A butterfly can change the world. I remember learning this at university and was reminded of it recently watching Adam Curtis’ mind-blowing documentary “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”.
Set over six episodes, Curtis starts by taking us on the journey of a Trinidadian immigrant, a Chinese actress, an English model and an American writer, to tell the story of how the old power of empire and hierarchy started feeling challenged and tried to hold onto the vestiges of power in deeply melancholic and fearful ways. The consequences of this were for example preventing black people from renting flats, a female model from earning more than her posh husband, Mao’s wife from being an ambitious individual or a writer seeing through conspiracy theories.
This story is encapsulated when an immigrant from a former colony of the British Empire comes to the UK and is surprised that our society isn’t the self-confident nation it portrays itself to be, but is instead fearful and lost.
Then Curtis shows how mass consumerism becomes used to distract people from the monotony of living freely but also lonely. It goes as far as co-opting revolutionary ideals and slogans, while anti-depressants are used to blot out people’s anxieties about trying to keep up with the Jones and potentially blotting out too the sense of injustice they see all around them.
This continues with politicians themselves losing power to economic elites and delegating power to them not to communities, but to technocratic structures that can make rational decisions without the pressure of the electorate.
Old power versus new power?
Meanwhile, throughout the time after the Second World War, the struggle for freedom and human rights does lead to legislative if not tangible change for people from backgrounds who were oppressed.
In a sense, while the old power has managed to cling tightly by reinventing itself, a new power has won victories. However, this is within what seems like an inexorable journey towards greater individualism where there may no longer be such a thing as society.
In “New Power”, Timms & Heimans compare old and new power, as you can see in the diagram above. What’s interesting with their analysis is that they see old power as representing the traditional hierarchical forms of domination — from the family to class through to power which manipulates people to become consumers and no longer citizens. Whereas new power is more self-organised and networked, based on solidarity and participation.
As such, you can trackback not just a long history of old power, but also new power, like the Diggers, Toussaint Louverture or the Suffragettes. But where would you classify Facebook or Uber? They use networked practices but are propped by top-down closed investors.
Many people would equate the internet to new power in the way it encourages collaboration, but this can be both genuine and also a way to capitalise on people’s networked practices to get them to spend more.
In our neighbourhoods, we have very different people and communities living side by side, living different lifestyles, with different needs and opportunities at different moments of their life. How do we help neighbourhoods become more resilient?
We can also see emerging trends in how people look after themselves and their loved ones, change in family, friendship and work structures affected how people interact in their neighbourhoods, as well as the increasing divide between people who can take advantage of these opportunities and those who can’t, without forgetting the impact of unaffordable housing on the social makeup of neighbourhoods.
There is increasing uncertainty about political, economic and social challenges to come, as well as the emerging changes in how people, work, live and consume.
Build inclusive & diverse sources of power
New & old power in terms of behaviours.
National Alliance of Domestic Workers
Distrust of hierarchical institutions while also having a desire for protection and identity
Move from citizen to consumer where we thought people lost the ability or desire to deliberate, let alone create new sources of power
Sometimes new power can be perceived as being very fluffy, deliberation, and participation, but not being bold about wanting to build power.
The way we build power needs to be inclusive and diverse. Where you bring in and connect different voices and ways of creating power — politicians, artists, campaigners, entrepreneurs, organisers.
Tirana, Bogota and Porto Alegre. The examples of Barcelona En Comu and The Alternative in Denmark are examples of where they have created coalitions that have taken political power. During the pandemic, there were also great collaborations between public services, businesses & communities.
Show how power can be created at a human scale
You also can create powerful symbols and visual identities which bring to life the type of power you want to create, like Bologna’s Office of the Imagination, Civic Square’s Dept of Dreams, Barking & Dagenham’s Everyone Everyday or Think & Do in Camden.
Develop social contracts that bind the people that make the place
We need to develop a social contract that shows the different relationships we want to build with residents — Paris’ 15 Minute City and Participatory Budgeting or New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget — and that creates stronger commitments from anchor institutions, like Wales’ Future Generations Act, Preston Model, Amsterdam Doughnut, Stockholm Climate Contract
Create new policy levers that expand the possibilities
UK’s Climate Change Act or the Human Rights Act, New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget and thinking about new levers like a Community Wealth Fund, Univeral Basic Services or Universal Basic Income
Can the rights we’ve fought for be upheld by collaborative networks where everything can be changed at a moment’s notice?
Is old power still relevant to represent the diversity of people in our communities?
Can new power develop strong ties amongst people to build social cohesion?
Bridging old and new power
- What are the infrastructures — like new forms of cooperative or community wealth funds — we can build to embed the “new behaviour” values & principles of collaboration, sharing & decentralisation?
- What are the assets that are needed to support people to be able to use and build new power in their communities — like universal basic income/services/infrastructure?
- How do we root new power in the distinctive identities of our neighbourhoods so that it builds on past collective struggles and creates the space for hope & imagination at a local level?
- How do we build new economic power at a local level so that communities can create wealth that isn’t co-opted but collectively owned — like community wealth building or new forms of social / climate contract?