Last Sunday saw the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was breached, and then brick-by-brick, was torn down by citizens who saw no future and no hope in a political system that wasn't working for them. The West and liberal democracy had won. But today in Britain, and across much of the Western world, frustration mounts at the very political system that was deemed to have been the victor. But we have no easy target, like a Wall, to destroy and set us free. Instead, below the radar of the establishment they increasingly despise, people are beginning to build the good society they have longed for.
In a million ways, locally, nationally and globally, the young and not so young, are coming together to create the institutions and spaces in which the world does work for them. They share cars, drills and lawn-mowers. They form clubs and societies around mutual interests of the most obscure and niche passions. They lend each other money, aggregate their solar energy and rent out their spare room. Some create new local currencies. Others campaign to save the NHS, to stop bombs falling on Syria or end everyday sexism.
People have always done these things - but now they can do them in simple, amplified and accelerated ways. The political system they find so frustrating isn't being torn down but is being by-passed and left behind. Why has this happened and what does it means for that political system?
To understand we must go back to 1989 but this time March. Eight months before the seismic events in Berlin, Tim Berners-Lee established the first protocols for what was to become the World Wide Web. A quarter of a century on, only now is the world being transformed in terms of how we live, think and act.
Today, the internet and the networks it encourages, have become the main nexus of human culture. We think and act differently because a world that is digital and networked gives us millions, yes millions of new options and connections.
They key point about this moment is simple but profound - it is that in a networked society the possibilities for human progress are greater than ever before. The very flatness of these pervasive networks, in which everyone can say anything to anyone, and know everything anywhere, naturally lend themselves to more egalitarian and democratic behaviour. Elites in the economy but especially in politics no longer hold all the cards.“We” hold many more.
What is potentially unique about this moment, is that by melding the technology to our human needs we can bend modernity to our values – rather than allow our values to be bent and disfigured by old outdated systems that refuse to die. We can take back at least some control over our lives–and we are.
As such, the Berlin citizens unwittingly created the perfect metaphor for the revolution unfolding before our eyes; the collective destruction of walls and elites, and in the flattened rubble, the terrain of opportunity to collaborate and co-operate, to share and shape.
But building this good society below the radar isn't enough. We can't simply by-pass formal political institutions because we need ways to join up and scale up all this activity and afford it legal protection. And, as ever, while the future is already here, it is unevenly distributed. Government is needed to ensure everyone can respond to the opportunities on offer equally.
So the message to Westminster today if it doesn't want to be by-passed and wants to renew itself and become more relevant to this flat and networked society, is that it must start seeing politics not as making policy but as building platforms - both physical and virtual - for people to take action of their own. That means an end to seeing people as targets to be nudged, pushed and ordered and instead a politics that sees citizens, who given the space and resources, can collectively create and build their own world.
For example, instead of just an energy price fix from above, politicians should really focus on the infrastructure needed to scale up community renewable energy schemes. As well as a new state owned challenger bank on the high street, the emphasis should be on peer-to-peer lending. And instead of the minimum wage decided by a remote panel of experts every year–government should help facilitate communities to organise for their own living wage.
And to face the challenge of the future, not least those created by new technology, these platforms should include a Citizens Income so that despite automisation we are all free to create and able to contribute to society. Even more important perhaps, the possibility of shorter working weeks should be offered so that jobs can be shared and more of us have time to be citizens and not just consumers.
The issue, in these new times, is not what government can force us to do, but what government can enable us to do. The first UK party that gets that its not about controlling but facilitating peoples' energies and desires, will be the one that brings the voters back to the booths.
The big Wall that is still coming down, is the Wall in our heads. Helped by technology, we are realizing that‘we are the people, we have been waiting for’.
Optimism should never be confused with wishful thinking, but this could be a moment in which the forces of hope, compassion, love and humanity triumph. The threat in all this is not that we underestimate the dangers of these new times – but that we underestimate the potential of the moment.
This is an extract from the Compass publication New Times: how a politics of networks and relationship can deliver a good society. The publication is dedicated to the memory and work of Stuart Hall.
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