regional economic development agenda? I don’t presume to have the answer, but there might be some obvious points to consider in getting the conversation started.
First, we’ve got to be loud and proud in selling our vision of development as a better alternative to default, corporate-led, top-down, growth-as-usual — or no growth at all, as the case may be. This means engaging with candidates, elected officials, bureaucrats, and their influencers, their parties, their key supporters, including the electorate, in general. We have potential allies within local authorities, but their potential is wasted if they don’t know who we are, what we’re doing, or why. Within our movement, we have seen repeated calls by elites of one kind or another, (yes, we have them, too), for a ‘new story’ or even convening weekend ‘summits’ in order create it. We already have the new story — it’s all around us and it comes in many forms. What’s needed are more story tellers and a diversity of voices, and more media to carry these stories to every corner. We’ve got to build our audience beyond the usual suspects. Coming together in productive networks will help. And the results of our practical actions will give our words persuasive power.
Second, not to discount the importance of national policy and macro issues, but we’ve got to address the regional issues that are having dramatic consequences for people’s lives and the progress of our own development agenda. Planning authorities can quash this renewable energy project, rubber stamp that fracking project, say yea to luxury housing, nay to that sustainable woodland project. Unaccountable quangos of big business leaders in what are called Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are leading growth-oriented economic development strategies for their regions. For example, the ‘Heart of the Southwest’ LEP, has called the Hinkley nuclear power project a ‘golden opportunity’ and is planning to build a huge nuclear industry around it. And then there’s ‘devolution’, trundling along relatively unnoticed by almost everyone, which aims to create new sub-national political units without any visible democratic process in place. In the Southwest, the devolution process is actually being led by the LEP, in what many think is simply a naked power grab by corporate interests. Granted, the political chaos and uncertainty of the day may render these issues utterly transformed, irrelevant or replaced by something better or worse. But whatever happens, these are issues that can politicise and mobilise people in productive ways.
Third, a growing non-party, independent political movement offers a new pathway for more direct political participation. ‘Flatpack democracy’ has brought a raft of independent candidates to power in Frome, Somerset, where they’ve had success supporting positive initiatives benefiting local people. Something similar is happening nearby where the East Devon Alliance, a sort of independent non-party party, has elected several councilors to the district and county councils, and nearly won a Parliamentary seat, last year. The Free Parliament wants to support independent MP candidates across the entire country, offering a set of principles and possible funding support. These examples represent a way of doing things that emphasize listening, transparency, and commitment to values and principles.
The new politics in Spain, exemplified by the 15M movement and Podemos, offers another independent model. Last year, municipal and regional elections were contested by broad local coalitions comprising progressive parties, citizen groups, and activists, and in the case of Barcelona and Madrid, gained power. This is interesting for many reasons, including that many of those who won had never been involved in politics before. Given that national parties, here, seem ineffective at addressing regional issues, this kind of approach might work in the UK, as well.
Calls for ‘progrexit’ and a new progressive alliance offer a glimmer of inspiration for how things could go, but there are so many unknowns and so many well-placed, powerful actors scrambling to turn the chaos to their advantage. Naomi Klein has made famous (at least, in our circles) this Milton Friedman quote:
“Only a crisis–actual or perceived——produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. . . . Our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
It’s often repeated by hopeful change makers who argue that somehow in all this chaos, or maybe with the next crisis, or the next, by some unexplained process, our alternatives will get noticed. That ain’t gonna happen without effort. We need to keep our alternatives ‘alive and available’, ready to thrust these ideas, policies and models into the hands of those in positions of real influence — ‘progrexiters’ and progressive allies, perhaps. Or maybe those hands will be our own. We can’t be spectators, no matter how hard we cheer or how vivid we may dream.
Politics and economics are two sides of the same coin. We can’t hope to change the shape of one without engaging with the other. And anyway, everything is different now, isn’t it? Our movement needs to adapt and develop if we have any hope of influencing the course of history in favour of justice, abundance, and all the change we hope to see in the world. We’ve got to grasp this opportunity, to launch ourselves, along with the rest of the nation, into the great unknown, with courage, curiosity, and open heartedness. Let’s go.
Image credit: “Hope”, in Place Louis Morichar, Brussels, part of the Caravan Project by Karrin Vyncke. Photo: Jane Brady
Interesting analyses, opinions, and such: