Breakthrough Politics: Connect to Create Change in Uncertain Times
This article is published in the RSA Journal Dec 2016
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We are at an historic point in individual and societal development where the polarity between the left and right in politics is destabilising, casting us into an age of profound political uncertainty just as we enter an anxious era of inevitable and ever-increasing technological change, conflict over resources and global interconnectivity.
In the US, Hillary Clinton courted middle-class Republicans who might prefer sense and sensibility to coarse demagoguery. Donald Trump successfully fired up the fears of working-class white people, many of whom were Democrats, who resent the perceived economic and psychological losses of globalisation and immigration. In the UK, right-wing politicians have won support for their Brexit beliefs in Labour heartlands and left-leaning liberals in the cities have wept as Britain begins to leave the EU, a project that old Labour loathed as a capitalist dream. Anachronisms abound.
One of the central tenets of the school of human and systemic change that I have spent decades developing, breakthrough biodynamics, is that for any product, policy or party to thrive, it must fit its changing environment. Failures happen because we hold on to old ideas and habits. When this occurs, it shows up in continuous problems and perpetual crises, such as those besetting the advanced capitalist world we find ourselves in. As the world has changed, parties rooted in old ideologies have lost both their relevance and problem-solving efficacy. By looking into the historical origins of modern politics, we find old assumptions lurking hidden within our everyday thinking that are stopping us from evolving. If we liberate ourselves from them, we can lead breakthroughs that forge the future.
The modern concept of left and right was born at the time of the French Revolution (although the tension between populists and patricians goes back to the ancients). Deputies of France who supported the King and clergy sat on the right. Those who supported social change sat on the left. In the years that followed this foundational split, the ‘socialist’ project was created to solve the problems found in an era of factories, servitude and poorhouses. The left wanted to fight a world where aristocrats and industrialists owned the means of production and power. The aim was to deliver workers’ rights, national ownership of industry, redistribution of wealth and a decent welfare system, with a tendency to subsume the individual’s needs under those of the collective. Meanwhile, the reactionary right wing attempted to conserve power and wealth while promising individual freedom and mobility, preferably in the form of profit-making enterprise and a small state.
However, the ideologies of left and right are opposite spins of the same materialist paradigm that sees everything in the world as separate and machine-like. Materialist and mechanistic thinking, with vast predictive power in physical systems, was cemented into the status quo during the Enlightenment. This worldview liberated us from the whims of priests and princes. However, it also disconnected us from each other and our world, disenchanting our imagination and leaving us separated and adrift. We now rely on materialist ideologies of left (revolution, socialism, welfare) or right (free markets, capitalism, entrepreneurialism) for all our hopes and succour. But policies rooted in separation create suffering, whether in the name of Marx or Hayek.
Influenced by the historical materialism of Karl Marx, the left wing tends to seek solutions to the suffering of the masses through a central, and so big, state that plans the economy. It prefers to force rights and equality, whether with regulation or re-education in an attempt to safeguard the collective from selfish individualism. It seems to have little time for encouraging more compassion, connection and love to blossom within and between people, limited as it is by a materialist form of atheism. Meanwhile, the right wing, inspired by the materialist ideas of free-market economists, wants us all to be responsible individuals, self-reliant, resourceful and motivated with the promise of fortune and fame. It believes that wealth from an elite that is rich in material (cash and credit) trickles down, making everyone’s lives better, an assumption that has been repeatedly discredited by evidence. It fails to realise that poverty, seeking asylum and criminality are not always character flaws and will not disappear simply by blaming and shaming (or by building walls of any kind).
The traditional left looks at globalisation, and the coming wave of automation, with fear, seeing these phenomena as attacks on the worker. The traditional right looks at these changes as inevitable, suggesting that the only way to survive is to work harder in whatever jobs are available, even if they are devoid of meaning, purpose and impact. Neither of these scenarios has to be the case. Yet the ideological blinkers of our political classes have created a vacuum of breakthrough thinking and conscious leadership. Ruled by dogma – assumptions based on the past – the parties are prevented from sensing fresh ideas that can solve problems right now.
Few people in positions of conventional power are able to shine a light on a positive vision of, and compelling narrative for, our increasingly interconnected and techno-charged world. They do not seem able to connect with people in economic and emotional despair and uncertainty and guide them towards grounded and meaningful lives that do not rely on consumption and acquisition (or building walls). They do not seem to understand how breakthroughs occur; and that people need to be guided through this often terrifying process (where we must let go of the old before we receive the new). Right now, we are in a global ‘edge of chaos’, where old models are breaking down but the new have yet to form. In this vacuum of meaning and certainty, fear drives people, quite logically, into fight or flight. They attempt to return to an idealised ‘great’ past, clinging on to outdated notions such as nationalism and xenophobia to protect themselves from the threats that come with change.
Insecurity and interconnectivity
The polarities of right vs left, Republican vs Democrat, capital vs labour, management vs union, individual vs collective are becoming meaningless because we live in increasingly connected realities, joined together in myriad ways, whether economic, digital or social. Most of us are capitalist shareholders now, whether directly or through pension funds. Most are current (or hopeful) workers, whether with zero-hour contracts or ancestral houses rented out on Airbnb. There is no longer a clear body politic of workers and certainly not one that thinks the same about class struggle, asylum seekers and climate change. Issues such as immigration, which has become so divisive in the UK and US, are not split along typical party political lines.
Whether we like it or not, the world is marching inexorably towards a networked, crowded and humid reality. And, as with all changes to the operating system of any domain, this brings with it opportunities and threats to existing power, status and privilege. The connected world we are in offers enormous freedoms. We can film a YouTube hit in hours, accessing the means of production and distribution that were impossible even a decade ago. We can work for Uber while studying for a degree on the side. However, with these opportunities come enormous challenges: virtually no job security of any kind, lower standards of living than our parents and killer stress from working all hours. However, relying on old ideologies to solve this problems constantly leads to failure. Mismatches can be glimpsed in areas such as employment law in the sharing economy and education policy in a digital landscape.
The changes to our global operating system (O.S.) and uncertainty it brings offer us an opportunity to recast our individual and political narratives in a way that fits the future rather than seeks a return to the past. This requires us to venture out of our ideological comfort zones and engage in the co-creation of a new form of politics that does not rely on tired ideas, no matter how much safety they seem to offer us. As our starting point, we can draw on one of the ancients, Heraclitus, who said: “Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension.” In other words, we can transcend the seeming opposites of left and right to engender a harmonic yet deeply creative tension, which allows us to act with individual genius and collective impact. We can use the term palintonic, derived from the Greek word that Heraclitus uses, palintonos, to describe this.
By having a palintonic breakthrough in politics, we can untether ourselves from the poles of left and right and so consciously choose what works to solve the problems we share. We transcend the polarities to find the ‘highest common factor’ ideas of the innovator, rather than the lowest common denominator dogma of the tabloid. We embody a creative tension between the socialist urge for equality, justice and redistribution and the conservative urge for enterprise, effort and excellence. In our networked world, no central team can ever know enough about a complex, adaptive system to design a perfect plan for all. At the same time, solitary agents working for their own gain rarely tackle the wicked problems that haunt our societies. Lead palintonically and we can harness the vast armoury of ‘capitalist’ tools, such as innovation, design thinking, strategy, branding and leadership to crack problems that are important to us as a collective; problems that traditional businesses do not want to deal with.
The only ideology we need subscribe to, which ensures we are tethered to a tangible organising principle rather than the chaos of total relativism, is more of an experiential insight than ideology: that we are more connected to each other than we are separate, in both fathomable and ineffable ways. This sense of connectivity, whether we call it spiritual or not, leads us to act with compassion for all life and to be constantly suspicious of ego-driven desire to separate ourselves from others, to seek power and to acquire wealth. We are freed from all previous ideologies except the realisation, at the core of every wisdom tradition, that we are part of one shared universe, interconnected and interdependent. We tend to call this sense of connection ‘love’. Expanding love, creativity and thriving, and thereby reducing separation, stress and suffering, becomes our goal. Purpose is this love, in action.
This kind of connected politics accepts the reality of capitalism as a source of energy, effort and innovation, while also striving to ensure that the benefits are shared by all. Because we have worked to transcend the ego’s craving for fame and fortune, we can usher in innovations without having to own all the shares, be celebrated as a genius or accumulate personal power. We are free to experiment with collaborative and participatory models of ownership and delivery, such as cooperatives, mutuals, crowdfunding, wikis and blockchain, to share the risks and rewards of breakthrough. We encourage entrepreneurship while seeking to inspire leaders to be driven by purpose as much as profit. We believe that everyone is responsible for themselves and that nobody should expect handouts. Yet we know that everyone needs compassion and coaching in order to overcome their problems.
This does not mean we become ‘vanilla’ centrists in the grey-beige middle, who only seek to build consensus and avoid conflict. We palintonically embody the polarities of humility and hubris, surrender and strength, profit and purpose, vision and action within us. Bringing polar opposites together in palintonic tension gives us the momentum, imagination and wisdom to break through anything. We become driven by love and connection rather than separation and fear. As purpose-driven leaders and active citizens, we land tangible breakthroughs without ideological biases blocking us from sensing and creating what is possible. We hone our compassion and empathy so we can reach everyone, no matter their ideology. We help them to see possibilities within problems and transform emotional despair into collective hope, as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr did so powerfully.
This is breakthrough politics. Most of the ideas and innovation tools we need already exist. What we now require is the leadership to make it happen; a form of leadership that is palintonic and so able to break through anything. We have to guide people away from fear and fight or flight and into collaboration and creativity. We can only do this with a deep connection because we must have the power to lead people in, through and out of the ‘edge of chaos’ and help them land personal and collective breakthroughs that work within the constraints of the emerging world. Without this, we face more of our current trajectory: a long, slow descent into breakdown whilst industrial capitalism, our communitues and our planet crumble around us.
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