BA Eng Lit, MSc Politics, DipHG
25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall – a physical construction dividing a nation between two ideologies – came down. Not by bomb, not by fiat, but by hundreds of activists, emboldened by global public opinion, physically dismantling it brick-by-brick in the face of the same guards who only months before would have shot to kill.
It marked a sea change which led swiftly to the end of the cold war and a subsequent shift in the world order, with Soviet Union on the path to rapid dissolution. For those on the political left in Europe, the result was bittersweet. Who could not welcome the liberation of those oppressed by an ideology of equality that had translated so badly into practice? On the other hand, was there so really much to celebrate in the triumph of big business that would waste no time in establishing its own form of subjugation – this time by consumerism?
Only weeks before a group of writers form Marxism Today, led by the late, greatly missed, Stuart Hall had published a paper called A Manifesto for New Times which, with great prescience, had seen a shift in human agency alongside a reshaping of political and economic structures.
Not simply the shift that had led the activists to the Wall. But a cultural shift: we were moving beyond what he called Fordism – the construction line mentality that required human beings to be employed as no more than cogs in a machine – to ideas of labour that were less alienated, yet more vulnerable to global market forces.
At almost the same time, in a different part of the world, Tim Berners-Lee established the first protocols for what was to become the World Wide Web. In a very short space of time, most intensely over the past five years, that innovation has changed our daily lives – and our world – beyond recognition.
By allowing individuals connection with previously inaccessible sources of information and giving them the ability to distribute it to millions of people at the push of a button, the internet has changed the balance of power in the public sphere.
There are two stories about the consequences of this development which neither Marxism Today nor the activists on the Wall could have predicted, yet somehow anticipated in their deliberations on human agency. The first says we are all in mortal danger of being swamped by those with the power to use this technology against us whether it is Facebook, ISIS, or the nudge unit in Whitehall, our personal security is at risk.
More than that, big business will reduce our experience of the globe to a marketplace that demands our addiction to its products, even as the poverty gap between the CEOs and their customers grows to obscene levels. In the face of massive connectivity, we are powerless.
The second says this is the dawn of the age of people power. whether Avaaz (gaining a million members a month worldwide) 38 Degrees, or civil society activism (from Transition Towns (http://www.transitionnetwork.org to the E15 Mums ), we have daily evidence that top down, vertical structures of command are limited.
Horizontal connectivity is, by comparison, infinite – whether that implies peer-to-peer collaboration in fields that used to be held back by a culture of competition, or the mobilisation of single issue groups. In the battle of the 99% against the 1%, surely it is only time that will hold up a redistribution of power, a re-balancing of forces in favour of the many rather than the few?
Both stories are true, but neither really engage adequately with a third story of change which prompted Neal Lawson and myself to revisit the term New Times in a paper being published today by the think-and-do tank, Compass .
We can trace it through the radical change in the nature and content of our media – with Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, blogs all taking as much of our energy and attention as the BBC and any mainstream newspaper did in the past.
Alternatively we can look at it through the proliferation of sustainable and sustaining social networks (not just technological) that have begun to make a difference to the lives of those feeling excluded from the whole process of change.
What we are pointing at is a growing self awareness that allows us, not universally but generally, to perform our values in public – and in so doing, make it possible for meaning and relationship to be embedded in the human connections we are making. In New Times, networks – traditionally the province of those who share breeding (old boys) or mission (think mothers, social workers, gang members) – have become a way of life. It’s the fruits of the mobile, highly usable tech now available for self-expression. Like soft power in global politics, the more authentic you are today, the more you attract people like yourself towards you.
That may sound like a recipe for smaller, more defined groups of people rather than bigger gatherings – and that can be true for special interests or diasporas. But look at the phenomena of massive gatherings today – whether at music festivals, petition sites or more tellingly, political uprisings. The Arab Springs, the velvet revolution in Indonesia, or, closer to home, the 98% registration and 85% turnout for the Scottish referendum – These were not customers turning up for a bargain offer, but citizens who had forged their opinions with the game-changing powers of social technology and turned up to be heard. The walls that are tumbling down today are the ones that have kept us apart from each other till now.
What might all this mean for UK politics? At Compass we have been observing and discussing the growing irrelevance of old Left / Right, first past the post politics which maintains the walls between outdated groupings of people. Neal Lawson has called again for proportional representation – despite the Lib Dems failed attempt in 2010 – as a more appropriate format for people to express their needs and choices. Sue Goss has been describing the growing phenomenon of the Open Tribe – much looser gatherings of people who share values and embrace plurality and diversity. Contributors of all ages and experiences are bringing expertise to re-imagineeducation, health, economics.
Networks like ours are proliferating. We are inviting, incubating, amplifying the early signs of a civil society that is already drawing more active participation (and membership) than politics has done since 1945, We don’t think of ourselves as simply supplicants to Westminster any more, calling for power to be devolved through layers of bureaucracy until the dregs reach us with a million conditions attached. We think of ourselves as reclaiming our power, collaborating with each other to establish new forms organisation, new narratives about power and agency, new ways of being in the world other than as consumers.
Politics today needs to be about building platforms for citizens to meet and participate: it has to be The Bridge (http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/the-bridge/) between people and their collective resources, understanding that they now have the capacity to organise. The SNP were the first UK party that understood this growing force for good in society. Instead of being a simple authority over its energies, they worked out how to be a facilitator of its carefully constructed visions for a more sustainable future. Not by policing the messages, but by initiating and then standing back from the networked, communally energised, multi and non-party Yes Scotland movement. As a party, the SNP won the prize of a greater turnout, even if the result didn’t fall to their agenda.
Can that dynamic – a progressive party as the amplifier of a networked activism – be echoed South of the Border? After 25 years, isn’t it time for another truly seismic shift?
New Times by Indra Adnan & Neal Lawson will be available on November 9, 2014 at http://www.compassonline.org.uk