In New Times change happens while you are not looking


I was in the Bronx the night Obama was first elected and there was shock on peoples’ faces. They had no doubt about his capabilities. But they were finding it hard to believe that the American people had chosen him. While it was Obama’s personal win that would go down in history, it was the sea change in the American people that the people in the Bronx that night had not seen coming.

We had our own double take recently when Cameron recalled Parliament to try and secure a high profile, stage managed, media prepped agreement that Britain should go to war with Syria. Parliament, against expectations, voted No. Not only did the millions in 2003 who marched for peace in Iraq finally have their day but the world witnessed a global-scale shift of power when the dominoes toppled, Obama stepped aside and Putin ended up the hero of the hour, for promising to bring Assad and Syria’s chemical weapons to account.

Was this Ed Miliband’s triumph? If it was, he wasn’t aware of it: the following days saw him defend himself falteringly against a media backlash. What had happened was that in the short gap between the parliamentary recall and the vote, millions of people increasingly disillusioned with the efficacy of war were being polled and signing petitions against military intervention. Not only the Labour Party but the Coalition too heard the clamour and responded in enough numbers to deny Cameron his Blair and Thatcher moment. Why did they listen rather than ignore the people as Blair was able to do? Because we are living in New Times.

Not the old New Times that responded strategically to the political redefinitions of Thatcherism by exploring the seductions of individualism, flexibility and choice which lead ultimately to the policy triangulations of New Labour. But its progeny, the new New Times [New Times 2.0?], arising in a post-Crash, ever-more-transnational, significantly flatter world – a “soft-powered” world that deploys the tools of engagement, connection and influence more than arms, money and clout.

No, that doesn’t mean the leaders have become nicer or wiser, only that they have understood that there is a new relationship between voters and politicians – and among voters themselves – that they ignore at their peril. It is not a simple moment of populism – the same, for example, that tabloid newspapers claim to represent, where complex issues are reduced to simple headlines eliciting roars of approval or censure.

It’s closer to a new network of intelligent output, arising from a myriad of sources, which as they respond to the actions of politicians shift the debate altogether. Issues that were brought up in those few days around the Syria vote included the changing purpose of the armed forces, the revelations about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst soldiers and the consequences, our changing understanding of the Arab uprisings, the unacceptable machinations of the military industrial complex, the difference between hard power and soft power and the shifting balance of influence across the globe.

Thumbs up to Putin for preferring jaw-jaw; thumbs down to Obama for using drones to avoid it. These are all factors relevant to any debate on military intervention that the online public is sharing and absorbing without prompting from their leaders. ‘We’ are ahead of ‘them’ and the pool of alternative knowledge and narratives is growing.

Far more people are joining the growing plethora of civil society institutions than political parties. The range is too extensive to describe easily, from old established aid charities which allow passive membership (Oxfam, Marie Curie) to activist sites that demand participation such as Peace Direct or Avaaz (twenty nine million and growing daily). Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious – once caricatured as vehicles for narcissistic mumbling – are now just as easily cast as irrepressible, well-informed, imaginative vehicles of passion for justice and change.

This refutes entirely the idea of a passive, apathetic public. As the US strategic forecaster Jeremy Rifkin has recently described at length human beings are wired to be empathetic. Contrary to the neo-Darwinist prejudices of mainstream economics, humans are not hurtling towards atomisation but use every tool available to learn more about each other. Our expanding yet intimate media-verse amplifies these instincts for reading the resonance of others. In this environment, when our leaders betray apathy to the plight of the majority – as a certain comedian recently suggested on Newsnight –  they can no longer lead effectively. They are not on our wavelength.

The not that new horizontal

Core to this social development is the technology which enables horizontal, peer to peer relationships like never before. Social media allows even the shy to perform and respond to thousands of people as many times per hour as they please.

Politicians need not despair: they can take advantage of these new, multi-voiced conditions but they must understand the difference between hard and soft strategies for engaging with people. Networks cannot be forged on command. They arise spontaneously out of human social relationships, steadily maintained. In that sense, there is nothing ‘new’ about them. From parents’ anti-natal groups to old Etonians, any collection of people with common interests forge networks that then help them to get their collective and individual needs met, whether formal or fun. What the internet has done is extend the reach and the range of ideas around which a network can form – a huge speeding up of connectivity which offers a variety of weak ties (Facebook ‘friends’ you’ve never met) and strong ties (communities of practice).  

Some will say that your network of Twitter friends, followers and followed, bears little relation to a real time neighbourhood network: but for those who spend most of their day at work, or anyone seeking to grow their influence beyond their immediate home ground, Twitter is more tangible, more useful. If you have ever hash-tagged your hobby on Twitter and discovered there are thousands of people you never met sharing your obsession, you might feel a closer sense of community there than in the Town Hall. These are the “new” New Times.

Cameron’s Big Society project largely ignores these dynamics. Society is teeming with natural networks: in particular, those that have grown up around people in need. While researching a paper on community cohesion for The Barrow-Cadbury Trust ten years ago and again later, working for a group of senior Scottish social workers (ADSW), I was unfailingly moved by the way women in particular (not exclusively) were able to organise and help each other with little or no resources. Many of what start out as simple initiatives become full blown charities down the line and they succeed because they arise out of the community they serve. Taking money away from these networks of care and then handing it over to entrepreneurial young men (now termed “nexters” by the Big Society people) who have good ideas about how to help these same people, is folly. Any conception of the Good Society should think less about change and more about developing and enhancing what is already there – a modus operandi that Participle is championing with relational welfare and Movement for Change understands to the core.

From wellbeing to well becoming

What this newly enabled, burgeoning civil society reveals to us is the multi-dimensional, full bodied, emotional, multi-gendered and cultured beings that we are. More than that, we are active, global citizens, resourcing goods and supporting causes in places we rarely hear mentioned on TV. Witness the changing discourse: the RSA explores spirituality, Open Democracy hosts a Transformation stream, brain science and neurology are the new religion.

Our shared public identity is no longer as two-dimensional beings, focussed entirely on the material and active – what we can do in order to consume. We have revealed the other side of the coin: a fascination with our internal drives, both personal (in the form of inquiries into human capacity and social (in our explorations of culture and narratives). This is not narcissistic: it means we are thinking about human being as a factor of our agency, alongside human doing.

With depression now understood to be the second biggest cause of disability worldwide it’s time to aim higher. Rather than stick within the government endorsed initiatives such as Action for Happiness, who imply that we can improve our wellbeing without capsizing the already imbalanced boat of “work-life”, we might examine the thinking that got us into the mess in the first place. It is not enough for politics to conceive of people as simply needing a home, a job and a tax cut.

Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell are founders of the Human Givens School of psychotherapy, which synthesises and integrates many different approaches and methods in the mind sciences and therapies. They have demonstrated, over years of practice that human beings will be mentally healthy only when they get their physical and emotional needs met. We are quite well aware of physical needs – but consider the list of emotional needs below. Our inability to meet them explains much about our consumerist, celebrity-led, internet-addicted society:

  • attention (giving and receiving): a form of nutrition, the only way to download complex information
  • intimacy: being accepted exactly as we are
  • connection/relationship: both strong and weak ties are vehicles for development
  • community: a source of relationship and context for development
  • status: gives us a position within our social group
  • autonomy: having volition to make responsible choices
  • privacy: opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • meaning and purpose: arising from being stretched in what we do and think
  • security: a safe environment which allows us to develop fully
  • sense of competence/achievement: allowing us to retain balance going forward

When any one of these is not met, we begin the journey to mental illness. Just as there are ‘given’ needs to assure the survival of humans, there are also ‘given’ capacities with which we can get these met:

  • the ability to build rapport, empathise and connect
  • emotion and instinct – our guidance system
  • imagination – allowing us to focus away from emotion to be creative
  • a conscious rational mind that can question
  • the ability to ‘know’ – that is, understand the world consciously through patterns of data
  • memory – allowing the accumulation of knowledge into understanding
  • an observing self – the part which is self-conscious and objective
  • a dreaming brain: dreams acting as a clearing house for emotional disturbance

We become incapable of self-maintenance when one of those capacities is damaged, or adopt a punishing life style, or live/work in a toxic environment – a context far too familiar in our modern world. How far is current political discourse from understanding even these basic requirements? It’s not enough for us to aim for well-being; to flourish we must achieve well-becoming, a state of constant self-renewal.

Sustainability +

It’s hard to see how we can begin to create a society that allows these needs to be met without re-imagining the basics. To get on track, we need more time, space, autonomy, meaning – not easy to achieve within the current moral and political conception of hard working, obediently voting families. At the same time, help for those who have not had either their physical or emotional needs met for generations cannot be withheld if any of us want to see society grow and develop.

When Roberto Unger came to London recently, he thrilled his audience with visions of an education system which trains young people to use all their capacities – not just their ability to regurgitate facts. But human potential is poorly served by schools enslaved to a performance table, let alone by parents enslaved to their jobs: like flowers, children need space and time to blossom.

NEF’s  Anna Coote’s 21 Hours is a brave and well thought-out attempt to begin to shift the balance from work to life, even crunching the numbers for those who believe it is economically unfeasible. Shorter working weeks, job shares, school hours, an increase in civic life, reclaiming care – it’s all there. More time would give us the chance to regain consciousness, to become mindful of each other and the world we live in. Without these human resources coming on stream, society will struggle to develop – no matter how much the economy grows. Anyone who witnessed the LSE launch in 2010 saw both young and old whoop with excitement.

As much as I resist a computer analogy – we are not like machines after all – I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between the hardware and the competing bits of software. No matter how good the hardware, the software can quickly disable it. If you drop Windows packages onto Apple basics, only bits of it will work – no matter how brilliant the designers.

Politicians, including Labour ones, tend to drop packages onto us – new models for education, care, spending, devised in isolation from the people who have to use them – expecting their theories of change to take. But after generations of unengaged, disconnected leadership, society itself has become dysfunctional, no longer supporting the people within it.

As Jon Cruddas avows, we must move beyond transactional politics – the pursuit of policies that link actions with outcomes in linear strategies.  But how is Labour’s preferred goal of transformation achieved? An early mentor of mine, peace academic Johan Galtung offers a clue when he makes his distinction between conflict resolution and conflict transformation.

The first is a zero sum game where the spoils are agreed and shared, usually unequally between the two parties, often sowing the seeds for future conflict. The second is an infinite game, where not only the two disputing parties are consulted for their grievances and goals, but everyone affected by their conflict is brought in too.

The multitude of perspectives, visions and capabilities, brought together into this transformational space, causes previously unimagined goals to arise. The leader’s task is not to invent, but to integrate and synthesise – to recognise the commonalities, make them visible and draw people towards a very different future than the one which either side envisaged while fighting.

What is radical about both Gandhi and Unger is their understanding of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, in any system or environment. Just as society needs constant innovation to thrive, so individuals need constant development to play their part. Leaders are inspirational when they serve that dynamic; always ready to improve and serve, being the change they wish to see.

So before we clamour for a new blueprint, let’s aim first to rediscover for ourselves how we can enhance “we, the people” – a people learning and evolving, who need to be engaged by a politics that understands human nature in a properly multidimensional way. That new combination of “the personal and the political” itself forms the basis of a Good Society and gives us a compass for the future.

Indra Adnan ( is a writer, consultant & psychotherapist. She is founder of the Soft Power Network (, and advises internationally on that topic. She blogs regularly at Huffington Post and The Guardian.

2 thoughts on “In New Times change happens while you are not looking

  1. Just to put the record straight Action for Happiness is not a government endorsed initiative which implies we can achieve wellbeing without capsizing the existing work life balance. It is completely independent of government, was founded by a Labour Lord amongst others, and is about removing the social obstacles to wellbeing (like hyper consumption and long working hours) as well as helping people to find personal wellbeing within the system as it stands.

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